A Japanese Boy / Shigemi Shiukichi / Ch-13


It is wonderful how the memory brings up, as I write, ten thousand irrelevant trivialities,—delightful to me, nevertheless,—many of which have no claim to be placed here, except that they are more or less related to the temple. Verily, the faculty of memory is a godsent gift, a boon of solitary hours.

Our temple was the nearest to the sea of the row on Temple street, which I referred to in the earlier portion of this sketch. The head-priest was an amiable, gentle person, very learned they say, though giving no indication of being such. He did his duty, to be sure, in sermons, but never cared much to distinguish himself in eloquence; he would rather read or entertain visitors in the quiet of his tastefully upholstered zashiki (guest room), sipping the excellent Uji tea and viewing the artistic beds of chrysanthemum laid out with great formality. He cultivated exquisite flowers; the slender stems bent under the large flaunting heads, and the priest-gardener took pity and provided them with firm props; he was as attached to them as a father to his children. If a storm by night passed over them and he discovered them in the morning sagged, matted, and drenched with rain, his compassion knew no bounds.

It must be confessed that at times his fine taste shaded into squeamishness; he could not help being captious about his servitor's slipshod management of business, and yet extremely averse was he to giving his own opinion utterance, always turning aside in silent disgust. He suffered little children, however, nay, loved them; he took quite a fancy to me, calling me pet names, gladdening me on my visits with goodies and a bunch of chrysanthemum flowers from his garden, and always sending me home safely by a boy-priest. This last, found vegetating in almost every temple, is a young lad of poor parentage sent thither to be taken care of out of charity. The specimen I found here was a poor boy, hence happy; he was sure of dinner now and more full of fun than well became his cloth.

Once he frightened me half to death. It happened in this way: I accompanied some one of my relatives to our family burying ground in the temple yard, on the eve of the annual memorial day for the dead, when every family sends a delegate to the tombs and invites the spirits home. The delegate delivers the oral message with profound respect and formality, bowing low to the ground before the ancestral tombstones as in an august presence. Then he turns about and asks the invisible to get on his back, secures him with both hands behind and gravely walks homeward. At home, in the yard on a bed of sand taken from the sea-shore a fire is built of flax stems, according to religious custom. This is called the "reception fire." The spirits are next requested to alight carefully at the high home altar so as not to bruise their shanks. In Japan each house has a sacred closet wherein are enshrined images, ancestral tablets, charms and amulets, where cake and oranges, flowers and incense are offered, and before which the family commemorate the days of their ancestors' death. This elevated place is called the "Buddha's shelf." Let me remark here that the Eastern people are regardful of their dead; they do not slight them because they are dead. Revile as you may and wrongly call it "ancestor worship," the spirit that prompts the act is entirely praiseworthy. Besides the closet, the tops of cabinet, cupboard and similar pieces of household furniture are turned into the depositories of Shinto relics and paper gods. These "gods' shelves" are, too, carefully served with such offerings as salt fish, saké, and light in the evening.

But I am wandering from the main narrative; my talk too often gallops into minor tracks unbridled. As I commenced the narration, I was stooping before the resting places of my grandfather (of whose quiet departure from our hearth, by the bye, I haven't told you), of my grandmother and of my sister who passed on before I had ever thought of appearing. Regarding the last two relatives of mine, having never seen them in life, I was in the habit of asking a heap of questions in the tiresome inquisitiveness of children. My mother deigned to tell me, especially in a reminiscent mood, a great deal concerning them, without minding my sisters, who took occasion to upbraid me merrily on this, my singular ignorance, in face of my other positive assertion that I had witnessed my mother's wedding. Dear mamma's stories, interesting as they are, touching as they do not a little on the pleasures, fashions and general social regime of Old Japan, I feel obliged to omit. For the present, I must go on with my own story.

I was stooping, I say, before the tombs, all about being silent and gloomy; my young animated imagination dwelling not on my grandfather's goodness but on old wives' awful tales of graveyards and dark nights, pale apparitions and grinning skeletons; and my whole being surcharged with fear, requiring but the shrill wind to make my hair stand on end, and ready to start at my own shadow, when suddenly there came a moan from behind the adjoining slabs, and a moment later a ghost shot up with a wild shriek. I drew back involuntarily and caught my breath, so did my companion. Then the ghost shook its gaunt sides and burst out laughing in ghoulish delight. We were taken aback, but soon rallied courage sufficiently to peer at the merry spook. How provoking! The young priest stood on one of the tombstones, with the broad sleeve of his monkish habiliment over his face. He came down to us quickly, wearing a mischievous smile, passed over the whole thing as a huge jest, putting in a slight excuse for causing our undue alarm, and politely offered his service in carrying the flowers and water-pail. His words and manners smoothed away our ruffled temper and rendered a scolding impossible; a few more hours made it look too slight to report to the head-priest. In the main the young priest had the best of us; he earned what he liked better than a good dinner,—some capital fun.

And in this connection, here comes bounding toward me in my remembrance our pet dog Gem. I will relate how he came to be so closely associated in my thought with the grave; it is a sad, good story. My young brother, who had a boy's fondness for animal pets in an eminent degree, got him from another boy whose dog had a litter of several puppies. When my brother brought him home in his arms, Gem was but a mass of tender flesh covered over with soft down; he had just been weaned; consequently by night he yelped, and cried piteously for his mother, under the piazza where my brother shielded him from the paternal eye. My father was not a great lover of pets: the cat he could not bear for her soft-voiced, velvet-pawed deceitfulness; the dog for his belligerent, deep-mouthed barks at strangers and for fear of his becoming mad in summer time; and the canary bird—poor thing—it was too bad that people should deprive it of its native freedom.

