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.)