At Yaidzu, by Lafcadio Hearn
Under a bright sun the old fishing-town of Yaidzu has a
particular charm of neutral color. Lizard-like it takes the grey
tints of the rude grey coast on which it rests,—curving along a
little bay. It is sheltered from heavy seas by an extraordinary
rampart of boulders. This rampart, on the water-side, is built in
the form of terrace-steps;—the rounded stones of which it is
composed being kept in position by a sort of basket-work woven
between rows of stakes driven deeply into the ground,—a separate
row of stakes sustaining each of the grades. Looking landward
from the top of the structure, your gaze ranges over the whole
town,—a broad space of grey-tiled roofs and weather-worn grey
timbers, with here and there a pine-grove marking the place of a
temple-court. Seaward, over leagues of water, there is a grand
view,—a jagged blue range of peaks crowding sharply into the
horizon, like prodigious amethysts,—and beyond them, to the
left, the glorious spectre of Fuji, towering enormously above
everything. Between sea-wall and sea there is no sand,—only a
grey slope of stones, chiefly boulders; and these roll with the
surf so that it is ugly work trying to pass the breakers on a
rough day. If you once get struck by a stone-wave,—as I did
several times,—you will not soon forget the experience.
At certain hours the greater part of this rough slope is occupied
by ranks of strange-looking craft,—fishing-boats of a form
peculiar to the locality. They are very large,—capable of
carrying forty or fifty men each;—and they have queer high
prows, to which Buddhist or Shinto charms (mamori or shugo) are
usually attached. A common form of Shinto written charm (shugo)
is furnished for this purpose from the temple of the Goddess of
Fuji: the text reads:—Fuji-san chojo Sengen-gu dai-gyo manzoku,
—meaning that the owner of the boat pledges himself, in case of
good-fortune at fishing, to perform great austerities in honor of
the divinity whose shrine is upon the summit of Fuji.
In every coast-province of Japan,—and even at different fishing-
settlements of the same province,—the forms of boats and
fishing-implements are peculiar to the district or settlement.
Indeed it will sometimes be found that settlements, within a few
miles of each other, respectively manufacture nets or boats as
dissimilar in type as might be the inventions of races living
thousands of miles apart. This amazing variety may be in some
degree due to respect for local tradition,—to the pious
conservatism that preserves ancestral teaching and custom
unchanged through hundreds of years: but it is better explained
by the fact that different communities practise different kinds
of fishing; and the shapes of the nets or the boats made, at any
one place, are likely to prove, on investigation, the inventions
of a special experience. The big Yaidzu boats illustrate this
fact. They were devised according to the particular requirements
of the Yaidzu-fishing-industry, which supplies dried katsuo
(bonito) to all parts of the Empire; and it was necessary that
they should be able to ride a very rough sea. To get them in or
out of the water is a heavy job; but the whole village helps. A
kind of slipway is improvised in a moment by laying flat wooden
frames on the slope in a line; and over these frames the flat-
bottomed vessels are hauled up or down by means of long ropes.
You will see a hundred or more persons thus engaged in moving a
single boat,—men, women, and children pulling together, in time
to a curious melancholy chant. At the coming of a typhoon, the
boats are moved far back into the streets. There is plenty of fun
in helping at such work; and if you are a stranger, the fisher-
folk will perhaps reward your pains by showing you the wonders of
their sea: crabs with legs of astonishing length, balloon-fish
that blow themselves up in the most absurd manner, and various
other creatures of shapes so extraordinary that you can scarcely
believe them natural without touching them.
