To Welcome or Let Go

(The memorial to Saigyo and the courtesan’s encounter at Eguchi, now in present-day Osaka.)

This morning, from the window in the living room, the rising sun could be seen just above the mountains in the distance. Above the sun, dark clouds, their undersides faintly lined in gold. Then suddenly snow started falling in sheets like rain, lightning flashed, and thunder followed. Today is not a day I want to be outside, walking through the changeable weather.

In the Kokinwakashū, a pair of poems exchanged by Saigyo and a courtesan (yūjo in Japanese) on a rainy evening comes to mind. Or rather, these poems, as incorporated in the nō Eguchi, have been on my mind for the last few months, since they comprise a core component of my thesis, but for now I’ll set the thesis aside, because I really just want to tell you the story of these poems as I see it.

Saigyo gave the first poem to a courtesan who had refused him lodging on a rainy evening.


Yo no naka wo itou made koso katakarame kari no yadori wo oshimu kimi kana

To hate the world is hard, but you deny me a moment’s shelter?

Her reply:


Yo wo itou hito to shi kikeba kari no yadori ni kokoro wo tomu na to omou bakari zo

Hearing you hate the world, I simply thought you should not set your heart on a moment’s shelter.

Within the context of the scene, these poems may be easily interpreted. A monk being a monk lives off the generosity of the communities he visits and sees the courtesan’s refusal as stinginess on her part. He believes the reason for her refusal is that she would not be able to make money off of him, a penniless monk who lives off of the goodwill of others. She, however, says she refused to give him shelter because a monk should not spend time in a house of pleasure, thereby taking higher moral ground. But it seems to me that there is more to this exchange than may be gained from a strictly socio-historical interpretation. These poems appear to be interpretable in many, many ways and the following is the most comprehensive possibility as I currently see it.

“A moment’s shelter” alludes to a story in the Lotus Sutra in which a teacher guides his disciples along a long and difficult road. The disciples grow weary, so the teacher leads them to a marvelous city with gardens, beautiful men and women, delicious food, anything they might desire. Once fully rested, the teacher leads the disciples further along the road, but not before explaining that the city was an illusion he created for them. Saigyo’s poem, by alluding to this story, seems to say he is aware of the nature of the activities at the courtesan’s house, but wishes to rest there nonetheless. The courtesan’s response points out the futility and danger of bending to such temporary distractions.

Things are not as they at first appear. Since the courtesan is the one to point out the danger of Saigyo’s desire to rest from his ascetic practice, she seems to be demonstrating a deeper insight into the nature of what it means to “hate the world.” Although as a courtesan, she is representative of a particularly artificial form of lust and passionate love, she herself seems well aware of her position and warns Saigyo against a lack of such awareness on his part. It seems as though her art as a courtesan has exposed her to all the evils of attachment to the transient world. She has learned not to place any value or expectations on the appearances she creates for her customers.

Here, therefore, it seems like the courtesan has gone a step beyond the expected. She is not a woman who places value on worldly possession and emotional attachment. Behind her artistically created facade of beauty, her own self-presentation, there lies a deeper sadness about the futility of the kinds of relationships her art engenders. No doubt she has seen men fall in love with and obsess over her and her fellow courtesans, and yet she does not give her beauty to the person who loves her the most or the person she loves, but to the person who is her customer on any given night.

And yet, it does not seem like she has grown cold as a result of this situation. Her concern for Saigyo demonstrates her respect for him and his specific goals as a monk. As she says in her poetic reply, her decision to refuse him shelter is not because she cannot make money off of his stay with her, but because she sees through his eyes the possible attachment to the pleasures of her house and her art, an attachment that she has seen arise in the eyes of so many men before him.

Does she similarly respect the customers she usually entertains, those who take pleasure in the superficial charms of her art? I think in all likelihood she does not. Thus it seems she is turning away the person she most respects, because he is closest to understanding her insight into the transience of the world she represents, the world she helps create for her customers. I can only imagine a deep loneliness resides beneath her respect.

forêtphilie​/​ma forêt ancestrale

Last summer, Prof. Tanaka Jun’s seminar on philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space organized an exhibition they entitled “Topophilie” in the clock tower of the main building at the Komaba campus. I was not in the seminar, although in retrospect it looks like it must have been an amazing experience.

