“The Kimono”, Chapter 3 ….. with a few Japanese Ghost Stories

japanese ghosts

This weekend I was talking to another writer, who happens to be Japanese.  We read each other’s blog when we can, and we got on the subject of Kaidan, Ghost Stories.  I have read many, but not as much as he. However, ghost stories are a fascination in all cultures, and I mentioned this chapter of “The Kimono” where Mari, a Japanese-American woman in Kyoto has been  invited to a ritual: a storyteller of ghost stories.  This novel will confuse those reading isolated chapters, but the short story is this:  Mari finds an antique kimono in a shop in Kyoto, and upon donning it, is transported back to the 17th century Japan.  A different region, but she lands on her face in front of a daimyo, Lord Mori. He is also Yamabushi. She travels back and forth, from the 21st century to the 17th and seems to have little control over events.  She supposes (and hopes) Lord Mori is controlling the kimono, but it seems the kimono has a mind of its own.

Lady Nyo

CHAPTER 3, KIMONO (Part of Chapter)

Mari awoke next to Steven. She watched him breath, his chest rise and fall, heard his gentle snoring. The kimono lay in a crumpled heap on the floor. She slipped out of bed and picked it up.

The trees are almost bare now, she thought distractedly, looking through the window. Holding the kimono to her breast, she buried her face in its heavy silk. Tears wet her cheeks.

Only a strange dream, Mari, nothing more.

She walked around in a haze, wondering what was happening to her. Details of her dream did not dissolve like dreams generally did but became solid. Something had happened, and the raw ache between her legs told her something had happened to her sexually. Not all she remembered could be a dream.

Later that morning after Steven had left, Mari dressed and went to the Higashiyama region in Kyoto by the eastern hills, where she had bought the kimono. The strange feeling Mari had when she woke that morning persisted as she walked in a gentle rain up Sannenzaka, the stair street, where the old wooden- front shops were. The street was crowded with people, mostly Japanese, but she spied some tourists. Though she had not been in Kyoto for long, she realized this area was a popular spot for sightseeing and buying souvenirs.   She looked into the windows and saw the kiyomizuyaki sets, traditional and simple ceramics used in the tea ceremony, other ceramics and woven goods, wooden geta and other products that were small enough to purchase and be shipped back home.

There were small, narrow streets that led off Sannenzaka, but she couldn’t find the shop where she bought the kimono. Nothing here looked familiar. After an hour of searching, she sat down on a wooden bench under a now-naked gingko tree and watched people walk past. Old couples leaning upon each other, garbed in dull, black kimonos, young couples with children, dressed in western clothes, and a couple of demure, giggling Maikos clattering by on their wooden geta.

The light rain stopped, barely misting the streets and air. Mari turned her eyes upwards to the clouds above her. She remembered a part of the dream where four cranes flew in the distance as she stood in the castle’s window. Almost beckoned by her thoughts three white cranes flew overhead and Mari’s eyes followed their flight, her eyes filling with tears. Shaking her head, she shivered though the day was not cold.

Suddenly she heard the sounds of horns and drums and down Sannenzaka street came a small procession. The horns were conch shells, the drums small hand-held instruments. They were all men and at first she thought they were priests from one of the many temples in the area. She heard people say they were Yamabushi. Mari asked a man next to her what were Yamabushi? He looked at her askance.

“Magicians and healers, you know, kenza and miko.”

‘Ah, thank you” Mari said bowing politely. “Yes, Yamabushi!”

As if she knew what that was, or kenza and miko for that matter.

He whispered that the fellow at the back was “Fudo”, a joker of a Buddha with a sword and noose. Mari asked him what the noose and sword represented. He said it was actually a lasso to save you from Hell, for binding up destructive passions. The sword was for cutting through delusions, foolishness. There was something vaguely familiar in all this but Mari couldn’t place it.

That evening, a Japanese friend had already invited them to an unusual ritual, something she called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai. There would be a storyteller, a member of the Yamabushi sect, or so said Miyo. Mari had met her at a small company function when they first arrived in Kyoto.

Ah, thought Mari, that is where I have heard the word “Yamabushi”.

It was a ritual of evocation where a hundred candles were burned, said Miyo when she telephoned Mari to invite them. The spiritual energy was summoned along with a ghost story for each candle. As the short story was told, the candle was blown out and the energy compounded. This time there would be only four candles and four stories, but four was the number of Death. Miyo said this ritual would include ofuda, strips of Buddhist sutras: prayers for the protection from the supernatural.

When Mari told Steven about the evening’s séance, he refused to go. He claimed no interest in such superstition, so Mari had to go alone. Considering Steven’s disdain, it was just as well. He could show his opinion in a nasty way, and Miyo was the only friend Mari had in Kyoto.

Mari walked the short distance to her friend’s house. Kyoto was a mass of building activity and Mari was glad to see these quaint frame houses preserved. So much of the old architecture of the city had been torn down and replaced with modern structures. She entered a little gate and found she was in a small Japanese garden, the sand raked like eddies around the boulders. Miyo told her the house was one once owned by an old Samurai around 1910. He had become an ardent gardener.

