Hiroshi Arakawa strummed his guitar, lips pursed thoughtfully.
“I don’t know if I can play it now,” he admitted. But he gamely started in on “Bill Cheatum,” a bluegrass instrumental he used to blaze through with ease.
This version was more tentative, with a flub or two. Arakawa grimaced at each one.
“I’ve lost 80 percent on guitar,” he said afterward. “I’m still feeling weird, especially my hands, right and left. It’s awkward. I can’t play fast right now. Bluegrass music, people like to play fast and I can’t catch up right now.”
As he spoke, a scar on Arakawa’s throat was still visible – marker of a horrific Thanksgiving car accident that hospitalized him for 72 days. Always slightly built, Arakawa looked even thinner after 10 weeks in the hospital, nearly half of it with a trachea tube.
Arakawa finally got out of the hospital last week and is staying with friends in Raleigh before going home to Japan in March. Eventually he’ll come back to America and try to pick up where he was in the bluegrass program at East Tennessee State University.
Meantime, he has treatment to undergo for both body and soul – physical therapy and grief counseling. Arakawa’s girlfriend was driving and did not survive the wreck, a loss he is still coming to terms with.
“I am getting better on guitar,” he said. “The first week of January, I tried to play with my friend and I was so terrible, I couldn’t keep rhythm at all. I haven’t completely recovered, but I can play again.”
Arakawa started another song, “Church Street Blues,” title track to a 1983 album by his idol Tony Rice. He sang in a soft voice as he played.
Lord I wish I had some guitar strings, Old Black Diamond brand
I’d string up this old Martin box and go and join some band
But I guess I’ll just stay right here, just pick and sing awhile
Try to make me a little change and give them folks a smile.
“I messed up,” he shrugged afterward with a shy smile. “My guitar skills are not there yet.”
A native of Hiroshima, Japan, Arakawa has been a bluegrass fan for nearly half his 25 years. He came to Raleigh in 2015 to spend a year studying English at Wake Tech and to learn bluegrass in the music community. He soon had a reputation as a top-flight picker.
After his student visa ran out, Arakawa got another and transferred to East Tennessee. But he came back to Raleigh often because he’d met a girl and fallen in love.
Juana Maria Cardona Alvarez was also a student, and she was working on transferring to East Tennessee. They spent Thanksgiving in Raleigh, where Arakawa stayed at the home of Richard and Joan Arnold – close family friends, and something like his surrogate parents in America.
The evening of Nov. 24, shortly after leaving the Arnolds’ house, Arakawa and Alvarez were in a devastating wreck after she turned into the path of an oncoming vehicle on Lynn Road. Alvarez, who had turned 22 a day earlier, died at the scene. Arakawa wound up at WakeMed’s intensive care unit, in an induced coma while he healed from broken ribs and a collapsed lung.
Around the first of the year, he had come to enough to ask what happened. Arakawa couldn’t speak because of the trachea tube. So he wrote questions in a rough scrawl, and the Arnolds answered verbally.
Where am I?
“No, yours is still in my driveway.”
Knowing where this line of questioning would lead, Joan Arnold felt a rising sense of dread.
“I could tell his mind was racing,” she said. “‘Juana’s car?’ he asked and I said yes. Finally, he just wrote, ‘Juana?’ I had to tell him: ‘She didn’t make it.’ It tore us up having to tell him, but his mother asked me to tell him the truth. He cried most of that night.”
Last Friday, the day he got out of the hospital, Arakawa posted a Facebook message of thanks to his friends for their support. He also paid tribute to Alvarez, who he said “became an angel … keeping watching us from the heaven.”
“I’ll never forget you,” he wrote. “And you are always in my heart. Rest in peace my sweetheart.”
“He feels guilty over her death,” Arnold said. “For whatever reason, he seems to think he can never marry now. I told him that’s not true, people have losses and go on. The pain is real and it’s not something you forget, but it’s not the end. I told him he can date, just like normal. He said he doesn’t think he wants to right now. It’s not the time. He’ll know in his heart when it is.”
Once word of Arakawa’s situation got out, his friends sprang into action with benefit shows and a crowd-funding campaign. He does have health insurance, but also mounting expenses. So far, about $30,000 has been raised.
Some of Arakawa’s musical idols have contributed to the “Road To Hiro’s Recovery” GoFundMe page, including Claire Lynch, Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge and Hot Rize banjoist Pete Wernick. Steve Martin and Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane have also both contributed $1,000.
It’s been moving and humbling for Arakawa as he continues to heal. He still has no memory of the accident or the two days preceding it, which is probably just as well. The aftermath has been more than enough trauma to process.
“I am getting calmed down now,” he said. “I had a very deep depression in the hospital. Night-time, after everybody would leave, being alone was the hardest. It was so hard sometimes. Suddenly sadness attacks. But now it’s fine.”
While Arakawa has a ways to go before getting his guitar-playing back to where it was before the accident, early signs are positive.
“On a musical level, Hiroshi can still do most all the stuff he could before,” said banjo player Hank Smith, one of the musicians coordinating local relief efforts. “He can still speak English, sing and play the same songs, just a little bit slower. I’d visit him in the hospital and we’d play, and every time he was exponentially better than the time before.”
Winter weather scotched a big benefit show last month, so it was postponed to this Friday at Kings in Raleigh. Arakawa played in public for the first time after the wreck on Tuesday night at the Raleigh Times. He’s planning to play the Friday night benefit, too.
Long-term, the challenge for Arakawa will be to get his chops back enough to take his place at East Tennessee. Dan Boner, who is head of the school’s Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Program, said the first post-accident video he saw of Arakawa playing was sad to watch.
“But a week later, I saw another video where he was significantly better,” Boner said. “Same thing a week after that, so he seems to be improving quickly. I’m looking forward to him being well enough to lead the East Tennessee Bluegrass Pride Band on a tour of Japan. So he has to get well. I am requiring it.”
If you go
What: Fundraiser for Hiroshi Arakawa with Curtis Eller, Massive Grass and Hank, Pattie & the Current
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Where: Kings, 14 W. Martin St., Raleigh
Details: 919-833-1091 or kingsraleigh.com
How to help
Hiro’s Road to Recovery: gofundme.com/hirorecovery