Considering Sōseki’s「京に着ける夕」”Kyō ni tsukeru yūbe” as a haibun

In the first part of Natsume Sōseki’s account of a visit to Kyoto in the spring of 1907, the author and his hosts run their rickshaws ever further north. At the same time, Sōseki and his thoughts rush onwards across the psychological terrain of memory and conjecture, a palimpsest of his summer visit many years before with his poet friend and mentor Masaoka Shiki, of his current early-spring visit without him, and of the cultural and literary associations of Kyoto he has accrued over a lifetime. Even when he is at last in bed at his host’s residence in the woods of Tadasu no Mori, near Shimogamo Shrine, his mind is still in motion:

In the middle of the night, the eighteenth-century clock on one of the staggered shelves in the alcove above my pillow chimes in its square rosewood case, resonating like ivory chopsticks striking a silver bowl. The sound penetrates my dreams, waking me with a start; the clock’s chime has ended, but in my head it rings on. And then this ringing gradually thins out, grows more distant, more refined, passing from my ear to my inner ear, and from there into my brain, and on into my heart, then from the depths of my heart into some further realm connected with it—until at last it seems to reach some distant land beyond the limits of my own heart. This chilly bell-ring perfuses my whole body; and the ringing having laid bare my heart and passed into a realm of boundless seclusion, it is inevitable that body and soul become as pure as an ice floe, as cold as a snowdrift. Even with the silk futons around me, in the end I am cold.

A crow cawing atop a tall zelkova tree at daybreak shatters my dreams for the second time. But this is no ordinary crow. It doesn’t caw in the usual mundane way—its call is twisted into a grotesque cackle. Twisted too its beak, into a downward grimace, and its body hunched over. Myōjin, the resident deity of Kamo, may well have imposed his divine will to have it caw like that, so as to make me all the colder.

Shedding the futons, shivering still, I open the window. A nebulous drizzle thickly shrouds Tadasu no Mori; Tadasu no Mori envelops the house; I am sealed in the lonely twelve-mat room within it, absorbed within these many layers of cold.

Spring cold—

Before the shrine,

The crane from my dreams

[Original haiku: 春寒(はるさむ)の社頭に鶴を夢みけり]

The fact that this piece consists of prose narrative concluding with a single haiku, and hence is technically a haibun, means we can see it as a tribute to Sōseki’s haiku mentor, who had died four years before. One of the work’s strongest themes, loneliness, is perhaps counterbalanced by a note of optimism in the 季語 kigo of the concluding haiku, the crane, which is associated with winter. The crane is a migratory bird that comes south to Japan to overwinter but then heads north again in spring. Sōseki’s Kyoto remains inescapably cold during his visit, but it is the cold of early spring. Here, at the end, the crane has roused itself, as if from the author’s dream, and stands before the shrine ready to be on its way. Winter is coming to an end, and taking its place is the promise of regeneration. Even as he complains bitterly of the cold, and of the parallel loss of his warm friendship with Shiki, Sōseki is perhaps also acknowledging the healing power of time. If the crane represents Shiki’s spirit, Sōseki is acknowledging that it once spent time with him as the corporeal Shiki, but will now move on, as too must Sōseki.

(The above commentary and translation are adapted from my book Translating Modern Japanese Literature, which was published in 2019 and is available from the publisher, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, or on sites such as Amazon. If you are interested in obtaining a copy at a discount, please contact me directly at donovanrichardn [at] hotmail.com.)

12 responses to “Considering Sōseki’s「京に着ける夕」”Kyō ni tsukeru yūbe” as a haibun

  1. Regarding the haiku, Tito has noted that 春寒 ‘spring cold’ is a kigo too, which is a fair point. But from my perspective, 鶴 ‘crane’ is the more significant seasonal reference because as an index of winter it seems to be out of place, and so is perhaps signalling the change of season from winter to spring as well as the personal connection to Soseki. I could have referenced ‘spring cold’ more explicitly as a kigo, but since many references to the spring cold appear throughout the prose part of the haibun, I think it’s more interesting to focus on the crane.

