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.

Mount Ogura

May 7, 2014

Hi Folks,

Although I’ve finished all the poems in the Hyakunin Isshu, I wanted to share this cool photo I found on Twitter:

This is Mount Ogura (小倉山) also called Arashiyama (嵐山) near the city of Kyoto. The place name “Ogura” is where the Hyakunin Isshu gets its full-name: Ogura Hyakunin Isshu.

At that time, it was trendy for aristocrats to compile their own “hundred poems by a hundred poets” anthologies, all named “hyakunin isshu”, but the one that is by far the most famous is the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, which of course is the source and inspiration of this blog. 🙂

Thanks to KyotoDailyPhoto on Twitter for taking this photo. It’s nice to see the place that inspired the anthology.

Fujiwara no Teika's gravesite at Shokoku-ji Temple in Kyoto.  Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Fujiwara no Teika’s gravesite at Shokoku-ji Temple in Kyoto. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

At last, faithful readers, we come to the final poem of the Hyakunin Isshu, composed by the anthology’s compiler himself!

こぬ人を Konu hito wo
まつほの浦の Matsuo no ura no
夕なぎに Yunagi ni
やくやもしほの Yaku ya moshio no
身もこがれつつ Mi mo kogaretsutsu

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

For the man who doesn’t come
I wait at the Bay of Matsuo—
in the evening calm
where they boil seaweed for salt,
I, too, burn with longing!

This poem was composed by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241), or alternatively Fujiwara no Sadaie. He is considered one of the greatest poets in all of Japanese history. Teika was the compiler of this Hyakunin Isshu anthology and was also one of the major compilers of the official Shin Kokin Wakashū anthology. As alluded in other posts his influence and talent and his family’s influence were so great that the family virtually monopolized the Court poetry for centuries to come. But we’ll talk more about that shortly.

Fujiwara no Teika, in selecting 100 poems for this anthology, selected this one out of hundreds if not thousands he had composed in his career. But why this poem?

Like many of the later poems in the anthology (poem 90, 91 and 94), this poem alludes to a much older one. In this case, it alludes all the way back to the original anthology in Japan, the Manyoshu. Unlike later anthologies, the Manyoshu was a loose connection of poems 400 years before Teika, but the particular poem he alludes to was written from the perspective of a man whose love was burning for a woman like the boiling of seaweed at Matsuo Bay. As you can see, Teika reversed the perspective to be that of a woman while still alluding to the original. Additionally though, Teika gives his poem a sadder tone than the original, which came to be a hallmark of Teika’s style.

Incidentally, Matsuo Bay (written as Matsuho 松帆 here) is on the very northern tip of the famous Awaji Island in the Inland Sea. It is a scenic part of Awaji Island, and even has its own homepage. The technique of extracting salt by boiling seaweed, or moshio (藻塩) is a time-honored tradition in Japan, and the seaweed gives the salt a special flavor. There’s a really good article about it here.

Fujiwara no Teika was a master of expressing yūgen (幽玄) or subtle, profound beauty in his poetry. This kind of subtle beauty centuries later came to influence other arts in time in Japan including No theater, tea-ceremony, etc.

But who was Fujiwara no Teika?

He was born from an illustrious family of poets though a minor branch of the powerful Fujiwara clan. His grandfather was Fujiwara no Toshitada and his father was Shunzei (poem 83). As a youth, Teika was a sickly boy but as the eldest son, he was obligated to carry on the family legacy. Unfortunately due to complex court politics, Teika was overlook for much of his early life. However after a fortunate turn of events, he was noticed by Emperor Go-Toba (poem 99) who eventually commissioned him to compile two new anthologies: the Shin Kokin Wakashū.

Over time though, Teika and Emperor Gotoba disagreed over poetry and the anthology, leading an increasingly distant and cold relationship. Teika found Gotoba overbearing, while Gotoba didn’t care for Teika’s free-wheeling style. At times, Teika and Gotoba openly criticized one another through poetry, or in their diary entries, and eventually Gotoba banished Teika for a year. Teika meanwhile became closer to Gotoba’s son who later became Emperor Juntoku (poem 100), while Gotoba became increasingly occupied with the martial arts, and with wresting power back from the samurai rulers in Kamakura.

Unfortunately for Emperor Gotoba, his meager forces were utterly routed by the Kamakura army, and Gotoba was sent into exile (since it was sacrilege to kill the Emperor) along with his immediate family. Teika was not involved in the war, so he remained in Kyoto, and even reached the Imperial post of Middle Counselor. During this time, he also completed another Imperial anthology, the Shin Chokusen Wakashū, which shows more of his down-to-earth later style.

Finally though, his health declined from old age and from the famine at the time, so he retired and took Buddhist tonsure. It was during his final years in a Buddhist monastery that he was invited by his son’s father-in-law, Lord Utsunomiya no Yoritsuna, to his villa at Mount Ogura near Kyoto.

Lord Utsunomiya asked Teika to compile 100 poems in his own hand, so that they could be adorned on the silk screens of his villa, and these 100 eventually became the collection that we know today.

