In this epistolary short story, a Welsh missionary goes to Japan but ends up converting to a new way of life.
Listen to Llŷr Gwyn Lewis read "Dolores Morgan's Letters from the Far East" in the original Welsh
Letters in the hand of Dolores Morgan, a missionary for the Union of Welsh Baptists, to her friend Leila Farr Bevan. The Union was a new body that sent missionaries to Japan soon after the country changed its long-standing policy of isolation and opened its ports to foreign shipping for the first time. It seems that this was their first missionary endeavor, and that they chose to proselytize in a different sphere from the Calvinistic Methodists, whose sights were mainly set on Africa. The responses to these letters (if there were any) are apparently not extant.
20 April 1868
To my dearest friend, Leila Farr Bevan,
Greetings and blessings upon you from the furthest reaches of the world, where I now find myself residing. I have been here in Kyoto for several days. I was welcomed here when I disembarked, feeling exhausted after the three-month voyage, by some Christian friends who have been here for some time preparing the way, and who somehow succeeded in obtaining a place for me to stay, something which they themselves had not had when they arrived in this country, in the palace of the emperor himself. To this day I do not know how they achieved this, nor what I have done to deserve such a privilege, unless the tireless work of the others has begun to bear fruit, and the Holy Ghost is already at work among the Japanese people. It is likely that there is a connection with the recent change of heart regarding foreign affairs, and the emperor’s desire for his people to be more welcoming of strangers. Therefore, after I had rested a while in the friends’ accommodation, I was welcomed to the palace of the emperor himself, and to my magnificent room, which has wooden walls, paper screens with the most intricate decoration, low tables, and a bed. There are no chairs here, and I will need to remember to order some, for I have not yet become habituated to the custom of sitting on the floor, which is common among the Japanese, even among those of the highest social rank. However, I approve of their habit of divesting themselves of their shoes whenever they enter a building.
I imagine that you have heard a great deal about this extraordinary land recently, since its inhabitants have risen up in rebellion against the government. I myself had heard rumours of these troubles during the voyage, and I was therefore quite fearful and full of dread when I reached the end of my journey a few days ago. And yet I gave heartfelt thanks to the Almighty for seeing fit to bring me here at such a fateful juncture, and I begged Him earnestly to inspire me to make the most of the fragile political situation facing the Shogun at present in order to liberate this land once and for all of its barbaric beliefs, known respectively as Shinto and Buddhism.
Soon after I arrived I came to understand that some noblemen of the empire, individuals named Satsuma, Choisu, and Tosa, respectively the commander of the army, the governor, and prime minister of the country, had in the past few months led a rebellion against the Shogun, as a result of their desire to see real power returned to the Mikado, the Emperor. Until recently, I had thought that the sovereign authority in Japan was shared between two different persons—one spiritual and the other pertaining to the state. However, the distinction made between spiritual and state power is mere fiddle-faddle. The only difference is that the Mikado is the main fount of power, while the Shogun has been the one who, for decades, has put that power into practice. Despite that, the Mikado can, if he chooses, relieve the Shogun of his duties. Thus, in effect, the Shogun governed but the Mikado, or the emperor, was the real constitutional ruler.
It appears now as if the emperor, upon whose mercy I am dependent here in the ancient city of Kyoto, will in due course reclaim the power that had been stripped from him, to all intents and purposes, some centuries ago. A number of the Shogun’s palaces have already been burnt down in the past few months, and I am told that it is simply a question of time before he is forced once more to go on bended knee before the emperor and to give up his dominion over the land. At present, the true strength of the country—or rather this group of islands, over six thousand in total—lies, and has lain for some decades, actually, in Edo, a vast city east of here which makes even London seem like an insignificant settlement on the edge of the empire, rather than the capita mundi. The emperor’s power and influence over the past few decades have been negligible, and he has not been afforded the same respect and admiration as enjoyed by our own dear queen.
