Fiction Fridays is a new online series from Stone Bridge Press devoted to bringing readers short stories from and about Japan. This piece is from Portland author R.J. “Jim” Mockford and was inspired by the discovery of an old post card sent from Kyoto in 1974.
Autumn Leaves at Arashiyama and Gioji Temple
R.J. “Jim” Mockford
My first trip to Japan’s ancient capitol city Kyoto was under the hot sun of a humid summer day in 1971. The tour to the Old Imperial Palace, Heian Shrine, the Golden Pavilion of Kinkakuji, and Kiyomizu Temple were a few of the scenic highlights among memories of the sound of cicadas and savory smells of hibachi cooked barbeque treats from street vendors. Earlier in the day I drifted into the city by wooden boat down the Hozu River after an exciting “Hozugawa-kudari” through whitewater rapids before arriving peacefully at Kyoto. My first view of the Togetsu Bridge was from the boat, and later that hot summer day I stood on the bridge and viewed the forested green hills of Arashiyama.
The famous view of Arashiyama from the bridge that looks out west doesn’t always remind one that the characters of the name mean Storm Mountain. It took another trip to Kyoto for me to see how the hills change color with the seasons. “Arashi,” the word for storm, refers to the winds that sometimes blow from these mountains to deliver the wrath of weather on the city. Spring storms toss cherry blossoms to the ground and summer storms douse heavy rains on humid streets. The fall winds scatter the palette of bright red and vivid yellow leaves from the hills of Arashiyama across the Kyoto sky to tumble down on the temple grounds and streets of Kyoto. The autumn air chills and warns of the coming cold winter sleet and snows on Arashiyama.
My second trip to Kyoto in the early fall of 1974 is a colorful memory of the turning of autumn leaves and ripening persimmons under cooler skies that marked the beginning of the annual passage of season and yet, still in my youth, I didn’t quite gather an impression or yet possess the notion of my own passage of time. The discoveries of that long-ago season have resonance in retrospect after, years later, I happened upon an old postcard that I’d sent my parents from Kyoto in September 1974.
I examined the Japanese characters on the postcard and read the name “Gio-ji,” a temple that is one of the more hidden treasures of history and Kyoto’s subdued scenery. Photos of Gio-ji temple are not found in tourist shops in the top picture postcard collections, but somehow I found a postcard with a print of the thatched gate of Gio-ji and chose it because it captured the quieter state of this temple and its green moss garden that so beautifully contrasts with the colorful autumn leaves of the surrounding area. Also on the postcard was a Japanese poem, “Tawamure ni tataki tamau fu na hana no mon,” which I translated as “Playfully like a gift knocking on the flower gate.”
Gio-ji Temple was also known as a refuge for women fleeing the feudal society to become Buddhist nuns. In the 12th century a dancer named Gio fell in love with Japan’s military leader Taira Kiyomori but had a falling out when she was jilted by Lord Kiyomori for another dancer. Gio fled the world of men to the Buddhist temple and became a nun. Her sister joined Gio, and over time other women followed their example. Ever since, the temple was known as Gio-ji.
As it turns out, the poem on the postcard was written by a nun named Sister Chisho. I didn’t know it at the time but Sister Chisho was not a Buddhist nun from ancient times but was very much alive at the time of my first visits to Kyoto. Chisho had been known as Takaoka Chiso in the 1930s and worked as a Geisha, travelled to the United States and Europe, and led a whirlwind life. Eventually she became disillusioned by this lifestyle and left the world of entertainment to seek refuge as a nun at Gio-ji. I learned much later that she had lived a long life and witnessed nearly a century of the seasons when she died in 1995 at the age of ninety-nine.
I visited Kyoto many other times to witness the colorful autumn leaves dance their way across the sky from Arashiyama and see the magnificent season of autumnal change in Kyoto where even the quiet green moss garden of Gio-ji Temple is playfully gifted with color and continues to serve as a sanctuary from indefatigable time. The thatched gate still stands as the threshold to the story of colorful lives and poetic endings.
R.J. “Jim” Mockford is a Portland writer and graduate of the University of Oregon Honors College where he studied Japanese and embarked as an exchange student to Waseda University in 1974 and took Japanese poetry from Professor Mori Johji. Jim’s piece, Ah Matsushima! Twice is not enough, appeared in Flash Fiction by SBP in June 2016: http://www.stonebridge.com/sbp-blog/flash-fiction-ah-matsushima-twice-is-not-enough. You can connect with Jim via Wordpress and Twitter.
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