Spring Death Poems (Haru no jisei)

Spring is a time of new beginnings, and happiness. But death is an inescapable part of life. The existentialist, Martin Heidegger, said that it is the finality of life that gives it meaning, and in this respect he certainly mirrored a Japanese sentiment of impermanence that is centuries old.

I shared a number of Jisei, or death poems before. As I said then, I will not share my own, mainly because I am not dying, and therefore do not have my own jisei (There was a time in the late 1600’s when I thought I was dying, and I contemplated whether or not I should compose a death poem, but time passed and I never really needed to…)

These poems come from the book, Japanese Death Poems, compiled by Yoel Hoffman, and I have kept his translation, unless I felt it could be improved upon.

I will start with the poet, Bako, who died on May 1st, 1751. His jisei is about the hototogisu, a species of cuckoo that is appreciated for its beautiful voice. But it is also considered a messenger of death.  It is actually a summer word, but as I mentioned before, jisei do not always follow the season they were written in:

 

furikaeru

tani no to mo nashi

hototogisu

 

Looking back at the valley

no more dwellings, only

the cuckoo cries

 

The hototogisu does not make its own nest, but instead takes over the nest of the Nightingale, and pushes the nightingale’s eggs out of the nest, to lay its own.

Another one about this bird was composed by, Chosui, who died on April 4th, 1769 (my translations):

 

koki usuki

kumo o machiete

hototogisu

 

dark clouds, white clouds passing

I wait

hototogisu

 

Or this could also be translated in view of the Buddhist tradition that clouds appear in the West when one dies. The post-particle ‘o‘ in this haiku indicates that Chosui is waiting for the clouds, rather than simply waiting as clouds pass:

 

Thick ones, thin ones,

I await the clouds

the hototogisu cries

 

Hoyu died at the end of the 17th Century:

 

namu ya sora

tada ariake no

hototogisu

 

Praise to the skies

alone in moonlit early dawn

a  cuckoo cries

 

Namu actually stands for Namu Amida Butsu, a prayer to Amida Buddha. I could therefore translate this as,

 

Namu!

Alone in the sky’s early dawn light

A hototogisu

 

There is an anonymous poem that was supposedly composed by a prisoner right before his execution. I don’t remember Hoffman including this in his book. But I always liked it:

 

sono ato wa

meido de kikan

hototogisu

 

hototogisu

I will hear the rest of the song

in the land of the dead

 

Chine was the sister of Kyorai, a famous poet.  She died May 15th, 1688:

 

moeyasuku

mata kieyasuki

hotaru kana

 

It lights up

as easily as it fades

the firefly!

 

(Hoffman did not include the exclamation point, but that is what ‘kana‘ implies) After her death, Kyorai composed the following (my translation):

 

te no ue ni

kanashiku kiyuru

hotaru kana

 

In my hand,

sadly,  it fades

the firefly!

 

Chora died May 5th, 1776 (my translation):

 

gokuraku to

iute neburu ya

kaya no uchi

 

“Paradise”

I murmur in my sleep!

in the mosquito netting

 

After his death, his wife responded with:

 

ka no koe mo

kanashiki kaya no

atari kana

 

the drone of the mosquitoes

round the netting, too,

is sad

 

The famous artist, Hokusai, who made the beautiful woodblock prints of Mt. Fuji, died on April 12th 1849 (my translation):

 

hitodama

yuku kisan ja

natsu no hara

 

As a ghost

I will wander

the summer fields

 

As spring unfolded, he clearly longed for the green beauty of summer, when the fields have grown and the undergrowth is thick.

Here is one last one—-Kinu died on March 2nd, 1817:

 

yururi saku

kotoshi no hana no

kakugo kana

 

How leisurely the cherry

blossoms bloom this year, unhurried,

by their doom!

