Escaping fantasy with the Sarashina Nikki

Image via Amazon

[Rushed and delayed by travel… sorry for late publishing. I mean this review as a direct follow-up to my post from last week, about pre-regret for my will-have-wasted hundreds of hours playing World of Warcraft Classic. Maybe I’m stretching that connection, but I’m glad to have read this book when I did]

I’ve spent the last week traveling (again, ugh, I’m tired), so I grabbed an old Japanese travel account to read along the way: the Heian-Period Sarashina Nikki, written by an unnamed Kyoto courtier identified to history only by relation to her father – the daughter of Takasue or “Lady Sarashina” – and given the fanciful title As I Crossed A Bridge of Dreams by translator Ivan Morris for the 1971 Penguin English edition (Morris recommends against the earlier translation, though I am pretty indifferent to his own. I did not read the newer 2014 translation from Arntzen and Moriyuki).

As travel writing, it didn’t much capture me – the Lady maybe makes for a frustrating companion on the journey with her timid, weepy, and, above all, passive personality. But having read the book, I don’t know why Morris even introduces it as “one of the first extant examples of the typically Japanese genre of travel writing” when the autobiographical nikki – “diary” – instead focuses much more on the Lady’s stationary existence reading “tales” late into the night by lamplight (and when she does travel, she relates it to her beloved fiction, for example, imagining her favorite characters while waiting for a ferry at Uji!).

In that adjusted context then, the book becomes much more interesting for her passive personality than in spite of it by offering an early examination of the value of a life overtaken by fantasy and escapism. The Lady struggles with niggling regret (to accompany torrents of despair over more serious issues like death) that she wasted too much of her life reading frivolous fiction when she could have instead sought worldly success in the imperial court or (especially) spiritual enlightenment on the path to the Buddha. But then by the end she had me wondering: did she even consider those more noble pursuits worthwhile either?

First though, a quick annotated summary-by-quotation of the parts relevant to fantasy escapism:

Continue reading “Escaping fantasy with the Sarashina Nikki”