We search the forest until the shadows stretched longer and Ueda insisted darkness was imminent. I follow Ueda closely and, after a final hour of stumbling across low roots and uneven terrain, we emerge into the parking lot where we began our adventure nearly eleven hours before. Ueda pats me on the back and we drive off in his navy blue Toyota Camry.
That night Ueda takes me into the heart of Fujikawaguchiko, to a bar called Lionheart's. It's called that, Ueda noted, because of the prominent mural of a pride of lions above the bar. When I go inside, it's impossible to miss; under-lit by warm orange-yellow light, the mural catches eyes and draws people deep into the room until they're faced by a mountain of a man, Kunichi Oe, who offers you beer and sake and something to nibble on. How can we refuse?
Oe laughs as his friend arrives and flies out from behind the bar to consume Ueda in a bear hug of an embrace. They could not be more opposite. Ueda is a thin, bony man with a dour expression who, in the wrong light, looks like he might be another Jukai specimen. Oe is jovial, everyone's favorite uncle, with round everything culminating in a blushing face specked with drops of sweat.
Ueda gestures with a grin to me. It's the first time I've seen him smile all day. Fresh meat, he says. Oe nods solemnly and puts a hand on my shoulder. Did you see any, he asks. Yes, I say.
A bottle of Suntory appears and Oe fills a lowball glass halfway with the pale amber liquid. I light a Lark and inhale a third of the cigarette as Oe fills two more and then hands Ueda and me glasses while keeping one for himself. To those of us left behind, he says. I close my eyes and force down a mouthful of whiskey.
Everyone has a first time, Ueda says, and it's always different and special and difficult. His was before I was born, he says with a sigh, in 1981. He sips his whiskey. Back then he worked as a salaryman in Tokyo, grinding out a long existence for a communications company as a strategist and copyeditor. Days and nights were long, but he relished the pace and the thrill that came with honoring the company and his family with each success. He rose quickly and his work compiled. He tips in a larger mouthful of whiskey as his eyes glass over. It was glorious, he says.
One of his co-workers at the time was a man called Kentaro Awaji, a heavyset man with a stutter but an impeccable sense for written words. Awaji was diligent but not cut out for the hectic life. Each late evening in Shinjuku bouncing between bars with his co-workers wore on him. Ueda didn't notice it at the time. I regret it every day of my life, he sighs.
Awaji killed himself after a client presentation went wrong, causing their company to lose face and a valuable account. What exactly happened remains a haze, Ueda says. Regardless, the company was furious and a despondent Awaji retreated to Jukai and took his life. I found the note, Ueda says, on Awaji's desk.
Ueda finishes his whiskey and motions for me to give him one of my Larks. He stuffs it between his lips and I light it up. I finish mine and fire up another. Oe watches us silently between sips of whiskey, which flush his cheeks and nose to even deeper shades of red.
Jukai is a vacuum, Oe pipes up, just like the Sahara Desert or deep space. Some enter and escape just fine, the prepared. Oe's throat rattled as he downs half his whiskey in a single, impressive gulp. Others, he says, enter knowing they're about to be swallowed up, and that's exactly what happens. You never see them again except traces of what might have been, a backpack, a water bottle, a small note.
I ask Ueda if they ever found Awaji. He shakes his head. They never found his body, he says, which surprised him consider that Awaji wasn't a small man. But, he says as he rotates the cigarette in his lips, smart and determined people can make it so they're never found.
More whiskey appears and we drink. Then Oe opens a bottle of sake and pours three glasses. I worry he neglects his bar, but an associate has taken over behind the counter, allowing us to retreat to a quiet corner. Ueda smokes more of my Larks and Oe lights up from a pack of Seven Stars. We sit in silence and drink. It gets easier, Oe says. I don't respond, as my mind retreats to the man in the maggot-lined suit who is still out there, forever absorbed by the Jukai.