Not long after I came to Japan, somebody gave me a stack of books related to Japan: Japanese history, guidebooks, a few novels. I read them – some several times – and put them away.
One of those books was a short historical novel spanning 25 years of the Sengoku and early Edo period at the turn of the 17th century. The topic is tea master Sen-no-Rikyu and his death by suicide ordered by Hideyoshi. The main protagonist is one of his students, the (apparently non-historic) monk Honkaku, and he tries to solve the mystery why Rikyu had to commit suicide in the first place, and why he didn’t even attempt to appease Hideyoshi.
To be honest, when I first read this book some 10 years ago, I didn’t think much of it. Sure, the language is beautiful, even in translation, but I am one of the people who read primarily for the story, and it fell flat for me. Although set in Kyoto, the place names didn’t conjure up any images and the people, whether historic or not, were not fleshed out enough to make them interesting.
The whole novel was centred around the tea ceremony (of which I still only know the bare minimum) and could have just as well taken place in a chashitsu, a tiny tea house (and much of it actually did). So, after the reading the book then, I put it away with a label of “okay-ish”, and moved on.
Recently, something prompted me to pick it up again, and I’m surprised to say that my opinion has changed completely.
In the last 10 years, I visited countless places in Kyoto, and the author places Honkaku’s hermitage somewhere near my house, which is kind of funny. But more importantly, I learned much about Japanese history and culture in that time, not through any systematic study mind you, I just picked up bits and pieces here and there. And they all fell into place perfectly when reading this book again.
I now know about Rikyu and his successor as number one tea master, Furuta Oribe (who, coincidentally, also was ordered to commit suicide). Recently, I discovered the controversial figure of Oda Urakusai, another student of Rikyu’s. I still don’t know enough about tea ceremony to appreciate the many references to famous tea utensils – all of which have a name – however, overall, I found the novel very enjoyable this time around, even though it doesn’t solve the mystery in the end.
All of this goes to show that maybe we should re-read books. Our experiences in the interim may have increased our knowledge of certain details, changed our opinions on something specific, or even our outlook on life and the world as a whole. What we’ve tossed aside as a mere lump of coal may have turned into a diamond while we were busy with other things.
This is not one of my usual book reviews. Firstly, because I cannot unreservedly recommend the book in question. Given my own experience, I think you really need to be familiar with aspects of the tea ceremony, or its early protagonists, to enjoy it.
Secondly, the book still has not been translated into English. However, for my German-speaking readers, the book is Der Tod des Teemeisters by Yasushi Inoue, the Japanese original is called Honkakubo Ibun. Maybe it’s best to find it in a library, lest you are disappointed on the first reading, just like I was.