The Story of the Pots of Plum, Cherry, and Pine

by Yei Theodora Ozaki

Long, long ago, in the reign of the Emperor Go-Fukakusa, there lived a famous Regent of the name of Saimyoji Tokiyori. Of all the Hojo Regents he was the wisest and justest, and was known far and wide among the people for his deeds of mercy. At the age of thirty, Tokiyori resigned the regency in favour of his son Tokimune, who was only six years old. He then retired to a monastery for several years. Sometimes stories reached his ears of the miscarriage of justice, of the cruelty of the officials under him, and of the suffering of the peasants, and he determined to find out for himself if all these things were true. It was the desire of his life to see the people governed wisely and justly and impartially, to deal reward and punishment fairly alike to the rich and the poor, to the great and the lowly. After much thought he decided that the best way to achieve his end would be to find out for himself the condition of the people, so he determined that he would disguise himself and travel about amongst them unknown. He had it given out that he was dead, and had a mock funeral performed with all the pomp and ceremony due to his exalted rank. He then left Kamakura disguised as a travelling priest unknown to any one.

After journeying from place to place, he came one day to Sano, in the province of Kozuki. It was in the depth of winter, and on this day he found himself overtaken by a heavy snowstorm. There were no houses near. Tokiyori then ascended a hill, but even from that height, search as he might, he could see no sign of any dwelling, near or far. Confused and lost, he wandered about for hours. The darkness began to fall when he found himself in a hilly district. Tired and hungry, he resigned himself to passing the night under the shelter of a tree, when suddenly he espied in the distance the brown line of a thatch-roofed cottage breaking the white slope at the foot of the nearest hill. He made his way quickly towards it and knocked at the closed storm-doors.

Tokiyori heard some one move within and then come to the porch. The storm-shutter was pushed aside and a beautiful woman looked out.

"I have lost my way in the storm, and know not what to do! Will you be so kind as to give me the shelter of your roof this night?" said Tokiyori.

The woman scanned the traveller from head to foot. Then she said: "I am very sorry for you. I would willingly give you shelter, but my husband being absent I must not let you in. You had better go on to the next village of Yamamoto, which is very near, and there you will find a good inn and accommodation for travellers!"

"You are right," answered Tokiyori; "but alas! I am so tired that I can walk no more. For pity's sake, let me sleep on the verandah or in your storehouse; for so much shelter I shall be grateful."

"I am indeed sorry to refuse you," answered the woman; "but in the absence of my husband I must not give shelter to a strange traveller. Were he at home, he would with pleasure take you in and give you lodging for the night. Try to make your way to the next village."

Tokiyori, greatly impressed by her virtuous and modest behaviour, bowed and said as he took his leave: "There is no help for it! I must try to reach Yamamoto, since you cannot shelter me to-night."

So the ex-Regent of Kamakura, spent and cold and hungry, turned once more to meet the inclement weather. He took the direction pointed out to him and plodded on through the snow. But alas! the storm had increased in violence, and the snow fell faster and faster, and the wind howled across the white drifts, whirling clouds of snow in his face till at last he found it impossible to go on. He stood still in the storm, not knowing what to do. Exerting all his strength, he found it difficult to put one foot before the other. Just as he began to give himself up for lost, he heard a voice calling him from behind.

"Stop! stop!" at first faintly, then gradually the cries grew nearer and more distinct.

Wondering who else could be out in such merciless weather, Tokiyori turned in the direction whence the cries came and saw a man beckoning to him to turn back.

"Are you calling me?" asked Tokiyori.

"Yes indeed," replied the man; "I am the husband of the woman who turned you away from that cottage just now. I regret that I was not at home to offer you the poor hospitality that is all I have to give. Please turn back with me. I can at least give you shelter for the night, though my house is only a small hut. You will be frozen to death if you go on in this storm."

The priest rejoiced when he heard these kind words, and as he turned back with his host he uttered many words of thanks. When they entered the porch, the woman whom he had already seen came forward and welcomed the stranger cordially, apologizing for her former behaviour.

"I pray you pardon me," she said, bowing to the ground, "for my rude words a short time ago; but now that my husband has returned I hope you will pass the night under our humble roof. I beg you not to be angry with me, knowing the custom of these times."