But all this is about to change. There was a time—and not so long ago either—when it was dangerous for a man of another nation to set foot in Japan and even for his ship to drop anchor in one of her ports. The Mikado must have changed his mind on this matter recently and must have come to feel more of a rapport with foreigners just as he came increasingly to resent the Shogun. I am dwelling with the emperor in Kyoto, and my aim and intention is, therefore, with Christ as my guide and protector, to take advantage of my privileged status to ensure that the true faith, Christianity, will be in the vanguard when the emperor takes back his birthright.
Forgive me, my friend, for that contextual preamble, which was necessary for you to be able to understand my situation. Indeed, I derived no small pleasure in putting everything into words in that way, for it has clarified it all in my own mind as well. It has also served sufficiently to convey to you the magnitude of the perilous task that lies ahead of me, for the country is full of fear, terror, and barbarism on all sides. Bloodthirsty heathens lie in wait everywhere and were it not for the will of Christ I would not wish to tarry here a second longer but rather would return home to you. One example will suffice to convey to you the strangeness of these people and the way in which quotidian life is vexatiously different. I am referring to the tea, which the Japanese drink endlessly. We British are thought of as inveterate tea-drinkers, but here in Japan the people assign a central and reverential place to this beverage in rites and customs, except that they drink a green, slimy tea which in my view is by no means pleasant.
In my first days in the palace, when I was still quite weary, Chihiro, a member of the emperor’s retinue, offered to show me some of the sites of the city. Even though I was hardly eager in spirit, for the only thing I wished to do was to lock myself within the palace walls, I accepted her offer. I expressed in the meager Japanese I was able to muster before coming here that I would like to visit a temple, in order to learn more about the strange and terrible religions practised here. I mentioned the only temple I could remember, having read about it in the single book it had been possible to find about the country and which I have by my side now as I write, namely A Brief and Concise Introduction to the Customs, Habits and Practices of the Japanese People, Being Also a Useful and Moral Guide to their Temples and Places of Worship by Albert F. Thrapp. I remembered having read in this book of a magnificent temple, made of fine gold, which glittered on an island in a lake on the edge of the city. I therefore expressed my desire to visit the Ginkaku-ji.
After a good deal of walking and wandering and climbing, we eventually came within sight of a temple on the brow of a hill, with a magnificent garden made of gravel raked in a pattern suggestive of an undulating sea. The effect of this was to quieten the mind and spirit of the visitor. When we gazed beyond this stony sea, however, I was disappointed to see that the temple appeared as gray as the gravel at my feet. Through broken English, even more broken Japanese, a Welsh word here and there, and an excessive amount of hand gestures, I succeeded in discovering from my friend that I should have enquired about the Kinkaku-ji, rather than the Ginkaku-ji, and the alarm and disappointment on her face changed to laughter and contentment. Although I was greatly disappointed, I too could not but laugh with her, and in so doing I realised that this was the first time a veritable smile had appeared on my face since I set foot in this country. It would be wrong to give credence for a moment to the lunacy and barbarism of the Shinto religion or to the devotees of the philosophy known as “Zen,” but it is true to say that I experienced there some of the mental and spiritual calm that comes from spending an hour near that stony sea. To this day, however, I have yet to visit the temple of gold.
Leila, my soul and my companion, I have held forth for far too long, and so here I will bring my letter to a close. There is much more that I wish to describe to you, but it will have to wait for the time being. All that remains to do is for me to express my intense longing for you and for dear little Wales, and to say that I hope one day to return to her maternal lap. Thus I conclude this stream of thoughts for the moment, and I bid you farewell,
Yours, as always,
1 May 1868
My dearest Leila,
I enclose here the following, namely the substance of a speech lately addressed to the government by a Japanese priest:—
The disgraceful religion of Jesus, Lord of Heaven, is an evil which threatens the empire. There are fools who are drawn to that doctrine, and such fools are numerous among our people. Moreover, men from foreign lands are making efforts to spread the word of this doctrine. We are much vexed by this, and we desire that rebuttals be published continually against the doctrine. We are those humble ones who, devoted to the Buddhism which has made Japan great, are ready to live and die for the empire.
