WANDERING STREET MUSICIANS OF 16th CENTURY JAPAN

Years ago when I lived in Osaka, I would go to Takigi Noh Plays in the park surrounding Osaka Castle. Takigi refers to the fires that would burn on each side of the stage while the traditional Japanese Noh play was performed—which many many years ago, would provide the light for such plays at night. They were incredible to see, especially with Osaka Castle lit up in the background.

Here is a concert that makes use of Takigi—it is a tsugaru shamisen concert. The shamisen is a little different than the biwa, or Japanese lute. It is a 3-stringed instrument, that has no frets on its neck. The tsugaru shamisen is a special kind of shamisen that uses thicker strings—because it was played hard and fast. In fact, the tsugaru style was, to me, rock music that was a few hundred years ahead of its time. It was played by a bunch of bohemians—-wandering musicians in 16th Century Japan, who would play in the streets for money and food. I find the music to be truly incredible and creative.

This concert starts with a couple of musicians playing some traditional pieces and then turns into Yoko Nagayama, playing her famous tsugaru piece, Jonkara Onna Bushi. Her song is of a lonely female tsugaru musician, wandering around Japan playing her shamisen in the cold winter. She is apparently following someone she loves, but the affection is not returned—she sings ‘Haru wa watashi nya tou-sugiru‘ (Spring, for me, is too far away), meaning not only how she struggles with the winter, but also suggesting that she has not had sex for sometime (spring can be a euphemism for sex). While a woman’s heart is her weakness, a man’s heart is blown here and there by the wind. In almost every video version of this song she ends the song by looking longingly into the camera (except this one which is filmed more from the corner) singing, ‘Anta ga hoshii…‘ (I want you…). (“I knew it! She wanted me, the whole time she was singing about me—she is following me around, madly in love with me!!”)

I was never impressed with the young Yoko Nagayama (a J-Pop idol), but I am seriously infatuated with the adult Yoko——boy what I’d give to have her as a mistress…!!!!

 

 

I bet you never knew that 16th Century Japan already had electric guitars, clarinets, saxophones, modern drum kits, and other instruments that appear with Yoko. Yep—they were far more advanced than the West when it came to music… …Ok—the song is built from a traditional tsugaru shamisen riff, but I believe Yoko Nagayama composed the words and it is adapted into the modern day Enka style of Japanese music.

Anyway—here are a couple of haiku I just composed yesterday and today, put into the mood by all this music. Anyone who speaks Japanese may catch that this next haiku was inspired by the words of Yoko Nagayama’s ‘Jonkara Onna Bushi’ (the song in the video above):

 

雪ぐもり哉
道に
津軽三味線

 

yukigumori kana
michi ni
tsugaru shamisen

 

Threatening to snow!
in the street
tsugaru shamisen

 

As I said I would in my last post—-here is a Pipa (Biwa) haiku—-and a spring one no less:

 

春風に
乗る遠雷
琵琶法師也

 

harukaze ni
noru enrai
biwa houshi ya

 

distant thunder
riding the spring wind.
the Biwa playing wandering monk!

 

There has got to be a better way to translate that—-monks would often wander around, like the tsugaru shamisen musicians—playing ballads of famous battles and other tales. There are several interesting ghost stories around such figures—-such as the one about the monk who is asked by a spirit to sing the ballad of the famous battle between the Heike and Taira clans in Southern Japan. He fears for his life and to protect himself he paints Buddhist sutra (scripture) all over his body, except his ears. After being moved by the song, the ghost wants to take him to the spirit world so he can always hear the song, but because of the painted scriptures all he can see is his ears—-so he takes those, ripping them off the head of the monk. (At least that is the story as best as my memory recalls).

Speaking of taking Yoko Nagayama as my mistress:

 

春の風
所どころに
浮寝鳥

 

haru no kaze
tokorodokoro ni
ukinetori

 

spring wind
here and there
birds sleeping on water

 

Ukine, means to float and sleep, as on the waves. When you sleep on a boat you—ukine. But it also means to have adulterous affairs—–it is somewhat like the Filipino euphemism of a butterfly, floating from flower to flower. Ukinetori is a euphemism for lovers sleeping around. If you can imagine birds on waves, bobbing up and down, some disappearing behind waves as others reappear. Or think of the Filipino concept of a butterfly going from flower to flower, sticking its long proboscis into the depths of the flower, before moving on to the next one. These are two very artistic ways of expressing these seedier aspects of life.

