Hayato had been in Arashiyama before. Many times, in fact: his parents were quite fond of the flea market that would pop up in town every other Sunday. Hayato had been less excited: as far as he’d been concerned, Arashiyama wasn’t much different from Namerikawa, just another one-horse town that was about as exciting as a bowlful of cold dishwater.
But now he was on his own, with a bag on his back and a pocket of money, the town seemed to transform before him. He could do whatever he wanted, go anywhere, buy whatever food he liked and stay up as late as he fancied. The possibilities seemed endless, and as he walked down the dark main street, he had to stop himself from skipping all the way.
Calm down, Hayato, he told himself, you still need to set up camp. In fact, now he was in town, his plan seemed a little daft: where exactly could he pitch up a tent in this town? He couldn’t just set it up in someone else’s garden, could he? Maybe he could find the nearest park or something…
He rounded the corner past the fruit stall and nearly ran into a balding man.
“Oh, sorry, I –”
“Greetings, young man!” he boomed. He wore an apron around his pot belly and a huge smile. “Why, you look positively exhausted! Whatever’s the matter?”
“Say no more!” the apron man held up a chunky pink hand, “Old Kikuchi here can tell, his eyes never fool him! Muddy boots, big bag, weather-beaten face…you’ve been walking, and far. Am I right?”
“Ha!” Mr. Kikuchi laughed and gave Hayato a hearty slap on the back, nearly sending him crashing to the street, “I knew it! Nothing gets past me, no Sir. Well, count your lucky stars, my boy. Behold!”
He threw out his arms dramatically at the building behind him. The flags fluttering at the front door declared it as an inn, and a brand new one at that. The lights inside looked warm and inviting, and Hayato’s legs seemed to double in weight.
“It looks…lovely,” Hayato finally managed to get a word in, “But I couldn’t possibly stay here, I don’t have that kind of money.”
But Mr. Kikuchi shook his head, “Not to worry, my boy. Like I said, today is your lucky day. This week’s our grand opening, you see, so all guests stay free!”
Hayato raised an eyebrow. “Really? Wait…what’s the catch?”
“No catch, young sir,” said Mr. Kikuchi, steering him into the inn, “Just tell everyone what a great stay you had here!”
Mr. Kikuchi winked, and Hayato smiled weakly as he took his shoes off and changed into indoor slippers. This is all so nice. Unnaturally nice.
Mr. Kikuchi stepped behind the gleaming reception counter. “Now then, let’s get you signed in…ah, here we are.” He produced a piece of paper and a pen with a flourish. “Just sign or the dotted line, if you please.”
“Don’t I need to fill out my details or something?” Hayato asked, still standing in the entryway.
“No worries,” Mr. Kikuchi smiled, “You’re staying free of charge so it’s not necessary. Just sign.” He held out the form and pen.
“I’d like to have a read through that first, thank you,” Hayato pointed at the form. Mr. Kikuchi’s face gave the tiniest of twitches. Then he held it out. “Of course, of course, “he said, “Take your time.”
Hayato did, reading each line slowly. But nothing seemed to be out of order. It was just about opening hours, bathroom hours for men and women, usage of laundry facilities…pretty boring stuff, actually. Nothing fishy at all. As he signed the paper, Mr. Kikuchi chuckled. “See? Nothing to worry about.”
Mr. Kikuchi slid the signed paper towards him and filed it somewhere under the desk. When he emerged he held out a key tied onto a bit of old string.
“Room 203,” said Mr. Kikuchi, “Go up these stairs, turn left and it’s the third room on your right.”
“Erm…” Hayato turned the key over in his hands, “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it young sir,” Mr. Kikuchi flashed him another grin, and bustled away into the back office.
A minute later, Hayato slumped down on a big, squashy futon in his room. His legs tingled: he gasped aloud at the relief of having the weight taken off his legs. He looked around. His room was big and spacious, decorated in the traditional style, and very expensive looking. In the peace and quiet, his ears rang. The whole meeting with Mr. Kikuchi seemed like a whirlwind. It was all so easy. Too easy. Yet here he was, with a guaranteed no-strings-attached room. No camping outside tonight, then, he thought blissfully.
But then his stomach gave a loud grumble. He hadn’t had anything decent to eat all day. He’d have to get up, go back out into the cold night and hunt for some food. His legs protested at being made to work again, but he willed himself back onto his feet, patted his pockets to check his money was still there, and headed for the door. His hand hovered over the handle, then he turned and picked up the Kami box. He pocketed it. Just in case.
He stepped out of the ramen restaurant feeling warm and full. Hayato loved his ramen, but after a long and trying day of walking it tasted extra good.
He stopped by a couple of other places on the way back to the inn. He bought a drink and some snacks from a confectioner’s: even on a full stomach he still buzzed at the idea of a little late-night feast in front of the TV.
He passed by the local shrine, too, and with his bag of goodies swinging by his side, went for a look around. It looked, in many ways, the exact same as the Namerikawa Shrine – Well, apart from the fact that this one is still in one piece, he reminded himself with a flush of hot guilt. But the Arashiyama Shrine was less colourful than it’s Namerikawa sister: the torii gate here was not a bright red but made of solid granite, and the trees were decorated with thick yellow ropes from which hung paper folded to look like lightning bolts. They fluttered in the light breeze. In the presence of the shrine, the Kami box felt like it was shuddered, but when he laid a hand over his pocket, it was as still as ever. He looked at the Shrine building with a mixture of awe and annoyance. Why can’t these Kami share houses like the rest of us mere mortals? I could put the Kami in here and start my week of forgiveness in comfy Arashiyama, complete with free room and delicious ramen. But no, he had to go climb to the top of a remote mountain. Of course, it would have made no difference. Of course this box didn’t have an actual Kami in it. That was just silly. The only reason he was playing along was because it was a far less damning punishment than a lifelong debt: he definitely didn’t believe that he was on a pilgrimage to appease a cranky Kami.
But as he left the Shrine, he couldn’t help but think about those red eyes on the doll. He glanced over his shoulder at the stone lions guarding the entrance. Then shook his head, and made straight for the inn.
He stepped inside feeling warm, sleepy and satisfied. He slipped into the slippers, climbed the stairs, unlocked the door…and nearly screamed at the sight of his room.
His belongings were thrown everywhere, as though his bag had exploded. His tent lay sprawled across the tatami mats; his pots and pans were thrown in the hearth, and some of his clothes hung from the beams of the ceiling. Hayato dashed to the window and looked out onto the street below. The night was still. In fact the window was still locked from the inside. He checked the door. It showed no signs of a break in, and he was sure he’d locked it. What…how…Numbly, he collected his belongings together. Nothing seemed to be missing. In fact, apart from a cracked mug, nothing was even damaged. That was even more confusing. Who would break into a room and ransack everything in it but not steal anything? Unless…he clutched his jacket pocket, feeling the weight of the Kami box within. Of course. He suddenly felt wide awake, and very scared. Heart pounding, he picked up his repacked bag and dashed to reception. He was a hair’s breadth from slamming his hand on the bell on the desk, when he noticed all the room keys hanging on a neat rack on the wall behind it.
There were two keys for every room – one for the guest and the other for cleaning and admin, apparently. Every single room had two keys under its label, except for Room 203. He was the only guest here, on this inn’s grand opening. And that was only half of it: all the keys were dull where they caught the light, sporting a thin layer of dust. Why would the room keys for a brand new inn be gathering dust already? But that wasn’t what made Hayato’s skin truly crawl: There was one key that wasn’t dusty. The singular Room 203 key. It’s been used recently. And there’s only one other person here.