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Authors: Laura Joh Rowland

The Incense Game

BOOK: The Incense Game
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To my fellow survivors of natural disasters, and in memory of those who lost their lives



Title Page

Copyright Notice


Historical Note


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Map: The Incense Game

Also by Laura Joh Rowland

About the Author



Historical Note

1703, a powerful earthquake struck a vast area of Japan that included Edo. The castle, the city, and many towns in outlying provinces sustained catastrophic damage. The death toll is difficult to quantify, due in part to the fact that the Tokugawa regime kept secret the number of its people who were killed. Sources estimate that several thousand people died in Edo and more than 100,000 in the entire earthquake zone. Casualties were concentrated along the coast, where a giant tsunami washed villages out to sea, flooded rivers, and drowned inland towns. The earthquake was one of the worst natural disasters in world history.

The Incense Game
is my story of what could have happened before, during, and after the earthquake.

Real, historical characters in the novel include the shogun, his friend Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu, his nephew Ienobu, his mother Lady Keisho-in, and Lord Hosokawa. Yanagisawa did have a son named Yoshisato. Ienobu actually was a hunchback and the shogun’s heir apparent. Lady Keisho-in did have a close relationship with a priest named Ryuko, who was a spiritual advisor to her and the shogun. Lord Hosokawa, the
of Higo Province, played a role in the famous tale of the forty-seven
, the subject of my previous book (
The R
nin’s Mistress
). Everyone else is fictional.



Edo, Month 11, Genroku Year 16

(Tokyo, December 1703)

as if a massive, restless dragon were uncoiling beneath the city. On the black expanse of the Sumida River, the moon’s reflection shivered. Thousands of houses shifted, groaning and creaking. Wind chimes tinkled in the icy air. At two hours before midnight, the few soldiers patrolling the streets reined in their skittish horses. Sleepers tossed, troubled by bad dreams.

In a small house in the Nihonbashi merchant district, three women looked up as the tatami floor where they knelt shook under them and ceramic vessels on shelves rattled. The square white lantern above them swayed, casting eerie patterns of light and shadow across their anxious faces, made up with white rice-powder and red rouge. Breath held, the women didn’t speak.

The shaking stopped.

They released their breath.

Earth tremors were common. Everyone lived with the fear of the great quakes that devastated Japan at unpredictable intervals and went about their business in the meantime.

The oldest woman turned her attention to the items arranged on a mat before her. Her name was Usugumo. In her forties, she had the sleekness of a cat, her face molded from triangular planes. Silver streaks gleamed in her upswept hair. She picked up metal chopsticks, removed a white-hot coal from a brazier, and dropped it in a celadon ceramic bowl filled with ash. While she mounded the ash over the charcoal, pierced a hole in the mound, and drew a pattern of lines on it, she flicked her narrow-eyed glance at the other women.

They were sisters, in their twenties. The younger was prettier, the elder more expensively dressed. Usugumo could feel hostility between them. She used tweezers to place a mica plate above the hole in the ash, then picked up three origami packets made of pale green, gold-flecked paper. She shuffled the packets, opened one, and removed a little ball of incense, which she set on the mica plate. Smoke tinged with the aromas of fruit, wood, musk, and spices arose from the bowl as the incense burned. Usugumo sensed anticipation in the air and a tension at odds with the serene ritual. The other women gazed down at the paper, brushes, ink, and inkstones arranged before them, their expressions stony.

“The incense game begins,” Usugumo said. The sisters sat up straighter, like warriors preparing for battle. “Listen to the incense. Let its voice tell you who it is.”

She set the celadon bowl on the floor between her and the elder sister and bowed. The elder sister picked up the bowl, holding it on her left palm. She curled her right hand on top of the bowl, forming a small hole between her thumb and forefinger. Her sister watched closely, leaning forward, as if impatient for her turn.

The earth shuddered again.

The elder sister lifted the bowl to her face, placed her nose against the hole, closed her eyes, and slowly, deeply, inhaled.

*   *   *

and second-in-command to the shogun, the military dictator of Japan, was alone in a small boat on a turbulent sea. Thunder boomed in the stormy sky. He clung to the sides of his boat as it rocked and pitched. High up to the crest of an enormous wave he soared; then he came down with a jarring crash.

He awakened, a yell caught in his throat.

He was lying in his dark bedchamber. His fingers gripped the heavy quilts that covered him. The rocking and thunder continued. His wife Reiko, beside him, said in a sleepy, worried voice, “Why are you shaking?”

“It’s not me,” Sano said.

Their twelve-year-old son Masahiro ran into the room, shouting, “Earthquake!”

The room heaved and rocked with an erratic, accelerating rhythm and terrible force. Sano and Reiko sat up while doors slid open; cabinets spewed their contents. They heard the rasp of the house twisting, its joints wrenching. Cracking, shattering noises came from above as roof tiles loosened and fell. Crashes reverberated throughout the compound inside Edo Castle, where Sano and his family lived. From her room down the hall his five-year-old daughter screamed.

“Akiko!” Clad only in her night robe, Reiko ran out the door, her long braid of hair flying.

