WE SPENT a happy week with Sister in the little silkworm village, and our visit was almost ended when one day she took us into her big godown, where the things brought from Nagaoka had been stored. The greater part of our ancient treasures were now only worthless burdens, but there were some things that I wanted the children to see; for, in the old days, they had been both useful and beautiful, and, to me, were still full of precious memories.

We passed through the heavy door, a foot thick of fireproof plaster, and entered a large room all four sides filled with shelves, most of them crowded full to the edge. There were rows and rows of high narrow boxes containing a whole library of soft-backed books. There were rows of still larger boxes holding small eating tables, and still others filled with dishes, trays, and all the reserve belongings of a prosperous household. There were long, slender boxes of roll pictures and many ornaments—bronze vases, incense burners, and carvings of wood and ivory—all neatly tied up in squares of cotton or silk, and placed within convenient reach, ready for the frequent changes necessary in a Japanese house.

Part of the floor was taken up with chests of drawers arranged in rows, back to back; and in corners stood tall candlesticks, screens, and various large articles of household use.

“Just look!” cried Hanano, gazing about her in ashtonishment. “I never saw so many things, at once, in all my life!”

“It’s like a store,” said Chiyo, “only everything is put away so nicely, and yet it’s all mixed up, too!”

“Don’t be critical of my housekeeping,” laughed Sister. “A well-filled godown is said to be the best museum of household belongings that is to be found in all Japan; and it ought to be, for it is the place where we keep everything that is not in immediate use. Things are put in and pulled out every day. I never knew of a godown that looked in order.”

But Sister’s godown really was in disorder, for in some half-filled shelves and in a wide space beyond the wooden steps leading to the floor above were gathered a lot of objects from our Nagaoka godowns, for which suitable places had not yet been found. Among some high lantern stands wrapped in oil-paper, and a pile of boxes containing war banners, I saw the big, cumbersome palanquin that Father had used on his official trips to the capital in the years before the name was changed from Yedo to Tokyo. The lacquer was dulled, the metal ornaments tarnished, and the brocade cushions faded; but Hanano thought it wondrously elegant. She crept inside, settled herself comfortably on the thick cushion, rested her elbow on the lacquer arm rest, and peeped into the toilet box in the silk pocket in front. Then she glanced at the misty reflection of her face in the metal hanging mirror and declared that Honourable Grandfather’s travelling coach was convenient and comfortable enough for a trip all the way to America.

As she climbed out I pushed at the padded top, but the hinges were rusted. It used to lift and swing back. Many a time, when on a hurried trip, Father had dressed while his carriers were trotting fast and Jiya running by his side to help him now and then.

“Here’s another palanquin—prettier than yours, Hanano,” chirped Chiyo, from behind the stairs; “only this one hasn’t any doors.”

Maa! Maa!” laughed Sister, going over to her. “This is not to ride in, little Chiyo. It’s for a swim!” and she lifted her into an enormous bathtub of red lacquer which from my earliest recollection had stood in a corner of our godown. We used it for holding the cocoons, until the maids were ready to put them on the spindle to twist the silk threads off the poor, little, cooked inhabitants. The tub was marred on the edge, but not chipped anywhere, for the lacquer was of olden time. It still held the deep softness of velvet, and the band of braided bamboo showed beneath the polished surface like water weeds in a clear stream. It must have been very old, for it had been brought into our family as a part of the wedding dowry of my three-times-great-grandmother, the daughter of Yodo daimio, Inaba-no-kami.

“Climb out, Chiyo! Climb out and come here!” called Hanano. “I’ve found a wooden stove-pipe hat—only,” she added, peering into it, “it has a funny inside.”

She was standing in a shadowy corner where a number of miscellaneous articles were gathered on a crowded shelf, and had just lifted the tall cover from a shallow bucket of whitewood, the bottom having in its centre, rising sharp and strong, a short hardwood spike. It was Father’s head-bucket that always had been kept in the closed shelf-closet above our parlour tokonoma.

“Let us go upstairs now,” I said quickly. “Sister, won’t you show the children your wedding cap of silk floss? They have never seen an old-fashioned wedding, where the bride’s cap comes down to the chin.”

I hurried them up the narrow stairs to the room above. I did not want to explain to the children the use of the head-bucket. Their modern, practical education held nothing that would enable them to understand the deep sentiment of honour which has inspired many an ancient samurai, who, when guilty of some unlawful act, has chosen to die an honourable death by his own hand, rather than bring upon his family the disgrace of a public execution. In such a case the head-bucket, one of which every samurai house possessed, was used to carry to court the proof that the law had been obeyed. After being identified by the authorities, the head was returned, with respectful ceremonies, to the family; and the dead samurai, his crime now fully expiated, was buried with honour.

