Persimmons – part 7

. I should like to end my haibun with a paragraph or two on kakishibu (persimmon varnish). I do not know exactly how it is made, but suppose it must be by condensing and fermenting persimmon juice. It is used mainly as a coating for traditional Japanese paper, thereby not only strengthening it but also making it waterproof. Thus a raincoat called kamiko came to be made, first for the priests of the Risshu sect to wear, but later for warriors and travellers as well. It was both light and warm. It was one of these raincoats that Basho took on his journey to the North. Persimmon varnish is also used to coat paper umbrellas. Seeing pictures of them on the Internet recently, I was surprised by the variety of designs. The traditional colour was brown, but now they seem to come in bright colours like red and green and make good decorations for restaurants and hotels.

. I have fond memories of persimmon-varnished fans. They were always sturdy ones and kept me very cool. I always used to pick out a fan of this type from the bamboo case in which we kept our fans at home. Nowadays, the Internet shows fans of this kind in many different colours, but mine was dark brown. I prefer this traditional colour. When summer comes again, I will probably buy a new one.

Let me take a nap,
Using a fan coated with
Persimmon varnish.

this instalment concludes Nobuyuki Yuasa’s haibun 

Persimmons – part 6

. Among haiku poets, both ancient and modern, I think it was Shiki who loved persimmons the most. Let me quote the following passage to prove this point. It is from his work entitled “Two Persimmons”. Shiki calls it a novel and uses the third person singular for the main character, but to me, it is a piece of haibun, in which the author describes his own experiences:

Soon his sister stood up, shaking threads from her knees. She wanted to take a tray of the remaining persimmons to her sick brother, the master of the house.
“Is that all that remains,” her brother asked her, casting a sidelong glance at the persimmons.
“Yes, this is all. You ate so many of them yesterday,” she answered. There were only two persimmons on the tray.
He was a great lover of food, and especially liked all kinds of fruit. But, above all, he loved persimmons.

. He must have decided to save the two remaining persimmons till he had finished his work as reviewer of haiku. When he had done so, he wrote the following poem:

Three thousand haiku to read —
Finishing them all, I eat
The two persimmons.

. I think Shiki is implying how hard his reviewer’s work was, and also how quickly the persimmons disappeared eating them at such a pace.

. Shiki indeed has many poems about persimmons, but the following is perhaps the most famous:

A bell rings out while
I’m eating a persimmon —
Horyuji Temple.

. Personally, I find it a bit difficult to understand. If the haiku simply describes a time sequence, then perhaps it is not such a great poem. Among scholarly commentators, there is one who says that it should be taken as a poem of greeting to Soseki, who had written a similar poem. Another points out that Shiki was so ill during his visit to Nara that he probably never actually went to the Horyuji Temple. I do not find these comments very helpful for the interpretation of the poem. For me, there must be some meaningful relationship between Shiki’s eating the persimmon and the ringing of the temple bell: otherwise, the poem falls apart. The only connection between them that I can think of is the sense of satisfaction. Shiki adored persimmons, and whenever he ate one he found pleasure; while the temple bell brought him pleasure of a different sort. I think we could say that one was a physical pleasure and the other spiritual. So I take this haiku to be an expression of both physical and spiritual satisfaction. Incidentally, the poem has a short preface saying, “I rested at a tea shop near Horyuji Temple”. In an essay elsewhere, he also comments:

For a long time persimmons have been neglected by poets. I had never thought of combining persimmons and Nara, but was overjoyed when I found this possible. It was a new combination.

I believe that this combination was in fact an old one, for Imperial Palace Persimmons have traditionally been grown in Nara.

. To the end of his life Shiki remained an admirer of persimmons, and the following poem should be used as his epitaph. It is indeed prefaced “After my death”.

Let it thus be known:
A great persimmon eater
And haiku lover.

