“Find a Japanese antique, examine it, and find out as much as you can about its history. Then write a short essay about your findings.”
This was the school assignment Akira had been given. He’d tried phoning his father for clues as to where he might find such an antique, but could not reach him.
That was why he now stood at the threshold of this seedy antique shop with Akari.
“Akira, I don’t like the feel of this place,” she muttered to her friend under her breath, so the shopkeeper would not hear. “Let’s just get our antiques and go home.”
Akira strolled into the shop and examined the goods. Hanging scrolls, pots, plates, cups and more occupied every resting place of the shop, but nothing in particular grabbed his eye.
“Find anything you like?”
Akira leapt half a foot into the air. The shopkeeper, a tubby, froggish-looking fellow, had suddenly emerged from the shadows, clasping his hands together.
“I—uh…” Akira stuttered, unsure what to say, eyes roaming about the room for something interesting.
“Well, what about this porcelain plate from the Meiji era? This elegant design is only about 22,000 yen.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t have that kind of money,” said Akira wistfully.
“A cup might be cheap enough,” said Akari, bending down to peer at a vintage teacup.
As she said this, however, Akira’s eyes travelled to a wooden, blocky object sitting in the corner of the shop. Among the all the richly painted pots and plates, it seemed plain and unadorned and that stood out to him. He went over to have a look at it.
“What’s this?” he asked. The flat square surface was etched with a grid pattern, and a hideous dark stain was splattered across one quarter.
Akari came over to have a look. “Looks like a game board. I think you play gomoku on it?”
“Oh no,” said the shopkeeper, who had suddenly appeared behind them again, making them jump, “That go board is no good! It’s haunted. Absolutely worthless. I haven’t been able to sell it since a young lady sold it to this shop years ago. I don’t recommend it.”
“Haunted?” repeated Akira, “Actually that’s perfect! I’m supposed to find something with history. I wonder where this stain came from?” He idly rubbed at the dark marks with the hem of his sweater sleeve.
“I don’t see any stains…” said Akari.
“H-hey, hey! Don’t touch the merchandise!” A large, meaty hand grasped Akira’s shoulder and pulled him back.
Akira spun around to face him, eyes wide. “Sumimasen!!” he said, flustered, bowing vigorously.
“It’s alright, kid, just be more careful. Now let me show you something nicer than that creepy old goban…”
“You hear my voice?” A soft voice spoke from within his mind, just behind him.
“W-who’s there!?” Akira stuttered nervously, glancing about the room.
“Akira, there’s no one else here,” said Akari.
“Can you really hear me?”
“Where’s that voice coming from?” asked Akira, not paying attention to Akari.
“What kind of joke are you pulling now, kid!?” said the shopkeeper, furrowing his brow with impatience.
“Akira, stop, you’re freaking me out!”
“At long last, after all these years!” the voice continued, wavering with emotion.
Akira turned back in the direction of the goban and gasped at the sight. Shrouded in white, the image of a tall elegant figure robed in pale silk appeared before him, his long black hair flowing as if he were in water.
“Thanks to the gods, that I can now return to the mortal world.” the figure continued.
Akira stared, mouth agape. “A ghost!?”
His mind went blank.
Who are you?
I am Fujiwara no Sai.
I see. My name is Touya Akira. I don’t really understand what’s going on, but it’s nice to meet you.
It’s nice to meet you too, Akira.
Are you a part of my consciousness? Where did you come from?
I was a tutor of go for the Emperor in the Heian Era, about a thousand years ago. I played go in the court of Heian-kyo every day and was very happy.
The Emperor had another go tutor alongside me, who one day told him that there should be only one tutor. Thus he challenged me to a match, in which only the victor would continue as the Emperor’s tutor. I accepted, and we held the match before the Emperor and the whole court.
We fought a fierce and even battle. Everyone was so focused on the board that only I saw it.
A white stone among his bowl of black stones. Sometimes this happens by mistake, and the right thing to do is to return it to its appropriate bowl.
Instead, with a subtle sleight of hand, he took the piece and added it to his prisoners. No one saw but me.
So, he cheated!?
Indeed, he cheated. Shocked, I opened my mouth to speak, but my opponent spoke before me. He pointed an accusing finger, and shouted, “Hey! Just now, you took a stray black stone that was in your bowl and added it to your prisoners!”
