Mikasa: Mount Kasuga’s most beautiful peak
In the last week of the first month of every year, Mikasa, Mount Kasuga’s most beautiful peak, was torched to celebrate the death of Kagutsuchi, God of Fire, and welcome the arrival of spring.
From very young, Fujiwara no Hirotsugu was in love with the nights of the Fire Festival.
At the age of three, surrounded by four worried guards, Hiro scurried up the tallest watchtower for the first time. One of the guards boosted him from the ground to the lower tower base, as the ladder steps were too tall for him to climb. Another hoisted him to the tower’s balcony, where a third awaited to haul him to the top. Hiro laughed as he dangled in the air for a moment, enjoying how the wind caressed his hair. Strong arms set him astraddle a powerful neck, and he observed in fascination the brilliance of the Imperial Capital of Heijo-Kyo, painted in the red of Kagutsuchi’s flames.
It became a tradition. Every year, Hiro watched the fires on Mikasa dwindle and die, and he refused to leave the tower until the peak was covered in the darkness of the night. Afterward, as a servant dressed him in his nightclothes, he would gaze out the window toward where the rising sun would soon announce the first day of spring. He imagined he could see the domain of Sei Ryū, the Azure Dragon and Guardian of the East.
As Hiro grew older, the Fire Festival began to herald not only the new season, but the arrival of a visitor as well. A visitor who, to Hiro’s chagrin, would not leave until autumn. He’d secretly nicknamed her the Imperial Ayakashi. It was Princess Abe, his royal cousin.
As soon as they met, Hiro developed a simmering dislike of the princess. Her presence doubled the guards, and he got irritated by her strong opinions about how the world should behave around her. She decided the games they played, the bedtime stories they listened to, and even the food the servants prepared when they went on a picnic.
With every order she gave that he had to obey, Hiro fumed and grumbled. It wasn’t fair. He was his father’s firstborn son and heir. When he was old enough to marry, the palace on Kasuga would become his. Princess Abe had no business dictating to him in his own home.
He told his mother that exact thing one evening, thinking he would find a supporter in her, but all he received was a lesson in imperial etiquette and Filial Piety.
“The duty of a good Yamato man is to obey and revere the Emperor in all things, without question,” she said, “because the Emperor is Heavenly Sovereign over us all. Only immoral people presume to discuss the character of the Royal Family.”
She took his hand and walked him out of his bedroom, across a roofed bridge that connected the children’s quarters to the main hall. Several steps inside the hall, they stopped.
“Tell me, Hirotsugu, what do you see in that corner?”
To Hiro’s right, overlooking the room, was a raised dais upon which rested the altar of Amaterasu, Goddess of the Sun. In front of the altar was an offering of steaming rice lit by two candles. Behind the altar was an enclosure made of dark cherry wood. On the polished floor at the far side of the enclosure sat a square shitone trimmed in brocade, more exquisite than any of the cushions Hiro had seen his father use at dinner.
“Every house in Yamato has a place like this,” Hiro’s mother said. “It is the sacred niche for the Tennō, the god incarnate of our world, if he or she so chooses to visit us and eat at our table. Today, Empress Genshō is Tennō. Tomorrow it will be Prince Obito. And in the future, it might be Princess Abe.”
“Does that mean I have to show reverence to the princess too?”
“But I thought I only had to show reverence to Father,” Hiro said with confusion. “Isn’t that the law of Filial Piety?”
She smiled indulgently. “Of all the creatures produced by Heaven and Earth, man is the noblest. Of all the actions of man, there is none greater than Filial Piety, where one must show reverential love to one’s father and make him the correlate of Heaven. But, as sons serve their fathers, so they must serve the Tennō and revere them equally.”
“So, I love Father and revere the Tennō?”
“You love your mother, and revere the Tennō. But your father you must both love and revere. Disobeying your father and disgracing those who gave you birth angers the gods living in Takamagahara. Do you understand what I’m saying, my son?”
Hiro’s lower lip protruded in response.
“Do you understand?”
“I do. But I don’t like that I have to revere the princess.”
His mother regarded him. “We keep our thoughts sealed inside with a lock, Hirotsugu. As you grow, you might not like many things, but you will keep your judgments hidden, if you know what’s good for you. And for your family. Never show your emotions on your face. Hide everything behind a smile. And always, no matter what, the answer to the demand of a royal is, ‘Yes, Your Highness.’”
