"Just remember," Yoshio said quietly to his grandsons. "Every day of your lives, you must always be sure what you're fighting for."
It is Tokyo in 1939. On the Street of a Thousand Blossoms, two orphaned brothers are growing up with their loving grandparents, who inspire them to dream of a future firmly rooted in tradition. The older boy, Hiroshi, shows unusual skill at the national obsession of sumo wrestling, while Kenji is fascinated by the art of creating hard-carved masks for actors in the Noh theater.
Across town, a renowned sumo master, Sho Tanaka, lives with his wife and their two young daughters: the delicate, daydreaming Aki and her independent sister, Haru. Life seems full of promise as Kenji begins an informal apprenticeship with the most famous mask-maker in Japan and Hiroshi receives a coveted invitation to train with Tanaka. But then Pearl Harbor changes everything. As the ripples of war spread to both families' quiet neighborhoods, all of the generations must put their dreams on hold---and then find their way in a new Japan.
In an exquisitely moving story that spans almost thirty years, Gail Tsukiyama draws us irresistibly into the world of the brothers and the women who love them. It is a world of tradition and change, of heartbreaking loss and surprising hope, and of the impact of events beyond their control on ordinary, decent men and women. Above all, The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is a masterpiece about love and family from a glorious storyteller at the height of her powers.
In her ambitious sixth novel (Dreaming Water; The Samurai's Garden), Tsukiyama tackles life in Japan before, during and after WWII. The story follows brothers Hiroshi and Kenji Matsumoto through the devastation of war and the hardships of postwar reconstruction. Orphaned when their parents were killed in a boating accident, the boys are raised by their grandparents in Tokyo. In 1939, Hiroshi is 11 and dreams of becoming a sumo champion, and soon Kenji will discover his own passion, to become a master maker of Noh masks. Their grandparents, Yoshio and Fumiko Wada, are vividly rendered; the war years and early postwar years, centered in their home on the street of the novel's title, are powerfully portrayed. Hiroshi and Kenji reach pinnacles of success in their chosen fields as well as in love, and while Tsukiyama's close attention to historical and geographical detail enriches the narrative, she isn't as successful when describing Hiroshi's wrestling career; the matches all begin to blur together. The lingering effects of war, on the other hand, are clear, and these, combined with a nation's search for pride and hope after surrender comprise the novel's oversized heart. (Sept.)
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St. Martin's Press
September 03, 2007
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Excerpt from The Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama
Late again, Hiroshi weaved in and out of the crowds near the Momiji teahouse. Sweat trickled down his neck and he pulled at the undershirt that was sticky against his back as he squeezed through the swarm of pedestrians clogging the labyrinth of narrow alleyways. They stopped to admire the deep blue and bright pink flowers blooming in the flower boxes--a heady fragrance drifting through the warm air. Eleven-year-old Hiroshi was already late to meet his grandfather and younger brother, Kenji, at the Keio-ji temple on the other side of Yanaka. He had dashed from the open, grassy field of the park where he and his classmates spent their afternoons practicing the wrestling techniques they learned in school--the oshi, hand push; the tsuki, thrust; and the yori, body push. "These are the fundamental moves of sumo wrestling," his coach at school, Masuda-san stressed, "the foundation on which we will build."
Once again, Hiroshi had lost track of time.
In the Yanaka district of northeastern Tokyo, the sloping streets were lined with traditional one- and two-story wooden houses. Despite the crowds, Hiroshi loved Yanaka for its familiar and quiet way of life, for the tantalizing smells of grilled fish kushiyaki and the sweet chicken yakitori sold from wooden carts. When he wasn't in a hurry, he even loved the maze of winding alleyways with blooming gardens that hid the old wood houses and the small, unassuming shops with their cloth banners hanging outside, selling hanakago, or bamboo flower baskets, handmade washi paper, and the soft silken tofu his grandmother loved to eat cold during the summer. The narrow streets offered a wealth of escape routes for the chase games he and the neighborhood children played--places you could get lost or hide in until you wanted to be found, or not found.
But now, it was impossible for him to navigate them quickly. Men his grandfather's age sat at battered wooden tables and played shoji, oblivious to the crowds as they pondered each chess move. Hiroshi squeezed by a woman in a kimono, a baby tied to her back; the round-faced girl with dark eyes followed his every move.
Once he neared the ginza, vendors lined the streets, selling everything from grilled corn and sweet potatoes, to roasted sembei rice crackers and baked squid. The enticing aroma of the spicy shoyu crackers reminded Hiroshi of his empty stomach, but he didn't dare stop. The muscles pulled in his sore calves as he hurried up the hill. He wrinkled his nose at the pungent vinegary smell of tsukudani, a kind of Japanese chutney his grandparents ate over their rice, which came from a nearby store and hung heavy in the air. He was short of breath by the time he reached the Keio-ji temple to find his grandfather and Kenji waiting outside.
"Ah, the young master arrives," his grandfather teased. He sat on a stone bench in the shade of a ginkgo tree sucking on his pipe, his cane resting against his knee.
Hiroshi bowed low. "I'm sorry to be late, ojichan," he said, pausing to catch his breath.
Hiroshi nodded. At eleven, he was already the top wrestler in his class, perhaps the entire school. He'd grown taller and stronger in the year since he began taking the sport seriously.
Kenji pouted. "Why else would he be late?"
"I lost track of the time," Hiroshi confessed, trying to appease his brother. He'd already been late several times this month.
"Did you at least win the match?" His ojichan leaned forward on his cane and stood.
Hiroshi straightened up and answered, "Hai," though it was just practice, not real competition.
His ojichan stepped toward the stone path and smiled. "Good, good. Hiroshi will be a champion one day. And you, Kenji, will find your place soon enough," he said gently. "Now, shall we take our walk?"
Yanaka was one of the few areas of Tokyo not devastated by the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, a distinction their ojichan proudly repeated to Hiroshi and Kenji. He pointed his cane toward the same old temples that had once surrounded the Edo castle and had been moved to Yanaka after surviving a big fire, almost three hundred years ago.
"The temples withstood both disasters virtually unscathed," his ojichan said--the miracle of it emphasized in the rise of his voice. "And look there," he continued, directing their gaze to the lone smokestack of what was once the Okira bathhouse. "Not everything was spared. Okira-san never rebuilt after the quake, but he left the smokestack as a symbol of Yanaka's resilience. You boys must never forget."