“But that was exactly what you did with a white stone!” I said.
The Emperor interjected, “I do not want to believe that such an act has taken place in my presence. Please continue.”
We continued, but I was in such poor spirits that I could not focus on the game, and that vile person won. I was accused of treachery and exiled. No longer able to play go and with no reason to live, I soon drowned myself in the river.
That is so sad…
My spirit could not pass on to the next world. I needed so much to play go that I became bound to the goban.
I passed through centuries of time, until one day, I heard the voice of a child. His name was Kuwabara Torajirou, and only he could see the stains from my tears. This kind person accepted me into his soul and from then on we played go together, and I was happy again.
Torajirou rose to become Honinbou Shuusaku, the greatest go player of his time, but sadly, he died of the plague at the age of 34, caring for the sick in his household.
Shuusaku? Wasn’t he the ‘go sage’ of the Edo period? He was mentioned in history class…
Indeed, he was that same Shuusaku.
So after these years, you come to me as you did Shuusaku?
It appears that way. I remain in this world because I have yet to achieve my goal, to play the Divine Move…
…to attain the Hand of God.
“Today, we are taking another test, since just about everyone did so poorly on the last one.”
Cries of outrage erupted across the sixth grade class. Akira himself was too busy fighting a killer headache and struggling to keep his eyes open to join the protest.
“Akira, are you alright?” asked Akari next to him.
“I’m fine, just a little out of it today.”
“It must be because of your collapse yesterday,” said Akari, eyebrows scrounged up with worry. “Are you sure you don’t need a day off?”
“I can’t take a day off! We have another test!”
“Quiet now, everyone! Turn your papers over and begin,” said the teacher.
Akira turned his paper over and had a look at the questions. Tenpo period again… did he really have to redo the test like everyone else? He thought he did well on the last one.
What was the name of the guy who instigated the rebellion again? Ah, if only he could remember, but this terrible headache rendered all his studying useless.
“Oh, you’re doing history?” Came the soft voice from within his head.
“YAAH!” Akira yelped and jumped to his feet, kicking back his chair, and looked wildly about the room. “Who’s there!?”
“Touya-kun, is something the matter?” asked the teacher from the other side of the room.
He realized all the students were staring at him. Blushing, he said, “Nothing, I was just a little startled, that’s all.” He sat down and shrank back into his seat with embarrassment and tried to become as small as possible.
“Relax, Akira. It’s just me, Fujiwara no Sai.”
Oh, the spirit from the Heian Era who was in the goban. He’d nearly forgotten from all the commotion over his attack.
“Oh, the Tenpo Period?” said Sai with interest.
“Yes. Do you know something about it?” Akira muttered under his breath.
“Yes, Torajirou lived during that time.”
“Well, I hate to ask, but with this headache I can’t remember anything from my studies. Do you remember the name of the man who started the rebellion? He burned down part of Osaka city.”
“Oh, his name was Oushio Heihachirou. Torajirou was a youth on the island of Innoshima at the time. In the same year the rebellion failed and that man committed suicide, Torajirou left to join the Honinbou school.”
“Thank you,” said Akira as he wrote down the name. He gazed up from his paper and had a good look at the spirit, who knelt beside him in a fine white kariginu with a tall eboshi perched on his head. With his long black hair and his violet lipstick, he really was quite beautiful.
“Say, if you’re in this world to play go, then I wonder… why me? My father played go once, but I don’t know the first thing about go. I’ve never held a go piece in my life.”
“That’s quite alright. We can learn together.”
“Well, I’m really sorry, but I’m afraid I won’t have time to play go.”
“No time to play go?” Sai’s voice wavered with shock and sorrow.
“Yes. I have to study hard and keep my grades top notch so I can get into Kaiou Middle School, then after that there’s high school entrance exams and I’ll probably have to start going to a cram school for those, and then I have to get into the best high school, then I have to work really hard to get into a good university, and then I’ll have to find a job at a company and…”
Sai started to cry, and Akira was suddenly overwhelmed with a sensation of extreme nausea. Clutching his mouth, he dashed right out of the class and straight to the bathroom to vomit.
“What—“ he gasped over the sink, “what in the world did you just do!?”
