Over Mount Fuji (4)
March 6 —
As days grew warmer and cherries blossomed all around, Mrs Chiyo Okino strode into her garden, taking in fresh air while studying the surroundings.
Against a blue horizon, the crevices and conical shape of Mount Fuji became more bright and sharpened, making the atmosphere more magnificent. She smiled, glad that the end of winter had brought a sense of tranquility and optimism.
But the sky darkened at noon. Chilly winds slashed through the shrubs and branches creaked. Squawking and cackling, scattered birds flew in chaotic patterns. A wreath of clouds hid the peak of the sacred mountain and thunder rumbled across the sky.
Chiyo stood, transfixed at the ominous cloud. The turbulence reminded her of her son, Major Okino, who had disappeared off the coast of Kyushu. Even though seven weeks had passed, she couldn’t understand the cause of it. No trace, no word, no explanation.
A crow fluttered past, breaking her reverie. It flew through an open window into her house, and she rushed after it. Perched on a shrine, the black bird flapped its wings. It cawed and strutted around, overturning a jar of oil, a packet of incense and scrolls of sutras. Worse, the wing knocked over the urn containing her father’s ashes, spilling a portion. Chiyo clapped her hands trying to shoo the scavenger away, but it refused to leave the prayer alcove.
She frowned as her gaze riveted on the crow. Was it conveying a message from her son? Or were the gods feeling uneasy on the mountains? “You bring bad news.”
“It’s only a silly bird, Obaachan,” her ten-year-old grandson said from behind. “It’s just being frightened by the noise of the airplanes.”
Chiyo turned to see her grandson with a neighbor, Mrs Toshi Nishimi.
“Maybe the Kami are reminding us of their dominion,” Toshi said. “They’re showing their displeasure.”
Chiyo shook her head. Not only had a new series of eruptions rocked Mount Fuji, but dormant volcanoes had awoken. “If they were only earthquakes, perhaps we shouldn’t panic, but the rest of nature has gone berserk.”
“Nature has its cycles,” Toshi said. “It declares war on humanity, but it always affirms peace later.”
Tasting bile, Chiyo squirmed as she pointed at the crow with its head under its wing. “But what about the birds? They’re lost, they fly in circles and cower in people’s homes.”
Silence, except the intermittent rumblings from Mount Fuji.
For the next few days, Chiyo serenaded in her home with Shinto melodies. But even as she prayed and meditated, the weather worsened. Like the Goddess Amaterasu-Omikami simulating the sea and winds, whipping up typhoons that sank the ships of Kublai Khan when she called upon other goddesses with a sound only she could make, a sound her grandson said was nothing more than the reverberation of planes flying invincibly overhead.
“Surely this is the Land of the Gods,” Chiyo said. “A similar typhoon is picking speed from the South. They’re reinforcing the same message.”
“It’s nothing unusual, Obaachan.” Her grandson laughed. “You’re seeing things.”
A naïve laugh. “The birds are afraid of something. They must be seeing things we couldn’t see.”
Another week of rumination passed and Chiyo paced the room and squinted out the window, meditating on the fact that she was a descendant of a samurai, of the Fujiwara clan, where during the Heian period, its central strategy was by marrying their daughters to the Emperors, enabling the clan to dominate Japan’s politics.
But when a humming sound started to loom through the breeze, she felt as if the weather was conveying a message from the Kami. The role of the feminine, although agile and subtle, had always being powerful, more so when it seemed like a message from her lost son at sea. Painful emotions gripped her and she felt compelled to consult the Goddess as to why her son was taken away. To accomplish that, she felt she needed to pray and purify her soul.
Early the next morning, Chiyo carried an offering of sake, water, salt, fish, vegetables and fruits into the AkaishiMountains, forty miles west of Mount Fuji. She also took the remaining ashes from her father’s urn.
In the undergrowth, an eerie silence permeated the morning mists as she trod the sodden trail. She climbed halfway up Akaishi-sanmyaku where she turned onto a hidden path concealed by thick scrub. In the primal gloom, she shuddered when she heard the lonely howl of what could be a wolf. She slowed, and when an owl hooted, she shivered.
After another twenty yards, tall bamboo, covered in snow, cast shadows along her path. She prodded slowly, but stopped and quavered when a load of snow thumped to the ground. As the wind rustled the leaves and poles squeak in the grove, she felt as if Kami was conveying her a message from nature. She gathered her courage and strolled past.
An aged red torii marked the gateway to a hidden temple; twin bronze fox statues sat on either side of the entry—one with a paw on a ball, the other baring its teeth.
Once she had entered the temple, Chiyo placed the incense sticks around the altar. She mixed the various ingredients with care as her mother had always done when producing the Smoke of Mount Fuji. It released a scent of camphor and sandalwood. From the urn, she emptied her father’s ashes and blew out the residue into the bowl. A pungent fragrance permeated the atmosphere.
“Is there a special purpose for praying in this shrine?” a soft question came from behind the altar.
“No, not really . . . just thanking the Kami,” Chiyo said.
“And what is that thanks for?” an old priest asked, revealing himself, with sutras on one hand and a shaku in the other.