We had our doubts, therefore, how Gem and papa were to get along. However, we were not without a ray of hope that in time they would come to be good friends, for papa had once shown that he did not altogether lack the love of dumb animals. It was when I began to love the little white and spotted mice penned in a box with a glass front and a wheel within. My father suffered them to be kept in the house out of his love for me; gradually his curiosity was awakened to take a look occasionally at what his son exhibited such absorbing interest in; next he became a keen admirer of my little revelers,—their gambols, their assiduous turning of the wheel, their cunning way of holding rice grains, and their house-keeping in a wad of cotton in the drawer beneath, to which they could descend by a hole in the floor of the box. After a while I grew negligent about them, and then it was my father who fed them and took care of them.

On the whole, he bade fair to come to a better understanding with our precious Gem. Nevertheless, Gem—or rather my young brother—had trouble with him during his canine minority. When the puppy had grown big, true to our prophecy, my father began to show his just appreciation of him. Gem would sit beside him on his hind legs at meal times and watch intently the movements of the chopsticks, with his head inclined on one side one moment and on the other the next, letting out an occasional faint guttural cooing by way of imploring a morsel. Should there haply fall from the table an unexpected gift, say a sardine's head, Gem with the utmost alacrity would pick it up and occupy himself for a few minutes, then, licking his chops and wagging his tail, he would turn up to my father a gaze at once thankful for what was given and hopeful for more. Little Gem took a fancy to grandpa, and when the children were away at school, he would pay him a visit and pitpat into his room unceremoniously, like one of the grandchildren, when the old gentleman was dozing over the past at the kotatsu (fire-place). This Gem of ours had an idea that it was rude to surprise one in his meditation, and thought it proper to stop short a few yards from grandpa and utter one of his gutturals, as much as to say, "How do you do, grandpa?" Whereat our good, old grandpa was obliged to break off to receive his fourfooted visitor cordially.

A time came when grandpa was no more, and a perfect stillness settled on our home. Dear little Gem could ill comprehend what all the house meant and went about as happily and innocently as before: he had now his playmates all day at home. His conduct caused us to think how glad we should be to know no grief, and to such a place we felt sure must our grandpa have gone. Early every morning for the first week or two somebody from the house repaired to the church-yard to see that things were right and to put up prayers; once or twice Gem was taken along for company, and since then he counted it his duty to attend us to the temple. My father and I would get up some morning on this errand, and no sooner had we appeared at the gate than Gem uncurled from his comfortable sleeping posture, rose and shook his hair and looked his "I am ready." He generally paced before us, but frequently tarried behind to salute his dog-neighbor with a good morning. Sometimes he would course sportively away from our sight; we whistled loud without any response; but knowing he could find his way back, we gave up the search and hastened to the temple. Upon our arrival, before grandpa's stone sat a little dog looking out on the alert. Gem received us in the capacity of host and conducted us to the grave, saying as plainly as ever dog said, "Don't you see? I know the way."

One morning we rose to find our Gem gone. Inquiries revealed him lying at a short distance from the gate, with his fur dyed in his own life-blood. He was dead! Whether a prowling, ferocious animal had fallen on him in the night, or a cruel human brute had inflicted the wounds without just cause, we could not ascertain. My young brother took Gem's cruel death to heart; my father, too, felt deeply the sad fate of the now-to-him priceless pet. And here naturally ends the story of our dog.

In our temple, as well as in those of all other denominations, the birthday of the great common teacher Shaka (Gautama) is observed. It falls on the eighth, I think, of April; the observance is simple and quiet except for the distribution of ubuyu. In the East, when a child is born the midwife immediately plunges it in a tub of warm water. This water is called ubuyu or first bath. On the eighth of April, in every temple a bronze basin is placed before the altar; in the center of the basin stands a bronze image of the Infant Shaka; his attitude is much like that of the Boy Christ pictured in the illustrated Bibles and the Sunday-school cards as teaching a group of the scribes. The myth relates a marvelous account of his rising upright in the bath-tub and telling his astonished parents and old midwife whence he came, pointing to heaven, and what his mission on earth was. His exact words are recorded in the Buddhist's scriptures.

The bronze vessel is filled with a decoction of a certain dried herb whose taste resembles liquorice. The drink is popularly known as the "sweet tea." The worshiper pours the liquid over the idol with a small dipper and then sips a little of the same, mumbling some devotional words.

The excitement of the day consists in the children's running to the temples, during the early part of the morning, with bottles for the sweet tea or the ubuyu, as it is called in this instance. In the temple kitchen the cook has boiled gallons and gallons of it, and from the dawn that functionary is prepared for the hubbub and the hard task of dispensing it expeditiously to the throng. As the holiday comes in the same season of the year as Easter, the floral decoration of the temples are beautiful; the bronze roof above the basin and image is always artistically covered over with a quantity of a native flower named gengé, which the botanist may classify under the genus Trifolium, if I may trust my early observation. The flowers literally color the fields pink in the spring.

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