TWO OLD CHERRY TREES STILL IN BLOOM by Saikaku Ihara

Age advances, but the heart remains young,

The eccentric who kept his natural hairline from birth.

Women, viewing cherry blossoms, scattered with a broom.

“Hemorrhoid Medicine Sold Here; Cures All Woes.” This handwritten sign hung outside a tiny shop with a sliding paper door and hanging reed blinds. The owner sold calligraphy manuals done in the style of the Ōhashi school, but his was an old-fashioned hand that few admired, so it proved to be an undependable source of income.

The meager dwelling where he had quietly lived for many years was situated before a temple gate in Yanaka. There was a twisted pine under the eaves and trumpet vines bloomed there in lovely profusion. In the yard he grew summer chrysanthemums in pots. The well water was fresh and clear. A crow perched on one end of the dipping stick, a strange sight indeed with its faded tail and wing feathers!

Living there was this masterless samurai who in his youth had lost hope of ever regaining official status in a lord’s service and now lived day to day selling his various personal belongings. His only companion day in and day out was an old man of about the same age, his partner in games of go. A spotted Pekinese was his only other companion. No one ever came by even for brief visits.

One day, his hemp kimono was soaked with sweat and he felt too listless even to stir up a breeze with his fan, so the old man hurried the arrival of evening with an early bath and began washing the sweat from his body. His old companion watched him and thought, “Ah, the ravages of time!” Affectionately, he massaged the man’s bony spine. He was grieved by the wrinkles below the man’s waist and soon sank into tearful sobs.

“Sing the Tune Loudly, Hide the Mirror Bright

Yesterday, Youth; Today, a Head of White

“Seeing how this body of yours has changed reminded me of that poem. How sad to think that not so long ago we sang songs and played games together . . . .” They held hands and lamented until the bath water turned cold.

At first glance, one would have taken them for a couple of holy religious companions praying together for salvation, but the truth was somewhat different. It seems that they were samurai born long ago in the castle town of Chikuzen. One was called Tamashima Mondo. In his youth, his beauty could kill birds on the wing and was so remarkable that people who saw him took him for one of the famed Hakata courtesans. The other was Toyoda Han’emon, a man skilled in swordsmanship. He fell in love with Mondo in his youth, and the boy responded to his attentions. Mondo was sixteen, Han’emon nineteen when they made fast their bond of love, like the connecting strand of Umi-no-nakamichi.

In the midst of their ever-increasing love, another man became enamored of Mondo and was unable to cease his yearning for the boy. Like the “fire cherries” of Mt. Kamado, there were those who fanned the flames of this man’s passion. The two sides finally agreed to a duel. They met at the Bridge of Happiness (happily, it was a dark night) where Mondo and Han’emon cleanly dispatched the suitor and his entire entourage of swordsmen. That night, they stole through the Konomaru checkpoint, boarded a boat at the “Bay of Floating Fortunes,” and shrank from the eyes of society to seclude themselves here.

Mondo was now 63 and Han’emon 66. Their love for each other had not changed since the days of their youth; neither of them had ever gazed at a woman’s face in his life. Having lived together all these years, they truly deserved to be emulated as models of the ways of love for all who love boys.

Han’emon still thought of Mondo as a boy of sixteen. Though his hair was thinning and had turned completely white, Mondo sprinkled it with “Blossom Dew” hair oil and bound it up in a double-folded topknot anyway. (A strange sight, indeed!) There was no sign that he had ever shaved his temples; he still had the rounded hairline he was born with. He followed the daily rituals of his youth, polishing his teeth with a tufted toothpick and carefully plucking his whiskers. Someone unaware of Mondo’s reasons for doing this could hardly have imagined the truth.

Sometimes, a daimyo will love one of his pages deeply and, even after the boy has grown up and established a family, will be unable to forget his youthful charms. This is praiseworthy. It makes one realize what a distinctly different flavor the way of boy love possesses compared to the love of women. A woman is a creature of temporary interest to men, whereas the attraction of a youth is impossible to comprehend unless one experiences this way of love oneself.

Repulsed by the vulgar ways of women there two old men refused even to exchange coals with the neighbor lady to the east, although they ostensibly remained part of the society around them. When in the normal course of things quarrels erupted between the husband and wife next door and even pots and pans were being thrown around, the two old men made it none of their business to step in and attempt to reconcile them. On the contrary, they would encourage the husband by pressing their faces against the wall and shouting, “Beat her to death, mister, and replace her with a sandal boy!” It was most amusing.

Cherry blossoms bring people to the hills of Ueno in the third month. At this time the fine sake from Ikeda, Itami, and Kōnoike is always sold out. The heavens themselves are inebriated, and the ground echoes with drunken footsteps. From inside their house the two old men could distinguish between footsteps of men and women. If it sounded like a man, they rushed out to get a look in hopes that it would be a handsome youth. If it sounded like a woman, however, they locked the door and sat inside, silent and depressed.

Spring showers are unpredictable, and one spring day it suddenly grew dark and began to rain. Beautifully garbed young women scattered like blossoms. Loath to part so soon with the day, a noisy group of them took shelter under the eaves of this masterless samurai’s house.

“I wish we had friends in the area,” one said. “We could have them prepare some tea for us and visit until evening, then borrow umbrellas and go home. Or, depending on how things went, maybe we could stay for dinner. But I cannot think of anyone here I know.”

She was a cocky sort and pushed the door open slightly to peek inside.

The moment he saw her face, Han’emon grabbed a nearby broom and rushed out in a fury.

“Such filth! Disgusting! Get out of here!”

Roughly, he chased them out into the rain.

Afterwards, he spread dry sand where they stepped and swept the area clean four or five times. Then he scattered salt water to purify the ground.

They say a big city like Edo has everything, but I had never seen such a woman-hater.

_________________________________________

Ihara Saikaku (井原 西鶴) (1642-1693) was a Japanese poet and storyteller, and creator of ukiyo-zōshi, the “floating world” genre of Japanese prose. Born into the merchant class in Osaka, Saikaku became famous for his haiku stanzas, of which he wrote at least 16,000, and became infamous for his writings about money and love in the merchant class of late 17th century Japan.

“Two Old Cherry Trees Still in Bloom” is just one Saikaku story from a collection of gay stories originally published in 1687, entitled The Great Mirror of Male Love (translated by Paul Gordan Schalow and published by Stanford University Press in 1990.) For more information about homosexuality in Japanese literature, visit glbtq.com.



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