MEETINGS WITH HIPPOS (2 excerpts1)
by Nenten Tsubouchi
Just before noon, I arrived at the Zoo in the suburbs of Matsuyama and immediately went to the Hippo House. The Zoo had been built on a slope, and I found the House located in its remotest and highest part, surrounded by a wintery thicket.
A hippo was swimming around in the open pool and playing with a large drifting log, pushing it and biting it. The noticeboard in front of the pool told me that the hippo was called ‘Hagura’.
To be honest, the purpose of my visit today had been to meet Hagura. He had been born in San Francisco in 1987 and had come to Japan when only a year old. He had soon escaped from the quarantine station, however, and had later been found swimming up and down the waterways of Yokohama. The Tobe Zoo homepage speculates that Hagura must be the only hippo ever to have swum in a Japanese river! Hagura had paddled around for three days in the canal system, but had been caught while he was asleep on the shore.
Watching Hagura at play, I recalled the hippos, Zabuko and Kempo, in Kumamoto Zoo. Now that there was a precedent of a hippo having swum in the canals of Yokohama, surely, then, it would be no great problem for Zabuko and Kempo to go off for a swim in Ezuko Lake in Kumamoto? I now felt the urge to escort Hagura to that body of water, too, and recalled that, back in the Meiji era, Natsume Soseki, who had first become a haiku poet in Matsuyama, had subsequently moved to Kumamoto. Perhaps this was what was at the back of my desire?
… Maybe it’s
… a lump of July water:
… the hippo
I composed this haiku as I watched a hippo submerged at the bottom of its pool. Ideally, the water of such a pool should be clear, but the average Japanese Hippo House pool unfortunately will usually have become turbid and brownish, infused with its occupants’ faeces. I must admit, though, that to me the hippo really is a ‘lump’ of water—the fruit of its union with water, crystallized life.
Akutagawa Ryunosuke once recorded the following dialogue2:
Wu-ti3 of Liang asked Bodhidharma, “What is Buddhism?”
Ma replied, “It’s the hippo in the water.”
Good answer! Might, then, Ryunosuke have been fond of hippos, too?
1 from the book Kaba ni Au, pub. Iwanami Shoten, 2008, in whose haikai prose are featured many haiku, both by Nenten himself and by others. The first excerpt , featuring no haiku at all, relates to the hippo at Tobe Zoo in Matsuyama, a city of haiku … and the nearest to where NT was born. The second, to the hippo at Oji Zoo in Kobe. Eng. trans. by HM and SHG. In the book, NT visits all 60 captive hippos in Japan
2 the famous novelist and haiku poet, in his 1920 collection of short essays, ‘Zoo’
3 Emperor Wu-ti: 464-549, founder of the short-lived Liang Dynasty
EIGHT-FACED GREAT KING
by Hisashi Miyazaki
On the ridge to Mt.Tsubakurodake, a peak in Japan’s Northern Alps, we took a short rest at the tiny hut named Kassen (battle), surrounded by conifers and scattered, autumnal birch whose light yellow leaves were brightening against the blue sky. The ridge, also named Kassen, is famous for its steepness. The first snows would soon begin to fall on the summit.
A sign in front of the hut explained the origin of its unlikely name. In short, the legend goes …
“During the reign of Emperor Kammu1, eight monsters known as ‘Gishiki2 of the Eight-faced Great King’ inhabited the Kassen ridge and neighboring valleys. They were a real problem for the villagers living at the mountain foot; stealing, abducting, committing arson and so on. Sakanoue-no-Tamuramaro3 led a state army against them in an attempt to exterminate them. At one battle, he used arrows trimmed with the tail feathers of a copper pheasant, beautifully banded into thirty-three segments. The feathers had been given by a villager, Yasuke. Because of this meritorious act, he was able to live the rest of his life in luxury. Yasuke had married three years before he had made the gift, and his wife was believed to be the incarnation of a pheasant whose life he had earlier saved. In time she disappeared from his life leaving behind only a few feathers.”…
Refreshed by the cool wind blowing up from the valley, we climbed on speaking noisily. A member of our party shouted to us, “Gentlemen, you could all have got divorced in three years if you had married a pheasant!”
