The Forty Seventh Ronin

Awake.

The sounds of barking dogs and starting cars drift through a balcony door unclosed through the night.

He pulls on yesterday's shorts.

Seven a.m. and the room is already hot.  On the balcony he hears something rumble distantly overhead
-- a jet engine or thunder?

He grabs the camera from the desk and throws its strap over his shoulder.

Roppongi: Caucasian capital of Tokyo; day twenty-eight.

                                                                          ***

Outside, along balconies, futon mattresses held in place by giant pegs are beaten violently by armed
house wives.  Florian dodges descending dust blooms that taunt his allergies.

A young woman drags signage before a hair-dressing salon.

Ahead of its teenage owner, a pig, larger than any local dog, vacuums the pavement with its flat, pink
snout.

A convoy of Swedes pedals from the local supermarket with the silhouettes of groceries pressed against
the plastic bags hanging from their handles, bells ringing.

A son, held upright on his bike with the help of giant training wheels, banks hard, driving his father into
the curb-side shrubbery.

Pigeons ascend between buildings.  The sun's burning reflection hangs in the gigantic mirror of a
tower's face.

Opposite, a boulevard flanked with street lanterns sparkles with the morning's reflected light.

He is in exile -- an ambassador, an artistic attache -- beyond geography.  Here to write the story of his
life.  But a protagonist needs direction and character development and objectives.  And a hero -- a hero
needs something to die for; and yes, maybe he can live his life out of spite against others and the
society he finds himself in every morning -- maybe even against himself; but what allies can he hope for
in such a battle?

And how can he hope to be anything but a tourist? Will he be 'in' Japan when he is no longer scrambling
between points on his map? Or is being a non-tourist about not visiting new places? -- Replacing
breadth for depth, quantity for quality.

                                                                          ***

In the capital of the Shinto-Buddhist state, beneath the cold splendour of dome-topped architecture,
Florian steps into the solitude of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral.

The Australian atheist scans -- illiterate and unfaithful -- paintings surrounded by Hebrew and Russian.  
Here he has found amnesty, united with the church by their shared conspicuousness.  Thin yellow
candles dance in a glass cabinet, flames reflected in a liquid wax that turns the air into oil.  At the
entrance, he begins to talk softly with two elderly guides in their own tongue but quickly remembers a
drawback of using his fledging Japanese -- if he says a little he's presumed to be an expert; as their
voices accelerate and his responses slow, a short and narrow woman -- a visitor who had earlier
contributed a candle to the cabinet -- steps up beside him.  Her black-red hair is pulled to one side in a
single pigtail and she has the face of a twenty-year-old.

Florian guesses her to be about forty.

He tells the guides of his visit to nearby Confucian Shrine
Yushima Seido.  His translator recounts in a
soft tone, and the guides quickly respond.  He stifles a laugh at the younger woman's difficulty in
converting the guides' recommendation but he already understands: the Kanda Myojin Shinto shrine --
a temple half a k' north.  He thanks them, bows, and turns.  They call out and wave him and the
translator back.

They are to go to the Kanda Myojin together.

He looks to the matchmakers -- and then to her, eyebrows raised.  She smiles and nods.

They exit the cathedral and cross the road

Her name is Hiroko.

"You live in Tokyo?" he asks.

"Hiroshima.  You know -- first atomic bomb?"

"Good night life?" She laughs and nods.  A block later, they are walking through a children's playground,
the temple roof appearing above a canopy of trees.

A band of cheeping school children marches past; one says 'hello' and Florian replies in kind. With hands
covering mouths the party bursts into laughter, and quickly scampers.

"Why are you in Japan?" Hiroko asks.

"My boss thought my last article reflected a desire for a change in scenery."

The stairs to the temple ground undulate; he slows for Hiroko.

In the temple grounds Hiroko stops to translate a plaque and helps him slowly piece the Japanese
glyphs together.  In a flower bed opposite a shrine, a large and collarless orange cat single-mindedly
shadows a bird pecking the dirt.