(To be continued…)

Persimmons – part 5

. There are also many paintings and decorated lacquer boxes in which persimmons are depicted, most dating from the Edo period. One, for example, is a painting by Sakai Hoitsu (1761~1828), included in the series called “Flowers and Birds of the Twelve Months” (owned by the Imperial Household Agency), and which relates to the month of September. It shows red persimmons hanging from the branches and a pair of pale green white-eyes on the trunk. The contrast of colours in this painting is superb, and there is a touch of playfulness in the attitude of the little birds.

. Haiku poets of the Edo period have also left some poems about persimmons:

…………… In this old village,
…………… There is not a house without
…………… Some persimmon trees. ………… Basho

……………………………… Lord of Persimmons,
……………………………… But his tree tops are too close
……………………………… To Mt. Arashi. ………… Kyorai

………………………………………………………. A ripe persimmon —
………………………………………………………. I felt autumn sinking deep
………………………………………………………. Into my stomach. ………… Shiko

…………… Entrusted with the
…………… Imperial persimmons,
…………… A scarecrow looks proud. ………… Buson

……………………………… The top branch still has
……………………………… One sour persimmon hanging —
……………………………… I feel so attached. ………… Issa

. Basho’s poem is a beautiful description of a happy village which has enjoyed peace for many years. Considering the fact that he spent most of his life in wandering, I think Basho must have had a rather complex reaction to the scene, which we might say is mixed with envy. Kyorai’s poem concludes “The Story of Rakushisha” (House of Fallen Persimmons), which he wrote to explain why he had chosen this rather unusual name for his cottage. Apparently, his cottage had forty or fifty persimmon trees standing around it, but the keeper whom he had hired to look after it had never sent him any persimmons. So, one year, he went to see for himself, and found the trees loaded with fruit. Soon a merchant came and offered a large sum of money for the persimmons. But a night storm knocked all the persimmons down. Next morning, the merchant came and complained that in his long career as a merchant he had never had such an experience, and asked Kyorai if he would return the money. Rather unwillingly Kyorai consented. So, the above haiku is not a simple description of his cottage. The present Rakushisha Cottage is a later reconstruction. We do not know the original site, but judging from the haiku quoted above, it may have been closer to Arashiyama (“Storm Mountain”). Anyway, Kyorai expresses his fear of the storm that comes from the mountain straight down to his persimmon trees. Shiko was the leader of the group of haiku poets called Mino-ha, but his poems are said to lack depth and complexity. The poem I quoted above is, I believe, derived from a poem by Basho, but it has neither the depth nor the complexity of the model. That is why I used the word “stomach” to translate harawata. This Japanese word is normally translated as “intestines” or “guts”. I felt that Shiko is simply referring to a physical, rather than a metaphysical, phenomenon. The Imperial Palace Persimmons mentioned in Buson’s poem are the sweet persimmons I referred to in an earlier instalment. I believe birds liked them very much. So a scarecrow was entrusted with watching over them. I wonder what kind of expression the scarecrow had on his face? He must surely have looked proud, but at the same time he would have known the limit of his power. So, I take Buson’s poem to be rather humorous. I only wish Buson had left a painting of this scene, too. Issa’s poem expresses not only his sympathy for the last persimmon hanging on the top branch, but also sympathy for himself. Issa says the persimmon is sour, yet sour persimmons usually become sweet in late autumn. The sour-sweet persimmon hanging from the top branch is a symbol of his own life. Issa has many poems about persimmons, and I am tempted to quote two more.

…………… In response to a call
…………… A small boy answers “yes” from
…………… The persimmon tree.

……………………………… The mentor priest goes
……………………………… To a hill; his pupil climbs
……………………………… A persimmon tree.

. These two poems recall Issa’s childhood experiences. How skilfully he describes a child’s point of view!

