Genroku Period, Year 2, Month 3 (Tokyo, April 1689)
As the hour of the boar approached, the great city of Edo
lay shrouded in a heavy mist that blurred the darkness and
muffled sound. A thin spring rain pattered onto the tile roofs
of the Nihonbashi merchant quarter, puddling the narrow streets.
Yellow lamplight glowed faintly behind the wooden lattices
and paper panes of only a few windows; smoke from charcoal
braziers rose to mingle with the mist and thicken the air still
more. Although the city's many gates had not yet closed, blocking
off passage from each section to the next, the streets were
already deserted as if midnight-nearly three hours away-had
The lone stalker emerged from the shelter of a recessed doorway
in a row of shopfronts whose sliding wooden shutters were closed
tight against the hostile weather. The dank chill penetrated
his cloak and seeped between the plates of the armor tunic
beneath it. Cold moisture gathered under his wide-brimmed hat
and inside the iron mask that covered his face. His body, already
tense with anticipation, began to shiver. With each shallow
breath, he inhaled and exhaled air that smelled of damp wood
and earth and the fishy taint of the Sumida River. Keeping
to the shadows beneath the roofs' overhanging eaves, he moved
sideways, stealthily, until he reached the next doorway. There
he paused, all his senses alert for the first sign of his prey.
Moments passed. The night noises--voices from inside nearby
houses, distant hoofbeats, the clatter of the night-soil carts
making their way toward the fields outside town--gradually
ceased as Edo prepared for the closing of the gates and the
captivity it would endure until dawn. Quivering with impatience,
the stalker peered down the street. His fingers traced the
flat guards, shaped like human skulls, of his swords. Would
the enemy appear tonight? Would he at last achieve the goal
postponed for so many years?
The mist allowed him to see no farther than ten paces in
any direction. To his right, he could barely discern the murky
glow of a torch that lit the gate at the street's end. The
night seemed empty of all movement and presence save his own.
Frustration mounted; blood lust consumed him in waves of hot
desire. As he waited, his fevered mind projected images at
first vague, then more distinct, against the mist's dense blankness.
If he squinted--there, just so--he could imagine himself back
through the years to that time about which he'd heard so much
that he knew it almost as well as his own. The time of constant
and glorious civil war, before the village of Edo had burgeoned
into a city of one million inhabitants; before the first Tokugawa
shogun, Ieyasu, had subjugated his rivals and imposed peace
upon the land.
The time of the greatest warlord who had ever lived.
Kiyosu Fortress, one hundred and twenty-nine years ago. A
merciless summer sun blazed down upon the two thousand samurai
sheltered within the wooden walls of the stockade. The stalker,
though among the humblest of the foot soldiers, felt the unease
that permeated their pitifully small army. This day could mean
victory and life--or defeat and death--for them all.
The words, whispered from one man to the next, passed through
the ranks. Along with his comrades, the stalker knelt and bowed,
arms extended, forehead to the ground. But he couldn't resist
a quick glance upward as their feared and beloved lord passed.
Oda Nobunaga, lord of Owari Province, with ambitions of someday
ruling the entire land, was resplendent in a suit of armor
made from hundreds of metal and leather plates tied together
with blue silk cord and lacquered in brilliant colors, and
wearing a black iron helmet crowned with a pair of carved golden
horns. He rode a magnificent black steed. His expression grave,
he dismounted to confer with the three generals who accompanied
him into the whitewashed wooden fort.
Another whisper swept the ranks: "Marune has fallen!"
Dread paralyzed the stalker. He gasped with the others. With
the capture of Lord Oda's frontier fortress, nothing stood
between them and the enemy Lord Imagawa's troops, twenty-five
thousand strong, who were advancing on them even now. They
were doomed. But his fear for Lord Oda overshadowed that which
he felt for himself.
The sound of footsteps jolted him back to the present. Relinquishing
his lingering terror and the image of the imperiled fortress,
he looked into the street. Out of the mist to his left shuffled
an elderly samurai, with the customary swords, one long and
one short, at his waist.
