Sword of the Samurai
Kai Province, New Year’s Day, Year of the Monkey
Once upon a time—” the story began.
The boy cradled the loosely bound book in his lap, enchanted by a brush-and-ink drawing of the full moon rising over majestic Mount Fuji. Tiny figures stood in the foreground, a humble woodcutter discovering a princess in bright, flowing robes in the middle of a feathery bamboo forest. In Japanese script the title read, Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.
“Tarō!” a woman’s voice called to the boy, disturbing the cold quiet around him.
Tarō hunched over his book. He did not want to be found. Cold as it was, he had thought to hide himself outside and fled the warm confinement of the castle in search of a peaceful place to read—his secret retreat—for stories carried him away, far from the harsh life to which he had been born. In a time ruled by the sword, Tarō read books as the horseman gallops and with a marksman’s focus that far exceeded his practical ability in such skills as were to be expected of a boy of his birth and age. He longed for greatness only in a boyish way, naively, effortlessly, and often out of spite when he growled how he would show his father someday.
“Be careful what you wish for,” his mother warned whenever he ran off in protest, but Tarō paid no heed.
Climbing into the wintry sky, the sun had just crested the castle wall. The air frosted his breath and made him shiver in his light robe. He slid across the veranda to a warm patch of sunlight. One hand in salute, he shaded his eyes from bright Amaterasu as the Sun Goddess melted the shimmering snowfall over the stone garden. Camellia trees with dark green, waxy leaves and bright red blossoms grew along the castle wall and around the garden, the crimson heads of their fallen flowers littering the borders. Four massive rocks, the centerpiece, marched across a rippling sea of glittering, snow-laden gravel. When Tarō winked, a trick of the eye fused the four stones into one.
“Smaller stones will sink beneath the Sea, but one great stone may withstand the tide,” his father once said.
At the time, his father had been speaking to his vassals. Tarō crept close to the audience chamber to listen—but not too close, so the stalwart guards at the closed doors did not see him.
“Lord Oda holds too much influence over the young Emperor,” his father continued his rant. “He abuses his position to sanction his brazen conquests, and these petty rivalries among the provinces only weaken the country, exposing all of us to his devilry. And Hashiba, that scheming sandal-bearer—”
“Tarō!” the voice came more sharply than before from somewhere within the castle quarters, recalling him from his daydream. He glanced over his shoulder, frowning as the voice drew near, accompanied by the sound of footsteps hurriedly thumping on the wooden veranda.
“Tarō! Wake up!” his mother said sharply. “What are you doing out here in the cold—you’ll catch your death!”
Tarō turned as his mother shuffled up to him, her elegantly patterned kimono of richly colored silk whispering around her feet as she fought to keep her trailing gown from tripping her up. She was already out of breath, but she did not stop. She grabbed his shoulders gently but firmly and gave him a reproachful shake as a prelude to a real scolding, but he hung his head to save her hand.
Looking him over, she could not resist a smile. She adored her boy, thinking him so handsome with his bushy eyebrows and thick, black bangs. She pinched his pudgy cheek, and Tarō winced.
“Wake up now, this is a big day! No time for daydreaming,” she said, taking him firmly by his arm. “What will your father say!”
She led him off the way she had come, while Tarō protested, dragging his feet as she shuffled down the paneled corridor, pulling on him with one hand and doing her best to keep her unruly kimono at heel with the other.
“Why do we have to go now?” he groaned.
“Tarō, now don’t be difficult,” she chided, tugging on his arm.
“This is an important day, your seventh birth day, and we must go to the shrine, and that is that.”
[Child mortality was common, and children were considered offspring of the gods until they attained age seven, so a vital rite of passage for samurai boys included visiting a shrine to expel evil spirits and pray for a long, healthy life.]
Tarō’s mother ushered him into his room where his nurse was busily arranging his clothes for the big day. A sumptuous kimono of golden silk, a matching jacket with a golden, brocade clasp, and handsome, pleated hakama trousers lay spread upon the tatami floor. The room smelled grassy from the tatami mats.
“There you are!” his nurse said upon seeing him. She bowed to her mistress. “Off hiding with a book again? I’ve never seen such a bookworm!” she said, taking his treasure and setting it aside. “Just a moment and I will have him ready for you, my Lady.”
