1. KISERU NO YUME
san satisfied my old aspiration of having a print by Kitagawa Utamaro, one
of the leading exponents of Ukyio-e. The picture depicted a young maiden,
the green kimono languidly open, holding a black lacquer mirror, getting
ready for the affairs of the day.
I bought it from him, printed on Japanese washi paper, and carefully
carried it to the ryokan where I was lodging in Kyoto.
On the way back, walking unhurriedly and seeking to register everything
that surrounded me, I came upon a small traditional dark wood house,
similar to many others, selling antiques.
The house was narrow and long. Differently from others of the same genre,
this one was remarkable for its austerity, displaying but a few objects.
At the back, a seated O Yoroi gazed down an invisible valley, more distant
in time than geography. Perhaps the one that donned that armour was
present at Sekigahara, I wondered.
The ambience was sombre, the month of March was cool, but in this house
there was a great serenity. The light was barely enough to make out the
objects, silent presences of times by-gone. To my right, over a cabinet,
lay a lacquer box with drawers toped by a small metal dome I could guess
had been used to burn coal. The presence of a nearby tray filled with long
pipes convinced me that the box had to belong to a wealthy tobacco smoker.
As if impelled by it I lit my pipe while behind me a feminine voice
whispered softly : ohaiogosaimasu.
I turned around to find an old lady dressed in a very discreet black and
brown kimono with a completely black obi Ė everything in the most perfect
consonance with the surrounding tones Ė smiling at me with dignified
kindness in a welcoming, though far from cheerful, manner. In a whispering
voice she told me something that I, in my rather superficial knowledge of
Japanese, didnít understand. It is interesting how, when starting a
sentence, Japanese women utter an ah as if remembering something, a kind of
taking in of air that produces in the ensuing speech a melody pregnant
with an harmonious way of approaching a new subject. That aspiration is
like the first step of a verbal dance in the softest tempo, where one
perceives a delicate manner invested in every word.
Sumimasen - I answered as I could - watashi nihon go... iť -
while I returned her smile. The lady continued to mumble something, from
which I understood the word tabacŰ, as she made for the pipe tray,
bringing her right hand to her nose as if inhaling. I understood she
enjoyed the aroma of my pipe. Ah, I imitated, gomen nasai.
Iť, iť, she replied smiling. I realised I could go on smoking.
Gently, the right hand touched pipe after pipe choosing one whose wood
shone, darkened by use. The head had a small embossed ornate and the metal
was dull. She held it out to me with both hands but, noticing that I had
my own occupied by the bag with the engraving and by my own pipe, pointed
a low table so that I could lay down my bag. Clumsily I placed the bag on
the table in such way that the engraving slid to the floor.
Ah, uttered the lady upon seeing it. We both leaned to pick the engraving
up as she reached for it with the right hand, covering her awed mouth with
the other. For a long moment she gazed mysteriously at the print, while I
contemplated that lady in a dark kimono lost in such unexplainable
She came to her senses with an ah and turned to me with a deep bow saying:
gomen nasai . Glancing at the print, she held it carefully placing it back
in the bag and rising up with a smile and lowered eyes.
Taking the pipe sheíd chosen she passed it to me with both hands saying
Nihon no yume kiseru. I took the pipe and after admiring it for a
moment returned it to her. She said no and, holding her palm upwards in my
direction, repeated the gesture so I could understand it. I realised it
was an offer. She glanced at my pipe and back at the one sheíd handed me,
tenderly uttering the final sentences, which I couldnít understand. I felt
she was determined and returned her bow saying: domo arigato gosaimashita.
The lady replied that I shouldnít thank her. Then she went to the lacquer
box and took out an old woven straw case and a brocade purse. For a moment
I thought Iíd seen, leaning against the box, a round mirror with handle,
all in black lacquer.
TabacŰ she said showing me the purse. Nihon no tabacŰ.
To my displays of gratitude she replied iť, iť together with a kind smile.
With the greatest skill, the objects sheíd strangely offered me were
wrapped in a jade green scarf with a pattern of hearts and white dots.
Immersed in the tub, I took a comforting hot bath while meditating on the
encounter with the old lady at the antiquesí house. I observed the vapour
of the hot water as if in that condensation an answer was hidden.
I dressed the yukata Iíd brought with me, tied the hakata obi with the
fish-tail knot Iíd learned, dressed the dark blue haori, and waited for
the dinner call at the tatami covered room where a low table, a mounted
tray and a television set were the only furniture in the rather large
eight tatami division.
I had made my mind to examine once again, after the meal, the engraving
and the gifts the old lady had oddly offered me.
I dinned thinking on the reasons for that behaviour. Having a pipe wasnít
reason enough to receive another one, especially being a gaijin
sheíd never seen before.
