Authors: Ben Stevens
The Collected Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in Japan
I still see that face in my nightmares. Twisted almost out of recognition; the mouth frozen in a silent scream. The eyes wide and staring, transfixed by some nameless horror.
Even Sherlock Holmes – famous for his iron nerves – could not repress a slight shudder. We both stared down at the body of the young monk lying on the
‘Who discovered this man?’ asked Holmes quietly.
‘I did,’ replied the head-priest, a man in his mid-sixties. Stood beside him was the senior monk, who looked to be about ten years younger.
‘Isuke – that was his name – failed to come to the morning service in the main hall,’ continued the priest. ‘I thought that perhaps he was just sick in bed – especially given that strange habit he’d recently developed… But a few hours after the service, when no one had seen him still, I entered this room and…’
,’ he said, addressing the priest by his formal title. Holmes’s mastery of Japanese was quite extraordinary, given the relatively short amount of time he had been staying in this country. A country so distant – and, needless to say, so very
– from his own...
‘You mention a ‘strange habit’…?’ said Holmes then.
The priest now appeared slightly uncomfortable. It seemed to me that the senior monk (who’d given his name as Katamari) was also looking pointedly at his senior. As though cautioning the priest not to say too much…
‘Whether it is the rainy season or not, this region sees frequent showers,’ began the priest. ‘Especially as we have now entered autumn. Isuke would go out in heavy rain, and so return almost wringing wet. Why he did this, I do not know. Several times I had stern words with him about it, but he seemed…’
The priest shook his head, and then said passionately –
! As though he was struggling with something – some
, perhaps – that was torturing him…’
‘We are fortunate that you happened to be lodged at a nearby inn, Holmes-
,’ broke in the senior monk, Katamari. ‘We – that is, all of us at this humble temple – are also deeply obliged to you for having come here at the
’s request. But as you can see, there is nothing here that requires your legendary powers of deduction...’
These last few words, as politely delivered as they were, still seemed faintly mocking. As though this senior monk suspected that this famous
, or foreign, detective was nothing other than a charlatan.
Holmes looked pointedly at Katamari.
?’ he returned, his voice even. ‘Am I perhaps missing some obvious cause of death?’
Katamari’s thin lips twitched in a slight, humorless smile.
‘It was the rain – of that I am certain,’ stated the senior monk. ‘All these recent, outdoor trips Isuke made in foul weather caused a fever to suddenly develop within him, after he went to bed last night. Sadly this fever proved too great for his body’s natural defenses, and so he died as he slept.’
‘I’ve seen several people who’ve passed away in their sleep,’ observed Holmes quietly. ‘And not one had a face like – this.’
I saw anger briefly flash in Katamari’s eyes. He was about to reply, when the priest said suddenly –
‘No, no, Katamari, this won’t do! We have to be open with Holmes-
– to trust to this reputation he already has in Japan!’
Looking directly at Holmes, he continued: ‘We need your help, Holmes-
. For at this moment, it seems as though this temple has a curse upon it. Because not six months before this day, and the discovery of this monk’s body – ’
,’ broke in Holmes, ‘I am already aware. For this is the second young monk to be found dead here at this temple within half a year. Only last time, the body of the monk named Matsuo was discovered in the temple main hall, with a similar, horrific expression on his face. Is this not correct?’
Sometime later, we were seated in a
mat room which had running through its centre a long, low wooden table. The other, less senior monks had already eaten their lunch. A young monk served the priest, Katamari, Holmes and I with our humble fare.
Holmes and I had enjoyed excellent food and
at the nearby inn where we were staying. So I should have been disappointed at the bland vegetables and rice on offer here. As it was, however, the sight of that deceased monk’s face had quite taken away my appetite.
And now there was this talk of another death having occurred at this temple – within the last six months!
‘You seem to know a certain amount about this temple already, Holmes
,’ said the priest carefully.
‘I heard something concerning the death of the previous monk anyway,
, actually not long after I arrived here in Japan,’ replied Holmes, his tone equally as cautious. ‘Naturally, I understand that you would hardly want such a matter to become common knowledge. Only the Shining Path branch of Buddhism you practice is so well-known, that…’
Holmes’s voice tailed discreetly away, as the priest nodded a reluctant understanding. The tense atmosphere in this room accordingly diminished – at least between the priest and Holmes.
Katamari, however, continued to observe the distinguished foreigner with a cold eye.
‘Yes, I suppose you’re right,’ sighed the priest. ‘And a man with such a reputation as yours can only be expected to know about various, mysterious…
When Holmes failed to reply, I glanced at him. He was staring fixedly at something hanging on the wooden wall. Curious, I followed his gaze to observe an old, hanging scroll.
