In the early afternoon on a clear day in the early summer, two girls, Mary and Shizuku, were talking with each other, sitting on a bench at a bus stop. Shizuku said, “Have you gotten used to life in Japan? We are in the countryside with a lot of rice fields. You wanted to live a comfortable life in urban cities like Tokyo, didn’t you?” Mary said, with a smile, “I love this place. I don’t think it’s boring here. Yesterday, I took a selfie in the back of those rice fields. I posted the selfie on SNS, and my friends in New York said that it was a good picture. They are interested in living in the countryside with a lot of green.” Shizuku said, “Uh… well, what does ‘selfie’ mean in Japanese?” Mary said, “We call a selfie ‘jidori’ in Japan.”
Mary went on to say, “You want to live in an urban city, don’t you? To tell the truth, urban life is not as good as you think. Certainly, in city life, you can live a comfortable life because there are many shops. However, there are times when I feel that living in the city is hard. If you live in New York someday, you will feel so, and you will feel that living in the countryside is not so bad. You will soon miss the green and the beautiful air here. That’s life.” Shizuku felt the fresh breeze, and she thought it was very comfortable.
Shizuku said, “Ah, that makes sense. Oh! My stomach is growling! I made two rice balls early in the morning. Let’s eat them together!” She passed a rice ball to Mary. “Really? Thank you, I am hungry too! That reminds me. How do you say ‘Let’s eat’ in Japanese?” said Mary. Shizuku said, “In Japanese, you say ‘Itadakimasu.'” Mary said, “Well then, I should say it before I eat this rice ball.” She put her palms together and said in a loud voice, “Itadakimasu!” Looking at her smile, Shizuku couldn’t help smiling. “You are extremely fond of food, like me,” she said. They looked at each other and laughed. In this way, their laughter resounded in the middle of the countryside, where ears of rice were just swaying in the wind, listening to their comfortable conversations.
Shizuku walked in a forest. This forest is near her home. She always passes through it when she goes to school and goes back home from school. She named the forest “Blue Sky Forest.” When you head north in the forest for several minutes and raise your eyes, you find a big hole in the canopy above your head. There, you can enjoy the beautiful blue sky. She makes it a rule to look up at the sky there before school and after school. While doing so, she always feels refreshed. When she had a broken heart, she looked up at the sky to comfort herself. When she was suffering because of her school life, she asked the sky about what to do in the future.
The sky acts as a kind of advisor for her. She hates the countryside here, but she loves the big blue sky. She is sure that this refreshing big blue sky is only here. She took a selfie in the forest using her cellphone, which was unlike her. This was the reason why she remembered what Mary said: “You will miss the green here.” Shizuku thought the forest she is familiar with may disappear someday, and she thought a forest of buildings may be constructed here. If that happens, she will miss this place maybe. Therefore, she saved a photo of herself in the forest on her cellphone.
After that, Shizuku went north from the area. She got to a small timeworn shrine in the forest whose roof was cypress bark and walls were dingy red. In front of the main shrine, a pair of guardian dogs stood on either side. Shizuku sat down by the stone dog on the left. Listening to the rustling of leaves, she quietly took a long look at the sunlight filtering through the trees, which is called “komorebi” in Japan. She talked to herself: “Nobody but me comes to this shrine which is old but very cozy. I wish that an ideal man like Seiji would come here and that he would say he had wanted to see me.” As was usual with her, she started to daydream. All of a sudden, she heard a man’s voice behind her.
“Hello,” said the stone dog. He stared at her for a while, and he said, “You don’t have a boyfriend, do you?” She was very surprised to see the dog talking to her. She said loudly, “Wh… what is happening to me!?” He said, “Calm down. You may think dogs can’t speak, but there are dogs that are able to speak in the world, like me. However, we have to follow rules for speaking dogs, all of which were made by Amaterasu Oomikami. For example, we mustn’t speak when people are around us.” “But you are speaking to me now!” she exclaimed.