Back in the room, a very comfortable, beautiful futon lined in white linen
had already been placed on the middle of the floor, announcing a most
pleasant night. The wrapped objects where on the table, that had been set
I sat on the floor, removed the Utamaro print from the bag, and
contemplated it again. I had always though that the most erotic point in a
woman dressed in a kimono was the neck. But here the woman would be
looking at herself in a mirror upon waking up, the hair still partly
protected by a scarf, the kimono revealing a brief opening undone by
I glanced at the fabric parcel the antiquarian had wrapped. Once more, I
looked at the print. It was certainly a coincidence, too much of a
coincidence, in fact, to actually be one. The fabric was very soft,
slightly textured. Unwrapping it I could see that the scarf had been
carefully hemmed by hand. I put it next to the print. There could be no
doubt. The fabric was exactly the same as in Utamaroís picture.
I felt a sudden urge to smoke and turning to the old woven straw case
decided to try the tobacco and the pipe the lady had given me. Opening the
purse of tobacco Ė which was odourless and yellower than my own Ė and
slowly filling it distracted me, delaying the state of awe that possessed
I took an ashtray, set it by the futon and decided to lie down. I would
smoke lying down, quickly burning through that small amount of Japanese
It tasted strangely like the taste a flower may have. I inhaled the smoke
to feel it better. But the strangest thing was that it seemed out of
proportion compared with the smoke I had exhaled, creating a sort of cloud
that confused and perplexed me. The cloud grew by itself, spreading like
mist Ė the light of the lamp illuminating that sudden immaterial curtain
slowly filling the whole room. In an instant all had changed. Only an
illuminated mist and the floor tatami could be seen while me, a stranger
in a strange land, wondered if Iíd gone to sleep and was dreaming.
However, my nostrils were touched by a smooth scent of flower oil, similar
to that of choji, while the nocturnal silence of the room was
broken by the noise of a street populated with people, people speaking,
the short breath of men carrying something heavy. All took place very
quickly, like the time that elapses between the end of dawn and early
There, in the room, at my very feet, I heard a soft yawn, feminine sounds
of a woman waking up. I could sense space stretched beyond what I knew to
be the limits of my bedroom.
I felt that all that was happening Ė I didnít know exactly what it was :
dream or hallucination; maybe the effects of the strange tobacco - was
beginning to make sense, to have a logic obeying perhaps to a dream order
and, therefore, unpredictable.
Daylight flooded the mist though I knew that night had barely set in. With
some effort out of curiosity I could see a figure rising from the floor Ė
light illuminating the silhouette, filling it with colour. And with colour
came revelation. In between the parting mist a young Japanese woman rose
languidly, wearing a very soft kimono over her skin, exactly the same as
in the engraving, the opening over her breast wider than normal, the skin
whiter than usual. In a gesture full of elegance she touched her hand to
her right cheek, than down the neck as if measuring the softness of the
skin. The hair was somewhat undone. A scarf around her head protected the
hairdressing. She took a black lacquer mirror hidden close to her body and
looked at herself, peering at her face, eyebrows raised as if to see
better. Slowly, she placed a few pins in her hair so as to hold it better.
Then she smiled at the mirror, showing black painted teeth. Curious and
strange this deliberate hiding of the teeth. Could it be that smiling bore
some sort of interdiction? I realised, as I had been taught, that she was
a married woman of the Edo period. But what was I doing in a time already
gone? Had co-ordinates been enhanced? The sense of Time changed? What
could this be but a dream?
Ah, but who are you? What are you doing in my room? Again I was
stupefied. She could speak my language, all of a sudden shaking me out of
my doubts and cogitation.
I had to answer: In your room? But this is my room in a Kyoto ryokan.
Her right hand covered her mouth in a familiar way. The other
instinctively closed her kimono. She looked straight into my eyes, trying
to probe my mind. Then, she flashed her eyelids and seemed to calm down.
But you are a foreigner. What are you doing here after the prohibition
? Do you wish to disgrace me? Ah, but how did you get in? How can you
speak Japanese? Do you realise Iím a married woman?
All these questions were made in a somewhat higher tone, although in a
half murmured voice, sweet even. I listened to me listening to her and
enjoying her way of speaking. For her I spoke Japanese, for me what I
heard from her wasnít definitely Japanese. Instinctively I let questions
follow question, with a rhythm, allowing a pause to spring up before
All of this has no logical explanation. At least Iím unable to find one.
Up until a moment ago I was quietly resting in my room and when I lit this
pipe everything started to change... and I showed her the pipe, now burned
out, despite the hanging mist. How can you explain me understanding you
when my Japanese is not fluent? And how can you understand me? It is all
like a film.
The young woman looked at me in a way beyond my interpretation. Her face
was void of any emotion. Only the eyes searched, though very discreetly,
my person, the pipe, inside herself. She lowered her eyes, took a deep
breath, looked at the right hand resting on her lap. She hesitated before
speaking: what is a film?
It is always difficult to adapt oneself to new circumstances that demand a
reshaping of the vocabulary of our minds. I realised it there and then, in
that simple question out of the 18 th. century. See, it is like having a
dream, except that we go to a special room to watch that dream, I answered
now fully aware that for some reason language wasnít an obstacle anymore.
