Essays in Idleness and Hōjōki (Penguin Classics)
Kamo no Chōmei, Yoshida Kenkō
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These two works on life's fleeting pleasures are by Buddhist monks from medieval Japan, but each shows a different world-view. In the short memoir Hôjôki, Chômei recounts his decision to withdraw from worldly affairs and live as a hermit in a tiny hut in the mountains, contemplating the impermanence of human existence. Kenko, however, displays a fascination with more earthy matters in his collection of anecdotes, advice and observations. From ribald stories of drunken monks to aching nostalgia for the fading traditions of the Japanese court, Essays in Idleness is a constantly surprising work that ranges across the spectrum of human experience.
Meredith McKinney's excellent new translation also includes notes and an introduction exploring the spiritual and historical background of the works.
Chômei was born into a family of Shinto priests in around 1155, at at time when the stable world of the court was rapidly breaking up. He became an important though minor poet of his day, and at the age of fifty, withdrew from the world to become a tonsured monk. He died in around 1216.
Kenkô was born around 1283 in Kyoto. He probably became a monk in his late twenties, and was also noted as a calligrapher. Today he is remembered for his wise and witty aphorisms, 'Essays in Idleness'.
Meredith McKinney, who has also translated Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book for Penguin Classics, is a translator of both contemporary and classical Japanese literature. She lived in Japan for twenty years and is currently a visitng fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra.
'[Essays in Idleness is] a most delightful book, and one that has served as a model of Japanese style and taste since the 17th century. These cameo-like vignettes reflect the importance of the little, fleeting futile things, and each essay is Kenko himself' Asian Student
Overcome with terror, the monk hadn’t the strength to try to defend himself; his legs gave under him, and he tumbled into the stream. ‘Help! Nekomata! Nekomata!’ he yelled. People rushed out from the nearby houses with lighted torches, and recognized the familiar figure of the monk. ‘What happened?’ they asked as they helped him out of the water. Tucked into his bosom were the prizes he’d won in the linked verse competition that evening, a scroll and a small box, now thoroughly sodden. Off he
Kōshun of Kegon-in Temple362 undid cord tied in this way and retied it. ‘That’s the way people tie it these days,’ he explained. ‘It’s dreadful. The proper way is simply to wrap the cord round and round, then tuck the ends in through the top.’ He was an elderly man, and well versed in the old ways. 209 A man who had lost his case for ownership of another’s field, from sheer rage sent some men to plunder the field. As they went, they paused to ravage the other fields along the way. When
rearrested in 1316, the incident referred to here. The Rokuhara Commissary was the local headquarters of the Kamakura government, which was in effective control of the nation. 279. That’s the ideal kind of memory … having lived: Suketomo in fact achieved a similar end, being executed for his part in an uprising at the age of forty-three. 280. Tōji Temple: A large temple at the southern edge of the capital. 281. The Uji Minister of the Left: Fujiwara no Yorinaga (1120–56). Kenkō seems to have
Sei Shōnagon (?966–?1017), which is one of the great classics of Japanese literature. Kenkō makes several references to the work (sections 1, 19, 138), and it is evident that he had its model in mind when he wrote his Essays, some sections of which echo her writing. But Kenkō was a very different person living in a very different age, for all his yearning back to the heights of Japanese culture and sensibility that The Pillow Book embodied. The structure and style of The Pillow Book clearly
high and low crowd the streets, a jostling throng of roof and tile, and have done so down the generations – yet ask if this is truly so and you discover that almost no house has been there from of old. Some burned down last year and this year were rebuilt. Others were once grand mansions, gone to ruin, where now small houses stand. And it is the same with those that live in them. The places remain, as full of people as ever, but of those one saw there once now only one or two in twenty or thirty