Meeting and Parting: Poem Number 10

July 15, 2012

Traffic seen from top of Arc de Triomphe

This poem is a nice reminder that “traffic” and “commuting” are two things that haven’t really changed much in 1,000 years:

これやこの Kore ya kono
行くも帰るも Yuku mo kaeru mo
別れては Wakarete wa
知るも知らぬも Shiru mo shiranu mo
逢坂の関 Ōsaka no seki

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

This it is! That
going, too, and coming too,
continually separating,
those known and those unknown,
meet at the Barrier of Ōsaka

This poem was composed by one Semimaru (蝉丸) who is reputedly a blind man who built a hut near Osaka Barrier and was famous for playing the biwa, but the authenticity of this story if questionable, and as Mostow points out, it’s not even certain he existed at all. The story about his life has also changed throughout the generations, so in some cases he’s the servant of the son of an Emperor, and in others he’s the son of an Emperor, abandoned by his blindness.

The place in question, Osaka Barrier, is a popular subject of poetry from this era. Poems 62 and 25 also mention the same place because it was a popular meeting spot for people coming and going from the capitol (modern-day Kyoto) eastward. Note that this Osaka has no resemblance to the modern city of Osaka, which was called Naniwa during that era. In fact the name of Osaka Barrier is also a pun. The chinese characters are 逢坂, which means “meeting hill”, but is also the place-name.

A traditional Japanese checkpoint or "sekisho"

A traditional Japanese checkpoint or “sekisho” 関所 courtesy of Wikipedia.

Anyway, these kinds of check-points, or sekisho (関所) existed in Japan across major roads going in and out of the capitol, but were also popular meeting places for friends and lovers too, as well as having inns nearby for weary travellers. Osaka Barrier in particular was the first check-point leaving eastward from the capitol, so many people probably parted company here, or met old friends at this particular gate more than others. It’s fun to imagine what Osaka Barrier was like in those days. As Mostow points out, this poem probably was originally just a poem about Osaka Barrier, but by the medieval era, it took on an increasingly Buddhist tone in symbolizing the coming and going of all phenomena. Even modern Japanese books on the Hyakunin Isshu tend to reflect this sentiment. Pretty interesting metaphor I think.

One other interesting thing about this poem is its rhythm. If you read this one out loud, the rhythm is very easy to follow, and this is probably one of the easier poems to memorize if you’re looking for a place to start (poem number 3 is another good choice in my opinion). 🙂

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