River Flowing By

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Bamboo grove along my daily walk, Susono, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, 1994

Spent the weekend in a small town northwest of Tokyo, surrounded by mountains and delineated by the slow passing of the Chikuma River. Snow usually blankets the area at this time, but this year, in spite of all the local cars clad in snow tires, the wind bore tidings of spring. I walked to the hot spring inn wearing only a t-shirt and long-sleeve shirt, sleeves rolled up. Even the mountains in the background had thrown off their usual cloaks of snow and bared their ams with but ragged patches of snow.

All morning yesterday I sat on the banks of the river, watching the water roll by. Little and Intermediate Egrets attended the shallows and were later joined by Grey Herons, Green Winged Teals, Common Galinules, and a dancing white cloud of Great Knots, large sandpipers new to me. On the opposite bank a pair of Black Kites mated while eyed by wary Carrion Crows. Mallard Ducks laughed amidst the reeds. The sun cleared the crests of the mountains behind and gave a golden patina to the entire river valley.

Since this is the same river appearing in the 2002 Japanese movie “Letter from the Mountain”, naturally the morning here reminded me of the scene where the protagonist couple are sitting in the doorway of the little shrine, gazing at the river below. And it reminded me of the poem, Ame ni mo Makezu (Unbowed by the Rain), by Kenji Miyazawa, that was quoted in the movie:

unbowed by the rain
unbowed by the wind
unbowed by the snow or the summer heat
sound of body
never angry
always quietly smiling

eating four cups of brown rice
miso soup, and a few greens each day
leaving himself out of the account
watching, listening, understanding, and not forgetting
living in the shade of a pine grove
in a field, in a small thatched hut

to the sick child in the east, he tends
to the tired mother in the west, he bears sheaves of rice
to the one dying in the south, he says, “Do not fear”
to quarrels and lawsuits in the north, he says, “Forget these petty differences.”
in times of drought he weeps
in a cold summer he paces
called a fool by all
neither praised nor criticized

that is the kind of man I want to be

The warm sibilances and interspersed fricatives of the Japanese original cannot be adequately translated into English, but the spirit of the poem steps forth in any translation. A simple life, unassuming, appreciative of what one has and generosity to those in need, joy in the very enclosure of the place one lives in and depends upon for sustenance, these are the elements that, when I first saw the movie, so brought out a weeping at some unfathomed biological memory that I had to sit for quite a time in the movie theater after the projector had long since been switched off.

What is joy but the removal of sorrow? What is sorrow but the memory of wholeness?

Rivers carry all the stories.

5 Responses

  1. The poem reminded me that my life is not simple enough, that with simplicity comes richness. Thank you for including the birds!

  2. “always quietly smiling…”
    beautiful poem, I only wish that I could read the original…

    “What is joy but the removal of sorrow? What is sorrow but the memory of wholeness?”

    Without sorrow, there would be no joy, and without joy no sorrow.
    Is sorrow merely a memory of wholeness, or just a different perception of our sense of “wholeness”?

    Ask the river.

  3. I am lucky I live near a river, and walk every day by the canal. I grew up along the ocean, and cannot imagine living away from water.
    Sibilances and fricatives. Great words, new to me. Thanks for your writing. Love to read it, always.

  4. I just put out the community magazine for my school and one of our teachers, who just returned from a Fulbright in Japan, wrote a story about her experience. I have 500 plus photos–and she raved about Shizuoki Province. Is that where you currently live?

  5. this was a beautiful expression of joy and sorrow, and especially of the pulse of the river which runs through our very souls

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