At the turn of the year, a traveller arrives, still half taken with thoughts of home, and half set willingly on the promise of a new life. The ancient city, survivor of fire and war alike, seems now unchanging, now forever being lost to constant change: the tiny alleys of wooden houses with paper windows and the little shop selling hand made brooms or sudare blinds are like floating riverweed that has come to rest, safe out of the current in some backwater, almost motionless in the half stagnant water, while just beyond them swift Time sweeps turbulently on; and yet, and yet … always something else has closed, has gone, and Kyoto is a modern city, without time to dwell on insubstantial dreams of the past.
In early spring, one may visit the orchard at Kitano Tenmangu to see the plum trees blooming in the snow.
Even now one must dust snow from a convenient bench; the cold gets in everywhere, biting through coat and scarf, the only point of warmth a thermos of plum tea. The ground and the stone lanterns and trees themselves are still white everywhere one looks, the twigs and smaller branches bearing haphazard clumps of snow for all the world as though they were in full flower; only, here and there, the hardiest trees begin to blossom, not white but red, brilliant and warm against the snow. Who would think it was already spring?
Although so few of the trees are yet in flower, even so the scent of plum blossom is strong: if I could capture the way it smells on the crisp air, mixing with the steam from the tea, I would send it to you, more evocative than any description.
No doubt other people will come by soon, breaking the stillness, but just for now I'm alone, hidden in an obscure corner, writing to you. Despite everything, it's impossible to be downcast looking at the red plum against the white.
A party of friends set out by train, heading for Matsuo Taisha. Laughing and teasing each other within the Kyokusui garden, one among them takes a photo of the Kame-no-ido statue, the turtle from which the pure spring water flows, intending to share it with someone.
The stones are old and covered thick with moss, but there are roses everywhere; how could age find one here, surrounded by so much fresh beauty? So, an appropriate destination for a birthday outing, although perhaps my new friends had more in mind the sake museum? We watched the clear water pour from the mouth of a stone turtle – it is said sake made from it will never spoil; if we drink the sake might we too remain unspoiled by time? The shrine, one of the oldest to survive, all dressed in spring flowers, seems to promise as much. And yet the fine Heian Garden, lying ageless in the sunlight, was laid out only recently. This shrine, too, may have lasted over a thousand years, but how many other shrines have there been, now gone? How many stone turtles, symbol and promise of eternity, are lost, discarded, broken – long vanished who knows where? But perhaps I am too greedy; is it not enough to watch the cranes dance in spring, without longing in one's heart to know where they will fly?
Well, I do not suppose when he gave me a crane and tortoise birthday card by the turtle well, my host intended to inspire such questions, and I shall trouble you no further with them, either. There was a most elegant version of 'many happy returns', comparing the years I am to enjoy to sand on the shore: it seem grains of sand are countless in all cultures: as the sand which is by the seashore innumerable, quam magnus numerus Libyssae harenae…
The day is bright and warm; already the late snow is forgotten. Let us likewise forget gloomy thoughts and bask in today's sunlight, undimmed by clouds.
A climber set out at dawn up the shining slope trail on Mt Hiei, filled with spring vitality. What person would not aspire to achieve the peak? Surely the view from the mountain must be excellently clear.
The plants grow thick and green, twisting impenetrably together, as confused as the narrow trails they surround; foot-sore and weary, the peak seems ever further away. Setting out in the early morning, the grass on the foothills was weighed down by fat globules of dew, long since vanished in the increasing heat: only as one climbs high does it become a little cooler again – for most of the way, the only hint of coolness is the sound of a stream somewhere near the path, rushing swiftly but unseen down to the join the river. When I sent you my first description of the snow, I didn't expect to complain so soon I was burdened by the heat.