Of course, the gruesome mission of our head-bucket had never been fulfilled. Its only duty had been the occasional holding of a coil of hemp when Honourable Grandmother or Ishi was twisting it ready to spin. It was as convenient for that purpose as a flax-box. Indeed, the two looked so much alike that no bride was ever allowed to have a flax-box, although in those days all other spinning implements were considered essential to every wedding dowry.

The upstairs room of Sister’s godown was lighted by narrow, iron-barred windows set deep in the thick plaster wall. The shutters, which were really heavy plaster doors, were open, and a pleasant breeze was blowing through the room, making it cool and airy. Against the walls were chests of drawers and great wooden boxes having metal bands, on some of which I saw the Inagaki crest. I could readily guess what Sister’s chests contained, for her large house was well stocked with all the requirements of a country home. There were padded-silk comforts, round pillows for men and little lacquer box-pillows for women, large mosquito nets made to swing by short cords from the corners of the ceiling, thus enclosing the entire room, and cushions of every kind—soft, thick ones of heavy silk for winter; thin ones of woven grass for summer, braided bamboo for the porch, woven rope for the kitchen, some round, some square. some plain, and some elaborately dyed in patterns—for cushions were our chairs, and every house had to have a supply always on hand.

“This holds my ‘treasure dresses,’ ” said Sister, waving her hand toward a low chest of drawers. “The clothes that I wear I keep downstairs within easy reach; but some of these have been in the family for more than two hundred years.”

She took out an elaborately embroidered trained garment with a scarlet lining and heavily padded hem—a dress of ceremony, worn, even in ancient times, only on state occasions. It looked fresh and almost new, for Japanese women are careful housekeepers, and probably this gown had been shaken out and examined on every airing-day since it was first used by the ancestor of long ago.

“It looks just like the splendid dresses we saw in that play at the Tokyo theatre, doesn’t it?” said Hanano.

And indeed it did. For only on the stage were these gorgeous costumes to be seen in modern life.

The next drawer held Sister’s wedding dresses—seven of them. There was the soft, white linen, emblem of death to her own home, the scarlet silk, emblem of birth into her husband’s family, and the five other elaborately embroidered gowns bearing her husband’s crest and the marriage emblems of pine, bamboo, and plum.

“Here is the wedding cap you asked to see,” said Sister, presently, unfolding something that looked like a great satiny mushroom. It was of exquisite pressed silk floss and made to fit rather close over the head and shoulders. It looked like a thick, shining veil.

“Oh, isn’t it pretty?” cried Chiyo, delighted. “Put it on, Hanano, and let’s see how you look!”

I gave a half-frightened gasp, and was glad when Hanano, with a slow smile, shook her head. I don’t know why the child refused. Perhaps the soft whiteness of the snowy floss suggested in some vague way the white mourning clothes we had worn at Mother’s funeral. While there was no definite superstition regarding the wearing of wedding garments after the ceremony, still, it was never done. They were laid away—to wait. Both Honourable Grandmother and my mother wore the wedding dress beneath the death-robe when they were ready for the last journey.

The very next chest—just as marriage and death go hand in hand as the two most important ceremonies in Japanese life—held articles for the funeral. This chest was one of those from my home and was about half filled with a disordered array of ceremonious uniforms for the men who carried the tall lanterns, the bamboo dove cage, and the heavy death kago. These were all made of linen, since no silk was ever used at a funeral. There were also pleated skirts and stiff shoulder garments for retainers with no family crest, white-banded servant kimonos, boxes of knee bands, pilgrim sandals, and countless small articles essential for the various attendants in the elaborate procession. I could remember when that chest contained everything requisite for a samurai funeral except the wide straw hats that shade the sorrowing faces from the Sun goddess. Those had to be fresh and new for each occasion. The house of every high official always had these things in readiness, for death often comes without warning, and Japanese rules for ceremonious occasions were strict and unvarying.

“There!” said Sister, as she closed the lid of the chest and pushed the metal bar through the triple clasp, “the usefulness of these things belongs with their glory—to the past. Sometimes I cut up a garment to get linen binding for a worn-out mat, and occasionally, when a workman breaks his sandal cord, I present him with a pair of sandals from this chest; but the things go slowly—slowly.”

“But this,” she added, gently tapping a drawer in a fresh whitewood chest, “belongs to the future. It will be used some day.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“My death-robe.”

“Oh, Sister,” I said earnestly, “please show it to the children. They saw Mother’s, of course, but I had no chance to explain the meaning.”

She opened the drawer and lifted out her shroud. We all sat very quiet, for as it was folded it looked exactly like the one we had placed on Mother. It was made of soft white linen, and instead of a sash, had a narrow band like that of a baby’s first dress, for the belief was that we enter the next world as an infant. The robe was almost covered with texts from the Buddhist scriptures, which had been written by famous priests at various times. A blank strip in front showed that it was not yet finished. Beside the robe lay a small white bag intended to be placed around the neck. It would contain, when all was ready for Sister’s last journey, a tiny package of her baby hair, shaved off at the christening ceremonies when she was eight days old, the dried navel cord, her cut widow-hair, a six-rin coin to pay the ferryman, a death rosary of white wooden beads, and a sacred tablet called “The Heavenly Pass.”