This is the type of wickedness, dear friend, in which the country I currently reside in wallows, and I myself am readier than ever to expunge it from the land. I must apologise for sending word to you again so soon after my last missive. However, as you no doubt realised, at the close of my previous tidings, I still have much to convey to you. I urge you to let me know when that first letter has reached the end of its journey, and this second one in its wake. The address is included at the head of the missive, and I am confident that any communication from you will reach its destination in safety.
I long to tell you of my experiences in this extraordinary country. I feel that I am truly on the other side of the world. For the first time in my life—I am accounted to be tall! All here bow to one another and particularly to me, since I am such an utterly strange person to the inhabitants of this land. And although, as I am all too well aware, in my homeland it is May Day—oh, how the passing of the seasons, and the common rituals of life appear to me more clearly, more painfully, and more unattainably here, Lily!—the rites and celebrations here are of quite a different nature: primarily, the tea ceremonies. Chihiro and I attended one of these rituals, and there, on my haunches, with the cup held in both my hands as I passed it on, always to the left, I gained my first taste of the odd but strangely pleasant infusion.
Several days ago I went to visit the Kiyomizu-dera, a grand temple on a hilltop on the edge of the city. Here there is an aura, and a heady, unique perfume, quite different from what I am accustomed to at home in the Land of Song. To my sense of smell it seemed like a mixture of tea leaves, incense, water, and the wood used to build Japanese dwellings, and all of it as it were slowly decomposing. Indeed, these last two elements, wood and water, are highly prominent in Kiyomizu-dera. It is a structure of considerable size which seems as if it were nesting on the hill’s side, and beneath it is a framework like a scaffold or platform which serves as a foundation for the whole. I was informed that not a single nail was used in the whole edifice. The temple takes its name from the waterfall that flows in a raging torrent to the ravine below: the meaning of Kiyomizu is clear or pure water. This torrent is situated beneath the main hall, where the water cascades in channels to a small lake, and where the water can be collected and drunk. For me, a Baptist as you well know, this was appealing and comforting, I must confess, and made me begin to wonder how much difference there actually is between the religions of the world. The paganism of the Japanese seems to imitate or echo some of the rites associated with Christ himself, and whether that is something that should horrify me or not, I do not know. This much I do know: on that hill I was spellbound by the waters.
To my eyes and on the surface it appears that Shinto, the native religion of the country, and Buddhism, a foreign religion to all intents and purposes, lie together and tolerate each other surprisingly peacefully here, certainly more harmoniously than our Nonconformity and Anglicanism, not to mention the animosity among denominations, or the suspicion of Papists. But then these schisms are derived from profound theological considerations which can only arise from spiritual and intellectual depth.
Chihiro and I descended from the hill by a different route, following quiet streets where life was lived as it were in episodes or small, self-sufficient chapters, behind paper doors as thin as a moth’s wing. Suddenly, I was alarmed for I imagined for a moment, Leila, that I saw your face looking out at me from behind one of these doors. However, your visage disappeared as quickly as it had formed. On seeing my alarm, and hearing what I thought I had seen, Chihiro told me that to see a moth, for the Japanese, meant to see the spirit of your beloved, who is about to die or is in purgatory. Was it your face I saw there, Leila? Or was it in truth a moth that was flapping its wings, and creating a ghostly image between candle and paper door?
The incense wafted more strongly from some houses than others; elsewhere, we could hear hushed whispering or the laughter of a child. Then we descended to another district by the name of Gion. Here there were none of the usual street lamps, but rather paper lanterns everywhere, flickering like corpse candles. For some reason it was quieter here too, with no rattling carts or the noise of children playing. Chihiro explained to me that this was the district of the machiya and the ochaya—the teahouses where the geisha practised their ancient and secret craft. Behind every paper door was a completely mysterious world to me, and the only trace I perceived of them was the rows of shoes placed tidily at each entrance. We had a glimpse before leaving of a geiko hurrying across the road, going from one appointment to the next. I had heard much of these women over recent weeks, and I expected to be disgusted at them when I saw them. Yet there was something entrancing about this girl, who walked as if she were floating, and who bore such an expression of peace on her white countenance. Then she disappeared behind a paper door, again almost like a moth, and there was nothing of her to be seen apart from her strange, high shoes on the doorstep. I long to hear from you, my dearest Leila. Send word to me by care of the emperor himself, if you wish:—your letter is certain to reach its destination. To hear from you, or from any of my dear kin or acquaintance in gallant little Wales would be sure to cheer my heart.
