Sunday, 31 July 2011

Tosa Nikki

Image via Wikimedia
All translations from Ki no Tsurayuki The Tosa Diary (trans. William N. Porter Tuttle Classics, 1981, Boston)
If The Narrow Road to Oku demonstrates the transformative power of travel, the next travelogue I tuned to revealed the very opposite. The Tosa Diary (Tosa Nikki), written by Ki no Tsurayuki in 935 dwells in the grittiness of travel: the tedium and discomfort that can creep into the spaces between moments of excitement and revelation and the frustrations and boredom of a long and potentially dangerous journey. Far from being a disappointment after Bashō’s transcendence, I felt grateful for Tsurayuki’s honesty and refreshed by the way the Tosa Diary revealed the quieter and more human pleasures and annoyances of travel.
The Tosa Diary is an account of a sea journey taken by the writer and nobleman Ki no Tsurayuki in 935. After spending several years as a governor in the Tosa province in Shikoku, the diary is an account of his voyage back to the then capital Kyoto and back to the house that he had left five years before. In the tenth century a sea voyage of roughly 200 miles and lasting 55 days was, as the diary shows, no small undertaking. Tsurayuki and his fellow travellers faced rough seas, capriciously inclement weather, seasickness, the threat of pirates and uninspiring provisions. Travelling in cramped and rough quarters by day and camping on the shore at night the trip must have been alternately gruelling when the ship could sail onwards and tedious when stormy weather kept the passengers on land. Buffeted both by the winds and by grief over the recent death of his daughter, Tsurayuki’s travels are physically and mentally demanding.
However this journey is determinedly anti-heroic: there is no no triumphal homecoming, no battling through tribulations. Therefore it is perhaps telling that it is written very deliberately in the voice of a woman. As a newly evolving language, Japanese had only recently added a phonetic syllabary system to the existing ideographs based on classical Chinese by the time Tsurayuki wrote The Tosa Diary. Phonetics, not requiring any knowledge of classical Chinese, became known as the woman’s language and it was this that Tsurayuki used in his travelogue. It is tempting to speculate why he should have chosen to exploit such a system in his Diary. Tsurayuki was known for his work in poetry, most notably the Kokinshū  which he helped compile between 905 and 922 and for which he wrote a preface that became the first statement of Japanese poetic criticism. Using a female voice in the Tosa Diary allows Tsurayuki to achieve a certain distance from the journey and from himself as a traveller as he is described in mundane or even unflattering situations. Yet the diary also presents this conceit as a challenge, throwing down the gauntlet with the first line: “It is generally a man who writes what is called a Diary, but now a woman will see what she can do”. It is a warning that this diary confronts and confounds expectations and asks us to read and to think about travel in a different way.
The Tosa Diary dwells in the unexpectedness of the mundane, challenging our assumptions about what a travelogue should contain. The narrative repeatedly slips off key to reveal an ordinariness that undercuts the narrative: the formal leave taking of the governor is protracted and after the priest presents the governor with a present, the group get drunk:
Upper, middle, and lower classes all drank too heavily, and, wonderful to relate, there they were on the edge of the salt sea itself all useless and incompetent.
Their new year’s festivities, assembled on the hoof, are improvised and odd: they have none of the traditional items (no potatoes, no seaweed and no rice cakes) and they are forced to suck a trout head for good luck instead of the more usual mullet head; the travellers often break into poetry to pass the time but it descends into querulous squabbling over the quality of the verses. The rhythms of disappointed expectation (for Tsurayuki and also for the reader who might have expected a different kind of narrative) mirror the pulse of the journey itself.
Constantly at the mercy of the seas, the travellers are repeatedly thwarted in their attempts to make progress. The entry for 24th February  (the 19th day of the voyage) reads simply: “the weather was bad, so the boat could not start”. This is typical of the journey; bursts of movement followed by frustrating waiting that keep time alternating between speed and slowness. Placed in situations that are beyond their control (will the wind die down or will we be stuck here for longer? Will we have proper food tonight or will it be rice gruel again?) the travellers are thrown into disarray:
They were still at the same spot. As long as the sea remains rough they will never get there. This stopping place was very beautiful, whether looked at from afar or close at hand; but under the present conditions they were all too weary to take any pleasure in it. In order to pass the time, as it was hopeless to expect the boat to start, the men composed classical verses, etc., together and a ‘certain personage’ produced this:
