At nine years old, Aurelia Caillard finds her whole world changed within the span of a few weeks, an ill mother left behind in New York, ostensibly to arrive later but really dying of consumption. Meanwhile, Aurelia and her Uncle Charles, a missionary, sail clandestinely into Kyoto, Japan, preparing for the imminent surge of Westernization as the gates of the country finally open to foreign investment.
All that remains of her former life is the dress the child wears and a St. Cecilia medal tied around her neck. Armed with some knowledge of the language, she is at the mercy of her uncle and the nuns. But when a fire breaks out the first night they occupy their new quarters, Aurelia runs away, stopping at a temple where she prays only for a different life.
Taking shelter in a nearby building, Aurelia wakes to the questioning eyes of Yukako Shin, daughter of a great tea ceremony master whose family runs a school for the teaching of the ritualized ceremony. Yukako has her own problems but warms to the young foreigner, asking the family to accept her without reservation.
For the next two decades, Aurelia, renamed Urako, resides with the Shin family, Yukako her “elder sister” and closest friend, save a servant, Inko, who soon leaves the household. The enigmatic dark-haired foreigner blooms from child to woman, witnessing a country assaulted by the onrush of Western civilization but consumed with the daily details of Yukako’s life and the intricacies of the ancient tea ceremony: “I felt like a hungry ghost: greedy, vengeful and forlorn.”
As the closed gates of Japan open to the encroaching Westernization, even the rarified air of the school compound is affected, the formal traditions of the past usurped by a society polluted by Western ways and disrespect for ancient tradition. Gradually the great Samurai-dominated society falls, replaced by business, opportunity and economic advancement.
Urako sees Yukako’s dream come to fruition as a woman teaching the tea ceremony rather than remaining in the shadow of the men, but at a high personal cost. As wife and mother, Yukako accomplishes the impossible, solving the family’s economic crisis by selling her knowledge to the clumsy, demanding Westerners who pay any sum to partake of the fragile beauty of this country.
In prose evoking the ashes of the past as it clashes with the cataclysmic future, Yukako is caught in the middle, Urako drawn into household intrigues in a search for identity far removed from her beginnings. As Yukako draws closer to her dream of success, Urako embarks upon a course that will bring their long friendship into conflict, their relationship sundered with a curt dismissal.
Returning to New York, Urako, Aurelia once more, concedes her small secrets and comforts were few, an unhappy and confused youth. Then a treasured friend appears, a ghost from the past, and life takes one of those magical unexpected detours, peace, contentment and forgiveness Aurelia’s daily reward.