Enjoy millions of ebooks, audiobooks, magazines, and more

Only $11.99/month after trial. Cancel anytime.

The Samurai Poet

The Samurai Poet

Read preview

The Samurai Poet

5/5 (1 rating)
462 pages
8 hours
Oct 11, 2013


The year is 1615. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the greatest shogun in Japanese history, has just eliminated the last meaningful opposition in the land. Before he can celebrate his victory though, he must decide the fate of Ishikawa Jozan, a man once counted amongst his most loyal retainers but whose mistake in battle almost cost Ieyasu his life. Rather than invite Ishikawa to commit suicide, Ieyasu chooses a far more subtle and insidious punishment, challenging Ishikawa to re-examine the decisions that led to his nearly fatal mistake. Consequently, he must make his way alone in a new world order where constrictive social roles are rapidly being codified and the biggest obstacle a person can face is not belonging to a group.

The Samurai Poet will transport you to seventeenth century Japan and challenge preconceptions about what life was really like in the time of the samurai. Individuals and groups had more freedom than is generally believed, but the consequences of transgressing legal and social boundaries could still be lethal. Once you see Japan through the eyes of Ishikawa Jozan, you will never think about it the same way again.

Oct 11, 2013

About the author

Travis Belrose was inspired to write The Samurai Poet after repeated visits to Shisendo convinced him that there was far more to Ishikawa Jozan's life than tourist pamphlets and biographical sketches indicated. By using fictionalized biography to stretch the novel form, he has endeavoured to combine the best of history and fiction to tell Ishikawa's story. He currently resides in Canada where he is at work on his next novel.

Related to The Samurai Poet

Related Books

Related Articles

Book Preview

The Samurai Poet - Travis Belrose

Book 1: 1583-1640 Yang/Activity

Chapter 1: Osaka, Summer 1615

Bonfires lit the camp and the raucous cheers of samurai erased the sullen mood that had dominated the previous winter. There was no fear of snipers or nighttime raiders now, and the celebration showed it. Trophies in hand, I walked through camp toward the temporary structure where the Retired Shogun was conducting the viewing ceremony. I fell into line and considered the possibility of dropping my bundles and running off into the night. The hope that I would be forgiven for returning with proof of my skill in battle was the only thing that kept me standing there.

My fellow guards were controlling the line of samurai waiting to see Tokugawa Ieyasu. One of them recognized me and walked over to tell me I was to wait until the last man had presented himself. I stepped out of the line and followed him to a dark place under the trees where I could hide in the shadows until my turn came. I do not know how long I sat there, but I am thankful that Hidetada held the official title of Shogun, for had he not been receiving samurai himself, I might have been waiting in that spot until dawn.

The camp gradually became quieter, although there were still occasional shouts and bursts of song. Two guards approached and escorted me to a small building more in keeping with that of a tea master than the most powerful man in the land. After surrendering my swords, one of the guards slid open the door and I was permitted to enter alone. The room was dimly lit. I could make out three tatami mats on my side with a small wooden platform on the middle one. A linen curtain divided the room in half. On the other side, somewhere on the raised floor, Ieyasu waited for me in silence. I knelt at the entrance and held a bow. Then, ignoring the pain of my injuries, I walked on my knees to a spot behind the platform. My movements were deliberate. Regardless of the fate that awaited me, I was going to let propriety mask my inner feelings.

I bowed again and announced myself, O-Gosho-sama, it is I, Ishikawa Jozan.

It was so quiet I could almost convince myself that Ieyasu had left the room. Knowing him, he was waiting—studying me for signs of discomfort. Right at the moment when the silence seemed intolerable, Ieyasu spoke, Well, is this our miracle warrior rising up from his sick bed to enter the battle?

He pulled back the curtain and glared down at me. I said nothing. His countenance signalled a mixture of resignation and disgust. He wore the same white kimono with a brown haori overcoat that he had on earlier in the day. Whether he had forsworn his armour due to confidence in victory or because it no longer fit, I could only surmise. Age related illnesses had reduced his bulk somewhat, but he was no less imposing than when we had first met. His ginger movements suggested that he was more active earlier in the day than he had anticipated. The thought that he could have used me at his side was the only one in my mind.

Show me the heads.

I knelt down and unwrapped each head before placing it on the bloodstained viewing board, moving as slowly as decorum would permit to delay experiencing his wrath. Upon finishing, I backed up, bowed, and waited on my knees.

