natsukusa ya
tsuwamonodomo ga
yume no ato

Summer grasses,
all that remains
of soldiers' dreams
- Basho, translated by Lucien Stryk

The above haiku is from poet Matsuo Basho's travelogue, Narrow Road to the Deep North, which describes his 1689 journey into Tohoku. In what is now known as Iwate Prefecture he visited Hiraizumi, site of the ruined strongholds and castles of the once powerful Fujiwara clan. The formerly proud city of culture and architecture had been reduced to nothing but lonely fields. Basho, moved by the pathos of this scene, penned his famous poem expressing the fleeting impermanence of all things.

Like Basho, I had the opportunity to visit Hiraizumi and reflect on the meaning of glory, power, and impermanence. The historic monuments and sites of Hiraizumi, comprising five sites associated with Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011. Founded by Fujiwara no Kiyohira between 1089 and 1100, Hiraizumi was to be a safe haven during a time of political intrigue and bloody struggles for power. Kiyohira descended from the powerful Fujiwara clan on his father's side, but his mother was an Emishi, a term referring to a group of indigenous Tohoku peoples outside of the control of the Kyoto-based Yamato government. Kiyohira lost his immediate family in a violent power struggle with his half-brothers, and inspired by his belief in Pure Land Buddhism, he commissioned Chusonji Temple, the most famous of the five UNESCO-designated sites, to memorialize all living things.

Kiyohira and his decendants ruled over Tohoku for four generations, deriving their wealth from gold mining, horse trading, and trafficking luxury items Asia and from the indigenous Emishi and Ainu people. They were able to keep their independence from Kyoto by the strength of their warrior bands until 1189.

However, in the aftermath of the Genpei War (1180-1185), Fujiwara no Yasuhira, the fourth and last hereditary leader of Hiraizumi, became embroiled in a power struggle that ended his dynasty. Yasuhira made the fateful decision of sheltering the popular war hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune from the wrath of his jealous older brother, shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo. The enraged Yoritomo led an army against Hiraizumi and razed it to the ground. The once brilliant city would never recover.

Like Basho, I was also moved by the ruins of Hiraizumi by feelings of sadness as well as an awareness of short-lived happiness. Although Hiraizumi is no longer a bustling metropolis, I felt a reverent beauty in the verdant trees and summer grasses. Elegant purple irises bloomed next to the exposed foundation stones of the formerly grand Motsu-ji temple. Gazing upon the priceless treasures of gold and mother-of-pearl formerly housed in the Chusonji Temple I pondered on the meaning of "mono no aware," an important aspect of Japanese aesthetic consciousness signifying sad, fleeting beauty. "Mono no aware" is strongly linked to the Buddhist notion of transience, which claims that all things, both beautiful and painful, must inevitably pass away. To quote Tim Lomas, "Although we feel sorrow at life's transiency, of the loss of people and things that are precious to us. However, this melancholy is suffused with a quiet rejoicing in the fact that we had the chance to witness the beauty of life at all, however fleetingly. We are sighing rather than weeping."

My five weeks in Tohoku have provided me the opportunity to become well acquainted with the feeling of "mono no aware." Witnessing first-hand the physical and psychological devastation caused by the 3/11 earthquake has been a powerful reminder of the transience of all things. Although repeated visits to disaster sites has taken a psychological toll, I have been surprised to find that the pathos I feel has been accompanied by a profound sense of gratitude and appreciation of the precious beauty of life. When faced with death and destruction on such a massive scale, negative emotions such pride, jealousy, ambition, and enmity seem petty and irrelevant. Like Basho's ancient warrior dreams, sooner or later we and all our possessions will return to the dust from which we came.

I have been blessed with an extraordinary life. My time in Tohoku and the poignant reminders of life's fragility have heightened my awareness of its beauty.


About the Author

Hello! My name is Terasa Younker and I am a graduate student at Harvard University. This summer I will be working as an intern in the Disaster Prevention & Education Section of the Kahoku Shimpo. As a second‐year student in the Regional Studies ‐ East Asia program I study gender, material culture and consumption, social stratification and popular culture, globalization and cultural diffusion in contemporary Japanese society. I received my undergraduate education at New York University (’10), where I studied East Asian language, literature, art history, philosophy, history, and film theory. My study abroad experience includes Columbia University in Beijing, Princeton University in Ishikawa, and the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies.
After graduating from NYU, I spent a year as a translator, a year studying advanced Japanese at the Inter‐University Center for Japanese Study in Yokohama, and three years as an account manager at Rakuten, a Japanese firm in Tokyo. At Rakuten, I was a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Sales group and worked with hotels in central Tokyo as well as the Tokyo Islands.
Although I lived in Japan for a total of five years I never had the opportunity to visit Tohoku. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to explore of an area of Japan not well known in the United States and hope to promote understanding of the region upon my return.