There is something appealing about climbing a mountain in Spring: a pleasant uncertainty of purpose – to what end is one doing it? Will the way be as pleasant as it seems, setting out in the morning? Viewing the path from the summit, will it have been worthwhile? Questions a propos, also, of other things one may embark on in the spring, careless and carefree, and unworried by distance. (And yet, even now, even in spring, able to share my every thought with you by letter, you seem ever more remote, life here realer than my memories of being there, where you are now.)
I expect it is only the growing heat that makes it hard to sleep at night, tossing and turning; certainly any longing I feel to have more than words and dreams fades by day, insubstantial against the demands of quotidian life. Yet even so, there is something turbulent in my heart that never quite stills. It is not as though I cannot speak to you whenever I want - why then does it trouble me I cannot see you as well?
It is spring, too, where you are. Has the last of the cold vanished for you also, with the vanishing snow?
Later in spring, everyone longs to see the transient cherry blossoms. Someone has chosen to admire them at Kiyomizudera, and stands now outside Jishu Shrine, amidst the crowd of people buying love charms. There are two stones set before the shrine: if one can walk between them, eyes deliberately closed, and find one's way unseeing, it is said one will find love also, but at this time of year there are too many people packed in the small space for this to be possible.
Since to look at things in bloom, and all that… If there were no flowers in spring, would we be put so in mind of the passing years? Or is it only the fleeting years that give beauty to the falling flowers? Were we to have a thousand years, eight thousand years, would we care so much even for each other? I could almost believe that by longing alone we could catch up and save the falling flower … but then, the human heart is more changeable even than the wind.
Which is to say, the sakura are, of course, spectacular – would you were here to see them. Unfortunately, everyone else but you is here, and everywhere the streets are jammed with visitors. I'd like to escape up into the hill for a few days, to see the cherries in peace – surely the trees outside Kyoto want to be admired just as much as those in Maruyama Park?
Meanwhile, there are advantages to being in the city, despite the crowds. I speak, of course, of sakura mochi ice cream. Someone has ventured to lay hands on the flowers even before they fall, salting them carefully to preserve them. I had no idea, before, that flavour could have the haunting character of scent: never again will I see the cherry blossom like snow about to fall without tasting it in memory, sweet and salt together.
Already the clouds begin to mass – by tomorrow or the next day the steady rain will be falling again, and there will be nothing but banks of rotting petals where today we walk in sunlight beneath a white canopy.
Although travel is now far easier than in the past, distance is still distance, and mountain cherries are visited more rarely than those of Kyoto.
For all my job keeps me here, if you were to ask… If I seemed reluctant, it is only that the visit would be so brief I would already be missing you again even while we were together. I can only hope that we part only to meet again, our different paths circling back in the end together.
The mountain peaks round Kyoto can only be glimpsed above the low-lying clouds, yet sometimes the wind parts them for a brief moment. In spring, all things are warm, even the heart of one far distant who may be moved to visit.
Without you, nothing seems quite real, and yet when you're here I can't quite believe I'm not dreaming. Mornings we're together, I see you sleeping and cannot tear myself away; apart, I cannot bear to leave the bed where I may catch sight of you in dreams. What value did my life have without you?
Summer comes, bringing the wisteria into bloom at Byodo-in.
Looking out through the arbour from the Kannon hall, the Amida hall on its island in Ajiike Pond is framed by waterfalls of purple wisteria. The swooping wings of the building seem to soar above the lake, the water so clear and still as to offer back a perfect image; the two red bridges are doubled again, a reflected pathway to a reflected salvation. But even the real hall, standing solid in the real garden, was built only as a reflection of the Western Paradise; why then should we value one reflection over another?
At the heart of the hall is the great statue of Amidha Buddha resting upon a lotus, some 3 metres high. Although it itself remains inviolate, imagination must now supply the rich decoration that proved ephemeral, the painted colours and thick gilding, the mother-of-pearl counterfeiting dew drops. That such wealth should be devoted to the image of a reality meant to prove the treasures of this world insubstantial and without value!