 

As I have mentioned before, the cherry blossoms are always a strong symbol of the temporal nature of life. This is Heidegger’s existentialism–the beauty of the cherry blossom, which the Japanese wait a whole year for, yet it lasts for only a short time, before raining down, petal by petal, in one last final show of beauty before the blossoms decay back into nature.  Heidegger would add that, to be truly human, one must break free from the conformity of the collective consciousness, and to stand out and shine as does the cherry blossom. But in this haiku by the poet, now facing the  certainty of death, the sakura shine on, as if oblivious to their own finality. As they begin to blossom they have their whole life as a blossom ahead of them…

(I added the last comma and the appropriate exclamation point, because the emphasis of the Japanese ‘kana‘ is on the final line).

THE LITTLE STONE JIZO-SAMAS

Here is another tanka I composed in 2006:

 

冬の夜
松の間に
地蔵菩薩あり
ほう覚えろよ
と風がなくの

 

fuyu no yo
matsu no ma ni
jizobousatsu ari
hou, oboeroyo
to kaze ga naku no

 

In the winter’s night
between the pine trees
sits Jizobousatsu
‘Hey remember… remember…’
the wind cries

 

In my previous post, THE LITTLE STONE BUDDHA AND THE LONELY FIFE OF THE RAMEN SELLER, I talked a bit about the jizobousatsu–the little stone Bodhisattvas.  You find them in mountain temples and shrines, and other sacred places in the mountains and countryside. You can buy ones that are anywhere from a few inches tall to maybe a foot or so. Then you can place it yourself on one of these spots with your own prayer. However they are generally considered guardians of children, and children especially need to be guarded in the afterlife. Most of them are placed with prayers for a stillbirth, or an aborted child (which is fairly common in Japan). There is something certainly tragic and sad connected with many of these little statues.

I have seen very old jizobousatsu that are so old, the stone carvings have lost most of their details. Generally each one looks more like a phallus–correction, many of them look just like a phallus.

 

谷風や
そこの地蔵様の
思い出

 

tanikaze ya
soko no jizosama no
omoide

 

The valley wind!
reminding
of the Jizo-sama there.

 

This is actually a summer haiku. The valley wind is a wind that rises up from a valley in the summer. This Jizobousatsu could be sitting in the valley below, or this haiku could be metaphoric for a memory of some sort rising up from the subconscious that reminds one of other, more hidden things, or perhaps that tragic thing one doesn’t want to recall, or at least recall directly…

 

冬霞
谷懐の
古神社

 

fuyugasumi
tanibutokoro no
furu jinja

 

Winter’s mist
the old shrine
at the bottom, deep in the steep valley

 

tanibutokoro refers to deep within a steep valley that is surrounded on each side by steep mountains. Shinto shrines are always painted a bright reddish-orange, and are very ornate and detailed in texture. Can you imagine, deep in a green mountain valley, still crisp and cold from the winter, and snow still sitting in spots, mist rising up everywhere, that somehow the bright (but fading) colors and bits of details peek through from the old shrine—probably abandoned…? Or, perhaps once again this refers to a spot deep in your subconscious–a forgotten spot—-a sacred place.

Maybe it is not even your own sacred place—but that of your ancestors, still sitting there in your personal collective unconscious. It was this part of the psyche, the collective unconscious, that Jung said held the truths, traditions, wisdom, and cultural motifs of all our ancestors. A shrine is a very old structure that goes back even into the distant paleolithic. Even the Neanderthal built shrines with the bones of Cave Bears. If you go back far enough, we all have those same indigenous roots. There is a connection between those messages, symbols, and archetypal meanings buried in the ancient cave paintings, that returns in the myths and symbols of Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, Mohenjodaro,  Ancient China, Japan, or even North and South America, and Australia; and that still resonates in the organized religions of today.

Many do not realize it, but that long forgotten, ancient, abandoned shrine buried in the bottom depths of the collective unconscious, is still just as significant today, as it was when our distant ancestors actually used it.

SOME MORE WINTER HAIKU

I thought of putting in some Spring haiku, but we are getting some light snow today, and it has been overcast all day—very wintery looking out there. Here are some haiku from 2006 – 2007 (I don’t think I have shared any of these ones yet):

 

雪雲り

夕方に

町の光や

 

Yukigumori

yuugata ni

machi no hikari ya

 

Snow clouds

in the evening

the village lights!