Well done, Ishikawa. Three heads, and in your condition, too. Young Maeda made sure to commend you. It pleases me to see that you were finally able to prove yourself worthy to your ancestors.


Let me have a closer look. He stood up and walked over to see the tags that identified each head. Two of these men were Ono’s I see. He studied the head of the young man I had killed in the castle. And who was this latter-day Atsumori representing? Toyotomi Hideyori?

His reference to the centuries old story of Atsumori shamed me. The gap in age and experience between Atsumori and his killer paralleled that between this dead youth and myself. That he lacked Atsumori’s princely status only undercut my accomplishment further. Mercifully, Ieyasu limited his critique to that allusion and shifted to his real concern.

This is unexpected. I thought we charged into Sanada’s men today. The overzealous among us even returned with some Mori and Ono heads, but this is the first from Toyotomi. How is it that one of my bodyguards comes before me with this head? Ishikawa, I wish you to explain yourself, and speak plainly. Remember that I commanded your father and grandfather in battle and deeply respected both of them. There is no need to equivocate.

O-Gosho-sama, the truth is that I was desperate to enter battle in memory of them both. Having not been given permission by one of your doctors to return to service, I felt that the surest way was to join Maeda on the front lines.

That was very brave of you. Brave to go to the front. Braver to interpret my orders in such a self-serving manner. He exhaled audibly. "What would you have done if I had died today? Were these three heads worth risking the shame you would have felt had I perished in battle? If you were anyone but your father’s son, I would be ordering you to commit seppuku where you sit." There was a long pause as he stared at a flickering torch. I imagined myself in a white kimono, kneeling with a short sword poised in front of my belly, just before the moment I plunged it in for atonement.

You have presented me with the type of dilemma I would have preferred to judge a few months from now. There are many men under my command, from general to foot soldier, who expect me to order your death. How would you judge another man in your position?

I failed to protect O-Gosho-sama when he entered the battle. I joined another unit without permission. There is only one punishment that would be fitting.

In the old world, yes. But the world changed today. My problem is that not enough people realize this yet to understand why I might let you live. What do I risk if my action is interpreted as a relaxing of discipline when it is intended as something else?

Ieyasu was in a strange, reflective mood that I had never witnessed before. He seemed to feel the need to speak to me as a confidante, despite the disparity in our status and the precariousness of my situation.

Ishikawa, do you understand what happened today?

I am sorry if this sounds trite, but I only know that there is no one left to oppose the Tokugawa.

That is half true. But what is the real significance of this victory?

I do not know.

"The Chinese discovered this truth, and our own history has borne it out—greatness can only endure three generations. I no longer require samurai to defend my interests at the tip of a spear, but with the mind. I had thought you would make the transition to serving me in the new bakufu. But you revealed an ability to subvert my orders for your own purposes that is more troubling than your failure to protect me."

There was silence as he waited for me to feel the fullness of his disappointment.

I am not going to order you to commit seppuku, Ishikawa, but I have no desire to explain my reasoning. My success results from an ability to conceal my motives from others. What reason do I have to reveal them to a man who disobeys my orders? In fact, I am too angry with you to determine your punishment right now. You are to return to Sunpu and sit under house arrest until your punishment is decided. Do you understand?

I do. I am unsure why I could not stop myself, but asked, May I make a request?

A request? I could detect exasperation in his voice.

That I might serve my house arrest at Myoshinji Temple in Kyoto.


Yes, sir. I know it is inappropriate to ask for anything when O-Gosho-sama has already shown mercy and spared my life. If anything, they would probably supervise my house arrest with greater strictness than in Sunpu.

He reflected for a moment. That much is true. Scrubbing the temple floors would certainly give you time to ponder your insubordination. I am inclined not to though, because this very request just seems to be another example of your audacity. I am beginning to suspect that your time spent with this monk, Sesshin, has begun to make you think too much for a samurai.

He stopped and looked at me for so long that I lowered my eyes to avoid his contemplative gaze.

Perhaps if you gain an education worthy of your keen mind, you will have an interesting vantage point from which to witness the unfolding of my plan to secure peace in the realm beyond three generations. Yet you will have no one of influence with whom to share your observations. It could be a frustrating life for you. That would be a real punishment, Ishikawa—educate yourself, fathom my plan, then experience the helplessness of being unable to subvert it, let alone stop it.