  2. Thanks for sharing that R. I am aware that Soseki and Shiki were (literary) friends but didn’t know they visited Kyoto together. From the haibun itself it is difficult to link the imagery with Soseki’s sense of loss. Is the above haibun then a part of a larger piece? If so, I’d be interested to know whether Soseki specifically mentions his earlier visit to Kyoto with Shiki, and if so, in what manner/context?

    • Branko, you’re right — the above excerpt represents the last fifth of the piece only. Soseki spends much of the earlier part exploring his and Shiki’s friendship through the lens of their joint trip to Kyoto in their student days, before briefly touching on their adult ‘career paths’ and then the loss of Shiki. I can send you the complete translation.

  3. (Nobuyuki had problems with posting this comment, so he sent it via me…)

    I enjoyed reading this translation of Soseki’s poignant haibun. Surely, the crane is symbolic of his friend Shiki in its whiteness and purity. I think the contrast between the crane and the crow should also be mentioned. To me, the crow is symbolic of death, which had taken his friend away and was now trying to victimize himself. Soseki visited Kyoto at the time of severest cold and his stomach was aching. (Eventually he would fall a victim to this life-long disease.)

    Soseki was staying in his friend’s house situated in the ‘Tadasu no Mori’, deep forest adjacent to the Shimogamo Shrine. Many classical waka poets associate the name of this forest with the verb ‘tadasu’, which means to ‘question’ or ‘cross-examine’. Perhaps Soseki was cross-examining himself on this occasion. He was in a critical period of his life, moving from the Imperial University to the Asahi Newspaper Company,

    Incidentally, the version of this haiku he has in his diary is as follows:

    春寒く社頭に鶴ヲ夢ミタリ

    I think we can say two things about this version. First, ‘haru samuku’ is easier to understand, but perhaps ‘harusamu no’ has more force as poetry. Second, Soseki used katakana in the latter half of this version because it was customary to write diaries in katakana. In other words, he jotted down this version in a hurry, forgetting that it was separate from the prose text of his diary. But he is contradicting himself because he used hiragana in the first half!

    Sosui (Nobuyuki Yuasa)

  4. Sosui (via Tito), thank you for your erudite comments. The contrast between the white crane and the black crow, and their associations, is an excellent point, and the reading of ‘tadasu’ is also interesting. Soseki mentions earlier in the piece that is now going to pursue the role of newspaperman, in Shiki’s footsteps — and indeed, this essay was first published in the Osaka Asahi Shimbun in 1907.

    The version of the poem in Soseki’s diary provides a fascinating counterpoint to the published version — Sosui, as usual, your sage scholarship is enlightening!

  5. 『京に着ける夕』is one of my favorite pieces. I found Soseki’s consideration to Shiki by recalling his memory of his first visit to Kyoto with Shiki in his student days. It was easy and fun to read the first part of the work. Soseki thought of Shiki walking through the streets in the south of Kyoto. For example, whenever he saw the red lantern with the word zenzai (sweet been curd), it reminds him of Shiki . Also some particular sounds bring him back to the days with Shiki.
    But arriving at his friend’s house in Tadasu no mori in the north, his thinking goes profound. A 18th century-clock’s ring dug into his heart. He studied the 18th century British literature in London and Shiki passed away while he was in London.
    “—until at last it seems to reach some distant land beyond the limits of my own heart.” “This chilly bell-ring” makes his “body and soul become as pure as an ice floe”. And he felt cold in the bath, even in the thick futon, hearing the quirky crow’s caw or whatever. His body and mind thoroughly became cold. Soseki emphasized the coldness.
    I agree that Soseki misses “the parallel loss of his warm friendship with Shiki”.
    Actually, I didn’t understand the last one-fifth of the work though it is the important part. And I didn’t understand why suddenly the crane comes in the haiku at the last.
    Thanks to Richard’s posting, now I knew how shallow my reading used to be. And Sosui (Yuasa sensei)’s comment gave me so many answers to my questions, too. I got the contrast between black crow and white crane and what they symbolize.
    Shiki liked a cold smile. Soseki says he was going to be a newspaperman in a tone of self-mockery as if he followed the way Shiki said. And it is the same profession as Shiki’s. Soseki chose it.
    And his two hosts, one is the person who took care of his teacher’s position in Matsuyama and another is the person who worked in Kumamoto together and later offered a position in Kyoto University which Soseki turned down.
    The crane is a seasonal word of winter. But it indicates that the crane doesn’t stay in one place but flies to a new world. I think this haiku declares his resolution to start up his career as a newspaperman and tread on Shiki’s will. In fact, this writing was put on Osaka Asahi Shimbun as the first article of Soseki as Richard mentioned.
    Lastly as a consequence, I can say this prose is the greatest haibun.