(To be continued…)

Persimmons – part 4

. At this point I should like to turn to the subject of how persimmon was treated in literature. Persimmon seeds have been dug up from some archaeological sites of the Jomon period. So I believe that persimmon trees must have existed in Japan long before the Man’yo period, yet the Man’yoshu has no poems about persimmons. Judging from his name, the poet Kakinomoto Hitomaro (柿本人麻呂, fl. ca. 680 during the reign of Emperor Tenmu), lived in a house standing beneath a persimmon tree. But he is silent about his persimmon tree. In the Kamakura period, Fujiwara no Tame’ie (藤原為家, 1198~1275) wrote the following poem:
……………………………… Autumn has arrived.
……………………………… I wonder about the leaves
……………………………… On higher mountains.
……………………………… Our garden persimmon trees
……………………………… Display deeply coloured leaves
. I like this poem because the poet expresses his concern for the leaves in the high mountains. He is wondering whether they have taken on their autumn hues like the persimmon trees in his garden, or whether they have already been scattered by the wind. Probably the latter was the case, and if so, he may have been equally concerned about the persimmon trees in his garden. In the Edo period, Ozawa Roan (1723~1801), who stood for tadagoto-uta (honest poetry), wrote the following poem about persimmons:
……………………………… Chestnuts are smiling.
……………………………… Persimmons are getting red.
……………………………… It is indeed time
……………………………… For short-haired children to be
……………………………… Proud, and enjoy the season.
. This poem is so cheerful that I cannot help laughing with the poet.

(To be continued…)

Persimmons – part 3

. Persimmons are used for making different kinds of confectionery. Dried persimmons are rolled with yuzu (citron) peel to make makigaki (rolled persimmons). Sweet persimmons are ground and mixed with bean-paste to make kakiyoukan (persimmon bean-paste). In Hiroshima there was a Japanese confectionery shop famous for kakiyokan on the main street. Its name was Toraya (Tiger’s) and they had a big paper tiger in the window to attract customers. Alas, the shop is no longer there. I used to buy rolled persimmons at Yuki Hot Spring. I thought the combination of citron peel and dried persimmons was exquisite. I visited this hot spring many times to enjoy trout fishing. When I left Hiroshima my last visit was to say goodbye to the fireflies.
…………….  The transparent streams,
…………….  The fragrance of yuzu peels
…………….  And persimmon rolls.
……………………………………….  They are here no more  —
……………………………………….  The persimmon bean-paste and
……………………………………….  The paper tiger.
………………………………………………………………….. Across the river,
………………………………………………………………….. And over the rice paddies —
………………………………………………………………….. The fireflies are gone.
. It is said persimmon leaves have germicidal properties. In Kansai, they wrap sushi with persimmon leaves to make kakinoha-zushi. Originally this kind of sushi was made in the valley of the River Ki, but now the custom has spread to many other places. I used to make a point of buying a box of persimmon-wrapped sushi whenever I went to Kyoto. I loved its soft flavour, so characteristic of Kyoto. Along with the saba-zushi (vinegared fish) of Tsuruga, for me this is still an unforgettable food. After World War II, it was rumoured in Hiroshima that persimmon vinegar was effective against radiation sickness. I do not know whether it really worked or not, but in the family home to which I had been evacuated, the eldest son died in the explosion, although his sister survived with heavy keloid scars. She is still alive today, aged more than one hundred. Perhaps her longevity may have something to do with persimmon vinegar.
…………….  I enjoy sushi
…………….  Wrapped up in persimmon leaves,
…………….  Outbound from Kyoto.

