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Feudal Japan FEBRUARY, 1788 Edo (now known as Tokyo)
He’s not used to waiting. The guard who greeted him at the temple gate feared him enough to hustle him into a private room instead of making him stand outside with the coughing and miserable rabble, but his irritation is ratcheting up by the minute. What’s keeping that head priest? Feeling naked without his swords, the daimyō of Yodo Castle clutches a wooden box, pacing the six-tatami room. bare anteroom. Three there, three back, three there, three back.
The door slides open, revealing a shaven-headed figure in white linen robes, forehead pressed to the floor. “His Reverence extends his apologies for keeping you waiting, Your Excellency.” The priest rises. “If you’ll come this way . . .”
The two retainers posted outside the door fall in behind their commander, and the scent of smoking sandalwood grows stronger as they near the chapel where the carved figure of the Kinkokoro Jizo awaits. The temple staff must have been burning incense day and night since the outbreak, because the long chains of golden lotus surrounding the altar disappear into a sacred haze before they reach the coffered ceiling. The head priest is bowing front and center, clad in magnificent gold brocade vestments for the occasion, flanked by a dozen minions.
The daimyō’s eyes dart around the chapel. Who are all these fools? He doesn’t need—Ah, there it is. Oblivious to the pomp surrounding it, the face of the shoulder-high, wooden saint radiates serenity. Healing. The kind of healing he came here to obtain.
Introductions are made, polite phrases exchanged. The burning sticks of incense in the offertory urn grow shorter, along with Lord Inaba’s patience. Why are they wasting time with needless––
“What brings you here to petition the Jizo-san today, Your Excellency?”
“My son,” he growls. “It’s the pestilence.” The pestilence that has claimed more than a tenth of his household, the pestilence that struck down his favorite concubine, the pestilence now trying to take his son.
He motions to the retainer on his left, who steps forward to extend a bulging doeskin pouch. It clinks softly as an under-priest receives it with a low bow. The retainer on the daimyō’s right steps forward, offering a shock of rice, representing the tithe of his holdings that he will pay in perpetuity to Senkō-ji temple from this day forward. It, too, is received with ritual gratitude.
Then the warlord himself limps forward, holding a box. He’d commanded that it be brought from the family stronghold in Kyoto, but he still hesitates before offering it. His father would have forbidden him to allow its luck and influence to escape their clan. The tea bowl in this box had cemented his House’s hold on Yodo Castle, consolidating allegiance among the nobles who exerted power through a devious command of culture and custom, not their swords.
But there will be no House of Inaba if his son dies. The daimyō hides his desperation behind a fearsome scowl as he extends the box with both hands.
“Please accept this humble offering and appeal to the Jizo-san to spare my son’s life.” He bows. “I beg you.”
And the tea bowl named Hikitoru passes out of one circle of influence, into another.
Present-day Japan FRIDAY, MARCH 28 Tokyo
Nori rings the doorbell for the third time, then peers through the rusting metal bars that crisscross the pawn shop’s display window. She squints into the darkness beyond the red “silk” wedding kimono and a pair of questionable samurai swords.
Nothing moves but a fly, trapped against the glass. If she were taller, she might be able to see past the display and get a better idea what kind of place this is. Too bad she takes after her grandmother. She reaches to press the bell for a fourth time when a light flicks on deep inside, silhouetting a figure in the hallway beyond. She steps back to the door as two locks thwap, and it opens with a sticky sound. In the narrow crack allowed by the security chain, a woman’s lined face appears.
“I know. But my grandmother told me that Miura-san might be very interested in something I have to sell.” She thrusts a note stamped with her grandmother’s hanko through the gap.
The woman takes the slip of paper and reads it, frowning. Pursing her lips, she unchains the door. “I apologize for troubling you.” Nori steps inside. Bows. “I’m Chiyo Okuda’s granddaughter, Nori.” “I’m Miura’s daughter.”
The woman isn’t as old as Nori had first thought. Threads of white are beginning to streak her dark hair, but the lines in her face are deep with suspicion, not age. Early forties, maybe? Younger than her mother would be now.
