The past three months

.. The rainy season continued until the beginning of August this year.

………………………… though the rain stopped
………………………… the wind roars at night:
………………………… lingering rain front

.. During that long rainy season, I received sad news. One of my cousins had passed away. When I was a little girl, he was kind enough to take care of me, playing chess and Hanafuda. The memory stays with me, emerging today into this deep foggy morning.

………. dense fog
………. even the castle mountain
………. loses its frame

.. Then the severely hot summer came in. But no matter how hot it was, the spread of COVID-19 did not ease.  

………………………… meaningless
………………………… as a symbol of the winter,
………………………… facemasks

.. Everyone faithfully wore those masks, feeling almost choked in the middle of the summer.  

………. a dry fallen leaf
………. stuck in the scorching asphalt,
………. patience with pride

.. Recently, a huge typhoon passed by. It has made us feel that we may now have taken a step back down the stairs. 

………………………… one degree Celsius
………………………… I can tell the difference
………………………… late summer room



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 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…)

Plain Living, Happy Singing


From the bus stop

Still a long, long way to go—

Summer groves.


Toshi Ida’s new book has just been delivered from the printers! It is a solo English haiku collection, complete with Japanese versions, divided into four seasonal sections. There are also many nice haiga illustrations and photos (by the author himself), and a series of ten haibun pieces at the back of the book. The title of the book alludes to a lament by Wordsworth, “Plain living and high thinking are no more”, but also to the natural bird-like ‘singing’ of the author’s heart as he lives the haiku ethic every day. The book’s subtitle is ‘Haiku Scenes’. This is the first individual collection published by the Hailstone Haiku Circle. Congratulations to Toshi!

¥860 (U.S.$ 8) + p&p. The book will soon be available at Hailstone events, or in the post via Mari Kawaguchi (domestic) and Hisashi Miyazaki (international). Contact details are given on our Publications page (via the page link at top right).


Some background about the British haibun tradition

An interesting article has appeared in the e-zine, Haibun Today. It is called ‘Transmissions of Haibun’ and is penned by David Cobb. In it, he makes the point that at present Japan is rediscovering haibun as an import from abroad (a bold claim, but not without a grain of truth, as so very, very few use the term in Japan today). One exception is perhaps Toshinori (Nenten) Tsubouchi, who has been encouraging the genre these past few years using Japanese language, partly under the stimulus of Hisashi Miyazaki, who in turn was influenced by SHG (Tito) and Ken Jones (both of Britain). At the head of all this sits Nobuyuki Yuasa, whose translations of Basho’s travel haibun (kikobun) and writings on the subject of haiku prose helped to transplant the Japanese tradition to the West. Haibun Contests like the Kikakuza and the Genjuan have been largely the brainchild of NY, too. David’s is not a very long article. If interested in haibun, perhaps you should take a look?

The Hang of Things

.. Many people regard the act of getting from A to B as basically a hassle. OK: a complete chore! They only wish to get to their destination fast. My dear wife can be like this, but I am different. I enjoy the  p r o c e s s  of travel itself; although, as you may see from this account, at times it is full of uncertainties. When Basho decides to record the fleas biting and the horse pissing by his pillow, I sense he felt so, too.

…… Loitering hungrily
…… Towards the end of Ramadan –
…… A town of meat and fruit.

.. As long as we were with our dignified, quiet-eyed driver, Mr. Gunapala, we were ‘in the know’. We do not speak Singhalese (the language of Ceylon). He reminded us that in just a few more days Ramadan would end. As we passed through Akurana on the climb towards Kandy, the ambience on the high street seemed to be one of a n t i c i p a t i o n. Akurana, a Moslem corner in a largely Buddhist world. Yes, neighbouring Kandy even boasts a temple housing a holy relic of the Buddha’s very own tooth. (Where are the others, I’d like to ask).