Tarō’s mother gave him another reproachful look, then disappeared to attend other matters in preparation for the big day.
Tarō liked the look of the golden silk, and he marveled at the matching brocade obi sash his nurse unfurled for him. His dour matron stripped off his checkered robe and quickly draped him in a light undergarment before clothing him in his golden kimono.
“Hiding yourself away again,” she scolded, “Lord Takeda won’t be pleased, you know!”
Tarō fussed and fidgeted as she bound him with the golden sash, frustrating her pains to dress him in his finery. The more she tugged and tucked, the more Tarō growled like a tiger cub.
“If you don’t stand still—” his nurse complained, suddenly warning,
“Yama Uba will come for you for sure!”
At this, Tarō stopped fidgeting, not for fear but because he loved his nurse’s stories.
“Tell me!” he demanded.
“Oh, she’s a terrible witch,” his nurse said, as she tugged and tucked on his kimono, “with wild white hair and black eyes. She just loves plump, undisciplined little boys! She will steal you away and carry you off to her lair, and then fatten you up and—” she paused for effect, pinching his cheek, and teased, “eat you!”
As Tarō yowled and rubbed the sting from his cheek, she ordered, “Now, off you go! You must not keep your father waiting any longer or he will have your hide—and my head!”
“Where is my son?” Lord Takeda roared.
With a furrowed brow, Tarō’s father rapped the low table with his bamboo sensu folding fan, rattling the slate inkwell in front of him. Seated on a zabuton cushion on a raised portion of the floor overlooking the room, Lord Takeda wore his Buddhist kesa draped over his kimono. His squire sat in silent attendance behind him.
Only a little natural light filtered through the cypress transoms, but tall tallow candles lit the corners, their shadows falling across the tatami floor and upon the plastered walls and sliding doors partitioning the room. A magnificent painting of a tiger decorated the wall in the alcove behind them, its eyes glowing fiercely in the candlelight. A stack of two kagami mochi, “mirror” rice cakes, food of the gods, topped with a small, bitter orange, sat on the shelf in the alcove as an offering to the New Year.
An attendant bowed nervously at his Lord’s displeasure, humbly displaying his tonsured bald spot and topknot as he backed away to investigate, but when the nervous fellow pushed aside the sliding door, Lady Takeda was already seated just outside the room, her two ladies-in-waiting and Tarō’s nurse behind her. She knelt beside the door, carrying herself as if she had been there for some time, and bowed her head so elegantly that Lord Takeda quickly forgot himself. Although they had been married nearly eight years, his consort was still pleasant to behold, her porcelain face delicately framed by the long black tresses of her hair.
“Ah! My lady,” he sighed. “Where is my son?”
Tarō appeared from behind his mother, jumping forward to strike a confident pose in his golden kimono, legs straight and arms raised as if he were about to somersault into the room.
“Yesterday in rags, today in gold brocade,” Lady Takeda quoted the old saying, thinking herself witty, but it fell flat on her husband’s ears.
Lord Takeda inspected his son for a tense moment until Tarō forgot himself. He was small, and his father was an imposing figure, even without his armor and sword. Tarō wore his hair in a ponytail since he had not come of age to shave his head and wear a topknot, nor did he have the nearly perpetual scowl that only aggrandized Lord Takeda’s fearsome appearance, but anyone could see where Tarō got his bushy brows and piercing eyes.
“Kin Tarō!” Lord Takeda said at last in an equally fearsome voice, as he beheld his golden boy. “Already seven years old?”
Tarō nodded timidly.
“Then what are you thinking?” his father roared suddenly, slamming his fist on the low table, the inkwell rattling once again.
Tarō flinched. The servants quickly bowed their heads.
“Always idle,” Lord Takeda blustered, “always absent-minded, sticking your head in books when you should be training with the General! Well? What do you have to say for yourself?”
“My Lord—” His wife tried to speak, but he cut her off.
“Nothing! Not a word! You should attend my son better!”
His stab hurt her deeply. She quickly bowed her head and tugged on Tarō’s kimono, prompting him to do the same. Tarō immediately complied, kneeling with his head bowed so it touched the floor. His backside knew well what came of non-compliance.
