“The Kimono”, Chapter 20

Zounds,  it’s taken me a week to get back in the swing of writing, but airconditioning helps greatly.  It’s too hot to go outside except in the early morning, so all chores and tasks have to be done before 10 o’clock.

I’m bogged down  in reasearch for “The Kimono” and have bought a couple (or 10) books….mostly old,  some b arely in print books, some things other writers directed me towards.  Frankly, it’s a relief from the rewrite of the poems for “White Cranes”, and a totally different direction from “Memories of a Rotten Childhood”.  This is fine, as most writers, like painters….work on  two or three pieces, etc….at the same time.  But this novel is long…and involved, and I am in no hurry to finish it.  The research and investigation into Japanese 16th century culture and life is pretty intense and at times….overwhelming.  But it’s working, coming along, and I am enjoying the ride.

Perhaps that is the best pleasure about being a writer:  being surprised at the characters and what they do.  Some times you have little control over what happens, and that is fine with me.

There is proofing and rewrite to do on this, but I thought I would post it anyway….work in progress.

Lady Nyo

Chapter 20, THE KIMONO

They continued on the coastal road hugging the dark sea, taking detours as Lord Mori desired.  Some ri they walked on well- maintained wide, sandy roadways.   Stands of cherry trees like pink sentinels, stood at attention along the road.  Some detours were travelled upon stony descents.  Going through forests of pine and camphor wood the roads were of pounded rock with smaller rock wedged for a smoother surface.

Mari’s feet were chaffed by the straw sandals.  Her legs were starting to hurt because though she had been relatively athletic back in her century, this journey had lasted all day and into the early evening.  Lady Nyo kept up chatter to entertain her,  but Mari wanted to sit and be still:  the kago would have to do.  When Mari told Lady Nyo she could no longer walk, Lady Nyo clapped her hands and the bearers appeared.  Mari sat in the wicker chair and pulled the gauze mosquito net around her.  She would watch and think in silence.

The small detours Lord Mori took did not have many fellow travelers, but on the main roadway they were part of the stream of humanity.  Most travelers walked, but some rode as they did, and there were many kagos with straw sandaled bearers in loincloths and towels around their heads.  Mari saw an old woman bent double with a huge bundle of twigs gathered for firewood. Peasants with their children as pack animals got off the road as they approached and bowed to the ground, not daring to look up at the horses or men.

There were merchants with hired guides and guards, going from one town to another.  There were priests with their begging bowls and their stout staves, shaking the iron rings on them, and chanting or yelling prayers. There were nuns, dressed in decent kimonos, their heads shaved but with pretty silk scarves covering their baldness, and with makeup carefully done. They sang as they walked, and guffaws were heard from the men ahead.  Apparently their songs were not hymns.  They didn’t look like nuns to Mari, and Lady Nyo shot her a sly smile when she caught her eye.   Obviously these nuns were prostitutes, but there didn’t seem to be any outrage at their behavior on the road.

Many artisans travelled the main road: scribes for hire, lantern makers, potters and tin smiths, all with slogans on their straw hats or inscribed on the back of their kimonos.  Almost naked kago bearers trotted past them, only clothed with dirty loincloths, straw sandals and a towel wrapped around their heads.  They were noticeable with huge calluses on their shoulders from the beam of the kago, and marked with tattoos all over their bodies.  Even their buttocks were tattooed, and Mari laughed when one passed her with the face of a tiger on one cheek clawing the other, the beast’s eye winking.

There were officials with their small black hats and their silk traveling robes, accompanied by servants.  They met other samurai, but people were always respectful. All bowed from their horses if they were mounted, or bowed from the road if not.

Of course all were polite to Lord Mori’s retinue, for any man mounted on a good horse with two swords was accorded the greatest respect.  That they rode with no standard in front nor a large group of men or servants still accorded them the regard of other travelers.  To show a lapse in manners could have a head roll in the sand from a flash of a sword. Had their fellow travelers known the powerful daimyo who passed them on the road in such humble attire, they would tremble in fear and relate this day to their grandchildren.

They passed many road side shrines, and Mari glimpsed small temples set back from the road, the paved stone approaches sprinkled by a temple monk to keep the dust of the road down.  Lady Nyo walked beside the kago for awhile and they came upon a group of stone sculptures, surprisingly outfitted with children’s bibs and clothes.  Lord Mori stopped his horse and sat under a tree with Lord Ekei and Nyo and talked.

“What are these stones, Lady Nyo? Why are they dressed in children’s clothes?”