I am as ever,
15 May 1868
Although your continued silence dismays me, I persevere with my correspondence in the hope that this letter will reach you as a token of my safety and contentment, if not happiness, here in Japan. I hope and pray that you are all in safety across the distant seas, and that you receive this missive from my hand. I have not heard either from the Baptist Union—who sent me, like Noah’s dove, across the waters. I would be grateful if you would convey to them that I am safe and continuing with my mission here.
My dwelling is now Nijo-jo, a sort of castle within the imperial palace, Ninomaru. Ever since the emperor proclaimed his rule over the land in January this year, plans have been afoot to move the palace and retinue to Edo, and to rename that city “Tokyo.” However, the quarrelling among the noblemen has been such that the move has been postponed for now. There are brawls and battles all across the land, and the young emperor is seldom here in the palace, which is frustrating since I have no occasion to urge him to turn his mind to Jesus Christ and the true faith. Yet this palace, in its own way, is also a world and a universe, because of the complex strata it contains. Only the emperor himself, and those nearest to him—his intended empress, together with his concubines or consorts—may gain admission to the inner sanctum. The remaining members of the court are then disposed according to their rank and importance around that sanctum. Strict control is maintained over these hierarchical strata, and though I am very grateful for the emperor’s hospitality, I am yet on the margins of the outermost circle. Chihiro, however, by virtue of her nobility and her status in the retinue, dwells closest to the inner sanctum. This rigidity is understandable, for the Mikado, the emperor, is constantly under threat of attack or an attempt on his life. It would be difficult to imagine a better defensive position than this one, though, on account of the structure of the castle itself. The wooden walkways surrounding the rooms have been created with such skill and ingenuity that they twitter like birds when they are walked upon: they are called uguisubari, or nightingale floors. The experience of traversing them during the day is quite vexatious; but at night, there is a kind of comfort to be had from hearing the court’s comings and goings, and from knowing that any lurking figure can be heard approaching, if he dares.
Indeed, the civil war is creating such a perilous situation that I feel quite frustrated at not being free to travel about and wander as I would wish. Chihiro and I have become quite good friends, but I am not permitted to venture anywhere outside the palace unless I am in her company. In spite of that, life goes on in the old ruined city, and we are reasonably comfortable although we hear every day news from this place and that about losses and victories. One way of life which has been especially favoured among the nobility for some centuries still persists, as if there were no war happening at all. For that matter, I myself have given way to this way of life—perhaps indeed my peers at home, and you amongst them, Leila, would be inclined to say “excessively.” Yet you do not witness as I do the threat of that ever-present yet distant destruction.
I have completely fallen in love with this way of life: it is commonly referred to as ukiyo or 浮世, which in translation conveys something like “The Floating World.” The life of ukiyo or the Floating World is an entrancing and simple one. The emphasis is placed always and above all else on pleasure and the best things of this world, and on the joys of the flesh. Do you know, for instance, that a particular season is set aside here simply for wandering beneath the cherry trees to savour and admire their blossom? Another season is dedicated to the appreciation of the beauty of the dead. You are aware that from time to time there are earthquakes in these parts, which are prone to shake the foundations of the lives of the whole population. I surmise that it is from the consciousness that their entire world could come crashing down about their ears at any moment that this pleasure-seeking and sensuous way of life derives.