Ah, she said - and I liked the innocent way she had of doing this -
is it like Kabuki?
A greater tranquillity had settled among us, and a mutual curiosity. The
dispute of our territories Ė my room at the ryokan and hers fused in the
same space by the ethereal, persistent mist Ė had subsided, gone to give
way to that form of mutual learning not completely devoid of some
Yes. Indeed, it is like Kabuki, but it doesnít exist here in this time,
I said, rising my eyes towards her who, more confident now, had taken both
hands to her head to straighten her hair pins Ė beautiful, rare wooden
It doesnít exist in this time? She stared. Wait, you are very
strange. Youíre not Japanese yet address me in Japanese, your haircut is
unlike that of our men. Your skin is dark, but your hand have no calluses.
Youíre taller than usual. She paused for a longer, perhaps more tense,
moment. Who are you? What is this mist that doesnít let me see the
outline of things? Did you come from the forest?
I smiled to myself. I new she meant the forest dwelling spirits. As long
as the dream lasted Ė if it was a dream at all Ė I had to bear in mind
that this was 18 th. century Kyoto. I had to focus. No, Iím a traveller to
whom an old lady offered this pipe and this tobacco wrapped in a fabric
similar to the kimono she wears.
Deliberately, I avoided mentioning the engraving and handed her the scarf.
We leaned forward so that it would change hands. She took the scarf,
oblivious, with a delicate gesture - under the weight of the fabric itself
the kimono opened. Her back straight, she held the scarf with both hands
folding it carefully in three. As she analysed the hemming she raised her
eyes to me, frightened. How could an old lady have given you this scarf
if I myself made it with the remaining of this kimono? She looked
around anguished, holding the scarf against her breast. It was surely you
who took it way from me while I slept. Her voice shook, insecure.
I looked at her serenely. What I told you is the truth. An old lady
at an antique shop wrapped this pipe and the tobacco in the scarf.
Even when in disbelief she had a sweet manner about her. She exuded
femininity. Again she peered at me, eyes half closed.. Her hands now
rested on her lap, continuously stroking the scarf.
En, she murmured. En, destiny, unattainable order. She got
up graciously. Although not tall, she was elegant, delicate, fragile. The
mist gave way, as she moved. She pulled a low table near the window and
got a brush from a dark wooden box Ė I could see the ink-stone. Then she
took a sheet of paper and started writing with her back turned to me. I
admired her neck, the black silky hair, thick, probably reaching down to
her waist when undone.
The obi was simple, jade white, almost loose. I noticed the street noise
again. My senses had been dislocated but I didnít lost sight of the young
When she turned to me the paper sheet had been folded over and over,
looking like a ruler. She fold it in half before me, and made a knot
identical to those of vows and promises Iíd seen hanging from trees at the
temples in Kyoto.
Please, she said holding out the paper and scarf she claimed
belonged to her, I will see that you visit Sakura dayu tonight.
Take everything that the old lady offered you. It is a visit that
is forbidden to me. I will see that you are taken to her presence. She
said these words with such assurance that I took the letter and the scarf
She got up and bowed. Looking at me again she bowed: Farewell, and
quickly took off. The mist swallowed her.
Do you know Utamaro, Kitagawa Utamaro ? I yelled. Her almost
silent steps came to a halt. I could only hear her voice. My husband
lives in Edo.
The mist covered everything once more and all my senses fell into the
3. PREPARATIONS FOR A
I woke up in a unique way. A hand running through my hair, repeatedly
combing it back, massaging or simply caressing.
The first feeling was of renewal of the body and soul. Still half awake, a
state of well being enveloped me. The repetition of tactile movement, as I
later understood, is able to awake us up in the most pleasant way,
perceiving the world like a newly born.
Slowly, I opened my eyes, already in tune with that unusual way of
awakening. Turning my head to the right I saw the young woman quickly
withdrawing her hand, her eyes looking down. She was now carefully dressed
up, although curiously the kimono was the same. I was awake, fully awake,
noticing there was no mist anymore.
The room wasnít mine, but it wasnít different from mine. Only the wood was
darker. A lantern wisely placed behind me cast its light around without
hurting the eyes. The young woman looked at me in a different way. There
wasnít in her any fear or distance greater than that seen as convenient.
Still, I had doubts. She had awaken me in a way that I could interpreter
dubiously. Furthermore, sheíd returned despite her farewell.
Youíve been asleep the whole day, the hour of your meeting with Sakura san
is coming. You must dine, you havenít eaten anything. I hope you enjoy
the dinner, she said turning and bringing a mounted tray that I could
eat from, seated on the floor. The tray had probably been ready before I
All was in the utmost order. I ate the fish, the sliced skid, the rice,
and drank a delicious broth. I noticed that a small branch, still green,
with pink almond flower buds adorned the side of one of the plates. While
I ate she stood immobile, watching me. We didnít speak. I drank the tea
and lay down the cup on the tray indicating the end of the meal when,
behind me, I felt the movement of a dress over the body of another woman
who silently knelt down, bowed, took the tray and disappeared from my
field of vision. The sound of the soft opening and closing of the sliding
door told me she had left.
