A Japanese Boy / Shigemi Shiukichi / Ch-7


CHAPTER VII.

Our family cared but little for the wrestling exhibition; some people have a great liking for it. It takes place on an extensive open lot. In the middle of the field is raised a large, square mound, from the corners of which rise four posts decorated with red and white cloths, looking like a barber's sign. They support an awning. The spectators, too, are shielded from the sun with cheap mats strapped together. On the mound is described a circle, within which the matches take place. The two opposite parties are called East and West respectively. The umpire in kamishimo (ceremonial garb) calls out a champion from each side by his professional name so loudly as to be heard all over the place. The names are derived from the mighty objects in nature, such as mountain, river, ocean, storm, wind, thunder, lightning, forest, crag, etc. The two naked, gigantic, muscular fellows slowly ascend the arena, drink a little water from ladles, take pinches of common salt from small baskets hanging on two of the posts and, looking up reverently to a paper god fastened to the awning, throw the salt around. It is an act of purification, and while doing it each prays secretly for his own success. Then they stamp heavily on the ground, with their hands on their bent knees and their hips lowered, in order to get the muscles ready for action. Now they face each other in a low sitting posture like that of a frog; at the word of signal from the umpire they instantly spring up, and each tries to throw the other or push him out of the circular arena. There are many professional tricks that they deal out in the struggle for supremacy. As soon as the point is decided the umpire indicates the victors side with his Chinese fan. Then follows the demonstration of joy among the patrons of the successful almost as boisterous and enthusiastic as that of the young American collegians at their grand athletic contests. The thousands sitting hitherto well behaved on the matted ground rise up at once and make endless tumult; cups, bottles, empty lacquered boxes fly into the arena from every direction. Not infrequently a spirited controversy follows a questionable decision of the umpire. Between the matches gifts from the patrons are publicly announced and sometimes displayed.

The people sit on the ground, spread with mats, in the open air, and eat and drink, while they watch the collision of the two mountains of flesh and its momentous issue. The exhibition cannot very well take place on rainy days. At the end of a day's performance, all the wrestlers in gorgeous aprons march to the arena as the umpire claps two blocks of hard wood, and go through a simple ceremony of stretching the arms in various directions formally. I never inquired what it was for, my childish fancy having been turned toward the aprons, which were oriental gold embroidery-work in relief on velvet, plush and other kinds of cloth. On the way home the spectators notice on the fences the announcement of the matches for the morrow. At the close of a series of the contests, which continue about three days, the favorite wrestlers go the round of their patrons in tint silk garments.

We were fond of listening to story-tellers. The entertainment takes place at night in a public hall. A company of story-tellers travel together under the name of their leader. In the early part of the evening the unskillful members come out in turn, and serve to kill time and practice on the audience. On the platform there is nothing to be seen but a low table and a candle burning on each side of it. A narrator appears from behind the curtain on the back of the platform, and sits at the table on a cushion and makes a profound bow. Then he takes a sip of tea, stops the samisen playing by banging upon the table with two fans wrapped in leather; he murmurs a courteous welcome to the audience, bows repeatedly, and, after snuffing the candles, proceeds with a story. The stories are chiefly humorous or witty until toward the end of the evening, when the abler men make their appearance and the tenor of the narrative insensibly takes on a serious aspect and a tragic interest. The comic stories invariably terminate with sprightly puns, the tragic in a spectacular representation of ghosts and spirits. An awful tale of murder, let us suppose, has been told in an impressive manner; and while the imaginary murderer and the actual listeners are seeing strange sights in fancy, the narrator unobserved turns down the lights and tumbles off the platform. In the following darkness the ghosts stalk in a ray of pale light; they are the story-tellers themselves in masks, and they sometimes walk down the aisles to the terror of those that believe in them. I could not bear the roving apparitions,—I was small indeed,—and took refuge in the lap of my elder companion, much as certain birds hide their heads, and think themselves safe. No doubt such sights as these worked in my infant imagination, and roused in me that dread of darkness which is so common with the children of Japan.

