The New York Times’ Travel Section this week has a multitude of articles about travel to Asia, and there are two articles about Kyoto alone.
In Japan, Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon are sometimes compared to different flowering trees that bud and bloom in the spring. Reserved and contemplative as she was, Murasaki is thought of as similar to a cherry blossom, a traditional symbol of purity, while the gregarious, slightly more promiscuous Sei is likened to a vibrant red plum blossom.
March is the month of the first Cherry Blossom or Sakura Festivals in Japan and in Washington, D.C. If you cannot get to Japan, the festival starts in our nation’s capital on March 27th this year. Even if you don’t particularly love cherry blossoms, there’s at least a parade with an enormous Hello Kitty balloon.
The Heian period officially starts in 794, the year that Imperial Capital of Japan moved from Nara to Heian Kyo, or modern day Kyoto. This year is Nara’s 1300th anniversary, and there will be myriad festivals and celebrations in the city throughout the coming year.
Nara is a very charming small city, totally underrated in comparison to Kyoto. While it is understandable that many visitors to Kansai would bypass it in favor of the much-larger Kyoto, it’s a shame, because Nara never became a huge city and retains the feeling of a small ancient imperial capital.
Just before Christmas, millions of people travel to visit far off relatives, and many of them will do so by car, leading to traffic and road rage. Sei’s list of “Hateful Things” provides insight into the annoyances one encountered in the Japan of 1,000 AD, and it seems that merely the rage-inducing technology has changed.
Sei complains about low quality, ill-kept carriages making irritating sounds:
“A carriage passes by with a nasty, creaking noise. Annoying to think that the passengers may not even be aware of this! If I am traveling in someone’s carriage and I hear it creaking, I dislike not only the noise but the owner of the carriage.”
Sei may appear finicky in this statement, but if one imagines traveling in an 11th century carriage, it becomes apparent that those wooden carriages would have been mind-numbingly slow, possibly traveling a few miles per hour on their wooden wheels. If a loud, creaking carriage were to approach one, it would be audible for a terribly prolonged period of time with no escape, and if one happened to travel in a friend’s squeaking carriage, well, it was even longer.
This holiday season, as you spend time sitting in traffic or traveling great distances, look at things from a Heian perspective. Traffic may be hateful, and you may despise the cars as well as the drivers surrounding you, or find all manner of rude behavior on the roads.
But hey – at least you can choose to ignore a car. You can’t ignore a massive squeaking carriage.
Due to a multitude of historical circumstances and Japan’s geographic status as an archipelago, Heian-era aristocrats had little in the way of urgent state business. They no longer had contact with foreign states, nor was there any conflict from abroad. There were occasionally internal revolts, but provincial military clans easily took care of such things with the reward of minor titles.
While there may have been battles once in a while, they generally took place quite far from Heian Kyo, and thus had little to no impact on its denizens. The aristocrats’ wealth came from large holdings of land across the country, but provincial governors loyal to the emperor collected taxes from the peasantry and kept law and order. Not only did Heian aristocrats rarely leave Heian Kyo, but they were rarely forced to confront the world outside of the city walls.
This peculiar situation explains, in large part, the blind focus on the world at hand – gossip, intrigue, and matters of rank. Why focus on outside matters if you don’t have to?
If you live in contemporary America, though there may seem to be all kinds of world problems, the fact is, they probably are not directly affecting you. There is no real threat of foreign invasion by sea or over the Mexican or Canadian border, civil war or internal revolt beyond protest seems unlikely, and the battles we do know about or participate in happen in far off lands most of us will never go to. So if you want to truly have Heian mentality, turn off the news! Don’t read that newspaper. Gossip about your rival. Try to overhear conversations around board games. Pay attention to other peoples’ outfits at the store, and complain about them later. You’re truly Heian now.