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‘Kyoka Suigetsu’ (鏡花水月 – literally 鏡 mirror, 花 flower, 水 water, 月 moon) is one of many ‘yojijukugo’ phrases that we could use right now to refer to our love of travel, Japan and the tantalising way in which it sits still, just a little out of reach. But before delving deep into what on earth this combination of seemingly unconnected words has to do with anything, just let us rewind slightly and explain a little bit about what yojijukugo are.
The word yojijukugo itself is made up of the following characters: four (四), character (字), wise (熟) and word (語). As the name suggests, yojijukugo are compounds that are generally idiomatic and made up of four kanji characters. Some yojijukugo may feel like puzzles, whose meaning you can roughly guess by knowing the four characters – just like the word yojijukugo itself. For example, an idiom very familiar to English speakers happens to also exist in Japanese, and is made up of the characters one (一), stone (石), two (二) and bird (鳥). Easy, right? To kill two birds with one stone, or in Japanese, ‘Isseki Nichou’ (一石二鳥).
Before you go getting your hopes up that every four-character idiom you come across is some form of Chinese character Pictionary, be warned that the bulk of yojijukugo have roots in classical Chinese. Therefore, their stories can come from a myriad of sources, from Buddhist scripture to Chinese folklore and the sayings of Confucius. After yojijukugo made their way to Japan, Japanese speakers coined idioms of their own, moulding Japanese proverbs and pithy local sayings into the catchy four-character format. Needless to say, this has resulted in innumerable sayings that are unlikely to be familiar to the average English speaker.
But this rich cultural background isn’t the only thing about yojijukugo that might slip you up. Even more confusingly, the four component characters do not always spell out the meaning of the idiom so neatly. Imagine trying to sum up a story in just four key words; it takes quite a bit of creativity to come up with the right combination of concepts to perfectly sum up the main point of a proverb. With no previous knowledge of the original story, idioms can become pretty difficult to decipher – even among native Japanese speakers. It’s the same in the West; there are literary expressions we might use from time to time and have no idea where they have come from. But once we start looking into them, they will more often than not have Latin roots, or be connected to traditional tales.
Of course, there are thousands of yojijukugo (5,000-20,000, in fact) – but there are a handful that are likely to be relevant for a trip to Japan.
One yojijukugo that springs to mind is ‘Juunin Toiro’ (十人十色), which means ‘ten people, ten colours’. It’s the Japanese way of saying ‘different strokes for different folks’ or ‘each to their own’. Every trip to Japan is different, but it has so much to offer. Even if something isn’t to your taste – be it food, or an experience of some sort – you’re sure to find something that you love about the country.
The concept of ‘Ichigo Ichie’ (一期一会) is another great example that’s relevant for any Japan adventure – and it’s also a key concept behind the art of the tea ceremony. The symbols one (一), time (期), one (一), and encounter (会) – together meaning ‘once in a lifetime encounter’ – serve as a reminder that every moment in life is a unique, special occasion. Every single dinner, or every chance to enjoy tea, is an occasion to be cherished – even if you share the experience with the same people each time.
Another relevant idiom is ‘Kachou Fuugetsu’ (花鳥風月), or the symbols for flower, bird, wind, and moon. The phrase comes from an ancient Japanese poem that praised these four aspects of nature, and has come to mean ‘enjoying the beauties of nature, and in turn, discovering something about yourself.’
Another idiom that seems abundantly applicable these days is ‘Ungai Souten (雲外蒼天), which translates to ‘the blue sky is beyond the clouds.’ While this one is very similar to ‘every cloud has a silver lining,’ in Japanese it is used in the sense of ‘don’t give up.’ Which leads us back to Kyoka Suigetsu (鏡花水月)...
The combination of mirror, flower, water and moon refers to things that are visible but can’t actually be touched. You may be able to see beautiful flower in the mirror, but it is merely a reflection. Likewise, the moon and moonlight can be seen shimmering on the water – but when you reach out to touch it, the beautiful image diffuses with the ripples. Kyoka Suigetsu is something that is beautiful or desirable, but unattainable. The phrase can also be used to refer to something subtle and profound; something that can be experienced or appreciated but not necessarily expressed through words.
In many ways, Kyoka Suigetsu is an apt phrase for travellers right now – especially for Japan. The prospect of travelling to Japan (or indeed anywhere, at the moment), might feel like a bit of a distant illusion – something that looks beautiful, but untouchable – your moon on water. For those who have been to Japan before – either for a short visit, or a longer stint while working here – you’ll understand that there is something about Japan that stays with you.
Travelling to Japan is to experience its quirks, its traditions; the things that are done ever-so-slightly differently and the things that are done in a completely different way. You’ll take home memories of a backstreet temple in a vast neon city; the curiosity of a kind stranger. The low-rise wooden buildings and simple convenience stores, and the impressive skyscrapers and ritzy department stores that get every detail just right. The gardens that turn the smallest of urban areas into a pocket of serenity – or the vast national parks that offer forested mountains just a short train ride from civilisation. Of course, you can remember the experiences you had while travelling, and you may even recall the names of a couple of foods you liked – but when it comes to expressing the impact that Japan has had on your life? Well, that isn’t always quite so easy to put into words.
So, while Japan remains as beautiful as it ever was, right now we can’t get there. We can look at pictures of the places we want to visit one day; we can learn a bit about culture, delve into Japanese experiences and do a bit of dreaming. And while that’s the case, our advice to you is one of ‘Ungai Souten’: your days to experience ‘Ichigo Ichie’ and ‘Kachou Fuugetsu’ are just around the corner. The Kyoka Suigetsu of Japan will not last forever.