The woman closes the door and flips on a dim overhead light, revealing a room crowded with wooden chests, miscellaneous bric-a-brac cluttering every surface. Plates from the 1970 Expo are stacked beside iron teapots and boxes of jumbled kimono cords. Souvenir geisha dolls sit atop crumbling boxes that might hold anything from soup bowls to ceremonial sake sets. It doesn’t look like any of it has been moved in years. Had her grandmother made a mistake sending her here?
“Is that it?” the woman asks, flicking a glance at the flimsy convenience store bag in her hands.
“Yes.” She makes space amid the miscellany on the nearest chest. Setting down the bag, she draws out a square box, wrapped in green silk.
“I’ll take it to my father and ask him if he’s interested.” The woman reaches for it.
Nori’s fingers tighten.
“I’m sorry, but my grandmother wouldn’t be happy if I let it out of my sight.” She’s not letting it disappear down that hall.
The woman sighs. “All right. Wait here. I’ll see if he’s feeling well enough to see you.”
Once she’s gone, Nori wrinkles her nose. Something smells of mildew. She moves away from the suspect basket of second-hand kimonos, and catches a glimpse of herself in a tarnished silver platter. She snatches off the kerchief her grandmother makes her wear while she’s working. Crap. She can’t believe she came here looking like a shop-slave.
She reaches up to smooth the spikes of hair escaping from her too-short ponytail. It’s finally growing out again after she let her best friend chop it off for a beauty school exam. Yu-chan had convinced her that if she looked more confident, she’d be more confident, but the dismayingly boy-like clip had only given her confidence in her decision not to return for a trim until her hair is long enough to pull back with a rubber band.
Raising her eyes past the scratched silver plate to the cabinet pushed up against the far wall, she sees that its shelves are stuffed with wooden boxes the same size and shape as the one she brought. She glances at the doorway that swallowed Miura’s daughter, then crosses to the cabinet and picks one up, inspecting the calligraphy on the lid. She puts it back, pulls out another. The artists’ names mean nothing to her, but their general state of dusty neglect adds to her fear that Mr. Miura is no longer any good at selling pieces as valuable as the one in her bag. Has he fallen on hard times since the last time her grandmother had dealings with him? Can he really afford to pay what the tea bowl is––
“We don’t keep the good stuff out here, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
She spins around, half-guilty.
The woman regards her impassively from the lit doorway. Setting out a pair of guest slippers on the edge of the tatami, she says, “Come on back. He says he’ll see you.”
Nori sheds her shoes, steps into the slippers. Following the woman down the hall, she wonders if her mother’s hair has begun to gray too. Of course, it wouldn’t show as much in her mother’s bleached curls. Unless she’d stopped coloring them. What if her mother has let her hair revert to its natural black? She’d never thought of that. Would she even recognize her if––
The woman stops before a door marked Private, and Nori nearly bumps into her. She knocks, then stands aside for Nori to go in first.
The pawn shop office is eerily similar to the one behind her grandmother’s pottery shop on Kappabashi Street. Shelves sag with the same kind of sales ledgers her grandmother uses (although these have blue spines, not red), the local merchants’ association calendar features a photo of too-pink-to-be-believed cherry blossoms, and the tatami mats underfoot are worn in the same dark path from the door to the low lacquered table in the center of the room.
Behind the black table sits the man she came to meet. He’s swimming in a stiff, wide-lapelwide-lapelled suit that nearly stands by itself around his thin frame. His face is as seamed as her grandmother’s, his thinning gray hair combed straight back from a forehead stenciled with age spots.
“I’m Nori Okuda, Chiyo Okuda’s granddaughter.”
“I’m Miura,” he replies, returning the greeting. “Mariko,” he says to his daughter, “could you bring us some tea? And get the boy. I’d like him to see this.”
With a grumble of assent, the woman disappears. The pawnbroker turns his sharp eyes on Nori. “Why didn’t your grandmother come with you?”
“She . . . wasn’t feeling well.” It’s not exactly a lie.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Nothing serious, I hope?”