Shrines remind him of Jewish tabernacles, albeit larger than their kosher counterparts: astral-houses --
metaphysical or archetypal equivalents of their domestic counterparts.  They are homes of heaven.  And
here, even astral houses have their own doghouse -- down the side and in the rear of the main shrine
is the Kitsune Shrine, with its supernatural foxes, bowls of water, drink cans, and decorations before
them.

The space made for shrines is a quiet one.  It is an alcove of darkness within an often terrifying light,
like the dualism of nature and the city -- but it is not a fair parallel to make to a shrine.  For a shrine can
sit on the roof of a building, it can display bare concrete-tiled courtyards for dozens of meters either
way, contain foxes made of stone and skeletal cherry blossom branches.

And yet it is a different place.

They put their bags down and walk to the entrance of the main hall.

Hiroko asks if he can pray.

He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a golden five-hundred yen coin.  It is all he has, but it is a cheap
price to pay.  They throw together, their coins clinking against the wooden bars of the collection box
before landing on a bed of similar metal; clap hands twice sharply, then bow.  Further down, a mother
stands behind her young son, leaning him forward and bringing his hands together slowly.  Hiroko,
following Florian's line of sight, smiles sheepishly.

The two of them walk towards the main gate and the torii beyond.

A group of French junior-high students crosses their path, one stopping in Florian's way. Florian says
'excuse me' in Japanese but the young legionnaire budges only when a friend tugs him out of the way.

"There is a fireworks festival in Yoyogi Park this evening," Hiroko tells him.  "Do you enjoy?" He nods
quickly.  "My children -- they watch from our balcony.  And my husband -- he does not care for them."

"You prefer seeing them up close?" Florian asks, and Hiroko nods.

"So do I." He studies her carefully.  Japanese is best spoken when it isn't.  "What time should we meet
at Yoyogi Park?" he asks with care.

"You are here on holiday, Florian," she replies.  "Today I will be your guide."

                                                                          ***

An Akiharabra-ambiance of gadgets; giant neon signs wage war against their senses.

In darkness between stations, Florian seizes sight of Hiroko watching his reflection in the train window.  
Her blank face suggests a respite from expression.

Looking around the carriage, he makes eye contact with an American.  In the early days he scoured local
expatriate magazines and newspapers, hunting for envoys that had trekked the paths he wished to
pursue; those who had done much of the ground work that would take him years to catch up on.  He
clumsily penned half-serious notices for the Japan Times personals -- 'White Australian male, mid 30s,
looking.' He never specified who or what he was looking for.  That is his brief, after all -- to look, to
listen.  For others, though, it is to speculate; swarms of travel writers seem to have made an industry
of it.  And so he chooses to avoid the well-trodden path.  He has tried siding with them.  Younger
siblings, mums and dads of colleagues from back home, in need of a guide for the metropolis.  It is hard
to resist, the idea of mixing with new arrivals, showing, even with the measly experience he has of it --
and narrow sighted, at that -- the city to strangers with the same confidence and self-assuredness of
one who has lived here all their life.  But his few encounters with other Westerners dismayed him -- was
he, fresh off the plane, similarly loud and detestable? So instead, he simply lingers in Tokyo's hotspots.  
He keeps his interaction with other foreigners limited: no longer seeks them out, refusing to
acknowledge them on the street -- and they, for the most part, are thankful for it.  They are in a
fantasy land populated by cartoons, where the encounter with another participant is to break the
illusion, to be reminded of what they are and always will be here: alien.

On the local between Okachimachi and Ueno his eyes lock with those of a stone Buddha in a track-side
temple.  A workman trudges up the steep entrance from the street arcade below the temple grounds, a
reel of orange tubing over a shoulder, and ascends the causeway on the corner of the main hall.

Adjacent to the temporary scaffolding, a billboard advertises Nikes.

A labourer walks from a street arcade into a temple to carry out maintenance work on a temple roof
beside an ad for football shoes.  As old as he is, Buddha is still under construction.

                                                                          ***

While zebra crossing from Ueno station to the adjacent park, Florian drifts from Hiroko, and in the
solace of the crowd and his own thoughts the tuner-dial turns to static.  Then they are together again
and the wireless is in frequency; and though the green man continues to beckon them, an unrelenting
rumble nears.  He turns and grabs sight of Buddha on a motorbike -- man-boobs protruding from his
unbuttoned shirt, smoke in mouth -- buzzing closer.  Florian leaps forward and clasps Hiroko's arm,
jolting her forward.  Turning, he catches sight of a Shinto protection charm fluttering against the rider's
windshield.