The big boats with holy texts at their prows are not the
strangest objects on the beach. Even more remarkable are the
bait-baskets of split bamboo,—baskets six feet high and eighteen
feet round, with one small hole in the dome-shaped top. Ranged
along the sea-wall to dry, they might at some distance be
mistaken for habitations or huts of some sort. Then you see great
wooden anchors, shaped like ploughshares, and shod with metal;
iron anchors, with four flukes; prodigious wooden mallets, used
for driving stakes; and various other implements, still more
unfamiliar, of which you cannot even imagine the purpose. The
indescribable antique queerness of everything gives you that
weird sensation of remoteness,—of the far away in time and
place,—which makes one doubt the reality of the visible. And the
life of Yaidzu is certainly the life of many centuries ago. The
people, too, are the people of Old Japan: frank and kindly as
children—good children,—honest to a fault, innocent of the
further world, loyal to the ancient traditions and the ancient
I happened to be at Yaidzu during the three days of the Bon or
Festival of the Dead; and I hoped to see the beautiful farewell
ceremony of the third and last day. In many parts of Japan, the
ghosts are furnished with miniature ships for their voyage,—
little models of junks or fishing-craft, each containing
offerings of food and water and kindled incense; also a tiny
lantern or lamp, if the ghost-ship be despatched at night. But at
Yaidzu lanterns only are set afloat; and I was told that they
would be launched after dark. Midnight being the customary hour
elsewhere, I supposed that it was the hour of farewell at Yaidzu
also, and I rashly indulged in a nap after supper, expecting to
wake up in time for the spectacle. But by ten o'clock, when I
went to the beach again, all was over, and everybody had gone
home. Over the water I saw something like a long swarm of fire-
flies,—the lanterns drifting out to sea in procession; but they
were already too far to be distinguished except as points of
colored light. I was much disappointed: I felt that I had lazily
missed an opportunity which might never again return,—for these
old Bon-customs are dying rapidly. But in another moment it
occurred to me that I could very well venture to swim out to the
lights. They were moving slowly. I dropped my robe on the beach,
and plunged in. The sea was calm, and beautifully phosphorescent.
Every stroke kindled a stream of yellow fire. I swam fast, and
overtook the last of the lantern-fleet much sooner than I had
hoped. I felt that it would be unkind to interfere with the
little embarcations, or to divert them from their silent course:
so I contented myself with keeping close to one of them, and
studying its details.
The structure was very simple. The bottom was a piece of thick
plank, perfectly square, and measuring about ten inches across.
Each one of its corners supported a slender slick about sixteen
inches high; and these four uprights, united above by cross-
pieces, sustained the paper sides. Upon the point of a long nail,
driven up through the centre of the bottom, was fixed a lighted
candle. The top was left open. The four sides presented five
different colors,—blue, yellow, red, white, and black; these
five colors respectively symbolizing Ether, Wind, Fire, Water,
and Earth,—the five Buddhist elements which are metaphysically
identified with the Five Buddhas. One of the paper-panes was red,
one blue, one yellow; and the right half of the fourth pane was
black, while the left half, uncolored, represented white. No
kaimyo was written upon any of the transparencies. Inside the
lantern there was only the flickering candle.
I watched those frail glowing shapes drifting through the night,
and ever as they drifted scattering, under impulse of wind and
wave, more and more widely apart. Each, with its quiver of color,
seemed a life afraid,—trembling on the blind current that was
bearing it into the outer blackness…. Are not we ourselves as
lanterns launched upon a deeper and a dimmer sea, and ever
separating further and further one from another as we drift to
the inevitable dissolution? Soon the thought-light in each burns
itself out: then the poor frames, and all that is left of their
once fair colors, must melt forever into the colorless Void.
Even in the moment of this musing I began to doubt whether I was
really alone,—to ask myself whether there might not be something
more than a mere shuddering of light in the thing that rocked
beside me: some presence that haunted the dying flame, and was
watching the watcher. A faint cold thrill passed over me,—
perhaps some chill uprising from the depths,—perhaps the
creeping only of a ghostly fancy. Old superstitions of the coast
recurred to me,—old vague warnings of peril in the time of the
passage of Souls. I reflected that were any evil to befall me out
there in the night,—meddling, or seeming to meddle, with the
lights of the Dead,—I should myself furnish the subject of some
future weird legend…. I whispered the Buddhist formula of
farewell—to the lights,—and made speed for shore.