Her grandmother is lying unconscious in a hospital bed, but she’s spared from answering by the arrival of a skinny boy in black-rimmed glasses, the unselfconsciousness of childhood only slightly tainted by the awkwardness of adolescence. Twelve, maybe? Thirteen? A cheap—but huge—digital watch slides freely around the bony wrist poking from his white uniform shirt, and the inch of sock showing between his loafers and the hem of his uniform pants suggests he’s growing so fast his mother can’t keep up with letting them out. He’s already half a head taller than her.
“You wanted to see me, O-jii-san?”
“Yes, come in. This is Nori Okuda. She brought us something I‘d like you to look at. Okuda-san, this is my grandson, Daiki.”
“Hajimimashite,” the boy says, following the formal pleased-to-meet-you with a bow.
His buzz cut is a topography of light and dark patches, and Nori feels a twinge of sympathy. She’d been subjected to many home haircuts herself.
Miura waves the boy closer, and he lopes across the room, stationing himself behind his grandfather, like the Emperor’s most trusted retainer.
“Well, Okuda-san,” the pawnbroker says, folding his hands before him. “Let’s see this famous tea bowl.” She kneels on the thin cushion across from him. The bag rustles as she draws out the box and offers it to Miura. The grandson moves closer, peering over his shoulder.
The old man unties the green silk wrapper and peels back the corners one by one, revealing an unvarnished wooden box, darkened by time. It’s tied with a blue cord, grown stiff with age. The pawnbroker’s gnarled fingers tease apart the knot, and the cord falls away. He lifts the box from its wrappings, sweeping them aside. Daiki crouches at his grandfather’s elbow, peering at the hand-brushed calligraphy and the square, vermilion stamp on the lid.
“Read it,” the pawnbroker says to the boy.
“It’s called . . .” He studies the writing, draws back, puzzled. “Hikitoru? That can’t be right. Who would call a tea bowl ‘Taking Back’?” He glances at his grandfather, hoping for enlightenment, but none comes. He returns his attention to the box. “Looks like it was made by . . .” he sounds out the characters in the artist’s stamp. “Yoshi Takamatsu?”
“Well done.” The grandfather allows himself a small smile. “Now tell me, is the box genuine?”
“How am I supposed to know that, O-jii-san?”
“How would you find out?”
The boy turns to his phone.
“What are you doing?” Miura sounds annoyed.
“Looking for a picture of the box, so I can compare it with this one.”
“And what’s wrong with the senses you were born with?”
“O-jii-san,” the kid moans. “How many times do I have to tell you? Everything is on the internet now. We don’t always have to do things the hard way, you know.” He scrolls through the results on his phone, grows impatient, keys in a new search. “Huh. It can’t be that famous. I can’t find any pictures of it.”
“That’s because there aren’t any,” Miura says, with satisfaction.
“But here’s another one made by the same guy,” Daiki says, refusing to give up. “It’s called . . . ‘Snow Bride.’” He scrolls some more. “And . . . yes! Here’s a picture of it with its box.” He zooms in and holds the photo next to the box on the table. His eyes flick back and forth between them. “The artist’s stamp looks the same.”
“So . . . do you think this one is genuine?”
“Well, they look the same to me,” the boy says warily, sensing a trap. “But I guess one of them could be forged.” He shoots Nori an apologetic glance. “Sorry.”
“How are we going to find out?”
“I guess we could get a sample of the ink from Snow Bride’s box and compare it to a sample from this one and––”
“Or we could use the faculties the gods gave us,” the old man snaps, seizing the box and holding it to his nose. Giving it a sharp sniff, he nods, then holds it out to his grandson.
Daiki takes a cautious whiff. “Smells like . . . charcoal?”
“It smells like Senkō-ji temple burning to the ground in March of 1945,” his grandfather informs him. “The box is genuine.”
The pawnbroker sets it on the table and eases off the lid. He lifts the brocade-swathed tea bowl from its nest, then stops. His eyes narrow. Placing it before him, he unfolds the covering. With a grunt of disapproval, he fixes Nori with an accusing glare.
“Is this some kind of joke?”
“This isn’t Hikitoru. Did you think you could fool me?”
“No! I didn’t know! I mean . . .”