“Ah.  Do you not recognize the Lord Jizo?  He, the protector of deceased children?  Do you not have the Lord Jizo in your graveyards?”

Mari looked at her for a long moment, and found her eyes filling with tears.  She could not answer.

“My Lady Mari”, said Lady Nyo softly, placing a smooth stone atop a group of others.  “Your baby is within the warm robes of Lord Jizo.  He is protecting him from the torments of Hell.  You have no fear your unborn child will be forgotten by Lord Jizo. He protects all the lambs.”

Mari approached the statue and placed a small, round pebble on the pile.  Her tears blurred her vision, and an unexpected sob rose in her throat. Gulping down her grief, she looked at the fine stitching of some mother’s hand, at the bib that surrounded the neck of Lord Jizo.  There was something so unbearably sad, so poignant in the humble piece of faded cloth.

“You know, the Lord Jizo has refused the Buddha state.  He has declared he would remain amongst us until hurt and suffering had fallen away from mankind.”

Lady Nyo sighed, and touched the sleeve of Mari’s travelling cloak.  “He is the most compassionate of Gods and a great comfort to us poor women.”

When the evening crickets started to sing, they entered a village, lit with paper lanterns strung from low poles along the road.  There was an inn on one side of the road, topped with a cedar shake roof and a wide porch. A  low bench hugged  the wall outside.

Actually, there were several inns lining both sides of the broad street.  Mari wondered how their evening arrangements were to be decided, and asked Lady Nyo how things were arranged.

“Oh!” Lady Nyo laughed and  immediately her voice dropped to a whisper.

“If our Lord Mori was traveling as he really is, a very important daimyo, he would have a train of two to three thousand bearers preceding him.  We, being of his main party, would all be lodged in a honjin.  That would be right and proper.  But it is not to be so this time.”

Lady Nyo looked around her, and her voice dropped even lower.

“Since our Lord Mori is traveling as something very different, we will be lodging in a waki-honjin.”  She nodded her head as if this fate would just be something to be endured.

“What is the difference, Lady Nyo?”  Mari blurted out her question before she thought of how her ignorance would reveal her.

“Oh! Please let me explain.  A honjin is an inn that would lodge a daimyo and all his important retainers.  A waki-honjin is an inn for general travelers.  We, unfortunately by this wheel of fate, are to be lodged in the lesser inn.  To demand otherwise would reveal too much of Lord Mori’s carefully planned secret.  There is danger on the road from other traveling daimyos if he was exposed as to who he really was.  At least this will perhaps throw off the spies of Lord Kayami. And besides, our Lord Mori and Ekei are disguised in their traveling cloaks.  No important daimyo would travel without his carp catchers, brass polishers and streams of captains to keep it all organized.   No, Lord Mori has a reason for all that we will endure.”

Mari thought she detected some sourness in the words of Lady Nyo, but perhaps she was just tired.  It had been a very long day.

She also wondered exactly what Lady Nyo knew about her.  Perhaps she was given information on the pillow by her husband. But Mari was determined to watch what she asked in the future; perhaps  she was too naive for her own good.

Lord Mori and the others dismounted while servants ran from the inn to help with the horses.  Even though they were not carrying any standard, it was clear to the innkeeper these were travelers with full purses.  The innkeeper and his family stood on the porch bowing low while other servants came out with hot water and towels.

Mari and Lady Nyo sat on the bench while servants removed their sandals and washed their feet.  The smells of cooking inside wafted out to them and with much bowing by the innkeeper’s wife, they were led to the baths.  Mari and Lady Nyo sat on a bench in a small room where they were stripped of their traveling kimonos and scrubbed with small bags of buckwheat hulls. Though nudity was not accorded much notice in this century, Mari still was uneasy.  Privacy was of a very different standard amongst these Japanese.

Rinsed with buckets of hot water, Mari watched it flow through the slatted wooden floor.  They climbed into a large wooden tub, heated with a charcoal burner beneath the structure and eased into the scalding water.  Mari was startled at the temperature, the steam making Lady Nyo look like a wavering ghost across from her. Before she closed her eyes she saw the plump, little breasts of Lady Nyo bob in the water as she lowered herself onto the seat. Mari had little room for herself because the tub was not that big.  The water started to work its magic and Mari’s bones started to melt.

She had lost all sense of time, but time for the last few months meant nothing to her.  No watch, no clock, the day was regulated by the almost silent activity of the servants around her. The nights were heralded by the soft music of crickets and the call of bullfrogs in the pond.  Sleep came easily enough: it was as if her body ran on a different system.  She was almost undisturbed by dreams.