"Don't mention it, my good woman," replied the priest in disguise. "It was quite right of you to refuse me admittance in your husband's absence. I admire your prudent conduct."

While the priest and the hostess were thus exchanging civilities, her husband had entered the little sitting-room and arranged some cotton cushions on the mat. Having done this, he came out to usher in the guest.

"Thank you," answered the priest, taking off his snow-covered hat and rain-coat; and, slipping his feet out of the sandals, he entered the house.

The host turned again to his guest and said: "Now, as you see, I am a very poor man and I cannot give you a good dinner such as the rich can offer, but to our coarse, simple fare, such as it is, you are very welcome."

The priest bowed to the ground and said that he would be grateful for any food that would stay his hunger; he had walked all day in the cold and had eaten nothing since breaking his fast in the early morning.

Meanwhile the wife busied herself in the kitchen, and as it was now the hour of sunset, the meal was soon ready to be served. The priest noticed that millet instead of rice filled the bowls, and that there was not a sign of fish in the soup, which was made of vegetables only. The disguised ex-Regent had never eaten such coarse food in his life before, for millet is the poorest peasant's fare; but "Hunger needs no sauce," says the proverb, and so Tokiyori was surprised to find with how great a relish he could eat what was set before him, for he was ravenously hungry. Never had food tasted so sweet to him before. He long remembered the sensation of pleasant surprise as he partook of the first mouthful. The good wife waited on them during the meal, according to Japanese custom.

When supper was over, they all sat round the hearth, talking of the good old times and telling each other amusing stories to while away the time. The hours flew quickly by and it was midnight before the host and his guest knew it. The fire had burned very low without their noticing it, and they began to shiver with cold. The host turned to the fuel-box, but all the charcoal and wood had been burned up. Then the host arose, and, regardless of the falling snow and the bitter cold, went into the garden and brought thence three pots of dwarfed trees, for the training of which Japanese gardeners are famous all the world over.

"On such a winter's night a good fire is necessary for the entertainment of a traveller, but, alas! all the charcoal has been used up and I have no more in the house. To warm you before you retire I will therefore bum these trees!"

"What!" said the astonished guest, for he saw that the trees were of no common kind, but were of some value, for they were old, and their training showed the skill of an experienced gardener; "these pine, plum, and cherry trees are too good to be used as fuel—they are finely trained. No! no! you mustn't burn them for me—they are far too valuable!"

"Don't trouble yourself," said the host. "I loved them once when I was rich and had many more such valuable trees in my possession. But now that I am ruined and living in this miserable condition, of what use are such trees to me, pray tell me?" and with these words he began to break up the trees and to put the pieces on the fire. "If they could speak, I am sure they would say how pleased they were to be used for such a good purpose as your comfort!"

The disguised ex-Regent smiled as he watched the kind man break up his pet trees, and make up the fire. Since Tokiyori had first entered the house, small and poverty-stricken though it was, he had felt that his host was no common farmer as he pretended to be; that he must be a man in reduced circumstances.

"I feel sure," said the priest, "that you are no farmer by birth; indeed in you I recognize the a courtesy and breeding of a samurai [a knight]. Will you add one more favour to the rest you have shown me this night and tell me your real name?"

"Alas," answered the farmer in disguise, "I cannot do so without shame."

"Do not trifle with me," said the priest, "for I am very much in earnest. Tell me who you are. I should very much like to know."

Pressed so earnestly to reveal himself, the host could no longer refuse.

"Since you wish so earnestly to know, I will tell who I am, without reserve," he answered. "I am no farmer, as you rightly guessed. I am in reality a samurai, and my name is Sano Genzaemon Tsuneyo."

"Indeed? Are you Sano Genzaemon Tsuneyo? I have heard of you. You are a samurai of high rank, I know. But tell me, how is it that you are now in such reduced circumstances?"

"Oh, that is a long story," replied Sano. "It was through the dishonesty of an unworthy relation. He seized my property, little by little, without my knowing it, and one day I found that he had taken everything and that I was left with nothing except this farmhouse and the land on which it stands."

"I am sorry for you," said Tokiyori; "but why haven't you brought a lawsuit against your relation? Were you to do that, I am sure you would recover your lost property."

