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We arrived at Hamamatsu after an hour and a half, starving. The train stopped and we got off. Not much was visible from the platform, but there were already a few kites dancing in the distance.
Tanaka-san helped us carry our stuff through the station and down the stairs. We followed Tanaka-san and arrived beside a suited woman after crossing the street. She stood next to a car similar to the one Tanaka-san drove, but longer.
"Welcome to Hamamatsu," she smiled at us. "Please let me help you put your belongings into the trunk."
"Thanks," Mom replied.
As the suited woman and Tanaka-san helped us, I looked around. The streets were starting to close and stalls were getting ready to open for the evening. We had come to the festival many times before, but this was the first time we had arrived early enough to see all the preparations.
The suited woman sat in the driver seat and Tanaka-san sat in the front passenger seat next to her. Mom and Dad sat on the next row and Yu-tan, Makoto, and I sat on the last row, a bit cramped.
"Is this your first time in the city?" the woman asked.
"No, we have come a few times for the festival," Mom answered.
"I see. Shall we head straight to the Nakatajima Sand Dunes?"
"Actually, can we go somewhere to eat? We are starving."
"Of course. Do you have a place in mind?"
"Any cheap restaurant will do—"
"It's fine," Makoto interrupted. "Take us to the best restaurant you know."
The woman started the engine and began driving. Meanwhile, we all stared at Makoto, surprised by what she just said.
"Can you explain, Makoto?" Mom asked.
"Well, it has been a while since we've gone out to eat together and it's Yu-tan's birthday, so I'll pay for everything. But please don't buy too much. Especially you, Su-chan."
"Hey, are you calling me fat?"
"Girls," Mom scolded.
"Sorry," Makoto and I apologized.
"Are you sure it's fine? You have a wedding to pay for," Dad asked, worried.
Makoto smiled and nodded.
"If that's what you want, I won't stop you," Mom said.
Does she really earn that much? I wondered.
After ten minutes of driving through the traffic caused by the closed streets, we finally arrived at a fancy-looking restaurant. We parked in a small parking lot.
"Here we are," the woman said. "There's still two hours until the practice starts, so you can take your time."
"We will be waiting here," Tanaka-san added.
"Thanks. We won't take long," Mom said.
We got out of the car and stepped into the restaurant. It was the second time I was in such an elegant place, just after Koji's mansion. To my surprise, there weren't many people.
"Welcome! How may I help you?" the man behind the counter greeted.
Makoto stepped forward. "Good morning. I would like to request a table."
It's the first time I see her acting this formal.
"Understood. Let me look for one," he replied and looked down at a tablet. After a brief moment, he continued, "You're lucky, there's only one table remaining. Please come in."
He stepped to the side of the counter and opened a big door for us. We walked through. Compared to the previous hall, it was crowded. Just like on the train, practically everyone wore suits or expensive-looking clothes, while we wore our everyday outfits.
"Please wait here, a waiter will take you to your table in a moment. Enjoy your stay."
"Thank you," Makoto replied.
The man returned to the counter and the door closed itself behind us. We awkwardly stood still. Luckily, it didn't even take five seconds for a waitress to arrive. She guided us through many tables towards a corner of the room—probably why it was the last one available.
We sat down and the waitress placed a menu in front of each of us—even Yu-tan.
"We will take your order shortly," she said and walked away.
I started looking around the restaurant, unable to believe that we were eating in a place this fancy. Then I noticed Mom and Dad were doing the same, but not Makoto.
"You're used to this kind of place?" I asked her.
"But it looks so expensive," I said and opened the menu. "It's freaking expensive!"
"Language," Mom scolded.
"Sorry. But how do you manage to eat at places like these?"
"I'm an adult that earns her money. You'll get to do it soon enough."
"Still, it's a lot of money. But if that's the case, I'll order the most expensive—"
"I'm not rich," Makoto quickly interrupted. "Order something reasonable. Except you, Yu-tan. Since it is your birthday, you can order whatever you want. That's my gift."
"What I want?" Yu-tan asked.
Makoto nodded. "Anything."
She helped Yu-tan to search through her menu and I started looking at mine. All of the dishes were expensive and fancy-looking, so fancy that they didn't seem appetizing anymore. I ended up choosing a normal-looking soup. I was about to order a dessert, but I felt bad for Makoto.
After a couple of minutes, a waiter came to our table and took our order. A few minutes later, our food arrived and we started eating. Just like the picture, mine seemed normal, but Mom and Dad didn't hold back at all, ordering one of the most expensive meats on the menu with a lot of toppings. Yu-tan asked for an ice-cream tower wrapped in batter and strawberry jam. And Makoto asked for the cheapest soup on the menu. She might have had a lot of money, but not that much.
We finished eating and relaxed for a while before heading back to the car. It was nice eating together, but I was feeling so sleepy. Waking up at six didn't help.
We drove back in the same direction we had come from and passed under the station we arrived at. During our wait in the traffic, we asked the suited woman's name; Hironaka-san.