On the right day in spring or autumn, the dawn is brightly mirrored by the pond, the Buddha lit not with light from our sun, but from that other sun beneath the water. Being here in summer, caught midway between the two, there seemed no need to make the brief night shorter still, and it is now noon, the sticky heat made bearable only by the hint of a breeze, the year turning its back on spring to look to autumn.
The river and canals were once busy with boats carrying rice and charcoal and other necessities. Now one wanders the banks and sees such boats only rarely.
The moon overhead – and do you, where you are, see it too? – not yet full, shares its dim light with faint grey wash of dawn; the patchy mist clings to the riverbanks. I wander along a narrow tributary, watching idly the busy flat-bottomed boats, heavily laden, pass on and out of sight. Soon the sun will rise to burn away the mist, and I will have to appear my accustomed professional self, but for now, sitting by the shore in the patched old clothes I wear at night, I think of things familiar and early loved, and trust they shall return to me.
The nights are given over to the Gion Matsuri, once believed to propitiate the gods of fire and plague.
I hardly sleep at night and by day go about dazed, as though I am sickening for something (or someone). Where is the line between reality and my cherished dreams? Was it a dream you said you would come to me? Is it really true my friends whisper amongst themselves, knowing I am lost hopelessly drowning in thoughts of you? I sleep at work, head pillowed on my bare desk, and blame it on the heat: how can they tell I hope to dream of you?
The cicadas of summer have gone who knows where, leaving only empty husks, but although the year has turned back towards winter, one cannot regret it when struck through by the melancholy beauty of autumn.
Although too early for the autumn foliage to be at its best, the gardens of Isui-en still offer respite from the crowds and from the memory of summer's heat, the air now rising cool from the Yoshiki river. The gardens are double: to the west the older part, a small garden curled introspectively around a pond full of crane and turtle islands; to the east, through a narrow, wooded pathway, there is likewise a pond, shaped with pleasing honesty to spell 'water', not 'heart', but here the garden looks not in but out, over the gate and the trees to the distant mountains, seeming to make even that far prospect part of its ordered world.
Walking from the gardens to a nearby temple, one passes the deer park. If we might hear them calling in the deep woods, alone … but now the deer, no longer sacred, are scruffy beggars accosting passers by for charity. The old temple, the heart of which has stood over a thousand years, still welcomes those who pray to the gods for clearer sight; were the gods to hear and grant, would we see again the grandeur now lost, or would we see even the cities of today decayed away into autumn fields?
Is it wisdom to know the true names of things, or does one by speaking set their bounds and make their end inevitable?
Doubtless you are right and I brought this on myself, but that is no comfort as I look at the bare branches that so lately were laden with flowers.
On weekends, one may drop by Aizen Kobo in Nishijin District, where an old family of weavers has weathered the introduction of the mechanical loom by turning to dyeing.
It is strange to think that despite everything, we've scarcely met in reality - just a bare handful of times, and all the rest words. Half way across the world, I can trust you with my deepest thoughts, yet when we meet I am still lonely, looking at you smile and fearing I alone dread our coming separation.
This month I've begun to learn indigo dyeing, very slowly for the tubs are outside and nothing can be done in the autumn rain. Indigo alone of all dyes strengthens the cloth it impregnates, the deep colour remaining true even as cheaper, more gaudy dyes fade.
As autumn deepens, one can hardly avoid doubting the future, whatever moments of reconciliation and hope may cast their transient light, brief as the shortening day, on darkening thoughts of unfaithfulness and loss.
Escaping from the rough wind through the narrow gate, one comes to the gardens of Kodai-ji, where the autumn leaves still mass around the moon shaped pond, sheltered by the temple walls. As the evening deepens, the floodlights dye the water deep shades of red and fiery orange, a shimmering leaf-pattern brocade reflecting in the dark water. Even in the brief twilight, before the lights come on, the gardens are deceptive, turtle island and crane island, no more than man-made hillocks, standing proud in the water like miniature mountains and the longing eye may fool itself it looks upon some far distant land; if only I might travel with the autumn, I might meet one who also gazes on the falling leaves.