He said, “You know, you said to yourself that nobody comes to this place. That is all.” Shizuku thought it was just a dream, so she burst out laughing. “It’s so very funny! Why on earth is a dog speaking to me? Surely, I am very tired now,” she said. “Ha-ha, it’s real. You were selected a shrine maiden candidate by Amaterasu Oomikami because you are always here, so do you want to be one?” he said.
She asked him about what that is, and he said, “Shrine maidens serve Japanese gods. If you become a shrine maiden, you have to be here from afternoon until evening every day to entertain Japanese gods who come here. The current shrine maiden, your friend Mary, is going to return to New York, so we have to hire someone.” “What!? You said ‘Mary,’ didn’t you? Mary is the shrine maiden here? Oh my goodness, I didn’t know that. And Mary is gonna leave for America? I’m confused,” she said.
He said, “It’s no wonder that you’re confused because Mary has concealed the fact to follow the rules, and yet Mary always thinks of you as the incoming shrine maiden. The current shrine maidens have to suggest a good friend of theirs for Amaterasu Oomikami. Anyway, do you want to be a shrine maiden here? If you become one, you will have many good experiences. You can work for peace in Japan, and, above of all, you can meet Amaterasu Oomikami! Amaterasu Oomikami is…”
Interrupting the conversation, the stone dog on the right that was female said, “Amaterasu Oomikami is very beautiful. Not only that, but Amaterasu Oomikami is also very kind. Moreover, Amaterasu Oomikami is very respectable! Amaterasu Oomikami is…” The left one cut her off, saying, “You used ‘Amaterasu Oomikami’ too much. We must worship Amaterasu Oomikami, so you mustn’t say her name too often lightly.” The right one said, “Okay then, I should use ‘she,’ shouldn’t I?” He said, “No, it is rude too. You should use ‘AO,’ which stands for Amaterasu Oomikami.” “Oh, that sounds good,” she said. Listening to their funny conversation, Shizuku thought calling the god “AO” was ruder than using the pronoun.
The name of the male stone dog on the left was “Huku.” On the other hand, the name of the female stone dog on the right was “Mana.” Huku was about one hundred years older than Mana, so Huku was more mature than Mana. Huku had worked here for over two hundred years. He said this: “A long time ago, people in this town would often come here to see each other. People at that time loved this place. In spring, they gathered here for cherry-blossom viewing. In fall, they gathered here for moon viewing. But now, nobody comes here. People don’t even know about this shrine.”
With this and that, Shizuku became a shrine maiden at the small shrine in Blue Sky Forest. She wrote this in her diary: “I feel keenly that there are unexpected things in the world. I am a bit anxious about working as a shrine maiden, but I am excited about it. Surely, I will learn a lot of things from now on. If I become old enough to know many things, I will come to think of not only dogs speaking to humans but also much stranger things as ordinary things, but still I will keep finding new things, and each time I do so, I will be surprised at them. It is strange for there to be infinite unknown things.”
When Shizuku took a lesson about geography, she learned about urbanization around the world. There are now fewer and fewer trees, and there are now more and more forests of gray buildings. The more people deforest the countryside and construct buildings, the more the world turns gray. Her geography teacher, Maruoka, said, “Now, human beings are facing serious environmental problems. The progress of science and technology has allowed us to make everyday life comfortable. However, the advance has brought about the problems of environmental pollution, global warming, and deforestation.
He went on to say, “You guys long for cutting-edge technology, but you should be aware that new technology can destroy not only the natural environment but also previous cultures. For example, the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century destroyed traditional society in Europe.” While listening to him, Shizuku was looking out of the window. She thought this: Maruoka knows plenty of things, but he does not know dogs that are able to speak and does not know that I am a shrine maiden. People that think of themselves as a man of great learning are here and there, but there are more unknown things in the world than they expect.
