Dad yanks up on the emergency brake.
His daughter Yumi throws herself across the backseat with a thud. “Stopped again?” she complains. To-kun, belted into the car seat next to her, starts to fuss. Mom quickly leans forward and gets out of the car.
She opens the back door, reluctantly unfastening To-kun’s seat belt and picking him up. She soothes him for a while before returning to the passenger seat.
“Sorry, almost there,” Mom says.
“Such traffic,” Grandma mutters.
Sandwiched between Yumi and To-kun, now returned to his car seat, is Grandma. She’s looking around restlessly. A tiny woman, she sits on top of the seat with legs tucked neatly under, formal Japanese style. Her rounded back leans slightly on the back of the seat.
Dad invited her to come along to see the fall leaves and the volcanic crater with the rest of the family. Her granddaughter Yumi is overjoyed. Every time she goes to see Grandma, Yumi gets to drink sweet barley tea. The sweet dipping sauce she makes for somen noodles and her mixed rice packed with chicken are also delicious. She can eat all the tart cucumber and cabbage pickles she wants. Best of all, though, are the sugar-coated fried donuts. Grandma always puts a feast on the table and tells fascinating stories about the old days. Yumi adores her.
(“Yay! We get to take a trip with Grandma!”)
Delirious with excitement, Yumi cajoled her dad to let her sit in the back today instead of her usual spot in the passenger seat. She wanted to be next to Grandma. That’s how they all crammed into a car that barely fits five. But the road leading up to the top of the mountain is even more packed outside than they are inside.
The family heads up the Zao Echo Line.
It normally takes thirty minutes to travel from the base of the mountain up the scenic route to the volcanic crater at the top. But on a Sunday in October with the autumn leaves at their peak, the traffic was heavy.
Car, car, car, tourist bus, car, car, car—all the way up the spiraling road. Bumper to bumper, like an endless train.
“I’m sick of this,” Yumi pouts. The cars ahead would inch forward, only to stop again. To-kun lets out a wail. Apparently, he’s sick of being in the car for so long too.
“We’re almost there,” Mom tells her, turning around in the passenger seat in an attempt to placate her. “How about some ice cream when we do?”
Yumi lets out a huge sigh.
At that moment, Grandma, sitting prim and proper in her seat, cries out as she sees the scene out the window. “Oh my!” she exclaims. “It’s so beautiful!” She turns slightly in her seat and touches her head to To-kun’s, her bright eyes sparkling with delight.
“That one must be seventeen,” she tells him.
“Huh? What? Grandma, what? What do you mean, seventeen?” Yumi fires off a barrage of questions, grabbing Grandma’s arm.
“Look,” she points. “That tree over there.” A lone tree stands on the side of the Echo Line, right where the sloping road curves. It’s a Japanese maple, covered in beautiful, bright red leaves.
“Woah!” Yumi shouts. “It’s bright red!” Her eyes light up with the vivid color, which looks as bright as a raging fire.
“It’s so beautiful!” Yumi says.
“Isn’t it?” Grandma replies. But then, a hint of disappointment in her voice, she goes on. “We were so close. They say that eighteen is the most beautiful age, and this color is just before the peak. Seventeen.”
Seemingly satisfied with this explanation, Yumi starts pointing out other red Japanese maples.
“Grandma,” she asks, “how old is that one?”
“Let’s see…” Grandma taps her hand to her chin as she thinks, then proclaims without hesitation, “Twenty-five. See? Its colors are a little faded.”
“How about… that one?” Yumi continues. “It’s pretty red.”
“It’s certainly lovely,” Grandma says. “But the leaves are just the tiniest bit wilted. It’s twenty. So close. Yumi, see if you can find an eighteen-year-old.”
“You got it, Grandma!”
Somehow, Grandma’s sense of what was beautiful peaked at eighteen. Twenty, which was when coming-of-age was officially celebrated in Japan, was apparently past prime. Back in the old days, it was normal for a girl to get married while still in her teens—so maybe it was a generational thing. But here is Yumi, completely unaware of such worldly concerns, lost in her search for a tree with bright red leaves.
(Where can I find an eighteen-year-old tree? The color of rubies!)
Grandma’s rating scale is fun. More than anything, Yumi is eager to please her grandmother. Eyes as big as saucers, Yumi is staring intently at the vermillion and golden-colored trees, examining each one individually.
“That one’s really red too, Grandma!”
“It is. But a little thin. That tree’s still young. I’d say fifteen.”
“How about that one? That one’s great, right? Wouldn’t that one be eighteen?”
Dad releases the emergency brake and the car starts to inch ahead—only to stop again.
To-kun is wailing now. Grandma takes something wrapped in paper from her bag and hands it to him as she answers Yumi. “Nope. Nineteen!”
It’s a fried donut. To-kun immediately stops crying, taking a big bite of the sugar-coated treat. Mom turns around from the passenger seat, a relieved smile on her face.
The car is filled with sweet smells.
“Do you want one too, Yumi?” Grandma asks.
“I’ll have one later,” she says. “I’ve got to find the eighteen-year-old tree!”
The car finally gets going again. At last, Yumi tugs Grandma’s sleeve, her face a picture of concentration. She excitedly points in the distance, near the top of the mountain road.
“Grandma!” she exclaims. “That one! Over there!!”
At that moment, Grandma squints until her eyes become two gentle arc lines. Her wrinkled face spreads into a soft smile as she exclaims, voice dripping with delight, “Ahhhh!”
A tree with leaves of pure, fiery crimson shines radiantly in the distance. A single splash of red in a sea of yellow-colored trees.
A beautiful shade of genuine ruby red…
“How old is it?” Yumi demands. “Grandma, how old is that one?”
Looking at her granddaughter, who is nearly overflowing with expectation, Grandma happily answers…