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The Fourth Treasure

The Fourth Treasure by Todd Shimoda
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Illustrated throughout with beautiful calligraphy, The Fourth Treasure is an original, surprising novel that weaves a suspenseful love story across and through two very different countries, cultures, and generations.

Tina Suzuki has just begun her first year of graduate study at the UC Berkeley Institute for Brain and Behavior Studies. Born and raised in San Francisco by her Japanese immigrant mother, Tina knows nothing about the rest of her family, and very little about her cultural heritage. But when her boyfriend’s Japanese calligraphy teacher suffers a stroke and loses his ability to communicate but continues to create magnificent calligraphic art, Tina knows she has stumbled across an ideal research subject.

However, getting the sensei to participate in her study poses a series of uncomfortable obstacles for Tina: the jealous opposition of her boyfriend, the political and (romantic) minefield of dealing with her professors and fellow students, and the willful reticence of her ailing mother. It seems that the blank personal history her mother had always presented is in fact a tightly wound scroll full of scandalous secrets. In ways she could have never expected, Tina’s studies will inevitably lead to revelations about her own family.

Juxtaposed with Tina’s story is that of the stricken sensei as a younger man, in Kyoto, and the history of the ancient inkstone he carries with him. The inkstone’s history, and the sensei’s art, reach back hundreds of years into a Japanese culture that no longer exists but that continues to reverberate on both sides of the Pacific.

As the dual narratives unfold, they are enhanced by intriguing marginalia that illuminate both the sensei’s Japanese calligraphy and Tina’s studies of the brain.

The result is a unique, unusually satisfying literary experience.

From the Hardcover edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; May 2002
368 pages; ISBN 9780385505611
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Title: The Fourth Treasure
Author: Todd Shimoda

Kiichi Shimano, founder and sensei of the Zenzen School of Japanese Calligraphy, dipped a brush into the well of black sumi ink. He gently pressed the brush against the inkstone until a precise droplet of excess ink had oozed back into the well. Then, with a fluid motion of brush on paper, he drew a simple horizontal stroke. "You see," he said to Gozen, his number-one student, "when the angle is too flat, the brushstroke lacks life. Try again." Gozen nodded and wet his brush with ink.

While Gozen was practicing the horizontal radical, Zenzen sensei wished he had returned home, to Kyoto, twenty-three years ago, when he finally grasped that she would have nothing more to do with him. She never told him why, but without her, he had no reason to stay in America. Of course, he had nothing left in Japan either: no school to teach in, no students to teach, no family--none that would have anything to do with him. But at least in Japan he would have been home.

Yet, even after he knew it was futile to pursue her, he wandered the neighborhoods of San Francisco, eventually passing her apartment building at the corner of Bush and Taylor, on the steep slope of Nob Hill. Not stopping, he would walk past the Tempura House restaurant on Powell Street, where she worked. Still, though, he was without hope that meeting her would change her mind. Or her feelings.

Always, after a day of meandering, he would find an inexpensive restaurant where he would dine alone.

Back then, he taught calligraphy at the East Bay Center for Japanese Arts, a loosely organized school in Berkeley. The center was in an old house in the south campus area, half a block from the craziness of Telegraph Avenue, the last bastion of the sixties' hippie culture. The first time he walked into the center was still a sharp memory of ratty chairs around a wood table scarred with thin burns from incense sticks. On the table was an unruly pile of magazines--from the Economist to Mad. A bulletin board was deluged with handwritten flyers for Japanese-language tutoring, karate and aikido martial art instruction, and a Zen pet-sitting service.

Surprisingly, many of his calligraphy students became good, despite their enthusiastically undisciplined approach, compared with students in Japan. Perhaps the rigid, focused practices had held back his Japanese students. Or, maybe, his American students lacked a fear of making mistakes, allowing them to progress more rapidly.

Away from Japan, his own calligraphy style began to evolve into a more personal, nontraditional style. More inward. His nights spent alone, most likely, had contributed to the change. During his time alone, he discovered a sadness within him. Not depressing, the feeling was comfortable, and it became his companion. He no longer had to dine alone.

Within two years, he was teaching a core of excellent and dedicated students, while the center began to undergo many changes--instructors left, new ones were hired, students left, fewer replaced them. Getting paid had become a problem, keeping a regular schedule became impossible. When the disruption was too much to bear, he decided to strike out on his own, to start his own school of shodo--the "way of calligraphy."

He would have preferred to locate his school in San Francisco, perhaps in the Japantown area, but the number of potential students was greater in Berkeley, where there were several Zen centers and other Asian religious and art groups. He found a house where he could both live and teach in a quiet neighborhood west of campus several blocks. With commitments from several of his calligraphy students to continue lessons, and with the money he had saved teaching, he was able to buy the house.

