Category Archives: Keiji Minato

Kyoto as depicted in “Haifu-Yanagidaru”

Here’s this month’s poetry post from our friend, poet and translator, Keiji Minato. This will be the last post on Deep Kyoto this year. Happy holidays and see you all safely in 2012!


Haifu-Yanagidaru (『誹風柳多留』; 1765-1840) is a collection of maeku-dsuke (前句付), which are now commonly called ko-senryu (古川柳; old senryu). It is not one book but a series of 165 volumes published from the middle to the end of the Edo period. The first 24 volumes are particularly important, with KARAI Senryu (柄井川柳; 1718-1790), whose name is now used as the name of the genre of senryu, as its anthologist. The original genre of maeku-dsuke was invented in the Osaka-Kyoto area but really took off in the Edo (current Tokyo) area. At its peak, thousands of anonymous people in Edo submitted their works to Karai Senryu, who selected the best of them for publication first in newssheet formats and later in Yanagidaru.

The Kyoto depicted in Yanagidaru is naturally the one viewed, or imagined, by inhabitants in Edo, the rising city that at that time had begun having pride in its own culture, throwing away its inferiority complex for Kyoto, the previous cultural center of Japan. Certainly, since the Edo (or Tokugawa) Bakufu (江戸[徳川]幕府) was founded, Edo had been the political and economic center of the nation for more than 150 years. Numerous tiny poems in Yanagidaru clearly show Edo people’s confidence in their booming city and the excitement of living there: Continue reading

A Ginko, at Seishu Netsuke-kan

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).

Drawing of a ''netsuke'' holding a medicine box at the belt.

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 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.

Continue reading

“Denga-ka Sanshu” by Yosa Buson

Here’s this month’s poetry post from our friend, poet and translator, Keiji Minato.

Yosa Buson (与謝 蕪村)

My first article for Deep Kyoto took up the topic of  YOSA Buson‘s (1716-1784) hokku (or haiku). As it says, and you all probably know, Buson was a great haiku master and painter, and I would like to add here that he was also an experimental poet who tried poetic styles that had never been used in the history of Japanese literature. His three longer poems show great results: “Hokuju-rosen o Itamu” (北寿老仙をいたむ), “Shumpu Batei Kyoku” (春風馬堤曲; Song of the Spring Wind on the Horse Bank), “Denga-ka Sanshu (or just Dengaka)” (澱河歌三首; Three Poems on Yodo River), all published in Yahanraku (夜半楽; Midnight Music; 1777). The topic this time is “Dengaka.”


澱河歌三首    与謝蕪村
Denga-ka Sanshu (Three Songs on Yodo River)  by YOSA Buson


春水浮梅花 南流菟合澱
錦纜君勿解 急瀬舟如電

The spring water floats down plum blossoms

toward the south to join Yodo River

Do not loose the gilt-threaded mooring lines

On the rapids a boat runs like a lightning


菟水合澱水 交流如一身
船中願同寝 長為浪花人

Once Uji River joins Yodo River

their mixing flows are like one body

On the boat hopefully we will sleep together

and be living in Naniwa forever



You are like a plum blossom dropped

on the water that floats away so quickly

I am like a willow tree whose shadow

is sunk too deep in the water to follow


“Shumpu Batei Kyoku” is a kind of collage in which Chinese-style verses, freer Japanese lines based on Chinese styles, and hokku-like 575 lines. In “Denga-ka,” he tries a similar style but in a smaller scale. The first two stanzas are written in a major Chinese style, Gogon-zekku (五言絶句), which has four phrases, each of which has five letters. The last stanza flows more freely, yet still based on Chinese writing styles.

What is appealing about the poem, however, lies more in content than in form, or in the intersection between content and form. The narrator is a female who sings of her affair with a man. The described geography shows that the relationship is between a merchant from Naniwa. a city of commerce, and a yujo (遊女; performer-prostitute) in Fushimi, a town in the south of Kyoto City. The poem superimposes them with the two rivers, Yodo (澱水) and Uji (菟水) (On today’s map Uji and Katsura Rivers join around Yahata to be Yodo River; See Google Map!). The image of the joining rivers of course has sexual connotations, which are strengthened by “the gilt-threaded mooring lines” in the second line, which connotes an obi (a broad sash tied over a kimono) the yujo is wearing.