Looking at the sky, Shizuku thought about why it was blue and why it was so big. Beneath the blue sky, around the schoolyard, there were a lot of trees, the leaves of which were turning green. “Ah! Why are they so green!” she said in her head. Then, looking at her eraser, she wondered what it was made from. She wondered why it could rub out pencil marks, and she wondered why she could get such a very useful thing like it without a lot of money. She really thought the world was full of mysteries. She thought she was going to ask Huku about why the sky was blue, why trees were green, and things like that.
Maruoka said, “Hey Shizuku, you didn’t listen to what I said, did you? Answer me. Don’t tell me you were dozing off during my lecture. You do nothing but sleep.” “Oops!” said Shizuku. All of her classmates howled with laughter. She was humiliated and decided not to be out of it during class. However, she was getting sleepy, and she fell asleep at last.
Then, she had a dream. In the dream, she met a god. His name was Ebisu. He was riding on a yellowish cloud and wore a shining golden Noushi, which was an everyday robe worn by Japanese noblemen since around the Heian period. With his left hand, he was stroking a very big red carp clamped under his right forearm, saying, “Ho ho ho, why are you sleeping now? Just now, you decided to study harder. You shouldn’t give up immediately after you decide to do something. Mind you, many difficulties lie ahead in your life. However hard you try to avoid hardships, you can’t run away from them.”
Shizuku was surprised and woke up. She gave a sigh because she developed a guilty feeling. Later, she picked her mechanical pen from her pencil case, and, as she was thinking that geography was a very difficult subject, she started to copy what Maruoka wrote on the blackboard into her notebook. She thought this: “Studying is troublesome. However, as Ebisu said, a lot of hardships, which are many times as hard as studying is, lie ahead in my life. Therefore, I must endeavor putting up with this difficulty. I’ll become a shrine maiden.”
The second class was world history. The teacher, Utako, was a young woman who had just been appointed here. Utako said, “I’m going to collect the homework. Yesterday, I said everyone had to hand it in. If someone forgets it, I won’t forgive them.” Utako was a short-tempered person. Rika, one of Shizuku’s classmates, said, “I’m sorry I didn’t do my homework.” Utako stared her in the face without saying anything, and later she started to write on the blackboard.
Shizuku thought, “Oh my gosh! She got angry!” When Utako was in a temper, she abandoned her responsibility as a teacher―that is, doing the lesson―and, remaining silent, she wrote extremely small words on the blackboard from end to end at lightning speed. As soon as the whole blackboard was filled with tiny words, she erased all the words with the sponge, and then she started to write words again. Therefore, students had to take notes as soon as possible. “There she goes again!” boy students complained. Once Utako became “Silent Utako,” nobody could stop her.
Shizuku used to take a nap during history class because she felt it was a very boring subject, but she changed her mind one hour ago. Therefore, she tried to take notes, keeping up with the speed with which Utako wrote. Utako repeatedly wrote and erased over and over again. Shizuku started to feel tired, but Utako mercilessly kept on writing about the history of Napoleon. Shizuku didn’t give up easily. However, she couldn’t keep up with the speed at last. This was the reason why Shizuku used many colored pens―for example, red, blue, purple or pink―to make her notes attractive, which made her unable to keep up with the speed.
Although Shizuku was falling behind, she wouldn’t stop using them because it was her preference. She didn’t want to change her habit. When she had reached her physical limit, giving up crossed her mind, and just then time stopped. Shizuku could move, but people around her didn’t. Suddenly, Shizuku was startled to hear a man’s big voice from the direction of the window.
“Hey you!” said a big man. His name was Bishamonten. He was outside of the window, and he was floating in the air with a long gray halberd in his right hand. He had big eyes, thick eyebrows and a long black beard. He was frowning at Shizuku, which terrified her. She was scared, trembling with fear. She didn’t know what to say, so she said with her voice shaking, “H… Hello. Why are you looking at me? Well, am I your type?… Just kidding.” “Don’t be silly!” he said, and he smashed the window, entering the classroom.