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LOVE, INTIMACY, AND A DISTANT ISLAND VILLAGE

Here are some that you can take in an erotic sense, or a romantic one. These are from November 2006:

 

裸愛人
炉火あかし
反映し

 

Hadake aijin
robi akashi
hanei shi

 

Naked lover
reflecting
the red flame of the fire pit.

 

As you may recall from my earlier post—an irori is the fire pit that is in the center of old Japanese farm houses. A Ro is smaller and was just used for heating up water. The Ro is not necessarily a ‘fire pit’ but could be a hibachi-like pot for heating up water with charcoal and what not. It is still used today in tea ceremony. Robi is the flame and refers usually to the ro, but I think it can also imply the irori, but there is also the term ro akari which seems to be more appropriate for the larger irori. Ro is the same character in both terms. Akashi comes from aka—red—so it implies a glowing red. On the other hand, akarui does simply mean to be bright, or in this case, to glow…

 

愛人の胸
炉明かりに
表れる

 

Aijin no mune
Roakari ni
Arawareru

 

Lover’s chest
appears
in the glow of the firepit

 

Arawareru means to appear or to come into view. In this case, the lover could be either sex, depending on who the first person is (i.e. from whose perspective the haiku is subjectively experienced as). But to be more specific, I could say:

 

愛人の乳
炉明かりに
表れる

 

Aijin no chichi
roakari ni
arawareru

 

The lover’s breasts
in the light of the firepit
come into view

 

Chi also means milk, so chichi is very clearly, not a male’s breast. On the other hand, one might complain that this term for a ‘boob’ is a little too, how would I say—Motherly? But the biological goal of sex is motherhood. In any event, chichi could be used sexually as well.

 

冬霞哉
小屋の窓
炉火あかし

 

Fuyugasumi kana
koya no mado
robi akashi

 

Ah. The winter mist!
the window of the small shack
glows red from the ro

 

雪の町
夜の静まりに
寺の鐘

 

Yuki no machi
yo no shizumari ni
tera no kane

 

The snowy village
in the quiet of the night
a temple bell.

 

That last one might be too descriptive for the taste of a Japanese haiku expert. But it floods my senses with memories and feelings—staying in small villages in the Japanese countryside. One example is from a time I went to the small island of Miyajima just outside of Hiroshima. That is famous for the torii gate that stands out in the sea in front of Miyakojima jinja (Miyakojima Shrine)—if I recall the name correctly. This was made famous from a cover of National Geographic years ago. It was around New Years, and small towns have a bad habit of closing up fast. A friend of mine and I were trying to find a restaurant, but the cold streets were empty, and the shops had closed their shutters. As dusk fell we walked the empty streets, still snowy in places. We were hungry, but there was something very calming and special about those streets and the old wooden buildings and houses with their tiled roofs, in between pine trees and shrines. It was a small island and was therefore pretty much a mountain jutting out of the Bay. We knew everyone was inside these wooden dwellings, warm and relaxed—visiting with family (it was New Years after all). I was perfectly content to walk up and down that village in silence, and of course, sooner or later, there was the metallic, ‘gonnnnnnnnnng’ of the temple bell.

Eventually we did find a small convenience store. As night fell and it got dark we cooked some gyoza (dumplings) and a few other things in the kitchen of the hostel we stayed at. We were the only ones there as I recall. After eating, I just had to go back out into the cold and wander the streets some more. That was such a special place…

 

山深し
森にかくるる
冬の月

 

Yama fukashi
mori ni kakururu
fuyu no tsuki

 

deep in the mountain(s)
it tries to hide in the forest
the winter moon

 

That, of course, can be another spiritual one based on the archetypal motif of the moon, as I have written about in a few of my last posts.