.. Although, as a young degree-bound vagabond, I had once stayed there quite happily for a day or two (thirty-five years ago), this time my experience of Kandy was almost entirely of its Bus Station – with a short, aborted foray to the Train Station for light relief.

.. Gunapala had slightly miscalculated the likelihood of us being able to jump on a bus to Nuwara Eliya1, a mere “two to three hours up the highland road”. A room in the Tea Bush Hotel had long ago been booked. In Kandy, Mr. G’s services would end and we would say goodbye. The last bus had left, however, twenty minutes before, and our traipsing forlornly, rucksacks shouldered, backwards and forwards, left and right (there was no train either), had attracted the attention of every tuk-tuk2 driver in town. We were beset by drivers offering the hairpin, nighttime climb all the way to the hill station in the clouds for 5,000 Sri Lankan rupees, or thereabouts – affordable, but… it was due to rain, to get cold, and we thought of the fumes, the danger and the noise… and declined them all, including the one with curly hair and an honest smile, who had seemed for a while to have had karma on his side.

.. Eventually, with our cellphone now out of juice, unable to cancel our N.E. room, on a muddy, unlit roadside in nearby Peradeniya, as the rain came pattering down, we negotiated (through Gunapala) with two men in a clapped-out Nissan van to drive us across the incognito highlands and try to find our hotel. Trouble was: the vehicle seemed to have two gearboxes, and the gangly, very young driver failed to find any notch at all three or four times in the first few miles… resulting in the van regularly breaking down. The two men discussed ways and means. For sure, it was not their vehicle.

.. After half an hour, though, everyone – us included – seemed to get the hang of things, and an easier silence, found somewhere deep in the thudding recesses of an over-straining engine, permeated through and joined our own inward acceptance of fate. We now dozed, waiting without language for some sign we might be nearing our destination… on the verge of myth.

…… Through tired eyes
…… One valley, full
…… Of pearl-like lights.

1 the highest town in Sri Lanka
2 motorbike taxi

Genjuan (formerly Kikakuza) International Haibun Contest: LAST MINUTE!

The deadline (January 31st) for entries in this year’s Genjuan (formerly Kikakuza) International Haibun Contest 2012 is approaching fast! This is still Japan’s only international haibun opportunity. Please submit up to three pieces, as per guidelines on the dedicated page (link under ‘Pages’ at top right). Free entry. Good luck!

LAST MINUTE! (See Comments below)

The Sound of Water (I): Springs and Fountains

Let me begin with the famous poem, traditionally ascribed to Saigyo, in which the poet describes the sound of a spring.

Ceaselessly swelling
Out of a crack in the rocks
A spring trickles down,
Whose water is more ample
Than I can use in my hut.

In the original poem, the poet uses the onomatopoeic expression, ‘toku toku’, which I translated as ‘ceaselessly’ above. Admittedly, this is a very feeble translation. The closest to this expression in English would be ‘drip drip’, but ‘toku toku’ has more force. It conveys the power of nature behind the birth of a spring.

I have seen many different types of springs in the mountains. Some of them just drip down from wet moss and grass. They make a subtle music like the strings of a harp touched lightly. Others swell out of the earth with a heavy sound like the throbbing of a heart. In a way, it is an awe-inspiring sound, for we feel that some mysterious being is pushing up the water. It announces the birth of a river.

A Chinese hermit
Washed his ears in cold water
To forget the world.

Let me vitalize
My whole being with a sip
From this icy spring.

Fountains in Italian cities are completely different. Water gushes from the mouth of animals or some mysterious beings. For example, the Fontana di Trevi has Neptune at its center under a triumphant arch, led by Pegasus and two Tritons, and water spouts out of the animals that follow him. I have also seen a fountain where an ugly human face is pouring out water from a pipe in its mouth. Perhaps, the most extreme case is the Pissing Cupid. No one, I think, wants to drink from him. I suppose his role is purely ornamental. What does all this mean? In my view, it means that fountains in Italy are used as a symbol of civilization. Italian fountains are not at the beginning, but at the end of a long duct which stretches many miles through mountains and valleys. Their position signifies they have been installed for the service of man.

