Happy New Years my lovely readers! I’m sorry it’s been some time, but I’ve finally made some revisions to Dokushin, so here is the new and improved version! I’ll try to work on something new to post soon! My apologies for the lengthy absence. It has been a busy time for me. Cheers. ~苦栗鼠
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Winter in Kokura is not something one would call winter. A cold wind blows from the sea to the northwest and grazes one edge of Nagato, sending the withered leaves of the tangerine trees over the sandy surface of a yard–with a rustling sound the wind makes play with the leaves for a time before finally blowing them under the veranda. In the deepening dusk of such a day every house shuts its doors, yet the night is still young.
Soon the land is white with snow. From time to time the sound of the denbin‘s bells can be heard as they trot along, cutting through the snow with each step.
Those who are not from these parts aren’t likely to understand what is meant by the word denbin. There are two practices which, though not seen even in Tokyo, have been imported to Kokura from abroad—this denbin is one of them. At the foot of Tokiwa Bridge stands a rounded pillar. This is for posting advertisements. The bills are in a variety of colors—red, blue, yellow—written in big letters and with pictures drawn in a rough style, advertising newly opened shops, plays and other types of public entertainment. Of course, there is only one such pillar, and since there is no need for advertisements other than what one can post here or upon the stone wall in Daimonmachi, handwritten advertisements are far more numerous than printed ones. Even among the pictures in these advertisements, there are no such elegant images as the affiche one might see in Paris. But in any case the fact that such a pillar exists is impressive. This pillar is the other.
The one we are concerned with now is the denbin. Ever since Heinrich von Stephen,1 born in the police state of 19th-century Germany, so masterfully developed the postal network laid throughout the land, there is certainly little inconvenience in the sending and receiving of letters; but that is for items of business that may be concluded in anywhere from a day to a month. For errands that must be concluded within a day’s time, the post will be too late. Even a rendezvous, if it is an appointment for tomorrow at such-and-such time, might be arranged by post. However, when it is an urgent matter, and one must meet this very night, the post is no good. At such times there are of course those who might send a telegram. But this is going too far.2 Such a formal method of communication is utterly lacking in delicacy. No doubt at times like these what one wants is an errand boy. Those who stand at street corners, wearing hats bearing their company’s insignia, who will undertake any errand, from the delivery of letters within the town to the carrying home of parcel’s bought while in town which one cannot be bothered to carry around—these are the denbin. In exchange for one’s letter or parcels, one receives a receipt bearing the company’s seal. The process is simple and efficient. These denbin in Kokura are none other than the errand boys we so direly needed for our rendezvous.
Now, this talk of denbin seems to have gotten rather long-winded. On snowy nights in Kokura, from outside on a quiet night can be heard the denbin’s bell—ding, ding, ding—ringing at a brisk tempo.
One also hears the sweet voice of a girl calling “kari ka kari ka, come and get it” to a tune as she passes by. She has strapped to her shoulders a tin container like that with which one goes out to collect plants, but in it she has placed the karintō3 she sells, walking along holding a small lamp.
The denbin and karintō seller are there all year, but in the summer it is rather the fortune tellers who push themselves upon the ears, and one hardly heeds the sound of the denbin’s bells or the voice of the karintō seller.
On evenings like this there are perhaps those who sit under the warmth of their okigotatsu. But actually it is not so cold.
There is ice stuck to washbasins the following morning.4 Little of this will last longer than two days. At the latest, the wind changes on the third day, and snow and ice alike melt away by then.
It was a snowy night in Kokura.