As I touched the stones again, I was startled by seeing two white
shadows before me; but a kindly voice, asking if the water was
cold, set me at ease. It was the voice of my old landlord,
Otokichi the fishseller, who had come to look for me, accompanied
by his wife.
"Only pleasantly cool," I made answer, as I threw on my robe to
go home with them.
"Ah," said the wife, "it is not good to go out there on the night
of the Bon!"
"I did not go far," I replied;—"I only wanted to look at the
"Even a Kappa gets drowned sometimes,"(1) protested Otokichi.
"There was a man of this village who swam home a distance of
seven ri, in bad weather, after his boat had been broken. But he
was drowned afterwards."
Seven ri means a trifle less than eighteen miles. I asked if any
of the young men now in the settlement could do as much.
"Probably some might," the old man replied. "There are many
strong swimmers. All swim here,—even the little children. But
when fisher-folk swim like that, it is only to save their lives."
"Or to make love," the wife added,—"like the Hashima girl."
"Who?" queried I.
"A fisherman's daughter," said Otokichi. "She had a lover in
Ajiro, several ri distant; and she used to swim to him at night,
and swim back in the morning. He kept a light burning to guide
her. But one dark night the light was neglected—or blown out;
and she lost her way, and was drowned…. The story is famous in
—"So," I said to myself, "in the Far East, it is poor Hero that
does the swimming. And what, under such circumstances, would have
been the Western estimate of Leander?"
1 This is a common proverb:—Kappa mo obore-shini. The Kappa is a
water-goblin, haunting rivers especially.
Usually about the time of the Bon, the sea gets rough; and I was
not surprised to find next morning that the surf was running
high. All day it grew. By the middle of the afternoon, the waves
had become wonderful; and I sat on the sea-wall, and watched them
It was a long slow rolling,—massive and formidable. Sometimes,
just before breaking, a towering swell would crack all its green
length with a tinkle as of shivering glass; then would fall and
flatten with a peal that shook the wall beneath me…. I thought
of the great dead Russian general who made his army to storm as a
sea,—wave upon wave of steel,—thunder following thunder….
There was yet scarcely any wind; but there must have been wild
weather elsewhere,—and the breakers were steadily heightening.
Their motion fascinated. How indescribably complex such motion
is,—yet how eternally new! Who could fully describe even five
minutes of it? No mortal ever saw two waves break in exactly the
And probably no mortal ever watched the ocean-roll or heard its
thunder without feeling serious. I have noticed that even
animals,—horses and cows,—become meditative in the presence of
the sea: they stand and stare and listen as if the sight and
sound of that immensity made them forget all else in the world.
There is a folk-saying of the coast:—"The Sea has a soul and
hears." And the meaning is thus explained: Never speak of your
fear when you feel afraid at sea;—if you say that you are
afraid, the waves will suddenly rise higher. Now this imagining
seems to me absolutely natural. I must confess that when I am
either in the sea, or upon it, I cannot fully persuade myself
that it is not alive,—a conscious and a hostile power. Reason,
for the time being, avails nothing against this fancy. In order
to be able to think of the sea as a mere body of water, I must be
upon some height from whence its heaviest billowing appears but a
lazy creeping of tiny ripples.
But the primitive fancy may be roused even more strongly in
darkness than by daylight. How living seem the smoulderings and
the flashings of the tide on nights of phosphorescence!—how
reptilian the subtle shifting of the tints of its chilly flame!
Dive into such a night-sea;—open your eyes in the black-blue
gloom, and watch the weird gush of lights that follow your every
motion: each luminous point, as seen through the flood, like the
opening and closing of an eye! At such a moment, one feels indeed
as if enveloped by some monstrous sentiency,—suspended within
some vital substance that feels and sees and wills alike in every
part, an infinite soft cold Ghost.
