A thousand years ago, Sakura (sáw koo rah), a child of the Royal Court of Japan lived with all her family in the Castle of Peace, the city of Heian-jo, now Kyoto. Her mother, like many women in the court, played Kai-Awase.
The women spread 360 pairs of clam shells on the floor in the shape of a fan. They scrambled to select those that matched. While her mother chose shells, Sakura, whose name meant Cherry Blossom, sat cross-legged on the floor, and tried to match them.
Some shells had matching symbols painted inside. Others had fragments of verses. Sakura said. “Look, Honored Mother, here, these two are exactly alike.”
Her mother smiled and watched Sakura fit the shells together to show they were a perfect match.
“Honored Mother,” Sakura asked. “Why does a shell have only one mate?”
Sometimes mothers don’t want to explain things. That day, Sakura’s mother didn’t want to explain. She said, “My precious daughter, when you are older you will understand. Look at this one, isn’t it beautiful?”
Sakura wondered why her mother didn’t explain, but with so many shells, she soon forgot her question. It was easy to match the symbols, but some had half a poem written in them. Sakura’s mother helped her with the poem fragments.
After the game, Sakura (Cherry Blossom) went to study with the other children of the court. She and her friends learned many paper arts. She learned to make all sorts of beautiful ornaments for her family’s part of the Castle.
Sakura (Cherry Blossom), also, learned to dress according to the fashion of the time. Her kimono dress was made very large, flowing and colorful. It had many layers and was adorned with gold and embroidery. Full dress, the juni-hitoe required twelve layers of silk, plus the other garments women wore. Sakura (Cherry Blossom) had to walk carefully so she didn’t trip over the tent-like layers of silk kimono that floated about her. She wore long black hair pieces that extended her own. Her eyebrows were made very black. Sometimes a veil covered her face.
Sakura’s mother was proud that her daughter was learning the customs of her people. Manners were very important in the Heian Court. Everyone wrote poetry. Women and girls kept diaries. Strict rules governed how to speak to others, and how to bow to greet people. Sakura was learning all the special rules.
As the years passed, Sakura continued to play Kai-Awase with the women and young girls of the court. She became more expert about matching the shells, and sometimes she still wondered why each shell had but one mate.
Then, one day Sakura’s father sent for her. With her mother, she went to a public room of the court. She was presented to a young man and his parents.
Because she had learned the customs, she bowed deeply to the parents, and then to the young man. This, too, was a deep bow, but not so deep as that to the parents. All during the visit, she kept her eyes down. A young woman had to be modest and humble before guests.
Later, when they were alone, she confessed to her mother, “Honored Mother, I wanted to look in the face of that young man. There was something special about him. I felt happy and shy at the same time.”
Sakura’s mother smiled and said, “Your father has promised you to this young man. May you and he be a perfect match, made for one another.” Sakura said, “Oh, Honored Mother, now I know why women play Kai-Awase.”
Sakura hoped her young man would be a perfect match for her. In those days, and even today in some cultures, marriages were arranged by families, sometimes, without the knowledge of the young couple.
originally published in Skipping Stones, March/April 2009 with questions for reflection. copyright Elizabeth V. Roach 2009