BY ERNST YOHJI JAEGER
“Beauty and Sorrow” is the title of a novel by Kawabata Yasunari that a good friend recommended to me, set in Kyoto and in particular in Saga Arashiyama. When I am asked about my three months in Japan, this title is the first thing that comes to mind. Not the plot but the words “beauty and sorrow” resonate with me when I think back to my time in Saga.
It is diﬃcult for me to convey the intensity and meaning that this time had for me, and I fear that some of it will sound clichéd. But these are my genuine feelings that I am trying to put into words.
I am writing this text after I landed back in Vienna a fortnight ago and I am struck by how quickly the time we spent in Kyoto fades in the hectic of everyday life. Like trying to hold on to a dream that slips through your fingers. In fact, this feeling of the impossibility of truly holding on to something and the beauty that unfolds out of transience formed an underlying tone that accompanied me throughout these three months and saturated all my experiences. To capture at least something, I wrote down my thoughts on several pages each day and took analogue photos. I am an amateur in both writing and photography, but I am glad to have these fragments of my experiences as keepsakes. I would like to share some of these photos and thoughts here.
My first impression of Saga was the overwhelming greenery. It was mid-April and the budding plants were glowing an emerald green that I had never seen before in such intensity. I had always thought the green in Nihonga was an exaggeration, but I was amazed to realize that they were true-to-life depictions.
Astonishment at beauty was a daily experience. Change was omnipresent and constant. Buds sprouted, mushrooms grew and various insects emerged, all at a noticeable speed. It may not sound very special, but I finally could understand why in Japan they emphasize the beauty of the seasons so much. They are many times more intense and overwhelming than I ever felt in Europe. Initially it was even confusing and frustrating, as I realized I would never be able to reproduce this beauty in my work.
In Octavia E. Butler’s book “Parable of the Sower”, which I read shortly before my trip, she writes:
All that you touch
All that you Change Changes you.
The only lasting truth is Change.
In Kyoto, her rather pragmatic lines were ringing very true to me.
Tok told me about the Japanese calendar system dividing the year into 72 micro-seasons. During our time in Saga, we experienced 22 of them. I arrived during the “First Rainbow” season (Niji Hajimete arawaru) and left during the “Hawks Learn to Fly” season (Taka sunawachi Waza wo Narau). Like this, change itself is celebrated and framed.
One of many examples of this honoring of change for me is the small waterfall Reikinotaki at Matsuo Shrine (Matsuotaisha). It is a clear, beautiful but rather unassuming waterfall framed by a Torii, a red shrine portal that represents the boundary called between our world and the divine.
This waterfall itself is the shintai, the divine body that is honored in shrines. To me, this waterfall symbolises, among other things, what Octavia E. Butler calls God: eternity and change as one.
On Tanabata, a festival on the seventh of July, we wrote our wishes on little lantern boats which were then put into a small stream with the lanterns that others had written their wishes on and floated away into the darkness with everyone else. It was a very beautiful and touching sight to see all these little candle-laden boats drifting away loaded with wishes until we no longer saw them.
Throughout my time, I saw countess symbols of transience, change, and eternity interwoven into everyday life and culture – the view from the windows of SAGA House to the gardens and mountains, haikus, Furins (glass wind chimes), the ancient tombs at Nison Temple, lotus flowers, cicadas. A very celebrated Symbol is the beauty of sakura flowers (which had already blossomed before my arrival). This theme is present also in Pop culture, like the beauty that Hideaki Anno gives form to in scenes of destruction. The moments in which everyday life, relationships, things taken for granted are changed or lost. There’s a preciousness and beauty that intensifies and is brought forth in the moments of its fading. With this said, I would like to include this painting by Giacomo Balla ,called “Stairway of Farewells” that I discovered in a catalog I bought in a second hand shop. Even in its reproduction this piece is deeply moving to me and I grew to love and contemplated over it frequently during my stay.
Together with my partner, we visited many shrines and temples, although we weren’t particularly well-versed in Buddhism or Shintoism. Still, we felt a philosophy (or should I call it spirituality? It was much more observable and present then what the word might imply) seeing through all the aspects comprising these sacred places – symbols, scents, sounds, botany, architecture, prayer transmitted to us without words.
I am very happy to have started analogue photography, especially with a Twinlens camera, in Japan. I think that every artistic medium bears its own philosophy and angle of looking at the world.
Looking down through the viewfinder of my Rolleicord revealed a beautiful world in constant passing. Even when trying to capture a motif like a landscape or a still life, the trees blow, a bird flies by, the clouds drift and the light dances in constant change The developed images captured our younger selves illuminated in a passed light smiling happily at us. We have drifted on in our boats and these are closed windows to a world we can no longer enter. In this sense photography especially proved a fitting medium in Kyoto .
Several sunsets along the banks of the Hozu River moved me to tears, evoking emotions of beauty and sadness. Even now, the memory of those spectacles brings tears to my eyes. Amidst the celestial dance of our solar system, transience is equal to beauty, filling me with infinite awe for the world, yet also with sadness that I cannot cling to any of it, left only with cherished memories until I, too, transform into infinity.
To live in a place where the acceptance, the honoring, and the celebration of impermanence and change and its opposite, surrounded us had a profound impact on me. It intensified my experiences. Sparking gratitude, wonder, and a renewed interest in the world – in short, it sparked a deep love for life in me. The beauty and transience that enveloped us served as a potent remedy for my pathological human arrogance.
Holding onto these feelings in everyday life, even now after just over two weeks, is challenging. It was thanks to the generous circumstances of this residency and the wonderful architecture that housed us, that our eyes could open, if only for brief moments, to this pervasive beauty.
My understanding of art and its power underwent a transformation during my time in Saga, purged of false values and cynicism that had taken root.
However embarrassing or clichéd this might sound these were genuine thoughts and observations during my stay and I dearly cherish the light of these memories.
Photography: Ernst Yohji Jaeger