Persimmons – part 2

. Nowadays I feel persimmons may be losing their popularity among consumers. Shops sell only a few varieties — two kinds of sweet persimmons called Fuyugaki (Prosperity Persimmons) and Jirogaki (Jiro Persimmons), and one kind of dried persimmon called Ichidagaki (Ichida Persimmons). Prosperity Persimmons are produced mainly in Gifu Prefecture, but they were originally developed from the Goshogaki (Imperial Palace Persimmons) very popular in Nara Prefecture. An enterprising Gifu farmer took a seedling back from Nara, planted it in his orchard and made further improvements. Mizuho City in Gifu Prefecture commemorates this with a stone monument, which reads “The birthplace of Prosperity Persimmons”. I am very fond of Prosperity Persimmons, and, whenever I see them in shops, I cannot resist the temptation to buy them. They are especially tasty just before they begin to mature. When they feel slightly soft, they are ready to eat, for it is then that they are at their sweetest and juiciest. Jiro Persimmons were originally developed in Mori Town in Shizuoka Prefecture. A farmer named Matsumoto Jirokichi found a young seedling on the bank of the Ota River and planted it in his back yard. It grew into a tree and bore fruits, but they tasted so awful that no one cared for them. When his neighbour’s house had a fire, the tree was burned down. But fresh buds appeared the following spring, and within a few years the tree began to bear fruit again. When Jirokichi tasted one of them, he was surprised how good it was. Thus a new variety was born, named ‘Jiro Persimmon’ after its owner, but strictly speaking, it was the product of an accident! Now they are widely produced aound Toyohashi in Aichi Prefecture. I think Jiro Persimmon is as good as its rival, Prosperity Persimmon, in size, colour and taste.
………………  Prosperity Persimmon —
………………  My mother is peeling it
………………  With her supple hands.
. Ichida Persimmons are produced in the village of Ichida in Nagano Prefecture (now a part of Takamori Town). They are relatively small dried persimmons, but very good in taste and colour. We have another kind of dried persimmon called Anpogaki, which look more like jelly because so much moisture is retained. They were originally made in Date City in Fukushima Prefecture, but now they are produced in other places as well, such as Wakayama and Toyama. What is common to the two types is that they are exposed to sulphur fumes in the manufacturing process. Perhaps because of this, they retain their beautiful orange colour. I live at the foot of Mt. Haruna, an area famous for plums, peaches and pears, but we also produce persimmons as a side line. In late autumn each year I buy big sour persimmons from a local grower and dry them. First I peel them, then hang them on strings to expose them to the sun. In several weeks, they will have a white powder on their surface and will be ready for eating. In sweetness, they are as good as Ichida and Anpo Persimmons, but, alas, they are black in colour and are rather difficult to make. If dried too long, they become hard, and if exposed to rain, they become mouldy. When they are well-made, however, I take special pleasure in eating them.
………………  The sunny orange
………………  Lines of drying persimmons —
………………  How they cheer the eaves!

(to be continued)

Persimmons – part 1

. I have a persimmon tree in front of my room. This year, it has produced a rich harvest. In fact, like many other fruit trees, it bears a lot of fruit every other year. However, the persimmons this tree produces are very small, less than the size of ping-pong balls. I believe this tree was here long before the garden was made, and that it belongs to the species called Yamagaki (Mountain Persimmon). Its fruits are probably very sour and nobody cares for them, but as autumn deepens, their colour also deepens, till birds come and peck at them. This is the tree’s only use, but when I see it growing in the shadow of a big cherry, doing its best to survive, I cannot help cheering it on.
………………  Time for persimmons
………………  To mature and redden —
………………  The sky is so blue.
. I have been close to persimmons since my childhood. We had a persimmon tree in our garden when I was at primary school. My father fastened sturdy ropes around one of its branches and made a swing for me. I was very proud of it and happily swung back and forth on it, but one day the branch broke off without warning and threw both the swing and me to the ground. Fortunately, I landed on a soft lawn, so I escaped with only scratches to my knees. This experience taught me, though, that persimmon trees were easily broken, and since then I have made it a rule not to climb them.
. During our wartime evacuation, I enjoyed sweet persimmons. The earliest kind we had was called Bongineri (Bon-Festival Sweet Persimmon). Its fruits were small and had lots of stones, but their flesh, strewn with black flecks resembling sesame seeds, was delicious. Later in autumn I would enjoy large persimmons that had been sweetened in rice chests — so big and sweet that I found them satisfying in every sense. Occasionally I enjoyed the special variety called Saijogaki (Saijo Persimmons), which I thought to be a real treasure.
………………  The sweet persimmons
………………  With dots like sesame seeds —
………………  Everyone eats laughing.