Fontana di Trevi,
Fully dressed women come and go
Chatting and laughing.

In a hot piazza,
The splashing water comes down
With a pleasant noise

Kikakuza Haibun Contest 2011 Results

This year’s Kikakuza Haibun Contest attracted 85 entries from 15 countries. The standard was high. The four prize-winning pieces are here to read on a special page Kikakuza ’11 Winning Haibun accessed via the page link at top right. Details of next year’s Contest will be announced later. Thank you to all who took the time to submit a piece and hearty congratulations to the winners.

Grand Prix:

Memories of the Sun by Melissa Spurr (USA)

Za Prizes (Highly Commended):

Ladle by Earl R. Keener (USA)
Last Journey by Sonam Chhoki (Bhutan)
Remembrance of a Time to Come by Moira Richards (South Africa)

Honorable Mentions:

Strange Bedfellows by Margaret Chula (USA)
Kayo by Toshi Ida (Japan)
Return Home by John Parsons (UK)
Coal Dust by Patricia Prime (New Zealand)
Hill Country by Peter Newton (USA)
I sigh, through all my smiling, at the thought of long ago by Gael Bage (UK)
Winter Subway by Ellis Avery (USA)

Waterside Birds, Part VI: Swans and Cranes

by Nobuyuki Yuasa (Sosui)

.. Wild swans come from Siberia to winter on the northern lakes of Japan. Lake Hyoko in Niigata Prefecture and Lake Izunuma in Miyagi Prefecture are famous as their winter homes. However, we do not often see wild swans on Japanese rivers, probably because Japanese rivers are too fast for them.  Most British rivers, however, flow gently, and therefore, we can see many wild swans swimming there. Here I am reminded of the famous words of Edmund Spenser: ‘Sweet Thames! run softly, till I end my song’. These words appear in Prothalamion, a poem which celebrates the nuptials of two gentle ladies. In this poem, Spenser compares the brides to ‘two swans of goodly hue’ and tells them to ‘come softly swimming down along the Lee’. The Lee is probably the tributary that runs into the Thames at Greenwich. When I visited the ruins of Spenser’s castle at Kilcolman in Ireland, I saw swans swimming peacefully in a small marshy lake in front of it. Here, Spenser wrote his Faerie Queene, but lost his estate and some of his family when Tyrone’s Rebellion destroyed the castle. Knowing this, I could not help wondering if the peaceful swans were the ghosts of the dead, who had somehow transcended the glory and tragedy of the past.
.. Shakespeare was called ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’ by Ben Jonson. When I visited Stratford- upon-Avon, I saw two swans swimming gently in the river close by Holy Trinity Church, where he was buried. In his writings, Shakespeare often associates the swan with death. This is because of the traditional belief that the swan sings immediately before its death. In the final scene of Othello, Shakespeare makes Emilia say, ‘I will play the swan and die in music.’ The pathos of these words is very impressive, but actually swans do not sing beautifully at their death. On the contrary, their voices are rather ugly. I am afraid that ugly voices are common to most waterside birds.

Pale blue-gray like lead,
The lake where a flock of swans
Nestles in winter.

………. The tears of the swans
………. Come down in sudden showers
………. At Kilcolman Castle.

