Himebotaru: the fireflies of Aioiyama
(first published in the Bulletin)
It is almost completely dark. Monday 29th May. A night with no moon. The sky glows with the lights of the city: it’s really so close but it might be a million miles away. Occasionally we hear the wail of a siren like a message from a distant world. Here in the forest there is hardly any sound, no wind, no night birds. Even our footsteps are muffled. I can hardly see anything as I follow F-san and K-san. Now and then they stop and check the temperature and humidity by the dim light of a torch. F-san takes photos, and counts to himself. He has been watching fireflies in this place most of his life and has been recording them for years.
I have come to Aioiyama, outside the city of Nagoya, to see fireflies. I visited this place, a piece of forest around the temple Tokurinji, a few years ago and everyone told me about the fireflies. ‘You must come and see them,’ they said. ‘One day I will,’ I promised and now I am here at the end of May, and the fireflies (the himebotaru or princess fireflies) are here too. It’s like a pilgrimage, the fulfilment of a promise made to friends, made to myself. Somehow all my expectations are fulfilled – exceeded even. The fireflies are everything I had hoped they would be.
F-san and K-san know the mountain intimately but it’s the first time I’ve been to these places. I don’t know their names or where they lie in relationship to each other but I want to remember them so I make up names for them. First is the ‘Deep Forest’. It’s very dark and to my excitement we see lots of fireflies. The darker it is the brighter and larger they seem. The fireflies flash on and off regularly, in rhythm with each other, and in complete silence. They float through the darkness, often coming close to our faces. I can’t help holding out my hands as if I hope one will alight on my outstretched palm, but they do not notice me nor are they afraid. We stand for a long time, enchanted. There is no one else here.
It’s different at the next place which I call ‘Under the Plum Trees’. Here watching fireflies is a more social event. There are many local people out walking, some with their dogs. They stop and chat with each other, exchanging gossip, comparing this year with last year. Last year there were more, they say, and F-san confirms this. While he takes photos K-san and I sit down on the ground: it seems to be a better angle to see the fireflies beneath the low branches of the plum trees.
Quite close to here is the ‘Empty Pool’, which was drained when houses were built in the neighbourhood. It’s grassy underfoot and I feel as if the waters are still somewhere, waiting to return. In other parts of Japan clean rivers are essential for types of fireflies like the genjibotaru but the himebotaru does not depend on water. A few glimmer here beneath the circle of trees. We walk back between the houses as quietly as possible: it’s nearly midnight and local people are trying to go to sleep. I suppose the privilege of having fireflies light your garden for these days of late May and early June is tempered by the annoyance of other noisier nocturnal visitors.
Next we plunge back into what I call ‘Deep Forest with Steps’; F-san moves rapidly, warning me in a low voice of each step, and I follow him blindly, trying not to think about falling over, to be rewarded again by the elusive flickering lights. We return up a different track with more steps and emerge in another orchard which I call ‘Under the Plum Trees 2.’ This is a favourite spot with photographers and there is more of a crowd of people, again crouching or sitting on the ground. Many of them know each other, many are Friends of Aioiyama.
Like so many things in Japan if you sit down you get a better view. I reflect on this and wonder what difference it will make as more Japanese people move from sitting on the floor to using Western style chairs. I love the perspective of seeing from ground level and here beneath the spreading branches of the plum trees the fireflies are framed as if they were on a stage. They look smaller and are more easily comprehended, though they are no less magical. Perhaps this is why there are so many photographers here. In The Tale of Genji, Genji gives a young man a view of a beautiful girl by the light of a swarm of fireflies in a bag of thin silk. People in the past used to collect fireflies in tiny woven cages. Now they pursue them with cameras. I’ve seen many photographs now of fireflies. They are spectacular in themselves, but they do not really do justice to the true beauty of these tiny floating lights. At one stage K-san and I get up and stand behind one of the photographers and watch his view of fireflies on his digital screen. The photographers have stunning modern equipment to capture the fireflies, yet nothing can compare to the view through the naked eye from ground level.
Fireflies communicate through light yet the process and the purpose are still only partly understood. We can conclude it is simply one more form of sexual reproduction out of Nature’s inexhaustible imagination, but human imagination has its own ways of responding to the world, both scientific and poetic.
After measuring and counting here we return to the forest – the ‘Bamboo Forest’, I name it. The slender trunks of the bamboo are yet another setting for the drama of the fireflies. We have left most people behind under the plum trees and even though I know that they are still there, that the city of Nagoya is just out of sight on the other side of the hill and that if it were daylight I would see where I truly am, in a small park in the suburbs, I am transported to a more ancient and remote world. Japanese literature is fill of resonances and echoes and some of these touch me now.
It’s somehow in keeping with this that the next place we visit should actually be called, K-san tells me, ‘The Stage’. I don’t have to make up a name for it. The hill rises up like a backdrop. This is the last place fireflies appear each season, and they are already here. So we have reached the peak of the firefly season. For the next few days there will be many, and then they will start to decline in numbers. It’s such a short time, I am so grateful that they came the week I was in Nagoya.
A little way from here, in what I call ‘Dark Forest with Canopy,’ the mist is starting to creep over the mountain. It makes it look as if we are under a canopy of tree branches. Their tracery curves above us as if sheltering us and the fireflies that gleam below. It’s after 2.00am and time to go to bed. K-san and I stay the night in the temple at Tokurinji; I lie awake for a while thinking about journeys and pilgrimages, how they have been part of Japanese life for hundreds of years, and how temples have always offered lodging to travellers.
It’s been unforgettable: the smell of the woods, the silence, the darkness, and the miraculous, flashing lights of tiny creatures. They are oblivious to us but they are not safe from us and our demands on their habitat. As I am falling asleep thinking of the silent fireflies in the forest just before dawn I remember something F-san said as we walked through one of my ‘Deep Forests’. ‘This is where the road is going to be built. Right here.’ Plans are already going ahead for this road. My joy at seeing the fireflies turns to deep sadness. I wonder if I will ever see fireflies at Aioiyama again.