Two scenes in a row. That was intense. I wiped the sweat from my brow—and then I realized I was mimicking the upwards parry Akira had used. My heart thumped in my chest. Blood pumped to my fists and feet.
I had to get a grip. That battle was long in the past. I had to leave it there.
At the shrine, I saw a large golden maneki neko. Gathered around the statue was a collection of smaller cats, their left paws raised. Legend held that keeping a maneki neko at a place of business was sure to bring good fortune. Which, no doubt, explained their popularity in Singapore and Japan.
There was a plaque nearby. It read: A manner of joining hands in prayer. Relax, join hands in front of your chest and close your eyes. Raise your left hand to the height of your left ear and mew. Your prayers will be answered.
I smiled. The Japanese sure had some strange customs. Then again, in Singapore, Chinese Buddhists pray by grasping burning incense sticks at chest height and bowing deep and often, sometimes punctuating it by waving their hands up and down in exaggerated motions. What would a Japanese think if he saw that?
Nevertheless, I clasped my hands together and nodded. Japan was a land of kami, and in that sense little different from the branch of Buddhism I had grown up with.
A strange thought popped into my head. Is there anything you want?
I’d experienced too much to dismiss it as a random thought. Instead, I smiled. How did Akira’s story end?
I was a ronin again.
Hattori was true to his word. He paid me for the job and erased my name from official mentions. The dead bandits were explained away as ‘self-defence’. The bandit chief himself was reported to have ‘died from his wounds’. I couldn’t think of a better outcome.
With the bandits eliminated, the merchant no longer needed yojimbo. With Hana dead, I had nothing tying me down to the city. I tried to stay, but I was surrounded by ghosts. Her smile in the moonlight near the river we had met, the tinkle of her laughter, the way she tugged at my sleeve when she wanted my attention.
I’d never known what she saw in a ronin like me. Perhaps I never would.
Summer surrendered to autumn. I continued teaching at the temple, but already I felt restless. The city felt a strange place, an alien world of noise and colour and strange customs. There was no place here for ronin like me. It was time for a new city, a new life.
After the final class of the season, I gathered my worldly belongings and prepared to leave. It wasn’t much: the clothes on my back, my weapons, my purse, a small sack holding travel essentials. Everything else I bequeathed to the temple.
I left Hiro with the monks. They could take care of it better than me. The road was no place for a cat used to life in the city. All I had left to remember Hana was the omamori I had never returned.
I headed north. I resumed the discipline of the road easily enough. Walk until tired, rest until ready, keep on walking. Sleep under the stars on dry nights, under trees during the rains, inside inns and temples if they were available and if I had the funds. For sustenance I had tea leaves and rice, and I harvested wild fruits and tubers where available.
I passed through an assortment of villages and towns, taking odd jobs for pay, but never staying for too long. I found no reason to stay, so I kept walking.
As winter approached, the days shortened and the air cooled. Falling ill now was dangerous. A man could freeze to death by the road and no one would notice. Or care. I quickened my pace, heading to the next city. I would shelter there for the winter. After that, well, who knows?
I pushed on, going further and further without rest. The first snows fell, dusting the world in white. I wrapped my haori tightly around myself and endured the cold. My destination was in sight, a black dot in the distance, past a sward of dried and yellowing grass.
I reached the gates in the evening. I pleaded with the sole watchman to let me in, and eventually he relented. At least he showed me the way to the nearest temple.
The snow grew thicker, occasionally slipping under my kimono and freezing my flesh. My geta sank deeper and deeper, barely keeping my feet clear of the layer of white. People retreated indoors, where they could find light and warmth. I doubted I could afford a room at an inn. But monks would never turn away a man like me.
Past the torii, I had to climb a series of stairs to reach the temple. Cold sweat clung to my flesh. I sneezed, wiping my nose against my sleeve. I planted my feet carefully, retaining my balance on the slippery stone.
The stairs fed into the sando, the narrow road that approached the temple. Two lines of toro lit the way. In the distance I just about made out the silhouette of the worship hall. There was another building on my right. Light beckoned from the windows. Perhaps I could find the monks there.
But first, I had one more thing to do.
To my left was a small pavilion. A temizuya. I checked the chozubachi; the stone water vessel was full. Rolling up my sleeve, I took a dipper and poured water on my left hand. The water shocked my skin and numbed my fingers. I rinsed my right hand and mouth, then dipped the handle into the water.
Now ritually pure, I wiped my hands on my hakama and my mouth on my sleeve, and headed for the lit building. By the light of the toro I saw a petite woman approach.
She wore no makeup, but her long hair was tied into a neat bun. She wore a haori dyed a pure white, and a hakama the colour of blood.
She was not a nun. She was a miko.
This was not a Buddhist temple. This was a Shinto shrine.
She studied me as she approached. She saw the swords at my side and bowed, deep and low.
“Good evening,” she said.
I returned her bow. “Good evening.”
“May I help you?” she asked.
“I need a place to stay for the winter.”
She smiled broadly, fire dancing in her eyes.
“Come inside. We’d be pleased to have a guest.”
Is that everything? I wondered.
It is enough.
Another life. Another city. Another chance to try again. I hoped it was enough for Akira. For me.
I bowed, and walked away.
Here I was, living a life utterly different from, yet eerily similar to, the one Akira had led. We were ronin who had studied the sword. We were thinkers, not talkers. Buddhism had shaped us. We had lovers named for flowers. He had lost Hana. Mine was still around.
A quiet voice, deep and calm, flooded my mind.
You have one more chance with her. Don’t waste it.
Akira’s voice. My voice, reaching across the centuries.
In the evening, in my hotel, I brought out my laptop. My lover was online. I opened Facebook Messenger and touched my fingers to the keys.
Something funny happened earlier today…
The places and performances described at Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura are as I have experienced them in July 2016.
Interested in more stories from me? Check out NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.