The Sound of Water (IV): Lakes & Ponds 2. Lake Biwa

. Lake Biwa is the largest freshwater lake in Japan. It was created by an ancient movement of the Earth’s crust. It has many rivers running into it, but only one outlet, which has several names: Setagawa as it flows out of the lake, Ujigawa as it passes by the famous temple Byodoin, and Yodogawa as it flows through Osaka. If you look at this river on a map, you might wonder about its rather tortuous course. Scientists say that originally this river ran into Ise Bay, but as the Suzuka Mountain Range rose higher and higher, it caused a change in its course. Its proximity to Nara and Kyoto makes this lake very important in many ways – political, religious, and economic. Basho loved this lake, as the following poem testifies:

At the end of spring
 I deplored its departure
 With my Omi friends.

Kyorai (1651~1704) has an interesting comment on this poem. Apparently Shohaku (1650~1722) criticized his master’s poem by saying, “Omi could easily be changed to Tanba or any other place.” To this, Kyorai answered, “No, that is not true. Omi is the best place to bid farewell to spring because mist over the lake helps us to deplore its departure.” Basho is reported to have sided with Kyorai by saying, “I agree. Many ancients, too, wrote poems about departing spring in Omi, no less than in Kyoto.” I believe this report shows that Basho had a special attachment to Omi, especially Lake Biwa. In Sarumino, an anthology published in 1671, a short preface is added to this poem, saying that it was written at Karasaki, which is a beautiful spot on the southwestern side of the lake. This place has long been famous for its Pine-tree. Even today, we can see a pine that stretches its arms in all directions. The Pine-tree of Basho’s time was a generation prior to the present one and much bigger. Basho’s poem runs:

 Dimmer than the cherries,
 The Pine-tree of Karasaki
 Hazed in thick mist.

. Kyorai recorded an interesting comment about this poem, too. Kikaku (1661~1707) is reported to have criticized his master’s hokku by saying, “The way the poem ends with にて (ni-te) makes it more suitable for the third verse. I wonder why our master has made it a hokku.” Kyorai admits that Kikaku has a point, but insists that the poem should be taken as a piece of pure description, and that it is indeed suitable as a hokku as it is.
. Not far from Karasaki, we have another celebrated spot, Katada, where there is an ancient shrine, Ukimido, standing out in the lake. Basho wrote a beautiful hokku here.

 Unbar the door
 And invite the moon to shine
 Into this floating shrine.

When I visited the shrine, its entrance door was open, and all the shining statues housed in it were looking out on the lake as if praying for its safety. Beyond the far shore, I could see the comely cone of Mt. Mikami, about which Basho wrote the following poem:

 Like the heavenly swan,
 Heron, bridge the snowy mountains,
 Hira and Mikami.

Mt. Hira and Mt. Mikami are on opposite sides of the Lake, so Basho is telling the heron to fly across the water like the legendary swan which soars across the Milky Way once a year to bring together the stars of the Two Lovers, the Cowherd (Altair) and the Weaver (Vega). I am impressed by the scale and warmth of Basho’s vision in this poem.

(to be continued…)

* Lake Biwa area ; ** area to the northwest of Kyoto


14 Responses to “The Sound of Water (IV): Lakes & Ponds 2. Lake Biwa”

  1. Forgive me, but I really feel unsure about whether this is an essay or a haibun. I can always change the tag, if you like, for the Icebox certainly has room for essays, too.
    The reason for my doubts is that your very interesting piece tells us about Basho and his relationship with the Lake, whereas in a haibun I would expect an equal amount about you – or, to put it more precisely, about your perspective on things.
    For example, might it be possible to insert one of your own watery haiku somewhere to help boost the present-day dimension?
    I hope you don’t mind debating this point in public, as others may like to read your reply. People often ask me “What is the difference between a haibun and an essay?”

    • The difference between haibun and essay is difficult to draw, but in my view, the presence of ‘I’ must be felt in haibun, while essay is more objective. The present piece was divided into two parts much against my will. If you put the two parts together, you will be able to feel the presence of ‘I’. I am trying to write a different type of hiaubn each time. In the present piece, I am trying to combine scholarship and poetry as Kyorai has done in his essays, some of which can be taken as haibun in my view because he has adopted a conversational style.

      • This is exactly where the Japanese trad. view of haibun and the present Western one divide. As I understand it, the Japanese word has a much broader meaning of ‘prose written by a haiku poet’ and could include essays. Such pieces can even be instructive, as is yours. It is very interesting for us all to find the variety of style in your ongoing series, ‘The Sound of Water’. The option for longer haibun is the Longer Haibun page, as discussed, but the problem with that is many will miss reading it. I am sorry to read here that it was against your will to publish the piece in two halves. I had thought you were happy to do so. In view of this, shall we bring forward publication of the second part?

