Cherry blossoms aside

THE other day, rumaging admid the clutter of old papers, photos, and momentos in the closet, I found a casket of gold lacquer that recalled my brief acquaintance with Mori in Kyoto, Japan, after World War II. I first met him at a party in Kyoto during the cherry blossom season. The host was a local businessman whose villa at the edge of the city unfolded a view over the massed cherry trees with their drifts of snowy bloom.

The guests ranged from Americans in uniform speaking loudly and clicking their cameras to Japanese, twittering and giggling, in Western suits and dresses. All the foreigners were vying with one another in praising the scene: The atmosphere was full of the uneasiness typical of mixed gatherings in the early days of the occupation.

Above the din I heard a voice with a distinct British accent: ``I simply can't bear cherry blossom. I suppose I'm the absolute end.''

Glancing over my shoulder, I saw with astonishment that the words came from a young Japanese, standing by himself with folded hands. His manners were frank and easy. In a sudden impulse I asked him if his studies left any time to act as a guide, since I needed one in Kyoto.

``My studies? Dear boy, you flatter me. My studies were completed at Oxford before the war.''

A few days later he called me, asking if I were free. In true Japanese style he ferreted out my name and address and now, reminding me that I asked him to be a guide, he proposed we should see Kyoto together.

And what a guide he was. He not only knew Kyoto inside and out but also was a scholar and connoisseur with an artist's gift of stirring the imagination, of bringing the past to life, of creating by ever so few words an atmosphere. He transformed the old capital from a splendid museum into the expression of a living spirit; and, without aluding to it, he showed me the evils and confusions of Japan as accidents in a long story, dark patches in a white picture.

When the tour ended after three days, I gave him a gift -- an old suit that I intended to discard -- as a gesture of gratitude. I thrust it into his hands, thanking him a few times. He bowed low and repeatedly in the Japanese manner and left.

I never saw him again, having moved to other cities where my memory of him blurred by other impressions.

The day I left Japan, as the ship was moving out of Yokohama harbor, a steward gave me a parcel: a square wooden box tied up in a patterned furoshiki. Inside the box, wrapped in silver paper, was a little casket of gold lacquer. A note was enclosed.

``My family and I wish you to have this little remembrance of Japan. It has been in our family for generations. I hope you will accept it and enjoy it.''

And so Mori, the Oxford graduate who could not bear cherry blossom, more than returned my small gesture of good will. By what Japanese grapevine had he had been able to follow my movements so exactly?

I went up on deck and watched the coast disappear into the mists of early morning and nothing was left of Japan but the silver cone of Fujiyama rising above the haze. I stood there looking until it too was swallowed up and there were only the sea, the sky, and the hum of the engines bearing the ship away. And in my hands the lacquer casket, perhaps the most valuable of Mori's treasures.

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