On fine days in spring our neighborhood went out en masse on excursion parties. They roamed about the warm green fields at will and gathered in hand-baskets, half dallying with the sunbeams, various kinds of wild herbs which are tender and edible, or they feasted in a charming nook underneath the canopy of cherry blossoms. The pink petals of the full blown flowers, fanned by a gentle breath of wind, visited the merry-makers like snow-flakes; a single flake occasionally happening to fall in the tiny earthen cup of saké, held up by one who stopped and talked or laughed just as he was putting it to his lips. The party was wonderfully pleased at that; if they were a poetical club or artistic coterie such little accidents perhaps elicited short rhythmical effusions from them, which they would pen on beautiful variegated cards expressly cut for the purpose. These would be tied to the drooping branches, that the next party might pause to share in the sentiment of the present instance. More frequently, however, this is done to leave some token of the culture and refinement of the clique, or to show off the individual's finish of hand and elegance of expression. Vanity is at the bottom of it.

We sat on the scarlet Chinese blanket, spread on the greensward; wine made every heart buoyant; the happy crew, by and by, sang, played the samisen and tripped "the light fantastic toe." Indeed, nothing could call us home, after such enjoyment of a beautiful day, but the reddening western sky and the falling shades of night.

At Imabari we have an excellent public garden in the ruins of the old castle. In spring when all the cherry trees bloom in full force, the scene, surveyed at a distance, looks like the piles of white cloud in the blue summer sky. You must know the Japanese cultivate the cherry-tree not for its fruit, but for the beauty of its flowers. If the tree bears fruit, it is bitter to the taste, worse than your choke-cherries; nobody stops to pluck it. When past the height of blooming, the flowers begin to leave the boughs quietly; later they fall abundantly and quickly, and, alighting on the dirt below, cover it like a sheet of snow. Trite as this description may appear, it has yet a charm for me; for the happy time I spent under those blossoms, in that mellow sun and that soft open air, steals back imperceptibly in my memory.

In the centre of the garden stands a shrine of the Shinto gods. The entire ground is considerably elevated above the level of the surrounding regions, and stone walls hem it in. A belt of deep ditches, which, in the warlike days of old, stemmed the rush of an invading army, girdles the base of the steep walls. The neglect of years, passed in peace, has left it in disrepair. To some of the trenches the ebb and flow of sea-water have still access, and swarms of big fish and little fish thrive unmolested, for none but the people that pay for the privilege are permitted to angle in these fish-ponds. There are also fresh-water moats; the beds of green pond-weeds and duck's meat closely patch the sluggish, dark-colored waters. Here grows the famous lotus plant of the East. It shoots up its broad umbrella-like leaves in summer, and on the stalks here and there among the leaves open the Buddhist's pure majestic flowers.

Having heard that the buds unlock in an instant at early dawn with the noise of percussion, we, the curious, formed a little party for the purpose of investigating the truth of it. We arose a little after midnight, gathered together the pledged and groped our way in the dark; we could scarcely discern one another. By the time, however, we arrived at our destination, it was close upon daybreak; a party at the further end of the bank showed darkly against the aurora of the eastern sky, for the country round was open and nothing stood between us and the sea. We kept vigil intently; for my part I failed to observe any of the buds open; having watched a great many at the same time I really watched none. A clever person instructed me that my whole attention should be paid to a single bud; for which reason I the next time pitched upon one particular bud. I kept my eye on it all the morning, looking neither to the right nor to the left. I was once before provoked at a spiral bud of morning-glory in my garden, because it intentionally unfurled upon me when I was looking aside. Accordingly, I took especial care against such failure on my part; but it all proved vain—the lotus bud was too young to blossom!

The flowers are very large; white is the common color, but then there is a rare lovely pink shade. The plant bears edible fruit; the root, too, is counted a delicacy. By reason of the unknown depth of the black mud, wherein the roots lie hidden, the plucking of them is very difficult; the men formerly held in contempt under the name of Etta dive in the mire and search for them. The prized article is seen, immersed in water, in grocery stores on sale; no feast of any pretension is complete without it. When sliced crosswise the renkon (lotus root) shows about half-a-dozen symmetrical holes; the slices are boiled with the katsuwo and shoyu and are valued highly for toothsomeness.