“Tarō is the heir to Yōgaiyama Castle and the whole dominion of Kai Province,” Lord Takeda pressed his rant. “He should be attending his training, and you should not be filling his head with all your books and stories. Fairy tales! Nonsense! You are both soft! A soft samurai will not do!—” He beat the table again, rattling the inkwell once more. “Not in these times,” he trailed off, muttering and shaking his head. For reassurance, he glanced at his katana, the sword on the rack beside him.
Following an awkward silence, Lord Takeda waved for his son to come to him. Cautiously, Tarō slid forward, keeping his head down until he sat next to his father. After a tense moment and another flinch from Tarō, Lord Takeda pulled his boy into his arms, feeling guilty for having lost his temper. Lady Takeda smiled and relaxed.
“Are you ready to go?”
“Yes,” Tarō lied for he knew better than to fight the Tiger.
[Lord Takeda’s given name was Nobutora [信虎], “Trusty Tiger.”]
“Good!” his father growled. “But first—” he added, reaching beneath the low table to find a long, slender package wrapped in purple crepe.
Tarō’s eyes grew big and round at the sight of it.
“Congratulations on your birth day!” Lord Takeda grunted, intending to keep his son humble as he handed him the gift.
“Is it a scroll?” Tarō asked eagerly but his question fell flat.
“A scroll?” Lord Takeda repeated, frowning at his wife.
Lady Takeda averted her eyes. Her husband exhaled noisily.
“Go on,” he said, prompting Tarō to open the package.
Tarō tore at the knotted cloth, which fell away to reveal a handsome short sword with black and gold lacquered fittings. He gasped. Although neither expected nor desired, it was no ordinary gift. Lord Takeda glanced at his wife just long enough to perceive her displeasure and smiled smugly.
“It’s okay,” he said, urging Tarō with a nod.
Tarō held the sword close for a better look. Then, remembering his lessons, and surprising both of his parents, he cradled the sword as if making an offering. Holding it up, he bowed his head reverently. Although it barely showed on his stern face, Lord Takeda gleamed with pride to see his son behave with such martial maturity. Only his wife could have detected it, but she took no notice, too busy hiding her sad recognition that her son would soon outgrow her when he assumed the harsh mantle of manhood.
The sword was short, a wakizashi or shōtō, in keeping with the custom, since Tarō would not receive a longer matching daitō until his genpuku, the coming-of-age ceremony when he attained fifteen years of age. The gold lacquer sheath shone like polished mirror inlaid with the Takeda family mon in black lacquer—four separate diamonds arranged in a single unified diamond crest, their coat of arms. A cord of woven black silk attached to the scabbard. Tarō took hold of the hilt, which had been wrapped tightly in ray skin and braided black silk and fitted with an iron handguard wrought with a gilded dragon. The scabbard held the blade as snugly as a glove. He had to pull harder than expected, so the sword surprised him when at last he managed to free it.
“Careful now,” his father cautioned, as Tarō unsheathed the razor-sharp blade.
Lady Takeda bit her lip. She knew better than to challenge her Lord’s pleasure openly, but she could not help but worry for her boy, while Lord Takeda studied his son with high hopes for the samurai he would become.
Tarō held up the naked blade, all the elements—earth, water, fire, and wind—masterfully forged by hammer, anvil, and the skill of the swordsmith and his guiding spirit, into the supreme physical and spiritual embodiment of the samurai. Tarō marveled at the temper line, delicately wrought to resemble floating clouds.
“Every sword must have a name,” his father said. “The smith Masamune named this one Murakumo no Hoken, the Gathering-Cloud Treasure Sword, just like the one Susanō no Mikoto the Storm God hewed from the dragon’s tail.”
Tarō’s eyes grew large in amazement for he knew the story well. As he turned the blade in his hand, the edge caught the candlelight, and a mystical flash made him blink. He thought he heard a faint whisper, as if the sword were calling his name, “Tarō!”
“That’s enough now, put it away,” Lord Takeda said.
Tarō nervously sheathed the blade, thinking he had somehow displeased his father again. Taking the sword and pushing to make sure it was secure, Lord Takeda tucked the prize neatly in the folds of Tarō’s brocade sash so only the hilt showed. Tarō felt awkward, uncertain of how he should carry himself.