The stalker savored the heady rise of excitement as he grasped
the hilt of his own long sword. Trembling, he waited for the
man to draw nearer. He focused his thoughts on the confrontation
ahead. But a part of his mind leapt backward to that morning
The fortress gates opened to admit two panting scouts. "Imagawa's
army is in the gorge outside Okehazama village!" they cried
hurrying to convey the news to Lord Oda.
Almost before the stalker or his comrades could comprehend
the significance of this information, they were on the march.
All two thousand of them, so few compared to the massive force
that awaited them, mounted and on foot; first banner-bearers,
gunners, and archers, then the swordsmen and spear-carriers,
with Lord Oda and the generals bringing up the rear. They sweltered
in the heat that baked the hills and rice fields.
Midday came. At last they stopped behind a hill just short
of the gorge and waited for the command to act. From inside
the gorge, the stalker could hear voices raised in drunken
laughter and song. Imagawa's troops were celebrating their
earlier victory. He listened and waited some more. A tense
hush gripped the hillside and held him motionless, afraid to
Suddenly a mass of dark storm clouds boiled up out of the
west, hiding the sun. Lightning split the sky; thunder shook
the earth like the beat of a great war drum. The first raindrops
pelted the earth. As if on this signal from the heavens, Lord
Oda raised his great gold war fan and brought it down again,
cleaving the air in a decisive motion. The conch trumpet blared
In one movement, they rose and ran toward the gorge. Great
sheets of rain lashed the stalker as he struggled against the
wind. Ahead of him, the first rank had disappeared into the
gorge. He heard the boom of gunfire and the startled cries
of Imagawa's army. Then, his heart pounding louder than the
thunder, he skidded down the slope and into the swirling chaos
that filled the gorge.
The storm had driven Imagawa's men to seek shelter under
trees. Now they scrambled to load drenched and useless arquebuses,
groped for bows, spears, and swords lost in the mud. But it
was too late. Oda's troops fell upon them, slaughtering them
by the hundreds. The clash of steel blades echoed up and down
the gorge. Guns roared, emitting clouds of black smoke. Arrows
sang through the air to strike flesh with meaty thumps. Screams
of death agony echoed the attackers' murderous shouts. The
metallic scent of blood overpowered the summer smells of sweat
and rain. Into the raging battle rode Lord Oda. Sword raised
high, he made straight for Lord Imagawa, who stood alone and
unprotected. One expert slash of Oda's sword, one triumphant
yell, and Imagawa lay dead.
Wild with ardor and admiration, the stalker drew his sword
and plunged into the melee. "Lord Oda, I offer my life in your
Now the old man had almost reached the doorway. The stalker
could hear his wheezy breaths. His sword, already drawn for
that battle long past, was in his hand. A fierce eagerness
burned inside him as he slipped from the shadows to block his
prey's path. The man uttered a whimper of surprise and stood
still, one hand lifted in a gesture of greeting, or entreaty.
The stalker raised his sword in both hands and swung it in
a swift, sideways arc. The blade sliced cleanly through the
old man's neck. It severed his head, which hit the ground and
rolled a few paces before coming to a halt faceup in the muddy
street. A great gush of blood, black in the dim light, spewed
from the neck as the body crumpled and fell.
Filled with the sweet fire of conquest, the stalker beheld
the carnage that lay at his feet. He saw the remains of his
present-day enemy; he could also see the fallen bodies of dead
and wounded soldiers in the gorge. He longed to stand there
and play out in his mind the short remainder of the Battle
But he must not let his fantasy make him forget where--and
in what time--he was, or the danger of remaining at the scene
of a murder he'd just committed. Besides, he had much work
to do before the gates closed. Sheathing his sword, he picked
up the severed head and tucked it under his cloak. Then he
hurried away through the misty streets and alleys.