We stood in silence, briefly glancing at each other. Then, from the inside
a fold of the kimono she took out my leather purse and pipe. The mechanism
of the purse wasnít strange to her. I was sure she had examined it. She
said nothing while I filled the pipe with gestures so different from those
she was used to see. I took out the lighter and lit the pipe. I noticed a
spark of surprise. When I blew out the smoke she watched it rising.
Holding the kimono sleeve with a left hand she put her palm to her nose
and inspired closing her eyes. This tobacco has a pleasant aroma,
Something like a thread of sense begun to form in my mind.
She looked back in the unfolding time, as if we sought an extension of the
otherís presence. I followed her look. It was difficult to find a size to
fit you. I recognised a dot patterned ash blue hakama, a plain dark blue
kimono and a haori in the same colour with strings. By the side there was
a kind of helmet with a golden mon in front.
Even at night it is important not to disregard the disguise. It is hard to
I knew then that the meeting was close. She clapped her hands and a men in
traditional haircut came in on his knees, his hair shaven on top, the rest
well oiled and carefully combed in a sort of short braid falling upon the
top of his head. His expression was as inscrutable as his age.
Muraoka Tsunetsugu will help you dressing conveniently. She left me
with my appointed dresser. When we both stood up I noticed that 18th.
century men were slightly shorter than those in my time. I quickly undone
my obi which Tsunetsugu folded carefully. Then he did the same with the
I could see that someone had dressed me in traditional underwear Ė a white
band reaching up to my ribs, and serving as a sort of brief. Tsunetsugu
took every piece of clothing and helped me into it in a logical sequence.
First an under-kimono of white cotton. On top went the dark blue kimono,
followed by a hakata obi that I myself helped to adjust. Then came
the hakama with its complicated knots that he quickly took care of,
tightening them and taking special care with the final cruciform knot. I
put my feet in the tabi, a kind of Japanese socks dividing the big
toe from the other. Mine were dark blue and a perfect fit, another proof
of the intriguing efficiency of the young woman. Expectantly he handed me
a closed fan, which I took placing it on the right side of my waist. I had
read that this was an indispensable element of traditional dressing.
Tsunetsugu was half kneeling, which allowed him to get up and down with
harmony. I took a look at myself, examining the knot and the fan. Then he
handed me the haori adjusting it in front and carefully tying the
white strings. I looked at it thinking to myself how beautiful Chinese and
Japanese knots were. The haori had two mon on each side of the chest. When
I raised my eyes, Tsunetsugu was holding a wakizashi whose sheath was
lacquered in dark blue. He looked at me intensely holding the short sword
horizontally, the convex side of the cutting blade turned to him, the
handle on the side of his right hand. I knew he was testing me. I held out
my right hand and grabbed the sheath very close to the handle turning it
upwards, the blade turned up. With the left hand I eased the sheath into
the hakama, into the obi. The wakizashi slid gently to an angle of 30 degrees in
relation to my frontal plan. I went through these movements without ever
taking my eyes from his. Standing on my feet I vaguely smiled inside.
Tsunegutsu lowered his eyes, got up holding the katana and handed it to me
with a short and abrupt bow. Among us it is not sufficient for a men to
be correctly dressed. He needs to dress himself inside and know how to
face death. It was the first time he uttered a word.
I didnít answer. I took the katana with my right hand, bringing it closer
to my body, holding out my arm the cutting edge turned back. My body and
my spirit transformed as they were clad in all this pieces of clothing.
Muscles were relaxed but ready. The mind was clear, empty, aware, ready to
receive. I didnít need to see myself, I felt myself. A transformation took
place that enabled me to apprehend what this man appointed to dress a
foreigner had said. It was not a critic, not even a reprehension. Rather a
call to my behaviour masked in the form of a statement.
Muraoka Tsunetsugu looked at me with surprise. Are you a member of the
samurai caste in your land? This invocation of my land destroyed my desire
of ostentation in face of some etiquette that I knew better.
No, I replied, I am not. I donít believe in castes.
The door opened and the young woman came in, her eyes looking down. She
must have been listening to the conversation on the other side of the
door. Tsunetsugu took the black lacquered helmet and addressed the young
woman: we are ready for Osode san.
I heard her name for the first time. Osode san, I repeated. Yes,
she blushed facing down.. I could see now how taller than her I was. Iíd
always been lying down or sitting down and could not fully understand how
frail she was. Let us go, she said opening the door and waiting
Tsunetsugu will escort you. There is a litter waiting downstairs. You
should go as discreetly as possible. We went down to the ground floor.
