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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
My First Day in the Orient
By Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904)
From ‘Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan’

“TERA?” queries Cha, with his immense white hat in his hand, as I resume my seat in the jinrikisha at the foot of the steps. Which no doubt means, Do I want to see any more temples? Most certainly I do: I have not yet seen Buddha.  1
  “Yes, tera, Cha.”  2
  And again begins the long panorama of mysterious shops and tilted eaves, and fantastic riddles written over everything. I have no idea in what direction Cha is running. I only know that the streets seem to become always narrower as we go, and that some of the houses look like great wicker-work pigeon cages only, and that we pass over several bridges before we halt again at the foot of another hill. There is a lofty flight of steps here also, and before them a structure which I know is both a gate and a symbol; imposing, yet in no manner resembling the great Buddhist gateway seen before. Astonishingly simple all the lines of it are: it has no carving, no coloring, no lettering upon it; yet it has a weird solemnity, an enigmatic beauty. It is a torii.  3
  “Miya,” observes Cha. Not a tera this time, but a shrine of the gods of the more ancient faith of the land,—a miya.  4
  I am standing before a Shintō symbol; I see for the first time—out of a picture at least—a torii. How describe a torii to those who have never looked at one even in a photograph or engraving? Two lofty columns, like gate pillars, supporting horizontally two cross-beams, the lower and lighter beam having its ends fitted into the columns a little distance below their summits; the uppermost and larger beam supported upon the tops of the columns, and projecting well beyond them to right and left. That is a torii: the construction varying little in design, whether made of stone, wood, or metal. But this description can give no correct idea of the appearance of a torii, of its majestic aspect, of its mystical suggestiveness as a gateway. The first time you see a noble one, you will imagine perhaps that you see the colossal model of some beautiful Chinese letter towering against the sky; for all the lines of the thing have the grace of an animated ideograph,—have the bold angles and curves of characters made with four sweeps of a master brush.  5
  Passing the torii, I ascend a flight of perhaps one hundred stone steps, and find at their summit a second torii, from whose lower cross-beam hangs festooned the mystic shimenawa. It is in this case a hempen rope of perhaps two inches in diameter through its greater length, but tapering off at either end like a snake. Sometimes the shimenawa is made of bronze, when the torii itself is of bronze; but according to tradition it should be made of straw, and most commonly is. For it represents the straw rope which the deity Futo-tama-no-mikoto stretched behind the Sun goddess, Ama-terasu-oho-mi-Kami, after Ame-no-ta-jikarawo-no-Kami the Heavenly-hand-strength god had pulled her out, as is told in that ancient myth of Shintō which Professor Chamberlain has translated. And the shimenawa, in its commoner and simpler form, has pendent tufts of straw along its entire length at regular intervals, because originally made, tradition declares, of grass pulled up by the roots, which protruded from the twist of it.  6
  Advancing beyond this torii, I find myself in a sort of park or pleasure ground on the summit of the hill. There is a small temple on the right: it is all closed up; and I have read so much about the disappointing vacuity of Shintō temples that I do not regret the absence of its guardian. And I see before me what is infinitely more interesting: a grove of cherry-trees covered with something unutterably beautiful,—a dazzling mist of snowy blossoms clinging like summer cloud fleece about every branch and twig; and the ground beneath them and the path before me are white with the soft, thick, odorous snow of fallen petals.  7
  Beyond this loveliness are flower-pots surrounding tiny shrines; and marvelous grotto-work, full of monsters,—dragons and mythologic beings chiseled in the rock; and miniature landscape work with tiny groves of dwarf trees, and liliputian lakes, and microscopic brooks and bridges and cascades. Here also are swings for children. And here are belvederes, perched on the verge of the hill, wherefrom the whole fair city, and the whole smooth bay speckled with fishing-sails no bigger than pin-heads, and the far, faint, high promontories reaching into the sea, are all visible in one delicious view, blue-penciled in a beauty of ghostly haze indescribable.  8
  Why should the trees be so lovely in Japan? With us, a plum or cherry tree in flower is not an astonishing sight; but here it is a miracle of beauty so bewildering that, however much you may have previously read about it, the real spectacle strikes you dumb. You see no leaves,—only one great filmy mist of petals. Is it that the trees have been so long domesticated and caressed by man in this land of the gods that they have acquired souls, and strive to show their gratitude, like women loved, by making themselves more beautiful for man’s sake? Assuredly they have mastered men’s hearts by their loveliness, like beautiful slaves;—that is to say, Japanese hearts: apparently there have been some foreign tourists of the brutal class in this place, since it has been deemed necessary to set up inscriptions in English announcing that “It is forbidden to injure the trees.”  9
  “Tera?”  10
  “Yes, Cha, tera.”  11