I pressed my fists into the ground, trying to control the anger in my voice, Why would I wish to see your descendants fail? Although I have failed you, I remain loyal.

Ishikawa, once a man has experienced the taste of independent thought, he loses the capacity to serve. When I am dead, the Tokugawa family will lose the ability to rule through will alone. The system I have conceived to sustain our dynasty will not depend on the charisma of any one leader. The unfortunate consequence is that it leaves no place for men like you.

He walked back to his seat. You will await my answer in the morning.

I bowed penitently. As I stood up, I saw the backs of three heads sitting on the platform. I left them and returned to my tent, struggling to understand all of the implications of our conversation. My mixed feelings about escaping death in exchange for house arrest smouldered while I attempted to grasp the meaning of Ieyasu’s words. He already thought moves ahead of other men, and I was starting from further behind than most. It could take the rest of my life to make sense of his curse.

Chapter 2: 1589

I was born in the Age of War.

My land had been riven by fighting for more than a century in which great leaders and their houses rose and fell in a single generation. Living in Mikawa province, we were shielded from the conflicts by the castles Lord Tokugawa had built along our borders and the invisible barriers my mother had erected around my life. My father manned one of those castles, far away from his wife, children, and the aging peasant maid we employed. Coming from a mid-ranked samurai family, we were fortunate to live in a larger home that would have been reserved for a higher ranking family had we not lived far from the main castle in the village of Izumi. We had a private courtyard with a well and a cherry tree, surrounded by an earthen wall topped with a bamboo fence. This pleasant outdoor view contrasted with an interior that always seemed dark and shadowy even on the brightest summer day. The wall panels were stained brown, and we had fewer doors opening to the outside than one would expect in a home of this type. Our interior garden was such a tiny patch that sunlight failed to touch the soil even on the solstice. Were it not for the soft green moss covering the ground, the pervasive darkness would have been a source of melancholy.

Whether or not the house affected the moods of my mother, I was too young to observe. More alert to the visible, I admired how her long black hair framed her pale white face and hung in a perfect line down the centre of her back. Even knowing how much time she spent caring for it with her wooden combs, it was a wonder that so much hair could be trained to stay in place as she attended to her duties around the house. She rarely showed her blackened teeth, but when she offered an unguarded smile, I became entranced by the void in her mouth. As much as tooth blackening is customary for samurai women to display their married status, for mother it offered a connection to the aristocratic life she admired in Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji. Sometimes she would read me stories of gallant princes using poetry and music to charm beautiful young women living in forlorn settings. I did not understand the appeal of these tales, but they did explain why she preferred teaching me how to read and write rather than to uphold the martial traditions of my family.

As soon as I was capable of holding a brush in my hand, she began showing me how to write the syllables in hiragana and katakana. Perhaps because hiragana is known as the woman’s script, it was the one my mother had mastered. She could write its gently curving characters in a flowing manner that suggested she was a reincarnation of Murasaki herself. She encouraged me to emulate her style by copying passages from Genji. Conflicted by an eagerness to please her and an inchoate sense that an overly feminine style was inappropriate for me, my performance was inconsistent. Still, she was a patient teacher, often ignoring my brother and sister to supervise my work.

It was not until my seventh year that she became satisfied enough with my progress to introduce some variety to the lessons. One day, she refrained from involving me in the preparation of the writing materials. She carefully unfolded a piece of fabric and smoothed it out on the straw tatami floor. A heavy inkwell held the fabric in the top right corner, with a rectangular ink stone worn at one end carefully placed beside it. Next, she unrolled a bamboo mat to reveal two brushes, which she placed in a wooden vessel of water to soften the bristles made from the hair of wild boar. As she worked, my eyes followed her wrists—so impossibly narrow that I could encircle them with my thumb and finger. Once she laid out the paper over the fabric, I realized why she had not asked me to help prepare for writing. Mother, we’re using different paper today.

Aren’t you a clever boy? What do you notice that is different?

The squares are bigger and they’ve been divided into quarters.

That’s right. Do you know why that is?

No, mother.

Today we begin to learn the writing system we borrowed from the Middle Kingdom.

Kanji. The imported characters from China that represented ideas. This was the domain of men. Coming from a prominent samurai family, my mother was one of the few women fortunate enough to have been taught some of these ideographs. I leaned in attentively as she dipped her brush in the ink, and then drew the character for ‘eternity’ 永. Do you notice how this kanji is perfectly balanced between the four quadrants? These extra lines will help you centre the character and ensure that it is properly balanced.

