The Pilgrims

Kanako arises with the sun. She has never owned curtains because she loves being woken by the gentle pinpricks of the first rays on her eyelids. She takes a deep breath before she opens her eyes, and the green smell of young tatami fills her nostrils. A tunnel of dust glimmers in the air, each particle dancing to the tune of the sparrow’s first song. A smile plays on the tips of her lips.

Her hair, a silky black fan, rushes from sheets of starched white as she bounds out of bed. With a sigh and a stretch, she’s ready for the day to begin. She folds up her futon, slides open the closet door, and places it inside. She takes out a brush, quickly three strokes. Next to the brush, she has two crisp white kimono tops, and two carefully pleated red hakama.

“Kanako!” her grandmother calls. “I’m waiting!”

“Coming,” she shouts back, hurriedly donning her uniform.

“Klunk” slides the closet door, “Klunk” again and the room is an empty box.

Kanako ladles out some reheated miso soup as her grandmother flips a few chunks of mochi with a pair of chopsticks. The green tea is already stewing. They make breakfast in silence, save the sizzle of mochi on the hotplate. Her grandmother’s salt and pepper hair is pinned back in a wispy bun. When the food is ready, they arrange it neatly on two lacquer trays.

Kanako daintily slurps her miso soup, and studies her grandmother’s weathered face. It is much darker than her own; dark with the years it has seen. She tries to imagine what shade her mother would have been today. Kanako’s only memory of her is from a single black and white photograph, taken when her mother was in junior high school.

Her grandmother will not permit anyone to mention her mother’s name. She had been long forgotten, and even her death had not brought her memory back. Yuki had broken the family tradition by refusing to become a Shinto priestess. Instead, she decided to study biology at the prestigious Kyoto University, where she met and married a fellow scientist. After Yuki died in childbirth, he returned to America, grief-stricken, leaving his child in her grandmother’s care.
Kanako wanted to search for her father, but her grandmother refused to speak his name. Sometimes she thinks that when her grandmother stares into her dark blue eyes – the only thing her father left her, she sees an abomination. A half-creature unworthy of the Iseki family name. She did not even suggest that Kanako become a priestess when she became of age. When Kanako announced that she was to be initiated, she had expected her grandmother to be happy, but she had simply nodded in acknowledgment and said nothing.

Kanako holds her grandmother’s arm as she slips into her geta. They walk together the few blocks to Heian Shrine. The clatter of their geta resounds on the pavement, slow but determined. The cars and people are sparse, as Kyoto is still beginning to awake. Their hakama glow a fiery orange in the intensity of the summer sun. The orange of the looming shrine glows back, as if in salute to its priestesses, young and old, trekking steadily towards glory of another age.

Wooden slabs crunch across the reluctant gravel. The priestesses greet each other quietly. Their faces are like noh masks. Every step is an act of meditation and a word spoken in communion with the gods of nature.

Kanako begins the day as usual, sweeping the shrine. After a few minutes, Midori arrives out of breath. Kanako scolds her friend with a laugh. Midori grins impishly as she grabs another broom. 

“I stayed at Koichi’s last night,” Midori gushes.

“Shh. Keep your voice down” Kanako says, embarrassed.

“Sorry. I am rather loud sometimes aren’t I?” Midori giggles.

“So things are going well, huh? I’m happy for you.”

“Yeah, things are great. Actually, Koichi wants me to come with him to his sister’s wedding next week, so I’m going to have to beg out on that pilgrimage.”

“Midori, you can’t! You promised. We’ve been planning this for months!”

“I know, I’m really sorry, but can’t you see? This is a big thing. I have to go!”

Kanako resumes sweeping and refuses to look at Midori. When they are finished, Kanako goes to her booth and begins to rearrange the items for sale. She is angry for another few hours, but soon Midori’s pleading eyes begin to take effect. When she reluctantly forgives Midori, her friend returns to her normal bouncy self. As Midori chatters away about Koichi, Kanako mulls over what she will do about the pilgrimage.

As dusk begins to fall and the hordes of tourists dwindle, Kanako decides to ask her grandmother to accompany her on the journey. Even though her grandmother did not acknowledge it, Kanako truly believed that the priesthood was her destiny and her birthright. It had always been her dream to do the pilgrimage with her grandmother, and she had intended to ask her in the first place, but chickened out. Now, the gods have clearly said their piece.

The evening is quiet as they sit together in the house. There is hardly a breeze in the air. The garden doors are open and a mosquito coil burns inconspicuously in the corner. Kanako’s fingers are sweet and acrid from peeling an orange. She passes half of it to her grandmother, who is squatting by the tea tray. She wipes her hands on a napkin but they are still sticky. She knows not to touch the tatami.

Her grandmother’s profile is harsh, yet delicate. The light is dim, and Kanako cannot read her expression. A tear hits the tray as she offers her granddaughter her cup, lovingly made. As she looks up and their eyes connect, Kanako understands in that moment the pride that is her heritage. Embracing it, they embrace for the first time, and she knows they will make this journey together.


About Jean C Wong

I am a world traveler, writer, photographer, and teacher. I've lived all over the world and speak 5 languages.


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