                                                                          ***

They catch the elevator to the National Science Museum's roof and step into an herb garden.  On a
raised platform beyond the shrubbery a game of 'chasey' is in progress, and softly whirling polymer
sunflowers unfurl and contract to the children's movement.  Hiroko reels off the names of the plants
they pass as they move towards the deck.  A young Caucasian approaches, heading for the lift, and
Florian looks the other way.  In the bleaching haze beyond the roof's edge, high-tension power lines
crisscrossing the cityscape: wires on a silicon board; above.  A much larger parasol of clouds screens
out the blue of the sky.

The world is wrapping itself around him and Hiroko.

A conclave mirror sits upon a podium encircled by girls who hold cell phones and apples within the glass
cup.  Hiroko and Florian lean forward, watching the pseudo-holograms generated by the reflective
surface.  Their curiosity abated, the laughing children dash away.  Along the railing, an elderly Japanese
man dabs his gleaming forehead with a neatly folded handkerchief and watches Florian with curiosity.

"In Japanese," Hiroko explains, "the word
jou means compassion." She writes Japanese characters in
the space above the bowl, captivated by her own lesson.  "The symbols of compassion and wind means
ambiance." They place their hands in the bowl.  Ghost hands entwine and then separate.  "Compassion
and accident means love affair."

They sit beneath an unwrapped sunshade, eating raw seafood and watching children run circles.  Florian
munches on a triangle of rice topped with slivers of salmon that leave his finger tips scaly, while Hiroko
nibbles her slices of fish between dunks in pungent pools of soy.

He traces the progression of a sushi dinner not by the vanishing of fish upon pyres of rice but a
shrinking cairn of nose-tickling horseradish.

"I see now why it is so popular to eat sushi with beer," observes Florian. "After a meal of raw fish I am
already drunk." Hiroko laughs and, grinning slyly, passes a fresh slice of salmon to his mouth between
her chopsticks.

                                                                          ***

Ducks trawl the membrane of the pond and Ueno City rises from the water's edge.  A grey stone Shinto
gateway, shaped like a perch for giant chickens, blends with the flaking ghost-white of a deciduous.  

They are gluttons for Tokyo.  Florian and Hiroko run a gauntlet of beanpole portals.  The string of red
portals forms a tunnel ascending from Ueno's large pond to the park's plateau.  While marching up the
steep stairs they pass a young couple, whose child holds onto a handkerchief and the other end is held
by his mother, walking ahead.

"
Gam-bar-e," the Japanese couple sing to their charge -- 'do your best'.  The child swings his small legs
up and around each step, his squinting eyes above a beaming mouth.  Florian stops to roll a cigarette,
lights up, and then turns around for the view of the pond below.  The couple and their child come
around the bend.  "
Gam-bar-e," they chant.  Florian draws deeply, spits a loose strand of tobacco into
the path-side foliage, and with a hand against Hiroko's back sets off again.  At the beginning of the last
leg, Florian drives his butt against the stone path and throws the dead stub into the nearby plants.  
Hiroko laughs and Florian turns, hearing the young couple before he sees them.

At the top of the stairs the park opens up to them; cold dirt and concrete host bare cherry blossom
trees and pedestrians.

"Where to now?" Florian asks carefully.

"Have you heard of Sengaku-ji?" Hiroko asks, to which he shakes his head briefly.  "It is a Buddhist
temple.  It is where the forty-seven drifting samurai are buried.  After their revenge for the death and
humiliation of their master they -- you know?" She draws a line with her fingertip across her belly.

Grimacing, Florian gestures for her to lead the way.

                                                                          ***

It is half an hour to Tamachi Station.  They begin southward on foot along Dai-Ichi-Keihin.

Florian stops to photograph a defunct street-side battery-dispenser.  When he looks up, he sees
Hiroko turning down an alley, and quickly follows.