“It seems that my sadness overwhelmed your body to the point that it made you ill,” said Sai softly, hiding his face behind his fan.
“I guess it can’t be helped, then,” said Akira. “It shouldn’t hurt to find some time to play a little go. This afternoon, I’ll see if I can find a go class.”
“Yay!” Sai bounced childishly with delight and hugged Akira. “Akira, you’re the best!”
Akari and the teacher had arrived at the threshold of the bathroom. “Akira, are you alright?”
“I’m fine now!” said Akira, “I just need to play go!”
“Go???” Akari suddenly understood absolutely nothing.
“The best move is for black to extend here, so that even if white played here, black can still capture two stones…” lectured Shirakawa-sensei, placing a black stone on the large upright go board for demonstration.
Akira sighed. “I don’t understand any of this!” he complained to Sai.
“It’s quite alright. You’re just a beginner. He’s going over some basic tsumego.”
“Exercises in life and death.”
“Life and death?” Who would have thought that a board game would be this complicated and have so many terms?
Sai sighed and smiled. “Don’t worry about it. That’s a kind of complicated concept for someone who doesn’t know how to play yet. I’ll explain it to you later.”
Akira looked about the room, feeling a little out of place. All the other students in this class could pass for his parents or grandparents. Sai meanwhile, was smiling and shaking with delight, like a happily panting puppy. At least someone was enjoying himself.
He spotted another kid his age leaning against the wall at the side, crossing his arms in a grumpy or bored manner. He wore a plain grey school uniform, with the mandarin collar casually loose. Akira recognized the uniform as belonging to a prestigious private elementary school that his father wanted to send him to, but didn’t have the money.
His bangs were bleached to a pale gold, parted and flopped over his eyes. Akira had heard that hair bleaching was sort of a delinquent thing to do, but on this kid it actually looked kind of cute. Did he play go?
The other boy raised his eyes and took notice of Akira, brightening up and making a little smile. Blushing a little, Akira turned away bashfully.
“Ok, that’s it for my lecture,” said Shirakawa-sensei, smiling gently. “You can use the rest of this time to play your own games. Shindou-kun, you can come help me advise the students.” The bleached kid, apparently the one called Shindou, got up from the wall and started pacing about the room like Shirakawa-sensei, looking down at the games. Was he a teacher??
Akira looked up at the man sitting opposite the board before him. He kind of had fish lips, Akira thought, but he would never say it.
“Well?” said the fish-lipped man, “Let’s nigiri.”
“Nigiri??” Akira didn’t understand.
“Oh, you don’t even know how to do that?” said the man impatiently.
“Um,” Akira quickly opened the box before him, not wanting to make the man even more impatient. It was full of smooth white glass stones. He held one up to his eye between his thumb and forefinger. “These are really pretty,” he said. He put the stone down on a random point on the board before him and it wobbled awkwardly.
“Hey, white doesn’t go first!! Do you even know how to play?”
“Oh! Sumimasen!!” he said and he quickly took the stone back. Akira frowned, feeling increasingly nervous about getting more things wrong.
The man placed his black stone on a marked point near the corner. “Now, you go.”
“Right, okay…” Akira scanned the whole stretch of 19 by 19 lines. There were so many points! How could he know where was the best place to go? He selected the point directly at the corner of the board opposite the black stone, as it was furthest away, and placed his stone there.
“Hehehe,” the man laughed and placed his stone right next to Akira’s own.
The presence of the black stone so close to his own made him really nervous. He placed his white stone a little further away.
“Hahahaha!” the man continued laughing as he placed his next stone on the other side of Akira’s stone in the corner, and took it away.
“Oh no, my stone!” Now he had only one stone on the board, and the fish-lipped man had three.
“Where’s the fun if you keep making all these stupid useless moves?” said the man, tossing Akira’s captured stone casually into the air.
Akira clenched his fists on the table. He wanted to cry. He was getting everything wrong! Was he unfit to play go?
“Akira, that man is a bully,” said Sai, “His behavior is entirely against the spirit of go. Let me tell you the moves, and we’ll show him how it feels to be pushed around!”
“Ok,” said Akira as he fished for another stone. As he held up the white stone over the board, he realized tears were falling from above.
He looked up. Sai was crying. He smiled from behind his fan, and the tears streamed down his cheeks.