"Oh yes, I have thought of that," said the farmer; "but now that Tokiyori, the just Regent, has died, and as Tokimune his successor is very young, I felt that it was useless to present my petition, so that I determined to resign myself to poverty. But though I live and work like a farmer, in heart and soul I am still a samurai. Should war break out or even a call to arms be sounded, I shall be the first to go to Kamakura, wearing my armour, dilapidated and torn though it may be, carrying my halberd, rusty as it is, and riding my old horse, emaciated and unpresentable though he is, and I will do glorious deeds once more and die a knight's death. I never for one moment forget my ambition. This alone buoys me up through all my trouble and poverty," he added cheerfully, looking up at his listener with a smile.

"Your purpose is a good one, and worthy of a true samurai," said the priest, and he smiled and looked at the knight intently. "I prophesy that you will rise in life in the near future, and I feel sure that I shall see you and congratulate you at Kamakura on obtaining your heart's desire."

While they were talking, the night had passed and day began to break. The snow had ceased to fall, and as Sano and his guest rose to open the storm-doors, the sun rose bright and shining on a silvered world.

The priest went to put on his rain-coat and hat.

"Thank you," he said, "for all the kindness and hospitality you have shown me. I will say good-bye. Now that the storm has ceased, I need trespass no longer on your goodness; I will be getting on my way!"

"Oh," said the knight, "why need you hurry so? At least stay one more day with us, for you seem to me no longer a stranger but a friend, and I am loth to see you depart."

"Thank you," replied the priest, "but I must hurry on. I take my leave, however, with the firm conviction that fate will give us the pleasure of meeting again ere long. Remember my words. Good-bye!" And thus speaking, with several bows the priest turned from the porch and wended his way through the snow.

When he had gone the knight remembered that he had forgotten to ask the traveller's name, so he and his wife would probably never know who the sympathetic stranger was.

The next spring the Government at Kamakura issued a proclamation calling upon all knights to present themselves in battle-array before the Regent. When Sano Genzaemon heard of this, he thought that some extraordinary event must have taken place. What it was he could not imagine. But he was a knight and must answer the summons promptly. Here might be the chance of proving his knightly prowess, for which he had been waiting so long, hidden away in obscurity and the poverty of his circumstances. The only thing that weighed him down was the thought that he had no money either to buy a new suit of armour or a good horse. No hesitation, however, showed itself in the despatch with which he hastened to Kamakura, clothed only in his suit of shabby armour, a rusty halberd in hand, and riding an old broken-down horse, unattended by any servant.

When Sano reached Kamakura, he found the city crowded with warriors who were riding in from all parts of the country. There were thousands of great and eminent samurai clothed from head to foot in beautiful armour, their suits, their helmets, and their swords glittering with ornamentation of silver and gold. It was a goodly sight that the sun shone on that day, framed by the great pine trees against the background of the glimmering sea beyond. The pride of life and race were there, the hauteur of birth and rank, the glory and parade of war, the glinting of helmet and clanking of steel,—every knight's armour was composed of fine metal scales woven and held together by silken threads of ruby, emerald, scarlet, sapphire, and gold. Each knight wore his favourite colour, and as the ranks moved into the sunlight or fell into the shade the whole formed an army of moving splendour, the brilliant and variegated colouring of which was like a river of rich and magnificent brocade.

As Sano, clothed in his shabby armour and riding his broken-down horse, rode in amongst the bright phalanx of warriors, how they all jeered and scoffed at him and his horse! But Sano cared little for their scorn, the consciousness that he was a samurai as good as most of them bore him up, and he laughed to himself at their pride and swagger.

"These men wear fine armour, it is true," he said to himself, "but they have lost the true samurai spirit; their hearts are corrupt or they would not glory so in appearance; though my armour cannot compare with theirs, yet in loyalty I can never be outdone, even by them, braggers though they be."

As these thoughts passed through his mind, Sano saw a herald approaching the gay concourse of knights. He rode a richly caparisoned horse, and he held aloft a banner bearing the house-crest of the Regent. The warriors, their armour and their swords clanging as they moved, parted to the right and left, leaving a road for him to pass. As he rode up their lines he called aloud: "The Regent summons to his presence the knight who wears the shabbiest armour and who rides the most broken-down horse!"