Almost an hour later, we arrived at the Sand Dunes only with four minutes to spare. As we drove by it, we could see a crowd already gathering and some kites flying around, probably practicing for the battle.
Am I really going to battle in front of this many people? I haven't even flown a kite in years…
My heart started racing in preparation for the upcoming hours. It wasn't only because of nervousness, but also because of adrenaline. A feeling I had missed for some time.
We parked in a nearby parking lot.
"We are here," Hironaka-san said as she turned the engine off. "We are almost late, so we shouldn't waste any more time. You can take anything you need from the trunk and leave what you want as well. Tanaka-san will be with you all the time and I'll stay with the participant. That's you, right, Suzuka-san?"
Tanaka-san stepped out of the car and opened the doors on the left for Mom, Makoto, and Yu-tan.
"Perfect. Let's head to a bathroom so you can change clothes," Hironaka-san told me.
She got out of the car and opened the door on the right for Dad and me. Everyone quickly grabbed what they needed; I grabbed my backpack and Hironaka-san grabbed the suitcase Tanaka-san had been carrying.
Out of nowhere, Mom squeezed me. "Good luck, Sweetheart. It doesn't matter if you're good or not, just have fun."
"You know I can't do that, but I'll try," I smiled.
Dad patted my back and Yu-tan hugged my leg, probably just imitating Mom.
"Don't worry, you'll only disappoint thousands of people if you lose," Makoto said.
I stared at her, annoyed.
"I'm kidding. I know you'll do great."
"I'm sorry to interrupt, but we have no time," Hironaka-san stated.
Mom, Dad, Yu-tan, Makoto, and Tanaka-san walked towards the Dunes. While Hironaka-san and I headed to a bathroom.
"Do your best, Sis!" Yu-tan shouted, waving at me.
I couldn't help but smile. I can't disappoint Yu-tan.
We arrived at the bathroom and Hironaka-san handed me the plastic bags with the clothes inside. I stepped inside and she waited for me outside.
Once in a cubicle, I had to pick which clothes to wear. I only stood outside for a couple of minutes, but it was enough to know it was quite cool and windy. However, sweat pants would restrict my movements more than shorts. But cold…
I had no time to lose, so I chose a middle point. I quickly took my clothes off and changed into the t-shirt, track jacket, and shorts. I put my clothes in my backpack and ran outside.
Hironaka-san and I practically jogged towards the Dunes where the practice had just started. We arrived on time.
The Dunes had some patches of grass, but it was mostly sand. It was going to be quite challenging to move around while flying a kite. I also thought of taking my shoes off, but I couldn't decide.
We approached the other Tokyo participant, who was accompanied by another suited man.
Hironaka-san instantly bowed. "I'm very sorry for arriving late."
I also bowed. "It was our fault for asking to be taken somewhere else first."
"There's no need to apologize, we also just arrived," the suited man replied. "Please let me introduce you. Kudo-san, she's Kozue-san, the other winner. Kozue-san, he's Kudo-san."
Kudo-san, holding a kite, introduced himself. "Hi, Kozue-san! It's nice to meet you.
"Nice to meet you as well," I replied.
"It's quite surprising that a high school student won," he giggled, scratching his head. "Oh, I don't mean it in a bad way."
"It's fine. Yes, it was unexpected, even for me. But aren't you in high school, too?"
He shook his head. "I'm in my second year at Tokyo University."
"Really?! You look so young!"
"Everyone tells me that."
"I'm glad you're getting along, but we shall start practicing at once," Hironaka-san said.
And so we started practicing our kite-flying skills. I had seen the battles as a spectator multiple times, but being one of the fighters was very different. The first thing I noticed was that the kites were smaller than I imagined, making them more susceptible to the wind and a lot harder to control. It only took me a minute to realize how rusty I was.
Luckily, we had one hour to practice. The main difference from past festivals was that there was only one person representing each region. Having a team meant that we needed coordination and strategy. It didn't matter that I was bad; if I focused on battling as a team, we could win.
One hour later, it was almost time for the battle. We were exhausted, but we both were eager to begin.
"Welcome to this year's Kite Festival!" an announcer shouted.
The crowd clapped and shouted in excitement.
"Each year, we have a kite fight as a prelude to the festival. However, there's a catch! This year will mark the start of a new era for the festival. Each region will have two representatives instead of one!"
Everyone uttered in surprise.
"You might be wondering, how will the kites be distributed? Easy. Once a kite is drawn for a team, that team will have two identical kites! The drawing process is the same as previous years; one representative of each team will come to this tombola drum next to me and draw one of the eight tickets. Each one contains one of the usual kites; Love, Abundance, Luck, Harmony, Hatred, Deficit, Misfortune, and Discord. Of which the winner will determine the fate of Japan for the following year!"
The announcer is quite good at explaining.
