Ya no gotoku, to no gotoshi

Japanese here

A few more bends brought us to where the path culminated.

The road had for some time lain bare to the sea and sky, but

at the supreme point some fine beeches made a natural screen

masking the naked face of the precipice. On the cutting above,

four huge Chinese characters stood graved in the rock.

"Ya no gotoku, to no gotoshi."
"Smooth as a whetstone, straight as an arrow," meaning the cliff.
Perhaps because of their pictorial descent, the characters did not
shock one. Unlike the usual branding of nature, they seemed not out
of keeping with the spot. 
P LOWELL, Noto, An Unexplored Corner of Japan: VII. Oya Shiradzu Ko Shiradzu 

Percival LOWELL begins his chapter 徹ya Shiradzu, Ko Shiradzu as follows:


TOWARDS the middle of the afternoon we reached a part of the coast locally famous or infamous, for the two were one; a stretch of some miles where the mountains made no apology for falling abruptly into the sea. Sheer for several hundred feet, the shore is here unscalable. Nor did it use to be possible to go round by land, for the cliffs are merely the ends of mountain-chains, themselves utterly wild and tractless. A narrow strip of sand was the sole link between Etchiu on the one hand and Echigo on the other. The natives call the place Oya shiradzu, ko shiradzu, that is, a spot where the father no longer knows the child, nor the child the father;


So it was a long pending problem how to build a safer road along the strip of sea shore sand. As far as we know, the road was newly constructed first in 1883, and LOWELL passed this road by the use of the jinrikisha in 1889 when he made a trip to the Noto peninsula. If we now get off at the Oya Shiradzu Interchange of the Hokuriku Expressway which was built in 1988, and further go northward by about 3 km, we can reach the spot where the high stone wall with the graved four huge Chinese letters is preserved facing to the Japan sea (see the photo).


This is the very place described by LOWELL as above in 1889. The graved letters are shown here:






Note that these Chinese characters read from left to right as follows:



which corresponds to LOWELL痴 reading Ya no gotoku, to no gotoshi. The place is at the highest point of the road, and the teahouse where Percival and Yejiro took a rest must have been located near it. The original brush letters were written down by the village headman when the road was completed in 1883. The phrase made of four letters is based on a certain phrases in a poem in the Chinese classic Shi Jing, a book of old odes. Shi Jing is made of 305 poems and has been known as collected in circa 1000 BC ~600 BC. The very phrase is from Da Tong in Minor Odes of the Kingdom, and originally made of eight letters implying the road to Zhou is like a whetstone which is straight as an arrow while really here four letters corresponding to 鍍he road to Zhou and 都traight are dropped, and just the remaining four letters imply like a whetstone, like an arrow. Here Zhou implies the Zhou dynasty, a conqueror dynasty from circa 1100 BC to 249 BC, and here the aspect of the road shows symbolically the impartial politics and peaceful world on the one hand, while the poem itself was written by the eastern people (Tong=East) who had been conquered by the western Zhou and so the road of Zhou implies a symbol of hard exploitation on the other hand. It next states so that looking back and thinkingof it, our tears run down in streams.


Ever since, the phrase Like a whetstone, like an arrow has been independently used to ornament a good road, though strictly speaking such a road cannot be usually found and hence it could have been more often used in a negative way.


LOWELL痴 interpretation "smooth as a whetstone, straight as an arrow" is therefore very right, while his reading Ya no gotoku, to no gotoshi is very wrong. Here Ya implies arrow and To does whetston and so the order is vice versa. Notwithstanding, if some Japanese young person read


he may read as 土a no gotogu, to no gotoshi as LOWELL did since any young person is accustomed to read from left to right. As a matter of fact, old Chinese and old Japanese letters have been written from right to left, and so the Chinese characters on the wall should be written in a modern way as


and then young persons can read correctly To no gotoku, ya no gotoshi. We should say therefore LOWELL applied the way of order of his mother tongue while he was informed of the true meaning of the ShiJing phrase.


As to a possible interpretation of To no gotoku, ya no gotoshi, he did not employ the usual interpretation, and discarding 鍍he road to Zhou which words were already implicit, he thought it being appropriate to the cliff itself. The cliff including the rock wall must have been looked whetted, and the place where he stood rose high up about 90 metres above the sea. On the other hand, the new rood must have appeared too poor, or too wound, never straight. Furthermore it must have been full of ups and downs with small pebbles. He so concluded this turn of road as follows:


We tucked ourselves into our jinrikisha and started down. By virtue of going, the speed increased, till the way we rolled round the curves was intoxicating. The panorama below swung to match, and we leaned in or out mechanically to trim the balance. Occasionally, as it hit some stone, the vehicle gave a lurch that startled us for a moment into sobriety, from which we straightway relapsed into exhilaration. Curious this, how the body brings about its own forgetting. For I was conscious only of mind, and yet mind was the one part of me not in motion. I suppose much oxygen made me tipsy. If so, it is a recommendable tipple. Spirits were not unhappily named after the natural article.

(26 January 2004)


Acknowledgements: We owe the photos cited above to M MURAKAMI and H TSUNEMACHI

Masatsugu MINAMI, CMO Fukui

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