Julian Alden Weir Autumn Rain

It’s been a while, but I wanted to start off with a nice, descriptive poem:

むらさめの Murasame no
露もまだひぬ Tsuyu mo mada hinu
まきの葉に Maki no ha ni
霧立ちのぼる Kiri tachinoboru
秋の夕暮 Aki no yugure

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

While the raindrops of
the passing shower have not yet dried from
near the leaves of the evergreens,
the mist is already rising, on
this evening in autumn.

This poem was composed by Dharma-master Jakuren (d. 1202) whose name was originally Fujiwara no Sadanaga before he took tonsure. He is a nephew of Shunzei (poem 83) and according to Professor Mostow a leading poets in the house of Mikohidari. He helped to compile the official poetry anthologies at the time, but died before completion.

Professor Mostow points out that Fujiwara no Teika, another member of the House of Mikohidari, didn’t praise this poem at first, and it made the “cutting floor” of the Imperial anthology that Jakuren helped compile, the Shin-Kokinshū, or in other anthologies. And yet, years later, it appears here in the Hyakunin Isshu by Fujiwara no Teika. The poem is generally viewed as a simple, straightforward descriptive poem, which is perhaps why it wasn’t as highly revered as other more subtle poems, or poems with more of a backstory.

Still, I think anyone can appreciate the scenery painted in this poem even today.

Interestingly, the poetic verse kiri tachinoboru (霧立ち上る) or “the mist is already rising”, was coined by Jakuren and was associated with him by later poets and commentators.

P.S. I’ve been away from the blog for a couple months raising our new little boy and keeping up with holidays. Now that things are finally quieting down, I hope to complete the final 7 poems (aside from this one). I’m still debating on further topics for this blog, and suggestions or requests are always appreciated.


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.

The Final Ten Poems

November 22, 2013

Hello Dear Readers,

I am down to the last 10 poems of the Hyakunin Isshu! I started this blog in January of 2011, but I didn’t expect it to last almost 3 years or gain this many readers. It’s been a real treat.

However, with only 10 poems left in the Hyakunin Isshu, I’m trying to decide what to do next:

  • I could try and feature Waka poetry from the official anthologies of that era. The trouble is that they are hard to obtain in English and I can’t translate Japanese that easily. Certainly not at Professor Mostow’s level.
  • I might also try and feature Waka poetry from the Tales of Ise which is a famous book/poetry anthology from that era. Professor Mostow has a translation of that which I’ve been slowly reading through.
  • I could feature more cultural/historical posts about the people and places featured in the Hyakunin Isshu.
  • Perhaps some combination of the above.
  • Or finally, I could just stop the blog after the 100th poem and let it stand on its own merits. Sometimes, less is more.

Feedback and ideas are welcome. Thanks for reading and journeying with me thus far.


P.S. I’m excited to post these last poems too. I think there are some good ones in here.

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!

Clouds over the Atlantic Ocean

This is a kind of continuation of the last poem, and is one of the most vivid in the Hyakunin Isshu:

わたの原 Wata no hara
こぎ出でて見れば Kogi idete mireba
久方の Hisakata no
雲井にまよふ Kumoi ni mayou
おきつしらなみ Okitsu shiranami

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

As I row out into
the wide-sea plain and look
all around me—
the white waves of the offing
could be mistaken for clouds!

This was composed by the Regent, Fujiwara no Tadamichi (1097-1164), who was the recipient of the complain in poem 75. As the regent to the Emporor, Tadamichi was a literal king-maker, but got involved with a nasty succession dispute between the future Emperor Go-Shirakawa and the retired Emperor Sutoku (poem 77). This led to the Hōgen Rebellion of 1156, which marked the rapid decline of the Heian Court and the eventual rise of the samurai-led, military-style government for the next 700 years.

The poem itself uses a lot of vivid imagery and pillow words we’ve seen in other poems. For example the phrase, hisakata no was also found in Poem 33. Other notable phrases:

  • wata no hara – field of cotton (the sky)
  • okitsu shiranami – the white waves offshore

It’s an interesting image to imagine: somewhere offshore where the clouds and the white waves blend together in the horizon.

Professor Mostow notes that this poem also has a possible political interpretation by some medieval commentators, because of the allusion “clouds” to “heaven” in the Confucian sense. In such interpretations, it implies that the author is confused by the affairs of the state. However, this interpretation is not shared by other commentators who believe this poem is literal, not allegorical.

In any case, a great poem.


Because this is the Harvest Moon, I felt this poem was perfect for the occasion:

秋風に Akikaze ni
たなびく雲の Tanabiku kumo no
たえまより Taema yori
もれ出づる月の More izuru
かげのさやけさ Kage no sayakesa

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

From between the breaks
in the clouds that trail
on the autumn wind
leaks through the moon-
light’s clear brightness!

The author is Fujiwara no Akisuke (1090-1155) who served as the administrator of the western half of the capitol of Kyoto. In those days, the capitol was modeled off of the Chinese capitol of Chang-an of the illustrious Tang Dynasty, and was divided into a “western” and “eastern” half with an administrator for each one. Additionally, Professor Mostow explains that Akisuke was the father of Kiyosuke (poem 84) and established a poetry school (the Rokujō School) in opposition to Shunzei (poem 83) who happened to be the father of Fujiwara no Teika the compiler of the Hyakunin Isshu. Teika apparently didn’t mind including his poems in the anthology anyway. Being a pre-eminent poet, Emperor Sutoku (poem 77) also commissioned him to compile a new anthology, the Shika Wakashū.

The poem itself is somewhat unusual in the Hyakunin Isshu, because the poem is completely straightforward. The poem literally paints a wonderful image of a hazy autumn moon-lit night, with no additional allusions. When you compare other poems in the Hyakunin Isshu about the moon, usually they have some additional meaning. This poem is unusually genuine and still well-composed.

So, as you enjoy the Harvest Moon this evening, take a moment to enjoy this poem if you can. If you’re in Japan, happy o-Tsukimi! 🙂