 

I love how the lights of a village or town contrast against the darkening gray overcast sky of an early winter’s evening. Or in the late evening, after the sun has gone down, glow against the low hanging clouds, heavy with snow. Yukigumori could also be translated as, ‘threatening to snow.’

 

雪雲り

日暮れに

遠寺の鐘

 

Yukigumori

higure ni

toudera no kane

 

Snow clouds

at day’s end

a distant temple bell

 

 

雪の朝

流れ星の

静かさ也

 

Yuki no asa

nagareboshi no

shizukasa ya

 

snowy morning

the stillness

of a shooting star!

 

Most likely this would be in the very early morning before sunrise, though potentially it could be a brighter one in the early light. I have experienced the quiet hiss of a shooting star that many people report (and science can’t quite explain). That hiss is a silence of its own. On the other hand, when they are completely silent, there seems to be something special about that silence too. As it plummets towards earth, you know that a rock travelling at a very high speed, is melting under intense heat into nothing but minute particles of black iron, and yet this climactic event (climactic for the rock), happens in utter silence, and it lasted for only a brief moment.

I actually composed this one after watching a large shooting star fall towards snowy peaks across a mountain valley, when I happened to walk out on a veranda at 2:00 in the morning, while visiting my mom & dad’s condo up in Breckenridge Colorado. This was in October 2007, and I half expected to see one. Because, the year before I had stepped out onto their condo veranda on a Sunday night in October, about the same time, only to see a shooting star. A week later I was up in Breckenridge again and on a Saturday, about the same time, the same thing happened again. That was three times in a row, so I began stepping out more often—but alas, it has never happened again.

 

大雪の

人もなく道

神さびた

 

Ohyuki no

hito mo naku michi

kamisabita

 

A big snow

the road void of people

serene

 

Or another translation:

 

A big snow

the empty road

touched by the gods

 

There are a lot of ways we could say kamisabita, and I don’t know if any of them do justice to the word. Kami is god or gods, sabiru can mean mature, or mellow, but it can also mean to rust, and to be lonely. But it can be a very special loneliness connected to the Japanese appreciation of simplicity and the rustic. Sabi, in the latter case, is one of those words that does not have an English equivalent. Another translation for kamisabita is hallowed. Or, I could also use, ‘filled with the gods,’ for the last line.

 

重い雪雲

支えるか

老い松也

 

Omoi yukigumo

sasaeru ka

oimatsu ya

 

the heavy snow clouds

does it hold them up

–the ancient pine tree?!

 

Oimatsu is simply a very old pine, another word would be the aged pine tree. In the initial interpretation of this, it is an aesthetic experience of the tree against the clouds. But old trees and other old things of nature, are especially filled with kami—the shinto gods. As an animist belief system, everything has kami within it, but the old things have come into their own way with there kami spirit. Perhaps we could say that they are so filled with kami that they outwardly manifest that in the gnarls of their trunks and branches and the silent strength such old things portray. To hold up the clouds demonstrates that silent, god-filled sense of strength. We could take it even further though—clear across Eurasia, the tall straight pine trees seem to connect with the World Tree, the Axis Mundi—-the celestial center of the world that pierces from the underworld, into our world, and then into the upper worlds. It is the portal of the divine, where spirit connects to us, and we can possibly connect to spirit. The big giant cedar pines in Japan certainly look as if they could be such a portal and universal center. I have a book called Nippon Shinwa (Stories of the Japanese gods) which has the only true Japanese scriptures—the Kojiki and Nihongi—-in it, and explores and discusses these very old myths. As I recall, there is a Pillar God who is connected with the creation of the structure of the universe—-and seems related to these old cedar pines.

YUGEN–A SPIRITUAL FEELING TOO DEEP FOR WORDS

There are numerous Japanese words that cannot be translated directly into English. Undeniably my favorite of these words is yugen [幽玄], or more correctly yuugen, though most people who write about it in English write, yugen.

