Haikus, Fireflies, and the Japanese Moon

The fireflies
Fear their reflection
In the water
      Sute-Jo

I leave the city on summer solstice near midnight, setting out for places I’m not supposed to be.

On the far side of the river, the moon hangs full above the field, stretching its light out across the planes. The fields are ablaze with frogs and crickets, while outlines of herons bob in the mist. Biking through the dark, I get the distinct feeling I’m not supposed to be here. Hornets the size of my hand. Black Japanese centipedes with gunshot teeth. The mother bear, sighted last week following a fishermen. Bike between the reeds, and I leave them covered in spiders. But something keeps pulling me deeper down the river, past the point of houses and their lanterns, past all the points and markers I’d made it to before now.

I turn the bend, when the mountain cuts all light except the moon, and see the green sparks. Crackling up out of the water. Fireflies. Like I’d never seen them before: on this patch they light up the entire bank, fluttering between the dark and their green like waves made in the stillness. It catches in my throat.

This might be new. I’ve never felt life happening so distinctly outside of me, without me. The secret of Japan’s night. Hiding in my backyard.

Like the countless other times here, I’m caught in a moment that doesn’t follow the regular rules of life. It’s somehow bigger and smaller than the daily grind, papers people stress—it counts for more. And just like the cherry blossoms or the fresh snow, everything that’s truly special in Japan is gone before you know it. Fireflies make their fluttering waves for two weeks. You’ve got papers to mark classes to teach, hours to tap away to the beat of pencil on paper. And then they’re gone.

It’s the last of their light. But I’m not thinking about them.

Instead I’m thinking about home. About the cabin by the lake and the way the moon cut a straight line over the black water, the owls cloaked in the trees. About how Mom told me, right as I left for Japan a year ago, that she was cheered by the realization that at the end of the day, I’d only be following the moon, and that therefore far would never be too far.

I realize that now. Around the foreign life and strange lights and mountains bathed in white. That none of this ever really was so foreign. That camp and Mom and these Canadian woods aren’t that far, and that when I leave Japan I’m bringing it with me. And it doesn’t make me feel whole, but I get the sense there’s a truth hanging above me that’s impossible to accept precisely because it’s so easy to understand.

The green lights on the far bank: they flicker, but won’t fade.

 

 

In the moonlight
There were flowers
But it was just a field of cotton.
         Basho

The above was written exactly a month ago. Now the new moon’s full too. And while a month ago my leaving still felt foreign and faraway, now it’s on the doorstep: in exactly one week I’ll be gone; in less my parents will be here, looking through the home I’ve made for myself.

The fireflies died a few days after.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified. I’d also be lying if I said I hadn’t been counting down the days. It’s only on nights like these when I wonder why I’ve been so bitter. Bitter, when I’ve never been to a place half as beautiful as here; when memories of the same full moon just a month ago already burns with nostalgia like it’s been years separated from it.

I couldn’t understand the scene before me then. I still don’t now. But reading haikus, I can gain at least a feeling for why this hurts so much.

 

Walking along
My shadow beside me
Watching the moon
       Basho

Haikus are perhaps the most distinctive literary art to come from Japan. There’s something about the elegance of the Japanese language, and the culture it centers around, that allows for haiku. Like wandering through a traditional garden, looking at a scroll, or experiencing ikebana, you will either understand them immediately, or never will. It hits you at neither an emotional or an intellectual level; those distinctions don’t matter as much in Japanese as they do in English, and you can see why with haikus.

It just hits you, and in that moment, you understand something that, conveyed through words, goes beyond them. And just like moonlight against water, it’s a fleeting understanding. Every re-reading—every attempt to understand its workings a little deeper—tends to weaken its impact. And yet that doesn’t make it any less beautiful.

Diving into haikus these days, I’ve come to appreciate the delicacy of what I saw last month. During these moments the Edo poets have in the moonlight, they’re given something so profound and so basic, that it’s inherently sad. Just as with cherry blossoms, what’s most delicate is most beautiful; what goes quickest stays the longest in your memory.

And that makes me think about how, even though these moments in the fields with fireflies and poets only encompass 1% of my year here, they’ll stretch and fill so much longer than all the classes where I turned my brain off just to stop from going insane. That a moment in the moon at my cottage when I was 18 rings in harmony with all the other times I’ve been alone at night. That Basho can write this poem

At the same lodging
Slept some courtesands,
Lespedeza flowers and the moon

in the span of a few minutes, but it’s then read for the next 300 years.

In these moments, in these haikus, I come to understand, gently, the malleability of time and the spaces that contain them. And if it’s these moments I take with me—as I’m pretty sure they will—then I’ll leave Japan with nothing but gratitude.

I still know nothing. The secret of the night here still escapes words. But when there’s beauty like this, what’s the good in knowing?

In the octopus’s jar
A fleeting dream
Beneath the summer moon.
         Basho

 

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