Haiku with a Cup of Tea

haikuwithacupoftea nippakutext.jpg

First of all, I must admit that I am not a huge haiku fan: I love reading poetry, but I prefer long poems, just like I usually read thick books. That being said, from time to time I enjoy browsing through some haiku collections. Last year I received the Dutch translation of Classic Haiku, a compilation of some of the most famous haiku categorized by master. Among these names, my favorite haiku writer is definitely Kobayashi Yatarō (1763-1828), known by his pen name Issa 一茶. Issa literally means “one (cup of) tea” and refers to the serenity of the Japanese tea tradition 茶道 (sadō) but also to the emptiness of life, as can be observed in the disappearing froth on a cup of matcha tea. Throughout this post, I will visually serve you five haiku by Issa and five types of Japanese tea. Enjoy!


genmaicha utsukushiya nippaku 1

Issa wrote more than 20,000 haiku. His style is characterized by a simplicity and childish admiration for the outside world. “Lower” creatures such as flies, frogs, snails etc. are often the topic of his poems, in contrast to more traditional kigo 季語 (seasonal words) other famous haiku masters employ. Issa introduces the sentimentality and banality of everyday life into his poetry.

jasminetea muddy claws nippaku

Issa was not exactly a lucky man. When his mother died, he was forced by his “evil stepmother” to leave the house, his first two wives and all of his children died, and when he at last managed to secure a part of his family’s property, his house burnt down. Shortly after that, he died in the storehouse next to the house that had survived the fire. Despite his misery, Issa succeeds in capturing the beauty of nature with empathy for every living being. He also often mixes in personal feeling. Therefore, his poetry is considered to be more “humane”.

matcha dragonfly nippaku

Issa’s poetry is often humorous, and in many cases verging on satire. He uses a colloquial tone, plain language and sometimes local dialects. This results in very down-to-earth poetry that is accessible to all kinds of readers.

sencha karasu tilling field nippaku

Similar to Bashō a century before, Issa was the wandering type of poet. After having studied the art of haiku under Nirokuan Chikua in Edo, he became a Buddhist priest and travelled around Japan for about ten years. Apparently, Issa looked like a beggar, was extremely poor and lived off the earnings of others. His situation is reflected in  humorous self-portraits and haiku mocking his own condition. He wrote from the perspective of people at the bottom of society and created a new poetic style that differed greatly from previous haiku masters.

milky oolong milkyway nippaku

Facts for Fun

  • On hot days in Japan, everybody drinks chilled tea and I loved to check out new kinds of tea during my time spent there. My favorite cold tea is jūrokucha 十六茶, a mix of sixteen different teas (the more the better!), followed by hōjicha ほうじ茶 (roasted green tea) and iced barley tea (mugicha 麦茶). The last one is offered for free in many shops. [List of Japanese teas here.] When it is hot in Belgium, I usually make lots of Oolong tea and put it in the fridge. So refreshing!

References

  • Lowenstein, Tom, John Cleare, and Susanne Castermans-Nelleke. Klassieke haiku’s: de mooiste Japanse poëzie van Bashō, Buson, Issa, Shiki en hun navolgers. Kerkdriel: Librero, 2015.
  • Ueda, Makoto, and Issa Kobayashi. Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa. Brill’s Japanese Studies Library, v. 20. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2004.
  • Database Issa poetry [in Japanese]
  • Haikuguy [in English]
  • All translations and pictures are mine. For the translations of the Japanese haiku I chose to stick to the 5-7-5 rule.
teacollectionnippaku

Part of my tea collection: matcha, genmaicha, jasmine tea, Chinese milky oolong tea and sencha.

Japanese Poetry and Nature

sakuracoffee

Sakura-themed coffee I enjoyed earlier this spring in Japan.