  2. It is interesting that Lake Biwa has come up as a topic. Just last weekend, the lovely Lady Kimiko and I spent two days in the Biwa Hotel (we are members and hence get a discount, especially on this off-season period). Rooms all face the lake. The first day, nothing but rain; second day, nothing but blazing sunshine; third day, nothing but rain. We didn’t leave the hotel except for evening meal on the second night; Kimiko had a deadline to meet, and staying at home it could not be accomplished for all the phone calls, visitors, shopping, etc.
    I, for the most part, slept. When not giving the pillow a task to preform, I was gazing out over the water. We have often gone to the lake, we love it so much. But for some reason, this time I noticed that the horizon, with its hills, buildings, distant stuff, existed solely as a narrow line between the blue of the lake and the blue of the sky. I was so struck by this that I tried to write a haiku for it. I struggled over this, and want to share with the members the struggle and its evolution.

    crushed between flowing liquid and air,
    a thin line of very still earth

    blue lake, blue shy,
    divided by a thin line
    covered in a gray haze

    old, vast lake, older sky,
    sliced apart,
    a thin line of gray human noise

    a vision of Michigan
    floating twix sea, shy;
    I long for my home.

    (The end-wheeler, Michigan, is a gift from my home state to the Prefecture of Shiga; they are sister entities.)
    The four haiku are listed in the order I wrote them; I always edit my poetry, and these are no exception. I tried to capture that line of nature and civilization, so very thin, caught, in a way, between the two blues. I am not happy with the results, and would love feedback. I like the basic concept; but I don’t seem to be able to put it in nice words of poesy.
    Richard S.

    • What connects your piece, R.Steiner, with Nobuyuki’s is that ‘haze’ of your second poem and the ‘floating’ of your fourth. Nobuyuki (and Basho behind him) has brought out nicely the aspect of Lake Biwa as a myth-invoking body, and a transporting place for the spirit, and I feel this strongly in your own observations of the Lake.
      I have just now put the phone down after a conversation with a Shiga friend, who went to Zeze yesterday to demonstrate against the restart of the Oi Nuclear Power Plant just beyond Lake Biwa’s northern edge. I hate to think of the risk they are taking with Kansai’s water. I myself prayed for the Lake last month with Kazue on the island of Chikubushima. Biwa-ko is a treasure of enchantments.

  3. Richard Donovan Says:

    I anticipate diving into the cool waters of Lake Biwa later this month. Sosui, thank you for the historical perspective of Basho’s poems, and I look forward to the second part.

    Richard, I like your third version best, with its telling juxtaposition of the immense beauty of nature’s constructs and our rather underwhelming, but brutally intrusive, ones. Perhaps borrowing the “haze” from the other poem rather than “noise”? Also, “sky” has become “shy” in two poems.

  4. Ah, yes, not shy but sky. No automatic editing on the icebox, unfortunately. And, yes, I agree that noise could easily be replaced with haze. Much better.
    (I thot we could edit our Replies, but seems that once they are out there, no correcting possible. Is this true, oh Great Toto in the Shy, er, Sky?)

    • Hi Richard, I’m not the Great Toto in the Shy, nor Sky; only little g the earth walker. If you want feedback, perhaps you could post your work on the Kyoto Experimental Space page.

      I too think the 3rd version offers the best images to express your experience.

  5. The second half of the essay is very impressive for me. Basho and his relations with Lake Biwa, when introduced in English, sounds fresh and enriching to the Japanese Basho readers. I look forward to your next essay. I wonder which site will be your topic. Uchide-ga-hama, or the Genjuan hut?

    • Genjuan… many will remember that place, but what/where is Uchidegahama? Please enlighten.

      • I was hoping that someone would answer your question, but no one has done so yet. So Here is what I know about Uchidegahama. It is a place name in Otstu, still used today. According to Heike Monogatari, this is where Yoshinaka met his fairthful retainer, Imai Kanehira, after they had been defeated in Kyoto. They staged a brave battle against the enemy, but Yoshinaka got stuck in a muddy place in the pine forest in Awazu and was shot to death by an enemy archer, Ishida Tamehisa. Judging from it name, Uchidegama was right on Lake Biwa in Yoshinaka’s time, but today it is close to Ishiba Satation on the Keihan Ishiyama Line.

  6. Thank you for the explanation, Nobuyuki.

    • You have visited Gichuji Temple in Otsu, Stephen, haven’t you? Uchide-ga-hama is the place where the temple is now. It is a well-known place in the tragic history of Kiso Yoshinaka. Although the place is now inland and surrounded by quite a few busy buildingsand streets, it was on the lakefront in Basho’s days no mentioning Yoshinaka’s days. Basho loved the rural beauties of the scene and is said to have strolled along the shore.
      Gichuji Temple was originally built in commemoration of the death of Yoshinaka in the vicinity. Basho, a great admirer of the tragic hero, wanted by his will to have his ashes buried beside Yoshinaka’s grave in the temple.

      • Thank you for the explanation, Toshi. Yes, Hailstone has been to Gichuji. We did renku there in Mumyoan.

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