Lord Takeda slid the inkwell on the low table to one side. He took up a strip of pure white cloth and spread it on the table.
“Today we will present you to Hachiman no Kami, the God of War, and pray that you grow up big and strong to serve your Emperor and your clan honorably,” Lord Takeda said, reaching for a stick of charcoal and grinding it purposefully in the inkwell until he produced a dark pool of ink.
Tarō watched, his eyes riveted to his father’s hands as Lord Takeda took up a brush and dipped it into the inkwell. His father raised the brush, poised over the pure white cloth. Then briskly, in just a few confident strokes, he wrote in elegant kanji script: 日本一
“Ni-hon-ichi,” Tarō read the words aloud.
“You will be a great leader someday, first in all Nihon.”
“Foolish woman, do not tempt the gods! That is not what it means,” Lord Takeda snapped. “You will fill his head with dangerous thoughts! Tarō is samurai, born and bound to serve and protect his Lord and his Emperor unto death.”
Lord Takeda took up the cloth and tied the auspicious hachimaki around Tarō’s head. He admired his son for a moment, reseating the sword in Tarō’s sash and tugging sharply on his kimono, as if dressing his boy in a suit of armor, checking to make sure it was straight and secure.
As Tarō rolled his eyes upward, trying to get a look at his cloth crown, Lord Takeda leaned close.
“The Takeda family was meant to unite this land,” he whispered. “It is your destiny.”
Lord Takeda paused thoughtfully, then corrected himself.
“Only the gods can see your destiny,” he said aloud. “On your birth day, this auspicious New Year’s Day, we will ask their blessings at Fuji Hachiman Shrine.”
Not prone to indulgence, Lord Takeda dropped his guard for an instant, exchanging a look of quiet pride with his Lady, while Tarō thoughtfully rubbed the handle of his new sword, trying to look the part of a samurai.
In the Hour of the Snake, drums beat a resounding command, echoing across the massive stone walls that stood guard over the impenetrable sanctuary of the castle courtyard. Here and there around the quadrangle, several braziers on tall iron tripods threw flame and thick black smoke into the frosty air. Fifty of Lord Takeda’s samurai had assembled there to escort the family to Fuji Hachiman Shrine.
In full armor except for his helmet, Lord Takeda stood above the assemblage, surveying his retainers from a parapet overlooking the courtyard. Below him, his fearsome General Toramasa shouted commands to the contingent.
Lady Takeda stood silently behind her Lord, her ladies-in-waiting and Tarō’s nurse behind her, but Tarō crept from her side to stand on tiptoe at the parapet, transfixed by the commotion. Catching sight of him, Lady Takeda grabbed his golden sleeve to hold him at a safe distance, but it did little to curb Tarō’s fascination with the bustling activity below as Lord Takeda’s men-at-arms mustered for the journey. Tarō grinned with delight, as the General’s black steed stamped impatiently just below the parapet.
The courtyard air was still and cold, and the snow was deep in shady corners. The men and horses’ cloudy breaths only added to the formidable look of the samurai in their red-lacquered dō-maru armor, the General himself wearing the more elaborate but similarly blood-colored oyoroi scaled armor over his torso and limbs, although his fanned helmet hung from his saddle. Frosty breaths punctuated his commands as the General shouted from horseback until the escort finished forming ranks, their red sashimono banners proclaiming the black composite diamond of their Takeda heraldry as they danced at their backs like insect wings.
Four footmen brought forward Lady Takeda’s palanquin, and she took Tarō by the arm to follow her Lord from the parapet to the courtyard below. As they stopped to greet the General, Tarō eyed a steaming lump of kuso the General’s steed had just dropped on the flagstones, his nose wrinkling when he got wind of it.
“My Lord!” General Toramasa shouted as he dismounted, his bearskin boots crunching on snow underfoot.
The General knelt, bowing low to his Lord, who nodded. The General stood and bowed to Lady Takeda, and she returned his favor.
Although much bigger than Tarō, the General was a squat man with a round face obscured only by sideburns and a mustache as bushy as a tiger’s mane and whiskers. He was not wearing his face guard, and the red-devil menpō hung at his neck, staring back at Tarō with blank eyes as the General bent to greet his pupil.
