Summer break was what every student liked and waited for. They were freed from their study and assignment and could rest their brain for a short while. Some took advantage of this time to earn some extra money from their part-time job. Some would also visit back home and enjoy quality time with their family in their hometown away from rowdy city life.
But for Yuuga, it was exactly because of this he hated summer break.
Driving along the empty road, pop music tuned in from the radio connected to his phone. He already downloaded many music and movies in preparation for coming back to his hometown. Don't mention wi-fi, even the signal there was trash.
There was almost no accessory decorating his car except for a dangling 5 yen coin on his rearview mirror. It was given by his friend on the same major as his, though he didn't understand why anybody would buy a decoration looking like a 5 yen coin. Well, he could use it later for emergency money.
He was inside an airconditioned car, but he could still feel the summer heat just by looking at the glaring sun up in the sky. He was a homebody through and through, so he couldn't hate summer enough, especially after he went to the city for his college.
Just as new music started, he saw a figure on the side of the road stretching out her hand. He knew that sign meant she was looking for someone to hitch a ride. He pulled over and opened his window.
"Where are you heading to?"
The girl bent down, and her raven hair slid past her shoulder, "I want to go to Yoru Village."
"Yoru Village?" Yuuga scrunched his eyebrows, "I don't think I've ever heard a village with that name around here…"
He has been going through this road for more than 3 years by himself and much longer with his family since he was a child. Every year, he definitely drove through this road at least once, so he knew everything around this area.
"You don't know?" the girl looked surprised.
"Should I?" Yuuga asked her strangely.
The girl blinked for a moment seemingly thinking of something before finally saying, "Then, do you know that big old tree at the end of the road?"
Yuuga nodded. The tree has left an impression from the first time he saw it when he was little and until now, when he drove past it, he still couldn't help but stop and looked at it for a while.
"Yoru Village is on the other side of that tree." The girl continued.
"I'm pretty sure there is no road leading to there. But I can at least drop you off near the tree."
"That's fine. Thank you for your help."
The girl hopped into the car. She wasn't bringing much luggage, only a duffel bag and a purse slung on her shoulder. She was wearing a knee-length white dress that was perfectly thin for the weather. There was not a trickle of sweat on her, so she probably hasn't been wondering out there for long.
After the girl settled inside, Yuuga started driving. He wasn't the type to strike up a conversation with someone, so the two of them didn't talk to each other after their initial exchange. Fortunately, the music playing in the background reduced the awkward silence between them and Yuuga just focused himself on the road.
The girl sat quietly next to him. He thought she would take out her phone or something to either tell her acquaintance about her situation or maybe just to kill time. After all, for a lone girl like her to hitch a ride with a single man like him wasn't the safest scenario one could think of.
But contrary to his expectation, she didn't do any of that and just calmly looked out the window and watched the road and scenery passed by her. In the end, it was Yuuga who became worried.
"Are you not going to inform your family, friends, or whoever you're going to meet that you're hitching a ride? They should be worried about you, and I don't want to be thought of as some kind of kidnapper."
The girl turned her head to Yuuga and smiled, "You're really a kind person."
Yuuga didn't know how to react to the sudden compliment, "I'm just asking normal stuff. It'll be complicated if someone misunderstood."
"Are you from around here?"
"There's a small town if you take a left at the big tree. That's my hometown."
"Yes, I know that town. The young people there all went to the city to study or work. There're only middle-aged and elderly people there now. The people from there have a very good upbringing."
"I'm not sure 'good' is an accurate way to say it," Yuuga thought for a while, "We have our own set of rules and traditions to follow. It's still applicable for those who left to work or study like me. That's why we must go back once a year there." He explained half complainingly.
"But isn't it fine to skip once or twice?"
"All I can say is, I lost contact with my friends who did." Yuuga replied nonchalantly.
"You're not afraid?" She suddenly asked.
Yuuga glanced briefly at her in askance, "Of what?"
"Of your town deity."
"Legend says that every town or village has their own deity protecting and blessing them. The more devout the people are the more prosper their home will be. This is because their prayer brings strength to their deity, and it was a mutual symbiosis of exchange. But what deities hate the most is betrayal. They will punish those who don't pay back the blessing and protection they gave and only taking advantage of it for their own benefit."