On this sandy shore
Never cease the waves to break
Year and month alike;
Though ‘tis white as if with snow
When it fell I do not know. 
This verse was like an amateur’s attempt.
Bored and listless, they fall to composing mediocre poetry to pass the time and the verse making degenerates into bickering as tempters fray. 
The entry for 20th February reads:
This day no rice and bean gruel was cooked and, as it was an unlucky day, they crawled along slowly, much to his regret. Today the voyage had already lasted more than twenty days, and they were but as so many days wasted. While all were gazing out to sea a little girl recited this:
When breezes drop
Quickly do the waves subside,
When the wind gets up
Then the waves again arise;
Comrade-like they sympathise
This is, no doubt, hardly worth giving, but it is very appropriate.
When travelling, it is often the small details that matter: the variation in food, the remembrance of unremarkable poetry that nevertheless encapsulates the mood of the moment. Particular moments stick in the mind and minor events can take on real significance.  Even when the voyage yields a sight that might cheer (and would perhaps have inspired Matsuo Bashō) it is not enough to uplift the weary voyagers: “This day with difficulty they hastened on through the Sea of Izumi to the Stopping-Place of Ozu. To his eye the pine forests seemed never ending, everything seemed to have gone wrong”. How often when travelling, even on the best of journeys, do we face moment of unexpected disillusionment in the face of a beautiful sight. And even on more dramatic journeys, how often do we visit a spectacular landmark or beautiful landscape only to remember more the cafe round the corner, the unexpected kindness of a stranger or an unfamiliar taste that comforted us in a moment of dislocation. The Tosa Diary reminds us that travelling often puts us in a childlike position. At the mercy of timetables beyond our control, peevish in the face of physical discomfort and inadequate food and irritable with one’s travelling companions, our focus, like that of Tsurayuki’s, has the capacity to narrow as well as expand.
Waiting on the winds and the weather, Tsurayuki and his companions have to surrender to other rhythms of living and moving, which can be unsettling as well as liberating and which can leave even the most seasoned travellers feeling vulnerable. The travellers of the Tosa Diary see-saw between gloom when the boat does not move, and ecstatic joy when it does. As the boat passes the pine forest of Uta, the scene becomes beautiful:
The ripples lapped against the foot of each, and amid the branches of each the storks flitted about... still admiring the beautiful scene, they rowed gently forward; mountains and sea all became dim and night drew on...Those of the men who were unused to the sea began to feel gloomy and pensive, while the women laid their heads upon the bottom of the boat and cried aloud. But the steersman and sailors thought nothing of it at all and sang their boat song...On hearing the others laughing at it, his feelings were calmed somewhat, although the sea was still very rough.  
This scene brilliantly captures the sometimes heightened atmosphere that occurs when travelling   - moments of enjoyment swiftly turn to melacnholy; darkness brings fears and, as for a child, these anxieties can be soothed by unexpected and simple comforts - a chance song, which suddenly brings a feeling of ease. Tsurayuki brilliantly captures the moments on a journey when comfort often comes from left of field – a steaming cup of coffee becomes a bulwark against a rainy day; a cosy bistro that becomes a blanket of reassurance against the hostile night in an unfamiliar town.
Yo-yoing  from despondency to excitement and back again, the boat, approaches Kyoto some 55 days after it left Tosa. So eager is Tsurayuki to reach his destination that he takes a carriage for the last stretch, moving excitedly through the streets:
 These too many verses are due to his excessive pleasure at reaching the Capital. The night was growing late and some places could not be seen, but it was delightful to enter the Capital once more. On reaching his home and entering his door, the moon was so bright that he could see the state of things at a glance. Needless to say the whole place was hopelessly overgrown and ragged, even more than he had been told.
Not even the homecoming is triumphal for Tsurayuki as he returns to a house that has been thrown into disorder and disarray and the memories of the daughter he has lost come flooding back. Even on this last note, the diary still speaks to us today: whether it is returning home to a bulging inbox, a pile of bills or even just normal life after an escape into another way of living, another “could have been”, we become deflated and depressed. Even though the Tosa Diary points up so many of the unappealing aspects of travel it also comforts and reassures with its gentle and understanding presentation of human behaviour under pressure.

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