She stares at the pale irregular bowl with dark drips running down one side. It looks like an expensive tea bowl to her. And it was inside the box her grandmother had hidden in the secret place under their tokonoma alcove.
“How . . . how do you know?”
Miura hands it to his grandson. “Tell her.”
“What? That’s not fair, O-jii-san! You didn’t give me time to . . . I mean, I can’t just––” With an exasperated groan, he pulls out his phone to study the description of Snow Bride again.
“Okay, this other Yoshi Takamatsu tea bowl came from Sasayama, which means it’s, uh . . . Tamba-ware?” He glances at his grandfather. No correction comes, so he returns his attention to the bowl, brow creased. “This one is white with brown drips like the one in the picture, but they’re only on one side, so . . . maybe it wasn’t really made by him?”
His grandfather shakes his head.
Daiki sighs. Hefts it.
“It’s . . . too heavy?” he guesses.
“Yes. A genuine piece of that quality would be lighter. And?”
The boy flips the bowl over and studies the bottom. Laughs.
“Oh. It’s stamped Yamamura. Not Takamatsu.”
Nori’s face burns with shame. How could she have been so stupid not to have checked whether it matched the box or not?
But Miura doesn’t notice, because he’s telling his grandson, “Even if it was stamped with Yoshi Takamatsu’s name, that tea bowl wouldn’t be Hikitoru.”
“Why not?” asks the boy.
“Because the artist who made it died in 1723, and there shouldn’t be a mark on the foot at all. Signing one’s work is a modern conceit. Remember that, Daiki. Someday it may save you from buying a fake from a forger who didn’t do his homework.”
He shifts his attention to Nori. “But passing off fakes isn’t Chiyo Okuda’s style. Your grandmother didn’t bring me many things to sell, but they were always the genuine article. So why is your o-baa-san suddenly sending me the right box with the wrong tea bowl inside?”
She has no answer. Had ’‘Baa-chan lied to her? But she’s sure her grandmother had been deadly serious about the stuff hidden beneath the main room’s tokonoma alcove. When Nori had surprised her opening the secret storage well a week ago, she’d been told to forget she’d seen it. Not to even think of investigating the shadowy recesses she’d glimpsed before the slab of polished wood was latched firmly back in place. Yes, the things stored there were valuable. Rare. But they weren’t to be touched, except as a last resort. This was their insurance, said the grandmother who didn’t trust banks.
What had happened between then and now? Had the real tea bowl been stolen while she was sitting at her grandmother’s bedside in the hospital, willing her to open her eyes and be well again? Or maybe ’‘Baa-chan had secretly sold it without telling her?
“She didn’t really send you, did she?”
Nori swallows. “Well . . . not exactly. But that note I gave your daughter––did she show it to you? It was inside the carrying cloth, so I know she wants me to sell the tea bowl if––” She clamps her mouth shut. Never let a buyer guess how desperate you are.
“If she wants you to sell it, why isn’t it in the box?” “I don’t know.” What had ’‘Baa-chan done with it? “Maybe she sold it to someone else. Without telling me.” He shakes his head. “Anyone who’d buy a tea bowl that valuable without the box to authenticate it is a fool. And I’ve known your grandmother over sixty years, long enough to know that she doesn’t deal with fools.” He retrieves the discarded cord and the green silk carrying cloth. “If she changed her mind about wanting you to sell it, I’d wager she hid it somewhere. Somewhere you’ll never find it.” He pushes the wrappings across the table with a sigh. “But if you do, call me.”
Present-day Japan FRIDAY, MARCH 28 Tokyo
Art authentication specialist Robin Swann shoves her front door shut with her hip, dumping the mail and her handbag atop the shoe cupboard with a sigh of relief. Why is it that no matter how big her purse is, the stuff inside expands to fill it? Rubbing her aching shoulder, she scuffs her feet into the fluffy pink slippers waiting beyond the edge of the entry tiles and trudges down the hall toward the kitchen. Detouring to the pocket-sized bedroom on the way, she trades her panty hose and suit for sweatpants and a t-shirt, zips a faded college hoodie over the top. Then she grabs a shapeless sweater and pulls it over her bush of blond hair, because it’s still two-sweatshirt weather in her apartment. People have been posting bursting blossoms online for weeks now, but anyone who has read the haiku masters and lived in Japan for eight years knows that’s just an invitation for a late dump of snow.