    • It was good of you to give us so much of your own expertise in your comments here, Nori. Thank you! As I told Richard privately, I don’t believe Soseki is using ‘crane’ as a season word, for it is, after all, only a dream crane and therefore almost season-less. However, as you say, it has that migratory force and this vision has come to him exactly at the cusp of spring. The crane’s stay is over and it must move on. From now on, he will no longer only be following Shiki’s haiku path, but his professional path, too – that of a newspaperman. How intimately wired were these Matsuyama men!
      Although I remember learning in a letter from your friend, Sammy Tsunematsu, that Soseki had hated his life in London partly because of the cold, he does portray cold well. Richard’s fine translation brings this out vividly.
      One of Soseki’s London haiku sent back to another of the great Matsuyama haijin, Takahama Kyoshi, on a postcard in Feb. 1901 was 凩や吹き静まって喪の車 (Just as, for a moment / the cold wind subsides… / a funeral carriage). This was composed on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s funeral. Soseki had watched it. Once again, we can feel in this haiku those ‘many layers of cold.’

      • Thank you for your comments, Tito. I see. It’s interesting to regard the crane as season-less because it’s in a dream.
        Soseki complained a lot about his life in London. In a different aspect, he also enjoyed it visiting museums, theaters and sightseeing spots. But it’s true that he did saw the parade of Queen Victoria’s funeral riding on someone’s shoulder (because he was short) and he was the Japanese who saw the British imperialism began to collapse. And he concerned Japan that was chasing the Western Imperialism. I think he was going to warn it by literature as a newspaperman. I agree that we can feel this haibun and haiku those ‘many layers of cold’.
        And thank you Richard for your work. I’d like to read the whole translation.

      • Thank you for your comments, Tito. I wonder what people think about the way the prose and poem are linked in this haibun through “spring cold”: isn’t it a little too ‘obvious’ for Soseki to start his haiku with the kigo “spring cold” when he has been referring to this cold throughout the entire prose section, and indeed refers to “cold” in the last sentence of this section just before the haiku? Wouldn’t a more oblique reference have been aesthetically preferable in the poem?

  6. ps. I know it’s an unnecessary addition but, 社頭 means “around a shrine”. He might also refer to “the head of a company” in a way.

  7. Thanks Richard for translating this piece by Soseki. Truly, an enjoyable read.

    The final line of the haiku – “The crane from my dreams,” reminded me of additional symbolisms for the crane which were featured in prose pieces written by the Chinese poet, Su Shih. In one of those pieces, Su Shih dreamed that a Taoist priest had transformed himself into a crane (Soseki’s dream alluding to Shiki?). In another piece, on a broader level, it was revealed that the crane has the ability to fly beyond the boundaries of this world. This myth seems to be connected to a Zen view that a flying crane symbolizes the heights to which the human spirit can reach.

    It’s quite skillful how Soseki’s concluding haiku in this piece seems to move contrary to the bleakness presented in the prose as well as contain a season word, symbolisms, and allusion to create what I feel to be a balance between his two states of mind. This makes me wonder, in addition to coming to terms with Shiki’s death, could Soseki’s haiku also be suggesting that Shiki is now an immortal who has escaped this cold confined world?