DEEPER INTO THE FOREST

This was from December 2009:

 

娼婦の死体
大雪で
白くなる

 

Shoufu no shitai
Ohyuki de
Shiroku naru

 

The corpse of a prostitute
in the heavy falling snow
becomes white

 

Like so many of these haiku, this can be humorous, or it could be vulgar and disgusting, or macabre. But it could also be an experience of the tragedy of life, the pathos. The snow falls and covers the sad shell of what was probably a sad, pathetic, and tragic life. It covers it without intention or meaning just as it covers the withered tree branches of winter, or the roofs of family homes where people lie snuggled together in the warmth and love of family. It covers her dead corpse just as swiftly and easily as it covers the lives on that day of her family, if any still live, who themselves are probably oblivious to her whereabouts or her demise. It could even be snowing down on her own children, if she has them, waiting for their mother to come home, and hopefully bring them food…

But it is also a sacred haiku. White is a sacred color of purity in Japan. In a previous post I wrote about becoming a Buddha (hotoke nari), and how death in Japan has a concept of sacred cleansing of the evil and lust of the physical world. Therefore white is associated with death.

One of my favorite samurai TV shows in Japan, Ko tsure Ohkame, was a famous story that was also made into comic books (manga), and possibly even anime (I watch very little anime). The title doesn’t sound so good in English, ‘The Wolf that takes the kid with him’ or ‘Wolf accompanied by child.’ Part of the problem is it loses its cool sound in English because we cannot modify nouns in an adjectival way with verbs, like ‘Child-taking wolf.’ I know there is an English version of the manga, at least, but I don’t know the English title. Anyway, the story is about a war between two actual samurai families of feudal Japan. In this story the main character’s family has all been killed except his young son of about 2 or 3 years of age. He sets out with his son, on a trip of revenge against the other family. But the complications does not end their—he is blind, and must rely entirely on his samurai skills and sense, and Buddhist spirituality to make his way through this battle against countless foes, all while protecting his son.

In one climactic episode of the TV series, he, and if I remember right (I last saw this in the 1980’s), a woman who occasionally joined him in her own quest for vengeance, were to do battle with the head of the enemy family. Before the battle they both dawned kimono’s, obis (belts), and so forth, of pure white. Then right before entering into battle, with swords drawn, they slipped off their sandals—entering bare foot. This is a powerful death motif in Japan. It said that they knew this could be a suicide mission, and were prepared to die. But they would fight to the death, a death that would be cleansing and carry them into the next world, because, their white kimonos also showed that they had made peace with themselves and the world, and had fully submitted themselves to the cycle of life, whatever it brings them.

Of course, the series had to go on, and I don’t remember the details, but I believe they both lived as did the enemy master.

Even today, you see Japanese take off their shoes as a symbol of their readiness to die. If you happen to be on a roof of a high building, and see a Japanese individual step onto the roof, walk over the edge, and take off his or her shoes—-you better have someone call 911, get over there fast.

But getting back to the haiku, I believe this concept of white is not exclusively Buddhist, but Shinto as well. On one level this is a Buddhist haiku. But I am not Buddhist. I have great respect for Buddhism, and if I was to follow an organized religion, Buddhism would be a great contender to be it. But I am an animist—and therefore closer to Shintoism in belief.

Therefore this has significance in an animistic way to me that is still not alien to a Japanese sentiment: It is nature, in her endless dynamic of birth, life, death, renewal, that cleanses and purifies. The dead prostitute, left to the elements like a pile of rubbish (at least if she had been there for a while, her body not yet discovered, or perhaps not yet removed by the proper authorities), is still cleansed and purified, but not by man, not by his religious institutions, but the eternal never-ending Mother Nature.

Here is another one, that could be Buddhist, but to me it fits my animistic belief system:

 

奥へ,奥へと
冬森に
月光が。。。

 

Oku eh, oku eh to
Fuyu mori ni
gekko ga…

 

Deeper, deeper
into the winter forest–
the moonlight…

 

It is about the moon, which can symbolize enlightenment in Buddhism. There is a death significance to the moon too perhaps, but I do not remember off hand. To an animist, it is a living companion, and depending on the tradition, a god or goddess. Tsukiyomi is the Shinto Goddess of the moon–the personification of the moon. Saigyo, a Buddhist poet, wrote a tanka about the moon, flowing through the forest of Tsukiyomi–which was, to him, a metaphor for Buddhist teachings being absorbed in Japan with the animistic Shinto perspective. Buddhism was therefore adopted in a uniquely Japanese fashion when it came to this land of the rising sun. (I am not Shinto, because I am not Japanese–but animistic spirituality is not concerned with titles, or man-made designations, it is all sacred, and one animistic belief fits right in with another). ‘Oku’ can mean the center, or deep, or deep within. Oku eh refers to movement towards that inner place.

