This is Keiji Minato‘s second article on the poets and poetry of Kyoto. Keiji writes...
Yosa Buson (1716-83), one of the most popular haikai masters from the Edo period, lived most of his adult life in Kyoto City.
(Hototogisu heianjo wo sujikai ni) YOSA Buson
“Heianjo (平安城)” is the same as “Heiankyo (平安京),” an old name of Kyoto City. I quoted the above hokku because it is necessary to know what Kyoto City is like to fully appreciate it.
In Kyoto City streets are laid out on a grid (We call it “goban no me no youna (碁盤の目のような)”). In European culture the layout is so common that there seems nothing special about it. But visiting big Japanese cities you will find out that is not the case in Japan. Both in the Tokyo and Osaka city areas many streets are unnamed and do not run straight. That is why Buson uses the word “diagonally (筋違に)” here. The movement of a lesser cuckoo is measured according to the chessboard pattern of the Kyoto streets. The superb spatial grasp reminds us of the fact that Buson was also a master in the field of painting.
Let me compare it with the senryu I quoted in the previous article:
(Tsubakuro wa bonji no yoni tondeiki) Anonymous
A swallow like
a Sanskrit character
It describes the sky in Edo (old Tokyo). Comparing these two short poems we can see how Buson’s hokku successfully captures the narrowness of the sky in Kyoto City, which was surrounded by the mountains on three sides (east, north, west; only the south side is open). I used the word “crossing” in my translation, but Buson does not use a verb, which emphasizes a swift flit of the bird. In the swallow senryu the sky is wide above the Kanto Plain open up to Mount Fuji (Yes, I am writing about the Edo era! Now it’s too crowded with buildings and smog blurs the landscape…). The phrase “like a Sanskrit character” connotes the ambiguous boundaries of Edo, which was sprawling rapidly and endlessly at that time.
Isn’t it really impressive that the poems record the cityscapes so successfully in their shortness? I hope you will go up to a hill in Kyoto City and look down on the streets and then reread Buson’s haiku. I recommend to you Kiyomizu-dera Temple or a hill behind Ginkaku-ji Temple for the purpose. The Kyoto Tower near JR Kyoto Station might not be so a bad option if you do not have much time…
By the way, a bit on terminology: The word “haiku (俳句)” is kind of a new word. In Buson’s times, and up to the middle of the Meiji era (the late 19th century), they used the term “hokku (発句),” which means the first verse of a renku (Again, the terms like “renku” and “senryu” started to be used in the Meiji era, but ah… forget about that if you are not a scholar!).
Text and photograph by Keiji Minato. Keiji will be writing an article on the poets and poetry of Kyoto each month here on Deep Kyoto. His first article is here.