land of the crane: kyoji

Sixteen years ago, in the dead of night, a newborn baby was left outside the front gate of the Temple of the Silent Lake. Upon discovering the crying infant the next morning, the monks of the temple reacted with surprise.

They were not surprised that someone had abandoned a child in the middle of the night – three hundred years of unstable shoguns, constant warfare between rival clans, droughts, plagues, and the hard life of being a peasant all produced enough abandoned children to fill all of Tsurukoku's monasteries twice over. They were not surprised that the child was left without any word of explanation – for none ever were. No, the monks of the temple were surprised by the features of the abandoned child, for he had hair the color of straw, and eyes that resembled sapphires.

The monks took the infant into their care, named him Kyoji, after the legendary shodo[1] master, and raised him alongside the dozens of other abandoned and orphaned children that showed up outside their gate every year. Though the kanju of the temple decreed that the strange-looking infant should be treated no differently than any other child ("He is either blessed by the spirits, or cursed," she said, "It is not up to us to decide which."), Kyoji couldn't help but hear the whispers and feel the stares of the other children as he grew into a monk-in training.

Over the years, he formed close friendships with a select few others who were considered "strange" for one reason or another: Sakio, a girl who could see spirits; Dosan, a boy who never stopped talking; Akiko, a slender girl who was at least a head taller than all the boys by the time she was 8; and Issai, a boy who weighed more than all the other boys combined.

Apart from spending time with his friends, Kyoji poured himself into the study of the Way of the Tortoise and the teachings of Zenigame Kamiko[2], the temple's founder. He practiced the defensive fighting inspired by the tortoise during the day and read from the sacred scrolls that illustrated the danger presented by the tainted forces of Yomi at night.

On the sixteenth anniversary of Kyoji's arrival at the temple, the kanju approached him as he was training with Akiko. "Kyoji-san," she said as she bowed.

"Yes, sensei?" the young monk replied as he, too, bowed.

"It is time."

Kyoji nodded, bowed to his training partner, and then followed the kanju as she turned to walk out of the dojo. They passed statues of the temple's greatest leaders, murals depicting battles between the temple's monks and armies of oni, and a multitude of tortoises that freely wandered the temple's halls, before emerging onto the balcony that overlooked the placid lake for which the temple was named.

The kanju took a moment to look out across the lake. At the far end, a crane clicked its beak, and then splashed around, looking for frogs. "You've been an exemplary student, Kyoji-san," she said.

"Thank you, sensei."

"The time has come for you to embark on your pilgrimage, and I have the highest confidence that you will become a remarkable warrior."

Kyoji blushed, but bowed. "Thank you, sensei."

"The world outside these walls is complex," she said as the crane's head emerged from the water, a struggling frog clamped firmly in its beak, "and the forces of Yomi will conspire against you."

"Yes, sensei," Kyoji watched as the crane tossed back its head and swallowed the frog whole.

"Remember the wisdom of Zenigame as you fight against the spread of taint, Kyoji-san. It is your greatest weapon."

"Yes, sensei."

"Kyoji-san."

"Yes, sensei?"

"As of today, I am no longer your sensei," the kanju of the Temple of the Silent Lake said with a sad smile.

The young monk fell silent for a moment as those words rattled around his brain. He could hear the click-click-click of the crane's beak in the distance, and feel the gentle breeze of the east wind as it danced across the surface of the lake. He wondered when he would hear that sound and feel that breeze again – the thought frightened and excited him simultaneously.

Finally, he took a deep breath, smiled, and bowed deeply, "Thank you, Midori-sama."

On that day, Kyoji bid farewell to his friends, gathered what few items he possessed, and walked out the front gate of the Temple of the Silent Lake. He wandered south, and, after a few weeks, found himself in the sake-producing town of Tsumago. After enjoying the kuramoto's hospitality for a week, he resumed wandering, at which time he encountered a group of fellow travelers.

"I am a disciple of the Way of the Tortoise," he said as he bowed, "and I am on a musha shugyo."

The fat traveler – the one driving the cart – smiled at him and spoke, "We are travelers from Kurosawa. We are on a pilgrimage as well, to take our offering to the great fire crane." He pointed to himself, "I am Kakeru," then to the others in turn. Musashi bowed slightly when Kakeru introduced him. Fukasu smiled, waved, and then bowed.

Takashi shifted his weight rapidly from one foot to the other as he bowed. Fukasu looked over at him, and realized that he was nearly vibrating with excitement. This should be interesting, she thought.

The monk from the Temple of Thunder and Lightning stepped forward, smiled, and said "Want to fight?"

[1] Shodo, the "way of writing," is more commonly known as calligraphy. In Tsurukoku, it is performed with a bamboo and animal hair brush on washi (a paper made from plant fiber that is thicker and tougher than that made from wood pulp). The ink used for shodo is known as sumi, and is produced from charcoal. Shodo masters are considered to be some of the greatest artists in Tsurukoku.

[2] Zenigame Kamiko was born into a samurai family, but took on the life of an ascetic monk on her sixteenth birthday. She abandoned her family name and took on the title of "Zenigame," which means "pond turtle." Over the next 8 decades, she developed the defensive fighting style known as the Way of the Tortoise, authored over two hundred scrolls detailing the most efficient way to defeat the forces of Yomi, and founded the Temple of Silent Lake.