Her mind stilled and she was floating away in some strange and new way. Her sense of her own body disappeared as the heat of the water took over.  She had no idea how long she had been in this state when she felt her arm shaken.  Opening her eyes reluctantly, she saw Lady Nyo smiling at her.

“Lady Mari!  You must be hungry. We should dress and join the rest of our company.”

No, Mari was not hungry. The bath had taken all sensation of hunger or anything else from her.  She just wanted to go to sleep.

They were helped from the bath by two female servants and vigorously rubbed with thin towels. Mari was beet red from the neck down.  She felt like a boiled lobster, her bones like butter.

They were dressed in thin, white cotton kimonos with blue kimonos over these from the inn.  After a day on the road, they welcomed the clean clothes, which were scented with cedar from a chest somewhere in the inn.

Sitting on a cedar bench inside the small room, they were fitted with white tabi and then were bowed out the bath.  In the corridor more servants bowed and led them to a private dining room where a maid outside the shoji screen knelt and pushed back the wood and paper panel. There was Lord Mori, Lord Ekei and Lord Nyo seated upon cushions around a low table in the middle of the room. Bowing to the men, they knelt and placed themselves on one side of the table.  Mari’s hair was damp but it had been combed and twisted with paper ribbons.  She felt presentable, and the dust from the road was forgotten.

Lord Mori had the same blue kimono on as did the other men.  She could see that they also had bathed, as his skin had a fierce blush beneath his chin.  He bowed from his seat to both of the women.

Immediately servants brought in trays and stacks of small, bamboo containers.  The smell of barbecued eel filled the room when the containers were opened.  Mari regained her hunger in a rush. Bowls of steamed, fragrant rice, dishes of pickled vegetables, raw fish so thin you could see the porcelain  through it, steamed fish swimming in soy sauce, steamed vegetables, rice flavored with bean curd in gravies, thinly sliced bamboo and chestnuts, soups with miso and seaweed, dumplings stuffed with chicken and vegetables and more bamboo boxes of steamed rice, and bowls of boiled eggs.

Lady Nyo picked morsels of food from plates and platters and delicately placed them in front of Mari.  Lord Ekei said something too fast for Mari to understand, and the table erupted into laughter.  Lord Mori narrowed his eyes and cocked his head as he stared at her, an enigmatic smile crossing his face.  Mari blushed, supposing the joke was about her.  Lady Nyo whispered something about ‘boiled fish’ but Mari didn’t understand the reference.

When more servants had cleared the dishes from the low table, others brought brown bottles of sake and cups.  The men belched and burped and there was the occasional fart heard.  This was of no consequence apparently and Mari suppressed her surprise.  Of course! Manners would have been different four centuries from her own, and she had no reason to judge.

Bottles of warmed saki were replaced with new ones, and Mari and Lady Nyo’s cups were filled over and over.  Mari did not drink sake, but there was no helping it this night.  It was a deceptive liquor and if she didn’t use caution, she could easily become drunk.  The bath had worked on her body, melting her bones and easing her muscles after a day in the kago and walking, but the sake would finish the job in no short order.

Lord Mori called for a story and Lord Ekei, his eyes bright with sake, volunteered with a bow.

“Lady Mari, have you heard of Saigyo, the priest poet?” said Lord Ekei.  Of course she had, but only as one of the poets who were traveling monks. She couldn’t place the era of Saigyo, but thought it rather strange Lord Ekei would ask her in such a public way.  Of course as he was the closest advisor to Lord Mori information about Mari would have been shared.  Perhaps dangerous information, too.

“Yes, my lord, but I haven’t read his poems in many years.” Mari said with a little, polite bow.

Lord Ekei looked at her through sake- blurred eyes. He chuckled softly and blinked.

Mari wondered just how drunk he was.

(Chapter to be continued…..)

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2010

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7 Responses to ““The Kimono”, Chapter 20”

  1. Malcolm Miller Says:

    I was delighted to see the reference near the end of the chapter to the poet Saikyo, for whom I now have great interest. He may have been a sad and lonely man, but he penned beautiful verses…


  2. Malcolm Miller Says:

    Oops! Put a ‘k’ instead of a ‘g’.


