Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Retained in Memory
It was a cold snowy night when Lord Kira's head left its body. That tale is one oft-told, in puppet plays, kabuki, thirty-four TV presentations, and numerous films (I lost count at fifty). I will start my own tale as it began during the hot summer of 2003, a time when I was just emerging from a shell of grief, and thought it would be a nice distraction to spend a summer in Kyoto interning for Kyoto Journal. Little did I understand that the magazine was put together remotely, a collaboration by like-minded individuals spread across dozens of postal codes. The work I was given for the special Streets issue involved little more than internet research, leaving me free to pass my days bicycling the city and visiting its sights. Off the bike, I prepared myself for my third-degree blackbelt examination in iaido by practicing cuts behind the trees of Yoshida Jinja, the Imperial Palace grounds, or the forest of Shimogamo.
I based myself in a small subtemple of Daitoku-ji, which disappointed somewhat in not offering daily zazen meditation. For most of the summer I had a small six mat room to myself, but as the heat of August built up, so did the visitors to the city, and for one week I was asked to share a room with a quiet, unassuming man from Tokyo. It turned out that he was staying at Daitoku-ji for the same reason as I. Gary Snyder, a hero of his, and of mine, had studied at a nearby sub-temple for a time. (We found to our dismay the following morning was that there would be no zazen in August, as the internationally renowned priest was busy giving teachings in Europe.) So that left us time to discuss other things, the most memorable being that he was the caretaker for the graves of the 47 Ronin. I had visited these graves a number of years before, probably on one of my first visits to Tokyo. I don't recall what time of year it was, but I do remember a thick haze of incense burning from the offerings of those moved by their sacrifice. And like the dissipating nature of that smoke, the caretaker too drifted away and I never saw him again.
I moved to Kyoto full time a few years later, and did eventually make it to zazen. And being based here, I began further explorations, but never seemed to make it to Ako for December 14th's Gishisai, held on the day when the 47 loyal retainers finally got their revenge. (I did however pass through Ako itself one afternoon, and found myself on the receiving end of a road-rage incident with a flash-car-driving yakuza whose low status seemed to correspond to his stature. If you know your Chushingura, you'll be amused by the fact that what he was most upset about was that I didn't show him the proper respect.)
This year, the weather and my schedule collaborated to allow me to attend. I mentioned above that the night that Lord Kira's head rolled was a cold and snowy one, which offers great dramatic tension to the story, the weather acting almost as ronin number 48. In contrast, I stepped into a warm morning, under bright blue skies and leaves reluctant to do their duty by falling from the trees.
And the samurai were nearly upon me before I even left the station. A half dozen were shouting threats at one another before slashing and whirling within the narrow confines of the station hallway. After the long train ride out here, I really needed to pee, but unfortunately the samurai were between the toilets and I. I was reluctant to pass as they were obviously mere actors, with little of the tight control of the well-trained martial artist. When the flailing temporarily ceased to allow for more swearing and snarls, I scooted past to go about my business.
I only saw one more group of samurai that day, posing for photos and unable to defend themselves from the onslaught of off-key enka coming over the hedge. What I did see was a Japanese festival at its most relaxed best. The broad high-street of town had been closed to traffic, allowing a modest sized crowd to stroll along merrily on an unseasonably warm day free of work or school. Food stalls of an incredible variety lined the street for the full kilometer to the castle ruins. Access to the castle itself was barred due to the preparations for the procession about the begin. I liked the idea of of a group of blue-pated men hunkered down within the walls of the castle, plotting something unknown to the rest of us. So I walked the perimeter of the castle's walls, around to Oishi Jinja which eponymously commemorates the leader of the 47. The narrow confines were busy but uncrowded, with people queuing to pray for the fallen men.
Back on the main street, the procession had begun, kicked off by a series of elderly women clad in bright blue yukata, spinning parasols as they went. The next few groups were also dance teams, and a glimpse of other groups further awaiting their turn revealed more flashily dressed elderly female participants, or young kids whose heights would be temporarily stunted by the weight of mikoshi. I knew that the samurai procession would come much later, climaxing in each retainer having his name announced as the crowd roared.
That would have to wait. I enjoyed myself to the extent that I'd like to return for the festival in the future, and would certainly time my return to later in the afternoon in order to see that final ronin roll call. But this day had felt just about right, and as I was weary from a recent trip abroad, thought I'd rather read of the exploits of others than to actually experience them. So what followed was a slow and leisurely amble back to the train station, with plenty of food stops, beneath the character 'Aka' (for Ako, 赤穂) carved into the hills above.
On the turntable: "Roots of Reggae II"