Ugh, has it really been eight years? She takes off her glasses and rubs her tired eyes. She’s over thirty, still living year-to-year on a precarious academic visa that has to be renewed every April, and has had a longer relationship with her goldfish than with any man since she arrived. Speaking of which . . . she crosses the room to the clear glass bowl and peers in. The orange fish lurks near the bottom, not moving, but not belly-up either. She taps in a few flakes of foul-smelling food, and it waves its feeble fins, rising slowly to the surface to nibble.
At first, she’d kept the unwanted pet in a pickle jar, expecting it to move on to goldfish heaven within the week. Instead, it was her romance with the Japanese chef who’d won it for her at a shrine festival that died a quick death, while the stubborn orange fish lived on. After being ghosted by two more prospective boyfriends—neither of whom had been able to deal with her being taller and heavier than they were, even at her skinniest and in flats—she’d reluctantly bought the fish a clear bowl with a fluted blue rim, sprinkled some colored gravel on the bottom, and given it a name.
Fishface is now two—no, three—years old. Surely that’s some kind of record for a festival goldfish. She keys a search into her phone. Nope, apparently, she and Fishface would have to live here thirty-eight more years to challenge that one. The very idea makes her want to . . . what? Scream? Drink wine straight from the bottle? Eat a whole carton of green tea ice cream?
She tucks the canister of fish food back behind the framed photo of her solid Middle -American parents, flanking a beaming, longer-haired Robin who’s squinting into the sun and clutching the diploma proclaiming her a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies. She’d been so excited that day, a week shy of stepping onto a plane to begin her graduate program in Kyoto. So many shining roads had stretched before her, and on that sunny afternoon she still had no idea that the one she’d chosen would lead her further and further from the Japanese poetry master who was her passion, and turn her into a reluctant expert on Yoshi Takamatsu’s tea bowls instead.
The truth is, her fairytale life in Japan is slowly grinding to a halt. She has a dead-end job authenticating antique ceramics, a month-to-month studio apartment near an inconvenient train station, and a marked-up fourth draft of her PhD dissertation languishing on her laptop, the file unopened since mid-December. That reminds her, she still hasn’t gotten the letter from her thesis advisor that’s key to renewing her visa for another year. If she doesn’t submit her application next week, she’ll be in deep trouble. Retracing her steps, she scoops up the wedge of mostly pizza flyers and utility bills, shuffling through it until she spots a fat envelope with her academic advisor’s return address in the corner. Whew. If she makes the dreaded pilgrimage to the immigration office next week, her visa renewal should nip in under the deadline. Abandoning the junk mail, she returns to the kitchenette and tugs on the overhead light’s grubby string pull. The fluorescent UFO overhead stutters to life as she opens the refrigerator. There’s a gap where the wine bottle usually stands. She groans, remembering that the last of her California chardonnay had contributed to last night’s vow to get out more, meet new people, maybe even sign up for a matchmaking service. As if.
Turning to the cupboard, she discovers that her wine supply has dwindled to a single bottle of pinot and the dusty bottle of champagne she’d received when she finished her master’s degree. She twists the top off the red and pours some into the glass that never quite makes it back into the cupboard from the dish drainer. A nightly glass of wine is her one indulgence, and although American wine is more expensive than French in Tokyo, she considers drinking California chardonnay and Oregon pinot among her few remaining acts of patriotism.
She takes a sip and plops down at her low table with the envelope from her advisor. Slits it open, to make sure everything has been signed and sealed.
It has. But a note is paper-clipped to the renewal form, and her smile fades as she reads. The professor, who supervised her research establishing that the tea bowl discovered in the Jakkō-in convent’s treasure house had indeed been made in the 1700s by Yoshi Takamatsu, regrets to inform her that if she doesn’t submit her doctoral dissertation within the coming academic year, he’ll be unable to sponsor her visa again. Robin’s heart sinks. If she fails to finish her dissertation, she can’t stay in Japan. And if she can’t stay, where will she go? Certainly not home.