On the night before his departure she watched him as he ate his dinner and tried to burn every detail of his flawless face into her memory.
She thought her intruding stare must have made him uneasy, but he being his usual polite and gentle self, said nothing and ate as if he did not notice. There were much she wanted to say – apologies, explanations, justifications for the last winter – but in the end, she only broke the silence when she was about the leave the room with his finished tray.
"Akizuki-sama," she said in a hushed voice, "please write to me."
He honored her request a month later with a brief and stiff letter that informed her of his safe arrival to San Francisco. She immediately returned his letter with a five page response detailing the troupe's latest production, local news she heard, and a storm of question about the world across the ocean.
She checked her mail daily, but a week turned into two, then three and four, and still no letter. At first, she felt angry and betrayed, but when two months expired with no news from Akizuki, she began to worry about his safety. What if he caught some weird western chest flu? What if he had been beaten up by those barbaric foreigners? What if… The mailman brought the long, agonizing wait to an end in mid October, exactly eighty-seven days after she had returned his letter. She hastily excused herself from play practice, shut herself in her room, and devoured the contents within. The letter was a page long. In it he wrote of the impossibly large moon in the west and his struggles with using western utensils. He also mentioned his intentions of travelling to New York City with Mr. Kazumi, a Japanese merchant he had met on the ship and briefly mentioned in his last letter.
The possibility of Akizuki not returning to Japan for a long time finally dawned on her. She suddenly realized how silly and arrogant she had been for expecting otherwise. She had no rights, no rights at all to think this Akizuki would return for her after everything. This new found insight made her sick to the stomach.
I am, she repeated in her mind as she wrote her next letter, an insignificant actor playing a short, most likely trivial, role in his life.
I had, she told herself while she crumbled and threw away yet another piece of paper, done nothing for him but caused him trouble while he kept saving me again and again.
The letter she eventually sent out two weeks later was much more formal, much more distant than her first. She narrated her recent visit to Koma and stressed he was under no obligation to write back.
When winter passed by without another letter, she thought she would never hear from him again. Yet, in the following spring she received a small parcel from him. Inside the box was a pair of white silk gloves and a brief note in the familiar hand writing:
I apologize for not keeping up with correspondence lately. Through the kind help of Mr. Kazumi, I have found employment at his friend's shipping company and as such, next week, I will be leaving New York City for Great Britain. I will write again to inform you of my new address when I arrive. I have included a pair of gloves. I saw them in a store last week and thought you may be able to use them in your productions.
I wish you and the troupe good health and success in your newest ventures.
Kakunojou felt wetness in her eyes as she read and reread the short letter in her hand. She hugged the silk gloves tight to her chest and felt an inexplicable sense of relief. The letter had proved he still thought of her, and for that she was very grateful.
They continued to exchange letters. Sometimes his letter would come only a few weeks after her response, other times it would be months before she would hear from him again. She always wished he would write more often, but she liked to think that time made her heart grow fonder.
There was a gradual change in his writing style, his new world seemed to have chipped away his old reserve, and his letters became increasingly descriptive. He talked of his life, his work, but most of all his world: the melodic plays produced in the local theaters called operas, the large and impressive steam machines that carried passengers for long distances, and of course, his favorite new hobby - a western sport that involved odd shaped swords called fencing.
She developed a growing desire to see the fascinating land across the ocean with her own eyes. Yet, every time the idea of leaving Japan crossed her mind she would pull herself back because she did not want to repeat history. No, she would not force herself on him, she told herself, she would not be a burden ever again. She wanted to believe she was growing into a better woman every day, and that maybe, just maybe, when the day comes for them to meet again, she would finally be someone worthy.
Sometimes, she managed for weeks without thinking too much of him. But one night, her thoughts would inevitably return to him. On those nights, she would pull out the wooden box and reread his letters and examine his gifts: the pair of white gloves, a map that highlighted the cities he had visited, a purple scarf with small pink floral prints, a delicate bottle of fragrance, and a beautiful white laced fan. On those nights, she would fall asleep seeing the foreign world in her mind's eyes and wondering how someone so close to her heart could be so very far away.
The years passed like the wind. She was a woman of twenty and two when she received the last letter. In the last letter, Akizuki told her that he had been offered a major promotion, a promotion that would require less travelling and more time in the office.
Kakunojou had no choice but to face the truth: Akizuki was settling down in the land across the ocean.
You knew that was coming. It's been five years, she tried to console herself, you cannot possibly still expect him to come back to Japan after so long.
She had trouble concentrating during the performance that day. The usual thrills of acting never caught on and applause from the audience failed to reach her. She excused herself from the troupe's celebratory dine-out after the show and quickly retreated to her room.
She pulled out the familiar wooden box from under her bed one last time. The sight of it made her heart twist in the most painful way. Don't be stupid. You will not cry, she demanded silently, you will not cry. But the tears she kept at bay for the day came anyway. In the end, she was still weak. She could not quite get over Akizuki - but now she must let go, she had no choice but to let go.
She brought the wooden box to the harbor with the intension of dropping it into the ocean after a final farewell. It was a warm day and the sky was the same shade of blue as the day Akizuki left. A ship very similar to the one that carried Akizuki away had docked that morning, causing the harbor to buzz with unusual excitement. She walked purposefully onto the same dock she said goodbye five years ago. It was very poetic that this should end the same way it began.
She was half way down the dock when someone called her name. It was a voice she sometimes dreamed of, a voice she could not forget. She forced herself not to look, knowing the only logical explanation would be grief induced delusion… and yet, the voice from so long ago called again, this time louder, "Zachou!" Her heart pounded so hard she thought she may faint. Without knowing what to expect, she turned around.
He looked older and if possible even more mature, but the resemblance was unmistakable. The handsome man in a western suit standing not five pace away was none other than Akizuki Youjirou.
The box dropped to the dock with a thud. Her legs impulsively closed the distance between them and she reached out to touch his face to make sure he was truly there. "Why are..."
"I am moving back here," he told her, "for the Asian office."
Kakunojou stared at him with astonishment. "But you never said..."
"I wanted to surprise you," Akizuki explained simply and he was smiling, a genuine smile, a carefree smile.
The Akizuki from five years ago would never be able to give such a smile, Kakunojou realized. She wondered how else Akizuki had changed but the thought was interrupted by a tight embrace.
"I am home," he said in her hair.
Her arms gingerly made their way up to his back and sincerely, lovingly she whispered, "Welcome back."
Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohanihoheto will always hold a special place in my heart. It's been quite a few years now since this anime ended but even to this day the sound of the opening song or a picture of Akizuki can still bring a smile to my face even on the worst of days. It would not even be an exaggeration to say Iroha changed my life. Without Iroha, without meeting the small but very dedicated group of fans back then, I wouldn't be where I am today.