The way around to the Grand Gates and the turn-back willow is rather long, but in Toothblack Ditch the lamplight shimmers from third-floor revelries that seem so close you could reach out and hold them; and heeding neither dawn nor dusk, the carriages come and go bearing tidings of boundless prosperity. Daion Temple Way: a Buddha-musty name, but a bright and cheerful neighborhood—that's what those who live there say.
Turn the corner at Mishima Shrine and you won't see any houses as such—just longhouses, blocks of tens and twenties, all with leaning eaves. They say a merchant can't make a living there, but outside the half-closed rain shutters hang pieces of paper cut into strange shapes, like dengaku painted white and then dyed colorful, with funny sticks attached behind. And not just one window, not just two: when they're all put out to dry in the mornings or brought back in at night, what a sight; whole families at the chore together. Ask them, What are those? and they reply:
Some start as soon as they get their new year's pine and work all year on this; they're the professionals. For others, it's a sideline: their hands and feet are colored only from summer on, and the money goes towards new spring clothes.
―Thank heavens for Ōtori Shrine! Just a little good fortune for their visitors, and we enjoy a thousand times as much from the lucky charm business!
Everybody seems to say this, but it's an idle daydream: you never hear of a truly wealthy man in these parts, not even in rumor.
Most of the people who live here work in the Quarter. The husband's a something-or-other at some minor house of ill repute, working the shoe-check, clattering busily; he puts on his haori in the evening and sets off for work; behind him, his wife, striking the flint to light a fire: will this be the last time he sees her face? Slain by a stray blade from someone else's quarrel; killed in the course of some lover's revenge: to be at the centre of so much ill will is dangerous, yet even as he walks to work, where his life is on the line, he looks like a man on holiday: funny.
The daughter works at one of the finest houses in the Quarter, as a maid, or maybe at one of the Seven, as a guide, dangling a lantern and ever on the go, paying her dues; and when they are paid, what will she do? The Quarter is the stage where she can play the role she was born to, or so it seems to her. And why should it not?
An old hand, just past thirty, elegant in striped tōzan, navy tabi socks, iron-heeled setta that busily ring, a little package under her arm—but that goes without saying; at the teahouse drawbridge, ton, she taps a signal, says, The way around's too long, I'll pass it up from here. They call her Madam Made-to-Order.
Ways are different here; few girls tie their obi properly at the back; they prefer a patterned sash, a wide one, wrapped around but left untied. For grown women, well and good; but girls of fifteen or sixteen, still tooting away all cheeky on hozuki while dressed like this—some would surely cover their eyes, but growing up here is what it is.
Yesterday, at some renthouse, the Lady Purple Something; her working name still lingers, but today she's with some local tough, Kichi, shacked up, running a yakitori place by night; her life's savings beaten down to bone, she's back to her old nest, a proper madam but outshining the new faces; and they see, they remember, no child goes uncolored by this.
In August, at Niwaka time, behold the main street: they've studied hard, Rohachi's impressions, Eiki's clowning; even Mencius's mother would be startled by how quickly they improve. Wonderful! the people praise them, and so they think: Let's make the rounds again tonight!
At seven or eight they're already cocky; before long, hand towels are draped on their shoulders, they're humming Quarter favorites, at fifteen they're older than their years, unnervingly so; in the school chorus they keep time with a gitchon-chon!; at the sports festival they sing workmen's songs. Education is difficult at best; think on the suffering of their teachers, at the Ikueisha by Iriya: private, but with a student body almost a thousand strong, a narrow schoolhouse where they crowd in like white-eyes, but the teachers' fame has gradually spread, and when you say "the School" around there, people understand at once.
Among the many children there, a firefighter and builder's son: My dad works on the drawbridge, he says, and no-one ever taught him but he knows the tricks of the trade, the ladder dance—uh-oh! the thief-spikes have snapped, now they're after him; but some three-copper pettifogger's son is there too.
―Your dad's a bill-horse!
Perhaps this one's ashamed; his face reddens, childish and sweet. Another lives in rooms that belong to the rent-house where his father works: a treasured son, he gets around in princely airs and tasseled cap and western clothes. Botchan, botchan! Funny how they fawn on him.
Amid this throng, one called Shinnyo from Ryūge Temple; a healthy head of thick black hair, but for how many more years?—ink-black, the color his sleeves one day will be. His faith perhaps comes from within; a bookworm like his parents, born a quiet child, which irked his friends, and hence the many pranks: once they tied a cat's corpse up with rope and said: Here, you know the ritual; help him find enlightenment, then threw it at him. But that was long ago; now he is the best student at school, and no-one disrespects him. Aged fifteen, normal height, hair cut close in a chestnut shape, subtly different from the rest, they read his name Fujimoto Nobuyuki, but something about him makes you want to call him Siddhārtha.