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Danielle Deiseroth

Fantasy vs. Reality in As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams

Written nearly one thousand years ago, Lady Sarashina’s As I Crossed a Bridge of

Dreams offers an intimate glimpse into the life of a young Heian middle-class woman. Her

confessional writings provide an unfettered account of her volatile emotions as she embarks on a

trip from the countryside to the Capital. Lady Sarashina wishes nothing more than for her life to

be like those of the characters in her beloved Tales, but her life is rife with loss and

disappointment. The desire to live this life of fantasy consumes her, but she remains perpetually

trapped inside herself, looking into her Tales rather confronting the realities of the world. When

thwarted by the harshness of the real world, Lady Sarashina retreats inward, which limits her

depth of interaction with her surroundings and prevents her from exercising her agency to

overcome the harshness of her tragic reality.

For a young woman like Lady Sarashina, the occasion to travel to the Capital presents the

perfect opportunity to have meaningful interactions with an outside world that she has never

encountered before. However, Lady Sarashina falls into the trap of the picturesque tourist,

letting her expectations about certain famous sites tamper with her experience. The problem, as

Jonathan Bates says, is that “Ostensibly, the picturesque tourist is going in search of nature, but

what he is actually looking for are beauties pre-determined by art” (Bates 133). In this case, the

“art” would have been the poetry and other writings Lady Sarashina had read about the meisho

that would be on the journey. The “charming” evening mist Lady Sarashina observes at the

temporary house in Imatachi on the very first night of her journey is indicative of the uncertainty

of the great journey ahead. Gazing out on the horizon enveloped with mist, Lady Sarashina

knows not what awaits her, and she is filled with hope that she could live out her own fantasy.
However, the mist quickly dissolves. Early in the journey and just after the loss of her

nurse, Lady Sarashina experiences her first disappointment in a meisho, which gives early

exposure to how easily her facade of expectations is punctured by reality. Upon reaching the

beaches in Musashi, Lady Sarashina remarks, “there were none of the muraski plants I had heard

about, but just a mass of reeds growing so high that even the tips of our horsemen’s bows were

invisible” (Morris 36). Though not ostensibly detailing her disappointment, we can infer that

Lady Sarashina was quite upset to discover muddy beaches and unsightly reeds instead of

glistening white beaches and vibrant purple murasaki plants. Shortly after visiting the beaches,

Lady Sarashina exhibits no restraint in her disappointment when she describes the flowers on the

Morokoshi Plain “pathetic-looking” (38). Lady Sarashina’s standard of what she would expect

to see and deem beautiful was largely defined by what she read (or possibly even saw) about the

sites from others’ experiences. However, one should be hesitant to judge Lady Sarashina for her

conception of natural beauty. It’s naive to believe that it’s impossible for anyone to travel to a

new location without some idea of what the experience could--or should--be like. The

difference, though, is that Lady Sarashina is unable to define her own experience beyond the one

that she thinks she should have.

Even when Lady Sarashina encounters sites that align with her standard of beauty, she

cannot experience them in a novel way. Instead, Lady Sarashina describes the scenes around her

in terms of something very familiar to her--the aesthetics of fashion. Mount Fuji is familiar to

Lady Sarashina, and she chooses to personify the mountain: “Its thick cover of unmelting snow

gives the impression that the mountain is wearing a white jacket over a dress of deep violet”

(39). It is no accident that Lady Sarashina characterizes the mountain as purple and white, the

colors of regality and purity. A site that she was familiar with from her youth, Lady Sarashina
views the mountain with a childlike sense of wonder and awe. She characterizes the mountain as

a benevolent goddess rather than a potential of harbinger of terror because to her, the mountain

evokes a time of innocence. Lady Sarashina pays no attention to its wicked natural capabilities,

and rather focuses only on the aesthetics.

Lady Sarashina’s selective portrayals of natural sites on her journey--such as the one of

Mt. Fuji--indicate that she is indeed under a picturesque view. This “tyranny of the eye” leads

to, as Bates discusses, “the carving-up of the perceiver’s environment” (Bates 147). An instance

where Lady Sarashina employs this picturesque tactic of segmentation is when she discusses the

hills of Nishitomi, which she likens to “ a row of folding screens decorated with beautiful

paintings” (38). Though a folding screen contains many scenes, it is essentially one cohesive

work of art. However, when a screen is folded, one cannot see the entirety of the scenes at once.