The book, ‘They Have a Word For It,’ defines it as, “An awareness of the universe that triggers feelings too deep and mysterious for words.” They quote Alan Watts by explaining it as, “To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill, to wander on and on in a huge forest without thought of return, to stand upon a shore and gaze after a boat that disappears beyond distant islands, to contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds.”

I don’t know if that is actually Alan Watts’ original words—he may have been quoting someone else, as those are fairly typical descriptions of the feeling of yugen. In fact, I have read that very description in other places.

The Chinese characters for Yugen are Yuu [幽] (a mountain with the radical for thread on each side of the center line), meaning: 1.) to confine to a room, 2.) faint, dim, indistinct, hazy, weak (this is the same yuu used for yuurei (spirit, ghost, apparition) and yuukai (land of the dead); and gen [玄] (a thread with a lid radical over it–which is actually its own radical), meaning dark, mysterious.

I think it is interesting that ‘thread’ is used in both characters—-hinting towards the threads of reality that weave the physical universe into being. There was, for example, an ancient Indo-European concept that reality was a web of threads–and fate, in particular, was conceived as manifesting through threads. The Old-English word, wyrd, referred both to fate, and one of the names of the three Norns, the three old ladies who weaved our fate. Inherent in the concept of wyrd is the fact that our actions create a web of reality in a cause and effect manner. Wyrd, of course, is the root of the modern English word, weird.

String Theory is the modern science version of this very old concept. But reality woven from threads appears elsewhere in Modern science as well. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity tells us that light, from our sub-light-speed perspective, is composed of zero-time zero-space particles, meaning that it does not exist in time or space. The implication is that a photon exists only for an instant, but that instant covers all time and space. It also means that when we perceive (i.e. see) a photon, it must simultaneously exist, outside of time, in both the present, hitting the retina of our eye, and also at its distant point of origin, no matter how many light years away that is. We personally are trapped by time, and can only physically experience the moment of now (which is then irretrievably lost forever as we experience the next moment of now). But since we understand time in our sub-light-speed reality, we see that photon as having traveled over many light years into the present, from our distant past many light years away. But to that zero-time zero-space light particle, its whole existence is all an infinitely small instant in which it is here and there, and all points in between at the same time—-it is a wave of energy, or, as suggested by the Chinese characters for yugen, a thread.

One theory that has been published in recent years, reworked Newton’s law of Motion in such a way as to suggest that mass is actually an illusion created by light trapped by inertia (which they have also reworked inertia to be the latent light energy that fills the universe, or, the Zero-Point Field). In other words, all that is, is simply light energy! And, as I said, as a zero-time zero-space particle, it is essentially nothing more than a thread stretching from the beginning of time, to the end of time. Now—–how does consciousness fit into that? (…Perhaps it is a reality transcendent of light, and therefore shapes light into the illusion of mass, which creates the physical universe—-a very yugen concept to contemplate while staring at a Japanese garden…)

Granted, I have never seen the word yugen discussed in terms of a thread, but there is usually an archetypal symbolism that connects the Chinese characters to the words they refer to. Undoubtedly, I am sure there is something inherent within the concept.

In any event, Yugen is that feeling you get when you perceive that sense of almost being able to touch that profound reality that underlies existence.

It is an extension of the feeling of aware (pronounced Ah-wah-ray)—another Japanese word that is not directly translatable. The same book translates aware as, ” the feelings engendered by ephemeral beauty. They provide the example of experiencing the beauty of a cherry blossom slowly falling to the ground—a very Japanese experience because the cherry trees blossom only once a year, and it is a beauty they look forward to, but it only lasts a short time—as the blossoms fall to the ground—a final expression of their beauty, it comes with the knowledge that such beauty is gone for this year. It is therefore understood as a bittersweet beauty referring to the temporal nature of life—the mortality we are all subject too. Life is only fleeting, but in those fleeting moments there is a beauty that exists simply because it is fleeting. (And that is what Heidegger meant when he claimed that we find the significance of being in its finality).

Yugen is, of course, much more profound than aware. As temporal as aware is, yugen implies that beyond this temporal existence there is something more.