………………  Sweetened persimmons
………………  Melt on our tongues, so slow to
………………  Reach our stomachs.

(to be continued)

Plum Blossoms II

This is the second part of a recent haibun by Nobuyuki Yuasa (Sosui).  

.. Plum is sometimes called “the elder brother of blossoms”. My dictionary says this is because plum (ume) blooms earlier than other trees. It may be so, but robai (Japanese allspice) bears its yellow flowers even earlier than does plum. Historically, plum became popular before cherry did. The Man’yoshu, the first anthology of Japanese poetry, dating from the fifth to eighth centuries, has about three times more poems on plum than on cherry. In this sense, we can say that plum is the elder brother of cherry. “The Cherry of the Left” at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto was once “The Plum of the Left”. We can still see this old tradition at the Daikakuji Temple, which was once the residence of Emperor Saga (786~842). The plum here bears pink flowers.
.. Plum was first introduced from China as a medicine called ubai (plums dried and smoked), but soon the custom of “plum viewing” spread among the courtiers. In Volume 5 of the Man’yoshu, we have the following record of “plum viewing” held at the residence of Otomo no Tabito (665~731) in Dazaifu. “It was in February – a fine day with a gentle wind. The plum blossoms were like white face powders in front of a looking glass…..” From this description, written perhaps under the influence of Chinese poetry, we know that they were viewing white plum blossoms. I believe that pink plum was introduced somewhat later, and was rather rare for that reason.
.. There is a shrine in Dazaifu commemorating Sugawara Michizane (845~903). He was a powerful political leader and reformer, but his rivals convinced Emperor Daigo (885~930) to send him to this far-away defence point in Kyushu. This was a great demotion, and before he left his residence in Kyoto he is said to have written a famous “forget-me-not” poem to a plum in his garden. It is believed that this tree flew overnight to Dazaifu, following its master. This is the origin of the Tobi-ume, or “Flying Plum-tree”, whose descendant, to this day, still grows at this shrine.

The ancient nobles
Who loved and prized plum blossoms —
To where have they gone?

My Trip to the North: 4. Lake Usori & the Land of Bliss

Emerging from the region of the Hells, I now came to the beautiful shore of Lake Usori, a large crater lake surrounded by steep mountains, with names such as Mt. Screen and Mt. Overturned Cauldron. The shoreline was one of white sand. They call it Gokurakuhama, the shore of the Land of Bliss. I was told that the name of the lake had derived from the Ainu word meaning ‘peaceful bay’, and that ‘Usori’ had turned into ‘Osore’. I thought this was a very ironic corruption, for ‘Osore’ means ‘fear’. The lake should not be thought of as a perfect paradise, however, for its water is acidic and only a single species of fish can live there. Just looking at it, though, the lake was surely beautiful enough for a gateway to the Land of Bliss.

……… The wind from the hills
……… Carried away from my nose
……… That smell of sulphur.

…………………….. Beyond the white shore,
…………………….. A belt of emerald green
…………………….. Lit by summer sun.

