Monday, April 30, 2007

Rain drops on maple leaves

The Sarashina Nikki was translated in 1971 by Ivan Lewis with the evocative title As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams. Its author’s name, like those of other women writers of the Heian dynasty, is unknown, but he calls her Lady Sarashina (in Japan she is often called Takasue no Musume). Her short book, composed in about 1060, begins with an account of the journey she made with her family as a twelve-year old from Kazusa to Kyoto. Although her descriptions are brief, it still conveys, as Lewis says, ‘a vivid picture of how the Japanese countryside appeared to an observant young girl at the time of King Canute.’ For example: ‘we reached Kiyomi Barrier by the sea. On the beach were some huts belonging to the barrier keepers, and the palisades went all the way to the water. The spray from the huge waves mingled beautifully with the smoke from the keepers’ huts.’

The Nikki format is highly selective and Lady Sarashina chooses to record beautiful or poignant moments in a landscape rather than dwell on domestic detail or the rituals of court and religion. The way she remembers various pilgrimages makes them seem a form of nature worship rather than Buddhist retreats. Her trip to Kurama for example (section 21 in the Lewis translation) begins with recollection of an earlier spring visit when mists veiled the mountainside. Returning in the autumn she admires the crystal streams and the mountain slopes coloured like rich brocade. And when she reaches the presbytery she is overcome by the beauty of rain drops on maple leaves.

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