Snow falling on the Heian Jingu Shrine in Kyoto.
Last night and into the morning, a new blizzard hit the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, bringing with it a good half foot of snow or more. While this winter has been particularly cold, and being cooped up indoors induces a form of winter madness in all but the hardiest souls, waking up to newly fallen snow is an undeniably joyous aspect to an otherwise frozen, barren season.
“The Pillow Book” famously starts with the line “in spring, it is the dawn”, as Sei Shonagon poetically describes the loveliest time of day per season. In winter, it is the early morning:
“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 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” —-Sei Shonagon
This statue of Zao Gongen can be seen in the East Asian Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Zao Gongen was the spirit of Mt Kimpu, which is south of Nara. He had previously been holding a thunderbolt scepter, which is now missing. The Fujiwaras, everyone’s favorite ruling clan, were among the adherents of Shugendo, a syncretic Shinto-Buddhist cult.
I know I am!
Heian literature requires a great deal of effort to translate from the original Japanese, and must be altered totally from its initial form. Why might that be, you ask? A common Heian literary conceit, which was considered elegant at the time, was the excessive overuse of a single adjective in a sentence – to the point of using a strong adjective perhaps four times in the same sentence.
Sei Shonagon in “The Pillow Book” frequently used adjectives such as “charming” over and over and over again in an anecdote. Were such a passage directly translated, the meaning of the writing would be utterly lost on a modern day reader. It would be far too boring and mind-numbingly repetitive.
On the other hand, perhaps this repetitiveness isn’t too far from the experience of the modern day literature fan. Many writers today, whether of novels, newspaper articles, or blogs, seem to re-use the same vocabulary.
I know I overuse the words ridiculous, hilarious, weird, amazing, awesome, and random. Maybe that assortment of words captures my particular take on life. Possibly I should start looking at a thesaurus every once in a while.
If anyone calls you out on your slim vocabulary or overuse of a few choice adjectives, turn the tables on them. “Oh, I do that on purpose,” you’ll say. “I find it elegant. It’s very Heian.”
They’ll have no idea what you’re talking about. You win.
An aristocratic Heian woman did not move very often. She would not have played sports, nor would she have spent time on long solitary walks. Instead, wealthy women lived extremely sedentary lives, spending much of their time sitting around, playing board games with others, practicing penmanship, or eagerly anticipating a response to a sent poem. This is yet another reason why Heian women dominated Japanese literature of the period to such a degree – there was nothing else to do but sit and write.
To modernize this behavior, spend your time sitting around your room. Talk to your friends on the phone or online. Start writing in a notebook or a blog. Or just feel melancholy. The choice is yours!
But whatever you do, don’t go for a jog. It’s really not very Heian.
According to my dentist’s office, teeth whitening is the most popular cosmetic surgery in America. Nothing, other than clear skin, is considered more of an indication of overall good health and thus beauty than a mouth full of shiny, bright white (porcelain or bleached) teeth. So imagine then, if you will, staining your teeth as black as possible and having that considered the epitome of beauty. It certainly was in the Heian era. White teeth were considered disgusting – reminiscent of mealworms.
The next time someone tells you that an obvious fad will always be stylish or popular, rather than arguing, just nod, smile, and imagine your friend with a mouthful of blackened teeth. It’s a timeless look – just like the lumberjack shirts of today, blackened teeth never went out of style.