One evening, I wandered through the ancient geisha quarter of Kyoto as night began to fall over the houses, and life to stir within them. The crooked, narrow streets were secret in the dusk, but still I could catch snatches from within: laughter from some inner passage, figures outlined in an upstairs window, the whitened face of an apprentice geisha slipping like a ghost into a waiting taxi.
By the time the street led out onto a busy road, it was dark, and I could just make out, in front of me, the entrance to a park. Inside the giant torii gates, I found myself amidst a carnival of lights like nothing I had ever seen, or dreamed, before. Families were gathered by the side of a pond, ringed by lanterns, and lamplit stalls were set along their paths. A surge of people were marching up a path, and as I hurried after them, the way led through the darkness and into another, broader path, framed on both sides by lanterns. The lights, red and white, bobbed ahead of us, up another slope, and then along a further path, until, all of a sudden, the path gave way to a kind of plateau. Around me, families ducked under lanterns or darted into shrines to have their fortunes told, inscribed in calligraphy on wooden blocks. Above me, lights danced across the hill like fireflies.
As I began to climb, the noise fell away, and the crowds started to thin out. Soon I was far above the town, alone in a world of lanterns. For on this night, the Night of a Thousand Lanterns, lights had been placed beside every grave, to lead departed spirits back to Buddha. And I, somehow, without knowing it, had found my way alone into an ancient graveyard. For many minutes I stood there, in the company of ghosts and shivering lights.
When finally I made my way back down, and into the festive streets, the spell did not shatter, but only gained texture and animation. Round businessmen in loosened ties went reeling arm in arm amidst the weaving lights, and gaggles of giggling girls shuffled behind, fluent in their best kimono. The teahouses along the Kamo River were strung with lights this summer night, and large parties were gathered on the wooden terraces, set on stilts above the moonlit water. Along the darkened riverbank, lovers sat side by side, spaced out at regular intervals, as self-contained as in some tableau vivant. I had passed through a looking glass and into a world of dreams.