After Teika died at the age of 80, his grandchildren formed into three rival schools of Waka poetry that dominated the poetry scene for centuries:

  • Nijō School (nijō-ha 二条派) – the conservative and dominant school at first. Over time, a series of misfortunes eventually caused the school to decline and fade by the medieval period in Japanese history.
  • Reizei School (reizei-ke 冷泉家) – the more liberal branch, but a few generations later became the dominant branch. By the middle of the Muromachi Period, two branches had formed: the upper Reizei school (kamireizei 上冷泉家) and the lower Reizei school (shimoreizei 下冷泉家), which the upper school prevailing in the long-run. This school still maintains a large compound in Kyoto to this day.
  • Kyōgoku School (kyōgoku-ha 京極派) – this school died out in only a couple generations.

But more importantly, the legacy of Fujiwara no Teika is in his celebrated poetry anthologies, and especially this one. Even today, many kids in Japan enjoy playing uta-garuta in school competitions, and there are even Japanese anime about the Hyakunin Isshu.

And of course readers like yourself. This was a originally a little experiment of mine, but I have enjoyed your readership, your comments, and of course your support. Thank you everyone from the bottom of my heart.

As this is the 100th and final poem of the Hyakunin Isshu, that is all I have to offer on this blog. I may take it up again sometime in the future and cover other anthologies like the Kokinshu and the Shinkokinshu, but for now, I decided that I prefer to leave it as it is.

All good things must come to an end, after all.

The wind of spring

Something we all have to face in the end:

花さそふ Hana sasou
あらしの庭の Arashi no niwa no
雪ならで Yuki nara de
ふりゆくものは Furi yuku mono wa
わが身なりけり Wa ga mi narikeri

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

It entices the flowers—
the storm—but through the garden’s white,
it is not snow,
and what it is that’s scattering
are, in fact, the years of my life!

The author, Fujiwara no Kintsune (1171-1244) was a powerful member of the elite Fujiwara family and extended his support to the Hyakunin Isshu’s compiler, Fujiwara no Teika (poem 97), after he married Kintsune’s older sister. According to Mostow, through Kintsune’s own marriage to a niece of Minamoto no Yoritomo, he eventually became the grandfather of the Shogun, Kujō Yoritsune.

This poem, unlike other poems recently posted which were more clear-cut in meaning, often was the subject of much interpretation. The contrast between the aging man and the scattering of flowers in the wind, called hana fubuki (花吹雪) led to many interpretations by later commentators particularly about the man growing old, according to Professor Mostow. Perhaps he won’t be back next year?

Due to his association with the new Kamakura Shogunate, when the Shogunate defeated Emperor Go-toba (poem 99) in the Jōkyū Disturbance, Kintsune helped start a new branch of the Fujiwara clan called the Saionji (西園寺) after a nearby temple in northern Kyoto which became their traditional seat of power. It was said that he planted many cherry trees, build ponds, etc. Thus, this poem alludes to these cherry trees as the ones that are scattering in the wind.

The image of hana fubuki also is noteworthy, because it isn’t a small scattering of flowers. It refers to great scattering of blossoms in the wind, just like a snowfall. Thus Kintsune is witnessing this great scattering even as he contemplates his own decline even after so many years in power.

Pretty awesome poem, really, for a man who lived a noteworthy life.

The Fulling of Cloth: Poem 94

February 26, 2014

Brooklyn Museum - Surimono Woman Fulling Cloth in the Moonlight - Shigenobu

Although not a well-known poem in the Hyakunin Isshu, I rather like this one for some reason:

みよし野の Miyoshino
山の秋風 Yama no aki-kaze
さよふけて sayo fukete
ふるさとさむく furusato samuku
衣うつなり koromo utsu nari

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

Fair Yoshino,
the autumn wind in its mountains
deepens the night and
in the former capitol, cold
I hear the fulling of cloth

Sangi Fujiwara no Masatsune (1170-1221) was another editor of the Shin Kokin Wakashū like Yoshitsune (poem 91) and went on to found the poetic house of Asukai (also famous for calligraphy). He also studied under Shunzei (poem 83) earlier in his career.

I had to look up what fulling cloth meant, but apparently it’s the process of beating cloth, especially wool, to improve the texture, or in the case of Japan, give the cloth a nice glossy sheen. You can see an example of this above, in a painting made in the 1800’s, almost 700 years later. I can’t imagine the process changed much within that time. The process was to place the cloth on a wood or stone surface and pound it with a wooden mallet. In Japanese, the process called koromo utsu (衣打つ) just as it is mentioned in this poem.

Also, this poem, like other poems we’ve looked at recently (poem 90 and poem 91), this poem alludes to a much older poem by Korenori (poem 31), which also mentions snow in the village of Yoshino near the old capitol of Nara.

