Thursday, 15 September 2011

Reminiscences of Summer in Japan: The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon

Sei Shōnagon's Pillow Book is a collection of thoughts, musings and observations of life at the court of Empress Sadako. Shōnagon, a contemporary of Murasaki Shikibu (author of The Tale of Genji), was born around 1000 years ago and served as a lady-in-waiting to the Empress. The numbered sections of her book range from lists of pleasing things and her thoughts on fashionable society to her memories of events at the palace and provide a very personal insight into life at the palace.

The following extracts are amongst my favourites and seemed relevant ...

29. Elegant Things
A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat.
Duck eggs.
Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl.
A rosary of rock crystals.
Wisteria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow.
A pretty child eating strawberries.

97. Things That Give a Clean Feeling
An earthen cup. A new metal bowl.
A rush mat.
The play of the light on water as one pours it into a vessel.
A new wooden chest.

178. It is Noon on a Summer Day
It is noon on a summer day and the weather is so hot that one does not know what to do with oneself. One keeps waving one's fan, but there is not a breath of cool air; then, just as one is hurrying to put one's hands in a bowl of iced water, a letter arrives. It is written on a sheet of fine, brilliantly red paper and attached to a Chinese pink in full bloom. Without thinking, one lays aside one's fan (which was not doing much good in any case) and imagines how deeply one's friend must feel to have taken all this trouble on such a suffocating.

When I first read Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book I was enchanted by the idea of compiling lists as a way of writing and attempted to write a few of my own. Though it is technically still summer, until the autumnal equinox on 23rd September, it does seem a little late to be writing my final summer post but a Pillow Book-style list seemed like the best way to round up my ‘Reminiscences of Summer in Japan’ posts. I hope that you enjoy it even if the weather is as wet and windy where you are as it has been here in Leeds recently. 

1. Things That Evoke Memories of Summer in Japan
The piercing call of cicada.
The 'chink' of ice cubes in a glass of umeshu.
The sound of the bells heard during Gion Matsuri.
A sudden downpour on a hot day.
The 'ting' of a fūrin as a breeze passes by.
The feeling of heat when one leaves an air-conditioned shop to go outside.
A warm hazy morning in the city.

You can find all my 'Reminiscences of Summer in Japan' posts here:


I can feel the enjoyment and satisfaction Sei experiences in those little excerpts, and Japan in yours. It's refreshing! I especially like that one about getting the letter on a hot, hot day.

Thank you angrygaijin. I love Shonagon's way of writing, she paints a wonderful picture of the archaic world that she lived in through her lists and observations.

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