Yasunari Kawabata begins Thousand Cranes with a formal tea ceremony on the grounds of the Engakuji Temple in Kamakura. Kikuji Mitani, a bachelor in his late twenties, attends the ceremony at the invitation of Chikako Kurimoto, an instructor in the art of tea who, when Mitani was eight or ten years old, was his father’s mistress. Mitani is not a student of the tea ceremony, but he cannot refuse Chikako’s invitation. She is hosting the gathering to introduce him to Yukiko Inamura, one of her students and a prospective bride. Chikako’s relationship with Mitani’s father had not lasted more than a few years. When it had ended, she appeared on the days the family entertained guests to help in the kitchen. In time, she became Mitani’s mother’s confidante, complaining noisily of the behavior of Mrs. Ota, the widow who was the elder Mitani’s mistress during the last years of his life. With the deaths of both Mitani’s parents, Chikako has become a surrogate mother.
Mitani finds Yukiko as graceful and charming as Chikako had promised: “She carried a bundle wrapped in a kerchief, the thousand-crane pattern in white on a pink crape background.” The colors of the cloth and the auspicious cranes, signifying a long and happy life, suggest that Yukiko is indeed the right bride for Mitani. The situation is complicated, however, by the uninvited presence of Mrs. Ota and her daughter Fumiko. Tea is served Mitani, and then Mrs. Ota, in a black Oribe bowl originally belonging to Mrs. Ota’s husband, then to Mitani’s father, and now to Chikako. The bowl itself is a valuable utensil, dating from the sixteenth century when the rituals of the tea ceremony were codified. The effect of sharing this relic is to prompt Mitani and Mrs. Ota into bed together on their way home from the gathering. While Mrs. Ota is at least twenty years older than he, Mitani “felt as if he had for the first time known woman, and as if for the first time he had known himself as a man.” Two weeks later, however, Fumiko visits Mitani at his home and says that she has taken steps to prevent her mother from seeing Mitani. It is inappropriate, Fumiko adds, in the light of the fact that he is clearly going to marry Yukiko Inamura.
On the anniversary of the day of Mitani’s late father’s annual tea ceremony, held in a cottage in the garden of their home, Chikako arrives unannounced to arrange a memorial ceremony. She calls Mitani at his down-town Tokyo office and tells him to come home. She has invited Yukiko. The evening is a pleasant one, and Mitani can imagine himself marrying Yukiko. The next day, however, Mrs. Ota arrives at the house, tears in her eyes, having been telephoned by Chikako with the news that a marriage has been arranged between Yukiko and Mitani. He denies this but accuses Mrs. Ota...
(The entire section is 1145 words.)