Two men met in Shinuomachi at the residence of Ono Yutaka. One was a man with graying hair named Togawa, who served as the president of the court. The other man was Tomita, president of the municipal hospital, who had been saving money to travel abroad since he came to this region after graduating from Tokyo University. He had already saved up most of the money needed, so he has expressed a desire to leave the hospital in the hands of a young doctor named Kitagawa and be on his way soon. Tomita had already passed his fortieth year, yet there was no white mixed in his short-cropped hair. From a single look at his plump, ruddy face one knew he was a man who loves his sake.5
The master of the house, who led a very simple single life, sent his maid Take to buy raw udon to prepare in the kitchen, and had sake brought out for his two guests.6 When he entertained, the master always had yakiimo bought, claiming that they were tastier than the famed tsuru no ko.7 The yakiimo came from the corner leading toward Kyōmachi from the crossing at Tokiwa Bridge. A great pot was set up there, and an old man wearing a hand towel on his head called “hot and fresh, hot and fresh, straight from the oven.” Though the master himself didn’t drink, he had his favorite udon bought, as he was often inclined to do when he had close friends over to drink. For this he also sent his help to a shop two or three buildings over from the yakiimo seller—a shop with faded navy blue noren, on which the name “Bunroku” was left undyed.8
The master only partook of the udon, watching the two drink with a carefree smile on his face. Their talk was quiet. But from time to time Tomita’s laughing would get out of hand, rending the gentle atmosphere. Since the pleasure district of Asahimachi was nearby, one could hear the sound of samisen strings and taiko drums, but they were quite faint so as not to be a nuisance.
Take came from the kitchen and offered more udon, but Tomita waved his hand, saying “No thanks. I’ve had enough udon. If there were a wife in this house I wouldn’t have to sit here with just udon to go with my sake.”
This was the spark that lit the debate about marriage and bachelorhood. It was certainly not the first time these men had discussed the topic here in this very room.
Two years had passed since the master came to Kokura as Chief Director of the Imperial Coal Mining Corporation. In that time Mr. Ono’s bachelorhood had become common knowledge and therefore it was frequently a topic of debate.
It seems the master of the house has no woman whatsoever— Tomita was one of the people who racked his brain trying to solve this problem.
That night he said, “It seems there are no women in Kokura who catch the master’s eye, so I thought maybe there was someone in Bakan and went inquiring there in great earnest. But it bore no fruit.”9
“You really went to great lengths, didn’t you,” said the reserved Togawa, looking at the master.
The master merely continued grinning.
Tomita was somewhat drunk, so the force of his arguments was aimed more and more toward the master. “The master of this house simply cannot continue this kind of lifestyle. It’s a danger to the local girls.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because something’s bound to happen between you and one of the girls eventually.”
“You’re making me out to be a real Don Juan.”
Thereupon the rather taciturn Togawa began a strange tale, partly taking pity on the master but partly unconsciously changing the subject.
Togawa spoke with his back arched, both hands held over the brazier for warmth.
“Well, there is no doubt for most people a celibate life is a difficult thing to maintain without any problems arising. I had a classmate, a man named Miyazawa. His first appointment after graduating was in Shibata. You know the kind of place it is, I’m sure. He rented a place near the courthouse and hired a maid. His coworkers recommended he take a wife, but despite their urging he simply wouldn’t. ‘Why, why?’ they wondered, and in the same breath concluded that he was a miser, as his story goes. Now I’ve known him since our days as houseboys to support our education, and Miyazawa is no miser.10 He isn’t the kind of man to greedily hoard his money. He probably thought very simply that he wouldn’t be able to support a wife and children on a probationary judge’s salary. Now he was in this lonely town, and it was day after day of snowy nights just like this one. Miyazawa reads a book alone in his room. The maid does some sewing in the neighboring room, only a single wall separating them. Miyazawa yawns. The maid stifles a yawn. As he tells me, that’s how they spent most of their time. Before long the snow turns into a blizzard one evening—the wind howls outside, and the bamboo planted in the garden brushes against the door like a great broom. Around ten o’clock the maid makes tea and brings it to Miyazawa’s room saying something like ‘what a terrible evening it is,’ and then just stands there a while fidgeting nervously. Miyazawa, himself feeling unbearably lonely, thinks that the maid must be lonely too, and says ‘why don’t you bring your needlework over here, I don’t mind.’ And so, quite pleased to hear this, she brings her work from the other room, makes herself quite small in a corner of Miyazawa’s room, and begins sewing. From then on, she would often come to Miyazawa’s room after a certain hour, saying ‘I don’t think there will be any more guests today.’”
Tomita burst into laughter. “Togawa, you’re quite the novelist, aren’t you. You really can tell a story.”
