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Book Rec, Tokaido Road
Poetry for Emergencies
AVAILABLE IN PODCAST
It made me feel flawed as a human, this passage from Lucia St.Clair Robson’s book, Tokaido Road. The protagonist Cat is disguised as a young man when she meets the Poet Musui. They travel together with nothing, forced to beg for food and goods. They come upon a frail old woman who invites them into her hut, offers to share what little she has, to fetch fresh river grass for [them] to lie on, and to massage [their] weary feet.
Musui declines and tells her that they must travel farther.
“He gave her a small wooden tablet with an invocation and picture of Kobo Daishi stamped on it. “It comes from Mount Koya. It will protect you and your loved ones.” He added the rice and the fish they had been given and all the coppers.
“Clutching the treasures, the old woman wept and bowed and called her thanks until they rounded a curve in the road. When they were out of sight, Musui sat down abruptly on a rock. His eyes sparkled with tears.
“As Cat stood staring down at him, grief and shame overwhelmed her. She saw the old woman curled in the pile of straw with snow drifting in through the gaps in the roof and walls and covering her frail body. Cat shuddered. She crouched next to Musui, buried her face in her sleeves, and began to cry as though her heart would break.” (Chapter 20, p. 135)
Cat has fighting skills and is a member of the samurai class. Having suffered from her father’s disgrace, she decided to sell herself into a brothel as a courtesan. She escapes and she learns about the harsh lives of peasants and the class-less nonhumans, the poverty and sadness on the road. These hardships in some ways are far greater than her family’s disgrace. She inherits her father’s quick temper and the Poet Musui shows her what kindness is, in his simple manner and behaviors.
The book is based loosely on the famous vendetta between Asano and Kira. Set in Japan in 1702, the tale is rich in details of the feudal era. Cat is trained in the martial arts by her father’s counselor. The poetry and idioms are sprinkled throughout the book with a colorful cast of characters.
An auntie demands Cat to “write me a letter” when she discovers Cat is literate and when reading her request, I nearly choked.
‘Beloved nephew. Send me money immediately or I will curse you and your offspring for all eternity. Praise Buddha.’ Sign it, ‘the saintly pilgrim, Springtime.’
What makes this so funny is the coarseness of the curse butting up against the praise to Buddha and her closing as a saintly pilgrim named Springtime!
Cat begins to practice generosity and drops her coppers in a holy man’s begging bowl without any acknowledgement from him and her new companion is shocked. Cat said it would not have gotten them much, then she quotes the Book of Five Rings and the reference to the ox and rat. This makes her friend think of food, until Cat explains.
“The great swordsman Musashi wrote that when we’re preoccupied with details our spirits become entangled with them. We have to enlarge our spirits. We have to think of the ox’s neck as well as the rat’s head.”
The young protagonist grows in other ways. The poetry she has learned in her studies is enriched by the hard experience on the road, lending it new meaning. Hanshiro—the former samurai or ronin who devotes himself to Cat and her cause, and has fallen in love with her—quotes from the preface of Kohinshu which is an anthology of thousands of poems. They travel as a samurai and his servant and must sleep together or risk discovery.
The poetry should move heaven and earth [Hanshiro begins]
It should soften relations between man and woman, [Cat finishes]
And, soothe the heart of the fierce warrior.
The poetry Robson quotes in the book is simple in translation and no doubt loses something in English, but the essence is brought forth. The prose gives context and the verse is felt, if nothing else, through a veil, giving the reader a sensual and opaque grasp.
Since April is poetry month, this final verse is one Hanshiro shares unwittingly during his first encounter with Cat when she is present but in disguise. The abbot recognizes him as an educated man and asks him about his favorite poem. Hanshiro clears his throat and looks off in the distance, imagining his home, the remote and wild Tosa.
“He stood at the end of the world, on the high black promontory of Cape Muroto. He heard the roar of the surf, felt the cold salt wind on his face.
A winter moon’s light
Silver-crested waves rising
To knock at my gate.
“His reciting voice was deep and resonant and sent a chill through Cat. Everyone sat silent, appreciating Basho’s genius.”
In a time before the digital age, people knew poetry and verse, could recite it at whim. There’s a depth and texture to Robson’s prose that drew me into that world.
The protagonist Cat is transformed on this hero’s journey; she learns kindness and patience, even finds love. There are fight scenes and killing because it’s a violent age, and she is part of a warrior class. Having peeked into Robson’s version of Feudal Japan, I am richer for having traveled the pages of her story; though fictional, it sheds light on the historic and famous Ako incident and vendetta. I am also curious about the Tokaido Road and wonder whether I will have the chance to see Mount Fuji with my own eyes or feel the waves rising by Tosa’s Cape Muroto.
For now, I will settle for watching one of the films produced about the 47 ronin who avenged Aksano, then took their lives after the shogunate decree. They have become part of Japan’s heritage and remain national heroes and legends.
*Tokaido Road by Lucia St. Clair Robson was published in 1991 and she noted in the preface that the hours are kept by the Chinese zodiac. Midnight to 2:00 AM is actually two hours, but called the Hour of the Rat, 2:00 to 4:00 is the hour of the Ox, and so forth for the 12 signs. The preface has maps of the Tokaido Road with all the towns and stops, and the distance used is ri, which is roughly 2.44 miles.
*Much of the cultural references to Confucius and Buddha, as well as the Chinese Zodiac, is similar to that of my mother and her Vietnamese family. This is particularly true of the influence of the zodiac and superstition. The idioms are uncanny in their similarity.
*Fate as an idea is pervasive: to accept the day one will die, events beyond one’s control. The moral imperative to avenge one’s family, such as Cat’s father, is more important than life itself. Seppuku (also referred to as hara-kiri) is the ritual to take one’s life through suicide or disembowelment and was characteristic of this era.
*In chapter 16, Hanshiro drew a circle in the sand with a willow branch. It was lopsided and the exercise was a test of clarity of mind. He does so later in the chapter and it is better, symmetrical. He is getting control of his mind. He is distracted and enamored with Cat. The chapter closes with a riddle for a boy who wishes to train with him. “While riding the ox the boy looks for the ox. When you can explain this, come find me.”