“What a handsome samurai you look!” the General said. Catching sight of Tarō’s wakizashi, he teased, “And that’s a handsome knitting needle!”
Tarō reached for his sword and drew it, raising it proudly.
“Young Master!” the General said quickly and with some embarrassment for his pupil, “What did I teach you about drawing a sword?”
“If you draw the sword, you must use it,” Tarō parroted bashfully, re-sheathing the blade.
“Well, at least he looks the part—” Lord Takeda said, quietly reproaching his tutor, “even if he still has a lot to learn.”
“Do you think it wise to travel with so light a guard?” the General asked politely.
“It’s fine,” Lord Takeda said with a wave of his hand.
“Lord Oda has spies everywhere—” his General pressed.
“It is enough!” Lord Takeda snapped, annoyed at having his orders questioned. “It is but a day’s excursion.”
“Very well, my Lord,” the General nodded sharply, bowing low, for he knew when to obey, even when his Lord chose to ignore wise counsel.
Lady Takeda and Tarō stepped into the palanquin, a cramped lacquer box with vertical slats for windows, but at least it was warmer inside, and there were cushions to ease the journey. Sumptuous gold leaf and paintings of crimson peonies in full bloom decorated the walls. Tarō slid into a corner, and his mother arranged the cushions for the two of them. A retainer closed the sliding door to shut them inside. Lady Takeda’s ladies-in-waiting, Tarō ’s nurse, and Lord Takeda’s closest retainers rode separately.
Lord Takeda put on his impressive kabuto, his helmet decorated with white horse hair and stag’s antlers so he resembled some mythical monster. Mounting his black stallion and surveying the ranks, he gave the command.
Slowly, to a resounding drumbeat, the Takeda retinue began its winding descent through the snow-laden streets toward the main castle gate, the horses’ hooves clopping noisily on the stones in the road. All the while, Tarō peered through his window.
Sunlight dappled the cobblestones. The castle had been awake for hours, its citizens busying themselves about their daily affairs, but now those residents not accompanying Lord Takeda to the shrine had gathered to honor the procession. Craftsmen, gardeners, servants, and soldiers, all charged with protecting the castle in Lord Takeda’s attendance or absence, all bowed low, some prostrate, as the procession made its way through the winding main street, kicking up muddy snow beneath the footmen’s waraji-sandaled feet and the horses’ hooves. When the procession had passed without further ado, all the castle folk went about their usual business as if their lives depended on it.
Tarō stared out his window at the sloping stone walls that flanked the street, the walls growing ever taller in his eyes as the cavalcade descended through the labyrinthine castle complex to the echoing drumbeat accompanying their march. The castle’s chief defense was the maze of streets, passages, gates, walls and baileys that led to the main keep. Regular switchbacks in the steep and narrow pathways intended to frustrate navigation, the whole fortress having been laid out so as to confuse an attacking army, forcing it to wind its way through the fortifications to approach the keep, all the while exposed to the castle’s formidable defenses.
Tarō spied the countless defensive loopholes, grinning black chutes angled in the face of the fortress walls from which the defenders could strike at attackers with spear, arrow, or musket ball. He shivered at their exposure as the palanquin jostled back and forth along the winding cobblestone road.
Watchtowers with upturned eaves punctuated the walls, one for each compass point, and countless other fortifications lined the way between the keep and the citadel’s twelve gates, including not one but two protective dry moats, each over one hundred feet wide and taller than two men. As the procession passed beneath archways along the route, each arch, each gate proudly proclaimed the diamond crest of his clan, although Tarō took for granted this emblem of Takeda hegemony.
When the procession reached the outermost Tiger Gate, the drums ceased. Lord Takeda and his General having already crossed the drawbridge, they checked their mounts to allow the procession to pass, their horses stamping impatiently. Tarō watched his father through the slatted window at his side, then shifted to get another look through the rear window as the palanquin passed. Just when it seemed as though the procession might leave his father and the General behind, Lord Takeda suddenly spurred his horse to a gallop, followed by the General, and they quickly outpaced the plodding steps of the procession.
“How far is it?” Tarō asked, looking at the sword in his sash and touching it, as if to confirm he had not dreamed it.
“Tarō, don’t start—” his mother said. “It will take several hours to get there.”