Please note that the poem cannot be read in one sequence. In Stanza Two, as the two rivers merge and flow toward Naniwa, the lovers will happily live together ever after, at least in the yujo’s hope. In Stanza Three, however, the tone is totally different (which is emphasized with the difference of the styles). The yujo has no illusion about their future: their affair will no doubt be short, and the man will never come back. Stanza One and Two might be a speech the yujo makes to her lover, and Stanza Three sounds more like her inner voice which cannot deny the bleak reality. So, in my reading the poem diverges from Stanza One in two different directions: Stanza Two (dream) and Stanza Three (reality), between which the yujo’s mind is torn apart. It is interesting that the reading of the poem simulates the form of the rivers.

As I re-read the poem, lines from Gillaume Apollinaire’s “Le pont Mirabeau” came to my mind:

L’amour s’en va comme cette eau courante
L’amour s’en va
Comme la vie est lente
Et comme l’Espérance est violente

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure


This text and translations by Keiji Minato. Keiji writes a guest blog for Deep Kyoto once a month introducing Kyoto’s poets and poetry. You can find former articles by Keiji Minato here.

Ikkyu Sojun’s Kyo’unshu

Here’s this month’s poetry post from our friend Keiji Minato.

Ikkyu Sojun

Ikkyu Sojun (一休宗純; 1394-1481) is one of the most famous monks in the history of Japan. Since his lifetime countless legends have been told about his weird acts and unmatchable wits. For contemporary Japanese he has become the most familiar figure as a Buddhist monk through the television anime series Ikkyu-san (一休さん; originally broadcast between 1975 and 1982, but re-broadcast many times after that). In this still popular anime, the protagonist Ikkyu-san is a boy who is kind and bright, helping people around him with his tonchi (the ability to solve difficult questions in original ways) and outfoxing Shogun-sama, who is always trying to trick him for fun.

The image of Ikkyu Sojun in the real history was difficult to grasp, but he might not be such a likable person as depicted in the anime. It is said that he urinated on a newly built Buddhist statue which he had been asked to consecrate and on another occasion took a nap using a statue as his pillow. (In the latter case a legend says that his friend Ren’nyo-shonin, another famous monk, came back to find Ikkyu sleeping and said, “Don’t use the tool for my trade as a pillow,” and they both had a good laugh over it.) His criticism of other monks often went beyond extreme or sounded just like blunt slandering, but in his last days he became head-monk of Daitoku-ji (大徳寺), one of the biggest Zen temples at that time and also today.

Kyounshu(狂雲集) is a collection of his Chinese-style poetry first published in 1642, well after his death (Kyo’un is one of the pseudonyms Ikkyu used, meaning a “crazy(狂) cloud(雲)”), and his image is multi-faceted even in this one book. He once stayed at Nyoian (如意庵) in Daitoku-ji to commemorate the thirteenth year of his master Kasou (華臾)’s death. Ten days after the ceremony he put the following poem on the wall of the building and went away:


At leaving Nyoian, sending this to Youyu-osho,
Living in this hut for ten days made my mind fidgety
to my legs long red strings of the world get tangled
if some day you come visit me
go to a fish dealer, a tavern, or a brothel

Yosou (養臾) is his senior fellow, who succeeded their master Kasou and became head-monk of Diatoku-ji. It is clear that Ikkyu disliked him; he even said that Yosou’s claim as Kasou’s successor was false and severely criticized his rather successful managing of their sect as fawning upon the authorities.

八十窮僧大●苴     ●=磊にくさかんむり

At eighty this poor monk is such a rogue
during playing at a brothel thinks of a boy’s love
half sober, half asleep, drunk under the blossoms
In Rinzai or Tokuzan who got real enlightenment?

* Rinzai and Tokuzan stand for the biggest Zen Buddhist sects at that time.

There must be some exaggerations, but Ikkyu was famous for his indulgence in drinking and sexual interests: he always visited brothels and even in his latter days he had a blind beautiful performer named Shinjisha (森待者) as his lover. Ikkyu also loved boys as the poem above says. (By the way, homosexuality was very common among monks at his time.)

Let me quote a poem on his lover Shinjisha (there are many!):


Prayer for thanking Shinjisha for her great favor
Trees weaken, leaves fall, and spring comes again
Lengthening green, breeding flowers, old promises renewed
Should I forget Shinjisha’s great favor by any chance
I would remain a dumb beast for endless time

In Buddhism the most significant is to leave your desires. However, many Zen and other sect masters point out that the desire to leave your desires is the biggest of all. I am not sure that Ikkyu’s indulgence in worldly interests led him to real enlightenment, but his poems certainly have the power to free our mind.

