The Japanese Lady-in-Waiting Who Became the World’s First Travel Writer

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A thousand years ago, an adventurous young woman revolutionized travel writing.

In the 11th century, a young girl journeyed from Kyoto to a province so remote it was beyond Japan’s Great East Road. Traveling in those days was uncomfortable and full of dangers. There were highway robbers to contend with and mountain ranges to cross. Yet twelve-year-old Sarashina didn’t see those issues. As she traveled with her father—who was taking up a new assistant governor posting—she just saw beauty.

Snow-topped Mount Fuji gave the impression of a mountain wearing a white jacket over a dress of deepest violet. The hills of Nishitomi appeared like a row of beautifully painted folding screens. As young Sarashina drank clean, sweet water from mineral springs and walked pure white beaches by the Sagami Sea, she fell in love with travel.

Sarashina as a Young Woman

Born in 1008, Sarashina grew up during Japan’s Heian period. Upper-class women like her had little freedom and were expected to live sedentary lives in dark rooms, hidden by screens and sliding doors. They wore 12-layered robes so heavy it was difficult to move freely. To look beautiful, they blackened their teeth and—if they could—grew their hair even longer than they were tall.

Of her trips, she wrote, “Some were delightful, some difficult, but I found great solace in them all.”

After that first journey, when Sarashina was a young woman, her family moved back to Kyoto. However, she longed for the countryside. Unable to travel solo as a single woman in her twenties, she asked her mother to accompany her on a pilgrimage or two.

“How terrifying!” said, her mother, according to Sarshina’s diary. “If we go to Hase, we may be attacked by brigands on Nara Slope and what will become of us then? Ishiyama is also very dangerous because one has to cross the barrier mountain. And Mount Kurama—oh, how that would scare me!” The most she would allow her daughter “was a retreat to Kiyomizu” on the edge of Kyoto, wrote a disappointed Sarashina.

In her early thirties, Sarashina left home and began working as a lady-in-waiting to one of the royal princesses. The walls of the imperial court were filled with gossip and most courtiers cared little of the world outside Kyoto. But Sarashina was not most courtiers.

At age 36—which was practically geriatric at the time—she married a middling government official named Tachibana Toshimichi. They had three children together, and he was soon packed off to remote postings across the country. Sarashina stayed behind, and as soon as she got some independence, she began taking her own pilgrimages.

The Travels of Lady Sarashina

As an upper-class woman, Sarashina was expected to travel in a sedan that had just a slit for seeing the world. But from her chair, she saw the beauties of the countryside. There were mountainsides that looked like a “great cloth of brocade.” Streams of water “bubbled like drops of crystal.”

Of her trips, she wrote, “Some were delightful, some difficult, but I found great solace in them all.”

Sarashina wrote of mist-shrouded moons and the rustling of bamboo leaves. She made her world come alive.

On every pilgrimage, Sarashina wrote. This was a perfectly acceptable hobby for a woman. Along with music and calligraphy, poetry was one of a few acceptably “ladylike” pastimes for a woman. No Kyoto courtier—male or female—was likely to get through the day without writing and receiving poems. All that writing practice saw a cultural explosion of amazing literature. Women had an advantage over men. They were expected to use the pure Japanese language, seen as soft and feminine, instead of the clunky Chinese-Japanese hybrid favored by male writers of the time.

These days, men’s literature from this time is read by no more than a handful of scholars. The world’s first modern novel, The Tale of Genji, came from the brush of Japanese lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century. The Pillow Book, still seen as a masterpiece, was a series of essays and observations written by another court lady, Sei Shōnagon, in 1002. And then, of course, there was Sarashina.

The World’s First Travel Literature

Sarashina’s travel writing was different from that of the third-century Greek geographer Pausanias, who is often called the first travel writer. He wrote a practical guide to Greece, whereas Sarashina’s reflections and poems aren’t useful in the slightest. Sarashina wrote of mist-shrouded moons and the rustling of bamboo leaves. She made her world come alive.

No other Heian ladies left robust records of their travels in Japan. There is nothing like it in other literature from that period. By writing in a unique way—long before there was Jan Morris, Paul Theroux, or Pico Iyer—Lady Sarashina was one of the first known travel writers and the inventor of travel literature as we know it.

Sarashina didn’t give her only book a name, but scholars called it As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, and Japanese high school students still read tales of her adventures today.