The conversation ended here with Yuuga not refuting or agreeing to the girl's words. He didn't agree with her because he didn't believe things like deities, gods, angels, and all that. But he couldn't refute her because his hometown really does has a belief concerning this town deity she mentioned.
In fact, the reason why all the people from his hometown who were outside of the town needed to go back once a year was because of this belief. Every year, the town will hold a ritual and festival for 3 days to pay gratitude and give offerings to their town deity. All who were born in that town must be present or else the ritual couldn't be completed perfectly.
Although he heard that those who didn't participate would be punished by the deity, he didn't really believe it. True, his friends got into an accident the same year they failed to attend, but it was at most a coincidence. If someone told him it was their karma, he would believe that more. They weren't the greatest bunch he had met in his life.
If it was really the doing of their deity, the people of his town would be giving offerings to him/her from fear, not gratitude.
They finally reached the end of the road after a 2-hour drive. On the patch of grass on the right to the paved road, stood a big and old tree. Its trunk was thick with lush leaves. He never knew what tree that was because it never bore fruits nor flowers.
There was an old and thick hemp rope encircling the trunk with paper streamers and straw tassels hanging on it. Some of the trees on the shrine also had them so he was familiar with them.
What surprised him though, was the extra road to the right. He remembered very clearly that last year there wasn't any sign of a road being constructed there. There were only 2 ways, straight to the mountain road and left to his hometown.
The newly appeared road was also very much integrated to the old road that it seemed as if it was built at the same time with it.
"Huh? When was this road built?" Yuuga thought out loud.
"For a while. That way is to Yoru Village." The girl answered.
"…Then, I'll take you there." Yuuga said while still feeling confused.
"Is that okay?"
"Yeah, I have nothing urgent today. I got you as far as here and I'm also curious about this new road. Maybe I'll look around Yoru Village for a while later."
"Unfortunately, the road inside the village isn't wide enough for a car to pass through. But I can take you around for a tour." The girl happily offered.
Yuuga stepped on the gas pedal and steered his wheel to the right. Following the road, it really did circle the big tree and now he could see the tree on his left. Going forward, it didn't take 20 minutes for him to see the outline of a red gate.
"That's the entrance to Yoru Village."
He stopped the car near the gate and parked it at the side. Stepping out of the car, Yuuga saw that beyond the gate there really were many houses and small buildings. He didn't quite believe it until he finally saw it with his own eyes.
"Come on. I'll show you around after I drop my things."
The girl walked to the entrance gate and Yuuga followed behind her. When he entered, he was surprised by how lively it was because the noise wasn't heard from where they got off.
The buildings there were at most 3-story tall. Many vendors were out on the street selling snacks, toys, accessories, and many different things. The architecture was a bit on the ancient side with sliding doors and paper windows, but the design and material were as good as the modern era. Paper lanterns of different paintings decorated the street, and one could imagine how beautiful it must be when they were lit at night.
"It's surprisingly very lively. I didn't think the place would be this big when you said it was a village."
"It's more or less as big as your town. Maybe bigger. There're not many people in the street now. Yoru Village will be fully active at night. Usually, the vendors would open near the sunset, but because today is the festival, they probably have started selling from the afternoon."
They walked around until finally reaching a building. Yuuga read the wooden sign hung on the roof and it was actually an inn. He asked when the girl came out after finished checking in.
"I thought you're from here."
"No, I'm only here for the festival," The girl honestly replied, "I attend almost every year though, so you can trust me to guide you."
"Well, what are we waiting for?"
The girl brought him around the village. They played some games, ate local foods there, and Yuuga even bought some souvenirs. There were many peculiar things that piqued his interest.
For example, a hand mirror with intricate carving of some kind of a mythical animal on its sides. When he looked at himself reflected in the mirror, he felt that the animals' eyes moved to look at him. But when he looked at them, they were totally normal. The seller said that if one looks at themselves with this mirror daily, they will be more beautiful each passing day.