Togawa scratched his head, also laughing. “No, it’s just that Miyazawa regretted what happened so much he told me about it in excruciating detail, so I guess my telling of it has also gotten somewhat long-winded. I’ll cut out the details for the rest of the story. But I have one more thing I want to tell in full. That is, one evening, the maid said good night and returned to her room, but Miyazawa, being unable to sleep, heard her sighing and tossing in bed through the wall that separated them. He listened for a while, and the sighs became moans as if she were in pain. And so without thinking Miyazawa called to her, ‘is something the matter?’ That’s all. The rest I’ll cut short.”
Tomita raised his voice. “Now wait right there. Don’t just cut it short in the middle. It’s really getting interesting.” He raised his voice even more. “Hey, Take. It’d be wise to listen well.”
The master grimaced, breaking the smile he had maintained up until this point.
Togawa continued. “How am I supposed to tell the story when you keep interrupting to make fun. At any rate, from then on the maid was no longer a maid. Miyazawa soon regretted this. It would be a grave problem should this state of affairs be discovered at his workplace—even I can understand that. But the maid, who had been very modest and reserved, began wearing make-up and dressing up in flashy kimono. It was bound to catch people’s attention, so Miyazawa was very uneasy. Finally he set out for the girl’s parents’ home, leaving her there with a month’s salary, all under the pretense he would make her his wife soon. While she was at her parents’ he thought he’d be able to sort the whole affair out, but the parents were very serious about the proposal, and so there was nothing he could do. Miyazawa was truly at his wit’s end, and even offered his savings as a consolation for breaking the engagement. But the parents refused to accept any more than the money they had already received. They truly had no desire for the money, and so it was all quite hopeless. In the end he married her, and they remain married to this day. They are in Tokyo now and get on just fine, but since she has no education, she’s quite useless outside of everyday household work.”
Tomita, taking greedy swigs of his sake, teased on. “That’s it? How anticlimactic. If that’s the end, I’m sorry I praised you before.”
At that moment came the sound of someone at the door stamping snow from his shoes. The master’s dog Jean was going to bark but stopped and instead whimpered softly. Then there was the sound of Take sliding the door open and greeting this new guest.
Presently a Buddhist monk, unshaven and wearing clove-died robes, entered the room.11 Nodding slightly to everyone in the room he said “I’m terribly sorry to drop in so late,” placed his folded cushion to the right and sat between Togawa and Tomita.12
He was a priest of the Sōtō sect, from Neikoku Temple. This temple, located near the railroad tracks in Kanedachō, had long been in a state of ruin. Long ago when the region was called Kokura-han a samurai family had patronized the temple, but since most of them had returned to Tomitsu, the temple had fallen into disarray. It resembled a roadside shrine that had been somewhat expanded, and this priest had recently taken up residence there, covering over holes in the main temple with old newspaper.
The master, looking very pleased to see him, called the maid. “If there’s any udon left, could you heat up a bowl for the Neikoku priest? You must be cold.”
Togawa pushed the brazier he had been warming his hands over toward the priest.
The Neikoku priest turned his gaunt, ever-smiling face toward the master and spoke. “Actually, as I was out asking for alms this morning, a great pile of volumes of the Daichidoron caught my eye at a little secondhand bookshop in Tatemachi.13 Thinking how strange it was for an incomplete set to be there, as I made my way in this direction, I then found another pile of volumes of the same Daichidoron in a different shop in Nishikimachi toward Tanka Bridge. There were also many other books like the Hōonjurin.14 Between the two shops there seemed to be a complete set of the Daichiron.”
The master spoke. “It seems someone must have intentionally split the books up and sold them.”
“Exactly. And I know for the most part where the books came from. Now, this is a collection full of things I might want to reference later, and if left incomplete at these bookstores they would likely become wastepaper. Not wanting this to happen, I went to speak with the head priest of Tōzen Temple, who agreed to purchase the set and keep it at his temple. I thought some of the remaining books might be of interest to you, so I came to tell you about it.”
“Thank you for that. I’ll drop by and have a look tomorrow on the way back from the office. Now eat or your udon will get cold.”