She insisted in carrying the katana in both hands, femininely.
A dark wooden platform covered half the space downstairs to where the
earth pavement begun. There lay a light litter, with the curtains drawn.
The carriers got up and stared at me in awe. There were four men, two of
them carrying lanterns.
Osode gave me back the sword, took the green scarf, once again converted
to a careful package and placed in my kimono giving me an anxious look,
the hand over the scarf. I put on the helmet that Tsunetsugu tied up.
The carriers had risen the litter. One of the lantern carriers held the
curtain that would hide me.
I donít know when it will all end. Osode looked at me with
controlled anxiety and answered with a question. Where did you get the
The litter snaked through nocturnal alleys that, naturally, I wouldnít
know even if the curtains were opened. The movement of the litter was like
a cradle, a return to childhood. But now the questions in my mind went
beyond the childish why. The only person I had was myself, not to provide
the answers, but rather to find them. I hadnít made any questions, the
only thing I wanted was Utamaroís print, nothing else.
With each step of the carriers the expectancy grew. Sakura dayu Ė
who could it be with such a name? Why had Osode dressed me in such manner
if my face could leave no doubt? Questions followed questions. I looked at
the thick silk cord, that I was holding to inside the litter and shook off
the questions. Ironically everything was just a matter of time. I laughed
at the irony Iíd put myself to. Time, that invention to count hours as if
it was the variable instead of us. Time, through which I was sliding.
The street noise changed, as well as the light that came in. The litter
turned left and came to a halt while the sounds vanished. The carriers
feet changed the rhythm over the gravel ground and the litter stooped. I
heard voices greeting each other. I let the formalities end and quickly
decided to go with the flow of events. I would react according to them.
The curtain was raised and the light of lanterns hurt my eyes accustomed
to the obscurity of the litter. My legs were numb, but I ignored them.
Tsunetsugu was respectfully bowing a few paces from me when I started to
make out my surroundings.
I felt without looking that the ground was covered with gravel. My
intuition told me not to look at the ground. We were inside a garden,
immediately after the gate on the wall of a residence. There was a red
bridge. On each end a roof shaped lantern on a square stump lit the way.
Welcome, your excellency I heard from the bowing feminine figure dressed
in hues of rose, red and purple, standing in the dark. When she came up I
saw her face was white and her hair dressing extremely elaborate and
ornamented. I hope you may find in our house all the rest your many tasks
may require. I lowered my head and, showing me the bridge, she led the
way. I could see that her obi was tied in such fashion that the end of the
band reached to her knees from behind.
The bridge crossed a lake. The Chinese influence of the garden was
obvious. All the lights in the house were lit.
I took off my sandals and we climbed to the exterior corridor that surely
embraced the whole two stories building. I felt Tsunetsugu behind me. He
went ahead with his right arm stretched out as if to make way despite the
ample space. With fast steps he came to the woman and whispered something.
Ah, so deska! Wakarimasu. Hai! She answered in a studied tone.
We kept on going as if nothing had happened. Tsunetsugu waited for me to
get ahead and bowed again standing two steps behind me. We walked around
the buildings that interlocked into each other.
The young woman walking in front of us stopped, kneeled down, slid a door
half opened with one hand and finished opening it with the other. I
noticed the economy of the gestures. Everything was studied to the last
On the other side of the sliding door, another young lady with her face in
white make-up bowed down uttering a melodious greeting.
Tsunetsugu came to my side instantly and holding out his hand murmured in
a very low voice: the katana. I reviewed the situation quickly. The katana
I held in my right hand should have been given to him. I kept my pose
although regretting my distraction. Tsunetsugu would then wait for me
outside. Graciously standing up the young woman led me inside. While I
observed the eerily silent corridor I asked myself what Osode had in mind
by sending me to such a place. Was I meant to enjoy myself after all?
Would she think Iíd enjoy myself in such manner? Again I tried to avoid
the chatter of questions and focused on the atmosphere.
I sensed a soft aroma on my way up the stairs to the first floor despite
the candles burning on the corridors. Could it be the candles?
Mechanically I followed the young woman along the corridor. She slowed
down , peered at me over the right shoulder and stopped. She kneeled down
with grace, repeating the same gestures to slide open the door and again
bowed down with a murmur. I hesitated for a second, recalling the helmet I
had on. I untied the knot under my chin and went through the door, that at
once was slid close behind me.
More or less four metres ahead of me there was a wall. On the floor, to
the left, a small square lamp of paper and wood concealed a candle burning
inside that illuminated a folding screen painted in gold. Birds flying in
formation. To my right, a closed door. Through the paper a soft, vaguely
red, light came in. I felt the whole tension of the moment. Now, not even
the hat hid my hair. No doubt a strange hair in those parts. I took a deep
breath when my hand reached for the door that separated me from Sakura
dayu. I opened it in a quick but gentle motion and went in. I think I went
I had to collect all my strength to keep calm, though the scene before me
stormed the mind like powerful waves of strangeness.
