Word! The Language Column
Issa, Fuji-san and I

Illustration: A reclining person, stars above
Gazing up at the stars | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

In his last Word! instalment, our columnist Jan Snela is transported back to Japan by the sight of starry skies in the south of France. Over in Japan he had hiked up a hill to get a picture-perfect view of Mount Fuji floating in the sky across the bay. And has felt close to the stars ever since.

By Jan Snela

Even in the south of France, where I’m sitting on the veranda surrounded by the rolling peaks of the Cévennes mountains capped with fluffy foliage, Japan is close by. I’m sitting under the shade of a fig tree whilst the foxy emperor butterflies, which could almost be mistaken for wee birds, are sucking on the fruits hanging from its branches with a mix of bustling industry and nonchalance that I can’t help finding slightly suspicious. In My Father’s Last Days by the haiku poet Issa, I’m reading lines like “This tree, too, is Issa. This dog, too, is Issa.” (I can hear it barking.) “This tiger mosquito, too,” (now poking its proboscis into my already sorely bitten-up lower leg) “is Issa.” I, too, am Issa. So that’s settled.

Traffic light horizontal
Traffic light horizontal | Photo: Jan Snela

Endless night sky

At night we lie on the veranda gazing up at the stars. I, Issa, am asked whether I find it eerie too, this sense of being sucked outwards, as if the Earth’s gravity were not guaranteed. I don’t rightly know about that. At any rate, I do have the impression of completely disappearing in the darkness shimmering between the stars that hermetically seal the firmament (as if it would take thousands of keys to open up the vast cosmic expanse that presumably lies behind it). Disappearing secretly. Perhaps because I feel I can grasp it better with a word whose meaning I only vaguely understand, perhaps because I know I’ll be working on this language column tomorrow, perhaps because I’ve no desire to share it at all, I’d rather keep it to myself, whispering with closed lips, “Yūgen” (幽玄).

Blossoms like stars
Blossoms like stars | Photo: Jan Snela
Yet another Japanese word that seeks to capture some elusive concept, in this case, according to the Wikipedia article, perhaps the most elusive concept of all in Japanese aesthetics. “Yūgen” means something like “dark, deep, mysterious”. A category of things that are precious and concealed rather than obvious, plain to see. Gazing up at a dull autumn sky, the poet Kamo no Chōmei describes yūgen as tears. Tears welling up from a place deep down inside that we can't exactly locate or access, but that he seems to know very well.

I find tonight’s dark sky more opaquely sealed than tinkling and transparent in its endlessness. The stars are pretty close. They could have been stippled on the firmament from Earth with the aid of some telescopic paintbrush. In a spectacularly unspectacular way. That and the word yūgen put me in mind of my trip to Japan again.

Floating Fuji-san

This mountain top man is also Issa
This mountain top man is also Issa | Photo: Jan Snela
In Kamakura, Kimie gives me a good tip: climb a hill near her guesthouse and take in the view of Mount Fuji across the bay from there. So I walk past oncoming traffic, under the overhanging traffic lights, and turn right at the river. And I think I’m not just imagining having passed a garden gnome. I proceed to clamber over some gigantic fallen pines and weave my way along twists and turns through the woods towards the hill-with-the-view. The path is easygoing in a way that befits the depiction of Fujiyama in Hokusai’s One Hundred Views – and so many thousands of other views. A few more twists and turns and a few more konnichiwas and presto, I’m there. But not, as planned, merely to rubber-stamp the promised view or compare the real-life vista to the virtual one.

A branch balances Fuji
A branch balances Fuji | Photo: Jan Snela
Fuji-san is floating in the air, as though dabbed onto the blue with a paintbrush, like an insubstantial vision. It is the chimera of all the chimeras ever painted of the mountain. So unreal, so light: a twig would suffice to lift it up into the air. I feel yūgen. My eyes watering. The delicate image of all images, showing me a different, more discreet, even shier kind of sublime than I’m accustomed to. In this single moment.

As a child I always marvelled at the endless expanse of the starry sky and felt a never-satisfied urge to reach out to the very edges of the universe. The stars are close to me again now, maybe ever since I got to see Fujiyama in Kamakura. Only they’re hidden in the darkness which they illumine so wondrously sparsely. As if all of them, too, were Issa, the little light. And when I look at the hills by day, floating there so unobtrusively, Fuji is close at hand.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.