Giant ideogram-lined paddle-pop sticks mark tombstones within tightly packed plots separated by
narrow stone paths.  Beyond the graves are patches of flowers and a lush fernery.  Noise from a
neighbouring apartment block's construction resounds across the burial ground.  A caretaker weeds
around stones.  Ravens circle in the air and descend into the yard, drawn by offerings to the dead.

A dishevelled pregnant cat limps up to the base of a tree where it lies down.

Beside a shrine, water drips from a bamboo flute and the plaques and paddle-pop sticks of a cemetery
swing.  On the grey dirt of the ground, shadows of skeleton branches dance in the wind.  A raven on a
tree limb holds a mouse in its claw, and stabs its prey with a beak.  Skies darken.  The raven cries
sincerely.  Growing wind blows bad luck away, while death looms around, and above.

                                                                          ***

A few minutes from the cemetery, they come to a stop at Sengaku-ji's entrance.

"'Mountain of many pines'," Hiroko quotes, and Florian follows her eyes to the writing upon the Middle
Gate.  A bronze dragon curls upon the Main Gate's ceiling.  Through the gate, Florian leans over the
railing of a short stone bridge, a deep and dry trough beneath.

Visitors eat from lunchboxes, or pace the temple grounds.

The bell hangs silently behind locked gates.

Florian notices the plum trees.  Hiroko, watching, leads them closer.

The first is transplanted from the house where one of the masterless samurai -- a sixteen-year-old --
committed suicide after avenging his master.  The second is given by the wife of the humiliated Feudal
Lord Asano Naganori to the nun who attends the
Ronins' graves.  When forced to commit suicide,
Naganori's blood stained the third.

Nearby is Kubi-Arai Well, where the
Ronin washed Kira's head.  Once clean, they displayed it to their
lord, resting in his own grave.

Passing the plum trees and well, they head to the grave sites along steps beneath a gate from Asano's
residence.  Past the entrance a small fire burns in a bin, and faggots of green incense-sticks sting
Florian's eyes with their sweet odour.  Hiroko and Florian climb to the plateau.  Workmates read the
plaque names above the three-hundred-year-old remains, before kneeling to lay burning sticks before
the graves.

Lying here, having died for a cause no one but they believed in, is someone's husband or son.

Though the sky is mostly clear and the incense merely fragrances the air, Florian runs both hands over
cheeks and eyelids and down the flanks of his nose.  He touches a wooden post behind a row of graves
and clasps a stone of the grave that belongs to their leader Oishi; beside him is their master Asano.  
And there are two honorary members -- Kayano Sampei, who, prohibited by his family to partake in the
battle for Kira's head, killed himself; and Terasaka Kichiemon, who took part in the raid of Kira's
residence.  The leader of the Forty-Seven Ronin -- Oishi -- sends Terasaka to report what they have
done.  Their judgment is passed and they are ordered to commit suicide by cutting open their own
intestines.  However, Terasaka is allowed to live.

Florian crouches beside the stone, gently running fingers along the surface of the plaque.  And he
realises the judges knew they need not bother, for Terasaka is left to wander the land; an exile, a
community of one, cursed to live and be free.

In front of the grave, Florian slowly stands and nods.

The two old men depart.  A young salary-man crouches to place a stick of incense at each grave.  A
small group of middle-aged women croon together, moving through the gates and collecting the
offerings they will give, pausing by rough stone lanterns and elaborate shrines.

A depression in one of the lanterns marks where incense sticks have been piled -- three-hundred years
of homage has burned the rock away.

                                                                          ***

Hiroko and Florian turn off the moat-side path away from the rail tracks to face Yaskuni, where the
souls of Japanese soldiers rest.

Florian rallies what energy he has left from his encounter with Sengaku-ji.

A museum is located within the shrine grounds -- its foyer hosts a clean and well-preserved cannon,
airplane, and train engine.  An escalator ascends to a floor containing a manually guided torpedo.  In the
main exhibition room, for three-hundred yen, he reads through a narrative of the Russian-Japanese war.

Outside, Florian stands facing the glare of orange halogen, soaking their obscure warmth.

Senior salary-men lounge at an open-air cafeteria in the shrine courtyard.  Beneath a lush canopy, the
war shrine is dark.