The returning troops swarmed into Kiyosu Fortress on a wave
of riotous excitement. Cheers and laughter rattled the stockade
walls. Glee replaced the morning's despair. The Battle of Okehazama
had ended moments after it began-with Oda the victor. Lord
Imagawa was dead; those few of his troops not killed in the
gorge had fled in panic. Mikawa, Totomi, and Suruga Provinces
belonged to Oda now, and the way was cleared for his march
on Kyoto, the capital. The celebration would last through the
night, with much drink, song, and revelry. But first would
come the solemn ritual to mark Lord Oda's brilliant triumph.
Alone in a cramped room lit by a single guttering oil lamp,
the stalker knelt and unwrapped the severed head. Tenderly
he washed his bloody prize in a bucket of water and dried it
with a clean cloth. Beside him sat a square board with a sharp
iron spike thrust up through the middle. He mounted the head
on this contraption, grunting with the effort as he forced
it down upon the spike. At last the point penetrated the brain,
and the neck was flush with the board. Carefully he combed
the wispy gray hair and tied it in a pigtail with a piece of
white string. He applied rouge to the pale, wrinkled cheeks
to restore the color of life, and buffed the bald crown. He
prodded the eyeballs with his fingers until they gazed downward
in the manner considered most auspicious. Lighting a stick
of incense, he waved it around the head to sweeten its odor.
Finally he added the most important touch: the white paper
label inked with black characters that explained the purpose
of his deed. This he fastened to the dead man's pigtail. Then
he stood and surveyed his work. His heart swelled with pride
as he gazed upon the head.
His bundori. His war trophy.
On the ramparts of Kiyosu Fortress, banners swayed in the
evening breeze beneath the setting sun's red globe. War drums
boomed; singers' chants rose to the heavens. Flaring torches
lit the yard inside the stockade, where Lord Oda Nobunaga,
still clad in full armor, sat on a stool, flanked by his generals.
Arranged in ranks before him knelt his troops. Lord Oda nodded
solemnly, ordering the ceremony to begin.
From the fort came a procession of samurai. Each brought
a mounted head, which he placed at his lord's feet, then bowed
before returning to the fort to fetch another. The stalker
was fourth in line. His spirit soared skyward with the chants
and drumbeats; he could scarcely contain his joy. Today he'd
distinguished himself in battle by killing forty men singlehandedly.
His reward: a place of honor in the procession and the recognition
of his lord and peers.
This is only the beginning, he thought deliriously. He envisioned
the future, seeing himself first as a commander, then as a
general. And, when his end came, he would die in the glory
of battle, paying his lord the ultimate tribute: his life.
Now it was his turn to pass before Lord Oda. Squaring his
shoulders and looking straight ahead, he stepped forward, his
bundori extended in both hands.
Outside the mist had thickened; the rain continued. Bent
under the weight of the large basket on his back, the stalker
hurried through the empty streets toward the resting place
he'd chosen for his precious trophy.
"Hurry home now," a night sentry called to him as he slipped
through a gate. "Almost time for closing."
The stalker ignored him. He must place the bundori where
everyone could see and admire it and know the great deed he'd
done. His time was rapidly slipping away; every moment increased
the risk that someone might stop him. Yet he felt no fear or
anxiety--only a yearning for completion.
Quickly he scaled the rungs of a ladder that climbed up a
shop's wall, above roof level to the platform of a tall, rickety
wooden firewatch tower. The mist enfolded him, obliterating
his view of the city below. He opened his basket and took out
the head. His mind populated the night with shadowy figures
and filled the dripping silence with drumming and chanting.
He placed the head carefully on the platform and bowed deeply.
"Honorable Lord Oda," he whispered. An almost sensual satisfaction
overwhelmed him. "Please accept this, my first tribute to you."
Then he shouldered his basket and descended the ladder. Head
high, he started homeward, feeling as if he'd slain not just
one man but a legion of enemy soldiers, all the while dreaming
of future victories.
Excerpt from BUNDORI
©Laura Joh Rowland, 1996