  3. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Malcolm,
    I’m not so sure that Saigyo had a sad and lonely life: to us, all these centuries removed, he seems to have had such. However, he lived during great turmoil, specific turmoil that upended his life and everyone around him. He was not the only one to ‘migrate’, this constant movement from one part of Japan to another. He was a product of his times, definitely.

    He had many companions on the road, male and female, and he writes about them poignantly. And it is undeniable that his verse reflected his situation.

    I would suggest you get William LaFleur’s “Awesome Nightfall” about Saigyo and his times. “Mirror of the Moon” was almost a primer, written 25 years ago, and this latest book, written in 2003, is a deeper, fuller exploration into Saigyo’s life.

    He was constantly aware that his past….being a warrior (though for a short time) and being a samurai was in conflict with his adopted Buddhist beliefs. It seems all through his life he was conflicted by the juxtaposition of both things and pitted himself against natural elements to effect a resolution of these two things. Or so modern psychology would address as such.

    I’m not so sure: but there is no denying that his verse speaks to the human condition down through the centuries. Actually, I have an alternate ending to that Chapter.

    I believe when we are writing ‘true to the times’, we can reflect more of the morals and behavior of such, and instead of ending this with Saigyo, I am going to relate a story that I read from some other study. Saigyo always can be picked up in the general conversation of the company.

    Saigyo’s waka to me is one of the important ways to ‘go deep’ into the psyche. He speaks so universally, but there are so many that aren’t aware of his life and verse.

    They are impoverished because of it.

    In a while, I am going to write more about Saigyo because, well, he is definitely worth spreading around.

    Lady Nyo


  4. bren Says:

    His travels (started at age 21) may have begun sad but did not seem to remain so:

    What else
    could have made me
    loathe the world?
    The one who was cruel to me
    today I think of as kind…

    If I can find
    no place fit to live,
    let me live “no place” —
    in this hut of sticks
    flimsy as the world itself…

    How timely
    the delight of
    this snowfall,
    obliterating the mountain trail
    just when I wanted to be alone! …

    Is it time now
    for peaceful death?
    Accept the thought
    and at once
    the mind replies, “Oh yes!”

    Thanks for introducing me to him.


  5. ladynyo Says:

    Oh Bren!!

    These are lovely, and a few I haven’t come across, except for the first and last one. They have such humanity to them…I love these!

    If this blog can introduce and excite a few people to the beauty of Saigyo, or waka in general, I feel I am doing something of some merit. We now have a few people, Malcolm, you , me and possibly a few others who are not making themselves known, but I see by the stats that anything of Saigyo is read and read again here….

    ….well, that is a wonderful purpose for this blog.

    Saigyo speaks to the heart , but also to the heart of the matter: very simple steps that keep him alive and going forward.

    The first waka you quote has become something of ‘truth’ to me. Even the most horrible adversary can …..in time….reveal himself to be something of a ‘teacher’…even if his behavior and intent was nothing but negative. I think it takes time, and more time….to discern some important things in life: a reversal of circumstance, perhaps.

    Thank you! Bren….for sending this to illuminate Saigyo’s work and to gladden this blog and this heart!!



  6. Malcolm Miller Says:

    I’m so glad to see Bren’s comment and the wonderful Saigyo wakas he quotes. It’s terrific that others are finding the work of this master poet through your blog! I just wish the books were’t so expensive!


  7. ladynyo Says:

    Hi Malcolm!
    Bren would take exception to that….Bren is a ‘she’. LOL!

    We have been friends for many years and once were close neighbors.

    Yes, it is terrific others are finding the work of Saigyo. And that the blog helps with this is what it should do.

    I get most of my books through Amazon.com….and go for the ‘used’ ones. Most times Amazon has this alternative. That is how I generally buy from Amazon. On occasion, I can get a book a penny! and just pay the 3.99 shipping. That is a wonderful boon.

    Try that, Malcolm….it certainly will help keep expenses down in this wonderful reading.

    Lady Nyo

    PS: I checked, and it is very strange….I bought “Awesome Nightfall” for a few dollars a few weeks ago….and now I don’t see the low prices….12.00 is a used price…but that’s pretty high for this stuff. I did order and get….”Japanese Inns” by Oliver Statler, for .98….and that book has proved to be the best resource I could have obtained for “The Kimono”.

    Recreating a scene/journey/landscape from the 16th century is imagination, but reading such a book which scans 4 centuries of a particular inn and the visitors, daimyos and commoners, etc…gave me such great information that I couldn’t stop writing notes to involve in the general plot. But it didn’t help at all in the Mythology department which I think you will rather enjoy when it’s written!


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