The only glimmer of positive from Princess Abe’s visits was that she was always accompanied by her mother.
Hiro loved Aunt Asukabe. She was his father’s youngest sister and Crown Prince Obito’s consort. She always brought him oranges from Wakayama and straw horses tied with red ribbons all the way from Shinshū. Unlike his father’s consorts, whose faces were as expressionless as stone masks, Aunt Asukabe’s lips had a perpetual smile.
Hiro liked her smile, and also her warm eyes and soft voice. She was lovely and told the best bedtime stories.
Sometimes—rarely—Princess Abe would allow Hiro to choose the story and he wouldn’t hesitate. “Please tell us the story of Kusanagi, Auntie.”
“Kusanagi? Again, dear boy?”
Again and again, he would never get bored with this story.
The sword replica Hiro received on the day of his birth was locked in his father’s armory, waiting for when he got older. If it were up to him, Hiro would have played with his Kusanagi—or Little Kusanagi, as he liked to call it—every day. Unfortunately, until he was seventeen, he had to make do with a lousy wooden stick.
The children played in the gardens from early spring to the end of summer, to the distress of the kappa living in the pond. Most of the time, Hiro and Abe competed in the silliest of games. They called them The Adventures of Susanoo—Hiro’s idea—and invented them on the spot.
It was bittersweet to behold the children playing their games. And yet, I watched, and remembered my own childhood.
At the end of her first summer with Hiro, a day before returning to the Imperial Palace, the princess ordered him to follow her to the gardens for one last game. Hiro had turned five that spring and Abe had reached seven.
Hiro stayed a few paces behind the princess as she searched for a spot to play. Two imperial guards held the rear, carrying their toys. From the corner of his eye, Hiro peeked at the guards’ pointy swords and serious faces. Their golden breastplates, wristbands, and helmets were all etched with the chrysanthemum.
Hiro walked beside them, moving in step with their stride. One of the guards saw him and shifted the bag of toys he had been carrying into his spear hand, and then he offered his other hand to the little lord. Hiro flushed and meekly wrapped his fingers around the guard’s thumb. His heart did a small tumble.
His cheeks burned as they walked together. He felt as big as a mountain. Abe had bragged to him once that her guards were the best fighters in Yamato. He held the hand of one of the best fighters in Yamato and his little chest was about to burst with happiness.
Princess Abe stopped near the large pond. “We’ll play here,” she announced. “Cousin, come closer.”
Reluctantly, Hiro dropped the guard’s hand and approached Abe.
“Princess,” the other guard said, “it’s ill-advised to play so close to the water. Wouldn’t it be better if—”
“Who allowed you to speak, guard?” she asked.
The man looked stricken. He bowed deeply. “I apologize, Your Highness.”
“Leave,” she ordered. “I don’t want to see your face.”
Hiro watched as the man retreated in shame. “Why were you mean to him?”
“Because he was rude to me.”
“He was not.”
“He was. The orders of a royal are not to be questioned. Father says that all the time.”
“But he only—”
“I’m bored.” She waved him off. “Fetch the balls, Hiro. I want to play.”
Abe was a brat, and Hiro’s reaction to her made me smile. He was born kind. But the world was no place for those like him.
Their game was simple. Each had five yarn balls. They were supposed to throw them to the other side of the water, as far away as possible. The winner was the one who managed to throw the farthest and get the highest number of balls past the water.
Hiro was good at throwing things and he often won throwing games. His excitement rose steadily as he placed his yarn balls in a neat pile at his feet. He cracked his knuckles and arranged his black trousers to make sure they would not keep him from bending his knees. He rolled up the long purple sleeves of his robe. He removed his clogs to feel the grass under his feet. He was ready.
Abe started first. The ball flew high, rolled onto the grass, and landed safely out of the water. Hiro drew his hand back and let his first ball loose with all his strength. It was caught by a slight gale that changed its direction, making it land in the pond.
It was easy to make a good throw when there was no wind, but I liked to make things more complicated and fun. Hiro was adorable when riled.
He lost the second and the third balls too. Hiro began to frown, scrunching his nose and biting his lower lip. His fourth and fifth balls fell in the reeds, which was still technically considered ‘in the pond.’
“I won,” Princess Abe declared imperiously.
Hiro glared at the surface of the pond. His fists were tight by his side and he was close to crying.
“What do you say, cousin?” Abe poked him in the ribs.