In this world, pleasure is king, and to please that monarch I have been wandering from the kabuki theatre to sumo wrestling contests. I even had the opportunity to see one of the dances of the geiko in Gion, and I was ravished by it. Another way in which this Floating World is manifest in my daily life is in the onnayu. In these public baths, women are treated like minor goddesses and men bow and grovel before them, in a way that would never occur at home in dear little Wales. Here the flesh and nakedness are completely natural, a warmth to be shared among us, as we bathe together and caress one another’s skin. There in the onnayu, Leila my dearest, I experienced a thrill and a kind of earthquake, not entirely unlike those earthquakes which I have not felt since our youthful days together, when—but I am being too bold, to my shame. Do you see the way in which this country has taken me in its clutches and has made me fearless? I almost hope that the fate of this letter will be the same as its predecessors, and that it will never arrive at its destination—your hands and your gaze. And yet—your warm hands, your gaze . . . Do you remember, dear Leila?
I know that my feeble words, unworthy as I am, can never convey to you one grain of the colour, the excitement and the awakening of body and soul, that this way of life gives to one. To me Kyoto possesses an ancient majesty, a ruined, fragmented splendour not to be found in Edo (or Tokyo) nor anywhere else except in a city which was once the centre of a universe but which has now been consigned for a considerable time to the margins. I am under the spell of this city, and I fear that whenever I must leave it will be too soon.
I must now fall silent and take my farewell,
4 June 1868
My dearest Leila,
I am not yet ready or willing to give up hope that one of my letters will reach your hands, nor to refrain from believing that our friendship is still able to fly over land and sea and traverse oceans, as it does at times in my dreams. Thus, I write to you once more—and yet I believe that by now I do so as much for my own sake as for anyone else’s, in order to chronicle the experiences that have come to my part, so that I do not in future, when I look back on the period of my life that I spent here, fail to believe the things I saw, heard, and felt.
At last an opportunity arose to venture abroad a little further because a period of relative peace has descended, and the Emperor has more or less won the day. The rumour is that the entire imperial retinue is preparing to move to Edo. I expressed to Chihiro my desire, before we leave for Tokyo, to travel to the city of Nara, one of the most sacred of cities for the Japanese, and therefore it was arranged for a party of us to undertake an excursion there which was to take the better part of a day. This was a research visit for me, of course, to discover more about the beliefs and temples of Buddhism and Shinto, so that I am better able to educate the people about the True God. I thought that I had had my fill of temples, but these temples were otherworldly and marvelous, to a degree that no other temple will ever again compare to them in my mind. What struck me in the rural location of Nara was the spaciousness, and the small glimpses of temples seen from afar caused a thrill to pass through me. As we passed by them, I could not resist passing my fingers heedlessly over a row of prayer wheels. I immediately felt ashamed of myself.
There in the Todai-ji, a gigantic and ancient temple, the largest wooden building in the world, is the largest brazen statue of the Buddha ever made. The place makes one light-headed as one stands within its holy precincts. Dear Leila, I have an utterly miraculous story to relate to you, one that even now I can scarcely believe. I am sure that you have heard of the origins of the Brythonic people, of how we came from the womb of Europe, or the sooty depths of Asia and the mountains of Siberia. You will have some interest therefore in the belief in these parts that the true roots and origins of the mighty Celt lie much further back than that.
Is not our history as Celts and Brythonic peoples one long journey toward the west? After traversing the wide-open steppes of Russia and the darkest depths of Asia, civilizing benighted Europe, we landed on the furthest shores of the edge of the known world. Then after we were subjugated and lost our own lands and our language, on, on again across the great ocean toward the land of Canaan! To settle once more on the margins of Brazil and the shores of America, where Madoc had been a founding father before us. Yet here am I, having returned to the east, going against the grain, as I have done so often in my desire to break free of the bonds of this poor, weak, female body.
But I think that here I have come across a little story—whether it is a story or a fable, I do not know—to explain the origins of the Welsh people, even further back than their sojourn in furthest Russia.