Another thing he found was a complicated puzzle cube. It was similar to a Rubik cube, but for this one, if he moved one section, another section would randomly move along. It also wasn't colored, but each side would shape a different pattern. For this one, the seller said that when someone managed to solve it, one of their wishes will come true.
Their technique of selling things with these background stories, for some reason, really worked for him. Although he didn't really believe it, his curiosity couldn't help but get the better of him.
He also bought accessories like this one very cool black beaded bracelet and a strange, winged creature strap for his phone.
The most important thing was, he didn't need to pay for it directly.
When the girl explained the transaction system here, he was quite surprised. First, they would need to play at any game booth. This was the only place they need to spend their money which cost 100 yen per game. Then, like any other game booth, they would receive a prize according to their result. But the price was different.
The prize they get would be coupons. These coupons were what that they used to buy things and foods around the village.
The food was also great with many varieties. The main point was their condiment. Everything the girl recommended really suited his taste. Even for him who didn't like sweet foods, he completely finished up the deserts.
In the end, he was very satisfied with Yoru Village he almost wanted to spend a night there. Unfortunately, he couldn't because he needed to help with the preparation for his town festival.
"It's too bad I need to go now." Yuuga looked up at the dark sky.
He didn't think he could spend an entire day outside without feeling tired at all. He didn't even feel the heat. And now, the night breeze made him feel a bit sleepy. He must've drained his energy out today.
"I hope next year we can meet again." The girl smiled sweetly.
The two of them walked out of the entrance gate.
Yuuga thought about the incoming tiring day tomorrow and sighed, "Should I just spend the night here? Imagining a dreadful day after a fun day like this really ruins my mood."
"Although I very much like to agree with you, unfortunately, you can't stay here for the night whether you want to or not," the girl shook her head, "Good night. It was a very fun time spending with you."
Yuuga didn't understand her first sentence, but his attention was shifted by her parting, "You too. You're a great guide. You can come to my town's festival 5 days later. I'll be your guide for a change."
They finally bid farewell to each other and Yuuga entered his car. He put all the things he bought on the passenger seat before starting his car.
Driving through the dark empty road by himself, his festive mood calmed down. He was satisfied by the things he bought and ate today. He would probably sleep with a grin tonight.
Passing by the old tree, it seemed as if it was glowing under the night sky, maybe because of the bright village from behind it. It looked more beautiful than usual.
The next day, some of his friends also arrived from other cities. They caught up with each other after they finished their task for the day. After talking for a while, Yuuga then remembered about Yoru Village he visited yesterday.
"Hey, do you guys know there's a village behind the old tree? A new road opposite the road heading to this town was built."
"Huh? What are you talking about?" one of his friends asked looking confused.
"Yeah, so there was a village there called Yoru Village. They are currently having their festival and the food there was crazy delicious. You also don't need to directly pay for the things there. Only by playing games and get coupons can you trade it with souvenirs and food. It was really fun." Yuuga excitedly told them.
"Dude, there's no such thing as a village around here. And what tree are you talking about?"
"The old tree. The landmark at the intersection."
His friends looked at each other and looked back at Yuuga with question marks up on their heads. They were going to continue when an elderly woman came and called them to come to help her out with something. Yuuga replied shortly as he stood up.
"I'll show you guys later. Maybe we can go together to the village and play around."
Just before sunset, there was finally nothing else that needed their help around as the people also went back home to rest. Yuuga and his friends drove to the intersection where the old tree was.
He stepped out and pointed at the tree, "See? That one."
"That tree, over there."
One of them hesitated before saying, "Dude, there's nothing but an old broken wooden house there. And where's the road you mentioned?"
Yuuga turned back his head and indeed the road he went through to and from Yoru Village yesterday was gone. But the tree he mentioned still stood there majestically.
"What the hell are you saying? There's only a huge rock there. What house?" another chimed in.
"Are you guys hallucinating from the heat? That's a scarecrow idiot."
Yuuga froze in bafflement. His friends also paused realizing the strangeness.
Why were they seeing different things on the same spot?
He looked at where the road to Yoru Village was supposed to be and where the dazzling lantern light shined the tree last night.
Does Yoru Village truly exist or is it something else?