He had such a big body that Shizuku got a surprise. He said, “Listen. If you are to get something you want, you have to throw away something you have. Now, you want to take notes. However, as long as you are using colored pens, you can’t take notes perfectly. Do you understand what I want to say?”
Without her realizing it, time started to move again. The broken window was restored to its former state. Shizuku wondered what had happened to her. She remembered a horrible face, so she stopped using colored pens. She thought this: “Certainly, he was a scary person, but what he said was believable. Getting something means discarding something. I have only two hands. I might pick up so many things which are on the road named life that eventually I won’t be able to pick up something new and maybe won’t be able to hold them in my hands. At that time, I will only have to throw away several of them.”
On the way to the shrine after school, Shizuku talked with Mary. Shizuku said, “I heard you had been the shrine maiden, so I was very surprised.” Mary said, “Heh-heh. Sorry, but I had to follow the rules, you know.” Shizuku said, “Now that I think about it, you always went back home soon after school. No wonder it felt a little odd.” Mary said, “I had trouble concealing the fact. By the way, you became the next shrine maiden, didn’t you? So that means you met several gods.”
“Gods?” said Shizuku. Mary said, “Yeah, gods. You know, there are gods in Japan. The highest god is Amaterasu Oomikami. And there are the seven lucky gods under her. It is a generic term for Ebisu, Bishamonten, and so on. Ebisu wears a golden Noushi and clamps a red carp under his right forearm. He smiles gently.”
Shizuku said, “Is the way he laughs, ‘Ho ho ho’?” “Yes,” said Mary. Shizuku said, “Oh! I met him in the dream I had today! He taught me the importance of not giving up easily.” Mary said, “That makes sense. Gods inspect newcomers to determine whether they are equal to the task of being shrine maidens. You met Bishamonten? He is always in a bad temper.” Shizuku said, “By any chance, does he have a halberd?” “Yes,” said Mary. Shizuku said, “Oh, I met him during my history class! He taught me the importance of throwing away something to get something new.”
Shizuku went on to say, “Now, I remembered you are gonna leave here!” Mary said, “Perhaps we should part from each other to experience something new. Best friends must part.” After talking with Mary walking along the country road, Shizuku parted from Mary. She felt lonely because Mary was going to America in two months. She had had fun chatting with Mary for two years. When Shizuku first met Mary, Mary wasn’t a good speaker of Japanese. The more they talked with each other, the better Mary spoke Japanese. Mary also thought of Shizuku as a best friend.
At a deserted unstaffed train station in a small town called Engaru in Hokkaido prefecture, only Shizuku waited for a one-car train. Behind the station, long and narrow yellowish-green weeds were swaying in the wind. She stretched up to the light blue sky, and later she took a book from her bag to kill time. The old book, which Huku gave her, was about the work of the shrine maiden. The book said this: “You have to follow the rules below. No.1 You mustn’t tell anyone but your family about your calling. No.2 You must be a virgin girl. No.3 You must work at the shrine every day except holidays. No.4 You must protect peace in the world by any means. That’s all.”
Shizuku thought it strange that she had to protect peace because she was just a high school girl who had no magic power. Shizuku thought, “How can I protect peace? It is a bit too much for me. Wars always break out somewhere. Criminals always try to commit crimes. How can I stop them? No. I can’t. I’m just an innocent girl. But… possibly, I should do what I can do to stop them as a girl serving gods. Maybe, the gods have a reason why they chose me as a shrine maiden. Oh, I know! I’ll ask Huku about it!”