While Sister was re-folding the robe she glanced up at the grave faces of the children and broke into a merry laugh.

“Why so sad, thou solemn-faced ones?” she cried. “Would it not be a disgrace should I receive a telegram to go home and have no suitable dress for the journey?”

“Yes, children,” I added, “it is as natural and commonplace for everyone in Japan to be ready for the last journey as it is in America to have a trunk in the house.”

“Come over this way,” said Sister, leading us to the other side of the room. “Here is something that belongs to you, Etsu-bo. You had better take charge of it.”

She pulled out a narrow drawer. Within, wrapped in purple crêpe on which was the Inagaki crest, lay a slender parcel about a foot long. My heart gave a bound. It was one of our three family treasures—the saihai used by Tokugawa Ieyasu, and presented by him to my ancestor on the battlefield of Sekigahara.

Reverently I lifted the precious thing to my forehead. Then, bidding the children sit with bowed heads, I slowly unwrapped the square of crêpe, disclosing a short, thick rod of lacquered wood, having on one end a silk cord for a wrist loop and on the other a bronze chain-clasp that held a bunch of soft, tough paper cut in strips.

We all sat very quiet while Sister told the children of the brave ancestor who, in a time of peril, saved the life of his great overlord; and how Ieyasu, in gracious remembrance, presented him with his own bloodstained coat, his wonderful Masamune sword, and this rod which he used in guiding his followers on the battlefield. “And,” concluded Sister, “all three are still kept in the Inagaki family as sacred treasures.”

“It looks like just a plain wooden stick, doesn’t it?” whispered Chiyo to Hanano.

“So it is,” said Sister. “As plain as the most simple director rod used by any ancient general; for Ieyasu lived in the age when was written, ‘An ornamental scabbard signifies a dull blade.’ ”

“The pieces of paper are so yellow and ragged,” said Hanano. “Did they use to be white?”

“Yes,” I answered. “They are yellow because they are so old. And the reason the papers are ragged is because so many pieces have been torn off for people to eat.”

To eat!” exclaimed both children, horrified

I couldn’t help smiling as I explained that many people used to believe that because the saihai had been held in the hand of Ieyasu, the paper strips possessed the magic power of healing. I have heard my mother say that sick people often came from long distances just to beg for a bit of the paper to roll into a pellet and swallow as a cure. Father always laughed, but he told Mother to give the paper, saying that it was less harmful than most medicine, and that belief alone frequently cures.

We were starting to go downstairs when I stopped beside a large whitewood box having the over-lapping lid and the curved feet of a temple book chest. It stood on a platform raised a little above the floor. I had seen this box in my childhood, but never except on airing-days, and always it had the sacred Shinto rope around it. With some hesitation I called Sister to come back.

“I am very bold,” I said, “but would you mind if I ask you to open the kiri-wood box? Our feelings have changed since the old days, and I would so like for the

“Etsu-bo, you ask to gaze upon sacred things——” Sister began hastily; then, stopping abruptly, she shrugged her shoulders. “After all, women’s eyes have already looked upon it,” she added a little bitterly; “the new order of things has done much to take the spirit of reverence from us all.”

Then we, she at one end and I at the other, lifted off the lid just as Jiya and Yoshita in their ceremonial dresses used to do, long ago. I felt a little awestruck as we leaned over and looked within. Some of the sacred relics had been removed. The coat and sword of Ieyasu were in charge of another branch of the family, and Brother had taken the books of the Inagaki genealogy; but, before us, lying shroud-like in its pressed stillness, was a garment, once white, but now yellowed by time. A pointed cap and an ancient unfolding fan of thin wood lay on top. It was the sacred robe which was used when the daimio, or his representative, officiated as high priest in the temple dedicated to his ancestors and was believed to possess heavenly power. My grandmother had told me that once, when it was worn by my great-grandfather, a miracle had been performed beneath the shadow of its wide-spread sleeve.

We gazed only a moment, then the box was silently closed. Neither Sister nor I spoke of it again, but I knew that she felt, as I did, that we had been a little daring in lifting the lid of this box, which, in ancient days, was always kept in the holy room, even the entrance hall of which was never profaned by woman’s foot. I had grown away from my childhood faith in these things, but not entirely away from the influence of memory; and thoughts, beautiful and solemn, were crowding my mind when there came a sudden “bang!” from one of the heavy, swinging windows. They were always closed from the outside by a servant with a long pole, and evidently were being shut this time by someone who did not know that we were still there.

Maa! Maa! It is late. Make haste, I inhospitably beg you,” laughed Sister; and we all scrambled down the narrow stairs and out of the door, hearing the windows bang one after another behind us, shutting the godown, with all its treasures, into darkness.


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Women's Autobiography Copyright © by dixonk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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