It’s the 31st July, the height of summer, 1985. Evening has come to the apple orchards spread around the foot of Mount Iwaki. The orchards are deserted. There’s not a soul in sight. Work that has to be done at this time of year in the orchards is basically picking any fruit that has been eaten by insects, and spraying with pesticides. Spraying no longer takes much time thanks to the sprayers. Spraying equipment has been used since the Taishō Period, but with the improvements that have been made they are very sophisticated, like the ‘smart cars’ which were once so popular. Their performance has advanced dramatically, and spraying can be done in two or three hours in the morning, the coolest part of the day. There’s no reason for anyone to be in the orchards late in the evening.
The grass underfoot in the orchards is carefully mowed and looks more like a lawn. Leaves are thick on the carefully trimmed branches of the trees, now heavily laden with apples which, although still green, are heavy enough to weigh down all the branches. With this amount of fruit, a healthy crop this year is assured.
With the busy harvesting season around the corner, Japan’s apple growing areas are settling down as another quiet evening passes.
Meanwhile, in one spot, a very different, more miserable scene is unfolding. Needless to say, it was in one of Kimura’s orchards. Kimura was slumped in the middle of a devastated orchard, now in a state that most apple farmers would find intolerable. From there, on its eastern flanks, Mount Iwaki looms above the apple trees. The view from other orchards would be obscured by thick canopies of leaves, but from his orchards the purple peak of Mount Iwaki looked immense through the withered branches. But Kimura was oblivious to the magnificent scene. He’d been staring at the ground in front of him for some time. Staring at the ground, but not really seeing it. Deep lines furrowed his face, burned from the summer sun. In his thirtieth year, and in the prime of life, his face was more like that of an old man who had endured a life of hard labour. His eyes saw nothing. He no longer knew where to look.
He realized his powerlessness, yet however sincerely he bowed his head, and however much he implored the apples trees not to die, the desolate orchards remained desolate. And it wasn’t just that orchard. All eight hundred apple trees in his four orchards were getting weaker and dying. On top of his having run out of options, the apple trees – still just about clinging on – could only now succumb to disease and pests and die. All the trees would die, and it would all end.
The answer was perfectly clear. The only course left was to give up immediately and return to the growing methods that everyone else used. But no … . This was as far as this line of thought went. He’d been through this a hundred, a thousand times. Held by what seemed like a thick metal chain, this train of thought could move no further. He couldn’t find the resolve within himself to give up something he’d started. Perhaps he clung to that dream at a much deeper level than he’d ever imagined? He was obsessed by the dream. Why had it come to this? In the beginning it had just been an impulse.
He’d imagined a high mountain in the distance and wondered if he could scale it. No sooner had the thought occurred to him than he’d started climbing. If it was beyond him, he could always turn back. But that wasn’t the point. The higher he climbed the further the peak. He’d been climbing for six years now, and all he’d learned was that the mountain was too high for him. But this had only increased his resolve. He was totally absorbed in the climb, believing that he was born to conquer that mountain. To grow apples without using pesticides. It was his fate. Gritting his teeth and throwing himself into it, a thought had struck him as if he’d been hit by lightning. If he gave up, no-one else would do it. Giving up amounted to humanity giving up. He lived so that one day he might realize his dream. But the dream he lived for had dissolved. There was nothing more than Akinori Kimura could do.
The evening sun faded and stars started flickering in the sky. Kimura came to his senses and looked around. He found a length of rope in an old car body which he used instead of a shed at the entrance to the orchard.
The rope was for securing apple boxes loaded on the back of light trucks. Pulling the rope out, he held it up to the dying embers of light in the western sky. Worn and frayed, it clearly hadn’t been used for years. It was a little thin, so he deftly braided three strands together to make a single, thicker piece of rope. His thinking nearly always came to nothing, but on that day his train of thought went one step further. He’d found an elegant solution to an unanswered question. Thinking about it, he’d known the answer for several weeks. Now it was simply a question of putting it into practice.
Finishing off the rope, Kimura started off up the track between the orchards. Now darkening, Mount Iwaki rose up in front of him. Anyone who spotted him might think he was a devout local setting out on an unseasonable mountain pilgrimage. Since the earliest times, farmers in the Tsugaru region had climbed Mount Iwaki on the first day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar to pray for a good harvest, and to pay homage to the rising sun the following morning. The grim face of an old man had reverted to the softer features of a man in his thirties. Kimura had decided to climb to a place where no-one would find him, where he would die. He was responsible for it all. He was the cause of it all. If he died, he could end all that.
Why hadn’t he realized something so basic? He’d been unable to fulfil his destiny. Hence there was no longer a reason to live. He felt no regret or sadness whatsoever. He wasn’t afraid of dying. Just a sense of liberation at the prospect of unburdening himself from a load which had been weighing him down for years. He had done all he could. There was nothing more to be done. If he lived, he would continue to cause the family trouble. If he disappeared, the others would certainly be happier than they were now. It may have been irresponsible, but he didn’t believe the decision to take his own life was the wrong one.
How far had he climbed? Noticing his shadow on the ground, he turned around to see an enormous moon rising in the sky to the east. A spectacular full moon. It was ages since he’d seen such a moon. Below, he could see the night lights of Hirosaki. All in all, a perfect night.
Everything was beautiful: the moon and the city lights, the summer night sky, the shadowy mountain path, the trilling of insects.
The world was a far more beautiful place than he’d imagined. Realizing this when you’re on the point of ending it all sounds ironic, yet he felt no urge to change his mind. Having discarded his heavy load, he clearly perceived how beautiful the world was. The view had distracted him during the climb. All of a sudden he was there. Grasping the rope, he proceeded, step-by-step, treading with the greatest care. A twig snapped under his feet, startling a bird which fled from the wood. Had the bird looked down, it would have seen the figure of Kimura in the moonlight, climbing the mountain path and disappearing into a small clump of trees.
‘The Hirosaki city lights were really beautiful. I wondered why Hirosaki looked that beautiful. It was the 31st July, the evening before the start of the Neputa festival. I was intent on dying and, having made the decision, I’d forgotten the pain. Everything … the problems of life, being criticized, making life difficult for the family, being told something by one person and something else by another.
All the pain and suffering I’d endured was washed clean away. It sounds easy but it wasn’t. It’s neat and tidy saying that dying was the only way to free myself from my dream, but I was torn by mixed feelings. I might well be called a coward. As far as my family and others around me were concerned, I was a really selfish man I suppose.
To be honest though, I felt so relieved at that moment. I’d no regrets. I felt fresh climbing Mount Iwaki, the same feeling you have after you’ve had the first bath in days. I wasn’t afraid of bears either. You used to see them in the mountains quite often, unlike now when they’re only seen occasionally. I’d startle the odd bird which would drop a twig. I knew they were only birds, but it got my heart racing. That was all that really frightened me. Still, I climbed pretty high. I crossed a stream too. I must have climbed for a couple of hours. I got to a place that looked alright, found a tree I thought would do, and threw the rope I had over a branch.’
He put too much effort into it, though, and the rope slipped and went flying in the wrong direction. Even then he managed to fluff it. Thinking how totally useless he was, he was stepping down the slope to retrieve the rope when he noticed something strange. An apple tree in the moonlight.