Saturday, June 1, 2013

A ‘Saijiki’ of Sounds By Beth Kinsella Sakanishi

My sister Beth wrote this wonderful piece on nature, sounds, different cultures, and how some feelings and memories go deeper than words can articulate--May we all walk in nature and make our own saijiki, our own dinnseanchus.

 Of all the ways one comes to delve ever deeper into a borrowed culture, to make of it a familiar map, sounds are perhaps the least consciously considered. They are just there, happening with a rhythm and regularity whose schedule we do not think about, but feel by their rightness, or are made uneasy by, if absent. 

 They lead us farthest back, though, before we had words. They tell of us of the delicate shadings of season and tether us to longings we had forgotten the strength of. One time when Takeshi and I were in Flagstaff, in a hotel too near the train station, we could hear the sounds of the trains passing through this crossroads city. To him it was noise all night long, that he tried to get away from, and woke from, tired. How different for me: the sound took me back to Perth, Ontario, in a car waiting for the long cross- Canada trains to go by, as we children all counted the many train cars. It lured me further back to the bedroom at Christie lake (meaning I was less than four), hearing the train whistle whose sound should have been lonely and mournful, but was not because it meant summer, with siblings in the room, all of us tired  but happy from our busy days exploring. Unlike Takeshi, I woke up in Flagstaff pleased and nostalgic after having traveled to Canada and back. 

 I think, too, of the one time I went back to Rochester for Christmas, after more than a decade in Japan. Several mornings in, after the disappointment of no snow, I woke up in my childhood bedroom and heard silence. Not just a dumb silence, but that particular one that is as if the whole world had been suddenly, overnight, wrapped in cotton that means a great deal of snow has fallen, and this non-sound spoke to me of a child’s excitement that a ‘snow day’ was likely and that meant a day of choices: sledding, building a snow fort, making ammunition for the snowball fight that went with the fort, or a game of fox and geese in the front yard, in the new snow innocent as yet of any footsteps.

 These are the two sounds that come back to me, first, when I think of childhood sounds. They bring with them the other sounds from those places, in the mornings: the lapping of water, the sound of someone in a canoe, paddles making just that trace of a sound, and in my room at 2846, in any season but winter, the cooing of doves.

 Which is the same sound that came to the surface when I started thinking about what I hear in the morning here. This sound alone, the doves, is shared by both of my homes, the one from the past, and the one now. Everything else as I compile my saijiki of sounds for Masuo, is different for both morning and evening sounds. 

 Saijiki, when I happened upon the definition of it, had almost the feel of deja vu about it: the word has, in many respects, the same instinct behind it as the Irish word dinnseanchus. Saijiki is a poetic term, and is a book of lists of kigo, the words used in haiku that let the reader know which season we are in. Any mention of uguisu, the Japanese nightingale, and we are in spring, for instance. Dinnseanchus is also a recording of the fine, varied details of a place. It is only by how tightly or loosely drawn the circle of ‘place’ is, that the two differ. Saijiki  is a dictionary of the seasonal words for all of Japan. Dinnseanchus are usually for what the Japanese would call furusato, the narrow, beloved, familiar space of one’s hometown. 

 Yet, even as small as Japan is, there is a far greater range of climate and landscape than in Ireland, and so though Basho’s world of haiku did not think to do what the Irish did, they might have: for winter in northern Japan, with its deep and punishingly heavy snowfalls could not be more different than the same season, by the calendar, in the tropical Kyushu. February in both places, or on the plains and marshlands of Kanto, or the ancient street grids of mountain-clasped Kyoto, would have a whole world of differing scents, sounds, tastes, that ushered in or out the next season. 

 This then was the suggestion in a column by a naturalist who encouraged the idea of all of us out walking in nature, paying attention to the smallest changes of our part of Japan, our part of our prefecture, of our city, our walking routes. We could map our place, make our own saijiki, our own dinnseanchus and his and mine would differ even from each other though he lives in northern Chiba, as do I, because he is several hours east. 
 Writing to Aunt CB and Uncle Jack (Mom and Dad to her) Beth writes: ‘We were just talking about the 'uguisu' (the Japanese. nightingale) the other day in my English class. One of my students said she usually has one or two come to her garden and she loved listening to the way they had to 'learn' their song. At first, they do not get the whole complicated trill down pat (there are a couple of parts to it), and sort of stutter and trail off. Just as if they are practicing. I listened hard this year, as we are just beginning to hear a few, but so far have not heard any baby ones, I guess. Makes me giggle to think of it, though. And how interesting that birds do not just know the whole thing off by heart, or instinct.

This is what I love about teaching, these little nuggets.


Pat said...


Thank you so much!! So enjoyed reading this and thinking about sounds and tastes and how they differ in each season, and how they bring back memories from our earliest years.


Kathryn said...

The sounds from our childhoods are different. Mine include cows. Two of my Grandkids go to a school that is next door to a farm. When I wait for them after school, I can hear the cows. I love it!
I love the part about the sound of a snow covered morning. Part of me still loves that, the part that has to shovel snow does not like it as much. (I wish I could insert a grinning face here)
The birds here in Ohio are not much different than the birds I heard in New York.
Thank you for writing such a lovely piece that has me thinking about the sounds in your life and in my life!
I love you lots!

Mom/CB said...

It is amazing to realize that you are my daughter!I am in awe at your talent! With a phrase you sent me back to a snowey day, or a walk in the misty evening! Wonderful! Thanks love.

Beth said...

Hi Kathryn,

So good of you to reply. I enjoyed your comments. Know exactly what you mean about snow. It is a wonderful gift when you are child, and then not so fun as an adult!

I love the sound of cows moo-ing. So lulling. I was thinking today (doing some easy yoga stretches, so not much to occupy my mind, but ears were open and listening to the birds) that one of the things I enjoy about Japan is how many 'mini seasons' there are, and that perhaps this is part of why I pay so much more attention to sounds, ushering in and out those seasons: the frogs in the rice paddies when they have just been filled in early May, the cicadas when they start in and the crickets, letting us know summer is ending (if you can hear them, it means the summer cidadas are almost gone, so you can hear other sounds again) and on and on. All sounds I had to 'learn' here.


Beth said...

Hi Mom,

Yep, I'm your daughter, the one you spent all that time reading to and going on walks up to the cottage with, pointing out and telling me the names of flowers (I still remember devil's paintbrush and Queen Anne’s lace, which we don't have here, but cat tails, in the swampy areas, which we do).

A child's ability to see is, in great part, developed or not by their parents, so thank you!