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Journals from Doshisha University, Japan

2011-06-15 Hotaru (Fireflies)

For this journal, I am only going to write about one thing: fireflies. Yes, there are fireflies here! I’ve never seen them in Oregon or my hometown in Washington, but I do have memories of chasing after them on summer nights in Virginia, where I grew up. Though I think the fireflies in Kyoto fly more gently and are more aloof than American fireflies. It would seem even insects have absorbed the Kyoto culture!

First I should explain a bit about the dorm I’m currently living in. It is the oldest and smallest of Doshisha’s dormitories, with the cheapest rent and cramped rooms (the size of 4 tatami mats). It is the only Japanese-style dorm, and there are always problems with the cockroach-infested communal kitchen and ancient danbo (room heaters). It’s also a good 15-minute walk to the nearest train station and a 40-minute bike ride to the city center. So Kyoto Shugakukan is not too popular with exchange students, who tend to choose the spacious Western rooms with private bathrooms and kitchens in the newer Hawaii House and Maison Iwakuni, both a quick bike ride away from shopping and eating in busy Shijo. But with each changing season I can’t help thinking I got the better deal, by far, in choosing to live here. The neighborhood is made up of wealthy retirees, so it is very quiet—a neighborhood with no commuting or traffic noise (human or vehicular) is a rare thing in a Japanese city, I think! Also a stream runs through our street, bordered by lovely ornamental trees: Momiji (red maple) in the fall, cherry blossoms in the spring. Now hydrangeas are blooming. And now, better even than the flowers perhaps, there are fireflies. My Finnish friend Jenni was the first one to tell me she’d seen a firefly in the trees near the stream. We went out that night to look and saw maybe two or three of the mysterious insects.

The next night, however, was magic, fairies, stars. Fireflies dipped and glided by the dozen, fading out and reigniting rhythmically, their light reflecting in the stream’s ripples from time to time. Others simply twinkled in the trees and in the long grass. There was not a single breath of wind, just the fireflies glimmering silently, and the stream murmuring. It was one of those fine summer evenings that are still cool enough to hold a special someone close without feeling sticky. Jenni and I just stood and watched in silence for some time, when a silver-haired man came walking by, most likely returning home from the office, swinging a briefcase with his suit jacket over his arm. “Are there any fireflies yet?” he asked us in Japanese. Maybe the darkness made it hard to tell we were foreigners. “Quite a few,” said Jenni. “Hm, hm, oh yup, quite a few huh…” the man reached up and lightly shook a branch over our heads, and sure enough a firefly tumbled out of it! It flew lazily toward us, and the man reached out with somehow a very elegant gesture, as if he were offering his finger to have a ring put on it, and sure enough the firefly came and rested there for a moment like some priceless jewel. Jenni and I caught our breaths. With a flick of his wrist he had the firefly cupped in the palm of his hand. “Dou desu ka? (do you want him?)” and he transferred the flirefly to my hands. “Oh… thank you…” I thought with amusement that any other bug I wouldn’t think to pick up, but since this one’s rear end glowed prettily I liked nothing better than to have it sit on my palm. It did not try to get away like most small creatures do, but calmly glowed for us for some time before lazily moving to my thumb to flick its wings and take flight again.

When the firefly flew from my hand and we looked up, the man who had caught it for us was gone. “I know he was just some ojiisan (grandpa) but it really seemed like he was Prince of Fireflies, or something,” said Jenni. “I know what you mean! The fireflies make anything kind of romantic, don’t they?” It was true that during the momiji and sakura seasons as well the neighbors had become much friendlier, stopping to ask if we had looked at this or that tree.

Zeitaku ne (What luxury)!" I sighed. “I’m so glad I live here!”

~Leah Sedy

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