25 October 2010

As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams by Lady Sarashina

"One thousand years ago a woman in Japan with no name wrote a book without a title." So says Ivan Morris in his introduction; it is an imprecise description but an provocative one.  Although we don't know the author's given name, we do know her family name was Sugawara, and that she was the daughter of a man named Takasue. However, she is known to us as Lady Sarashina - a name derived from her mentioning a mountain in the province of Sarashina; and the title of this translation of the nameless book is taken from a poem.  Even so, there is something intriguing about a "nameless" Japanese woman living a thousand years ago, writing a nameless autobiography.

The book covers the period 1020-1059, at the height of the Heian period.  At this time, although very few people could read,  there was a flourishing of literature, mainly originating from the educated aristocrats and courtesans.  Lady Sarashina was both a beneficiary of, and a contributor to, this culture.  In her book, Lady Sarashina covers her life from ages twelve to fifty (or so).  The author spent her first twelve years in the remote eastern provinces of Honshu, the largest of Japan's four main islands.  In the first chapter she straightaway sets out her main theme : 

Yet even shut away in the provinces I somehow came to hear that the world contained things known as Tales, and from that moment my greatest desire was to read them for myself ... [and I prayed to Buddha]: "Oh, please arrange things so that we may go to the Capital, where there are so many Tales, and please let me read them all.

Her prayer is soon answered and her family moves to the Capital, Heian Kyo (now present-day Kyoto) and before too long she is given a copy of Lady Murasaki's Tale of Genji.  We soon find out that Lady Sarashina was a dreamy youth without either spiritual or worldly ambitions, and she waits passively for a Prince Charming to whisk her away.  By the end of her account, the author is a sad and bitter woman in ill-health. She says: "If only I had not given myself over to Tales and poems but had spent my time in religious devotions, I should have been spared this misery."

Dreams figure prominently in the writing, and they mostly of a spiritual nature, which the author fails to take to heart. She also undertakes many pilgrimages to sacred sites, but these tend to be diversions from life at home rather than spiritual quests. 

Lady Sarashina tells her own tale using a combination of plain narrative, travelogue and poetry.  Descriptions of her fellow humans are usually terse, while those of the natural world are fuller and certainly more lyrical.  We are privy to her thoughts and emotions, but they are uneven: she is very aggrieved by the deaths of her sister and her parents, but she does not mention her marriage and hardly mentions her husband or children.

As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams gives us a sketchy but beguiling insight into Japanese life as it was at the beginning of the last millennium and a wistful journey through life with the flawed and pitiful Lady Sarashina.

Publishing details: As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams - Recollections of a Woman in Eleventh-Century Japan (Penguin, London, undated, trans. Ivan Morris. pp.153)


  1. Your major points on Sarashina, whether biographical or on dreams, are well laid out here.