Thursday 16 December 2010

The Nightingale Floor and the Empty Orchestra

I have never been to Japan, but imagine it to be a place of poetry, because their words are so beautiful. Japan itself is Chinese for sun risingNippon is Japanese for the same, and their language is filled with such word-pictures.

Take karaoke, which I once associated only with those who possess less shame than talent. Then I found that karaoke means empty orchestra and now I cannot hear those plaintive tuneless ululations without imagining the void among the violins, the emptiness filled only in remote repetitions.

And the empty orchestra of karaoke therefore relates to the empty hand of karate.

And manga, the darling of the spotted adolescent, seems pimpled by association until you find that manga means involuntary images, and that the term was popularised, if not coined, back in the 1814 by the great artist Hokusai, who painted the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, and the Great Wave Off Kanagawa.

Yet we have not, dear occidental (and maybe accidental) reader, imported Japan's most delectable phrase: the nightingale floor. A nightingale floor, or uguisubari, is the creaky floorboard that sings as you tread upon in your noctivagant wanderings. Before I had heard the phrase I would get all ratty and worried at the nocturnal noise I made fetching a glass of water or hunting owls. But now that I know that those creaks are the singing of wooden nightingales, they have become beautiful.

In Japan they would make such floors deliberately so that people could not tiptoe into a temple undetected. In England we have been making them accidentally for years, without ever using the proper name.

Preparing a post at the Inky Fool offices


  1. Fun fact: "Across the Nightengale Floor" is the name of an exceptionally fun Japanese fantasy novel by Lian Hern. Not Earth-shatteringly brilliant, but fun.

    (If you want Earth-shatteringly brilliant, check out Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart.)

  2. Bridge of Birds! Elizabeth, you've inspired me to unpack my books... well, some of them, anyway. I haven't read that for ages.

    Have you read The Nightingale, by Kara Dalkey, one of the rather good Fairy Tale Series? It's not as brilliant as some of the others in that series, but it is fun.

  3. No! I'll definitely check it out.

  4. There is no light all the night of my nights
    eternal, fragile, enigmatic, bright
    But on viewless wings still wouldest thou sing?