Japanese culture is often said to have a special connection with nature. Japanese aesthetics are therefore characterized by this “traditional love of nature”[1]. It is true that Japanese people, young and old, participate in several festivals and annual observances celebrating the beauty of nature, such as viewing cherry blossoms in spring or admiring the bright foliage in fall. Daily life also reflects those seasonal associations: cooking, house decorations, clothing and even greetings are systematically adjusted to weather, fauna and flora.  But do the Japanese really have an inherent affinity with nature, more than other people worldwide? For one of my classes at Kobe University, I read parts of Haruo Shirane’s book titled “Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts” (2012). Shirane provides an interesting theory on how this myth was developed throughout Japanese history. In this post, we will look into the connection between nature and poetry.

shiraneThose who know waka 和歌, Japanese poetry, will certainly agree that nature plays a central role in many poems. Haiku 俳句, for example, a still popular poetry genre of poetry nowadays, requires a seasonal word. The connection between nature and poetry is very clear from the fact that “the imagery of Japanese poetry for more than a thousand years was drawn almost exclusively from the natural phenomena of the four seasons[2]”. Hence, nature became a literary device through which human emotions were expressed. To illustrate this, I have tried to closely translate (with the same syllable structure) a tanka 短歌, or short poem, from the Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves (Man’yōshū万葉集), the oldest Japanese poetry anthology. This poem is actually part of a long poem (chōka 長歌) praising Yoshino in spring, a place close to Asuka, the capital at that time.

三吉野乃                            み吉野の                  In fair Yoshino,
象山際乃                            象山の際の              between the Kisa-mountains,
木末尓波                            木末には                  where in the tree tops
幾許毛散和口                    ここだも騒く              you can hear their loud noises,
鳥之聲可聞                        鳥の声かも               the voices of singing birds.
(no. 924 by Yamabe Akihito)

A more poetic translation by Earl Roy Miner[3]:

From among the branches
of the trees upon Mount Kisa’s slopes,
the flocks of birds
fill the lovely vale of Yoshino
with their free and joyous songs.

And a translation by Haruo Shirane[4]:

In beautiful Yoshino’s
Kisa Mountains,
in the tops of the trees
how many, how noisy,
the voices of birds.

Shirane explains that Yoshino symbolized the current political order, but that later on, it would gain fame for its beautiful cherry blossoms and snow scenery. Thus, Yoshino became a place with a poetic essence (utamakura歌枕): only the name of “Yoshino” sufficed to evoke a seasonal association, i.e. spring.

yoshinoscreen

One side of “Folding Screen Depicting Yoshino and Tatsuta”. Although only blossoms and a river are painted on this screen, the scenery can immediately be associated with the poetic place of Yoshino. – 17th century, Museum of Hakone

New for me was Shirane’s argument that the nature embedded in Japanese visual and material culture was not taken directly from primary nature, but was in fact a reference to poetry[5]. In that sense, seasonal associations were originally developed by Japanese poetry and were only then passed onto other genres. As a result, classical paintings with a seasonal theme were not a direct reflection of nature, but rather inspired by the waka tradition that flourished among the urban nobility. Proof is the frequent combination of textual and visual elements, in which an image representing elements from nature or seasonal topics was further embellished by the well-chosen characters from a famous waka poem. From the few characters, a technique called scattered writing (chirashigaki 散書), one could guess what poem was depicted. Examples are clothing designs, paintings and screens, like the one below.

chrashigaki

Painted screen depicting flowers and birds of the four seasons, with scattered writing of waka by Shōkadō Shōjō. – 17th century, http://bunka.nii.ac.jp/

During the Heian period (794-1185), poetry was limited to the nobility, and it is therefore somewhat ironic that the people who barely set foot out of their palaces, wrote thousands of poems about the nature they had isolated themselves from. Moreover, inside they were surrounded by seasonal elements and references to nature’s beauty.

Since Heian aristocratic women rarely went out, screen and partition paintings, decorated with small sheets of waka, became, along with the garden, a surrogate for nature. The women often composed poems not on the actual small cuckoo that they heard in the garden, but on the hototogisu painted on a screen painting or partition. – Shirane (2012), 64.

