“Peace reigns changeless as the pine,” wrote novelist Ihara Saikaku (1642-93) of the Edo Period (1603-1868) — and peace it was, after 400 years of on-and-off war, but a restless, feverish peace. “Lust reigns,” he might better have written — but lust is changeful; it made of Edo an ukiyo (floating world), stripped of the ancient Buddhist sense of sad, resigned evanescence. Evanescence, yes — life was a dream, a soap bubble — but neither sad nor resigned; quite the contrary: eager, grasping, heedless, reckless, rapturous unto death.

Consider “The Greengrocer’s Daughter.” Speaking of evanescence: Edo (today’s Tokyo), barely a generation old and already an urban sprawl, was built largely of wood. Fires were frequent. Saikaku’s story (published in 1686) opens with new year celebrations at their height; suddenly the neighborhood is on fire, the party’s over. Among the dispossessed residents who flee to a temple for safety is the greengrocer’s daughter Oshichi, “15 years old, as beautiful as the blossoms of Ueno, as delicately radiant as the moon shining on Sumida River.”

Living at the temple is an acolyte of samurai stock — all of 15 himself, we learn later. They meet, they touch, they are lost to love, they are quickly separated, the damage done by the fire is soon repaired, the greengrocer’s family goes home — and how are the two lovers ever to meet again?