In a similar vein, Lady Sarashina narrows her focus to one “panel” of her surroundings which

she finds especially beautiful, the hills. We find again and again that Lady Sarashina zeroes in

on the aspects that give her the most pleasure--for example, the changing color of the leaves in

her Capital garden, which she describes as “a rich covering of brocade” (Morris 47). Brocade is

a very thick, luxurious fabric, so Sarashima truly covers up the other aspects of the garden with

her decision to elaborate only on the aspect of the garden that she found most “magnificent”.

What makes Lady Sarashina’s portrayals most noteworthy, though, is the fact that she utilizes

what is familiar to her in descriptions of these sites. Brocade and folding screens are regular

aspects of her life, and she chooses these items in her descriptions because they are comfortable--

they are known, their parameters under her complete visual control.

However, Lady Sarashina experiences great unease when she is unable to relegate her

surroundings to a level of comfortable familiarity. Her discomfort demonstrates an inability and

unwillingness to confront the truly unknown out of fear. One natural scene that particularly

disturbs Lady Sarashina is the night sky. At the foot of Mount Ashigara, Lady Sarashina writes,

“I felt fearfully lost in the depth of the moonless night” (38). Faced with a dark expanse of

nothingness, Lady Sarashina feels lost rather than empowered by the blank canvas that the night

sky provides to her. Rather than imagining herself blazing her own path through the skies, Lady

Sarashina grows uncomfortable with the prospect of forging a way for herself in the great

unknown. Lady Sarashina’s sister has a quite different reaction to the night sky, which only

highlights Lady Sarashina’s hesitation to leave the comfort of what is familiar to her:

At about midnight….my sister and I sat on the veranda. ‘If I flew away now all of a

sudden and disappeared without a trace,’ she asked, gazing at the sky, ‘what would you

think?’ Then, seeing the anxious look on my face, she changed the subject and soon she

was laughing and chatting merrily (52).

Lady Sarashina can dream about living a life of fantasy akin to characters in the Tales she

immerses herself in, but when confronted even with a hypothetical proposal, Lady Sarashina

becomes noticeably uncomfortable. She would rather continue “thinking all day about the

Tales” (60) rather than step outside and create a tale for herself. It is hard to blame Lady

Sarashina for her unwillingness to thrust herself into the abyss of a harsh reality that has caused

her immense loss, but the alternative presents no better option to her--which is why she seeks to

escape it. For Lady Sarashina, there is no reward great enough that could justify the risk of

facing the hurt and pain that would arise if she tore her eyes away from the Tales and reevaluated

her interactions with the world around her.

Lady Sarashina ultimately continues to buy into the idea of a fantasy world because it has

come to define her existence. She keeps holding onto this idea of something else because it has
become her motivation, a comfort from the tragedies of her life that always remains just out of

reach--but not out of sight. Much later than that first night at Imatachi, Lady Sarashina has a

similar response as before when she gazes upon another misty night: “The tops of the trees that

darkly covered the hillside were veiled with mist. These dense trees lent the cloudy sky a special

charm that one would not find in blossom time or in the season of red leaves” (59). The

temporality of the blossoming flowers and the red leaves only reminds Lady Sarashina of

tragedy--the death of her nurse, the movement to a new home without such a splendid

garden. Unlike the night sky, the mist exists as the benevolent gatekeeper to the unknown that it

covers. Dashed with just the perfect amount of mystery, you can reach out and try to grasp the

mist to unveil what’s underneath, but you can never actually hold it in the palm of your hand. It

remains eternally elusive of the human grasp, but still within reach--a glaring distraction that

beckons a perpetual chase for the impossible.

When “veiled with mist”, the trees transform from mundane to charming. Similarly, the

fantasies presented in the Tales seem alluring to Lady Sarashina because they are unattainable,

yet still somehow within reach. Lady Sarashina dreams that she receives beckoning from a

“handsome priest”, but does not act on any implications from that dream because keeping the

fantasy fully alive is better than taking a risk and winding up hurt when the fantasy is proven

unattainable. Ultimately, Lady Sarashina makes the conscious decision to relegate her

experiences to what is familiar in her life. Exposing herself the possibility of hurt and

disappointment is not worth the benefits of experiencing life through a novel lens and charting a

path in the great unknown.

Works Cited

Bate, Jonathan. The Song of the Earth. Picador, 2016.

Morris, Ivan. As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams: Recollections of a Woman in Eleventh-Century Japan.

Penguin, 1971.