But mother, how do you write so neatly on blank paper?

It becomes natural once your hand has learned how to write them in proportion.

Do you still imagine the squares are there?

No, you seem to forget that you ever needed them.

She dipped her brush again, dabbed off the excess ink, and brushed a horizontal line. She followed it with a quick curving stroke and a diagonal line to complete the kanji for ‘big’ 大. Having learned the fundamental strokes during hiragana practice, I was able to write a passable set of imitations.

Very good, son. Your brush strokes are too thick, though. Remember that the square not only assists in centring the character, but to illustrate the value of leaving space around it. There is equal beauty in what is written and what is unwritten.

During breaks from the writing lessons, I would sit on the shaded verandah, hoping to feel a fresh breeze. While idling there with my feet hanging over the edge, I saw a stranger stride proudly through the gate, back erect, wearing two swords at his side. He had the confident air of a leader, unafraid of any challenger who might stand in his path. I ran inside, shouting, "Mother there is a strange man in our yard! I think he’s a ronin." The look of alarm in my mother’s eyes was intensified by her movement to reach the short sword she kept hidden in her obi. I began crying. She attempted to reassure me briefly, but was forced to thrust me into the arms of the maid so that she could rush out to see who had frightened me. The maid tried to calm me, saying that we were not in danger. I let out a loud sob, which she struggled to suppress by pulling my face into the rough cloth of her smoke-smelling robe.

I heard mother’s voice. Sonsuke, come to the entrance please. We have a visitor.

I could not seem to move despite the rough pushes the maid was giving me. Then a man’s rough, loud voice boomed out, Sonsuke, come meet your father who has walked so far to see you.

The man I had seen was my father? Although I could not believe it, there was an underlying warmth in his authoritative voice which drew me out to the verandah. My eyes widened as I saw the man up close in his new kimono, standing there with one arm assuredly resting on the upper sword hilt, too well kept to be a ronin. He looked at me approvingly, as pleased with me as he was with himself. My mother was bowing to him, her head a hair’s width above the floor. I was too awestruck to kneel and bow myself, forcing mother to raise her arm in an attempt to pull me down while keeping her face parallel with the floor.

My father intervened. Let him stand. He is the man of the house now. My mother immediately bowed again and apologized for her presumption. Father dismissed her without acknowledgment of the apology. It is time for men to speak about the affairs of the world. She exited unobtrusively while he swooped me up in his left arm and sat on the verandah facing the lone cherry tree in the courtyard. Up close, I could see the follicles on his clean-shaven pate. His oiled topknot glistened in the sunlight, but there was not a single excess drop touching his skin.

I was transfixed by the hilts separating me from my father. Noticing this, he drew his katana and held it out in front of me. You must learn to wield this sword. From this day your training begins. He held it with the butt of the hilt lightly touching my belly. I wondered how heavy it was and feared I would drop it. Even more afraid of displeasing father, I grasped the sword in two hands, my left at the base, my right above his, tight against the guard. He let go without warning, but the sword’s sharp tip barely dipped in my hands. It was surprisingly light and I wondered that a boy my age could hold it. Father was pleased, You hold the sword like the true son of a samurai. When you are old enough we will fight in Lord Tokugawa’s army together.

I followed him everywhere that day. We sat on the floor and polished his swords. He cared for the long katana, while I was entrusted with the shorter and seldom used wakizashi. Although it had other uses, its reputation as the implement of self-disembowelment during the seppuku ritual made me feel squeamish while handling it. Father mistook my expression for distaste and reprimanded my mother for raising a monk in his absence. I cringed at the insult. It was not until we shared a hot bath that night that I felt able to relax in his presence again.

There are few greater pleasures than sharing a bath with your comrades.

How do you all fit into one tub father?

He laughed at my innocence. There are baths in this land large enough for a hundred men.

A hundred? The women must be boiling water all day to make a bath that big!

No Sonsuke, the water is heated underground by the demons our ancestors defeated long ago. It’s so hot that you can bathe outdoors in winter without discomfort.

I can’t wait until I’m old enough to see one! Through the steam I could see my father’s smiling face as I imagined the walls were snowy mountainsides.