Some of the wide ditches were filled up from time to time; and in the places where fishes had frisked about or warriors tried to float a raft, farmers were now peacefully hoeing potatoes, or pumpkins basked their heads in the noontide sun. But the castle, being too colossal to be pulled down at once, remained entire for a long time, after the feudal system had been abolished and the Lord of Imabari summoned to Yedo. Unfortunately, however, the extensive underground powder magazine one morning caught a spark of fire, and all of a sudden the towers and palaces blew up with a tremendous explosion. At that period the Japanese apprehended the possible invasion of the "red-haired devils," the foreigners; for which reason it was not to be wondered at that the patriotic citizens of Imabari mistook the earth-rending roar and the heavy ascending columns of smoke in the direction of the old stronghold for a cannonade of enemies. The panic it produced in town struck terror into everybody's heart; the weak and nervous fell into fits. A drizzling rain since the previous eve rendered the streets excessively wet. Splashing in the mud and puddles, the heroic of the townsmen, with the loose dangling skirt of the Japanese garment tucked up through the belt for action, hurried castleward with the utmost speed, with unsheathed spear and sword in hand, to the great consternation of the astounded populace. I was scarcely of an age to comprehend the dire calamity, yet the scene impressed me indelibly. Soon the vision of foreign hairy invaders vanished; the people saw that it was a sheer accident, fearful as it was; but in that ancient lax administration behind the screen of cruel rigidity, the real cause of it has never been thoroughly investigated. Lives were lost in the disaster, for a multitude of servants still lived in the castle. Mutilated limbs and bodies were subsequently picked up in abundance from the surrounding moats; the features of many were too badly marred for identification; and as to the severed limbs no one could tell which belonged to which of the shattered trunks.

The remaining half-burned buildings have since been destroyed piecemeal; all that now remains of the proud castle is the innermost circle of masonry, which cannot so easily be leveled to the ground. It is not provided with a railing, and in looking down the steep one feels his heart stand still. The vast prospect it commands, extending far beyond the town limits, is superb. A man taking the path directly below the wall appears no bigger than a dot.

Since I have begun a long story about this grand ruin, give me leave to recount a tradition in connection with it. Back in the dark ages the superstitious belief existed in Japan, that in building a castle, to secure the firmness of its foundation a human life should be sacrificed. Usually a person was buried alive beneath one of the walls; some declare the efficacy nullified unless the victim be taken in unawares. The chronicle says, that in conformity to the above belief when the Imabari castle, was being raised a horrible homicide had been committed. At first the authorities were much at a loss in the choice of a proper offering. One day a poor, decrepit old woman, either prompted by curiosity or to beg money of the men, approached the work; little did she dream her life was in peril; in an instant a sagacious magistrate solved the problem. The signal nod from him, and the castle-builders fell upon the crone and, amid her screams, struggles, entreaties, stoned her to the earth. Henceforward, it is said, in the dead silence of the castle at night a faint, pitiful cry, now drowned in the soughing storm outside, now audible in the dreadful pause, echoes from under the ground. I had the precise spot pointed out to me; it lies in the centre of all the outlying bulwarks; in passing it I always felt a thrill steal through me, and turned that corner at a greater angle than I would an ordinary corner, with the intention of keeping my feet off the buried bones.

In those tyrannical days of feudalism the samurais presumed much upon the commoners of the town. They not only laid claim wrongly to their personal property, but also regarded their lives as of no importance. The samurai always carried two swords by his side, one long and one short, to arbitrate right and wrong in altercations. Blades tempered by certain smiths were particularly esteemed; and in order to test the cutting edge, he would lie in wait nightly at a street corner for a victim. An innocent passer-by was ferociously attacked and, unless he could defend himself, was wantonly slain. Such outrages actually occurred in places; people, forthwith, seldom stirred abroad nights. Heaven be thanked, those savage times are gone forever; the street-lamps light every nook and corner, and the police guard the safety of the citizen.

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