We descended the mountain the following day. In the light pine groves of its skirt we found a footbath called Eight-faced Great King’s Spa, which anybody can use for free. Here, while we soaked our feet, we came to know another part of the same tale. The Eight-faced Great King had actually been a hero who had knocked out Tamuramaro, who was hated for his harsh treatment of villagers, always demanding from them tributes! This story reminded me of the incomprehensible phrases concluding the legend, as described on that sign outside the hut, which we had read the day before. Neither haiku nor senryu; rather, I wonder now if it might not be a kind of spell, or…
… “Kassen: now there hangs a tale!
… Below Kassen Hut
… so deep is the valley…”
1 AD 781-806
2 A kind of ogre; the exact meaning is unknown.
3 AD 758-811
(Modified translation of a haibun from ZIGZAG, Rengashobo-shinsha Publishing; trans. into Eng. with help from SHG)
… Soldiers & flower sellers
… At the freezing border gate –
… Night crossing.
Thought I ought to say a word about El Paso, now that I’m back safely.
Well, we got through Ciudad de Juarez alright on a long distance Mexican bus, routed along some scary backroads ‘to avoid trouble’. Having done all the formalities at customs, I asked if the bus would pass the airport, from where we would be flying out at 6am the following day. ‘Opposiiiiite direction’ was the response.
A yellow taxi was pulled up 100m ahead. It was 9 or 10 at night. He asked for 20 bucks. Returned to the bus and asked the driver’s opinion. ‘Expensiiiiive’, he says.
Out of the night comes a big guy who says he’s waiting for his mother but she hasn’t yet showed up from Mex. The fare should be ‘just a buck or two.’ Offers to take my friend and me to the airport for free! Hop back in the bus to tell the friend we’ve scored a lift and to get our bags… when the thought comes: ‘Hang on a minute, Stephen. You’re only 50m from Jaurez, the murder capital of the world, it’s not far off midnight, and you’re accepting a lift from someone you’ve only known for 2 mins! No, no, no, you don’t.’ I told my friend the move was off, and then the (possibly genuine) lift-offerer, too. He skulked back into the gloom. I bargained the cabbie down to 15 bucks, and we were at our motel room in less than 10 mins.
The motel restaurant stopped dinner service as we checked in and we had to walk all of a mile and a half along the airport perimeter road to find a restaurant where we imagined we’d at least get a T-bone steak, being our first time ever in Texas. ‘Nope, sir, you’re luck is out: clean outta beef of all sorts till 10 tomorrow morn.’… ‘Oh, damn it, I’ll have the fish n’ chips!’
… Freight train line
… Crossed near midnight …
… By a bitter wind.
DEEP NORTH (Part One)
by John Dougill
In the midst of the Kyoto summer I set out to escape the heat in the Deep North, taking with me Basho’s classic in the translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa and reading the carefully-chosen words over and over again. I picked up the trail at Sendai and followed it to Shiogama and across Matsushima Bay. In Basho’s time it was acclaimed as one of Japan’s three great Beauty Spots, but time has not treated it kindly. Over at Yamadera, a cliff-edge Buddhist temple that reminded me of the Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan, the poet wrote one of his finest haiku about the voice of the cicada penetrating the rocks. My feelings were concerned with other matters…
… Soaking sweat:
… How many more steps
… To salvation?
One of the great discoveries of the trip was Hiraizumi, which is said to have once rivalled Kyoto for grandeur. Set up by a member of the Fujiwara clan, it comprised an enormous estate with aristocrats’ villas and a temple complex. The Heian pond-garden that remains is considered to be the best of its kind. I was thrilled to discover too the site of Yoshitsune’s final resting place, chased from Kyoto by his half-brother and protected to the last by the faithful Benkei. To anyone living in Kyoto, the twelfth-century events have a particular resonance – the old capital contains Kurama, where the young Yoshitsune grew up, and Gojo Bridge, where he and Benkei first met and fought.