Shirane calls this “secondary nature” (nijiteki shizen 二次的自然), a culturally constructed nature that resembles in no way the real, raw nature. Hence, it should not come as a surprise that classical poetic motifs were strictly codified. A canon of nature images came into existence: all seasonal elements with their own established associations, set combinations and temporal and physical location. For example, April was represented by the lesser cuckoo (hototogisu ホトトギス) and Deutzia flower (unohana卯の花) in the canonized Poems on Flowers and Birds of the Twelve Months (1214) by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241). Plants, flowers and animals that did not make the waka shortlist were left unsung for centuries. For example, the only four-legged animal was the deer, associated with loneliness, since birds and insects were more fancied among high-class society.

鹿

“Fragment of Rough Sketch of Deer and a Poem” by  Hon’ami Kouetsu – 17th century, Gotoh Museum

Another example is the fact that the most popular seasons to write about were spring and autumn, while in reality summer and winter are the dominant and lengthy seasons. This is perhaps linked to the idea that the Japanese finds identification with nature based on the transience that applies to both man and nature[6]. In that sense, cherry blossoms and bright foliage are representative elements of “fleeting nature” in a “fleeting world”. When poetry diffused to the lower classes during the Edo period, the genre of haikai 俳諧, humorous poetry, gained popularity. Other, even vulgar topics such as cat love (neko-koi 猫恋), were introduced, along with a different perception of the seasons. As a result, new seasonal words were created, greatly varying from the traditional waka-based canon. The focus on nature, however, remained strong, and is still visible in the Japanese culture of today.

In case you would like to know more, I highly recommend the work of Dr. Shirane. Also interesting are two of his presentations on YouTube:


References

[1] Saito, Yuriko. “The Japanese Appreciation of Nature” in The British Journal of Aesthetics 25, no. 3 (1985): 239–51, p. 239.
[2] Asquith, Pamela J., Arne Kalland, Japan Anthropology Workshop, and Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, eds. Japanese Images of Nature: Cultural Perspectives [Seventh Meeting of the Japan Anthropology Workshop Held in April 1993 in Banff, Alberta]. Repr. Man and Nature in Asia 1. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2004, p. 23.
[3] Miner, Earl Roy. An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry. 1. publ. 1968. Stanford, Calif: Stanford Univ. Press, 1975, p. 68.
[4] Shirane, Haruo, ed. Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600. Translations from the Asian Classics. New York ;Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2008, p. 92-93.
[5] Shirane, Haruo (2012). Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 57.
[6] Saito, The Japanese Appreciation of Nature, p. 248.

Waiting for the Snow: Winter Haiku

hai·ku 俳句 (n. pl. haiku also hai·kus)A Japanese lyric verse form having three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables, traditionally invoking an aspect of nature or the seasons.

No snowy Christmas this year in Belgium. Two of my favorite haiku to evoke the cosy winter feeling:nomoyamamo-joso
This poem was written by Jōsō Naitō (1662 – 1704), a pupil of Bashō. Imagine a wide landscape with rice fields and mountains. The falling snow literally “takes” the land by covering it all in white. Everything turns invisible, nothing’s left.

ichibitoyo-basho
Famous haiku poet Bashō (1644-1694) wrote this poem in 1684. You can see the pun on the word kasa (笠/傘) clearly in the transcribed part. Kasa means umbrella, but is also a kind of bowl-shaped, big straw hat, very often worn in Bashō’s time.

References

Haiku found in:

– Tooren, J. van. Haiku : Een Jonge Maan : Japanse Haiku Van De Vijftiende Eeuw Tot Heden. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 2000.

– Matsuo, Basho, and David Landis Barnhill. Basho’s Haiku : Selected Poems by Matsuo Basho. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

(I didn’t use the author’s translation, but my own one)