Here’s this month’s poetry post from our friend, poet and translator, Keiji Minato.
Have you tried a ginko (吟行)? A ginko is a group excursion to make haiku or senryu: you visit a landmark, a museum exhibition, or any place of interest and write poems based on the experience. Usually, a kukai (句会; a haiku or senryu meeting) takes place afterwards, and you can share your works with others in a relaxed mood.
I was lucky to participate in one of such events on November 12th. We took a visit to Seishu Netsuke-kan (清宗根付館) in Mibu (壬生), a 5-minite walk from Omiya Station of Hankyu Kyoto Line. It is the one and only museum in Japan entirely devoted to works of netsuke (根付).
A netsuke is a small traditional sculpture used to hold an inro (印籠; a container for medicines) at your obi or sash for a waist belt. You tie an inro at one end of a string and a netsuke at the other, and pass the netsuke under the obi from below (As always, Wikipedia has a great page, so check out pictures at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netsuke.). A netsuke is at most the size of a small chicken egg, but the art of Japanese artisans enables one to show animals playing with each other, a scene from famous stories, or a burlesque with comical human figures.
This time we are very lucky: one participant, Mr. HIRAGA Tanetoshi (平賀胤壽), is himself a great netsuke artist. Walking around to gaze at tiny masterpieces we took a small lecture from him. According to him, crafting a netsuke is very much like making a haiku or senryu: to just describe a thing or scene is not enough. You have to use your imagination to devise how to fit your findings of or twists to a motif in a limited space. He also explained about the great variety of netsuke. Originally, there were no netsuke specialists, but artisans like noh mask makers made netsuke at their leisure. In recent years, too, various techniques from different fields are used in netsuke making, and young artists keep on boldly experimenting new styles.
We walked in the museum for an hour or so, and then moved to a nearby café, where we sat down, and, sipping coffee or gulping down beer, began to write our poems based on notes we took, or, in the case of the brave (or reckless?), only from memories. Half an hour later a kukai began. We submitted 9 haiku or senryu each (in this ginko-kukai both haiku and senryu writers participated). There are 9 of us, and two members submitted only 8, so we had 79 ku in all. We wrote them down with numbers, and made photocopies for our senku (選句; a selection of favorites). Reading so many works in a short time (less than 30 minutes!) was quite a task, but each of us selected 1 most favorite and 7 others that we liked. Then, we read them aloud, gave 2 points to a most favorite, and 1 point to the others that we liked, and summed up the scores.
Giving works of art scores might feel strange, but you don’t have to be too serious. Participants in kukai usually know that works they failed to recognize are possibly historical masterpieces, which cannot be easily understood at a first glance. Most important is not the scores you get but the discussions that follow. You are asked to comment on the works you chose, but others can disagree with your evaluation. Often, the work with the highest point is severely criticized by those who did not choose it. So, you cannot be too glad even if one of your haiku scores in a kukai! (I forgot to write this: the selection process is done with no authors’ names fixed to the works so that haiku or senryu are judged purely on their own merits.)
One of the two poems that scored highest (5 points) this time is:
[ Ki no kuzu wo haku ki no iro no tako ni naru ]
becoming an octopus
in the color of wood
Octopuses are popular as food in Japan, and seem also very common as motifs for netsuke. At the museum we saw several wooden or ivory octopuses in different styles, and watched videos in which a netsuke artist like Mr. Hiraga deftly carved their works. It was as if the figures simply emerged from the wood. In a ginko-kukai it is important to use motifs you and other participants shared in your experiences on that day. (It is not a strict rule, though. You submit whatever ku was inspired by what you saw or heard, and in art end-works are often wide apart from original motifs.) But, does the poem work without the common experience we shared on that day? That was a question… Opinions in the kukai were also varied: Some felt that a work that could stand on its own, but others did not. Well, that was one of the works I submitted, so I’d like to ask you the same question.
The other 5-point work is:
[ Tsuwabuki no mabushiku okuba guratsukeru ]
I have a shaky
This one is from the impression we had from the small but beautiful garden in front of the museum. It had chrysanthemums and also tsuwabuki (石蕗; Japanese Silverleaf or to give it its botanical name: Farfugium japonicum) beautifully blooming. In this season you often see the flowers of tsuwabuki in a corner of a Japanese garden. Though they are bright yellow, they somehow have a bit of a gloomy atmosphere. The poem above, written by OKAMURA Tomokaki (岡村知昭), a very active haiku writer from Shiga, is interesting in that it makes our shared experience (having seen tsuwabuki at the musuem) a very personal one through the presentation of the physical sense of having a shaky back tooth. Nice haiku!
We heatedly discussed the merits (and sometimes demerits) of the works submitted until the café closed. I left on that point, but some of the participants disappeared into a nearby Izakaya for more haiku talks.
The Mibu (壬生) area, in which the museum is located, is a place of great interest, with Shinsen-gumi Tonjo (新撰組屯所) as the most popular destination. The building of Seishu Netsuke-kan is itself worth seeing as an example of traditional Japanese architecture. Unfortunately, the museum is not open year-around, but only for a month each season. This season it is open until the end of November. Before visiting, please check the schedule on their website, at http://www.netsukekan.jp/english/index.html.