The Neikoku priest ate his udon. Shortly after he finished his first helping, Take went to get him another. When she returned with the udon the master stopped her and said, “Tidy up here a little, prepare some tea and cut up some of the yōkan we’ve got for the guest—wait, you can’t take away Mr. Tomita’s sake.”
“No. I can’t have this taken away from me,” Tomita said, clinging to the bottle with greedy shrimp-like arms. Then he said to the master, “Now, master, being well-read is fine, but don’t tell me a scientist like you is reading Buddhist doctrine. Books on Buddhist doctrine are best left to priests, eh.”
The Neikoku priest maintained his constant smile as he slowly ate his udon.
The master then replied, “You do have a certain point. Concerning medical literature, there are instances in which, should someone who is not a doctor read it, far from being any use, it may actually cause some harm. But Buddhist doctrine is different”
“I don’t get it. It’s strange enough you refuse to marry, but on top of that you put faith in the three Buddhist treasures—now that’s too much!”15
“So you’re attacking my bachelorhood again, eh. Well, the way I look at it, even you have faith in the three Buddhist treasures.”
“I don’t even know what the hell the three treasures are.”
“But you have faith in them, even if you don’t understand them.”
“Don’t just throw around such paradoxical sophistry.”
With an inscrutable expression that seemed at once joking and serious, the master spoke thus: “No, it’s not like that. You keep talking science this, science that, right? Well, that too is doctrine. And those great teachers you’re lot hold in such reverence—yes, Authoritaeten—they are all Buddhas. And all of you are priests. And one way or another you’re all trying to outstrip you’re teachers. It’s called Authoritaeten-Stuermerei—rebuking the Buddhas and cursing you’re predecessors, as it were.”16
The Neikoku priest continued to smile as he sipped his tea and ate his yōkan.
Tomita fixed his eyes on the master.
“So it’s another lecture. You hardly hear a word before you realize you’ve been taught something. What a pain.” With a slight grimace he continued. “I admit I’m obliged for the sake. But how am I supposed to keep silent when all I get with my sake are some noodles, and on top of that I have to listen to these lectures—I can’t stand it.”
The master smiled. “But who on earth was it that started attacking Buddhist doctrine?”
“Well if you stop your sermon I won’t criticize Buddhist doctrine. But I won’t stop my attack on your bachelorhood, you know. When I go to Minomura’s place, the dishes are different. There has been a divine oracle that Oume-san is to serve me as I sit before the tokonoma.17 And so when I go there I get delicacies of all sorts piled before me.”
“I don’t understand. Who is this Minomura, and why are you making so much of this Oume-san?”
“Well, she really is something else. When I sit there before the tokonoma, because there was this oracle even Minomura himself retreats to a corner and prostrates himself.”
“Who is this Minomura?”
“Minomura? He’s the man who opened the children’s hospital out toward Nagahama. One day while he was still in mourning for his previous wife, someone left a great sea bream at his door. He was terribly surprised and went around making a great fuss trying to find out who left it. Oume-san, who was still his maid at the time, said it was from Inari-sama as though it were plain as day, and soon set about preparing the fish and making the nonplussed Minomura eat it.18 That was the strange start to it all. Since then there have been these oracles from Inari-sama from time to time. There was even one telling Minomura to marry Ume, spoken through Oume-san herself of course. When Minomura made the preparations for the wedding Oume-san asked with a puzzled face where Mr. Minomura’s wife might be coming from. According to one of the oracles I myself am a vessel of divine will and am to be served well.”
“A suspicious woman indeed,” Togawa butted in.
“What? It’s not just that I’m served so well, but she really is a good wife. All of the children who check into the clinic grow fond of her. They say she takes good care of them. It’s just that sometimes there are these oracles.”
The Neikoku priest had been listening with his constant smile, exchanging glances with the master, but suddenly he said “Goodnight” and left. There wasn’t even time to see him to the door.
This priest was always coming and going out of the blue like that.
The wind howled. Take brought a copper teakettle to pour into the teapot and said, “The skies have completely cleared up.”
“We should be leaving, shouldn’t we?” Togawa said.