My Trip to the North: 3. The Hells of Osorezan

.. After enjoying a bowl of rice topped with tuna for my lunch, I went to Osorezan via the city of Mutsu. This was a roundabout course, but the shortcut along the Ohata River was too narrow for sightseeing buses. The road from Mutsu up to Osorezan was an ancient highway with stone pillars marking distances from the shrine. It was also dotted with stone images of Jizo, the traveller’s guardian. I found the Fountain of Hiyamizu was still alive. Its icy water was coming straight down from the mountains. Here and there I saw pink flowers of valley deutzia, but was told that they were never used as decorations for the house. I wondered why.
.. Crossing the so-called River Styx, we entered the precincts of Osorezan, a Zen temple belonging to the Soto Sect. Soon, the smell of sulphur hit my nose. Watched by six huge statues of Jizo, representing the six phases of existence, I passed through the first gate. On the second gate was displayed a large square plaque of beautiful blue colour, inscribed “Osorezan” in silver characters. The building at the end of the path housed the main Jizo image and a statue of Ennin, the founder of the temple.
.. Up to this point, we had been walking on flat ground, but as we turned to the left, we entered the rocky region of the ”Hells”. Many infernal pools now came into view, with such horrible names as ‘the Pool of Blood’ and ‘the Pool of Grave Sinners’. Each was somewhat different in shape and colour, but they were all pools of sulphurous water that had issued out of the volcanic strata. Huge piles of rocks were seen in places, but what arrested my attention was the piles of smaller stones that had obviously been fashioned by human hands. I was told that they had been made supernaturally by children who had passed away before their parents as an expression of their regret at doing so. I was not persuaded, presuming, rather, that these piles of stones may have been made by the parents to express their own sorrow at the untimely death of their children. My conviction was strengthened by the red stick-windmills often placed on top of the piles. Was it not the parents who had placed them there out of a desire to buy them for the deceased children? The place where I saw the greatest number of windmills was around the statue of the guardian of aborted and miscarried children.

……. An endless rattle…
……. Little windmills spinning round,
……. Calling to the dead.

My Trip to the North: 2. The Promontory of Oma

As the ferryboat approached Oma, I was able to see an island with a lighthouse and the Promontory of Oma, so flat that it seemed the sea was ready to swallow it up. Oma is famous for tuna fishing, but I did not sight any boats. After landing, our bus took us to the Promontory, the northernmost point of the mainland of Japan, where I saw a huge concrete image of tuna, and a stone monument to Ishikawa Takuboku with the following poem inscribed.

………. An Eastern Island:
………. On the white sands of its beach,
………. I weep by myself
………. Till I am wet with the tears,
………. Playing with scuttling crabs.

The Eastern Island mentioned in this famous poem was believed to be Benten Island. It had looked quite distant from the tip of the Promontory when I had seen it from the ferryboat, but now it seemed close enough to reach by swimming. The lighthouse was painted in stripes of white and dark green, and there was a red buoy dancing in the waves before it.

………. Tuna-abounding seas,
………. To the far horizon, blue,
………. Their summer colour.

……………….. The Eastern Island:
……………….. The lively June waves breaking
……………….. Wash its sandy shore.

………………………… On a sunny day
………………………… In the long monsoon season,
………………………… Gulls crossing the strait.

My Trip to the North: 1. Tsugaru Strait

Compelled by my desire to see the Tsugaru Straits, I took a ferryboat from Hakodate to Oma. I first went to look at the Mashu Maru, a retired ferryboat which used to connect Hakodate with Aomori. It was a large boat, but it looked rather lonely moored at a pier. I thought of the tragedy of the Toya Maru caused by a typhoon: the boat sank killing more than one thousand people including the captain. The ferryboat I took was much smaller than the national railway ferryboats, but it was elegantly constructed. The room reserved by the travel agent for our group was an unfurnished carpeted room. I decided to spend most of my time in a chair on the deck. The weather was good. I was able to enjoy the blue sky, the blue sea, and the blue mountains.
Having left behind the red lighthouse standing at the end of a breakwater, our boat sailed along beneath the steep slopes of Mt. Hakodate. The Big-Nose Promontory was a sharp cliff, black in most places but dotted with white spots. I thought it might be made of ageing limestone. The boat went round this promontory, allowing us to see another rocky place called the Stand-and-Wait Promontory, where the famous poet, Ishikawa Takuboku, has his grave. As the ferryboat sailed into the Tsugaru Strait, unexpectedly, dolphins appeared on the port side as if to welcome us. They came and went so suddenly I did not have time to count them, nor to take their picture, but I regarded this welcome as a special bonus.

………. Sharper than arrows,
………. They cut the dark brine, splashing —
………. A pod of dolphins.

(Sosui is Nobuyuki Yuasa)