Getting to the shrine, Shizuku changed into a white and red shrine maiden’s kimono with short sleeves. Shizuku said, “Wow! It’s a pretty costume! I’ve always wanted to wear it.” Huku said, “Ha-ha, it looks good on you. Now, you have to work! Here we go!” Mana shouted, “Yeaaaah, it’s the beginning of a journey!” Shizuku followed Huku and Mana, and they walked along the paths in Blue Sky Forest. In the meantime, Mana was singing merrily. While walking with them, Shizuku thought, “I didn’t know this road existed. Where does the road lead to?” Twenty minutes later, they arrived at a place which was in the dusk surrounded by tall trees.
They stood in front of a big rock. Shizuku said, “Where are we?” “You’ll see,” said Huku. Mana said in a loud voice, “Hello. We are Huku and Mana, please let us enter!” The rock had a big eye in the middle, and the closed eye opened gently. The rock said in a low tone gravely, “Hmm… Is that girl Shizuku? She seems unreliable.” Huku said, “I thought the same thing at first, but now I think she has a lot of potential. She has a ringing endorsement from Mary.” The rock said, “Mary said she is good? That’s good then…”
Shizuku heard the ground rumbling loudly. Then, the big rock started to move to the right slowly. Shizuku was so surprised that she was at a loss for words. It was so dark beyond the rock. “This is an entrance to a god’s world,” said Huku. Then, a small raccoon dog walked on two legs out of the dark with a lantern in his right hand. His name was Akadentyuu.
Akadentyuu wore a red Haori with short sleeves. Generally, a Haori is worn over a kimono, but he didn’t wear a kimono. He said, “Hi. Oh, are you new? I’ve heard a lot about you.” “Nice to meet you. Well… the rumors about me are good, aren’t they?” Shizuku gave a wry smile. “Maybe,” he said, and he jumped onto Shizuku’s back. He said, “Please carry me piggyback. All aboard! Haha.” Huku said, “Phew, he is extremely fond of piggyback rides for some reason, and when he is on somebody’s back, he is very happy.” Mana said, “Ahh, I envy Akadentyuu! I want to ride on her back.” Akadentyuu said, “No. You are a heavy stone. You can’t ride on anybody’s back. Haha.”
Carrying Akadentyuu, who was nuzzling his cheek against Shizuku’s back, Shizuku stepped forward into the dark cave with the dogs. Shizuku said, “I am a bit scared. What is down here?” Huku said, “As I said, there is a god’s world.” Akadentyuu said, “Why are you scared? I think nothing is more horrible than humans. Haha.” Shizuku asked him about why he said that, and he replied, “Humans have deprived us of many things, you know. Everything―forests, places to live, and my friends. Moreover…” Huku cut him off, saying, “Akadentyuu, don’t tell her anything more.”
After the conversation, there was an awkward silence for a while. Shizuku remembered today’s lesson about geography: the teacher, Maruoka, said, “There are now fewer and fewer forests, but we humans are really indifferent to it.” Shizuku thought he was right because she didn’t know the situation was so bad. She felt really terrible about what humans had done to Akadentyuu, Fuku and Mana, and the gods. She thought, “What can I do to solve the problems?”
Mana had a grave look on her face, which was different from always, saying, “Shizuku, don’t worry. We trust you.” Shizuku was relieved to hear that. A few minutes later, they went out of the cave at last. Then, Shizuku was amazed to see the scene before her eyes. What do you think was in front of her? Please look forward to finding out what happens next.
Meanwhile, a tall man first set foot on Hokkaido’s soil. He came to the countryside all the way from Tokyo. Looking around, he said to himself, “Wow. This place is in the middle of nowhere. Sis ran away from me and came to the sticks.” He threw away his cigarette butt. Seeing it, an old man ran up to him, saying, “Hey! Don’t litter here! This place is rich in beautiful nature, so don’t make it dirty.” The tall man grinned and said, “Who do you think I am? Don’t give me an order.”
The tall man cast a spell on him, and the old man became a stone dog. The stone dog said, “Wh… what!?” “You made me angry. So I gave you an eternal life as a punishment to give you time to reflect. You can never die,” the tall man said, and he walked away.