A name for the school was required for the business registration forms. He could think of absolutely nothing--zenzen, in Japanese. Nothing, nothing. So that's what he named his school. And he became Zenzen sensei.

"You see"--he pointed to the brushstroke Gozen had just completed--"even modest pressure fattens the stroke unacceptably."

"Yes, sensei."

Zenzen sensei had given Gozen that dictum many times, yet mastering the concept was not simply a matter of hearing, but practicing it countless times until the stroke became pure feeling and no thought.

"Try again," he said to Gozen. "Try not to think."

Gozen applied ink to his brush and stared intently at the paper.

Pure feeling and no thought . . . and better yet, no feeling and no thought. What artist could create something as beautiful as autumn leaves? Or as moving as an old, dying tree putting out one last spring blossom?

Thoughts and emotions only get in the way of creating art. That's what he would have told her, if she would have let him. He would have told her to throw away the brushes, the ink, the paper, and the inkstone. Especially, the inkstone. Throw them away and find art in herself.

The inkstone . . . discovering who she was . . . he finally understood why she would have nothing more to do with him--

A burst of pain behind the sensei's left eye was so intense he gulped and clapped his hand to his head. He grabbed at the air, blindly groping, finally upending the low table they were working on, spilling ink, sending brushes flying. The brush stand skittered across the tatami mat flooring. Rice paper glided through the air and floated near the sensei who had collapsed, moaning, then nothing.


Crimson leaves,


november 1975

kyoto, japan

Kiichi Shimano, the head sensei of the Daizen School of Calligraphy, gazed out of his studio into the garden. An autumn breeze had plucked crimson leaves from the maple tree and scattered them on the moss-covered grounds in a pattern that was random yet had strong balance and lively rhythm. So easy for nature, so difficult for the artist. The difference must be that the artist creates art by thinking and feeling. Nature creates its art with neither; it is merely obeying a few simple rules--gravity, the force of the wind, the change of seasons--combined in infinite ways.

Daizen sensei picked up his calligraphy brush as he focused on the Japanese kanji characters for "crimson." The word was the part of a poem he had started:

Crimson leaves,


Not much of a poem, he would have admitted.

There was not enough time to write better poetry, not since he had been named the twenty-ninth head sensei of the Daizen school a few months earlier. Scheduling practice sessions, assigning students to the school's instructors, judging competitions, dealing with the school's finances: these were a few of the many duties he had inherited as Daizen sensei. And there were the interviews, the latest was just that morning, a live broadcast for an Osaka television station's morning show. The interviewer, though enthusiastic (overly at times), seemed interested only in superficial aspects of shodo: "What kind of brush do you use? Where do you get your ink? How often do you practice? For how long?" Exhausting her repertoire, she had asked his age and, when he answered, she christened him the "Young Sensei." Only thirty-four years old--fifteen to twenty years younger than the usual age of a new head sensei--he was the second-youngest Daizen sensei. The youngest had been the samurai Sakata, the fifteenth head sensei, and known as the father of the current era of competitive Japanese calligraphy.

The reporter asked one final question: How well did the Young Sensei think he would do in the next Daizen-Kurokawa competition?

The reporter referred to the competition between his school and the Kurokawa School of Calligraphy. Daizen sensei had anticipated that question, and had prepared a brief history of the competition in case she asked: In 1659, Sakata and the founder of the Kurokawa school initiated the Daizen-Kurokawa Calligraphy Competition, still the most prestigious in Japan. Held every three years since, the competition helped assure that the two schools maintained their eminence.

Daizen sensei answered that he didn't know how he would do, but he would try hard to do his best.

He hoped the reporter would have asked him why calligraphy done correctly is imbued with spiritual power. He wanted her to ask him why calligraphy takes so much dedicated practice to achieve even a mediocre level of accomplishment. He wished she had asked why one should study such an old art form in these days of the popular mass media.

She had asked none of those questions.

Exhaling slowly, steadily, the sensei settled his weight onto his center of gravity. In the proper posture, he dipped his brush into the well of his inkstone, the Daizen Inkstone. If the reporter had asked him about the inkstone, he would have explained that the first Daizen sensei--the poet Jinmai, who founded the school in the year 1409--had carved the stone. When he retired, he gave it to his successor. That benefaction became a tradition until the inaugural Daizen-Kurokawa competition, when the inkstone was awarded to the winner as a traveling trophy. Recently, the inkstone had been recaptured by the Daizen school after three losses. The horrible run of defeats finally ended with a victory by the previous Daizen sensei, the twenty-eighth, who had died of pancreatic cancer only a few months later.