Sano was up now, too, shivering in the winter air. He said to Masahiro, “Help me get everybody outside before the buildings come down.”

They raced through corridors, where they met guards and maids already fleeing. They leaped over gaps that opened between sections of the mansion. “Be careful!” Sano shouted. “Hurry!”

Ceiling beams crashed behind them. Lattice-and-paper partitions collapsed. Sano and Masahiro herded people between leaning walls and down tilted floors. The crowd stumbled free of the mansion into the icy night.

“Reiko!” Sano called, looking frantically around.

“I’m here!” Reiko trudged toward him, carrying Akiko on her back.

The family huddled together in the courtyard with Sano’s retainers and the servants. The barracks that enclosed the compound shuddered as the earth rocked harder and faster. Roof tiles flew like missiles. Cracks zigzagged across plaster façades. Buildings began to crumble.

“Go out!” Sano yelled. “It’s not safe here!”

The crowd surged through the gate to the stone-paved avenue. Across from this, estates belonging to other government officials occupied a lower level of the hill on which Edo Castle stood. Buildings collapsed like strips of silk curling in a breeze. Screams of terror and agony came from people trapped and injured. Sano looked up to see trees, walls topped with covered corridors, and guard towers sliding down the hill. Groans swept the crowd.

“Merciful gods,” Reiko exclaimed.

Sitting astride Reiko’s back, Akiko cried, “Look!”

Sano turned in the direction she was pointing. With the estates across the avenue gone, a new, clear view of the city below had opened up. Sano, his family, and his household gazed down in stricken fascination, clinging to one another as the world bucked with thunderous jolts. In the dim moonlight Sano could see that Edo’s skyline had flattened. Faint, distant screams rose amid scintillating dust clouds. Orange lights flared like torches across the landscape. Fires inevitably followed earthquakes, when lamps, braziers, and stoves were knocked over and ignited the houses.

“The city is burning,” Akiko said, her voice hushed with awe, her eyes round and solemn.

Sano and Reiko looked at each other in horror: The world as they knew it was ending.



the earthquake, Edo was a landscape from hell. Entire neighborhoods were leveled. The few intact areas stood like islands amid a sea of wreckage. Edo Castle resembled a beehive after a monster has shaken and mauled it to steal the honey. Up and down the hill, laborers swarmed, cleaning up timbers, plaster, and roof tiles from fallen buildings. The cold air rang with their shouts, the din from their shovels and hammers, and the rattle of the oxcarts that carried the debris downhill. Dust hazed a wintry blue sky darkened by smoke that rose from bonfires as Edo’s million people—the majority now homeless—tried to keep warm.

Accompanied by troops, officials, and secretaries, Sano inspected the palace. His chief bodyguard, Detective Marume, walked ahead of him, clearing a path through crowds of porters hauling planks. Sano strode through gardens once beautifully landscaped, now awash in mud and manure, while men sawed boards, mixed plaster, and lugged supplies. Much of the huge complex had collapsed during the earthquake. Although the wreckage had been cleared away, new framework for only one section—the shogun’s private chambers—had been erected. Other sections were nothing but bare foundations. Sections that hadn’t collapsed leaned precariously.

“When can you finish?” Sano asked the chief architect.

“I wish I knew.” One of thousands of samurai officials in the
—Japan’s military government—the architect had the grimy, haggard appearance of them all, including Sano. They’d been working day and night to rebuild the castle and the city and help the survivors of the earthquake. “We haven’t enough skilled carpenters, or building materials, or food for the workers. Can you get us some more?”

“I’ll try.” Sano was in charge of the rebuilding and disaster relief. People came to him for everything. “But I can’t make any promises. The other carpenters are busy fixing the bridges.” Most of the bridges that spanned Edo’s rivers and canals were down; movement through the city was severely limited. “I’ve ordered building materials from the provinces, but they’ll be slow getting here because the bridges along the highways are down. Food shipments are delayed, too.” Would that they arrived before a famine started! Much of Edo’s food supply had been destroyed by the fires, and what remained was quickly dwindling.

A clerk carrying a scroll hurried up to Sano. “Excuse me, Honorable Chamberlain, here is an urgent communication.”

Sano unfurled the scroll and read it. His spirits sank lower. “The death toll in Edo is now at three thousand,” he said to Marume.

Every new count was higher than the last. This was the worst disaster Sano had ever seen. He still couldn’t believe it had happened.

Sano continued reading. “There’s more bad news. The treasury is already seriously depleted by earthquake relief and repairs.” The Tokugawa regime, which had endured for a century, was nearing insolvency.

Marume didn’t answer. Once Sano could have counted on him to make humorous remarks that lightened the direst occasions. But Marume’s partner, Fukida, was among the casualties, killed when the barracks at Sano’s estate collapsed. Sano thought back to that terrible night, when he’d led the search for victims in the ruins of Edo Castle. He remembered Marume sobbing over Fukida’s broken body. The two men had been like brothers. Marume seemed a ghost of himself. His eyes were darkly shadowed. He never smiled anymore.

BOOK: The Incense Game
9.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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