One experience I found to be Yugen—was sitting and watching a gold-fish—in a gold-fish bowl—the gentle ways that it moves its fins, even when the fish does not move. It is a gentle, silent wave of movement as the fins bend back and forth between the movement the fish makes and the pressure of the surrounding water.

I hope that many of my own haiku, express a sense of yugen. At least, for me, many of them do. But today, rather than sharing one of my own haiku, I will share one of the Japanese classics. Here is a haiku by the popular haiku poet, Issa, that is so full of yugen, it spills over:

 

Yuzen to shite
yama o miru
kawazu kana

 

Composedly he sits
contemplating the mountains–
the worthy frog!

 

That translation is by Lewis Mackenzie—who takes some liberty with it—but justifiably so.

HAPPY FIRST TIME

In my first post in this blog, I mentioned that this blog originally started on another website as a joke. On New Years Day of 2013, I posted a thread for Japanese speakers, and those learning Japanese that simply said, ‘Happy Himehajime!’

There are numerous manga cartoons that make jokes of himehajime, but I don’t know if anybody ever wishes anyone a Happy Himehajime. You see—in Japan, everything done for the first time of the year is special—in fact it has a sacred quality about it. For example, Hatsuyu refers to the first time you boil water in the year. Hime means princess, and hajime means first, or beginning—so it is literally, First Princess. But it actually means to have sex for the first time of the year, so you could say, First Sex, First Congress, First Lovemaking, etc.

Here is the second post I did on that thread:
 
Over the years, I have composed numerous haiku about himehajime. I will have to find those—However my first haiku of the year (Hatsuku-or–hakku), coincidentally is on the same subject, and goes:

 

朝早い
はたらく湯女
姫初め 也

 

Asa hayai
hataraku yuna
himehajime ya.

 

Early in the morning
the working bath house prostitute
himehajime!

 

On the surface, this is Senryu, or satirical haiku. But deeper down, it has numerous other layers of meaning which touch upon a sad and often ignored pathos of life. The bath-house prostitute in old Japan was, among prostitutes, nothing like the courtesans or geisha, but rather a low ranking prostitute. My impression is that she did not even have the status, nor possibly even the skill of today’s Soapland women, the skillful prostitutes at what used to be known as Turkish Baths (Turkey took offense and forced Japan to change the name from Toruko—which meant Turkish Bath, but which also means Turkey).

So here you have a sacred act, or at least special act, being performed in the vulgar, by a girl who provides this service, easily multiple times a day. I also wrote:

 

元日に
はたらく湯女
姫初め也

 

Ganjitsu ni
hataraku yuna
himehajime ya

 

On the first day of the year
the working bath house prostitute
himehajime!

 

But this is too blatant perhaps? Early in the morning, in light of himehajime, already implies January First. This is the most important and special day of the year in Japan. It is a time for family, relaxing, eating good food… But a bath is also very important–and for the poor who cannot afford their own bath, the bath house must stay open. So even on this special sacred day, this sacred act was performed by the vulgar. One must wonder, if that particular copulation is special for either participant. Perhaps through the day and weeks, she would provide the himehajime to many lonely men. But what about her own family? Her own ability to share this once a year moment with a lover who makes her whole? And was that first customer that was her himehajime, even worthy of such an honor? Alas, she most likely had no choice in the matter—–reflecting that typical Japanese fatalism that defines the plot of so many Japanese stories…

 

Here is one from a few years ago:

 

雪降り、降りに
ばば、とじじ
姫初め

 

Yuki furi furi ni
baba to jiji
himehajime

 

As the snow falling, falling
the old lady, and the old man
himehajime

THE LITTLE STONE BUDDHA AND THE LONELY FIFE OF THE RAMEN SELLER

Here is a haiku from 2006. It is about the Jizobosatsu. A bosatsu is a Buddhist Bodhisattva. But a Jizobosatsu is a small stone statue of a little standing Buddha or Bodhisattva. They are placed in shrines and at temples, and so forth. They are meant to protect children.  A common place to find them is at a mountain temple along a trail where a rock juts out over an indentation in the side of the mountain creating a natural shrine like covering.