She bowed her head lower, struggling to keep her lips from trembling. “For taking care of me . . . and my grandchild.”
The priest brought his hands together in gassho and chanted his prayers.
Chiyo said her prayers, inhaling the lingering scent and feeling the essence of her ancestors and the absolution of the gods. When she finished, she bowed, stood and left the shrine, traversing back the same path to her home.
A week passed, but the wind didn’t abate. Ferocious gales swept and whipped waves to lofty heights that crashed upon the coasts, tearing away rocks and eroding shorelines. The ground started to rumble. A succession of powerful blasts roared through the mountain. Like colors from a thousand festive lanterns, the sky glowed smoky red over Tokyo. Mount Fuji raged and smoked more fiercely, presiding with a titanic smugness over the ruin it had made since its last explosion hundreds of years ago. Chiyo felt the evil spirits hadn’t been repelled, nor the gods appeased. Karma! Aren’t we all predestined?
On the last day of March, just after midnight, Chiyo awoke to her grandson’s screaming and explosions erupting in the distance. Sirens shrieked and temple gongs clanged, amid dogs howling near and far. She ran to the window to see plumes of fire blasting out from the sacred mountain, heralding an event with red pumice and black ash.
Chiyo felt a baffling fear as an image of the Goddess Amaterasu-Omikami appeared over the volcano. Her stomach flipped as she squinted behind her grandson, but the image brightened in the darkness. Did the Goddess have a message for her?
She looked at her grandson’s pale face; he stared blankly, unable to speak. She turned back to the sky, but the image had vanished. Darkness resumed, and the eruption stopped.
Silence loomed in the eerie stillness.
She listened to the news on television, and by dawn, she’d learned the tolling of the bells wasn’t only a warning the sacred volcano had erupted, but that two earthquakes had struck six hundred miles southeast and northeast of Tokyo.
Clinging to the remote, she surfed through the channels.
“The twin jolts measured 9.2 and 9.3 on the Richter scale,” one announcer said. “Seismologists have estimated that three millions of cubic meters of rock have been dislodged from a seamount located at the edge of Japan Trench.
“In less than an hour, the first two of a series of tsunamis hit the Japanese coast. They joined forces with a violent typhoon that culminated in even more gigantic waves, smashing seafront homes, plucking away piers and erasing beaches. The hardest hits are Kamakura and Katsuura on the eastern coast of Honshu, where the tsunami converged to create a hundred-foot wave that obliterated the towns.”
Why is the Goddess so angry?
Television channels reported more aftershocks. Seismic activities continued as far as the Kuril-Kamchatka Trench in the north, and the Mariana Trench in the south. Giant waves inundating the coastal towns like monstrous sea caterpillars munching noisily from the ocean.
In regions considered safe from tsunamis, torrential rains brought floods that ruined crops. Landslides destroyed roads and houses. The city of Hokota in eastern Honshu was submerged. Onlookers on nearby hills watched helplessly as a new lagoon formed after the carnage. Across all media outlets, people cried and chocked over the destruction of homes and loss of loved ones.
Television broadcasts showed the mayor of Hokota holding a copy of Japan Times. “The occurrence of two seaquakes at the same time is no coincidence,” the reporter quoted Wilhelm Wulfstein as saying. “This sinking is not just a catastrophic event; it is a bad omen.”
Chiyo stood in the garden the next morning. But seven crows flew into her house and landed on the shrine, dropping their wings. Stunned, she ran back and tried chasing them away, but couldn’t. She shivered, nauseated by their feeble sight. Within minutes, they dropped from the shrine one after another with a thud. Dead.
Flabbergasted, Chiyo wailed burying the seven black birds in her garden.
An Omen! Her heart ached at the reversal of providence—her son’s disappearance and the unbearable torment caused by the turbulent weather patterns. Everything that happened in life was a reward or punishment for one’s deeds. Her son had died, so had her hope. Now, she sensed her own end, that the feminine must overwhelmed the masculine through her example, and, for a moment, felt glad. Only the ignorant and the fainthearted resented their destiny.
The following day, after a bath, Chiyo donned two layers of ceremonial—a yellow over an inner white—kimonos in a rite of purification. A sword and a dagger she had removed from the family chest lay on the silk-covered table. She avoided fingering the blades, for conventional wisdom said that even a single touch might mar their perfection.
Made by the master sword-smith Miyoshi-Go centuries ago, the swords once belonged to the famous warrior, Minowara Yoshitomo, the first of the Minowara Shoguns. Her ancestry could be traced back through her maternal grandfather to the scion of the great Fujimoto clan. Only a samurai could wear two swords—the long, two-handed killing sword and a short, dagger-like one.
Feeling a spiritual calling, Chiyo thought of herself as a sacrifice. Although she’d done nothing to warrant the Goddess’s anger, she would perform this ritual to prove her earnestness.
Chosen to be the kaishaku, her second, Toshi came to her house.
In silence, they bowed low to each other, their faces expressionless. Chiyo handed Toshi the long sword as she kept the dagger in her sash, reminding herself not to fear the outcome of her mission. Once she had poured two cups of sake, Chiyo gave one to Toshi. They bowed again and drank in unison. Now, Chiyo was prepared for her most important task.