Winning the competition was the Daizen sensei's most important duty. Everything else could be put aside, if that was necessary to win. Not only were calligraphy enthusiasts enthralled with the arcane competition, but it mysteriously excited much of Japan as well. Television coverage was broadcast not only during the competition itself, but also before, with expert predictions and interviews with the contestants, and after, with detailed analyses of the results and more interviews. Each competition stimulated a rush of new students at both schools. Of course, the winning school always attracted the better prospects.

To win the head-to-head competition against the rival school's head sensei, Daizen sensei knew he had to commit time and energy, much more than he had as a student or even as an instructor. He had, of course, been in hundreds of competitions, major and minor, but the pressure of even the most important would be like a summer evening stroll along Kyoto's tranquil Path of Philosophy compared with the Daizen-Kurokawa competition.

Six months before each of those competitions, the senior instructors competed to determine their relative ranking. Before the last competition, Daizen sensei had defeated Aragaki in a close battle. The victory gave him the rank of number-one instructor, which assured him of becoming the current head sensei. He was surprised, thinking back on that competition, that he had defeated Aragaki. For one thing, Aragaki had wanted to win much more than he had. His rival had closeted himself in his studio for two months before the competition, practicing for hours at a time. Daizen sensei had not added a minute to his normal practice schedule of three mornings a week.

During the competition, Daizen sensei had glanced up to see the intense concentration pinching Aragaki's face and beads of sweat dotting his temples. Perhaps Aragaki had sensed that the school's head sensei would be dead before the end of that year, and the current number-one senior instructor would become the new Daizen sensei.

Aragaki was not the most senior instructor in the Daizen school; still young, he had been in the school ten years longer than Shimano. The other two senior instructors (both proficient in technique but, in Daizen sensei's judgment, lacking a creative flair) had been in the school for eleven and eighteen years longer than Aragaki. In nearly all Japanese art schools, whether calligraphy or tea ceremony or the biwa flute, the successor to the leadership was usually the oldest son of the school's head sensei.

In the Daizen school, the head sensei was selected in a competition of senior instructors. Although that determination was subjective--a degree of favoritism by the head sensei who remained the final judge was hard to avoid--the system had worked well over the centuries. The school had stayed strong, winning more than half of the Daizen-Kurokawa competitions.

Unable to concentrate, Daizen sensei gave up his practice session. He cleaned his brush, then emptied and cleaned the Daizen Inkstone. He had yet to appreciate using it. Bulkier than the inkstones he used for the first twenty years of his calligraphy practice, the Daizen Inkstone had a different feel, one that frequently distracted him. Of most concern was the difficulty of mixing ink to the proper shade of black. Carved from a slab of natural slate, the Daizen Inkstone was uneven, lined with tiny crevices that made tricky business of rubbing a precise amount of inkstick onto the surface.

It was odd, disconcertingly so, that he should have so much trouble with the Daizen Inkstone. According to legend, using it should have instantly improved his calligraphy, as well as evoked an enlightenment.

He had experienced neither.

Before leaving his studio, the sensei quickly bowed toward a wall scroll, a work of calligraphy completed by the first Daizen sensei on the day he founded the school. The poem--"Live Life as Art"--had become the Daizen school's motto. Standing up, the sensei went out of his studio into the brisk air and walked through the garden to his personal residence. Inside, Yuriko, his wife, was putting on her coat.

"Finished practice already?" she asked. "I'm going to the department store, then to see Mother and bring her groceries. I'll take her to the hospital to see Father. Do you need anything while I'm out?"

"No, nothing." Her father had had an appendectomy several days earlier. After the operation, a blood clot floated through his body and nearly killed him. "Wish him well for me."

"All right." She slipped her feet into her shoes, picked up her bag, and started to walk out the door. She stopped and said, "Oh, there's a phone message for you. It's someone who would like to be a student. I told her that she could contact the school directly to talk with one of the instructors, but she wanted to discuss it only with you." With a quick nod, as if telling herself that was all she needed to relay, she was out the door, walking down the street to the bus stop.

Daizen sensei slipped off his wooden geta sandals. He walked through the pleasantly quiet house to the main room, where he sat on the tatami mat flooring, next to the phone on a low table. On a square of paper, the caller's name--Hanako Suzuki--was written above a phone number.

He should have crumpled the message and thrown it away. To contact the head of a major school in such a manner was a severe breach of etiquette. It was too direct, too presumptuous.

Despite that, he was intrigued that a woman would call him to express interest in studying shodo. Only two of the Daizen students were women--shodo was still a traditionally male art--and more women would benefit the art in general, and the school in particular.

From the Hardcover edition.
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