Colors of the Japanese Houses of Sleep



It has became my habit on way to college once a week, where my weakness betrays itself under the quite respectable name of interpreter of English poets, ancient or modern, to invite my own soul even for awhile where the shadows of pine-trees thicken along the path of breezes in Shiba Park; it makes my wandering in the holy houses of sleep of the great feudal princes the most natural thing. I clearly remember how afraid I was in my boyhood days, whenever I happened to pass by them, of being hailed by the dark, undiscerning voice of Death. Oh, my friends and philosophers in all lands, is it a matter of thankfulness as to-day even to fall in love with its sweetness, and to reflect on its golden-hearted generosity and accidentally to despise Life? I say here at either the sacred house of the Sixth Prince or that of the Second Prince that one cannot help loving Death when he sees right before himself such an inspiring house of sleep of green, red, yellow, of the gold and lacquer, of the colors unmixed and simple, soaring out of this and that wealth of life, the colors that have reached the final essence, and power of Nature. Although it might be a modern fashion to speak of symbolism, I flatly refuse to see it in these old temples, there is the most clear simplicity, the beauty of the last judgement. Indeed, I wish to know if there is any better fitting for sleep and rest than the temples in my beloved Shiba Park. Our old artists had a strength in their jealous guarding of beauty for beauty’s sake; they felt but not theorized; therefore, in such a beauty of confusion as I look through its looking-glass of confused quality on the phoenixes, paradise-birds, lotuses, peonies, lions, and ocean waves which decorate the inside of the temple, where the years of incense and prayer have darkened and mystified the general atmosphere.

The beauty of Death is in its utter rejection of profusion; it is the desire of intensity itself which only belongs to the steadfastness and silence of a star; oh, what a determination it declares! It is perfect; its epical perfection arises from the point that it will never return towards Life; its grandeur is in the pride that it shall never associate itself with life’s clatter. Oh, Death is triumph! It is the great aspect of Japanese romance of the fighting age to make the moment of death as beautiful as possible; I can count a hundred names of heroes and fighters whom we remember only from the account of their beautiful death, not of their beautiful lives, on whom stories and dramas have been gorgeously written. And it was the civilization of the Tokugawa feudalism, the age of peace, to make us look upon Death with artistic adoration and poetical respect. We read so much in our Japanese history of the powers and works of that Tokugawa family, which lasted with untired energy until only forty years ago; oh, where to-day can the strong proof of its existence be traced? Is it not, I wonder, only a “name written on water”? But the great reverence towards Death that is encouraged will be still observed like or moon in the holy temples at Nikko or Shiba Park, the creations of art it realized during the long three hundred years. True to say, art lives longer than life and the world.

I often think how poor our Japanese life might have been if we had not developed, by accident or wisdom, this great reverence towards Death, without whose auspices many beautiful shapes of art, I am sure, would never have existed; the stone lantern for instance to mention a thing particularly near my mind when I loiter alone in the sacred ground of the Second Shogun in the wide open yard perfectly covered by pebbles in the first entrance-gate, where hundreds of large stone lanterns stand most respectfully in rows; quite proper for the feudal age those lone sentinels. When the toro or stone lantern leaves the holy place of spirit for the garden, matter-of-fact and plebeian, it soon assumes the front of pure art; but how can it forget the place where it was born? We at once read its religious aloofness under the democratic mask. To see it squatting solemn and sad with the pine-tree makes me imagine an ancient monk in meditation, cross-legged, not yet awakened to the holy understanding of truth and light; is there not the attitude of a prophet crying in the wilderness in its straight, tall shape upon the large moss-carpeted lawn? I myself have never been able to take it merely as a creation of art since my tender age when my boy’s imagination took its flicker of light under the depth of darkness to be a guiding lamp for my sister’s dead soul hastening towards Hades in her little steps; it was a rainy night when she died in her ninth year. I cannot separate my memory of her from the stone lantern; again, I cannot disassociate the stone lantern with the black night and autumnal rain under whose silence the lantern sadly burned, indeed, like a spirit eternal and divine.

In the first place, whenever I think of the general effect of the reverence of Death upon our national life I deem the love of cleanliness the greatest of it; when I say that it really grew in the Tokugawa age, I have in my mind the thought that the reverence towards Death reached its full development then. When the custom of keeping the household shrine came strictly to be observed, the love of cleanliness soon promulgated itself as an important duty; and the thought of sharing the same roof with the spirit or ghost makes you, as the next thing, wiser, not to act foolishly or talk scandalously. The appreciation of grayness and silence is born from that reverence of Death; as you live with the dead souls in one house, Death ceases to be fearful and menacing, and becomes beautiful and suggestive like the whisper of a breeze or the stir of incense. Death is then more real than life, like that incense or breeze; again so is silence more real than voice.


It is difficult to take a neutral attitude towards the temples at Nikko, although indifference is said to be the “highest” of Japanese attitudes; I mean there are only two ways — like or dislike — for their barbarous splendor in gold and red lacquer deprived of the inspiration of the imagination and melancholy, definite to the limit. And it altogether depends on one’s mood; if a man’s large stomach is well filled (also his purse), their despotic wealth would not be too overwhelming, and he might even be disposed to sing their eternal beauty as the ultimate {58} achievement of human endeavor. I believe I have been sometimes in such a state myself. But the pessimistic mind, critical even where criticism is not called for, skipping all the physical expression for the spiritual communication, will find Nikko a sad dilettantism of art, at the best a mere apology of a squandering mind; there is nothing more unhappy than wastefulness in the world of art. It is not the real Japanese mind, I think, to build a house for the dead, as I know that it goes straight towards associating the dead with trees, mountains, water, winds, shadows, deer, ravens, foxes, wolves, and bears, and uses to leave them to the care of and moon; indeed it was the unlettered samurai mind to build such temples as I see at this Nikko, afraid to return to the gray elements and wishing to find a shelter even after death in materialism. Or it might be more true to say that it originated in the complete surrender to Buddhism; and it may not be too much to say that India begins right here from Nikko, in the same sense that Tokyo of the present age is spiritually a part of London or New York. We have only a few pages in the whole Japanese history where we are perfectly independent.

