Wednesday, June 18, 2008

More on reading Shank's Mare

I'm having a lot of fun with this book.  Though it's clear that a LOT is lost in translation, I'm still cracking up every few pages at the alternating whit and stupidity of Yaji and Kita.  The book is also great for its small mentions of little, routine events of life along the Tokaido: the jingle of pack horses tied up outside an inn at dawn, or descriptions of pilgrims' travel clothes made of oiled paper or straw, or this great description:

  'Quickening their pace the three (Y., K. and a fellow traveller) walked on.  It was now nearly dusk and far away in the distance they could hear faintly the ringing of the sunset bell.  The birds were returning to their nests, and the songs of the hungry postboys, as they hurried their packhorses along, sounded spiritless.  At last the three travelers arrived at Mishima, where the girls at the inns on both sides of the road began their usual chorus of 'Walk in! Walk in!'"   

Then there's all the comedy.  I seriously see grainy Laurel and Hardy reels in my mind while I'm reading some of this.  In an early chapter Yaji and Kita arrive at an inn, hot and sweaty after a day of hiking on the Tokaido, in a local region where Japanese baths are positioned directly over a fire and are constructed with a thin metal bottom that conducts heat to warm the bath water.  When the bath is not in use, a wooden disk floats on the surface of the water and serves as a kind of lid.  When the bath is used, the bather pushes the disk down to the bottom to cover the hot floor.  Of course Yaji and Kita, despite being 'gentlemen from Edo' (a distinction every country innkeeper, waitress, or fellow traveler hilariously bestows upon them) are hopelessly clueless to the etiquette of such a bath.  Yaji disrobes, takes the cover off, and leans it against the wall.  He jumps in and immediately singes his feet.  Yowling and complaining to Kita who is in the other room, Kita answers that Yaji is just being picky and that the water is fine, he just needs to adjust to the temperature.  Looking around for something to project his feet, Yaji finds a pair of wooden clogs which he dons and proceeds to enjoy a leisurely soak without a word to Kita about the scorching metal or his make-do solution.  When it's Kita's turn, he jumps in, burns his feet badly, and jumps out perplexed by how his friend managed to soak so long.  Yaji replies that it was just as Kita said, the water is fine once you get used to it.  Yaji leaves so he won't laugh and spoil the joke, and Kita looking around, finds the wet clogs and puts two and two together.  He slips them on, gets back in the water, and starts to sing and dance, remarking at how enjoyable his bath is.  Surprised, Yaji runs in, notices that the clogs are gone from their hiding place, but plays along with the joke anyway.  The laughing ends abruptly though, when Kita's dancing causes the thin metal bath floor to crack, flooding the hot fire, and sending up clouds of blistering steam.  More yowling and laughing follows, Kita must pay off the inn keeper with a hefty sum of 300 coppers, and the two sleep off their latest humiliation then rise at dawn ready for whatever the day will bring.  

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