She meditated upon the procedures and tradition of her heritage. ‘The way of the samurai,’ written in the Hagakure, ‘is to be found in death.’ The Chushinguru, the Tales of the Forty-Seven Ronin, where the forty-seven ronin were buried at the Sengaku-ji temple, owed honor to one’s Lord. But Chiyo felt her honor owed to the Goddess Amaterasu-Omikami, yet she shuddered, feeling guilt that she had to overturn two Bushidō codes—that women commit seppuku with a knife to the throat and that this should be done in private, not as a public spectacle.
A white limousine stopped in front of her house.
Chiyo glanced at her wall clock and noted her time had come. Tense, yet determined to settle the rumblings of the Goddess, she stepped out the front door and slid into the backseat of the car, with Toshi beside her.
HAVING JUST FLOWN into Tokyo, Eileen was puzzled over the flurry of activity along the streets, telling her that something unusual was going on. When she’d checked into the Daiichi Hotel, she asked, “What’s happening?”
“There is a seppuku underway,” the concierge replied. “You need to hurry to the Sengaku-ji temple if you wish to catch its progress.”
Eileen dashed out after she brought her suitcases into her room, joining the crowd to watch a white limousine whiz by. A seppuku? Another spectacle on a suicide mission? She hopped into a taxi and directed the driver to follow the limousine.
When her taxi reached the temple with its distinctive curved roof, she paid her fare and alighted, inhaling a cloud of incense rising from bundles of joss sticks. The temple bell tolled, sending pigeons off in all directions. As new leaves sprouted amidst ancient maples, a red torii gate towered over her as she passed through.
In front of the shrine, clean-shaven Shinto priests meditated, chanting, rubbing beads between clasped hands.
Around the courtyard, newsmen mingled with spectators, but Eileen hung back, her nerves rattling. When the temple bell stopped tolling, her heart pounded.
The woman in yellow kimonos looked familiar.
Damn, the seppuku operation was deliberate. But why had she planned this? It would be a horrific way to atone a wrong. And why was everybody acquiescing, cooperating?
In scents of moist air and gardenias, she stood in the middle of the crowd. As their bodies pressed against hers, a mix of cologne, perfume and unwashed flesh infested her.
Before the temple, the lady undid her obi with help from her companion, allowing the yellow kimono to fall. Under the outer layer, she wore a most brilliant white kimono and obi. In this ceremonial outfit, she paced a few steps forward and knelt on a tatami mat facing the shrine. She removed the dagger from her sash and placed it on a tray in front of her. To the right stood a bamboo pole with fronds.
Eileen shook her head; suicide wasn’t supposed to be a show. It wasn’t beautiful or glorious. She didn’t want to watch, but given the intensity of the moment, she couldn’t help herself.
Stupefied, Eileen stared at the woman’s small nose, her almond-shaped eyes, her round face with a slightly pointed chin. Why was she so familiar?
Eileen trembled. Her head began to pound; her temples throbbed. Surely, it was Chiyo Okino-san—her landlady ten years ago, the one she needed to interview.
The priest came forward, poured a cup of omeeki, a purifying sake, and offered it to Chiyo. He bowed and departed, but Chiyo looked up vacantly, sipped her omeeki, and placed the cup on the ground.
A brief hesitation loomed in the calmness before Chiyo pulled her long broad sleeves out and tucked them under her knees to allow her to fall forward instead of sprawling. No, she whispered. Stop her! Stop her! Eileen wanted to shout out the words but she couldn’t find her voice.
Chiyo held her dagger firmly by its paper-wrapped hilt with both hands at a short distance from her body, blade pointing inward.
Mrs Okino! Eileen felt faint, but finally her voice came. “Stop her! Stop her!”
All eyes turned to her as she rushed forward.
“Don’t do this, Okino-san! Please stop it. I’m Eileen . . . Eileen Hewitt, remember me?”
Two monks grabbed her arms.
“Let me go. Get the hell off me!”
Eileen’s arms were locked, one monk on each side.
She struggled. “Get the hell . . . off me.”
They dragged her to where she’d stood before.
Mrs Okino lifted her head, paused for a moment, as if her eyes registered recognition, then swiftly plunged the dagger into her belly, below the navel. Her face contorted as the blade cut across horizontally, concluding with an upward jerk. Then she grimaced, her jaw clenched, her eyes bulged but she didn’t make a sound.
Toshi stood behind Chiyo, a sword drawn and poised. She completed the final ritual of seppuku with a single slashing arc.
Blood spurted as Chiyo’s head thudded to the ground but still attached by a strip of skin at the throat. With a white cloth, a priest rushed to collect the head, severed it with a cut, wrapped the cloth around and put it in a basket.
Eileen closed her eyes. She felt weak in her knees as she cursed and screamed but everyone from the crowd grimaced in silence. Why such senseless suicide? Why didn’t someone just rushed up and grabbed their knives away. Are the Japanese going back to the very roots of their culture to seek strength? Why only in Japan were such deaths so much aggrandized?