The Street of a Thousand Blossoms

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms

by Gail Tsukiyama

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Overview

Gail Tsukiyama's The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is a powerfully moving masterpiece about tradition and change, loss and renewal, and love and family from a glorious storyteller at the height of her powers.

It is Tokyo in 1939. On the Street of a Thousand Blossoms, two orphaned brothers dream of a future firmly rooted in tradition. The older boy, Hiroshi, shows early signs of promise at the national obsession of sumo wrestling, while Kenji is fascinated by the art of Noh theater masks.

But as the ripples of war spread to their quiet neighborhood, the brothers must put their dreams on hold—and forge their own paths in a new Japan. Meanwhile, the two young daughters of a renowned sumo master find their lives increasingly intertwined with the fortunes of their father's star pupil, Hiroshi.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312384777
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/05/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 374,291
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Gail Tsukiyama is the bestselling author of five previous novels, including Women of the Silk and The Samurai's Garden, as well as the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Award and the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award. She divides her time between El Cerrito and Napa Valley, California.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

1966

A Day of No Regrets

A white light seeped through the shoji windows and into the room, along with the morning chill. Except for the futon he slept on and a teak wood desk, the pale, spacious room was empty. Hiroshi Matsumoto breathed in the grassy fragrance of the tatami mats, the sweet and stirring February air; his thoughts wandering to the cherry blossoms that would soon be poised like flakes of snow upon their branches. The trees that lined the streets of Yanaka, would be in full bloom, and the labyrinth of narrow alleyways would swarm with tourists stopping to admire the Japanese quince, daffodils, and blue triplet lilies blossoming in flower boxes that crowded the teeming walkways. As boys, he and his brother Kenji pushed single-file past the old wood and stone houses to the park. Now, there were few of the old buildings left, long since replaced by brick and concrete. Despite the sharp edge of memories that stabbed just below his ribcage, he still loved this season best, just as Aki always had — the doorway to spring — each morning gleaming with new possibilities.

Almost twenty years ago, his youthful agility had rekindled a national passion for sumo wrestling. In a country devastated by atomic bombs that flattened cities and scarred their spirit, Hiroshi’s speed and strength helped to revive the pride of his nation with every victory. He could barely contain the joy he felt when at last he climbed the ranks. Not until he found courage enough to touch with two fingers the nape of his wife Aki’s neck did any thrill ever match it.

Hiroshi pushed off his covers and stretched his body the full length of his extra large futon, his muscular girth still impressive at his age. He had always valued strength and speed more than some other rikishi, sumo wrestlers who gained inordinate amounts of weight to dominate a match by their size. At thirty-seven, he was a good deal older, and at six-foot one, over a hundred pounds lighter than the heaviest wrestlers, who weighed in at four hundred pounds. Hiroshi sat up and fingered the faint rise of a scar that ran along his hairline and ended at his right temple, then rubbed his belly and pushed his rough feet to the edge of the futon, his calluses a souvenir of barefoot practice on dirt and wooden floors. So many years, he thought to himself, and he touched for luck the soles of his feet, first the left, then the right, as he did every morning. As Hiroshi heaved himself up from the futon and reached for his kimono, he felt again that first step onto the dohyo. The smooth, sacred clay surface of the elevated straw ring was a blessing after years of discipline, training, and rituals. The scratching of his bare feet on the tatami mats made a sad insect sound, not unlike the swish of salt thrown down on the ring to drive out the evil spirits.

Competition had been a strong and potent drug. Everyone and everything disappeared as soon as he entered the ring, as if his life had simmered down to that very moment in time and nothing else mattered. Nothing and everything. He wondered once more if it had all been worthwhile — the sacrifice of family, friends, and lovers for a sport. And only now, too late, could he see the cost of it all as Aki’s accusing stare flashed through his mind.

A sharp knock on the shoji door brought him out of his reverie. He quickly tightened the sash of his yukata kimono, and grunted permission to enter.

The door slid open. It was Haru, dressed in a dark blue padded kimono with a pattern of white cranes. It looked new, yet strangely familiar to him, as if Aki had once worn one similar to it. It was Haru who had first introduced him to her sister, a lifetime ago. Aki was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen — her clear, milky-white skin, the smooth, sharp curve of her chin, her hidden fragility. Haru’s movements were quick and definite, her 0.dark eyes as intense and intelligent as they always were. Every morning, no matter the weather, she was out walking in the garden with his six-year old daughter. And though Takara shared her mother’s classic beauty, he saw Haru’s strength emerging more and more in her each day.

Haru bowed. “We’ll be leaving for the stadium soon,” she said. “Kenji-san is coming for us after he picks up your obachan.”

He watched Haru’s poised figure and the same straight nose and thin, crescent moon eyebrows that graced both sisters. They would all be there at his retirement ceremony, his grandmother, brother, Haru and Takara. “Hai,” he said, swallowing.

She moved across the room to slide open the shoji windows, admitting a cool breeze from the west. It filled the room with a sudden breath of promise. He cleared his throat but said nothing.

Instead, it was Haru who spoke, as she looked out at his acre of blossoming sakura trees. “A day of no regrets,” she said, as if reading his thoughts.

And suddenly, something tender and inconsolable gripped his chest, an entire life boiled down to these last hours. He rubbed his eyes and nodded, always amazed at her astuteness. “What do you see?” he asked.

Haru turned to him again. “Such beauty…” she began, without finishing her sentence...