When Sano heard these words he thought:

"There is no soldier here but myself clothed in old armour. Alas! the Governor will reprimand it me for daring to appear in such a state. It can't be helped; come what will, I obey the summons—such is my duty!"

So with a sinking heart Sano, the dilapidated knight, followed the herald to the Governor's house. Here the messenger announced that the knight Sano Genzaemon had come in answer to the proclamation summoning the poorest-clothed knight to the Regent.

"I am the poorest knight here, so the required man can be none other than myself," said Sano, as he bowed low to the retainers who came out to receive him at the porch.

Sano was then ushered along endless corridors and through spacious rooms. At last the ushering officer knelt on the polished wood outside a large room, and, pushing back the white paper screen, told him to enter. The knight found himself in the presence of the handsome young General Tokimune. On his head he wore a helmet with golden horns and the small plates of his armour were woven together with silken threads of scarlet.

The young General bowed to the knight in answer to his prostrations and said: "Are you the knight Sano Genzaemon Tsuneyo?"

"Yes, I am he," answered Sano.

"Then," answered the young man, "I have to present you to some one!" and he made a sign to an attendant.

Upon this the servant pushed open the screens of an inner room, and the Regent Saimyoji Tokiyori, who had been reported dead for a year, was revealed, magnificently dressed in his robes of office. Over his armour he wore a sacerdotal robe of rich brocade, and on his head a white head-dress.

Bewildered by all the strange things that were happening to him, and fearful of he knew not what, the knight had kept his face to the ground. He heard the rattle of armour and the swish of heavy silk moving towards him over the mats, and he wondered if it were not all a dream.

Then a voice said: "Oh, Sano Genzaemon—is it you? It is long since I saw you! Look up! Don't be afraid! Don't you know me?"

The poor knight knew at once that he had heard that voice before, and at last found courage to raise his head and to look at the resplendent figure that addressed him.

An exclamation of surprise burst from the lips of Sano, for he recognized in the personage who addressed him the priest whom he had sheltered on the night of the great snowstorm a year agone.

"You are surely," said Sano after a pause, "the travelling priest who passed that night of the great snowstorm under my roof last year, are you not?"

"Yes, I am that priest, and also I am the Regent Saimyoji Tokiyori."

"Oh!" exclaimed Sano, bowing to the ground, "pardon my rudeness to you that night, for I did not know who my august visitor was," and his heart filled with fear at the remembrance of his unceremonious behaviour on that occasion.

Then the ex-Regent spoke again, and this time solemnly: "Sir Sano, you have no need to apologize, far from that. Do you remember what you said to me that night when the snowstorm took me to your house? You told me that through unfortunate circumstances you were now obliged to work like a farmer, yet if ever the occasion arose that should sound the call of knights to arms, you would, regardless of your shabby accoutrements, answer the summons and come forth in the spirit of a samurai to do glorious deeds worthy of your sword once more before you died! Herewith I give you back the thirty villages in the district of Sano, of which you were robbed by your unworthy kinsman. And do you think I have forgotten your kind action when you burned your precious trees, the last relics of your prosperous past, to minister to my comfort during that terrible storm? The glow of that fire remains in my heart to this day. By way of expressing my thanks for your hospitality that cold and dreary night, in return for the Matsu [pine tree], I am going to give you the village of Matsu-ida, in the province of Kodzuke; in the place of the Ume [plum tree], the village of Umeda, in the province of Kaga; and for the Sakura [cherry tree], you shall have Sakurai, a village in the province of Etchiu."

As the knight listened to these golden words of fortune, which dropped like jewels from the mouth of the beneficent Regent, it seemed to him as if he must be dreaming, it was all so unexpected. He could not speak, for the tears rose to his eyes, and sobs of joy choked his utterance. When at last he looked up, he was alone. He made his way out of the mansion as in a trance, oblivious of all around him. The news of his promotion and of the favour he enjoyed in the estimation of the Regent had already spread outside, and the men who had laughed and jeered at him before now smiled graciously and bowed respectfully as he passed along the ranks.

So Sano Genzaemon returned to Kodzuke, not as a poor farmer, but as a lord under the special favour of the Regent, having won the esteem of all his countrymen by his knightly conduct in adversity.

All rejoiced that faithfulness, honesty, and kindness had received their just reward, and none more than the good Regent Tokiyori.