I could see a magnificent
vision dominated by red. Like the blushing that announces the awakening of
the senses. The ample compartment was illuminated by a single light,
strategically placed behind and to the right of the static and glittering
figure dominating the whole scene. Sakura dayu was dressed in all
colours of luxury, brocade and silk, red and gold, hexagonal patterns
fusing with descriptive scenes, the flower of her name over the left
breast where a splash of pink kimono showed. The hair was superbly dressed
in a crown of pins and combs of mother-of-pearl, perhaps turtle. The face
was awesome. The white make-up that completely covered the skin created a
mask, signifying at the same time distance and advance. The eyelids where
slightly coloured in rose. The eyebrows were like gentle arches and the
outside corners of the eyes were lined in red. The mouth was also a red
stroke, intense, in perfect harmony with the plain, ruby-red inner kimono
sprouting asymmetrically in between the other layers of wisely arranged
clothing. A cape, held by the arms, fell on the ground covered by a red
felt rug over the tatami. Her body was lost in that splendid cape with a
peacock embroidery over a red background.
She stared at me with the slightest smile, the left corner of the mouth
higher tan the right. Slowly she bent her head, in silent greeting. In
front of her, on the extension of her hand that held a pipe also lacquered
in red there was a tabaco bon. With a brief gesture of her right hand she
begun the conversation. Please, be welcome. Sit comfortably. She
spoke calmly and securely, the voice was deeper than the others Iíd heard
I kept silent as I sat on one of the many red pillows scattered
harmoniously around. She felt that I was disturbed and politely started to
speak. SakÍ? It warms the body and calms the spirit. I
smiled, constrained. Thank you, not for now.
Sakura dayu smiled courteously, looking at the hand that held the
pipe. I know that you have smoked from one of our pipes. Did you enjoy
it? I understood how different was the function and the ritual of a
woman like her from her western counterparts.
I asked myself if there was even any resemblance.
I suspect that it was that experience that led me here today. I
slowly recovered the control of my thoughts. I didnít know what I was to
find... I immediately regretted these words.
What makes life interesting is more the searching than the finding, the
path to perfection rather than perfection, she answered unhurriedly,
smiling. I felt in her, at times, the emergence of her real skin
underneath the mask that covered her face. But it was too soon to come to
conclusions. We examined one another, though I knew she had a deep
knowledge of men.
Forgive my question, now her tone was very soft. She let a few
moments go by, playing with the head of the pipe in the porcelain hash
bowl. Perhaps I intimidate you? The deliberate pause that followed
wasnít enough to dissolve the piercing question. Was it a provocation
meant to direct the conversation to other areas? Anyway she breached the
etiquette. I decided it should be me to deal with the differences of the
I do not kow whether you intimidate me. I confess Iím more curious
and intrigued than intimidated, and I felt like smoking.
Would you care to smoke? she asked, unshaken. I can ensure you
it is not the same tobacco...I understood she was fully informed.
What do you know of all that? I asked, avoiding any pipe but my
Sakura dayu smiled vaguely, her eyes, that seemed injected with
blood due to the make-up, wandered. Then she looked at me: a woman like
myself, even in the category of Oiran, is sought by men for the very same
reasons that justify the existence of houses such as these. We listen to
their fathomless secrets, we are the cloth that soaks the tears they hold
back, the well they desire to be a bosom. First we acknowledge the
importance they need to feel they have, illusory as it might be, then,
once the ice has broken and the defences are shattered we become their
confident, recipients for everything. You must understand that we are
trained to listen, and to receive and to give. Even if the gift is
pointless it is important to those who visit us to feel that by giving,
they have received.
The conversation followed a stimulating course. Iíve always liked
intelligent women and Sakura dayu, although young, knew men very
well. This was not a prelude to anything. Just the beginning of a
conversation were she deliberately crossed the limits of her expected
But, I started, I didnít even know you existed like this. Then,
it was Osode san who arranged this meeting. She smiled once more. I
know, and I understand that not being Japanese you donít share the same
values, the same codes, the same reasoning. She lit the pipe, threw a
cloud of smoke, and carried on. I was raised not only by my parents but
by men that sought to convert us, foreigners like yourself. Today I know
how they think, she discreetly sighed gazing at the smoke that broke
Between us there is a radical difference, she continued softly,
merciless. Something inside her had transformed. We bear a guilt based
on shame, you have a culture based on guilt. The shame I refer to
is not of the body. That is not a source of shame, it is a part of us. Do
you understand me? I came to dwell in this nocturnal world but I donít
blame myself. I peacefully accept what is written. We have learned much
with the Chinese. Then we transformed, adapted their knowledge, their
Confucian classics. Like them we also embraced Nature, aware of its
teachings and appeals, thrust ourselves into the limits of perception.