Reading Group Guide

A Child of Other Histories

An Original Essay by the Author

The greatest gift of being a writer is the ability to live many different lives. As author David Malouf writes: "Fiction allows us to step beyond what we are, and what we think we know and believe, into other skins and other lives; to become, in imagination and for a time, the children of other histories; to understand from within how the world might look from there, and how we might, in other circumstances, respond." It's a lovely definition of both the writing and the reading process.

I've always considered myself a child of other histories. My mother was Chinese from Hong Kong and my father was Japanese from Hawaii, though I was born in San Francisco and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Growing up, I loved to read and hear my mother's stories, which surely stirred my imagination and my desire to travel and write. Little did I know that these two cultures would play such a big part in my writing identity. For as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated with the customs that make up a culture, and I relish my early travels to Hong Kong and seeing stacks of wooden boxes filled with snakes, whose gall bladders were squeezed out and drank down with rice wine to increase male virility, or hearing the high singsong voices of the fruit vendors calling out as they came down the street, balancing baskets of oranges, star fruit and bananas on wooden poles across their shoulders. I can still see my grandmother step out on the terrace to bargain with them down on the street below.

So much of that history is sadly gone now, but I can thankfully resurrect them in my stories. The richness of the Chinese and Japanese cultures is endless, layers that I'm constantly uncovering. And what better way to explore and define a culture then through their subcultures? My curiosity about social groups who have managed to exist outside mainstream society and create their own fascinating worlds, their own sense of family, has been an ongoing theme in my work, whether it be the silk working women in my first novel, Women of the Silk, the leper colony in The Samurai's Garden, or the mother and daughter separated from the world due to illness in Dreaming Water. It's a theme that continues to intrigue me in my new novel, The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, which follows two brothers, Hiroshi and Kenji Matsumoto, growing up in Japan through World War II, the occupation, and into adulthood, spanning the years from 1939-1966. Hiroshi will eventually become a sumo wrestler, while the Noh Theater plays a big role in the life of his younger brother, Kenji.

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms allowed me to discover the world of Sumo, a social group that has long fascinated me. Like many people, I've always wondered how and why such young men would train to become so big, only to fight in matches that might last no more than a minute or two. What I learned was that strength and speed were just as important as size, and that their regimented lives were extremely arduous and disciplined. When I visited Ryogoku, the sumo district in Tokyo where the tournaments are held, one of my greatest highlights was seeing the sumotori walking down the street, the sweet lingering scent of bintsuke, the wax used to hold their topknot in place, wafting through the air. Those who reach the ranks of champion and grand champion are national heroes, and are as popular as the movie stars in Japan. They were fascinating to watch, both imposing and dignified, still keeping the traditions that were begun some fifteen hundred years ago.

In the process of researching and writing, I realized the sport of sumo was symbolic of the Japanese culture itself—in its rituals and religion—and in its belief of honor and defeat. Writing Hiroshi and Kenji's story gave me a glimpse into a complex world that moved far beyond what began as an interest in sumo. More than anything, The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is the story of family and love, the futility of war and the resilience of a country and her people. Hiroshi and Kenji represent part of the new generation after the war, whose family and country become a source of their strength and inspiration. Ultimately, as distinctive as all cultures are, it's our common humanity that provides the greatest stories. In the end, we are all children of other histories.


1. Tradition plays an important role in THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS, and one way for traditions to be passed down from generation to generation is through storytelling. Discuss various stories in the novel and their significance for some of the characters.

2. What lessons do Hiroshi and Kenji learn from their grandparents, and how do those lessons serve them in a changing world? How would you compare the marriage between Yoshio and Fumiko to those of their grandsons?

3. Even though no one in the novel ever fights on a battlefield, in what ways does the war shape their lives? How might their lives have been different if there had been no war?

4. Yoshio tells his grandsons on page 23: "Just remember….Every day of your lives, you must always be sure what you're fighting for." What implications does this have for Hiroshi—who literally becomes a great fighter—as well as for other characters in the story?

5. Both Kenji and Aki feel like "ghosts" among the living. In what other ways are they similar—and different? Why do you think Kenji survives, while Aki gives up?

6. Art and beauty are obviously central in the lives of Kenji and Akira, as well as the violinist Mariko. What roles do they play in other characters' lives? How does beauty help—or not help—sustain the characters in difficult times? What does Haru mean when she says that she sees "such beauty" at the end of the Prologue?

7. The four central female characters—Fumiko, Aki, Haru, and Mika—lead very different lives. In what ways do they represent the changing roles of women, and in what ways do they represent their individual natures and circumstances? How do you regard each of these characters?

8. Kenji gives Hiroshi a poem before his first big match: Winter solitude/in a world of one color/the sound of wind. What do you think it means to Hiroshi? To Kenji?

9. Hiroshi, Akira, and Kenji all achieve considerable fame. What are its rewards and pitfalls for them?

10. Members of the kasutori generation are filled with "guilt and grief," clinging to the past while also struggling to find their own way in a "new" Japan. In what ways do Kenji and Hiroshi, as well as Aki, Haru, and Mika, rebel against the "old" Japan of their childhood? In what ways do they embrace it?

11. The novel spans several stages in the history of Japan: pre-war, war, reconstruction and post-war boom. What happens to the landscape of Tokyo in these different stages? How does the changing landscape affect the characters?

12. Discuss the role of family in various characters' lives. What joys and sorrows does it bring them?

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