I also have yet to read The Poetics of Space, but a quote I found while helping translate the catalogue to the exhibit fascinates me.

Sometimes the house of the future is better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past, so that the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home. . . Maybe it is a good thing for us to keep a few dreams of a house that we shall live in later, always later, so much later, in fact, that we shall not have time to achieve it. For a house that was final, one that stood in symmetrical relation to the house we were born in, would lead to thoughts—serious, sad thoughts—and not to dreams. It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.

Another connection I had to the exhibit was through a friend of mine, Hara Rurihiko, who made music for the exhibit and who asked my friend Eleonore to read some French poetry and I to read a poem by Rilke, all quotations from Bachelard’s text. He then mixed the recordings of our voices into the two songs “forêtphilie” and “ma forêt ancestrale” that were played at the exhibition, which, because it took place during the summer break, I was sadly unable to attend. What I do have, however, is the music.

Seeing Trees Again


(The only picture I got of this fall’s ginko trees at Komaba campus.)

It has been far too long since I wrote here. The last few months, I have been focused solely on my Master’s thesis. I have not left my computer for more than a quick trip to the supermarket or to get a book off a shelf. I have not attended my noh lessons, which inspired me to follow this path of noh scholarship. I even missed most of the fall foliage as it appeared, because I had cooped myself up in my apartment, surrounded by suburban sprawl with few trees, and wa too internally focused on my thoughts to see what few indications there were around me.

But this blog has been in the back of my mind as I struggled to express myself in academic terms. Although I started this blog to work on my writing, it has been mostly about ideas that catch my fancy, freer thoughts than the academically researched, carefully constructed, and well supported interpretation I wrote about in my thesis. I miss that freedom. That is not to say, of course, that I dislike the reassurance of having a well-supported argument. (Oh that last sentence was really academic! Haha!)

Of course, there are some things that can’t be written about academically, like the atmospheric observations of mood during these months holed up writing, reconstructing a world in words. It is lonely living among ideas that have yet to be communicated. And also after having finished a text with the discovery that the text doesn’t express all the ideas initially intended to be expressed.

I’m reminded of Saigyo’s poem again.

Moro tomo ni kage wo naraburu hito mo areya tsuki no morikuru sasa no io ni
For a friend, if only there were someone who would line up their shadow next to mine in this grass hut that the moon has filled with light.

(My translation)

The double image of actually being alone in the moonlight and of wishing for someone with whom to share that spot in the moonlight is to the point. Even if I’m ever able to satisfactorily express my ideas to someone, they will still be sitting beside me and not where I sit, experiencing the moonlight from their own perspective.

So, enough for now of locking myself in my own little world. I need to begin reading again and interacting with people.

What are Daydreams?

(View out my window at sunrise.)

It seems to me that daydreams are possibilities. They are ways of contemplating how the future might look. Most daydreams go off into realms of great improbability, but if I’m careful it’s possible to look down on my own daydream from above and to keep it somewhat within reason. I like to think that when I can do that my daydream becomes a better simulation of what really is possible. . . but it’s still just a simulation.

In the end, daydreaming is just a way of exploring narratives for myself. And it’s impossible to live without narratives, without stories.

People can’t live by natural laws alone, can they? We live among people, not among inanimate objects. Almost without intending to, we draw lines of causality from one event in our lives to the next. And those events are usually meetings and interactions with other people, not with things we can analyse objectively.

Just as I search for a narrative to explain my experiences, so I assume do the other people involved. Considering our different circumstances, my story is probably very different from those of other people. That idea makes me smile as I try to imagine all the different people I am in other people’s narratives. Who am I in your daydreams?

Past experiences inform how we imagine the future, but the imagined future is always different than the imagined past. The future is always changing as daydreams shift to account for different events, different causes and effects, different possibilities. The past seems to change in a similar way, too. At least I can say that my stories about the past mutate slowly with time as my perspective changes.

No matter how analytical people want to be of the world, we will always need stories. . . and daydreams.

. . . and music to daydream by:

Hirozawa Lake

(Hirozawaike, a lake near Arashiyama with views of the western mountains of Kyoto, at the beginning of September.)