There was a short, genial-looking monk dressed in gray sackcloth guiding us around the temple. When I told him that I came from Wales originally, he smiled broadly, bowed, and then laughed. He was utterly delighted—Wales was famous in Japan once. Indeed, in this man’s opinion, Wales and Japan had an indissoluble connection with each other, and he had been waiting patiently for some decades to meet one of our compatriots. The man said that one of the Buddha’s disciples had asked his master as they sat meditating in the very hall in which we stood: what can I do to reach Nirvana? There was a round hole in one of the wooden columns of the temple, no bigger than a pig’s bladder. In order to reach Nirvana, his teacher said to him, it was necessary to meditate deeply and for a long time, and that would be enough to pass through that little hole. Unfortunately, this pupil was unable to meditate sufficiently. The Buddha thought carefully, and then said to his pupil: if you were able to meditate long and deeply enough, without a break and concentrating so hard that you could create and imagine a whole nation in your own mind, completely formed and whole, with all the talents and attributes that belong to a nation, then you would be able to pass through the hole to Nirvana, for you would have reached the furthest depths and breadth of your thoughts.
You will never believe the story, Leila, but according to the monk who told me the tale, this pupil embarked conscientiously on his meditation and continued for six months and six days. He sat in the Hall of Dreams with his back straight and his eyes closed, and he did not move a muscle. His hair and his beard and his nails grew long. Food was brought to him every day, but when they came back to fetch the crockery hours later, the bowl and the chopsticks were untouched. By the time he emerged from his meditations at the end of this period, he had fully formed in his mind a little nation of people, who lived on the margins of Europe, on the rocky edges of the continent, its edges stretching out toward the ocean, a very different ocean from the one with which the pupil himself was familiar. This nation was open to the elements, but she had mountains too, small mountains in comparison with giants such as Fuji, but mountains which nevertheless sometimes acted as a refuge and shelter.
And yet—and yet . . . He was a pupil, and neither his mind nor his ability had achieved its full development and amplitude, and the result was that he imagined a kind of unfinished nation, a wretched half-made nation, with a long and sorrowful past, but possessing no future. She had no national institutions, and she had for centuries suffered under the yoke of a powerful foreign nation. Indeed, she had been in thrall to that nation for so long that she had begun to deceive herself into believing that she was a part of that larger nation, and had been tempted and encouraged to perform the wicked deeds of the larger nation for it. This was a half-nation, and the Buddha was quite disappointed with the pitiful meditative gifts of his disciple. He said as much to him; “But they have their own language,” argued the pupil, “and a long and venerable literary tradition in that language, both oral and written, and poets galore to maintain the memory of the glories of the past, and an old, old religion.” The Buddha replied, “Is that enough to sustain a nation? Isn’t there a need for more than a tradition, more than antiquity, in order to become a full member of the nations of the world?”
The monk smiled, and said to me, “Wales was the nation that the pupil imagined.”
I did not return his smile. I was annoyed and agitated! Was I not there, standing in front of him, as true as the day, the Welshest of Welsh girls that ever set foot on this land? I retorted that the Welsh nation was a small but proud one, and that she most certainly existed. She is not the culmination of the dreams of some lowly, inept monk. The monk’s only reply was to take my hand and lead me across the hall, and there was the self-same hole in the wooden pillar—exactly the same size as a pig’s bladder.
Look here, I protested, could I not speak the Welsh language to him? Was that not proof in itself that the language of heaven and its homeland existed? He continued to smile, alleging that what emerged from my mouth and entered his ears was a series of meaningless sounds and symbols. Much more evident to him, he said, from looking at me, was that I looked like a girl from Japan in my clothing, my carriage, my conduct and, yes, even in my language. There was no quarrelsomeness or hatred in his argument, nothing but tenderness.
I became ashamed and was disgusted at myself. The monk was perfectly correct. I have for some time abandoned my old clothing and have taken to wearing the fashions of the court, I arrange my hair carefully every morning, and have taken, hesitatingly, to applying a thin layer of white powder to my cheeks. I saw myself for what I am now: I have become Japanese and I am no longer a Welshwoman (at least, not from the outside). But I vowed that I would return, dressed in the best Sabbath dress of my youth, with the language of my forefathers on my lips, with pictures and books from the old country to show him.