The next morning, my father left. Mother again bowed low on the wooden verandah, while I approximated a samurai’s one-kneed bow. He examined us silently before saying, This boy has a strong will. He will either become a great hero or a disgrace. With that, he turned and strode across the courtyard and through the gate without a backward glance. Despite his puzzling words, I henceforth sought to emulate him. My desire to learn the martial arts made me disenchanted with my mother’s writing lessons. Moreover, I lacked the motivation to follow her artistic example. Mother, why does it matter what my characters look like as long as they are correct?

Men will judge your character by your hand.

No they won’t. All they care about is how you fight.

Is that so? Then why does Lord Tokugawa dance parts in the Noh performances at his castle? Even the most powerful man in the land, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, has become a master of the tea ceremony.

Who is Lord Toyotomi?

He is the Kanpaku.

Is Kanpaku higher than Shogun?

Since there is no Shogun right now, I suppose it is.

Does this mean Lord Tokugawa is not the most powerful lord in the land?

He is the most powerful lord in our part of the land and he is at peace with the Kanpaku. She looked at me knowingly. Are you really so concerned about our lord’s status, or is this your way of avoiding calligraphy practice?

I left my brush in the ink well, ignoring my mother’s hint. "I’m never going to be a daimyo like Lord Tokugawa or the Kanpaku, so why should it matter how I write? Father would be angry if he knew I was wasting my time like this."

I was afraid that I had upset her by calling calligraphy practice a waste. However, she seemed to conceal a smile. Your father’s anger is my concern.

Another writing lesson that my mother tried to impress upon me was that kanji were not static two-dimensional characters on the page, but living three-dimensional embodiments of the ideas they represent. This was a difficult thing for me to appreciate. How could these black lines on a page take a form?

My confusion lasted until the night I had an unusual dream. The boxy character for ‘mouth’ 口 was lying flat on the white, sandy ground. Without warning, it stood up in the sand as though carpenters were pulling up the wall of a house with invisible ropes. It was then the thickness of the character revealed itself. The seeped ink extended horizontally like frozen carp banners blown by a perfectly constant wind. I entered the character and emerged on the other side to see the kanji for ‘person’ 人 stride by me while another rested under a shady ‘tree’ 木. ‘Convex’ 凸 and ‘concave’ 凹 were as deep as they were wide and tall. ‘Tea’ 茶 seemed like a house I could walk inside. There may have been others, but I could not recall them in the morning. However, the dream affected the way I perceived and wrote kanji. I could not show the depth of each character on a flat page, but my sense of each kanji’s architecture helped me balance them better inside the practice squares.

Although my mother had a strong distaste for weapons, I was drawn to the sword. I enjoyed sneaking away from the house, pretending that I was on a secret mission, when in truth, it was only to meet my playmates in a wooded ravine near our homes. We always chose sticks to stage sword fights, disdaining such dishonourable weapons as the matchlock, bow, and spear that allowed you to strike someone from a safer distance. I imagined storming into battle side by side with my father, taking heads, gaining glory, and enlarging the reputation of the Ishikawa name throughout Mikawa.

After taking turns duelling in the centre of a circle, someone shouted out a challenge for a fight to the death. We dispersed to hiding places in the ravine while the strongest boy in our group counted to one hundred. When he finished, it was silent enough to believe that we had all returned home. Few birds were active during the day and not even the buzz of insects could be heard.

"Kakare! Someone yelled the signal to charge and the sound of clashing sticks soon proved the sincerity of his challenge. The first boy cried out his victory, which prompted two or three more pairs of feet to run along the trails. I crept toward the clearing as my playmates rushed into the fray. Wooden swords swirled and victims dramatically fell dead upon receiving any clear strike to the upper body. I readied myself to attack a victor only to see him engage another combatant. Realizing that I had been forgotten, I watched as they tired themselves out. To my amazement, the first boy survived until the end. He lifted his mock sword in triumph and yelled, Do any remain who challenge me?"

I answered by charging toward him holding my own weapon above my head. He swung at me as I ran by him, losing his balance when the momentum of his missed strike carried him to his knees. I stopped and lunged toward him, landing a strike on his back before he could recover. The quiet returned to the woods as everyone tried to comprehend how a boy my age could defeat another three years his senior.

Ishikawa won!

He’s the champion!


The boys gathered around me to offer congratulations. Their adulation caused me to raise my shoulders and thrust my chest out.

Is he a champion or a coward?

The circle parted to reveal the boy I had defeated.