Miyo was standing at the door, bowing to her. She wore the usual formal black kimono of a married woman and smiled encouraging as she came up the walk. Mari entered the house and was led into a room on the right. There were about eight other people sitting around a low table. Mari was introduced to the friends of Miyo already there, mostly elderly people, more of Miyo’s age than Mari’s. Everyone bowed as Mari bowed back.

Miyo brought in a tea service and dishes of pastry with sweet bean filling. Mari talked quietly with an elderly couple to her left. Seated farther to her right was a man dressed in kimono, who looked to be in his 50’s. His name was Hiro Takado and he was the story teller. There were four candles on the table and when refreshments were cleared, Hiro Takado lit the candles.

Mari listened to his first story, as Miyo whispered a loose translation in her ear. It was a ghost story, a man who lost his wife and ‘found’ her again on the road. It was not exactly scary, but did seem to impress the other listeners, who laughed and looked nervously around.

Hiro Takado blew out the first candle. Mari noticed the room dimmed. Dusk had arrived. Two more stories, the third about a young woman at a crossing with no features to her face. Mari was getting into the spirit of the evening, feeling her stomach flutter. There was only one candle left on the table. The other guests, clutching their ofuda, muttered nervously at the end of the story.   Each candle’s demise summoned more spiritual energy and became a beacon for the dead. They were invited amongst the living.

Hiro Takado took a sip of water and started the last kaidan. An old samurai had fallen in love with a young woman who gave him her favor and cruelly disappeared. She left her kimono behind in his bed. She was a married woman, now an adulterer. The old samurai searched high and low for his jilting lover. Finally he wrapped himself in her kimono, lay down under a cedar tree and died. The last candle was extinguished.

Mari waited breathlessly, strangely effected by the soft words of the storyteller. The others waited in silence until Hiro Takado started a chant.

“The dead walk this night

Lost voiceless souls

Wind in the trees

Carry their moans

Carry their groans

Up to our doors.

Open and greet them

Bow to their sadness

Open and greet them

Soon we will be them.”

Miyo whispered into Mari’s ear. “This is a prayer of invitation, do not be surprised if something happens. Mr. Takado is known for his abilities.”

Mari glanced at the storyteller and his features seemed to swim before her eyes, a slight change in his face, his brows fuller, his mouth broadened, perhaps it was the smile he gave to Mari. Something happened to his features in the half-light of the now darkening room. With a gasp and a hand to her mouth Mari realized she was now looking at the face of the samurai in the dream. It was only later when she was walking home, when her heart was still that could she think clearly.

The next day Mari was going to bury the kimono in the bottom of an old chest. She lay it out on the bed, her hand running over the knotted embroidery inside where it wrapped around, leaving a tattoo on her hips. She closed her eyes and read the small mounds of stitching like Braille. Picking up the heavy crepe she buried her nose in the cloth, smelling its scent. She thought of the first time she saw it in the window of the shop near Sannenzaka Street. It had attracted her like a dull, muted beacon, and she thought about the candles, the stories and the face of Hiro Takado. A heaviness fell over her limbs and she shook off the desire to lay face down over the kimono and go to sleep. She quickly folded the kimono and put it under blankets and sweaters at the bottom of the chest.

For a month Mari attended to the routine with Steven, kissing her husband goodbye in the morning. She spent her days roaming the streets and temples of Kyoto, learning the different districts and feeding the ducks bread in the waterways.

It took a couple of weeks for her depression to become evident. Her daily walks were unvarying, the district’s streets and parks beginning to have a dull, sameness that did nothing to lift her spirits. She felt disconnected to everything and rarely now smiled. If anyone had bothered to ask after her, she would have told them she felt numb, detached from life.

One day Mari decided to sit at her desk and scroll through the internet. Nothing much interested her anymore. The morning was overcast anyway and threatened rain. She thought about the story teller, Hiro Takado, the ghost stories he told, the transformation of his face, and decided to research the Yamabushi. She found little except this cult was well established by the 9th century. They were mystics, healers and hermits. Apparently they got too powerful for the different ruling families and were bribed to fight and serve depending which mountain region they came from. They were mountainous warriors, and skilled in different forms of magic.

Mari sat back, wondering at the behavior of Hiro Takado, thinking the night was just some weird happening and not that she was crazy. The dream haunted, pressed inward on her, disturbed her sleep and relations with Steven. She needed relief for her face took on a haunted look, with dark circles under her eyes. She lost weight and was now thin.

One afternoon Mari opened the chest at the bottom of the bed, removed the blankets and carefully lifted the kimono out. The black crepe was heavy and cool in her hands as she draped it over the chair. Sitting on the bed, she wondered what she would do with it? Was what she remembered just an erotic dream brought upon by her unhappiness with Steven?

Later that night the full moon rose, shone on the rooftops and distorted the trees. Mari slipped out of bed, pulling the kimono around her. She carefully stepped back into bed, and watched the moon pattern the floor with its light. Finally she fell asleep, wrapped in the warming embrace of the kimono.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2015

Mimi Cat August

Mimi acting very silly.

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