I was not as sure of myself when I returned dejectedly to the old city a few days later. From where had I come? Had Wales been merely a foolish dream? Oh my dear Leila, write to me soon, so that I can persuade myself that you are no illusion, nor is the country that was everything to me for so long, and that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross was no fleeting dream.
27 June 1868
I am sorry for the lengthy lapse of time since my last letter, for the spirit of haste and anxiety in which I write these tidings, and for the things which I am forced to disclose in sending you these words. However, great events have befallen, and the world has changed, indeed many worlds have changed. I apologise also if you have recently seen fit to write to me in Nijo-jo—I no longer have my dwelling there, and I fear that I will never in my lifetime see the place again.
It is odious to me to place these words on record, but the truth must be told somewhere, even if that truth happens to be lost somewhere on the wide ocean. Leila, you know how I gave myself thoroughly and uncompromisingly to the ukiyo way of life. I ventured so far away from my Christian upbringing! My fall was complete. I have already expressed to you (I will no longer call you by the polite form “chwi”; calling you “ti” will be the least of my transgressions) the way in which I became accustomed to the daily onnayu, and it was there in one of the public bath-houses that I became acquainted with a flock of geiko. I was extraordinarily bold in bathing in their company; such comfort in our mutual nakedness I had never felt before. Yet that in itself was not the worst sin, though it was a foreshadowing of what was to come. Their company had awoken in me the desire for sweet flesh and a passion for soft, young skin. Moreover, not just any flesh, but—oh! To record it here for the first time fills me with terror and relief—a woman’s flesh. Leila, I desired your flesh once, and to declare that now is of no concern because I know that I will never see you again.
The truth of it is that I, still yearning for you, was caught in bed with Chihiro in her chamber. I can only wonder at my own daring and boldness, and even today I do not understand why I acted as I did, unless there was something, which had until then lain hidden and buried within me, that had been revealed and exhumed by this miraculous country and its customs. The emperor’s foot soldiers heard my footsteps tiptoeing across the nightingale floor to Chihiro’s chamber. I was so certain that I had taken every precaution! I do not know whether this will horrify you further and fill you with disgust, Leila, but I find it incumbent upon me to emphasise that I did not feel, and I do not feel, any passionate love for Chihiro. It was entirely a physical attraction, and an attraction that seemed wholly natural in the nakedness of the baths, and in the heat of the sheets of her castle, but one which, now that I am some distance away from there, is completely distasteful to me. Yet I can do no less than bleed for her, for she was apprehended and I escaped, and her dearest wish to become in due course a handmaiden to the emperor is now in tatters.
At this time, since I succeeded in escaping, I am in hiding here in Hakone, a small town near the foot of Mount Fuji where boiling water bubbles up from the depths of the earth, and where it flows and escapes not far from here in yellow bubbles and a noisome odour. The journey here was long and tiring, and the climb through the damp, wooded foothills wearisome. I worried constantly that I did not resemble everyone else, and that they would ostracise me. But oh! such humility and kindness have I encountered on all sides. The climb almost finished me, but I was able to rest one night in the home of an old woman, and to taste once more that healing draught, green tea. I went on by the mountain ways until I arrived here in this spot so remote that the emperor’s soldiers may never find me. I gained shelter in an isolated boarding house, not far from the lake, and here I am still with hardly any possessions or treasures, composing these words in the light of a paper lantern.
I am cold here. I went in the blink of an eye from the company and life and noise of the court to this state of loneliness and exile in Hakone of the mountains and boiling waters. The scent of incense has been displaced by the scent of sulphur. I hide here with no word or news from anywhere, not knowing what has happened to the court at Kyoto nor to any of my old friends there. The owner of the boarding house and some of the inhabitants of this scattered community are kind enough: but they are also suspicious of me, and though they do not wish to drive me away, they do not wish to have cordial relations with me, especially in these worrying, warlike times. That is what is difficult, I believe—I have this desire to escape from myself to be with someone else. I do everything with just myself for company—it is no surprise that I begin to tire of that company! Leila, in my shame, I beg you now—if you wish to send word, send it here to this address to lighten the spirit of a sinner such as myself.
