Books

Submitting to the masters on Onomichi’s Path of Literature

by Amy Chavez

Contributing Writer

For years I had been intrigued by the Seto Inland Sea town of Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture. Not because of its ropeway, where the carriage slides up the face of Mount Senkoji like a spider escaping a bird in flight, nor because of the famous view of the Inland Sea or the revered Senkoji temple near the apex of the mountain. Rather, my interest in this Japan Heritage city was piqued long ago by the recondite Bungaku no Komichi (Path of Literature).

One reason for the decade-long delay in visiting was my own hesitation to delve into the Japanese works of the two most prominent scribes associated with Onomichi: Naoya Shiga (1883-1971) who is still studied in Japanese literature classes and Fumiko Hayashi (1903-51), one of the most popular female writers of her time.

“Someday I’ll go!” I kept telling myself. Then, among the first colored leaves of autumn, that day finally arrived.

With more earnest research in preparation for my trip, I found the English translations of Hayashi’s work (“Diary of a Vagabond,” “I Saw a Pale Horse,” “Floating Clouds”) and Shiga’s “A Dark Night’s Passing.” I was further buoyed by the discovery of a handful of unequivocal masters of verse associated with this narrow road of literature: Matsuo Basho (1644-94), Jippensha Ikku (1765-1831), Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) and Kenkichi Nakamura (1889-1934).

Once disgorged from Onomichi Station along with the morning rush hour passengers, I spied a tourist information booth where a middle-aged woman stuffed a map into my open hands, alluded to a historic temple walk and waved me off as if a fly had just alighted on her breakfast.

While the Path of Literature is indeed along the Temple Walk, I recommend starting across the street from its entry. Look for the life-size bronze statue of a woman crouched in a kimono as if she is about to feed some pigeons, her wicker case and parasol resting at her side. This is Hayashi.

She looks pensive and her ensemble belies her formative years as the daughter of destitute itinerant peddlers who settled in this provincial town when she was an elementary school student. Her struggles with poverty and the vicissitudes of life as a waif gave a distinct breadth to her poetry, known for simultaneously immersing the reader in shades of hope among pathos:

“The life of a flower is short, filled only with sufferings,” she wrote as a poem. Then followed up with, “The wind, too, blows/ the clouds, too, shine.”

Just inside the covered shopping street behind the statue is the Onomichi-Hayashi Fumiko Memorial Hall, connected via a garden to the house the author lived in as a teenager.

Imbued with the poetic grace of Hayashi’s poems, I was soon enveloped in the cobbled and delightfully sinuous Temple Walk, which led me to novelist Naoya Shiga’s terraced house, where he stayed from 1912 to 1914. He references this abode in “A Dark Night’s Passing,” said to be one of the best novels of the Taisho (1912-26) and Showa (1926-89) eras. The curator ushered me to the author’s tatami mat workspace overlooking the Onomichi Channel and pointed out the quarry on the other side. Shiga apparently penned his prose to the refrains of the singing miners.

Finally, I arrived at Senkoji temple, where begins the well-trodden yet contemplative literary trail punctuated by boulders of chiseled verse and prose, an artform this calligraphic nation seems to have perfected. Rocks have always been considered sacred in animist Japan, and the nation’s novelists and poets equally esteemed. Thus submitting myself to the masters of verse, I started up the path.

I soon came across the haiku-emblazoned stone of Masaoka Shiki, who coined the term “haiku,” and described Onomichi’s fabled scenery dotted with pagodas:

“Tranquility/ two hills continuous/ and two towers.”

You can choose to walk up the trail, or down the trail, supplemented with a ride in the colorful sky-blue-and-yellow-striped carriage of the ropeway. But I walked both ways as once was not enough for me. Nor was twice.

On each rendition, I increasingly preferred to linger longer, lonely, among the gnarled pines and literary annals of more poets: Hekigoto Kawahigashi, Takeda Motsugai and Byakuren Yanagihara. When dusk crept in, I submitted to staying overnight at the Onomichi Guest House Miharashi-tei located beside the trail. This two-story wooden building, a designated cultural property, has been perched on the side of the Senkoji temple sandō stairway, at the 363rd step, since 1921.

Returning to the path at dawn to watch the sun rise over the Onomichi Channel, I encountered a tanka poem by Jippensha Ikku (author of “Shank’s Mare”), who was inspired enough by the panorama to write:

“The sunlight/ sparkling on the blue sea/ the offing light of a peacock’s tail.”

As the Senkoji temple bell tolled, I descended the 400-plus stone steps back down into civilization.

For many, Onomichi’s Path of Literature is just a short, 1-kilometer walking trail, but for me it was a fine introduction to the way of Japanese literature.

Hiroaki Sato provided help with the haiku and tanka translations in this piece. Amy Chavez runs the Books on Asia website at booksonasia.net.