What do you mean? Don’t be sore just because you lost, someone said.

I’m not sore. We all know I’m the best fighter here. It just bothers me that we’re calling him a champion when all he did was hide in the shadows and wait for the fight to finish before he attacked.

My tongue pressed against the roof of my mouth as I tried to muster an answer. I thought I was just being smart waiting for the battle to end. If I admitted that, would it be an acknowledgement of cowardice?

Look, his face is turning red!

Ishikawa knows he is a coward!

Coward! Coward! Coward! The boys pressed toward me, shouting in my face. I felt tears welling in my eyes.

Look! The champion’s crying now! Run home little baby!

Someone shoved me backward a couple steps, making flight seem like a better option than attempting to silence their taunts. When I turned, I felt a branch hit my back. It was not the only strike I received as they chased me out of the ravine. I returned home barely able to breathe from the pain in my rib cage. Hearing that my mother was occupied with my younger siblings, I crept into the house to lie down in an unoccupied room, still struggling to understand why it was cowardly to enter the battle when I did.

Chapter 3: 1590

Grandfather Honda came to the house on a sunny spring morning. He had a sinewy frame that suggested he could still fight if called upon. Were it not for a back injury that prevented him from twisting his waist, he probably would have never retired from active duty.

Would you like to go for a walk today, Sonsuke?

Let’s go! Let’s go! I said, rushing to get geta for my feet.

My mother came to the genkan, knelt down, and bowed. Welcome to our home. She remained on her knees. Where do you plan to take him today father?

It’s quite a distance, he said. I’m not certain he is old enough yet.

My back straightened. I can walk anywhere.

My grandfather smiled. Is that so? Even as far as the Tokaido?

Why are you taking him there? Mother asked in an unusual tone.

We’re going to see his father off to war. Would you like to join us?

She replied without considering the offer. You will have to excuse me today. Sonsuke, do you wish to go? The temple is expecting you for your lessons. My mother had enrolled me there after teaching me all of the kanji she herself knew. Although I enjoyed seeing my friends at the temple, I was already stepping into my wooden sandals by way of reply.

Seeing this, she addressed my grandfather. Do you need food, father?

He held up two small wooden boxes wrapped in a cloth. I’ve brought provisions. Are you ready?

I executed a standing bow. Yes, sir!

My grandfather walked at a dignified pace, while I talked excitedly and danced around him, pretending to fend off our enemies. Eventually I realized that I did not know who we were fighting this time, so I asked.

We are marching against the Hojo.

In Odawara?

He tilted his head. How do you know that?

I had overheard my mother talking about the possible war with her friends. Grandfather was not expecting a reply, so I swung my imaginary sword at a Hojo enemy. I wish I was going to fight today.

A laudable spirit, but I suspect that even if you went, you would not be meeting the enemy.

I stopped swinging my phantom sword. Why is that grandfather?

The Hojo are masterful castle builders, and the one in Odawara is their most impressive fortress. Even if it were vulnerable, I doubt there would be a fight.

Why is that?

Toyotomi Hideyoshi is in command.


He is a master of the siege.

I affected a manly voice. Sieges are for cowards.

He cocked an eyebrow. Where did you hear that?

All the boys I play with say that.

I suspected as much. You probably do not know of Sunzi, do you?

Who’s he? It sounds like a Chinese name.

That’s right. He was the greatest strategist in history. And he said that you should never raise an army twice.

What does that mean?

The Kanpaku thinks it means there is no need to gain with blood what can be obtained with time.

Is he right?

Well, Sunzi offered rules for when to siege and when to fight, but Toyotomi has yet to fail in a siege, so he might not always follow the master.

With those words, I lost my enthusiasm for battle and walked down the road with grandfather in silence. I did not understand why the general with the largest army was afraid to fight, or why grandfather seemed to respect the strategy of Lord Tokugawa’s former enemy. The low, forested mountains in the west seemed no closer than when we had started out, and the Tokaido seemed closer to them than it was to us. It was better if I stared at the road and kept walking.

From a distance, I could see a long unbroken line of movement in the foreground. An army the size of which my grandfather had never seen before occupied the entire length of the horizon. My pace quickened at the thought of seeing my father.

"Hurry, Jiji! We might miss him."

Don’t fret. Toyotomi will parade his entire army by your father’s unit before allowing them to join. He needs to remind them that he is the lord of their lord.