It is said that his dying word was “I don’t want to die (死にとうない).


This text and translations by Keiji Minato. Keiji writes a guest blog for Deep Kyoto once a month introducing Kyoto’s poets and poetry. You can find former articles by Keiji Minato here.

Of Related Interest:
Cities of Green Leaves 青葉の都市 – Ginko no Kukai
The HojokiVisions of a Torn World
Irish Haiku!
One Hundred Poets on Mount Ogura, One Poem Each
Introducing Keiji Minato
Songs and Stories of the Kojiki retold by Yoko Danno
Japan International Poetry Society

Chidzuko Ueno’s Book of Haiku, Eldorado

Here’s this month’s Kyoto poetry post by our friend Keiji Minato!

Chidzuko Ueno

Haiku is a well-established poetic form in Japan. Japanese newspapers call for haiku submissions, and a large number of amateur poets send them their works to be chosen for publication by famous masters. There are some TV programs specializing in haiku, for which big events are often held and big auditoriums  are filled with hundreds of haiku enthusiasts. You can always find several commercial haiku magazines lined up in the racks of bookstores.
On the other hand, questions remain on what exactly haiku is in the first place. Some regard haiku as typified by those written by old masters like MATSUO Basho (松尾芭蕉; 1644-1694) and KOBAYASHI Issa (小林一茶; 1763-1827) (Actually, they did not use the term “haiku” for their works, though. They called them “hokku,” meaning the first verse of haikai-no-renga or renku). Others follow the models established in the modernization of the genre since the Meiji era, led by big names such as MASAOKA Shiki (正岡子規; 1867-1902), TAKAHAMA Kyoshi (高浜虚子; 1874-1959), and their countless disciples. Yet another camp says, no, no, our haiku is well beyond old and modern masters, incorporating various influences from Western cultures too. Well, everyone has some say over haiku…

UENO Chizuko (上野千鶴子; b.1948) is famous as a leading feminist critic in Japan; it is not so well-known that she was also a haiku writer under the name Ueno Chidzuko (上野ちづこ). In her book of haiku, Eldorado (黄金郷 [エルドラド]), published in 1990, we can read Ueno’s haiku written during the decade from 1972 to 1982. In the beginning of the preface she writes: “These are haiku. So, this is a book of haiku. To those who say they are not haiku I will say bye-bye.” Her haiku are certainly out of the current orthodoxy of the haiku genre, but the book is also idiosyncratic in that it has a lot of critical essays written by her and her friends/rivals.
She was an active member of a group called Kyodai Haiku Kai (京大俳句会; Kyoto University Haiku Society). Kyodai Haiku Kai is the famous name in the history of haiku. The original group was established in the early 20th century and became famous in the modernist haiku movement called Shinko-haiku (新興俳句; New-wave Haiku). It is well-known also because it was wrecked by the arrests of its leading members in 1940: the war-time regime suspected that New-wave haiku writers had relationships with or at least close sentiments with the resistance movements. The group Ueno belonged to had nothing to do with the original Kyodai Haiku Kai, but it is interesting that they both had avant-garde tendencies, and their centers were located in Kyoto. (A new group who called themselves Kyodai Haiku Kai has started up their own activities since 2009. They refer to the original Kyodai Haiku Kai as their predecessors, but seem to show no alliance with the one Ueno belonged to.)
Let me quote several haiku by Ueno Chidzuko:

[ Ki no mi ochiru toki no chi no pianissimo ]
when nuts fall from the trees pianissimo on the ground

[ Umi ni muki au renmen to shini tsuzukete kita kakei ]
facing the ocean a long and unbroken family line with innumerable deaths

It is clear that Ueno does not follow the 5-7-5 mora (Japanese sound unit) formula. (I tried to capture the rhythm of her haiku by translating them in one line.)

[ Ore ga kajitta hagata o tsukete tsuki ga kake ]
With teeth marks left by me the moon wanes

The narrator of a haiku usually corresponds with the author. Here Ueno uses “Ore” (俺), a first pronoun for a male, which gives a fictional taste to the poem.