Knowing even one's name will vanish like smoke, one hopes at least to hear a well-loved voice once more, yet nothing tempts forth a reply.
The heavy rain floods the roads, the sky louring dark with clouds. Inside, incense hazes the air. The scent seems subtle and divine, stealing into every corner and haunting every fold of fabric it caresses, as though it could never vanish; how, though, shall we doubt it will fade to nothing, when it rises up even now from charcoal and ash? The great connoisseurs say they do not smell incense only, but listen to it; no matter how hard I listen, I hear only the silence. Even the rarest woods, sandal and aloes and the rest, lose strength and fade, passing on along the way with no return.
Ukimi-do is said to have been built to pray for the safety of those who sailed the lake, that they might not drown.
How many times have I looked up at different moons, now slight, now full? And yet in reality the moon is always the same; it is men that are changeable.
It having rained again today, dashing the last of the maple leaves down into muddy piles, I stayed in doors all day; only in the evening could I admire the full moon reflected in the lake. Walking to the temple, the air was loud with the insistent ringing of the crickets, a chorus of those about to die. My path was tangled thick with reeds; unaccustomed to passersby, the geese flew up from the banks, wheeling in patterns overhead. The colour is leaching from the world like cheap dye: perhaps to love this world 's splendour is to buy shoddy goods.
Standing at the floating temple, looking back along the shoreline, I thought again of sand, and of you; in this world we are all of us as good as dead, why then complain if you forget even while living that which none can recall in death? Even the stars in time burn out to nothing; let us then accept it for ourselves.
The Philosopher's Walk runs beside a canal bearing water all the way from Lake Biwa. Pink, green and orange respectively through the earlier seasons, by winter it is monochrome.
The stark, bare trees, the stone embankments, the canal itself are dark against the white sky and the white snow; the dark branches each lined thickly with snow make a complicated pattern of black and white lines: a black and white brocade. The snow has covered thickly the path; the days are short now, and soon night as well as snow will hide the way. Everywhere the shadows lengthen, and I can hardly see my reflection when I gaze into the dark water of the canal.
If one visits the Ninomaru Garden, at Nijo Castle, one may admire the three islands in the pond: the largest represents Horai Island, the two smaller ones that flank it the crane and the turtle.
The spray from the waterfall splashes up, cold and clear, but surely in this garden there is no need for such tears: for once a bridge stands firm before us to the Island of the Immortals. And yet it is a barren image of eternity, a mound of earth and stone heaped up by men; the waterfall itself comes nearer to instantiating unchanging immortality: the water flows on quickly to its end, but the fall remains the same.
Beyond the garden the serried reception rooms line up like geese in flight. At one time those within would have looked now at the living pine trees, now at the painted ones on the shuttered doors. Passing back through the formal vestibule, the geese and reeds I saw in Autumn are caught forever in silent paint.
Coming to the Heian Shrine early in the morning, the streets still dark and the snow falling lightly, one finds it for once almost deserted.
The snow vanishes and reappears like a magic trick: one moment it Kyoto is blanketed in white, and only hours later it will be melted away, here and then gone, repeating in miniature the passing seasons. How, I wonder, could one renounce a world that will again have cherries in the spring and irises by the lake in summer? And yet, how can one live in the world, knowing new flowers will come, year after year, but we ourselves shall be nothing, not even a dream.
It would not be true to say I have gained nothing from the whole affair: I am, at least, a better correspondent now, and friends and colleagues alike comment favourably how reliable I am; this I learnt from you, and the time I used to waste in anxious waiting for your reply.
The shrine stands, red against the snow, and I imagine the far distant world of which I've read, as though the modern copy could somehow capture a moment of the past. Do I spend too long in dreams? Or are all times and places alike unreal?
I wonder now, was it ever you I loved, or this vain and lovely world, which I once saw reflected in your grace?