I have posted about the yearly Horinji performance on September 9th (9/9) to mark Choyo and celebrated with chrysanthemums and chrysanthemum sake a number of times before. It feels like an end-of-summer ritual to me.

After the performance, my noh teacher’s students join him for the summer’s last Uji kintoki (delicate shaved ice with green tea flavoring and a dollop of sweet azuki) at an outdoor cafe at the edge of Hirozawaike. This year was no different, and just before we left in the late afternoon, I took the picture above.

Now a little more than a month later, it already seems so long ago.

Where is Home?

(The Ammergasse, an alley in the center of Tübingen with a small stream, the Ammer, flowing along one side. As kids, my sisters and I played Poohsticks on these bridges and all along the Ammer through the medieval city center.)

I recently returned to the town where my parents met, where I was born, and where I spent two years in school, the fourth grade in elementary school and the ninth grade in gymnasium. It was my first trip back to Germany in almost four years.

As a kid, I used to say that this town, Tübingen, was where I felt at home, but the town I spent more of my childhood, Salem, Oregon, was where my friends were. I had very few friends in Tübingen, but Salem as a city just didn’t hold my fancy. I wanted to go as far away as I could once I graduated high school. And that’s exactly what I did, going to the East coast for college and then moving to Japan after graduating there.

You might wonder why I didn’t go to Tübingen or at the very least study German language and literature like my sisters did. The answer to that is a bit more complex and would lead me far away from the question at hand, but simply put, I realized the world was larger than western Europe and North America, and I wanted to see something different. Or at least, that’s how I explained it to myself at the time. . .

So, I studied Japanese and came to Japan, first to Kyoto and then to Yokohama and Tokyo. And I’ve lived more years in Japan now than I ever lived in Germany, but that doesn’t make me Japanese. . . Those kinds of judgments make me smile. Due to my fascination with the cultural arts in Japan and particularly when I’ve worn kimono, Japanese have told me I’m more Japanese than they are. No, I’m not Japanese, although I find that compliment flattering.

Would a Japanese person want to learn their own culture from the inside out in the same way I did, by taking lessons in tea ceremony, kimono, calligraphy, and noh performance, and even then, still not satisfied, by going to university in that country to acquire a historical perspective of the cutlure? But more importantly, is being Japanese (or fully integrated, which is pretty much the same thing in this case) necessary to feel at home in Japan? I don’t think so.

So, why have I stayed in Japan so long, for most of my twenties? I can’t dispute the fact that personal relationships have played roles at certain times, but when they ended, I remained here. A certain drive to be able to show something for my struggles here was also a factor, but that’s not all. This place slowly became familiar to me, perhaps it grew to be a cultural home to compliment my other homes in the US and Germany. But these kinds of designations become clearest to me when I leave to go somewhere else. When I’m in Japan, I still feel somehow unsettled. I guess I’m not quite at home here yet, although I love this place.

Dilek Zaptcioglu, a Turkish author of German upbringing, said in a radio interview once that her friends of multiple nationalities ask each other, “Have you found your third country yet?” They go to Turkey or to Latin America in search of a third country, a country to call home. But in the end home is probably not a country, a culture, or a community, although these might have something to do with it. Instead, it is perhaps a deep feeling of contentment in the place one finds oneself or maybe it’s a feeling that one doesn’t have to fight for one’s own space.

Not that I know. I still haven’t found my home yet! Haha!

The adventure continues. . .

The Maternity Shrine

I took this picture on a neighborhood tour near Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto. This shrine is located in what looks like the garden of a private home. Since I was chatting with another person on the tour, I did not catch the whole explanation, and I can’t find any information online, because I don’t know the name of this shrine. So, here is the story as I think I heard it told by the guide.

Before the shrine was built, a young woman and her husband lived in the home next to the shrine. The woman died giving birth to a son, who survived, but he would cry and cry without end. Nothing would soothe him, until they built this shrine to his mother. He probably just wanted to be breast fed, commented the guide. Now, expectant mothers come to the shrine and lay dolls there in hopes of having a safe delivery.

When the conversation I was having was cut short in front of this place, and I first saw the shrine, it gave me the creeps. The air seemed so negative in this place, but was it the effect of the dolls and the unkept nature of the shrine itself or was it a negative aura or spirit as some people would describe it? I don’t know, but I certainly wouldn’t want to live in the house next door.