Long I lay awake that night, and listened to the thunder-rolls
and crashings of the mighty tide. Deeper than these distinct
shocks of noise, and all the storming of the nearer waves, was
the bass of the further surf,—a ceaseless abysmal muttering to
which the building trembled,—a sound that seemed to imagination
like the sound of the trampling of infinite cavalry, the massing
of incalculable artillery,—some rushing, from the Sunrise, of
armies wide as the world.
Then I found myself thinking of the vague terror with which I had
listened, when a child, to the voice of the sea;—and I
remembered that in after-years, on different coasts in different
parts of the world, the sound of surf had always revived the
childish emotion. Certainly this emotion was older than I by
thousands of thousands of centuries,—the inherited sum of
numberless terrors ancestral. But presently there came to me the
conviction that fear of the sea alone could represent but one
element of the multitudinous awe awakened by its voice. For as I
listened to that wild tide of the Suruga coast, I could
distinguish nearly every sound of fear known to man: not merely
noises of battle tremendous,—of interminable volleying,—of
immeasurable charging,—but the roaring of beasts, the crackling
and hissing of fire, the rumbling of earthquake, the thunder of
ruin, and, above all these, a clamor continual as of shrieks and
smothered shoutings,—the Voices that are said to be the voices
of the drowned., Awfulness supreme of tumult,—combining all
imaginable echoings of fury and destruction and despair!
And to myself I said:—Is it wonderful that the voice of the sea
should make us serious? Consonantly to its multiple utterance
must respond all waves of immemorial fear that move in the vaster
sea of soul-experience. Deep calleth unto deep. The visible abyss
calls to that abyss invisible of elder being whose flood-flow
made the ghosts of us.
Wherefore there is surely more than a little truth in the ancient
belief that the speech of the dead is the roar of the sea. Truly
the fear and the pain of the dead past speak to us in that dim
deep awe which the roar of the sea awakens.
But there are sounds that move us much more profoundly than the
voice of the sea can do, and in stranger ways,—sounds that also
make us serious at times, and very serious,—sounds of music.
Great music is a psychical storm, agitating to unimaginable depth
the mystery of the past within us. Or we might say that it is a
prodigious incantation, every different instrument and voice
making separate appeal to different billions of prenatal
memories. There are tones that call up all ghosts of youth and
joy and tenderness;—there are tones that evoke all phantom pain
of perished passion;—there are tones that resurrect all dead
sensations of majesty and might and glory,—all expired
exultations,—all forgotten magnanimities. Well may the influence
of music seem inexplicable to the man who idly dreams that his
life began less than a hundred years ago! But the mystery
lightens for whomsoever learns that the substance of Self is
older than the sun. He finds that music is a Necromancy;—he
feels that to every ripple of melody, to every billow of harmony,
there answers within him, out of the Sea of Death and Birth, some
eddying immeasurable of ancient pleasure and pain.
Pleasure and pain: they commingle always in great music; and
therefore it is that music can move us more profoundly than the
voice of ocean or than any other voice can do. But in music's
larger utterance it is ever the sorrow that makes the undertone,
—the surf-mutter of the Sea of Soul…. Strange to think how
vast the sum of joy and woe that must have been experienced
before the sense of music could evolve in the brain of man!
Somewhere it is said that human life is the music of the Gods,—
that its sobs and laughter, its songs and shrieks and orisons,
its outcries of delight and of despair, rise never to the hearing
of the Immortals but as a perfect harmony…. Wherefore they
could not desire to hush the tones of pain: it would spoil their
music! The combination, without the agony-tones, would prove a
discord unendurable to ears divine.
And in one way we ourselves are as Gods,—since it is only the
sum of the pains and the joys of past lives innumerable that
makes for us, through memory organic, the ecstasy of music. All
the gladness and the grief of dead generations come back to haunt
us in countless forms of harmony and of melody. Even so,—a
million years after we shall have ceased to view the sun,—will
the gladness and the grief of our own lives pass with richer
music into other hearts—there to bestir, for one mysterious
moment, some deep and exquisite thrilling of voluptuous pain.