[ Tensoku ga zorozoro chika-seikatsusha no ue wo ]
compressed feet go in succession above underground inhabitants

[ Horumon-ya ni kurete yaru kyukyu-geka no uraguchi kara ]
Give them to an intestine restaurant cook from the backdoor of ER

[ Kosho shita kodomo tachi teien no hana to shite ]
children out of order serve as flowers in the garden

[ Konrei no ni ni ireru otouto no gisoku ]
Added to the goods for my marriage my brother’s artificial leg

[ Jihei-ji no kisetsu meron wa ure ni ure ]
The season of autistic children melons ripen too much

あなたを愛している 鉄の匂い
[ Anata o aishite iru Tetsu no nioi ]
I am in love with you the smell of iron

Let us go back to the question: what is haiku? Are Ueno’s works I quoted above haiku? Many haiku writers today say no, or give ambiguous answers. Many of her haiku show the grotesquerie of contemporary life explicitly, and even love haiku smell ominously of iron. Most haiku writers tend to avoid such themes and tones as in her works. Reading the high-level criticisms by Ueno herself and her colleagues in Eldorado, besides her haiku themselves, I cannot help imagining another haiku world more thrilling with Ueno as an active participant…

In the preface Ueno also wrote: “All poets have a hidden hope, which is a hope to do without writing poetry, and I seem to have reached that goal,” and she is true to her words. She does not write haiku now.

* Ueno Chidzuko, Eldorado. Shinya-sosho, 1990 (上野ちづ子 『黄金郷(エルドラド)』深夜叢書, 1990)


This text and translations by Keiji Minato. Keiji writes a guest blog for Deep Kyoto once a month introducing Kyoto’s poets and poetry. You can find former articles by Keiji Minato here.

Of Related Interest:
Cities of Green Leaves 青葉の都市 – Ginko no Kukai
The HojokiVisions of a Torn World
Irish Haiku!
One Hundred Poets on Mount Ogura, One Poem Each
Introducing Keiji Minato
Songs and Stories of the Kojiki retold by Yoko Danno
Japan International Poetry Society

“Kyoto Uta Kiko” (Song Travels in Kyoto) — Rokuhara-mita Temple

Here’s this month’s poetry contribution from Keiji Minato:

枇杷の咲く路地抜け右へ折れましてまっすぐ行けば六波羅蜜寺    坪内稔典
Biwa no saku Roji nuke Migi e oremashite Massugu ikeba Rokuhara-mita-ji

Passing through an alley
where you see loquat blossoms
and taking a right turn
and then going straight gets you
to Rokuhara-mita Temple

京都うた紀行』 (Kyoto Uta Kiko ~ Poetic Travelogues in Kyoto) (2010) by NAGATA Kazuhiro and KAWANO Yuko has a subtitle: 近現代の歌枕を訪ねて(Visiting Modern and Contemporary Utamakura). The term “utamakura” (歌枕) is usually used for old Japanese traditional poetic forms, and means the name of a place which is used in great literary works many times and has come to have special connotations associated with it. In the book, Nagata and Kawano, both great tanka writers, take up modern/contemporary tanka with the names of places in Kyoto to renew this rhetorical tradition for the 21st century.
The poem I quoted in the beginning is a tanka by Tsubouchi Toshinori (He is one of today’s most popular haiku writers but also writes tanka like this one, longer poems, and great essays). It might sound like it is just giving directions to the temple in English; and actually, it does so too in Japanese! In Japanese traditional poetic forms it sometimes happens that describing an extremely ordinary thing with no affectations gives a poem lightness in a poetical sense, which makes the reader irresistibly smile. You can say that the one above has comical haiku qualities, as Kawano says in her short essay with it.
Rokuhara-mita Temple (六波羅蜜寺) is in the Higashiyama Ward of Kyoto City and famous for its statue of Saint Kuya (空也上人). The statue is really unique: From Saint Kuya’s opened mouth several little Buddhas are flying out! (Every Japanese pupil sees a picture of it in their history textbook; of course, they love it!). Kuya in his life walked around Japan, preaching and chanting 南無阿弥陀仏(Nam-amida-butsu). So, the thumb-sized bodies coming out of his mouth are Amitabha Buddhas.

Statue of Kuya at Rokuhara-mita Temple

Kawano notes the temple was built on the border of Kyoto City in Kuya’s time, and to the west of it were hills generally called Toribe-no (鳥辺野), where people took the dead for cremation. Saint Kuya built Rokuhara-mita Temple to pray for them. Knowing this you might sense religious feelings even behind the matter-of-fact description of Tsubouchi’s poem.
Kawano adds her own tanka after the essay, which shows the historical connotation of the place more clearly:

風花のこの道を空也も歩きしと土は記憶せり六波羅蜜寺へ   河野裕子

The earth remembers
Saint Kuya too
walked on this road
with snowflakes in spring
to Rokuhara-mita Temple


This text and translations by Keiji Minato. Keiji writes a guest blog for Deep Kyoto once a month introducing Kyoto’s poets and poetry. You can find former articles by Keiji Minato here.