“Congratulations,” he mumbled. He felt as if the bridge to Heaven had broken and fallen on his head.
Princess Abe laid out the next steps. “The loser must collect the balls.” Hiro nodded and turned his back on her to hide his trembling pout.
I shook my head. A sore loser, through and through.
The sun was high in the sky, announcing lunchtime. The guards herded Abe toward the mats that had been set up for a picnic under the shade of an old walnut tree. Hiro stayed behind to clean up. He could have ordered the servants to do it, but this was the rule. Whenever he lost, he had to clean up.
One by one, he picked up the balls closest to him, slowly circling the garden. When he was done, he straightened and looked at the maple forest. Silver mist glided amid the tall trees, blurring their dark brown bark. He had not yet been allowed to venture close to the maples, so he had to console himself by observing the forest from the confines of his garden.
Hiro sighed and returned to his loser’s task. The balls floating in the pond gave him pause. A couple of the yarn balls had gotten stuck among the water lilies, while one was smack in the center, drifting here and there as the wind pushed it about.
He scratched his head and calculated his next move. He glanced at the stick he carried everywhere, his pretend Little Kusanagi. Then he scowled at the water again.
It took him some time to realize that there were ripples approaching him. He yelped and scrambled back when a scaly green hand with five webbed fingers broke the surface, placed two yarn balls at Hiro’s feet, and then quickly vanished beneath the water again. Hiro rubbed his eyes, once, twice, then stared open-mouthed. The hand returned again and again, until all balls sat on the bank.
The boy gulped and pressed a hand to his pounding heart. He couldn’t decide whether to examine closer or get far, far away.
Just as he was about to move closer, he noticed a pair of round frog-like eyes watching him from the water lilies. They blinked and ducked back under the surface.
“Hello?” Hiro called again.
“Young Lord Fujiwara.” Hiro turned to see one of the golden guards stomping after him. “The princess awaits.” He took the boy’s hand and gently guided him toward the picnic. Hiro twisted his neck to look back over his shoulder.
“Are there monsters hiding in our lake?” he asked the guard. He called it a lake because it was the largest expanse of water he’d seen.
The man laughed. “What type of monsters, my lord?”
“The ones with green skin and webbed fingers?”
“I think I saw a turtle the other day.”
“Turtles… I see.”
Hiro was not convinced. The next day, after the princess’s departure, he lurked around the gardens in search of anything strange. He would have jumped in the water to pursue the mysterious creature if he’d known how to swim. He was sure he had seen something, and that something was definitely not a turtle.
Hiro asked his servant, a wrinkled old woman in charge of his personal needs, about the monsters.
“There are monsters living in the Land of Yamato, Young Master, but they don’t live in ponds, only in rivers and lakes. Aye, I know them. They are called kappa, the river children.”
“Kappa? And they have scaly green skin like a turtle?” Hiro asked excitedly.
“Kappa are the shades of earth. They can be green, brown, red, and even blue like the sky. They look like turtles because of their similar beak and shell, but turtles they are not. And they are quite dangerous. I’ve heard they eat children.”
Hiro brandished his stick. “I can fight them,” he said with all the confidence of a five-year-old.
“If you see a kappa you should run, Young Master. They are very strong.”
Hiro didn’t like the idea of running away. It would dishonor his family.
“A brave man doesn’t run.” He’d heard that during some dinner conversation between his father and uncles.
“A smart man who wants to live does, when he knows the foe is stronger. It is said that to lose is to win.”
“What does that mean?”
“That non-confrontation is sometimes the best course.”
These conflicting notions gave Hiro a headache. He pondered, “Can kappa be defeated?”
“Yes, but that’s the biggest secret, Young Master. On top of their skull lies a hole that looks like a bowl. This is the source of their power and must be kept filled with water at all times. If they lost the water, they wouldn’t be able to move. They could even die.”
“So they are not so strong after all.”
“Maybe not, Young Master,” she said with a tender smile.
“Have you ever seen a kappa before, Obachan?”
“Once, when I was young. But that could have been a turtle,” she mused.
Were there other creatures waiting for him out there in this wondrous world? Hiro couldn’t wait to grow up faster. Couldn’t wait to ride a horse, to practice archery, to learn how to swing a sword. He dreamed about leaving his father’s palace on a monster-slaying adventure just as the god Susanoo had done after being banished from Heaven.Hiro’s interest in the kappa was snuffed the following morning because of the terrible news the Fujiwara clan received.