He joins Hiroko -- arms crossed -- at the entrance of a sealed hall.

"What do you think?" she asks him.

"I think a lot of bad shit happened back then." He allows himself a sad, ironic grin.  "Lucky you found
pacifism."

They walk beneath steel
torii and cross the road to the beginnings of a long promenade.

"Japan has renounced war," she agrees. "Perhaps it is yet to renounce dogma."

They walk beneath two giant bronze gates with high-school girls dressed in navy uniforms.  The first
Post-Meiji Restoration Minister of War stands upon his pedestal.

"But we live with our Pearl Harbors and our Hiroshimas," he insists.  "We hold our Nuremberg trials.  We
move on." He wrestles with his native tongue.  "We -- we get over it."

A group of co-eds walks parallel to Hiroko and Florian.

"Moving on together is good," Hiroko agrees, nodding earnestly.  "Building a bridge, as you say, from
the past to the present -- you need to start from both sides at the same time.  My children -- they go
to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial many times.  It is important they know why it happened -- the
truth." A couple of the boys hide behind a van.  As the girls pass, the young boys stand and pounce,
causing the girls to shriek and run off.  "You see? You should never walk ahead without knowing what's
behind you."

'Hanabi': towers of light, miniature supernovas, or literally 'Fire Flowers'. Sizzling bubbles spring
upwards before bursting, silent but for their percussion thunder, modest and sublime in their simplicity.  
Florian and Hiroko mix with the cinders, smog, and the sweat.  They pass a parked, unlit car,
cigarette-bearing hand draped over the opened window as its owner gazes out.  Meteoritic powder
descends in simmering arcs.

Hiroko's hands brush against Florian's.  Night has come quickly to Tokyo.

The air speaks of sulfur.  Girls in tiny traditional garments dance on the street; old men holding opened
Asahi cans ride bikes while families circle blankets.

Beside a hip-hop dance performance, Florian knows his ears will ring in the morning, but does not care.
The aromatic combination of spirits and fruit juice tempts them to a street-side store lined with bottles
and huge plastic cups, reminding Florian of an improvised frat-house bar.  Eight-hundred yen provides
Long Island Ice Teas freshly made in a blender; for five-hundred yen -- baked potatoes hidden beneath
a mound of topping.  They walk; one hand chilled by drink, the other warmed by polystyrene bowl.

A gang of off-duty labourers slides past in single file, their point man pinching grilled squid with
chopsticks above a thin plastic tray, up to his mouth.

They attack their potatoes at the edge of a flower-bed.  Hot melted cheese is extinguished by sour
cream and washed down with frigid Long Islands.  A toddler studies Florian, her arms slung around her
father's neck, potato remnants smeared around her mouth, and free hand wielding a pair of
chopsticks.  He tries disarming her with a smile -- she glares back.  Sugary bacon wages war against
squid balls and chunky pancakes, while down the curb, a young couple inhales ramen.

A giant dance circuit made up of hundreds in the park's centre performs pop-
Tai chi.  Florian watches,
entranced, as they move to a beat encouraged by sweet vocals and giant drums pummelled by
percussionists, surrounded by a typhoon of colour, who twirl drumsticks between pelts of taut skins,
dresses spinning.  The dancers are a living embodiment of the Japanese concept of
wa or 'balance',
loosely translating into 'Don't blow it.' Each time the track ends the entourage -- a mixture of dedicated
and amateur, kimono-clad and casual-dressed, centenarians to pre-schoolers -- oscillates as the song
starts once more.  It is a cross between the Hare Krishnas on the move and an Easter egg hunt.

                                                                          ***

The typhoon season has begun.

Florian and Hiroko lean against a bike rail in front of a convenience store.

Rain descends around them.  Recently purchased towels encircle Florian's neck and run beneath his
shirt, soaking up the rain, and a newly bought five-hundred yen umbrella-for-two hangs from the railing.

They stare at each other.  She hands him the ramen bowl.

"Better?" she asks.  He shrugs.

"It'll take more than ramen to warm me."