It is especially common to find a bunch of small ones in such places, put there by women who have had stillborns, had a miscarriage, or had abortions (which is a fairly common means of birth control in Japan.) They are meant for the spirits of the unborn child.

夜の雪也
古地蔵菩
淋しかろ

Yo no yuki ya

furu jizobosatsu

sabishikaro

A snowy night.

The old jizobosatsu

must be lonely…

Here is another one that I will try to relate to you—it is extremely subjective because it has the most meaning to me based on one particular Ramen-seller. In Japan you might find Ramen-sellers–street vendors–pushing their carts of hot ramen through the streets in the evenings and on into the night in many cities and villages (big enough to support them). They carried a fife, and each one had it’s own roughly 4-5 second song that it would play as it moved through the streets to call out to customers. You could often hear common versions of these songs on ramen commercials on TV, where they become theme songs for ramen brands.

When I first lived in Japan, I lived in Moriguchi, a suburb of Osaka, between Osaka and Kyoto. The streets were filled with sweat shops, small factories, and machine shops, between rice fields, cheap apartments, and a share of family run restaurants and bars. One night I heard a song out in the streets coming from a distance–it was a lonely call, almost like a lonely bird calling for its mate. I listened as it grew closer. It would play for about 5 seconds, and then silence, after about 20 seconds or so, it would play again. It got closer and closer until I heard him outside, and looked out the window to see him pushing his cart. I just sat and listened as I heard him slowly disappear in to the distance.

Of all the ramen-seller songs I heard over the years in different parts of Japan, that was my all time favorite. It was also the loneliest of all the ones I ever heard. I don’t know what key it was in—I’m not that good at identifying musical keys, but it was played on a fife. It went something like this (starting with C for simplicity):

(C)——–(D)——(F)——–(E-flat)–(D)–(E-flat)——–(F)–(E-Flat)–(D)–(C)–

Maybe it went to (E-natural) instead of (F), but that was the basic tune.

人なしの雪道
ラーメン屋の

Hitonashi no fuyumichi

ramen-ya no

fue 

In the empty winter street

the Ramen-seller’s

fife

Hitonashi means no people, or without people.

Winter

WINTER

The most philosophical seasons for me, are fall and winter. Therefore I tend to like those haiku best. In fact, it is usually in the fall and winter when I really get in the mood to write haiku. As I stated in the previous post, this blog started as a thread on an internet forum around New Years. Therefore, you will have to forgive me if you are already in the mood for Spring—after all it is April. But I will originally draw mostly from that thread, and much of that was posted during January, February, and March, which are still mostly winter months.

Besides, I live in Colorado, and while we have had some nice warm spring days, as I sit and write this, we are looking at the next three days to be filled with snow fall—so you know——winter weather hasn’t really left for me. This is from one of my posts in March:

Denver had its first actual heavy snow of the season last night, all day, and into the early evening. I was up much of the night writing, and took frequent breaks to look out the window. Today I did the same—the Japanese call that yukimi—snow watching—which is the same concept (different season) as hanami (cherry blossum viewing). It was blizzard conditions to the east of us.

It was a good day to stay inside, which I did for the most part. I did come up with a few haiku—not my favorites but—the first one was from the early am, before sunrise when I went to bed:

 

布団入り
割れ枝の音
大雪也

 

futon hairi

ware eda no oto

ohyuki ya

 

Climbing in the futon

the sound of a branch breaking

the big snow storm!

 

Fortunately that did not happen—but it is certainly a problem during some big snows, and the last thing you want to hear when climbing into bed.

 

我が山家
炬燵に茶
窓に大雪

Waga yamaya

kotatsu ni cha

mado ni ohyuki

 

My mountain home

tea in the kotatsu

blizzard out the window

 

For anyone who has never been to Japan in the winter you are missing out on the joy that is the kotatsu. Japanese houses are generally built for the hot humid summers. They are not that warm in the winter. The newer condos may be a different story, but the houses are just not that warm. Instead of warming the whole house, families will just warm up the room or rooms they are using. When I lived in Japan, a lot of people still used kerosene stoves to warm these rooms which meant that every so often they would need to open up the shoji, and open up windows and doors to the outside to let fresh air in and prevent too much build up of toxic gases from the stove. You didn’t want to do it–but you had to—and the nice warm room was quickly filled with fresh, but very cold, air.