"If it's your first time coming to the festival, you might be wondering why there are bad kites. Balance. The universe needs balance. And humanity needs bad experiences to rise up stronger. Hatred will bring understanding, Deficit will bring humbleness, Misfortune will bring good luck, and Discord will bring union."
The crowd clapped once again.
And he's good at cheering up the audience.
"Now, it's time for the draw! Chosen representative of each team, come here!"
We hadn't decided who was going to go, but it seemed that every team was caught off guard as well.
"You go, Kozue-san," Kudo-san said.
"What? But we haven't discussed it."
"We'll only lose time. I'd prefer it if it's you. Also, I might have stage fright," he giggled.
I chuckled. "I see. Okay, I'll go."
I hope Yu-tan can see me.
I approached the announcer in the middle of the crowd. I hadn't even arrived when I heard Yu-tan shouting.
"Sis! You win!"
She was being lifted by someone, probably Dad. They were quite far behind. I smiled at her and waved.
I hope Dad doesn't get hurt again.
When I arrived, the first team had already drawn a ticket. The announcer asked which one it was, then he shouted it.
"The Kyūshū team will fly the Misfortune kite!"
Though some people clapped, it obviously wasn't a favorite.
Someone next to the drum rolled it to mix the tickets. It was my turn, so I approached the drum and stuck my hand inside. I moved it around, skipping the first tickets I could grab. Until I seized one. I took my hand out and read it.
"Which one did you get?" the announcer asked me.
I showed him the ticket. "Love."
"Oh, that's a good one," he said. "The Kantō team will fly the Love kite!"
The crowd clapped eagerly.
I walked back to the team, feeling quite nervous. Why did I draw the favorite?!
"Good job, Kozue-san!" Kudo-san said. "Why so gloomy?"
"It's nothing," I giggled. "I just… would've preferred not to have this many eyes on me. I'm not good at flying kites."
"Don't worry. Remember it's a team battle. And I'm quite good at it!"
"Yes, I guess so," I smiled.
The rest of the teams quickly drew a kite and, before we knew it, it was time for the battle to begin.
"Teams, are you ready?!" the announcer shouted.
I took a deep breath. Calm down, Suzuka.
"The battle will commence in three…"
Just focus on your team.
And don't let your ankle stop you.
"One… Let your kites fly!"
A rush of adrenaline exploded in my body. I started running to get the kite to fly. Thanks to its small shape and strong wind, it didn't take much effort. Kudo-san and I were prepared, but the other teams were as well.
"Let's give our best, Kozue-san!" Kudo-san shouted.
His energy was quite contagious.
I began inspecting the other teams' kites flying around. There were already a few battles going on. There were no rules regarding the fights, but you would get a very bad reputation if you tangled your kite's string around another team's on purpose.
The team closest to us approached me, so it was time to execute one of our strategies. I would get close to the kite just to bait it into getting closer and letting Kudo-san do the rest.
I slowly turned around with the kite and directed it straight onto the closest kite. But my foot got stuck in the sand. I lost my balance and fell back, but managed to hold my kite.
"Kozue-san!" Kudo-san shouted.
As I stood up, I let my kite move behind Kudo-san's. The strings weren't tangled up yet, but I had to act quickly. I tried moving it away, but it was impossible. An unlucky gust of wind completely nullified my control and tangled the strings further. Soon enough, both kites began falling down.
I stared at them, unable to believe it. I didn't want to believe it. How did I mess up so quickly? I didn't even last ten seconds!
Out of nowhere, Kudo-san started laughing out loud.
"I'm sorry, I can't help it!"
"Yeah, I really messed up…"
"Yes, you did, but it was really funny!"
"Yep. See the crowd?"
Not wanting to look at them at all, I slowly turned my head.
"They are… laughing at me."
"Of course not! They are laughing because what happened was funny. You fell and then you were so unlucky that a wind gust arrived at the same time."
Though most of the crowd were still focused on the battle, some of them clapped, including Yu-tan. She was clapping as fast as nobody else, with a big smile on her face.
"Yes, I guess it was funny."
At least it wasn't because of my ankle.
The battle continued for almost ten minutes until only the two Abundance kites remained flying. Everyone was happy with the result and so the Kite Festival began.
I got a participation medal and I was given the clothes I was wearing.
We said goodbye to Kudo-san and the suited man before heading into the city.
The festival lasted through the entire day, with many points of the city holding other kite events. To overcome the embarrassment of losing like that, I flew a normal, big kite, along with Yu-tan, who was being helped by Makoto.
Dad and Mom made us visit the Hamamatsu Castle like every year, and I made us go to the Museum of Musical Instruments. We all had fun throughout the entire day.
The night arrived. It was time to say goodbye to Hironaka-san and get on the Shinkansen to return to Tokyo.
We arrived almost at midnight, but Haruma still came to pick up Makoto. We said goodbye to them and Tanaka-san drove us back home. He was very helpful, so Mom decided to give him a box full of biscuits.
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