For a few moments, I struggled to make out the thickly-inked Chinese characters.
Then, I read –
To calm and concentrate
So one can truly see
To exist in this place
And yet simultaneously
To be in another
And then to see through this other
And to discover –
What lies beyond?
It was the type of thing you might expect to see hanging within a Buddhist temple. Vague words upon which priests and monks like to turn their spiritual attention. Otherwise, there was precious little ‘decoration’ within this room or the rest of this ancient temple that I had seen so far.
One notable exception to this was in the temple’s main entrance. For it was here (after Holmes – and so I – had been summoned from the nearby inn as a matter of urgency) that I’d noticed the huge mirror bolted onto one of the walls.
Its frame was made from polished metal, skillfully carved into many small fish all biting one another’s tails. This mirror was as wide as a man, and almost as tall. It stood out in a place such as this and I quietly remarked upon it to Holmes, as we removed our footwear prior to stepping up onto the wooden floor.
‘Chinese in origin, I believe,’ Holmes had returned, as we handed our coats and luggage to the young monk who’d been sent to fetch us. ‘No doubt one of the fabled treasures Gyoja brought back with him, when he finally returned to Japan following his travels through India and China.’
‘Gyoja?’ I said quizzically. The name meant nothing to me – and yet still I’d the feeling that I’d heard it somewhere before.
I was, by now, quite used to Sherlock Holmes’s expert knowledge of so many things relating to my own country – its language, culture, customs, history and religion…
‘The founder of the Shining Path branch of Buddhism,’ returned Holmes. ‘He constructed this temple with his followers upon his return to Japan. Now, several hundred years after his death, there are a number of Shining Path temples situated across the country. But this particular temple continues to represent the ‘heart’, so to speak, of the Shining Path branch...’
…The priest surveyed Sherlock Holmes with a mixture of confusion and irritation. Then, his broad face again attempting to appear serene, he observed –
‘I see that hanging scroll has caught your attention, Holmes-
. You are able to read
? You have my admiration, especially as these characters are written in the ‘cursive’ style, which can make them difficult to read even for an educated Japanese person, never mind a foreigner who, I believe, has not been so long in this country...’
Holmes almost started, before giving a slight, embarrassed smile.
– I did not mean to appear rude. Thank you also for your compliment. Actually, it took some two months of concentrated study before I felt sufficiently confident in the Japanese tongue – to be able to speak, read and write it, I mean… But I take it these words were written by none other than Gyoja himself?’
‘Yes – those are Gyoja-
’s words,’ nodded the priest, pointedly adding the extreme honorific to the founder’s name. ‘Legend states that whoever can one day understand their
meaning will know all that Gyoja-
himself knew – and so will be on the path to attaining true Buddhahood.
‘And so,’ concluded the priest, ‘everyone resident at this temple meditates upon these words daily – as has been the case for several hundred years.’
Sherlock Holmes’s eyes had become like pinpricks – the only outward sign of his inner excitement. Neither the
nor Katamari had noticed. But I – who had lived and travelled with Holmes for some months now, facing mystery and danger alongside him on several different occasions – knew that that fantastic brain had realized
‘Returning to the matter of the deceased monks, Holmes-
,’ said the priest politely, but still forcefully. ‘You know why they were here?’
‘It is my understanding,’ he began, ‘that the priest of this temple chooses a successor from among the monks resident at the other, Shining Path temples.’
‘That is correct,’ said the priest. ‘That has been the tradition for, well, hundreds of years now. A tradition set by Gyoja-
himself. As the priest at this temple finds himself entering into old age, he invites the priests of the other Shining Path temples, located across Japan, to each recommend one monk to travel here and train as a successor.
‘Assisted by his senior monk – in my case Katamari – the resident priest here then sorts through the various recommendations, and ultimately makes his choice.’
‘I’m a little surprised that the senior monk here is not considered as being an obvious successor,’ observed Holmes.
This prompted a thin-lipped smile from Katamari, as the priest briefly shook his head.
‘I believe,’ said the priest, ‘that Gyoja-
decided upon this system so that the hierarchy within this temple never becomes too ‘stale’, as it were. Always an outsider is appointed as the next priest, receiving five years’ training from the existing priest before that priest retires and so hands over control of the temple.
‘And now, not one but
of my appointed successors, gifted with wit and wisdom far beyond their years, are dead! What monk will dare to come to this temple next?’
With this final, despairing question, the priest again shook his head and was silent.
Holmes appeared briefly sunk in thought. Then he asked –
‘Is it common for the monks here to burn incense within their sleeping quarters?’
Katamari observed the hawk-faced English detective with drooped eyelids.