Then Again








Sarashina lived from 1009-1059 as a Japanese noblewoman. Her diary gives us important insights into life at court.


Japan: Early Japan

I was brought up in a distant province which lies farther than the farthest end of the Eastern Road. I am ashamed to think that inhabitants of the Royal City will think me an uncultured girl.

Somehow I came to know that there are such things as romances in the world and wished to read them. When there was nothing to do by day or at night, one tale or another was told me by my elder sister or stepmother, and I heard several chapters about the shining Prince Genji. My longing for such stories increased, but how could they recite them all from memory? I became very restless and got an image of Yakushi Buddha made as large as myself. When I was alone I washed my hands and went secretly before the altar and prayed to him with all my life, bowing my head down to the floor. "Please let me go to the Royal City. There I can find many tales. Let me read all of them."

When thirteen years old, I was taken to the Royal City. On the third of the Long-moon month, I removed [from my house] to Imatate, the old house where I had played as a child being broken up. At sunset in the foggy twilight, just as I was getting into the palanquin, I thought of the Buddha before which I had gone secretly to pray--I was sorry and secretly shed tears to leave him behind.

Outside of my new house [a rude temporary, thatched one] there is no fence nor even shutters, but we have hung curtains and sudare. From that house, standing on a low bluff, a wide plain extends towards the South. On the East and West the sea creeps close, so it is an interesting place. When fogs are falling it is so charming that I rise early every morning to see them. Sorry to leave this place.

On the fifteenth, in heavy dark rain, we crossed the boundary of the Province and lodged at Ikada in the Province of Shimofusa. Our lodging is almost submerged. I am so afraid I cannot sleep. I see only three lone trees standing on a little hill in the waste.

The next day was passed in drying our dripping clothes and waiting for the others to come up.

It was dark when I arrived at the residence on the west of the Princess of Sanjo's mansion. Our garden was very wide and wild with great, fearful trees not inferior to those mountains I had come from. I could not feel at home, or keep a settled mind. Even then I teased mother into giving me books of stories, after which I had been yearning for so many years. Mother sent a messenger with a letter to Emon-no-Myogu, one of our relatives who served the Princess of Sanjo. She took interest in my strange passion and willingly sent me some excellent manuscripts in the lid of a writing-box, saying that these copies had been given her by the Princess. My joy knew no bounds and I read them day and night; I soon began to wish for more, but as I was an utter stranger to the Royal City, who would get them for me?

My stepmother [meaning one of her father's wives] had once been a lady-in-waiting at the court, and she seemed to have been disappointed in something. She had been regretting the World [her marriage], and now she was to leave our home. She beckoned her own child, who was five years old, and said, "The time will never come when I shall forget you, dear heart"; and pointing to a huge plum-tree which grew close to the eaves, said, "When it is in flower I shall come back"; and she went away. I felt love and pity for her, and while I was secretly weeping, the year, too, went away.

"When the plum-tree blooms I shall come back"-- I pondered over these words and wondered whether it would be so. I waited and waited with my eye hung to the tree. It was all in flower and yet no tidings from her. I became very anxious [and at last] broke a branch and sent it to her [of course with a poem]:

You gave me words of hope, are they not long delayed?
The plum-tree is remembered by the Spring,
Though it seemed dead with frost.

She wrote back affectionate words with a poem:

Wait on, never forsake your hope,
For when the plum-tree is in flower
Even the unpromised, the unexpected, will come to you.

During the spring [of 1022] the world was disquieted. My nurse, who had filled my heart with pity on that moonlight night at the ford of Matsuzato, died on the moon-birthday of the Ever-growing month [first day of March]. I lamented hopelessly without any way to set my mind at ease, and even forgot my passion for romances.

I passed day after day weeping bitterly, and when I first looked out of doors [again] I saw the evening sun on cherry-blossoms all falling in confusion [this would mean four weeks later].

Flowers are falling, yet I may see them again
when Spring returns.
But, oh, my longing for the dear person
who has departed from us forever!

I also heard that the daughter of the First Adviser to the King was lost [dead]. I could sympathize deeply with the sorrow of her lord, the Lieutenant General, for I still felt my own sorrow.

When I had first arrived at the Capital I had been given a book of the handwriting of this noble lady for my copy-book. In it were written several poems, among them the following:

When you see the smoke floating up the valley of
Toribe Hill,
Then you will understand me, who seemed as shadow-like
even while living.

I looked at these poems which were written in such a beautiful handwriting, and I shed more tears. I sat brooding until mother troubled herself to console me. She searched for romances and gave them to me, and I became consoled unconsciously. I read a few volumes of Genji-monogatari and longed for the rest, but as I was still a stranger here I had no way of finding them. I was all impatience and yearning, and in my mind was always praying that I might read all the books of Genji-monogatari from the very first one.

While my parents were shutting themselves up in Udzu-Masa Temple, I asked them for nothing except this romance, wishing to read it as soon as I could get it, but all in vain. I was inconsolable. One day I visited my aunt, who had recently come up from the country. She showed a tender interest in me and lovingly said I had grown up beautifully. On my return she said: "What shall I give you? You will not be interested in serious things: I will give you what you like best." And she gave me more than fifty volumes of Genji-monogatari put in a case, as well as Ise-monogatari, Yojimi, Serikawa, Shirara, and Asa-udzu. How happy I was when I came home carrying these books in a bag! Until then I had only read a volume here and there, and was dissatisfied because I could not understand the story.

