Mono no aware 物の哀れ

When you live on the equator with no true distinct seasons, life can pass you by in a monotony of indistinguishable days. Nature’s ushers are nowhere in sight in the grand amphitheater of time. There are no first blooms of spring to herald the beginning of a new year; no burnt oranges and fading reds of the falling autumn leaves to mark the mellowing of the year; and no snow and cold for the Christmas trees and festive carols. Every day is a consistent beat of scorching rays and the blinding blues of summer, broken only by wet humid rain. The months creep past like unnoticed visitors – how are we in the end of June already?

This was the topic of conversation one evening while we were wandering the streets of Tokyo. The Japanese call it Mono no aware (物の哀れ) – a sensitivity to the ephemeral, the awareness of our impermanent state of being. That melancholic wistfulness at the transience that is life, love, and all things we feel; and a longer, deeper, sadness about this state being the reality of life.

It was Golden Week in Japan, a bumper crop of public holidays, the last of which was Children’s Day. Originally known as Boy’s Festival, families traditionally flew Koinobori – Japanese carp streamers – in honour of their sons. Legend has it that a Japanese carp (Koi) once swam upstream to become a dragon. The Koi became the chosen symbol because it was considered the most spirited fish – so full of energy and power that it could fight its way up swift-running streams and cascades. It was courage personified; strength and determination to overcome all obstacles, and the ability to attain high goals – all traits traditionally desired in boys.

After some querying with the locals, we hopped on a train out of Tokyo and found ourselves in Tatebayashi in search of these carp streamers. There is a Japanese proverb – 鯉の滝登り- literally translated to mean a Koi’s swim up a waterfall, and used to encapsulate the victorious triumph over seemingly impossible obstacles. The burst of dancing colours over the muted greens and blues of the countryside captured perfectly the essence of the spirited Koi’s energy and vigour, yet somewhere in the breeze there was a gentle sadness, almost wistful flutter about the streamers. Another Japanese proverb springs to mind; same fish, but an entirely different spin. 及ばぬ鯉の滝登り – translated to mean a Koi unable to swim up the waterfall – this is used for a situation in which no amount of passion, dedication, or sheer effort could help you attain your heart’s desire. Often used with a play on the character 恋 (also ‘koi’, and which means love), this proverb best describes the helplessness of unrequited love.


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