“Sai,” Akira said solemnly, “It’s been so long since you could play go…”
After a moment, Sai regained his composure, and narrowed his eyes, ready for battle. ”Let’s play, Akira.” He pointed with his fan, and directed, “16-17.”
“16-17…” repeated Akira pensively as he counted the lines in search of the point.
And then, CLATTER!! Black stones scattered all over the board, shocking Akira out of his wits. He looked up to see fish lips man gasping, utterly mortified. His bowl of black stones was now upside-down on his head, and stones rained down over his face. Holding the bowl on his head was the bleached boy standing directly behind him, grinning mischievously.
“Sorry!” he said, “My hand slipped.”
Akira’s mouth hang open stupidly. Did he just…? To an adult? All the other people in the room stared, muttering.
“Shindou-kuuuun!” The usually sweet and gentle Shirakawa-sensei raised his voice and clenched his pointer furiously. “Take that bowl off Akota-san’s head right now!”
“Of course!” said Shindou and he removed the bowl…
…and as he did so, Akota-san’s hair came with it, clean off his head! The man was bald!
It took a moment for Akota-san to realize what had happened. He touched his polished cranium and screamed, kicking his chair over and fleeing straight out of the room.
“Next time, pick on someone your own age!” said Shindou, grinning and flashing the two fingers of victory.
Everyone in the room, especially Shindou, laughed, and even Akira could not stifle a little giggle at the bully’s expense. Even Shirakawa-sensei laughed a little, before regaining his composure, and pointing his pointer at Shindou.
“Shindou-kun, you get out! This is the last time!”
“Why not cut him some slack, sensei, the guy had it coming. I saw even you laughed!” said an obaasan by the sensei’s shoulder, but he didn’t feel like loosening up.
“Well, looks like it’s time to blow this joint,” said Shindou. He grabbed Akira by the wrist and pulled him right out. Bewildered and red in the cheeks, Akira followed.
“Your mother will be hearing about this!” Shirakawa-sensei shouted after them.
Shindou tugged Akira along out of the Community Center and on an incredible commute across half of the ward. Sai trailed behind, shouting, “Wait up, Akira!”
“You-you took that man’s wig off!!” said Akira, as they rode the train, still taken aback by the incident. Meanwhile Sai gazed around at his hi tech surroundings in awe.
“You’re welcome,” said Shindou, smiling.
“You really think it’s ok?”
“The guy had it coming! He likes harassing weaker players. I did you a favor.”
“Oh, ok, if you say so,” said Akira, really not wanting to offend this person who had suddenly befriended him out of nowhere, even if he was a bit… wild. “Where are you taking me, anyway?”
“To some place much better than that silly old go class for jijis!” said Shindou, “I was only there cause my kaa-san grounded me and made me help Shirakawa as a punishment.”
“I see.” What an unusual punishment, he thought. What sort of a kid was this Shindou?
“Here we are!” Shindou announced excitedly as they rounded the corner to their destination. Akira read the sign up above. “Go Salon?”
“Yep! My kaa-san owns this place! It’s nice and quiet, and no bullies are allowed.”
His mother owned a go salon? What kind of a family were they?
“Ah, welcome back, Hikaru-kun,” said a young lady sitting at the front desk as they entered. “I see you brought a friend! It’s 500 yen for kids.”
“Um…” Akira dug in his pockets for money, and could only produce a measly 61 yen. He’d already spent his pocket cash on the go class.
“No worries!” said Shindou as he flipped a 500 yen coin in an arch into the air at the clerk, who flailed wildly to try to catch it, and judging from the ping of the coin bouncing on the linoleum, she had no success.
“Ah! Hikaru-kun! You could have just handed it over, honestly!”
“Hahahaha, gomen, Ichikawa-san! We’ll be in the back. Later!” He tugged on Akira’s wrist and pulled him towards the back of the salon.
“Mou, that Hikaru,” Ichikawa-san grumbled to herself as she deposited the coin in the till.
Akira looked around at his surroundings. He guessed it was kind of nicer than the go class? Mostly middle aged folks sitting around playing go, like last time. Were these not, somehow ‘jiji’s? He decided not to think too hard about Shindou’s logic.
“Anyway, I don’t think I even got your name yet! I’m Shindou Hikaru, 6th grade. What about you?”