She paused, laying down the pipe on the tray. Since a long time ago we
are afraid of being ashamed. Therefore, we learn from very early all the
precepts of behaviour for all situations. There is an order that we
interpreter as divine. Like the Chinese we live with more than one
religion. They are not incompatible because the world is consonance, which
means that harmony necessarily implies the conjunction of at least two
She looked to her right and clapped softly in a certain cadence. There
seemed to be a code. A young woman came in and gave her a string
instrument and a large flat piece of what looked like ivory. Sakura
dayu began to play. She plucked apparently random notes out of the
shamisen. There was a permanently discontinuous melodic line. Slowly,
that music entered me, leading me to an intuition of the lowest sounds of
earth, the inaudible blossoming, our own pulse.
I was lost in my thoughts when the last note sounded and, slowly,
Sakura dayu laid down the shamisen and looked at me. I think
I understood, said I, mostly because the silence of that moment was
unbearable. She had given the tone and the direction to the conversation.
I was to continue it.
I listen to what you said, and have been meditating, but nothing is
absolute. In the West reason presides... strangely, she interrupted
me. She was breaking all the rules, getting carried away. And that, as she
knew, was against all etiquette. Forgive me from taking the word from
you. But reason is subjective. Not even Plato with his speech of justice
is linear. It is required that every one knows exactly what to do in every
single moment. The unexpected is not tolerated. She certainly was
provoking me, doing so beyond the limits of her role. Maybe she wanted me
to loose my poise so as to point out my weakness afterwards.
Ah, she said, raising her right hand to her mouth. Gomen nasai
she said humbly falling to the floor. It is not important, remember Iím
not Japanese, do not force yourself to this etiquette. She got up slowly,
suddenly very fragile. Her head bent down, she answered in a whisper.
Pardon me, Iíve exceeded myself beyond measure. I cannot be forgiven.
She could have mentioned how carried away she was by the conversation, how
much more pleasant was for her to actually talk and take off the mask,
that skin forced upon her in the repetition of her usual gestures. Instead
she avoided any justification, she took the responsibility.
I beg you, let us continue. And despite her air of compunction I
happily continued. I wish to confess to you that I do not belong to
this time. I did not come to this time of my own free will. The feudal
regime of your day is something I cannot Ė coming from my time Ė agree
with. I do not know how to get out of all this.
There was no prejudice, suspicion or surprise in the way she looked at me.
You know, she said already recovered and somehow appeased,
someone taught me a few basic rules of interpreting situations... let us
say, enigmatic. Nature offers us certain compositions that, when used in
certain ways, can make us go forth or go back in time. Our spirit travels
through forgotten memories of past lives, which we cannot recall
It may be so, I replied. But what does that have to do with me? I just
went into an antiques shop where and old lady gave me a pipe and a tobacco
purse wrapped in a scarf that Osode san claims to be hers.
Sakura dayu, listened carefully, taking the pipe and lighting it
again. She did so gracefully, as gracefully as her pauses. A conversation
Ė just as a drawing, that exists both in the lines and the blank spaces Ė
is made of pauses and words. But it is necessary for the interlocutors to
understand it. Here our understanding was perfect.
Your print caused all of this, the Oiran murmured, whose
knowledge of the previous events was no longer a surprise for me.
Osode san was the favorite model of Utamaro Sensei. For reasons
she never disclosed, she returned to Kyoto from Edo after the marriage and
led a secluded life with the money her family left her. The flame in
the lamp behind her trembled and cracked. I felt Sakura dayu was
apprehensive. With an air of contained anxiety she asked me, is the
antiques shop very close to a river, next to a bridge? I confirmed it to
her and that the bridge still had the bronze fitting on the wood. That
very one, she said. I felt a new uneasiness in her when the flame trembled
Sakura dayu came down in a long bow. I fear that the privilege
of our conversation may be taken away from me soon. The candle cracked
loudly and burned out.
I was immersed in complete shadow. Suddenly all colour had vanished. I
could barely see. Sakura san, I called. Far, I understood
something like - you must burn the print for me.
I sat in almost total darkness broken only by the small lamp outside. To
burn the engraving of an author of whom I had waited years to have a work
I got up and left. The corridor was dark and silent. Carefully, I went
down the steps. The house was deserted. When I went outside the sky had
the grey bluish tones of dawn.
Feeling my presence Tsunetsugu rose quickly. Sleep was written across his
face. Without a word we left.
When we got near the litter I turned to him and asked: Does by any
chance Osode san live by a river with a bridge that crosses it?
Yes. We are going there now, replied Tsunetsugu.
My tired mind, just as the day, was growing more clear.
5. ALL THE TIMES
Events were taking place in a chain that had certainly a sense, leading to
an interpretation that I could only suspect. I felt exhausted on the way
back. As I recalled time had been inverted. It was now dawn when it should
be night. Was I already too inexorably tied to this time that it was
impossible to return to my own?
The oscillating litter made me sleepier and I could feel hunger coming on.
Day was now a reality and streets were filling with all sorts of people.
