Fushigi. Meaning: strange, eerie. Although the Japanese essayist I was reading insisted that there was no accurate translation in English. I accept that each language allows for the development of concepts that do not translate easily–why else do we borrow a term like déjà vu from French? What I was tiring of was the implication that since I was not Japanese, I could never fully comprehend the meaning of fushigi, wabi sabi, mono no aware or any other number of terms.
My mounting frustration with the writers in this essay collection disturbed my concentration enough to make me aware of the heat in my bachelor apartment. Sticking to a chair made of plasticized wood, reading at a table made of the same, the air conditioner off, and the windows wide open on a stuffy August night, I needed to get outside.
I was living in a small city east of Tokyo called Sakura. Sakura usually refers to the famous cherry blossom, so it is a common name throughout the country. However, the Chinese characters that compose the name of my Sakura can be translated as “Reserve Storehouse.” Being east of Tokyo and farther away from the main trade route to the west, it seems safe to assume that the city's name is derived from its original purpose.
The neighbourhood I lived in was Tamachi–“Farmer’s Town.” Although Japanese no longer live in the neighbourhood associated with their class or trade, there is actually a thin strip of rice paddies just north of my apartment that attests to the area’s history. Whenever I had a visitor from Tokyo, they never failed to register surprise that these green fields could be found so close to the megalopolis. As a frequent walker, I also appreciated having a rural escape nearby.
A short walk in the opposite direction leads to a city park where the ruins of the old castle are located. Today, it is the site of the National Museum of Japanese History. The building itself is a brown monolith that fulfils the role of landmark once occupied by a white castle. With the paddies to the north and the museum to the south, my choice of routes inevitably included a decision between nature and culture. Although the stars are rather brilliant above the rice paddies, on this occasion I felt drawn to the park. In particular, I wanted to visit the grove just off the main drive where an old stone statue of Buddha stands.
The statue appears to have been carved out of a cliff side, then somehow brought to this grove. The figure of Buddha sits in relief, legs crossed, one finger pointed in the air. This finger is grasped with the other hand to signify "all is one." I am not an expert in these matters, but the face appears similar to Chinese images of Buddha before they gradually gave way to visages that resembled Japanese faces. Even if this Buddha is not Chinese, it seemed different enough from most of the others I had seen here to suggest that it was mainland-influenced.
Examining the Buddha, I noticed coloured flecks revealing that the image was once fully painted. Perhaps the patron who commissioned this statue was affiliated with the nearby Fudo temple in Narita. This sect favours gaudy designs that surprise many foreign visitors expecting austere Zen aesthetics at every temple. Later caretakers of the statue failed to preserve the original paint or restore it once it faded. This is not unusual for Japan either, as weathered artwork often leads to approving comments of shibui. In this case, however, I could not escape the feeling that this statue suffered from neglect.
The statue itself seems like an anomaly in the area, and one must really use the imagination to concoct a theory as to why it was placed in this clearing at the bottom of a hill. It is too far from the castle keep and too close to the main road to be in a place of honour. Yet who but a wealthy lord could have afforded the commission and the transport to this location? Did the lord’s son move it here after his death to appease a rival sect? Perhaps it always sat here to succour poor travellers and divert them from making appeals at the castle gates.
I stood in the clearing in front of the Buddha, unable to relax as I had hoped before coming here. Turning to go home, I was stopped short by a figure blocking the entry into the grove. It wasn't the presence of another that struck me so much as the fact he was wearing feudal-era armour. In the glow of the streetlight, he almost looked translucent.
I slowly made my way up to the sidewalk, trying to gauge the intentions of this play-acting samurai. He was wearing a full suit of armour, but no helmet. His hair was styled like a status samurai, the pate shaved, with a top knot drawn up over it. He wore two swords on his left side which mercifully looked like replicas. He studied me with eyes of such fierceness that I lowered my gaze and saw through his body to the other side of the road. My heart threatened to burst through my rib cage.
I looked back at his face to see that he appeared as shocked by my appearance as I was by his presence. If he had ever seen a foreigner before, it was certainly not one wearing shorts, sandals, and a t-shirt. He recovered quickly, gestured authoritatively, and shouted an order I could not hear.
Having never encountered a ghost before, I thought it best to stop walking since I did not know if he had the ability to hurt me or not. He strode to meet me. Unsure of what he wanted, and too stubborn to prostrate myself on the grass and defuse the situation, I stood where I was. He became increasingly antagonized at my refusal to obey his orders. When he gripped the hilt of his long sword, I felt renewed fear. According to the fantasy novels I had read in high school, I knew that a ghost's sword could cut like ice.
