In early July, just before the end of the rainy season, I went to Biwako (Lake Biwa), the largest fresh water lake in Japan, and was struck by some cloud formations on that hot, humid afternoon. My friend Mr. Ikeda told me that the cloud I was admiring has a name, 入道雲.
It’s a towering type of cloud formation associated with summer, imposing in the way a bodybuilder might be, muscle bound and commanding attention. Even with these attributes, I probably only noticed the にゅうどうぐも and pointed them out because I was at a lakeside BBQ party and was taking the time to just relax and chat and breath in new surroundings.
Mr. Ikeda taught me the word’s kanji as we gazed at the sky, which, as is so often the case, really helped me to set the word in my mind. And after I got home, my dictionary informed me that 入道 can refer to a bald-headed monster. This is not a cloud that’s used to being ignored!
Then, just a couple days later, as I strolled by a gallery exhibition on my way to do some shopping, I noticed a painting through the glass and there was ‘my’ cloud!
I walked in and admired various scenes of small town life. Mr. Aikawa, the man behind the paintings, happened to be there and I told him about my new friend the 入道雲, and how we were introduced just days before and here, by chance, I’d just noticed those columns of clouds again his warm, nostalgic work.
If I hadn’t taken the time to see the clouds and comment on them at Biwako, I wouldn’t have even suspected they had a name other than their scientific term. And in turn, if I hadn’t known that name, I wouldn’t have taken the time to take that refreshing detour and enter the world of Mr. Aikawa’s work and be afforded a glimpse of what his childhood in the castle town of Hikone outside of Kyoto must have been like.
This was my second introduction to a cloud. Late last year a yoga lesson mate spontaneously pointed to the sky out the window as we stretched and chatted before class and told me that we were looking at an 鰯雲, a sardine cloud. If the 入道雲 is the musclebound, imposing type, the いわしぐも might be his skinny kid brother. Named for their resemblance to a fish’s scales, they’re fixtures in the fall sky.
Japanese people seem surprised when I tell them that I don’t know what to call various cloud formations in English. There are scientific names, of course, and I came across the term ‘thunder cloud’ when I looked this topic up in writing this post, but I’d never heard it myself. Japanese people seem to take for granted the widely known, richly descriptive language they’ve inherited that’s attached to so many natural phenomena.
As so often happens when I learn a new Japanese word, my eyes are opened to something that was there all the time, that I didn’t notice or know what to call in either Japanese or English in many cases. Living in Japan gives me ample chances to use the language that I learn, and time spent studying has obvious practical payoffs. Beyond that though, instances like this remind me of what a wonderful lens to see the world through my studies have become.
And while I’ve got my head in the clouds, I’m reminded of a thought provoking, engaging article written by William Reed that uses the sky to pose some interesting questions that you can find here. It includes thoughts on the kanji character 空（くう) and its various levels of meaning in relation to Buddhist thought and Japanese culture. Mr. Reed’s columns are a great resource for those who have an interest in Japan, whether you’re studying the language or not.
I’m curious about what other words there are to describe clouds in English and Japanese. Do you know of any?
Originally posted 2012-08-08 08:45:28.