Note with letter A35
There is a significant gap in the correspondence between letter A34 and A35, and it is uncertain whether there are some letters missing or not. It is quite possible that Ms Morgan stopped writing for a time in order to avoid being found. Another possibility is that she did not have access to writing equipment, such as pens and paper or parchment. The next letter in the series is remarkable because it is written in katakana, the simplest and most basic alphabet in Japanese, often used to express words and syllables in foreign languages; as far as is known, this is the only substantial attempt ever made to write Welsh using this alphabet. The letter, once translated, is dated “the eighth day of the ninth month,” the first time that Dolores used this system of dating, which means (according to the western calendar) 23 October 1868.
The eighth day of the ninth month, 1868
My dearest Leila,
I write to you, though I know with considerable certainty that no such person as you exists, and that the hours I spent in your company were no more than a dream which lasted a little too long after awakening. I have received no word from you since my arrival here in Nippon, and I worried about that for a long time; I understand now that there was never a possibility that you would answer me, for you are no more than a ghost, a vague illusion conjured from my own imagination.
I have experienced a trace of the inner peace that comes with deep meditation and with following the way of the Buddha. Here in the mountains where the water emerges warm from the earth I feel that my self is becoming whole. I feel that I have been climbing Mount Fuji, have been on a long journey and am on the verge of reaching the end, almost at the peak.
By now I long for one thing above all else, namely to be able to return to Nara, to thank that monk who revealed to me those things which I always knew in my heart, who made clear to me the illusion of what I imagined and dreamed, and who awoke me to my true life. I was called away from that small nation on the margins of Europe, the nation that does not exist except in the mind of one monk, in order to return here to the Land of the Rising Sun. I know now that Wales never existed except in my dreams.
If the court were to go to Edo, I might perhaps venture down from the mountains and visit the temple in Nara. I could return to sit at the feet of the monk, and lay before him my entire soul in order to meditate there for the rest of my life, and one day be able to pass through that hole to Nirvana. However, just two days ago I heard a rumour that the emperor had been crowned in Kyoto, with his empress by his side and his concubine in the vanguard of his retinue. I do not know what became of Chihiro. The Great Empire, Dai Nippon Teikoku, is reaching its zenith, and I rejoice in that. I bear no ill will toward the emperor nor to any of his court. Yet for me, there can be no return. As it stands, I can see only one means of escape, and in that I will be imitating the samurai themselves. The emperor and an entire class of nobles were brought to their knees; what hope therefore can there be for a missionary like myself who dreamt for so long of a nation that did not exist? Yet I can put an end to my floating way of life in the same way that they did, and in so doing gain control, at least, over my own death if not over my life, and turn into a mere moth.
If you existed, Leila, I would explain to you something I learned and came to understand quite recently. I will do so now, and I will send this letter, in the hope that it will reach the end of its journey somewhere, on the margins of Europe where the land’s edge prostrates itself to an ocean that is quite different from the one I can see far beyond the horizon in Sagami Bay. There is another word in this language which sounds to the ear exactly the same as the ukiyo by which I was once infatuated. In order to explain the difference, I must turn to the kanji syllabary. Ukiyo, the “Floating World,” is spelt like this: 浮世. But the word ukiyo has another meaning. It is spelt 浮き世 and it means “Sorrowful World.” This is the world of trouble and grief and sorrow, of death and rebirth, from which the followers of Buddha seek to escape. In my folly, Leila, though in an artificial language from the margins of Europe, I fear that I confused these two things atrociously, the floating world and the sorrowful world, without thinking for a moment that the two could, in the end, lead to the same place.
"Dolores Morgan's Letters from the Far East" © Llŷr Gwyn Lewis. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Katie Gramich. All rights reserved.