A LAMENT OVER THE PATHOS OF THE LIFE OF A PROSTITUTE

I wrote a bit on the pathos of life referencing the prostitute a few posts back. These are haiku I composed from November and December 2008:

 

冬の道
老いの松に
一人の娼婦

 

fuyu no michi
oi no matsu ni
hitori no shoufu

 

The winter road,
by the old pine tree
a lone prostitute.

 

冬の道
一人の娼婦
風の声

 

fuyu no michi
hitori no shoufu
kaze no koe

 

The winter road
a lone prostitute
voice of the wind.

 

The voice of the wind, is of course, the sound of the wind. I remember one early Saturday morning in Tokyo in February, I had missed the last train home (about 1:15) and stayed at a Big Boy restaurant or maybe a Denny’s–I forget what it was—somewhere in Shinjuku. They closed for cleaning about 4:45 as I recall, and the first train was a bit after 5:30. It was pretty cold as I made my way towards the train station, and I had to pass an area filled with love hotels, where rooms were paid for by the hour (actually 2 hours was a normal block of time. Though there was a special service time between 1:00 am and 7:00 am typically, where you could stay for about the same rate as a 2 hour block of time). A middle-aged woman in a purple trench coat stepped out of a corner, shivering, and asked me if I would like to get warm. I thought I heard her but I wasn’t sure? ‘Sumimasen?’ (I’m sorry?) I said to her (Surprised she would even attempt Japanese with me–most Japanese assumed I couldn’t speak it). She asked again if I wanted to go someplace warm, adding, with a bed.

She wasn’t that bad looking, and I felt sorry for her. But my Filipina wife is a very jealous type and she knew where I was, and what time I’d be home on the first train. ‘I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘my wife’s waiting.’

‘We could go in there for a short time.’ pointing to the love hotel behind her. I took her hand, and held it between mine. It was ice cold. ‘I’m sorry. Maybe next time.’ I said, and headed on to the train station, leaving her to shiver in the corner of the street, trying to stay out of the wind. I wonder what she would have done if I took her over to a coffee shop and bought her a hot coffee, and let her warm up there? Of course, at 5:00 in the morning, there was no coffee shop open in Shinjuku, at least not back in the late 1980’s.

 

道の中
一人の娼婦
底冷え也

 

Michi no naka
hitori no shoufu
sokohie ya

 

In the middle of the road
a lone prostitute
Oh! the deepest cold

 

Sokohie means the coldest day or time of the year. The point of bitter cold. Being a humid climate in Japan, bitter cold there is not the dry cold of Colorado, where a coat and sweater will warm you up. In Japan it is a humid bitter cold that seeps down to the bones.

 

寺門前
娼婦の死体
露霜也

 

Jimon mae
shoufu no shitai
tsuyujimo ya

 

in front of the temple gate
the corpse of the prostitute
frozen dew!

 

Notice the beauty of nature juxtaposing the profane tragedy of life.

 

道中に
娼婦の死体
枯れ野月

 

Michi naka ni
shoufu no shitai
kareno tsuki

 

In the middle of the road
corpse of a prostitute
moon over the withered moor

 

This is actually a late fall haiku—the withered moor being a dead dry field.

 

底冷え也
闇に娼婦は
仏なり

 

sokohie ya
yami ni shoufu wa
hotoke nari

 

The coldest day of the year!
in the darkness the prostitute
becomes a Buddha

 

Hotoke is buddha, but it is commonly used to refer to someone passing on. The idea of calling a dead person a buddha comes from a Japanese concept that death purifies a person from the ignorance and lust that taints the living.