Whether it is fortunate or not, my recent evolution of mind is that I have ceased to see the fact itself, and what I am glad to indulge in is the reflection of its psychological relation with other facts; how thankful I am for the gate tower carved with phoenixes and peonies, the large pagoda in red and gold, now loitering round the holy precincts of the Nikko temples, since the very fact of their existence makes through the virtue of contrast, the cryptomerias and mountains greener, the waters and skies bluer, and besides, the human soul intenser. I am happy in my coming to Nikko in the month of May when the beauty of Nature quickens itself from the pain of passing Spring, and with light that overflows from the bosom of hope; your appreciation of Nikko would not be perfect till you see the wealth and grandeur of Nature’s greenness; it is the beauty of cryptomerias and waters rather than that of the temples. And you will feel encouraged when you observe the real fact, how even the barbarity of human work can calm down before Nature, and happier still how they can form a good friendship with one another for creating the one perfect art known as Nikko. I am glad to see the proof of power of a Japanese landscape artist who could use his art on a large scale as I see it here, not merely in a small city garden; my mind, which was slightly upset from the artistic confusion of the temples belonging to Iyeyasu the Great, soon recovered its original serenity in seeing the most beautiful arrangement of temples of Iyemitsu, the Third Shogun of Tokugawa family, with the hills and trees, quite apart from his grandfather’s; what a gentle feeling of solemnity, as old as that of a star, what a quiet and golden splendor here! The arrangement might be compared with the feminine beauty of gems most carefully set. When I looked upon the temples from the Mitarashiya, or the “House where you wash your Honorable Hands,” below, they impressed my mind as if a house of dream built by the Dragon Kings underneath the seas, that I and you often see on the Japanese fan; I looked down, when I stood by the gate tower of the Niwo gods, over that water-fountain below, where the spirits of poesy were soon floating on light; it was natural to become a passionate adorer of the Nature of May here like Basho, who wrote in his seventeen syllable hokku:

Ah, how sublime —
The green leaves, the young leaves,
In the light of !

I very well understand how Iyeyasu, the Supreme Highness, Lord of the East, that Great Incarnation, escaped the temple of gold and red lacquer, and wished to sleep in a hill behind, in silence, and shadow; now I am climbing up the long and high steps to make him my obeisance where a hundred large cryptomerias stand reverently as sentinels. What peace! What broke the silence was the sudden voice of water and the sutra-reading of priests; a moment ago the crows in threes, twos, and fours flew away and dropped into the unseen just like the human mortals who have only to stay here for a little while. Under my feet I found a small hairy caterpillar also climbing up the stone steps like myself. Oh! tell me who art thou? And what difference is there between us human beings and the caterpillar? Are we not caterpillars who may live little longer? But I tell you that is a difference of no particular value. I met with a group of Western tourists in the middle of the steps, who hurried down; they set my mind thinking on the anti-Christian terrorism of Iyeyasu and other princes, the Japanese Neroes, awful and glorious. It is not strange that they are shaking hands in sleep with the Westerners whom they hated with all their hearts?

The words of my friend when I bade farewell to him in New York suddenly returned to me when now the weather has changed, and even rain has begun to fall; my friend artist who had stayed and sketched here long ago said to me: “There were many idols of the Jizo god, the guardian deity of children, standing by the Daiyagawa River of Nikko; I loved them, particularly one called the Father or Mother, from its large size, whom I sketched most humbly. You see that Nantai Mountain appears and disappears as if mist or mirage, right behind these idols; the place is poetical. But they seemed to be having a disagreeable time of it, all overgrown as they were with moss, and even with the dirty pieces of paper stuck by all sorts of pilgrims as a sign of their call. Once when I hurried down from Chuzenji and passed by them, I caught rain and wind; alas! those kind deities were terribly wet, like myself. I pitied them; I cannot forget their sad sight even to-day; however, the Jizi idol under the rain is a good subject of art. There are few countries where rain falls as in Japan. The dear idols must be wet under the rain even now while you and I talk right here.”

When I reached my hotel and sat myself on the cushion, and after a while began to smoke, my mind roamed leisurely from the idols under the rains to the man wet through by the rains of failure; and now it reflected on this and that, and then it recalled that and this. Oh, how can I forget the very words of that reporter of one Francisco paper who mystified, startled, and shocked me, well, by his ignorance or wisdom seven years ago? I said to him on being asked why I returned home that I was going to hunt after the Nirvana; he looked up with a half-humorous smile and said, “That’s so! But let me ask you with pardon, are you not rather too late in the season for that?”

It seems that it is too late now even in Japan to get the Nirvana, as that San Francisco reporter said. How can I get to it, the capital-lettered Nirvana, even at Nikko, when I could not find it in London and New York? I laughed on my silliness of thought that I might be able, if place were changed, to discover it. Oh, my soul, I wonder when it will wiser grow? {59}

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