The kotatsu is a table that has a heater under the table top connected to a frame that connects the legs. A heavy futon blanket fits over this frame with the table top on top of the blanket. (In the olden days, the table was simply put over a cut out space in the floor and a charcoal stove was placed in that). Sitting under the warm kotatsu is a great winter past time in Japan. Around New Years, families will sit around it, legs, feet, and often hands in the nice warmth under the blanket—playing games, watching tv, eating mikan (mandarin oranges), drinking coffee and green tea. It is a very cozy place for lovers to enjoy… It is a feeling of warmth all around.

 

雪やんで
こい、こい、と
烏がよんで

 

yuki yande

koi koi to

karasu ga yonde

 

The snow stopped

Come! Come!

the crow calls

 

Koi could also mean love, and so this particular haiku could also be of a crow suggesting people to, ‘Make love! Make love!’ On the other hand it also means carp…

We had a smaller storm on the 9th. Early in the morning I looked out my window. The sun was already over the horizon bathing the earth with its morning light, the snow from overnight had ended. There was a flock of crows in the trees across the street, calling out to each other. The sound of crows always reminds me of Japan.

 

松に月と
わししか聞かん
わし鳴き

 

matsu ni tsuki to

washi shika kikan

washi naki

 

No one heard it

but the pine and the moon and myself,

the eagle’s call

 

Washi, eagle–is a winter word. Washi is also a lower class way of saying I (watakushi), It is common in country dialects. Then there is ‘Wai‘—-so for all you students of Japanese who want to be rebels in the class room—stop using watakushi, or watashi—just replace it with washi, or wai. Washi was typical in the prewar Osaka dialect—at least among the labor and peasant classes. Wai, as I understand was used especially in the Kawachi Dialect that was spoken closer to the mountains on the Eastern side of Osaka. You can still hear it in the Osaka suburbs in the Kisaichi area (or at least you could back in the 80’s)—just hang out in some of the dirtier bars in Kisaichi late at night and listen to the drunks. Kawachi was considered the crudest, worst dialect, composed of the worst bastardization of grammar, and creating the most profane and rude subculture of all of Japan.

If your teacher complains just say—-Ey  yanke! Wai wa na… Ey nihongo o narateiru sakai ya na… (which in standard Japanese is, ii desu yo! Watakushi wa neee… Ii nihongo o narateiru desu kara ne) (It’s ok! For me… I’m learning some good Japanese). Be sure and really roll your r’s, and make your voice low, and adding a texture of drunken speech helps a lot too. (If your teacher is from Tokyo, she’ll probably treat you with kid’s gloves after that. Though she may try to dig into your background to see if you have yakuza (mafia), or perhaps bosouzoku (motorcycle gang) connections. If you’re female, unfortunately it would be funny and strange to say such things—just stick with atashi.

I composed this one a year ago–for a piece of artwork a friend of mine had created:

 

大雪也
まだ立つか
山の老い松

 

Ohyuki ya

mada tatsu ka

yama no oi matsu

 

The heavy snow storm!

Does it still stand?

the old pine on the mountain

 

This haiku is one of strength and perseverance. If you have ever been up above timberline, you are probably well aware of the old pine trees that grow out of the rocks and crags right around timberline. They survive through extreme conditions and are almost always twisted and bent by the severe winds that blow across the mountain peaks that high.

 

朝の鯉也
雪の玉
えさに間違い

 

asa no koi ya

yuki no tama

esa ni machigae

 

The morning carp!

mistakes a snowflake

for fish food

 

When I was married to my Japanese wife, her father kept carp in the garden. The carp pond was between the main house and our room. You could always hear them gulping at the surface of the pond—anything that fell in there they immediately assumed to be food.