Interestingly, the “former capitol” is referred to by the poetic phrase furusato, which in modern Japanese means one’s hometown. Nara was the capitol of Japan during the early Nara Period, and personally my most favorite place to visit in Japan. The culture at that time was an interesting fusion of early Japanese culture, Chinese art and culture, and Indian Buddhism (via Silk Road). Even after the capitol was moved to Kyoto (another great place), there existed many euphemisms to the “former capitol” by later poets and authors as a kind of nostalgia or the “good ol’ days”. Hence the use of the term furusato I believe.

Even At Low Tide: Poem 92

February 23, 2014

Offshore rock - - 1244159

Another poem dedicated to those who were lonely for Valentine’s Day recently:

わが袖は Wa ga sode wa
潮干に見えぬ shiohi ni mienu
沖の石の oki no ishi no
人こそしらね hi koso shirane
かはくまもなし kawaku mamo nashi

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

My sleeves are like
the rock in the offing that
can’t be seen even at low tide,
unknown to anyone, but
there’s not a moment they are dry.

The author of this poem was “Nijōin no Sanuki” who’s real name and dates aren’t well-understood. It is known that she was a daughter of famous warrior/poet Minomoto no Yorimasa and served the retired Emperor Nijō, hence her name nijōin (Imperial House of Nijō). The “Sanuki” part comes from Sanuki Province where her father was once posted on assignment.

Sanuki, like Sokushi, was a leading female poet of her day, and this poem helps illustrate why. As we discussed recently in poem 90, the image of sleeves wet with tears was a popular poetic technique used at the time for unrequited love (again, see poems 42, 65, and 72) but the idea of such sleeves being hidden like a submerged rock offshore was a novel, new way of expressing this.

Indeed, Sanuki became so famous for this verse, she herself was often referred to as oki no ishi no Sanuki (沖の石の讃岐) by later poets and authors. It was pretty rare for a poet to receive such a name for a famous verse they composed but a few other examples exist. Another female poet named kunaikyō (宮内卿) was called wakakusa no kunaikyō (若草の宮内卿) because of a famous verse she wrote regarding young grass (wakakusa, 若草) from the Shin Kokin Wakashū:

薄く濃き Usuku koki
野辺のみどりの Nobe no midori no
若草の Wakakusa no
あとまで見ゆる Ato made miyuru
雪のむら消え Yuki no muragie

Which translates as:

Light and dark:
the green of the field’s
young herbs
distinct in
patches of fading snow.

Pretty awesome when you can make a name for yourself that way.

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.

Matsushima miyagi z

This poem is a clever variation on the “sleeves wet with tears” poems we often see in the Hyakunin Isshu:

見せばやな Misebaya na
雄島のあまの Ojima no ama no
袖だにも Sode dani mo
ぬれにぞぬれし Nure ni zo nureshi
色はかはらず Iro wa kawarazu

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

How I’d like to show him!
The sleeves of the fishermen
of Male Island
when it comes to wet, are wet indeed,
but their color doesn’t change!

The author of this poem is Inpumon In no Taiyu (1131 ~ 1200 ?) who served Princess Ryōshi, the daughter of Emperor Go-Shirakawa. Princess Ryōshi was also known as Inpumon-in (殷富門院) hence the name here. Taiyu was an accomplished poet and another member of the elite “Garden in the Poetic Forest” group (see poem 85).

The poem here, according to Mostow, is a 200-year old rebuttal of an earlier poem that celebrates the “wet sleeves” of the fisherman of Matsushima, but saying “if you think their sleeves are wet, mine are even more wet and stained with blood-red tears!” We’ve seen other “sleeves wet with tears” poems in the Hyakunin Isshu, namely poem 65, poem 72, and my favorite poem 42. But Taiyu takes this one to a new level, I think. 🙂

Regarding the location, “Male Island” (雄島) is one of 200+ tiny islands in a famous island chain called Matsushima (松島) in modern-day Miyagi Prefecture. The photograph is of Matsushima at sunset. As you can see, the islands are all pretty small, and very scenic, and each has their own unique name. However, in the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake, the area was badly devastated and still recovering.

In any case, poets from antiquity and centuries later used Matsushima in their poetry and it’s easy to see why.

One other point worth mentioning is that this poem, and poem 89 use a clever trick in Japanese poetry called kugire (句切れ). The idea is to add a single syllable in there, usually on the first line, in order to add impact, but also help divide the poem more cleanly along the standard 5-7-5-7-7 lines in Waka poetry.

In this poem the kugire is on the first line, at the end: 見せばや (mi-se-ba-ya-na), while in poem 89 it is 玉の緒 (ta-ma-no-o-yo). You can see this technique centuries later in Japanese haiku, such as the famous poem by Basho in the year 1686:

古池 Fu-ru-i-ke-ya
蛙飛びこむ Ka-wa-zu-to-bi-ko-mu
水の音 Mi-zu-no-o-to

an ancient pond / a frog jumps in / the splash of water

This haiku was composed 500+ years after the poems of the Hyakunin Isshu, but it’s interesting how some poetic-devices never quite get old. 😉

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.