… No withered grass
… In this summer rain,
… But connections
Leaving Basho behind, I headed further north to Hachinohe where serendipity favoured me with a folklore festival at the very exit of the railway station. The next day I walked along the Oirase River with its coursing rapids, where the air spoke of vitality and refreshment. At the charming Towada Lake, there was cool at last and a glorious sunset. Pen in hand, I struggled in vain for words to capture the scene.
… These ripples
… This deepening afterglow –
… Ah, Basho…
At the northernmost point of Honshu is a promontory, on which stands Mt. Osore, a volcanic crater associated with the dead. The stench of sulphur pervades the eerie moonscape, watched over by the Buddhist deity Jizo, who guides souls through the afterworld. The rocks speak of the past violence, and steam still hisses out from crevices. I wanted to consult one of the blind mediums (‘itako’) who communicate with the spirit world, but sadly the only one available was already booked.
… Barren rocks –
… In the land of the dead
… Dragonflies mating
THE PROFESSIONAL EYE
by Nobuyuki Yuasa
Some people have an eye that can see far beyond the ordinary range of sight. I have encountered a few people with such a professional eye during my lifetime. The first such person I met was a bus driver. I had organized a Christian seminar for a group of my fellow students. We had had two enjoyable days up in the mountains, but on our return journey, we were hit by torrential rain on a country road. In spite of this weather, we were singing in the bus. Everyone knows how students behave when they are in a sanguine mood. When we came to a small bridge, our driver stopped the bus. He said to me, “It is too dangerous to go over this bridge.” For me, the bridge looked quite all right…just another wooden bridge, somewhat dilapidated but strong enough. The driver said, “It is sagging in the middle,” and went out in the rain to check the supporting piers. I followed him, and sure enough, I saw a couple of piers missing. You can easily imagine what would have happened if the bus driver had not had his professional eye.
…..A boisterous brook
…..Sharpening its teeth in a storm
…..Against the bridge piers.
Another man I met who had a professional eye was the captain of a fishing boat. He took us out on the Inland Sea for golden bream fishing. We headed for a lighthouse in the offing, but as we approached, I noticed the captain was not looking at the lighthouse at all. He was turning his head now and then, and seemed to be searching for something very far away. Before long, he stopped the boat, and told us to drop our lines. He said, “We are on a sandy bed right now, but soon we will hit a rock. Just before we do so, we have a good chance of hooking a golden bream. Always keep your bait a few metres above the bottom.” The weights we were using were about the size of our thumbnails, and the undercurrents prevented them from sinking straight down to the sea floor. However, after several trials, I learned the trick and hooked a large golden bream for the first time in my life. On our way home, I asked the captain what he was looking at before he stopped the boat. He replied, “Mountains.” So his professional eye was able to locate the rocky mounds on the sea floor by using the surrounding mountain peaks as landmarks.
…..Blue and cherry spots
…..Shining on the golden side
…..Of a hooked bream.
Another professional eye was the one I encountered rather unexpectedly when my daughter had a brain tumour removed. She slipped on the stairs one day and hit her head on a concrete floor. There was no immediate bleeding, but she had her brain X-rayed, fearing she might have internal bleeding. Well, the doctor who examined the films told her that there was no internal bleeding, but a fairly large shadow in the central part of her brain, and advised her to have a thorough examination by a specialist. She saw two rather famous doctors at large hospitals in Tokyo. Both of them told her that she had a brain tumour, and that it was necessary to remove it by surgery. For this purpose, her skull had to be opened and, at great risk, the tumour had to be removed. My daughter felt unable to take the risk, and started to look for alternative methods. Fortunately, she found a doctor in Sapporo who said that he could remove her tumour by opening a small hole in her skull, and indeed he did. The operation took six hours, but my daughter was talking the next day. She was able to return to her normal life within a few weeks, and she started teaching again in two months. I believe all doctors have the professional eye to some degree, but how this doctor in Sapporo was able to see what he saw on X-ray films beats me. In fact, this doctor not only had the professional eye but also the professional hand.