Tarō rolled his eyes. With a sigh he slunk into his corner of the palanquin, looking back listlessly as the mountain castle retreated from sight.
“Here,” Lady Takeda said, producing her bentō, a small lacquered lunchbox filled with pressed balls of brown rice sprinkled with sesame seeds. Tarō eagerly took one and chomped into it, his nose wrinkling when he discovered the pink pickled plum hidden inside. Recovering, he shoved the rest of the rice ball in his mouth so his cheeks bulged.
“More?” Tarō asked with his mouth full.
Lady Takeda shook her head and teased, “A wise man’s belly is never full.”
Tarō frowned, puzzled.
“It means you should always be hungry for knowledge.”
“Tell me a story!” he mumbled with his mouth still full.
“Oh, Tarō,” Lady Takeda sighed. “Why don’t you take a little nap instead?”
“The crab and the monkey!”
“Really?” she groaned. “You’ve heard it so many times, you could tell me the story!”
“Once more!” Tarō begged.
“Oh, alright,” she conceded, making herself comfortable.
She offered Tarō a drink of water from a burnished brown gourd decorated with red cord and an ornate stopper, then took a drink herself to wet her mouth before beginning her tale.
“A very long time ago, a crab was foraging for food when she found a rice ball in a ditch. She was considering her good fortune when a sly monkey came along and chattered away until he charmed her into trading her rice ball for a persimmon seed.”
As the palanquin jostled along their route to the shuffling steps of the footmen and the sound of the horses’ hooves striking the frozen road, Tarō listened and watched the castle recede, his eyes following the elaborate flight of castle parapets rising above the snow-laden crest of Mount Yōgai, half a league above sea level, its sinewy arms descending into a peaceful countryside of foothills terraced with snow-laden rice fields bounded by bamboo plumes heavy with frost. Lady Takeda paused, smiling fondly at her inquisitive little boy.
“Then what?” Tarō chided, shaking her from her reverie.
“Well,” she said with a smile, amused at his persistence, “when the crab realized she could not eat the persimmon seed, at first she was upset, but then she planted the seed, and soon a tree grew in its place, and the crab was very pleased with the abundant fruit it bore. When Monkey saw the tree he slyly told her, ‘If you will let me climb the tree, I will pick the fruit for you,’ so she agreed, but Monkey ate all the fruit instead of sharing it with her, which made the crab very angry.”
Lady Takeda used her hand like a crab claw to pinch Tarō’s arm and made him squirm.
“When she protested, Monkey threw little hard, unripe persimmons at her, and one struck her right between the eyes and killed her,” she said, poking Tarō between his eyes so he blinked, “but just before she died, she gave birth to four baby crabs.”
“Why didn’t the monkey kill the baby crabs too?” Tarō asked, surprising her.
“I don’t know,” she said, troubled by Tarō’s violent thought, then with a smile she wittily replied with the proverb, “Even monkeys fall from trees.”
Tarō made a face.
“Do you want me to tell the story or not?” she parried, to which Tarō nodded quietly.
“Well, when the crab babies grew up, they decided to take their revenge on Monkey for killing their mother, so they armed themselves with a prickly chestnut, and a stinging wasp, and a smelly cow dung, and a heavy hammer, and they went to Monkey’s house in the middle of the night. One crab crept into the house and hid the chestnut beside Monkey’s bed. One hid the wasp in Monkey’s water bucket. One hid the cow dung in front of the entrance, and one climbed onto the roof to place the heavy hammer just above the door.”
Still listening, Tarō yawned and sank into his pillow as his eyes grew heavy. Lady Takeda smiled, pleased to think her story might charm her boy to sleep and give her some peace.
“When Monkey woke the next morning,” she continued, “he tried to get out of bed and stepped on the prickly chestnut, which made his foot bleed terribly. Then, when he tried to wash his wound with water from the bucket, the wasp stung him terribly. Monkey tried to run out of the house, but he slipped on the cow dung and fell, and just then, the heavy hammer dropped from the roof onto his head, crushing and killing him. The crabs rejoiced, waving their little claws triumphantly—”
No sooner had she finished her story than Lady Takeda realized Tarō was fast asleep. She smiled to see him quiet and caressed his head. Then she too allowed herself to shut her eyes and rest to pass the time until they should arrive at the shrine.