  But only for a brief while do I traverse Japanese streets. The houses separate, become scattered along the feet of the hills; the city thins away through little valleys, and vanishes at last behind; and we follow a curving road overlooking the sea. Green hills slope steeply down to the edge of the way on the right; on the left, far below, spreads a vast stretch of dun sand and salty pools to a line of surf so distant that it is discernible only as a moving white thread. The tide is out; and thousands of cockle-gatherers are scattered over the sands, at such distances that their stooping figures, dotting the glimmering sea-bed, appear no larger than gnats. And some are coming along the road before us, returning from their search with well-filled baskets,—girls with faces almost as rosy as the faces of English girls.  12
  As the jinrikisha rattles on, the hills dominating the road grow higher. All at once Cha halts again before the steepest and loftiest flight of steps I have yet seen.  13
  I climb and climb and climb, halting perforce, betimes, to ease the violent aching of my quadriceps muscles; reach the top completely out of breath; and find myself between two lions of stone, one showing his fangs, the other with jaws closed. Before me stands the temple, at the farther end of a small bare plateau surrounded on three sides by low cliffs—a small temple, looking very old and gray. From a rocky height to the left of the building a little cataract tumbles down into a pool, ringed in by a palisade. The voice of the water drowns all other sounds. A sharp wind is blowing from the ocean; the place is chill even in the sun, and bleak, and desolate, as if no prayer had been uttered in it for a hundred years.  14
  Cha taps and calls, while I take off my shoes upon the worn wooden steps of the temple, and after a minute of waiting we hear a muffled step approaching and a hollow cough behind the paper screens. They slide open, and an old white-robed priest appears, and motions me with a low bow to enter. He has a kindly face, and his smile of welcome seems to me one of the most exquisite I have ever been greeted with. Then he coughs again, so badly that I think if I ever come here another time I shall ask for him in vain.  15
  I go in, feeling that soft, spotless, cushioned matting beneath my feet with which the floors of all Japanese buildings are covered. I pass the indispensable bell and lacquered reading-desk; and before me I see other screens only, stretching from floor to ceiling. The old man, still coughing, slides back one of these upon the right and waves me into the dimness of an inner sanctuary, haunted by faint odors of incense. A colossal bronze lamp, with snarling gilded dragons coiled about its columnar stem, is the first object I discern; and in passing it, my shoulder sets ringing a festoon of little bells suspended from the lotus-shaped summit of it. Then I reach the altar, gropingly, unable yet to distinguish forms clearly. But the priest, sliding back screen after screen, pours in light upon the gilded brasses and the inscriptions: and I look for the image of the deity or presiding spirit between the altar groups of convoluted candelabra. And I see—only a mirror, a round pale disk of polished metal, and my own face therein; and behind this mockery of me a phantom of the far sea.  16
  Only a mirror! Symbolizing what? illusion? or that the universe existed for us solely as the reflection of our own souls? or the old Chinese teaching that we must seek the Buddha only in our own hearts? Perhaps some day I shall be able to find out all these things.  17
  As I sit on the temple steps, putting on my shoes preparatory to going, the kind old priest approaches me again, and bowing, presents a bowl. I hastily drop some coins in it, imagining it to be a Buddhist alms-bowl, before discovering it to be full of hot water. But the old man’s beautiful courtesy saves me from feeling all the grossness of my mistake. Without a word, and still preserving his kindly smile, he takes the bowl away, and returning presently with another bowl, empty, fills it with hot water from a little kettle, and makes a sign to me to drink.  18
  Tea is most usually offered to visitors at temples; but this little shrine is very, very poor; and I have a suspicion that the old priest suffers betimes for want of what no fellow-creature should be permitted to need. As I descend the windy steps to the roadway I see him still looking after me, and I hear once more his hollow cough.  19
  Then the mockery of the mirror recurs to me. I am beginning to wonder whether I shall ever be able to discover that which I seek—outside of myself! That is, outside of my own imagination….  20
  The sun is gone; the topaz light is gone: and Cha stops to light his lantern of paper, and we hurry on again, between two long lines of painted paper lanterns suspended before the shops; so closely set, so level those lines are, that they seem two interminable strings of pearls of fire. And suddenly a sound—solemn, profound, mighty—peals to my ears over the roofs of the town: the voice of the tsurigane, the great temple bell of Nungiyama.  21
  All too short the day seemed. Yet my eyes have been so long dazzled by the great white light, and so confused by the sorcery of that interminable maze of mysterious signs which made each street vista seem a glimpse into some enormous grimoire, that they are now weary even of the soft glowing of all these paper lanterns, likewise covered with characters that look like texts from a book of magic. And I feel at last the coming of that drowsiness which always follows enchantment.  22

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