…..It was good to see
…..Clark’s bust in snow, still saying,
…..Boys, be ambitious!
I have been called ‘professor’ nearly all my life, but I am afraid I do not have the professional eye, although before my students I pretend to have it. In teaching Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, I go on like this: “Hamlet is the only English name in the play, the rest are all foreign. Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet, who died young. Linguists say the two names come from the same source. Hamlet is a humble name, for it means ‘small village’, forming a contrast to other bombastic names in the play. Ophelia’s name is derived from the Greek word meaning ‘support’, but in my view, it may have more to do with the word ‘filial’, for rather than supporting Hamlet, she blindly obeys her father’s advice. Her father’s name, Polonius, reminds me of such words as ‘polite’, ‘politic’, and ‘polish’, for he is indeed a man of many colours, never to be trusted.” Well, what does all this amount to? I am not sure. I am saved by the fact that literature is perhaps the only field of human activity where ordinary eyes can see just as well as, or even better than, the professional eye.
…..Putting down my book,
…..I watch spring shadows moving
…..Beyond the window.
OF STONES, PEOPLE & SOUTHERN SEAS . (excerpt)
For more than a mile, down a bush road straight as a die, one road-train overtaking another! Once accomplished, there is a sense of a happening over – and our eyes revert to the parched grass and eucalyptus streaming by. Northwards into the sun. One thunder-squall drops its blue-black load across what looks like rolling downland a little way off to the east.
On the seat beside me, spectacled Derek from Southend-on-Sea, his mouth dropped open, is taking in nothing but air. A wind is buffeting the roadside grasses, so elegantly anonymous. To lose one’s name for a while: yes, this, perhaps, is the promise of the bush. I am Tito from Kyoto, or was I? He was Derek, but already he’s fallen into dreaming.
The bus heads off the road we were on, taking an improvised line across banksia scrub towards the deep blue ocean horizon. We park in the bush and wander along a sandy trail for a short way … shocked, as we round a final corner, by an army of stone warriors marching in ranks across golden dunes. They appear to have been frozen in time, turned to stone in their death throes. Some have limbs in the air; others cast a doleful eye. They are of all physiques – midgets to giants – each one, a distinct petro-personality. And yet no man was responsible for their making.
In walking amongst them, I begin to remember my own story …
…..For every single stone
…..A clump of distant cloud:
…..In the heat of the day
…..All shadows vanished.
(The Pinnacles, Nambung, Western Australia, 21.4.06)
Take off my shoes. Lace them together. Suspend them from my pack. Bare feet apply their uneven pressure to fine damp sand. This blonde backdrop, liberally strewn with smooth, pastel-hued pebbles – reds, yellows, whites, pinks, blue-greys. A small collection of them had been sitting on a mantelpiece at Valerie’s yesterday; and I had picked up a few … palms caressed. So we have come here – far down this Southern Ocean coast – to put ourselves under the spell of stones at our feet: coded messages from another age. One says, slide; another, tumble; the next one, push. Petrified verbs.
I strip off, slide into the calm sea, tumble through the ripples, push out …
…..Dolphins in a white glass sea –
…..How slack the waves!
(Aldinga, Fleurieu Peninsular, South Australia, 26.4.06)
The new world cousin – brave, energetic, generous. Those ten years we haven’t met now scroll back into one. We pick up where we left off: sympathetic humour – inherited no doubt – and a healthy respect for each other’s differences, an implicit mutual admission that we really don’t know.
A new world house – neo-italianate, modern prints up on the walls, clipped bays overlooking a turquoise inlet. And, of course, the boathouse, from which is lowered by remote-control a white hundred-horsepower speedboat. It came with the house. A total package. Life full-on. Sound full-up. Let it roll, Tony!
