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Riddles in the Land of the Rising Sun

or a Princess in Peril

My reasons for journeying to Japan were purely for pleasure. Indeed my trip was quite wonderful as I hope is indicated by the accompanying pictorial gallery. However, when I arrived at the Hilton hotel in Tokyo at the end of my visit, there was a message waiting from one Mr. Yamamoto Jiro.

Arriving at the Hilton Toyko
After situating my self in my room, I rang Yamamoto-san. To my surprise, I discovered that Yamamoto-san was in the employ of the Crown Prince Naruhito. According to Yamamoto-san, the Crown Prince had discovered that I was in Japan and believed that I could help him with a very serious problem. Yamamoto-san was reluctant to discuss the details over the telephone. Intrigued, I made an appointment to meet the Prince on the morrow and I canceled my flight home.
The next day a coach was summoned for me, and I was taken to the Palace to meet the Prince. I was escorted to a lush atrium inside the palace complex where the Prince and Yamamoto-san were waiting for me.
"Lucius-san, thank you for heeding my summons" the Prince stated after the proper greetings and introductions had been made.
"My daughter, Princess Aiko, is in dire peril and I have faith that you have the abilities to save her" continued the Prince.
I was quite shocked at the Prince's words, and as he continued speaking, my shock turned to horror. The Prince explained to me that a curse had been laid upon Princess Aiko by four evil obake, or shape-shifting spirits. The curse placed the princess in a sleep of comatic proportions. Moreover, should the Prince move against the obake, the curse would allow the obake to extinguish the princess' life. These obake, who named themselves Shi, sought to control the Prince's decisions now and after his ascension as emperor by controlling the fate of his daughter.
"All is not lost however, Lucius-san" the Prince explained. "As you may know, I specialized in the medieval history of Japan while doing my doctoral studies at Gakushuin University. In my studies I learned of a small ancient amber bottle that has the power to lift curses when the afflicted fills the vessel with water and drinks from it. However, the bottle was hidden some time in the early 1300's by the western calendar, and I have not been able to discern its location. It is my understanding that you are quite familiar with such mystical forces and objects and I sincerely hope that you will aid us in recovering the bottle. I and my country would be indebted to you for any assistance that you could render. Once the curse is lifted, I will not fear to engage the obake, for I am not completely defenseless. However, I dare not move against them until their control over my daughter is broken."