Tomita spread a wide grin over his wide face. “But I can’t leave just yet. The master here, who seems to take his bachelorhood as a vocation, has retreated. I have to launch my final offensive. Now it’s the same with Minomura. I don’t know why Inari-sama would choose the maid Oume-san as his wife, or why she is a vessel for such oracles. But anyway, the fact that Minomura was able to find a second wife was fortuitous for him. He suffers no inconvenience in his day to day life. And neither do I, as his guest. If the master is happy, so are his guests.”
No matter how much Tomita babbled the smile never disappeared from the master’s unconcerned face.
Togawa winked at the master. “Now, it really is quite late. I’m off.”
He made to get up but stopped and once again urged Tomita. “Come on, you should go too. We understand your point now. We get it.”
Finally Togawa dragged Tomita away.
Tomita made his way to the entrance, staggering slightly, and shouted out in a booming voice. “Hey! Take-san! There should have been enough sake for another hot glass, but I’ll leave it in your care until next time.”
The master came out to see them off and whispered to Togawa, “Shall I call a carriage?”
“What? We’re going the same way anyway. I’ll see him as far as his place. Goodbye.”
After the two left it was suddenly quiet. The taiko of Asahimachi had ceased at some point, and the sound of the ocean, imperceptible until then, could be heard.
Take had risen and was putting the dishes in order. The master Ono found himself watching her, and suddenly he tried to regard her as a woman.
She was a short woman with thin hair and eyes that were slightly different in size. She had been thin and pale when she first came into his service, and there was something charming about her at the time. Since coming to this house she had gained weight and her cheeks had filled out. She seemed to have lost a great deal of her womanly charm.
Her parents’ home was near Kokura, but her elder brother ran a small restaurant. She had gone there on her brother’s recommendation—he had said that if she just came and just served sake (there was no need to help with the cooking), he would soon be able to obtain marriage arrangements for her—, but the customers who came there were all brutish sailors, so she fled in fear and returned to Kokura. She was a rare quality of maid, honest and ever mindful of the master. But it was difficult to see her as a woman. Ono had not once thought of her as a woman, and even trying to now it seemed quite impossible. In the end he simply didn’t feel any sexual attraction toward her.
Watching her take up the dishes, get up and leave, the master smiled unconsciously. Then he began to wonder at his own coldness.
This wonder grew defiantly in his mind and made him begin to search for some sexual attraction that might lie hidden somewhere within his heart.
To Ono’s mind floated a memory from the time a Buddhist memorial service was held for those who had died at war. Brother priests of the Hongan temple came, so the place was packed with men and women both young and old.19 Ono sat in his own reserved seat as people who came to see the ceremony gradually pushed their way in, until at his very knees squatted a young farmer’s daughter with her hair set in a shimada coiffure.20 She smelled of white make-up and hair oil. Midway through the sermon, the voice of whoever was speaking became mere white noise. For a time Ono’s heart was stolen by the eyes which gazed upon the higanoko headdress set over the girl’s coiffure, as well as by the nose which caught the aroma of her hair and skin. For that moment Ono was a veritable slave to sensuality. Remembering that incident, Ono again smiled unconsciously.
Ono would be forty that year. It had been a long time since he had separated from his former wife. His grandmother in Tokyo worried terribly over his moving to Kokura alone, and with every letter she sent she inquired about his taking a new wife. Tonight another letter had come, but since he had guests Ono had left it unopened upon his desk.
Ono turned up the wick of his now darkened lamp and opened the envelope. Looking at the small elegant characters written in the oieryū style was like looking at the very face of his grandmother wearing her horn-rimmed glasses.21
As the year’s close slowly approaches I look forward to the day you will come up to the capital. I count the days on my fingers. At the request of Mr. Tanida, I went up to Ueno today to receive an introduction to the young daughter of Mr. Inoue, whom I made mention of in my previous letter. I write this letter now having just returned home.
Mrs. Tanida and I had arrived early, and how surprised I was upon first seeing Ms. Tomiko alight from a car with her mother, her hair set in the taka-shimada style.22 I found myself astonished that there should be a person of such beauty in this world. Were she presented to you, I believe even one with such apparent distaste for women as you have could not possibly find her displeasing. I cannot speak for her character after only a single meeting, but it is clear she is a shrewd young lady.