.. In Japan, cranes are more familiar than swans. Moreover, they are regarded as auspicious birds. For a long time, Japan Airlines used a crane emblem on their airplanes, and this was recently revived. Some cranes migrate between Siberia and Japan, but red-crested cranes  stay in Hokkaido all the year round. I once visited Kushiro in the eastern part of Hokkaido to see the monuments of Takuboku, whom I admire as a poet. This town is known for its severe winter, but fortunately, I had a relatively warm day with some sunshine. Takuboku’s monument in Yonemachi Park was impressive, against a backdrop of rough sea. I visited his museum near the river, and his statue nearby. A sea gull came and perched on his head while I was there. Watching this bird, I suddenly had a burning desire to see the red-crested cranes. So I extended my stay.
.. I first went to the Red-crested Cranes Park, a kind of zoo, where I was able to see the birds at very close quarters, but was rather disappointed that they were caged. I was surprised to see numerous kites and hawks perching on the nearby trees. I thought they were after the food provided for the cranes. I then went to the Cranes Observation Point, where I was glad to see a crowd of red-crested cranes in the open wilds, with snow on the ground. While I was watching, a pair of cranes came down and landed unexpectedly. Their elegant flight is something that I shall never forget. Soon, several cranes put their heads together, and raising their long necks, began to cry loudly up at the sky, as if in emulation. Even there, though, I was not watching the cranes in a completely natural environment, for the farmers there had been feeding them in order to attract them. What I had really wanted to see was the cranes going to sleep standing in the marshy rivers. This proved impossible. So I had to satisfy myself with pictures in the museum.

.. With snow all around
.. The crimson berets of cranes
.. Stand out in the sun.

………. Evening fog setting in,
………. Red-crested cranes go to sleep
………. In a marshy stream.

Waterside Birds, Part V: Ducks, Grebes and Snipes

I must not forget to add a few words about ducks and snipes, though their species are too numerous for me to cover them all. In general, male ducks are more colourful than female ducks. The mallard is a typical case. Female mallards are modest brown, but males have bright green on their heads and tails. Generally speaking, ducks will mate for life. In Japan, we have an expression, ‘a couple like a pair of mandarin ducks’, meaning ‘a mutually loving couple’. It is indeed a lovely sight to see a pair of mandarin ducks swimming together. During my childhood, when food was short, many people used to keep ducks. Their noisy cries were irritating at times, but when I felt discouraged they somehow gave me fresh power. Their eggs were twice the size of ordinary eggs, and very nutritious. Dusky mallards are often seen in parks and rice fields. It is good to see them leading a line of newly-born chicks.

Grebes have two different names in Japan, nio and kaitsuburi. In English also, they are sometimes called ‘dip-dapper’. This name seems to have a lot in common with the Japanese names, suggesting their habit of dipping their heads into water. This bird is known for making a floating nest out in a lake. Basho has the following poem about this bird.
….. Early summer rain,
….. Let us now step out to see
….. Grebes’ floating nests.
His own comment on this poem in Sanzoshi is, “There is no haikai quality in the words of this poem, but you may find haikai spirit in the eagerness to go to see the floating nests!” What Basho is really saying, I believe, is that it is important to have a fresh approach to the rather conventional image of the floating nests, already too well-established in the tradition of waka as an image of the flimsiness of our own life in this world.

I once rented a house next to a lotus field, which gave me the pleasure of seeing the beautiful flowers opening and raindrops rolling down their enormous leaves. In addition, I was able to see, on summer mornings, a snipe walking about with a few young. Unlike the dusky mallard, the female snipe has brighter colours than its male counterpart, as it is the male’s duty to look after the chicks. It is a very timid bird, trying to avoid attracting human attention. At night, though, its sharp cries used to alarm me, until eventually I got used to them.
….. In the dense darkness
….. A sharp cry of a snipe
….. Stabs me in my breast.

(Nobuyuki Yuasa)

Kikakuza Haibun Contest 2011 deadline approaches fast!

Very sorry for the conflicting information we seem to have had up on the Icebox until recently. The deadline for this, Japan’s first and still only haibun contest, is officially 31 January, but we had apparently put ’31 March’ on one of our earlier posts. Poets! … I ask you!  (tut)

We have requested the contest office to be lenient with the deadline this year, so if you still have not sent something off, if it arrives in Japan by mid-February, we expect it will be included in the judges’ bundle! And, this year, entry is free. Full details on the Contest Guidelines page (accessed top right). Thank you to Claire in Paris for the alert.