 

大雪也
夜道に娼婦
仏なり

 

Ohyuki ya
yomichi ni shoufu
hotoke nari

 

The big snow!
in the night road a prostitute
becomes a buddha

 

重い雪雲
血を吐く
娼婦が待つ

 

Omoi yuki gumo
chi o haku
shoufu ga matsu

 

Heavy snow clouds
the prostitute, coughing up blood
awaits.

RED CLAMS AND SACRED SEX

I will write some more on the subject of the last post—himehajime. (As I explained in my previous post, Happy First Time, it means to have sex for the first time—no not first time ever—but the first time of the year). Here are a couple I found that I wrote back in 2000:

 

満月の
雪雲に
姫初め哉

 

Mantsuki no
yukigumo ni
himehajime kana

 

The full moon
in the snow clouds
Ah! Himehajime.

 

There is probably a more poetic way of translating that one—because it refers to the snow clouds of the full moon, or the full moon’s snow clouds—a subtlety I perhaps did not do justice to in English. (Not that the haiku is necessarily that good, but…). This could be a joke, but also a love poem.

 

雪降り也
炉火の光に
姫初め

 

Yuki furi ya
robi no hikari ni
himehajime

 

Falling snow.
by the light of the robi
himehajime

 

Robi is the hearth in the center of the old farmhouses. It is the fireplace where they would cook, boil water, and in the winter or on cold nights, keep the house warm.

 

ganjistsu ya
hiru demo denai
himehajime

 

元日也
昼でも出ない
姫初め

 

New Year’s Day!
don’t even step out at noon
himehajime

 

This one is a little descriptive, and probably does not make good haiku–maybe it tells rather than hints (maybe not—I don’t know…)—-but as senryu–sarcastic haiku—-I guess it might be fine.

And here is another bath house prostitute one I found from 2002—gotta love the bathhouse prostitutes—-such pathos of the human experience:

 

湯上がる湯女は
温い哉
姫初め

 

yuagaru yuna wa
nukui kana
himehajime

 

the bathhouse prostitute, fresh from the hot water
ah! so warm
himehajime

 

yuagaru is literally to arise from the hot water. I played around with this one a bit—maybe nukui kana is better at the beginning?

I came up with another one that is similar depending on how you interpret it—

 

湯上がるの
赤貝也
秋風すずし

 

yuagaru no
akagai ya
akikaze suzushi

 

fresh from the hot water
the red clam!
Cool autumn wind

 

Akagai, literally red clam, is actually a mussel—and if you want to know why mussel relates to a bathouse prostitute or sex, order mussel the next time you go to a sushi bar, look at it, and tell me what it reminds you of. If prepared properly it tends to be a pretty anatomically accurate depiction of the vulva. The Japanese know that so yes it is a euphemism. Yuagaru could be ‘rising out of the hot water;’ ‘pulled out of the hot water;’ ‘coming out of the hot water…’ That is what is so cool about haiku is that it is so open to your own multiple subjective interpretations/aesthetic-experiences of it.

Speaking of the pathos of the bathouse prostitute, here is another one from late 2002—which may also be a new years, or winter theme:

 

餅食い湯女も
母の事
思い出し

 

mochi kui yuna mo
haha no koto
omoidashi

 

eating a mochi,
the bathouse prostitute
remembers her mother

 

This one actually needs work—but I just wrote it as an idea—I was thinking about the cooked rice cakes one snacks on in the winter, especially at celebrations and with family. Mochi (rice cake) by itself could mean any kind of rice cake made with sticky rice, and I don’t think it is a seasonal word—meaning this one does not have one—but I could be wrong—I’d have to check. (Maybe mochi was a winter seasonal word that I pulled out of a Saijiki, I forget). If it is then the haiku would be fine as is. Regardless, you can imagine the sad loneliness of a girl in such a situation around the holidays as she remembers and misses her own family.

 

森を目に
反映し
姫初め

 

Mori o me ni
hanei shi
himehajime

 

Forest reflecting
in the eyes
himehajime

 

尊き田
月の光に
姫初め

 

Toutoki ta
tsuki no hikari ni
himehajime

 

In the sacred field
in the light of the moon
himehajime

 

In ancient times, and even today, in many old agricultural communities around the world, people would have sex in the fields to make them fertile. Much of the sacred aspect of sex is that it is deeply tied to fertility.

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