“My name is Touya Akira. I’m in the 6th grade too!”
Shindou brought Akira over to a booth in the back, and Akira took a seat. “What’s your rank?” he asked.
“Uh, rank? I don’t know. I’ve never played before. Am I supposed to know that?”
“Don’t worry about it. A four or five stone stone handicap should be good enough.”
“If you’re the weaker player, you play black and get to place extra stones on your first move. It makes things a little easier for you.”
“Oh, ok.” Akira took the goke of black stones, and carefully placed five stones on marked points of the board, near each corner, and at the center, as Shindou directed.
“Let’s begin! Onegaishimasu!”
“O-Onegaishimasu,” Akira repeated.
Shindou played his first move and smiled at Akira, cocking his head a little.
How could he know what moves were good or bad? “Hmm, what next,” he thought to Sai.
“Kosumi at 5-5,” said Sai.
“Kosumi…?” Akira repeated, as he counted the lines in search of the point. Ah! He plopped the stone down with his thumb and forefinger and it made an audible cla-clack as it bounced.
“A move just diagonal from another of your stones,” Sai explained. “Don’t worry about the terms for now.”
Shindou raised his eyebrows at the move, sort of shrugged and played elsewhere.
“4-7,” said Sai, and Akira placed the stone.
“That isn’t really the best way to place stones,” Shindou said, “You should hold it between your two fingers, and place it like this.” He held the stone between his middle finger and index finger, and placed his next move with a characteristic pa-chi.
Akira was struck by the surprising elegance of the gesture made by this otherwise somewhat crude boy. He tried to imitate Shindou on his next move, and under Sai’s instruction almost had it when the stone slipped clumsily out of his fingers. He let out a small awkward laugh.
“You’ll get the hang of it,” said Shindou as he placed his next move.
The game unfolded as Sai directed Akira where to place the stones, and Shindou responded. Gradually, Akira noticed, Shindou’s smile turned into a frown, and his brow furrowed with deep concentration and confusion. Since he couldn’t make any sense of the mess of stones before him, Akira could only infer that Shindou had noticed Sai’s power, and couldn’t match up to it.
“That’s yours, Touya,” said Shindou, startling Akira, who was waiting for Shindou to make his move.
“That stone,” Shindou said, pointing to one of his white stones somewhere in the maze of black and white, a thread of impatience in his voice. “You’ve captured it. It’s yours.”
Shindou sighed and picked the stone up from the board, and dropped it in the open lid of Akira’s bowl.
“You’re really good. And I mean, really good,” said Shindou, playing his move. “Are you sure you’ve never played before?”
Akira’s heart pounded and he broke into a light sweat. What kind of mess had he just gotten himself into? “I, uh…”
“Sai, what do we do?”
Sai pondered this himself for a moment. He narrowed his eyes and said, “We continue as before. This is your game, Akira. 11-17.”
“Oh, ok.” He wasn’t really sure what Sai meant, but decided to accept it.
“So, have you played go before? It’s a simple yes or no question.”
“I really haven’t!!” Akira blurted out, not wanting to offend Shindou any further. “I don’t understand what’s going on, really. It’s nice though!”
“11-17, Akira,” said Sai patiently.
“11-17,” he repeated as he counted the lines on the board and found the point. There we go!
Shindou watched carefully as Akira made this move. He gasped with distress.
“What’s going on?” Akira wondered to Sai.
“That was a killing blow to his 7 stones at the side. They are now dead, which means they cannot escape your capture.”
“So, does that mean I take them?”
“Not until the game is over.”
“So we took eight of his stones and we only lost one. Does that mean we’re winning?”
“Not necessarily. Go isn’t actually about capturing the most stones. We do, however, have the lead. But watch his face now and see that he is about to put another plan into action. There is more to this child than meets the eye.”
The game continued, Shindou’s face scrounged up in deep concentration, until, a few moves later…
After Akira placed this move, Shindou sat for a moment staring at it, eyebrow furrowed, and then he widened his eyes, mouth agape, falling against the back of his chair. He looked from the stone to the utterly lost and confused Akira, and back to the stone again.
“Did I do something wrong?” Akira asked in a small voice.
“You…” Shindou managed to get out, “Are you playing a teaching game with me?? Just—just what are you!?”