Now I could be absorbed in these stories, taking them out one by one, shutting myself in behind the kicho. To be a Queen were nothing compared to this! All day and all night, as late as I could keep my eyes open, I did nothing but look at the books, setting a lamp close beside me.

Soon I learnt by heart all the names in the books, and I thought that a great thing.

Once I dreamt of a holy priest in yellow Buddhist scarf who came to me and said, "Learn the fifth book of the Hokekkyo at once."

I did not tell any one about this, nor had I any mind to learn it, but continued to bathe in the romances. Although I was still ugly and undeveloped [I thought to myself] the time would come when I should be beautiful beyond compare, with long, long hair. I should be like the Lady Yugao [in the romance] loved by the Shining Prince Genji, or like the Lady Ukifune, the wife of the General of Uji [a famous beauty]. I indulged in such fancies--shallow-minded I was, indeed!

Could such a man as the Shining Prince be living in this world? How could General Kaoru [literal translation, "Fragrance"] find such a beauty as Lady Ukifune to conceal in his secret villa at Uji? Oh! I was like a crazy girl.

* * *

After some days one of my relatives sent me a romance entitled "The Prince Yearning after the Buried," with the following note: "The late lady had asked me to find her this romance. At that time I thought it impossible, but now to add to my sorrow, some one has just sent it to me."

I answered:

What reason can there be that she
Strangely should seek a romance of the buried?
Buried now is the seeker
Deep under the mosses.

My sister's nurse said that since she had lost her, she had no reason to stay and went back to her own home weeping.

Thus death or parting separates us each from the other,
Why must we part? Oh, world too sad for me!

"For remembrance of her I wanted to write about her," began a letter from her nurse - but it stopped short with the words, "Ink seems to have frozen up, I cannot write any more."

How shall I gather memories of my sister?
The stream of letters is congealed.
No comfort may be found in icicles.

So I wrote, and the answer was:

Like the comfortless plover of the beach
In the sand printing characters soon to be washed away,
Unable to leave a more enduring trace in this fleeting world.

That nurse went to see the grave and returned sobbing, saying:

I seek her in the field, but she is not there,
Nor is she in the smoke of the cremation.
Where is her last dwelling-place?
How can I find it?

The lady who had been my stepmother heard of this [and wrote]:

When we wander in search of her,
Ignorant of her last dwelling-place,
Standing before the thought
Tears must be our guide.

The person who had sent "The Prince Yearning after the Buried" wrote:

How she must have wandered seeking the unfindable
In the unfamiliar fields of bamboo grasses,
Vainly weeping!

Reading these poems my brother, who had followed the funeral that night, composed a poem.

Before my vision
The fire and smoke of burning
Arose and died again.
To bamboo fields there is no more returning,
Why seek there in vain?

It snowed for many days, and I thought of the nun who lived on Mount Yoshino, to whom I wrote:

Snow has fallen
And you cannot have
Even the unusual sight of men
Along the precipitous path of the Peak of Yoshino.

On the Sociable month of the next year father was looking forward with happy expectation to the night when he might expect an appointment as Governor of a Province. He was disappointed, and a person who might have shared our joy wrote to me, saying:

"I anxiously waited for the dawn with uncertain hope."

The temple bell roused me from dreams
And waiting for the starlit dawn
The night, alas! was long as are
One hundred autumn nights.

I wrote back:

Long was the night.
The bell called from dreams in vain,
For it did not toll our realized hopes.

Towards the moon-hidden days [last days] of the Rice-Sprout month I went for a certain reason to a temple at Higashiyama. On the way the nursery beds for rice-plants were filled with water, and the fields were green all over with the young growing rice. It was a smile-presenting sight. It gave a feeling of loneliness to see the dark shadow of the mountain close before me. In the lovely evenings water-rails chattered in the fields.

The water-rails cackle as if they were knocking at the gate,
But who would be deceived into opening the door, saying,
Our friend has come along the mountain path in the dark night?

As the place was near the Reizan Temple I went there to worship. Arriving so far I was fatigued, and drank from a stone-lined well beside the mountain temple, scooping the water into the hollow of my hand.

My friend said, "I could never have enough of this water." "Is it the first time," I asked, "that you have tasted the satisfying sweetness of a mountain well drunk from the hollow of your hand?" She said, "It is sweeter than to drink from a shallow spring, which becomes muddy even from the drops which fall from the hand which has scooped it up." We came home from the temple in the full brightness of evening sunshine, and had a clear view of Kioto below us.

My friend, who had said that a spring becomes muddy even with drops falling into it, had to go back to the Capital.

I was sorry to part with her and sent word the next morning:

When the evening sun descends behind the mountain peak,
Will you forget that it is I who gaze with longing
Towards the place where you are?

From: Sarashina, The Diary of Lady Sarashina (1009-1059) trans. Annie Shepley Omori and Kochi Doi in Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan (Boston: Houghton, 1920), 3-68. Original e-text from: Hanover Historical Texts Project Scanned by Monica Banas, 1996. This version edited for classroom use.

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