Wow, it’s been a while.  Recently, while playing with my wife and kids a game of karuta with our hyakunin isshu cards, I learned about a simple, introductory way to enjoy the game without spending a lot of time learning the poems or mastering the rules of the competition.  This simple game is called bōzu-mekuri (坊主めくり).

The rules are nicely explained here in Japanese, but goes like this:

  1. Shuffle all 100 of the picture cards, then make a stack face-down. This is called the yamafuda.
  2. Two or more people sit around the yamafuda stack and take a turn drawing the top card from the pile.
  3. Depending on what kind of card a person gets, one of three things will happen:
    • If the card is a picture of a nobleman (tono), add it to your personal pile.
    • If the card is a picture of a Buddhist monk (bōzu), you lose all your cards.  Add them to a second stack next to the original yamafuda stack, but face up.  If there are cards already there, just add to the pile.
    • If the card is a court lady (himé) then you get all the cards from the second throw-away pile.
  4. Once all the cards from the face-down pile are exhausted, whoever has the most cards at the end wins the game.

If you get a stack of hyakunin isshu cards, try it out with your friends some time! I found the game very easy to learn, and fun to play with 3-4 people. More people the better.


P.S. There are variations of this game you can play too, according to the website above. You can make two face-down piles if you want, and players are welcome to draw from either one. You can also lay out the cards face-down into a circle as well. The rules for the cards themselves are the same, but there are many ways you can make your pile.

A Cold Mat: Poem 91

February 19, 2014

White (3235665151)

A fitting poem for winter and those who somehow missed out on Valentine’s Day recently:

きりぎりす Kirigirisu
鳴くや霜夜の Naku ya shimoyo no
さむしろに sa mushiro ni
衣かたしき koromo katashiki
ひとりかも寝む hitori kamo nen

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

When the crickets
cry in the frosty night,
on the cold reed-mat,
spreading out my robe just for one,
must I sleep all alone?

This sad, miserable poem was ironically composed by a famous poet of his era named Fujiwara no Yoshitsune (1169-1206) whose grandather was Jien (poem 95). He was another member of the elite poetry family, the Mikohidari (see Jakuren poem 87) and was very well-represented in the Shin Kokin Wakashū poetry anthology which he was an editor. Elsewhere, as a scion of the Fujiwara family, he served as regent to the young Emperor Tsuchimikado.

Astute readers may have noticed that this poem sounds similar, especially in Japanese, to a very early poem in the anthology by Hitomaro (poem 3). Even the last line is the same.

But part of the poem also seems similar to another poem in the Shin Kokin Wakashū according to Professor Mostow, which relates to cold reed-mats and waiting alone. So, in a sense, this poem blends two famous poems and adds the novelty of crickets.

But as we’ve seen with poem 90, it was an accepted practice at the time to write poetry which allude to older poems in the poems. Indeed, as the author of the blog, I admit I kind of enjoyed this poem more when I noticed the final line and realized I had heard it before.

Yoshitsune certainly never had to spend a night in the cold as a member of the elite Fujiwara family, but his ability to weave old poetry verses together and paint such a sad picture help explain why he was such a famous poet.

Phragmites in Amsterdam 2013

If you like word-play, you’ll enjoy this poem quite a bit:

難波江の Naniwa-e no
芦のかりねの Ashi no karine no
一夜ゆへ Hitoyo yue
身をつくしてや Mi wo tsukushite ya
恋わたるべき Koi wataru beki

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

Due to that single night
of fitful sleep, short as a reed’s joint cut at the root
from Naniwa Bay,
am I to exhaust myself, like the channel markers
passing my days in longing?

This poem was composed by Lady Bettō (dates unknown), who served in the house of Empress Seishi, whose husband was Emperor Sutoku. Lady Bettō was also the daughter of Minamono no Yoshitaka.

Although the life of Lady Bettō is relatively unknown, and she doesn’t appear in many anthologies, Professor Mostow points out that her poem is quite a technical feat. There are a lot of “pivot words”, or words that can either refer to the previous statement, or the latter one:

  • karine can mean cutting a root (刈り根) or a brief nap (仮寝) such as when travelling.
  • hitoyo can mean either a single segment of a reed (一節) or a single night (一夜).
  • mi wo tsukushi can mean either to exhaust one’s body (身を尽くし) or one of the famous barriers in Osaka Bay (澪標, see poem 20)

The poem itself uses many familiar themes too. We’ve seen a lot of poems that feature Osaka Bay, called Naniwa in ancient times, including poem 20, poem 19 and poem 72 among others. Similarly, we see references to reeds, just as we do in poem 39 and poem 19 (again).

What makes this poem stand out is the excellent use of word-play throughout. On the surface, it looks like just another love poem, but Lady Bettō knew what she was doing. 😉

New Blog Page

January 30, 2014


I’ve been making small updates to the blog apart from the poems themselves. The main change is that I’ve added a new “page” that talks about the history of Imperial poetry anthologies. Poetry collections were very popular in the “classical age” of Japanese history, when Court nobles cultivated the finer arts and wrote lots and lots of poetry for social reasons, as well as for career advancement.