The Crown Prince with the
Crown Princess Masako and their daughter Princess Aiko
"Prince Naruhito, your story fills me with woe. I am enraged by the actions of these obake. Of course I will do anything in my power to help save the princess. In fact, I believe I know where to start my hunt for the bottle" I responded.
The Prince expressed his gratitude and a short time later I was back on the streets of Tokyo looking for the one man I believed could set me on the path to finding the bottle. Tomburo-san was a strange old fellow, with hunched shoulders and a disturbing gleam in his eyes. On the odd times when he left his house and store, most pedestrians gave him a wide birth. However, I knew Tomburo-san as a generous and helpful individual whose knowledge of Japanese legends, mythology and magical artifacts was unrivaled. He lived in an apartment above a small disheveled retail space which he considered a store. His store was not the type of place one would wander into off of the street and browse around, as the windows were covered with newspaper and there was no sign out front. Nonetheless, Tomburo-san had always done a brisk business in strange magical and occult artifacts, but he would not sell to just anyone. His inventory had power, and he carefully screened any potential buyer to make sure they would not put their purchase to an ill use.
I reached Tomburo-san's store and rang the small hanging brass bell situated next to the weathered door. I could hear my old friend shuffling to the door and moving items out of his path before the door opened.
"Lucius-san! Welcome! I thought you would have left for home by now, but it is a pleasant surprise to see you again" stated Tomburo-san.
"Indeed I had planned to depart Tomburo-san, but alas, some important business has come forth with which I must deal. In fact, I was hoping that you could aid me" I replied.
Tomburo-san invited me in and over a cup of tea I explained the situation to him. Before I had finished my story I could tell by the fire in his eyes that he was familiar with the bottle and its history.
"Yes, yes, I know this bottle. It was quite effective at removing curses the legends say. However, in the Muromachi Period, the bottle fell into the possession of a shogun by the name of Nobunaga. There came a time when Nobunaga placed a curse on one of his enemies after a particularly bloody feud. Soon after, Nobunaga became fearful that his enemy would take the bottle from him and remove the curse. Therefore, the shogun hid the bottle. However, he did not wish for the bottle to be lost to the world forever, so when he died, he left a riddle describing its location. No doubt a riddle could be easily solved, but he also coded the riddle so that only those family members with the cipher could decrypt it. Unfortunately, the descendants of the cursed enemy slaughtered Nobunaga's family soon after he died, and the cipher was lost. But, my friend, the riddle remains. The shogun placed the riddle on many mundane household items so that it would remain in his family's memory and would not be forgotten. Unfortunately, the loss of the cipher rendered his safeguards null. I do have a copy of the riddle however, on a stout glazed teacup. Perhaps you will find a way to benefit from it?"
"I am most appreciative, Tomburo-san. I knew that if anyone in Japan could help me it would be you. Once again, I am indebted to you" I told my old friend.
"Your company is my repayment Lucius-san, it is always a pleasure to see you" replied Tomburo-san.
Tomburo-san found the cup for me tucked away on a dusty shelf, and after one more cup of tea and some interesting conversation, I thanked him again and excused myself. I took the cup back to my room where I began to study it. It was indeed a stout teacup, more of a mug really. It was glazed in white and blue with kanji enameled in black around its exterior. Attractive, but by no means a work of art. It was just as Tomburo-san had described it, a common household item. But this cup held the secret that I needed to unlock in order to save the princess' life. I am not a master cryptologist by any definition. However, I thought that perhaps if I could somehow use my mystical skills to divine the cipher, I could then decrypt the riddle. After some thought, I decided to attempt to recreate the cipher using a combination of automatic writing and an ouija style pointer upon a large paper grid that I had created. I hoped that I could use my metaphysical powers to decrypt the riddle by focusing on the cup's characters and divining the encryption scheme. I would then fill in the grid with what I hoped was the correct cipher and lastly I would apply the cipher to the encoded riddle.
I began the process and funneled all of my concentration into the task at hand. My sock became damp with perspiration, and the hours began to pass. By the early morning, I was exhausted, but jubilant. I had re-created the cipher! With the cipher in hand, I quickly decrypted the riddle. Decrypted, the riddle reads thusly:
In cultured nature, under shadow of the watery gate
protected by a sentry of stone
lies an amber vessel
like a seed
embraced by Mother
as if giving life to the evergreen.
Waiting near
the silver stream
for one who needs.
Empty now, but fill and see
spirits be gone
Curses set free.

An intense study of the cup

The floating torii gate on the Isle of Miyajima
I spent the remainder of the morning and afternoon puzzling over the riddle. However, by evening, I believed that I had worked enough out to begin the hunt! In the morning I packed a satchel and boarded the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. I then transferred to the Japan Rails and the ferry in order to travel to the island of Miyajima. Once on the island, I immediately ventured to the Itsukushima shrine. Next to the shrine was the object that I had come to see. The famous floating torii gate which, when high tide is in, appears to sit atop the water. The gate was originally built in the Heian period (794-1192) but has been rebuilt several times. This current eighth incarnation was built in 1875. This must be the "watery gate" described in the riddle.
I next inquired as to what gardens lay nearby. What better place to find "cultured nature" than in a Japanese garden. As it turned out, while there were many gardens in the area, only one had remained seriously unaltered since the 1300's. The garden was tucked away and infrequently visited or tended. I felt that the garden was more beautiful for the lack of care that it had received. It was as if the garden had come full circle: originally, hands had taken the wild, natural vegetation and transformed it into a precise, organized garden. Now the randomness of nature was reclaiming the land and infusing it with unstructured variety. I entered the garden and spent a moment contemplating the remainder of the riddle. It seemed to me that if I could find a coniferous tree near the "stone sentry" and a stream, I should be on the right track. For I surmised that the amber bottle must have been buried in the ground beneath the evergreen as if it were the seed planted in mother earth which had borne the tree.

Sitting in contemplation