Rounding a small cape, the city’s glass and steel comes into view … and then the Opera House and Bridge. He opens the throttle, and we bounce across the wakes of a maelstrom of vessels – big, small, fast, slow, tall, short, twin-hulled. Of his prowess as a helmsman, Tony later asks, “What aboutmy steering?”. I’d have to say, “Bravo! My own life, though? It moves like a waterlogged canoe, backwards through the waves.”
…..A lone pelican
…..At the fish market:
…..Before the moon
…..And the patch of harbour it has paled.
(Sydney, New South Wales, 6.5.06)
THE EYES OF DRAGONFLIES
by Nobuyuki Yuasa
I spent four or five years of my boyhood not far from the Shakujii River. There was an amusement centre called Toshimaen upstream and an ancient temple called Kotokuji downstream, and in between an open field dotted with woods, mainly of tall zelkova trees. On holidays, my father would often put on a lightweight gown and take me for a walk. Sometimes we might be lucky enough to catch a large helmet beetle, but this happened only on rare occasions. So I turned to dragonflies.
At first I chased small salt-coloured or straw-coloured ones: they were fairly easy to catch. But I soon turned to bigger ones, such as great silvers. I often wondered where such silver dragonflies had come from, as they flew about in swarms at dusk to catch flies and other insects. I netted them, four or five at a time, with several swings of a large net. I released all the males, but kept all the females for use as lures the following day. I would attach a string to them and fly them in circles above my head. Upon spotting them, males came to couple, and while they were jostling, I caught them in my hand or with a small net. This is exactly what is meant by ‘angling for dragonflies’. A famous female haiku poet, Kaga no Chiyo, has the following poem about this art:
….How far did he go,
….Boy angling for dragonflies,
….Lost again today?
I too forgot myself often, running after dragonflies, and was scolded by my mother. Issa calls this poem by Chiyo the work of a mother who has lost his boy, an expression of her sorrow. Yet perhaps this interpretation is based on Issa’s sense of loss after the death of his own daughter: a case of subjective empathy?
Male and female silver dragonflies could be told apart by the nuance of their colour. Male ones had a blue belly and a black tail, whereas female ones had a green belly and brown tail. They were both good dressers, though. Their transparent wings, supported by intricate veins resembling those of leaves, shone with an iridescence that varied with the sunlight’s angle. What impressed me most, however, was their eyes. They were huge – occupying about two-thirds of their head – and round, as if inflated by a mysterious power. They seemed as deep as the ocean, and were dotted with numerous stars settled at their base. Years later, I learned that they were the ommantea of a compound eye. All I knew at the time, however, was that the eyes of dragonflies were endowed with unique power. It was the strength of their eyes that enabled them to catch flies and other small insects at dusk, or to spot another dragonfly flying beyond the highest clouds and then accelerate up to it like some heavenly runner.
….Eyes of dragonflies,
….More transparent than glass,
….Without any blur.
….After coupling in the air,
….Danced up to heaven.
Though not so numerous as silver dragonflies, we also had devil dragonflies. They frequented the zelkova-tree woods. They were larger than the silver dragonflies and appeared to me to be the rulers of the forest. Their bodies were black, striped with yellow, so that I often thought of them as flying tigers. William Blake has the famous lines:
….Tiger, tiger, burning bright
….In the forests of the night.
Obviously, Blake wrote these lines to describe the ruler of the underworld, but nothing expresses better the feeling I had about the ruler of the dark woods. A devil dragonfly would often fly about in the trees as if to threaten me and chase off my intrusion. When I was waylaid and had become almost breathless, it might make fun of me by perching on a nearby branch. It would seem to be resting, but its eyes were not asleep: from time to time they would move.
….When it came into the woods
….Alighting upon a branch,
….It hangs down before me.
….Its eyes shoot a beam of light
….Into my own.