The Hyakunin Isshu is an example of a “private” collection in that it was not commissioned by the government. Fujiwara no Teika (poem 97) compiled the Hyakunin Isshu in the later years of his life after his lord, Emperor Gotoba (poem 99), was exiled and the samurai government in Kamakura had won the civil war.

However, many of the poets in the Hyakunin Isshu were also contributors to official anthologies or helped compile them. So, I finally got around to explaining what these anthologies were and why the’re important to this blog.

Also, resources permitting, I may want to try and post poetry from some of those anthologies, starting with the Kokin Wakashū.


Murasaki Shikibu Nikki Emaki (Hinohara - scene 3) painting only

Where as the last love poem expressed love and anxiety after a first-meeting, this poem is quite a different story:

夜もすがら Yo mo sugara
物思ふ頃は Mono omou koro wa
明けやらぬ Ake yaranu
ねやのひまさへ Neya no hima sae
つれなかりけり Tsure nakari keri

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

All through the night
recently, as I dwell on things,
even the gap between the doors
of my bedroom, which does not lighten,
seems cruel and heartless to me.

The author is a Buddhist monk named Shun’e Hōshi (俊恵法師, “Dharma Master Shun’e”) who was the son of Minamoto no Toshiyori (poem 74) and grandson of Minamoto no Tsunenobu (poem 71). Though he had taken tonsure, Shun’e was quite a social figure and gathered many poets and writers around him and his residence called the Karin’en (歌林苑, “Garden in the Poetic Woods”). According to Professor Mostow, one of his students was a famous writer named Kamo no Chōmei who wrote the “Account of a Ten Foot Hut” or Hōjōki.

This poem is another example of when a poem expressing a woman’s anguish is written by a man, presumably on a set topic for a poetry contest. Other examples include poem 18 and poem 21. Obviously being able to express a woman’s feelings, namely that of a jilted lover, so well from a male author was not an easy task, and was a mark of excellent poetic skill. Not surprisingly Shun’e is counted among the Later Six Immortals of Poetry. Similarly, this is probably why Kabuki actors who play women’s parts are so highly revered.

Snowy Plover Morro Strand

As the weather gets colder, I’ve been saving this one for a time like this:

淡路島 Awaji shima
かよふ千鳥の Kayou chidori no
なく声に Naku koe ni
いくよねざめぬ Ikuyo nezamenu
すまの関守 Suma no sekimori

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

The crying voices
of the plovers who visit
from Awaji Island—
how many nights have they awakened him,
the barrier-keepers of Suma?

The author of the poem, Minamoto no Kanemasa (dates unknown) was a frequent participant in poetry contests of the day, but overall very little is known about him, and it doesn’t appear he had any poetry collections of his own.

The first time I read this poem, in Japanese, I misunderstood the phrase chidori (千鳥) to literally mean 1,000 birds (in other words, a lot of birds). But in fact, chidori refers specifically to plover birds. The plover is representative of winter, and as we’ve seen before other birds represent for other seasons:

The location, Awaji Island, is a well known part of Japan’s inland sea, and is culturally significant since antiquity. Though at this time in history, it seemed a bit remote from the capitol.

Professor Mostow notes that this poem uses some strange grammar though. For example nezamenu would normally mean to not wake up, but in this context means “have they awakened” instead. Also, he notes that this poem apparently alludes to the Tales of Genji, specifically the “Suma” chapter, when the prince Genji was in exile.

All told, this poem paints a sad, somber picture that fits well with wintry days.

Disheleved: Poem Number 80

October 25, 2013

Courbet Gypsy in Reflection

A clever morning-after love poem that I felt was fun to share:

長からむ Nagakaran
心もしらず Kokoro mo shirazu
黒髪の Kurokami no
みだれてけさは Midarete kesa wa
物をこそ思へ Mono wo koso omoe

Which Professor Mostow translates:

I do not even know
how long your feelings will last.
My long black hair
is all disheveled and, this morning,
my thoughts too are in a tangle!

The author of this poem is Lady Horikawa of the Taikenmon In (dates unknown). She served in the court of Empress Taiken who was the consort to Emperor Toba, and was the mother of Emperor Sutoku (poem 77) who was later exiled.

The use of imagery of “disheveled hair” was a common device often used by women, or writing poetry about women, to express feelings of frustration or anxiety.

As we’ve seen before, morning-after poems were very popular at this time in Japan as many of the aristocracy of the Heian Court would have love trysts between each other. Often the first meeting was the morning important, not surprisingly. It set the tone for the rest of the relationship, so a meeting like this was often celebrated in poetry.

Of course, there was another side to these trysts in the Heian Period too.

Waning Moon

Another Autumn moon poem, but with an interesting twist:

なげけとて Nageke tote
月やは物を Tsuki ya wa mono wo
思はする Omowasuru
かこちがほなる Kakochi gao naru
わがなみだかな Waga nami dakana

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

“Lament!” does it say?
Is it the moon that makes me
dwell on things? —No, and yet,
look at the tears flowing down
my reproachful face!

