Writers of the Heian Era: Diary, Sei Shônagon 1
Sei Shônagon, a lady-in-waiting to Empress Teishi (or Sadako), left a journal of anecdotes, impressions, and commentary called The Pillowbook (covering the years 986-1000 CE) that has become a valuable source for the court society and cultural life of the Heian Period. Sei’s description of natural scenes and phenomena are admired for their vividness and subtlety, their both poetic and painterly evocation of lighting and color, temperature and the tactile. It is a product of a lifestyle lived in wooden residences surrounded by verandas, and whose walls were panels and latticed screens that could be opened up to the outside, bringing the sights, sounds, and scents of nature into the inside. The first passage below in effect taught the specific appeal of each of the four seasons for the rest of Japanese cultural history. The particularly close and subtle appreciation of nature within daily life is one of the most important legacies of Heian women’s writing to Japanese culture.
The Beauty of the Seasons
In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.
In summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is!
In autumn the evenings, when the glittering sun sinks close to the edge of the hills and the crows fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos; more charming still is a file of wild geese, like specks in the distant sky. When the sun has set, one’s heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.
In winter the early mornings. It is beautiful indeed when snow has fallen during the night, but splendid too when the ground is white with frost; or even when there is no snow or frost, but it is simply very cold and the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up the fires and bringing charcoal, how well this fits the season’s mood! But as noon approaches and the cold wears off, no one bothers to keep the braziers alight, and soon nothing remains but piles of white ashes.
Rains and Ponds
During the long rains in the Fifth Month, there is something very moving about a place with a pond. Between the dense irises, water-oats, and other plants one can see the green of the water; and the entire garden seems to be the same green colour. One stays there all day long, gazing in contemplation at the clouded sky—oh, how moving it is!
I am always moved and delighted by places that have ponds—not only in the winter (when I love waking up to find that the water has frozen over) but at every time of the year. The ponds I like best are not those in which everything is carefully laid out; I much prefer one that has been left to itself so that it is wild and covered with weeds. At night in the green spaces of water one can see nothing but the pale glow of the moonlight. At any time and in any place I find moonlight very moving.
It is delightful when there has been a thin fall of snow; or again when it has piled up very high and in the evening we sit round a brazier at the edge of the veranda with a few congenial friends, chatting till darkness falls. There is no need for the lamp, since the snow itself reflects a clear light. Raking the ashes in the brazier with a pair of fire-tongs, we discuss all sorts of moving and amusing things.
A stormy wind. At dawn, when one is lying in bed with the lattices and panelled doors wide open, the wind suddenly blows into the room and stings one’s face—most delightful.
A cold wintry wind.
In the Third Month the moist, gentle wind that blows in the evenings moves me greatly.
Also moving is the cool, rainy wind in the Eighth and Ninth Months. Streaks of rain are blown violently from the side, and I enjoy watching people cover their stiff robes of unlined silk with the padded coats that they put away after the summer rains.
Towards the end of the Ninth Month and the beginning of the Tenth the sky is clouded over, there is a strong wind, and the yellow leaves fall gently to the ground, especially from the cherry trees and the elms. All this produces a most pleasant sense of melancholy. In the Tenth Month I love gardens that are full of trees.
Morris, Ivan, trans., The Pillowbook of Sei Shônagon. London: Penguin Books, 1971.