Pagoda Trees

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
translated by Ryan C.K. Choi 


I was at an itchū-bushi performance of The Stone Pillow when I began thinking about pagoda trees. Needless to say, I'm not nearly as knowledgeable about these trees as the professional reciter must be, studying their subjects, often for years, before performing them on stage. Everything I know about pagoda trees derives from my childhood, when I would listen to my mother and father's own attempts at recitation in the evenings before bed. As I learned it from them, the pagoda tree in literature first appears in the sūtras of Guanyin (or another such work from the period)—

Time passes in the garden; the crowns of pagoda trees.

In The Stone Pillow, an old lady welcomes a weary traveler into her home with the plan of stealing his money. That night, after the traveler falls asleep in his room with his head on the stone pillow, the old lady binds a stone with rope which she drops onto his head, killing him. The next morning, while counting her profits at the kitchen table, a knock sounds at the door, and when she answers it, she's relieved to see a handsome boy on her doorstep, bowing, humbly requesting lodging for the evening, and she welcomes him in in a heartbeat, eyeing his gibbous sack of coins. Sometime after dinner, after the boy retires to his room, the old lady sneaks in and drops the stone onto his head, only to discover afterwards her daughter's head crushed on the stone pillow. The boy then appears before the sobbing old lady as the Bodhisattva Guanyin, his true form, and chants a lesson about hospitality and retribution. (Unbeknownst to the old lady, during the day, her daughter had become smitten with the boy and, at night, once she thought her mother was asleep, she crept into his bed.)

Today, there's a body of water known as The Lake of the Old Lady. It sits on the grounds of Sensō Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo. Reputedly, this is the lake in which the eponymous old lady, unable to bear her grief, drowned herself with the infamous stone, tied by a rope to her ankles. 

When I reflect on it now, my fascination with The Stone Pillow originated not even in the play itself, but in Kuniyoshi's early woodblock prints that are based on it. Years ago, seeing these prints in a gallery for the first time made me lose interest in the other plays of the day, even the most celebrated, like Black Hair or Eight Scenes of Yoshiwara.

In the woodblock sequence of The Stone Pillow, I was always most mesmerized by the depiction of Guanyin's clothes, the delicate, almost Western style brushstrokes. For a long time, whenever I saw pagoda trees, I marveled at how the patterns of their branches and leaves were mirrored so precisely in Kuniyoshi's artistry.

Then, four or five years ago, when I was staying in Peking, I grew sick of pagoda trees all at once—every place I went was bursting with them. What began as a poetic vista, ended as gross excess. Nowadays, the only thing I find attractive about pagoda trees are the shells of their unripe seeds.


Ash covered roads; everywhere, shells of pagoda trees.