When we got close enough to see the fields between the road and the mountains, I began to distinguish individual men in the line. They did not march in unison, but maintained their ranks at a steady pace. Few units wore matching armour, but those that did seemed to project a sense of pride. The procession appeared as though it could last all day, but not once did I lose interest. Grandfather helped out by identifying the crests of each unit, but they blended together in my mind until I would merely nod even at the mention of a famous daimyo.

The hypnotic effect of watching samurai march was interrupted by the appearance of travelling entertainers juggling and performing acrobatics. Many of the other children watching rushed up and clapped in delight. I remained at grandfather’s side.

What are those performers doing grandfather? Won’t they be killed for walking with the samurai?

I looked up at him when he failed to reply. His features tightened as he watched the parade in silence. Elegantly dressed women on horses started throwing lucky beans to the delighted children. They were accompanying black lacquered palanquins in which Hideyoshi’s consorts were riding.

The vulgarity of that man! The sharp hiss in his voice drew my eyes from the women to grandfather’s face. I followed his gaze to a sinewy man riding the tallest horse. He and his horse were draped in exotic striped animal skins that made me gasp. Underneath the orange and black furs, he was wearing the robes of an aristocrat that I had only seen before in illustrations depicting Heian court life six hundred years ago, yet he acted nothing like the dignified nobles from The Tale of Genji. He laughed and waved to the onlookers, acting more like a farmer riding in a decorated cart during the harvest festival. Before I could ask if this was the ringleader of the travelling entertainers, I saw the flag with the crest of the drinking gourd. This was the Kanpaku—Toyotomi Hideyoshi—lord of our lord, and the most powerful general in the land!

My shock deepened when another group of men and women walked by wearing the strangest fashions I had ever seen. The men wore puffy pants and jackets with frilly cuffs. Their tall collars made their heads look like they were separated from their bodies on platters hidden under black hats that added spans to their height. The women wore robes that resembled kimono that had been tied too loosely. Their hair was covered with scarves that only revealed their faces.

Foreigners! I shouted excitedly. My grandfather’s countenance betrayed concern over my enthusiasm for this novelty.

No, not foreigners. Look closely and you will see Japanese faces wearing barbarian clothes.

He was right. They were Japanese, but they were laughing and frolicking as if they were another people. This group passed too, and still there were no samurai. Next, we saw a group of women in kimono, but in gaudier colours than any I had ever seen before. Oddly, their obi were tied at the front.

Why are their belts on backwards?

You are too young to hear the answer.

These must have been the women of the pleasure quarters the older boys had told me about, but I felt uncertain. I had heard that they slept all day and stayed awake all night, so would they really join a daylight march?

Finally, a group of samurai passed. Each man was on a horse and rode a careful distance from the other. Their armour was uniformly resplendent, but very different from one man to the next. Some of them had grim expressions on their faces; others barely concealed their anger.

Take a good look now, if you want to see a real leader. There is Lord Tokugawa, riding among the daimyo.

I located the hollyhock crest of the Tokugawa before I saw the face of the man. He looked somewhat portly and had soft cheeks. At first, I mistook his look of calmness for one of weakness. After glancing at the faces of the other daimyo and looking back at him, I realized that he possessed a reserve of strength that allowed him to ignore the insult of riding behind the harlots and entertainers brought along to turn a military campaign into a tawdry festival.

The next unit was my father’s. I did not see him and no man turned his face to give us the opportunity for recognition.

Say good-bye Sonsuke. Somewhere among those men is your father. He will know that you were here.

Chapter 4: 1594

As my grandfather suspected, Hideyoshi used a siege to achieve a bloodless victory. The Hojo surrendered Odawara Castle and their leaders committed seppuku. Hideyoshi transferred the Hojo’s eight eastern provinces to Ieyasu in exchange for the five provinces he controlled in central Honshu, including Mikawa. Compelled to follow our lord to the city of Edo, we traded our comfortable family home for one of the row houses that had been rapidly constructed for Ieyasu’s samurai. Edo itself seemed to expand its borders every day as it transformed from a fishing village into a castle city.

My mother looked lost away from Mikawa. Despite having friends who lived nearby, she withdrew from them and spent most of the time in the house, sighing

You've reached the end of this preview. to read more!
Page 1 of 1


What people think about The Samurai Poet

1 ratings / 0 Reviews
What did you think?
Rating: 0 out of 5 stars

Reader reviews