Before I could gather the sense to run away, he lost patience and unsheathed his sword. With one quick motion he sliced from my left shoulder to my belly in a perfect cut. I felt nothing, not even the slightest chill. Seeing that I had not fallen, he began swinging wildly to no physical effect, though it was quite unsettling to see even a phantom blade pass through my body. He jumped up and down a few times in frustration before stopping to examine me more closely. This gave me the chance to do the same.
Until that point in my life, I had only had the experience of towering over children, but I was clearly a half foot taller than this man. Yet there was no question that he was strong and well trained. I would have dreaded angering him during an encounter in his era.
He continued to eye me warily. I could tell that he was struggling to decide what he should do next. Dare he raise an alarm and risk having me disappear before a comrade arrived? Would he be accused of dereliction of duty if I was discovered past his post? While studying him I recalled Raymond Bradbury's story, "Night Meeting." In it, a human and a Martian meet across a dimensional time shift while out for a walk on Mars. The strangest part of the meeting is that neither one can be sure which one is alive in the present, and which one is an echo from the past. I had the advantage in this situation of knowing that he was the ghost and that the samurai caste was abolished 130 years before our encounter.
His expression changed. It seemed like he realized that if he couldn't cut me with a sword, it was unlikely that I was a threat to him. He turned around and started walking up the hill toward the museum. I felt drawn to follow him, my fear dissipating with each step.
We walked up the long curving road, past the museum. He stopped for no apparent reason. He tilted his head back and shouted something I couldn't hear. I looked around and noticed the dried up moat surrounded by hedges on my right. It was then I realized he was waiting to be let in a gate visible only to him. He walked through, stopped and looked back to see what I would do. I walked towards him. He glanced to his left and right to confirm that he was the only person who could see me. Resigned to my presence, he continued toward the interior of the castle grounds. All I could see were the trees and the grassy clearings where people picnic today. He stopped in front of another imaginary building and climbed the invisible steps, then disappeared. On a hunch, I waited for him, convinced that my supernatural experience had not yet finished.
He emerged five minutes later, looking disappointed, but not surprised to see me waiting there. Perhaps I was not the first temporal tourist that he had the misfortune to meet. It appeared that his duty shift was over, for he had changed out of his armour into a simple kimono. He went southeast toward the former site of the main gate. He paused for clearance, then continued east on the path that led into the part of Sakura that then, as now, was filled with the shops of local merchants.
On the way out of the park, we passed the traditional tea house, Sankeitei, that was formally located in Tokyo. It was built in honour of the general who captured Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese war of 1908. He and his wife followed an outlawed samurai custom by committing suicide when the Meiji Emperor died in 1912. Sankeitei was dismantled and reassembled here for use in weekly demonstrations of the tea ceremony. What the samurai saw when he looked at the house, I don't know, but it was likely an empty field.
During World War II, soldiers of the Imperial Army had barracks in this area as well. I felt uneasy recalling General Nogi and the barracks while shadowing their forebear. With Makata Shrine in sight–patronized by this samurai’s lord, no less–he turned right before reaching it. After a short walk south we turned back to the west. I could not be certain, but I felt we were in the neighbourhood of the three traditional samurai homes preserved by the city. After a bend, the road straightened, but I could not see the homes anywhere. I began to wonder how long I could safely follow this specter.
He turned left at a dark road that went up a hill bordered by stands of bamboo trees. As we walked up the steep incline, the hollow trunks knocked against each other. This sound alarmed me as images of crazed monkeys eyeing an intruder played in my mind. I had to suppress a chill. Even though I was reasonably sure the samurai could not harm me, I did not want to risk showing any fear.
At the top of the hill were the three samurai homes. He turned right and went to the smallest house of the group. Pausing at the closed door of the gate, he gestured to invite me in. I am rather fond of the traditional architecture and the small gardens preserved here, but I knew that this was as far as I could go at night without setting off alarms. I bowed in thanks for the invitation and watched him disappear through the door. This time I did shiver.
Before I could leave, I saw his face on my side of the door again. His arm reached out and he made a shooing motion with his hand that actually meant that I was welcome to come in. I approached the door and pressed one palm flat to the door to indicate that I was unable to enter. A look of relief crossed his face. When I stepped back, the upper half of his body emerged from the door as he bowed good night to me. I returned the bow and looked up to see nothing but the grain of the weathered door in the streetlights.
© Travis Belrose 2006
Are you interested in a less supernatural tour of Sakura? Check out these blog posts:
24 Hours in Sakura
Another 24 Hours in Sakura
If poetry is more to your liking, try the Sakura Haiku Tour.
But if you really want another Sakura ghost story, here is one for you:
The Ghost of Sakura