I returned to the memory of the meeting with Sakura dayu. Asking
myself how had been her past, her exposing to the gaijin, her
breach of protocol. The mask she wore arouse a desire to know her in day
light, to know her name. Her knowledge of the west might indicate that she
had been born in Nagasaki, to where foreigners had been confined. All this
took place decades after Tokugawa Ieyasu had implanted his Shogunate. The
Japan I had come to visit had launched itself in a ferocious economic
The arrival of the litter shook me from my thoughts. I was now inside the
same place where they had picked me up from. I got out immediately
removing the helmet and handing the katana to Tsunetsugu, anxious to
freshen up and eat. I could move around with greater ease now, although my
poise was in accordance with the clothes I was wearing.
Osode san waited me together with two servants. Her eyes were expectant. I
passed by her familiarly. Did you sleep? she followed me silently
to the upper floor, the servants preceded us attentively.
Do you prefer to bathe first or to eat? Osode spoke for the fist
time as if nothing had happened. I went into the room where she had
awakened me, hesitating to choose. The stomach won. She ordered the two
girls to leave and slid the door close.
She helped me untie the haori knot, took it from me, and with small steps
lay it down carefully in silence. I took out the wakizashi. Looking at it
briefly I drew the blade out a few centimetres from the saya and
deliberately put my right thumb on the blade. I wanted to leave a mark of
myself. Osode took the sword to lay it down. Her silence subsisted as much
as her attention towards me. Decidedly there was a time for everything. I
took out of the kimono the intact parcel and passed to her in this ritual
of casting things off when arriving at home. Osode took it with both hands
but stood immobile, holding the parcel against her body, her hands around
it her look covering me with silent, suppressed questions.
Sumimasen, someone said on the other side of the door. When it was
opened a tray with food was brought in and carefully laid on the place
reserved for it in domestic etiquette.
Eat, said the young woman tenderly, you must be hungry. And
she came forward with the tray kneeling down to its left uncovering the
steaming rice. I sat down at the place I knew was destined to the one that
eats. Osode san, itís very early. Why don't you eat. I asked embarrassed
with eating alone and being watched. She filled the bowl of tea with care
trying to gain some time. It is, she hesitated, my duty to take good care
of your well being...
My appetite was gone. I understood her controlled anguish. Osode san, I
started, searching for words Ė Please do eat at least a little bit.
Iím not hungry, she interrupted. I looked at her slowly.. Her eyes
were filled with tears fighting not to fall down. I sighed, impotent.
There was a sort of fatalism in the air, an unavoidability of something I
hadn't understood yet. I looked at the closed window and rose towards it
suddenly. Osode run after me. No, no do not open it you will catch cold.
Her voice begged me, almost near despair. I was faster and sliding open
the window put my head and shoulders out of it breathing the cold air of
that grey morning. I instinctively looked to my left. Down there, as if
sadly, run the waters of the Kamogawa hidden in a mist. I felt Osodeís
hands on my back trying to pull me in, struggling to close the window. I
closed my eyes and was taken by enormous nostalgia that gave way to an
unexplainable sadness. Osode cried silently, tears overflowing, small
rivers down her soft cheeks. I raised her chin so she could look at me,
her hands twisting. She didnít even sob. Just the wet lines on her
delicate skin, and the sad eyes looking up. Why? I asked as softly
as I could. Osode looked beyond me, to a point in the infinitude of time..
I felt her tiny hands searching for mine, grabbing them anxiously. It had
become cold. I looked around. A mist that I feared already started to rise
from the floor. Osode sobbed, her hands holding as tight as she could. Her
nails hurt my flesh as if to make me understand her grief.
The room was cold and the morning was rapidly growing darker. She put my
face on her chest, pressing herself to me. The fog surrounded us reaching
up to our waists. Osode moved away quickly, run to a corner of the room,
and came back to me from the mist. She was calmer now. From behind her
back she produced the print saying, besides him you were the only man
to watch me wake up...I accepted the engraving she held out with both
hands. Everything was precipitating. There was in me a feeling of
conformism that filled my soul with my Western poison.
The package with the pipe, I murmured asking for it while the mist almost
covered her completely. Osode looked at me. Her eyes filled with tears
again. Please leave them behind. Please. Her request was more a
supplication. I could see in her eyes the sadness of the river flowing
She was now completely enveloped by the mist. I could only feel her. Her
hands grabbing my arms. She sobbed deeply. I myself was beginning to see
just a white, luminescent cloud. Yes, of course, I said calming her
down. But why? I had to ask the question. I felt her hands let go
as if sucked by the vortex of something as powerful as time. Finally they
did let go completely. Only my skin retained the feeling of her hands.
But why? I screamed. A very far murmur cut through the all enveloping
mist. So that I can offer it to you again.
Nostalgic shamisen notes were heard then, echoing sounds of several
times in the same time. I understood the true resonance of that music.
Sakura dayu... I knew her true name.
© Antůnio ConceiÁ„o