"You don't look like to feel cold." He takes her hand and places it on his chest, beneath his shirt.  She
withdraws with quiet amazement.  "It will take a blow torch to cut through that ice."

"Interested in wielding it?" he asks. She nods seriously.  He thinks about that one for a while and then
brings his hands together sharply.  Hiroko watches, wide eyed.  "That's it.  I need another drink."

He takes a miniature Baileys from the store's fridge and the attendant frowns as Florian trades it for a
five-hundred yen coin.

Under Hiroko's gaze, he twists the bottle open.  He takes his first swig in months and makes sure it is
safe before turning to her.  "Back in Melbourne I did something I was not proud of after drinking
Baileys." And he raises the bottle.  "I haven't been able to touch the stuff since."

"So rather than swallowing your pride you are swallowing your shame?"

Florian nods. "What can I say? I enjoy a good dollop of hubris even with humble pie. I'm-- " and with a
lop-sided grin forms an arc with his spare hand. Hiroko copies him, and he shows her in slow motion
until she has it right.

"What are we doing?"

"We're building a bridge."

He empties the bottle and tosses it into a recycle bin.

'Ready?' her expression asks.

Florian takes the umbrella in hand, and feels its bunched tip; he grimaces, but nods.  Stepping out, he
stares vertically at the neon-lit rain before unfurling their umbrella.

Hiroko steps up beside him, and takes his offered arm.

                                                                          ***

An upside moon lurks behind thinning cloud.

At the dogleg near Florian's apartment the night stinks of leek.  In a spare block, stems poke through a
white plastic streaked with the reflection of distant lights.  Behind the garden a tall brown building gazes
down at them with the gentle orange eyes of veiled balcony windows.

Lights dance along the road as a cyclist -- cell phone pressed to an ear -- swings past them.

The sky is a collection of dark blues, the horizon a satellite image of Earth's shadowy side, and
Roppongi a nervous horse.

Hiroko leads the way up the stairs, through the lobby, and to his apartment.

                                                                          ***

Naked, Hiroko squeezes Florian as he looks between flickering curtains at the nocturnal downpour.

He turns to face her, canines protruding forward slightly and upper lip dimpled vampire-like, eyes
interrogating.

Outside, Tokyo churns.

She reaches out and fingers the silver chain and ankh around his neck, and he glances down,
surprised.  They study it.  He wonders if she can guess its significance.  If she un-clips it, and takes it
as a souvenir from her white lover, he knows he will slap her.

She taps his forehead lightly instead.

"What are you thinking?" she asks.

"I am thinking -- 'Where are we going now?'"

Hiroko smiles tenderly and looks away.

"It would be difficult for us to see each other again.  My children -- they are worth it."

"So, you will endure?" he asks. Hiroko nods solemnly.  "
Gam-bar-e?" he chants inquisitively.  She nods
seriously, and then grins.

                                                                          ***

They get dressed, and he walks Hiroko to the apartment she is staying at.  High above, lights glow at
the edges of balcony windows.  In the balconies opposite, open windows invite the cool air.

He realises, with a certainty that is far from self-assuredness or pessimism, that this is as good as it
gets; for though he might not know Tokyo well, he knows the limits of his own versatility.  Certainly
there will be variations on the theme -- different fireworks festivals, different Sengaku-jis, and maybe
even different Hirokos.  Yet though the city offers ten million people, there is only one of him.

This is as good as it gets -- and it is not good enough.

She turns, and looks at him in a motherly way.

"What about you?"

He grins. "Every good story needs someone to tell it."

She leans forward, smiling, and they share the lightest of hugs.  He watches her as she swipes her card
near the foyer entrance.  Green light blinks; she pulls the door open, and disappears into darkness.
Main Page
Ash Hibbert
Contents
Ash Hibbert is a creative writing degree junkie. He has recently finished a novella for a Master of Creative Arts at the
University of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia.  He has also completed a Postgraduate Diploma of Creative Writing and
an undergraduate degree in Professional Writing. The English-Arabic journal
Kalimat and the University of Melbourne
journal
Strange2Shapes have published his work and he co-edited the Deakin University literary journal Verandah 15.
He is also the resident writer of his own web-log,
acoldandlonelystreet.blogspot.com.
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