This poem was composed by the Dharma Master Saigyō (1118-1190) a famous Buddhist monk and poet from the era. Saigyo’s story is interesting in of itself. In his youth, his name was Sato no Norikiyo and he was a promising young man in the Heian Court, and caught the attention of Emperor Toba, Emperor Sutoku (poem 77) and also Taira no Kiyomori, the most powerful man at the time and who later became a villain in the famous Tales of the Heike and a recent drama on Japanese TV.

However, Norikiyo grew disillusioned with the nasty politics and infighting in the Court, and abruptly decided to throw it all away. He left behind his career, his wife and children1 and became a wandering mendicant. He took on the Buddhist name Saigyo (西行) and stayed at the famous mountain-monastery of Koyasan for monastic training. Later, he returned to the capitol to find everything had changed. The Hogen Rebellion had destroyed much of the capitol, Emperor Sutoku was exiled (having lost), and Kiyomori ruled as a warlord. A few years later, Kiyomori and the entire Heike clan were utterly destroyed in the famous Genpei War which also spelled the Heian Court and the Heian Period. What might have happened had Norikiyo had stayed and followed his career, rather than leave the capitol?

In any case, with the new samurai government at Kamakura (the Kamakura Period), things settled down in Japan and Saigyo traveled around, devoting his life to writing poetry to lament the loss of his former patrons, beautiful nature in Japan, and about life in general. He finally settled down in the outskirts of Osaka, and passed away at the age of 73. It was said that when he passed away, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and that he died on the same day that Shakyamuni Buddha died (February 15th according to solar calendar).

He was also friends with Shunzei (poem 83), according to Professor Mostow.

Anyhow, this poem is, according to Professor Mostow, possibly inspired by a poem by famous Chinese poet Bo Juyi and is supposed the express the feelings of a resentful lover. Is the moon making him/her tearful? Maybe, maybe not, but gazing up at the moon brings them such sadness anyway.

Saigyo’s talent with poetry and his interesting life story have certainly helped him earn a place in the Hyakunin Isshu, but also inspired many later poets such as Basho and others. Basho the Haiku master, in his travels, went to visit places frequented by Saigyo among others.

Nostalgia: Poem Number 84

October 10, 2013

Nostalgia 110X70CM

This is kind of a cool, unusual poem to find in the Hyakunin Isshu, but something we can all appreciate:

ながらへば Nagaraeba
またこの頃や Mata kono koro ya
しのばれむ Shinobaren
憂しと見し世ぞ Ushi to mishi yo zo
今は恋しき Ima wa koishiki

To which Professor Mostow translates as:

If I live on longer,
shall I again, I wonder,
yearn for these days?
The world that I once saw as
bitter, now, is dear to me.

This poem was composed by Fujiwara no Kiyosuke (1104-1177) who was the second son of Fujiwara no Akisuke (poem 79). Professor Mostow states that Kiyosuke disagreed with his father and the Rokujo School of poetry that he established, but ended up becoming head of the school anyway.

At heart, this poem is about nostalgia, how bitter things now somehow soften over time. Everyone can think of a bitter time in their life, but looking back nostalgia makes it seem sweeter than it was back then. It’s also a reminder that if we are going through a hard time now, it won’t always be that way in the future.

In a concrete sense, Professor Mostow points out that some commentators think this may have alluded to the decline of the times, and in particular the Hōgen Rebellion, mentioned also in poem 76 and poem 77.

But even if that were true, it’s interesting how we tend to look back on this era with a kind of bitter-sweet nostalgia, far removed from the pain and destruction caused at the time.

One of the best ways to appreciate and celebrate the Hyakunin Isshu anthology (besides reading and reciting the poetry) is to play the traditional card game called karuta. I’ve written about it here and here before, but recently I found a good article on the Japan Times about a famous karuta store in Tokyo that has been selling karuta cards for 90 years.

I did some digging and found the store’s website (sorry, Japanese only). If you’re in the downtown Tokyo area, particularly in the Chiyoda Ward, you can find it here:

According to their website they are:

  • 3-min walk from Jimbocho Sta.(A4 exit)
  • 7-min walk from JR Suidobashi Sta.(east exit)

The Jinbocho Station is the nearest one though. There also seems to be a good curry house right next door, and Japanese curry is pretty awesome, so next time I go, I will probably go visit both. 😉

But what if you can’t afford to go to Japan, and just want to get a set of Hyakunin Isshu cards yourself. There are options to buy them online, but the quality may vary and shipping is somewhat expensive:

  • You can buy from Amazon JP, which is bi-lingual (look for the in English button at the top, and ships almost anywhere.
  • You can buy from Rakuten, an online shop in Japan. Rakuten sometimes has better selection, but the ordering process is a little more difficult for non-native Japanese speakers. Price will be roughly the same.
  • White Rabbit Express is a special service that will find and ship things you request. It’s more expensive, but if you’re a little shy, it might be well worth it.

Good luck and happy card hunting!