The one thing which struck me as peculiar was that in the hour or so we spent at a local teahouse, not once did Ms. Tomiko smile. There was also a Western couple at the teahouse, and since we could not understand one another there were many amusing moments. Mrs. Tanida, who is quite fluent in English, interpreted for us, and it was so entertaining that both Ms. Tomiko’s mother and I laughed a great deal. Tomiko, however, didn’t smile even for a moment. Yet, as I stated in my previous letter to you, it is understandable that she should be different from other girls her age, as she was raised under somewhat difficult circumstances. In any case, I wait in earnest for you to come up to the capital and confirm that my eyes are not failing me on this matter.
PS: Seijiro and his wife also send their regards.23 I expect you received the cask of Kikkoman soy sauce we asked Mr. Ishizaki to send to you.
Having finished reading the letter, Ono lit the small lamp Take had set by his desk and, holding it, blew out the desk lamp. Crawling into his cold lonely bed, what dreams would he dream this night.
* * * * *
1 A German man known for vastly improving the postal service in Germany. Mori Ogai spent some time studying in Germany from 1884-88, during which Heinrich von Stephan was actually still alive.
2 The phrase “cutting chicken with a meat-cleaver” is used. The modern English “overkill” might be apt if this were a more recent story.
3 A cheap sweet. Karintō are basically sticks of fried dough that are coated with sugar.
4 Like in “The Bonfire,” the “tense” of this part of the story is present (see the “a note on tense” section of “The Bonfire” for a discussion of “tense” and “aspect” in the Japanese language). We jump from the chilly evening to the morning by which ice clings to the washbasins quite quickly and naturally in the original Japanese.
5 Japanese rice wine.
6 Udon are thick (and delicious) Japanese noodles.
7 Yakiimo are baked sweet potatoes. Tsuru no ko seems to be a famed local product.
8 Noren are the short curtain flaps hung outside shops in Japan. These noren are dyed in a way that leaves only the desired design undyed (the restaurant name “Bunroku”).
9 Bakan is an old name for Shimonoseki, a city north of Kokura in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
10 It was common for students who came to attend a prestigious university in Tokyo to take up work as general errand-boys for households in the city in exchange for board, food and money to support themselves.
11 The priest’s robes are probably a light brown color and, due to the cloves, are quite fragrant.
12 The priest carries around a cushion (or possibly just a cloth) because of the way he must bow when asking for alms, etc. From a seated position he bows so low his head may touch the floor and so he carries a cushion around to lay out in from of him before he bows to keep from touching the floor directly.
13 The Daichidoron is a Buddhist text. The title means “Commentary on the Great Wisdom Sutra” in English, and besides that I don’t know much about it.
14 Again, besides the title, (法苑珠林 Fayuan Zhulin in Chinese) which means “Forest of Gems in the Garden of the Dharma,” I don’t know much beside the fact that it is a Buddhist text.
15 The three treasures of Buddhism are Buddha (仏 butsu), his teachings or doctrine (法 hō), and disciples or monks (僧 sō).
16 Anyone wanna help with the goddamn German that according to Google isn’t German?
17 The tokonoma is an alcove in Japanese rooms, often where a scroll is hung. The seat in front of the tokonoma is the seat of honor.
18 Inari-sama is one of the gods of Japan’s native religion Shinto.
19 The Hongan Temple, or Hongan-ji at once refers to the largest school of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism and to various actual Temple buildings associated with the school.
20 This is a hair-style worn by young unmarried women.
21 The 御家流 oieryū style refers to a style of writing passed down within an aristocratic house, and the letter to follow is in a very formal letter-writing style called 候文 sōrōbun, which is not very common nowadays, if it is used at all.
22 Tomiko is the young daughter of Mr. Inoue mentioned before. The taka-shimada coiffure is a variation of the shimada style from before. It is higher-set than the shimada.
23 Seijiro and his wife are probably Ono’s parents, but it is not explicitly stated.