Here is a map to Rokuhara-mita Temple. It lies just east of Yamato-Ooji St., between Gojo St. to the south and Matsubara St. to the north.

Of Related Interest:
Cities of Green Leaves 青葉の都市 – Ginko no Kukai
The HojokiVisions of a Torn World
Irish Haiku!
One Hundred Poets on Mount Ogura, One Poem Each
Introducing Keiji Minato
Songs and Stories of the Kojiki retold by Yoko Danno
Japan International Poetry Society

“TÔTEKIKO” by Javant Biarujia

Keiji Minato writes…

I wrote the article below before the big disaster hit the northern part of Japan. I guess you might find it strange to read about something very small with a tremendous incident on the background, but I will post it anyway. It must be very important for us to calm ourselves before rushing toward unnecessary actions.


As you know from travel guidebooks, Kyoto City has many beautiful rock gardens or dry landscape gardens (枯山水; kare-sansui). It is said that they show you the essence of Zen Buddhism in the abstract form with rocks, white stones or sand, and sometimes some green. Visiting one of them you always find a brochure that explains the meaning of the garden, or someone, probably a tour guide or taxi driver, will be giving tourists a variety of interpretations.

Where is the most famous of the rock gardens in Kyoto? Probably, you know the answer: In Ryoanji Temple (龍安寺), which attracts a lot of visitors, both domestic and from overseas. Well then, guess which temple has the smallest kare-sansui? The answer is Daitokuji Temple (大徳寺), not far from Ryoanji Temple. The garden, called Tôtekiko (東滴壺), is in a narrow space between two buildings, and its size is just about 7 square meters!

This rectangular garden has five rocks. Three of them (one flat and two rather high) form a group on the southernmost side, and the other two (not so high) are put together on the other side. The composition represents the instant a drop of water hits the ground and widens to become one with a big ocean (which is the state of satori, the great enlightenment, in Zen Buddhism). Well, this is just one interpretation, of course, but it is certain that you feel some force circulating and magnifying while you watch the still movements of the stones and sand there.

Australian poet Javant Biarujia visited Tôtekiko in 1984 and wrote a poem with the same title. It is as enigmatic and thought-provoking as the garden itself. I wrote an unnecessary commentary on the garden above, so let me avoid interfering with the working of the poem with another:


Daitokuji is one of the biggest temples in Kyoto and has a lot of small temples (塔頭; tacchû) inside. So, don’t get lost! Tôtekiko (東滴壺) is in a tacchû named Ryôgen-in(龍源院). It is said that the garden is most beautiful around noon, with the sunlight coming in from between the walls of the buildings.

* Javant Biarujia, “Tôtekiko” in Brennan, Machael, and Peter Minter, eds. CALYX: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets. (Sydney: Paper Bark Press, 2000): p.57. (The poem first appeared in Autumn Silks (Melbourne: Nosukumo, 1988).
* Javant Biarujia is represented in The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry, while Pointcounterpoint: New & Selected Poems 1983 – 2008 (Salt Publishing, Cambridge UK: 2007) is his latest book.”

This text and images by Keiji Minato. Keiji writes a guest blog for Deep Kyoto once a month introducing Kyoto’s poets and poetry. You can find former articles by Keiji Minato here.

Of Related Interest:
Irish Haiku!
One Hundred Poets on Mount Ogura, One Poem Each
Introducing Keiji Minato
Songs and Stories of the Kojiki retold by Yoko Danno
Japan International Poetry Society

Three Poets at Minase

Here is this month’s poetry column from poet and translator Keiji Minato…

The Minase Sangin Hyakuin by Sogi, Shohaku, and Socho

雪ながら山もとかすむ夕かな    宗祇
Yuki nagara yama-moto kasumu yube kana

As it snows the base
of the mountain is misty
this evening

行く水とほく梅にほふ里      肖柏
Yuku mizu toku ume niou sato

Far in the way the water goes
a plum-blossom-smelling hamlet

川かぜに一むら柳春みえて     宗長
Kawakaze ni hitomura yanagi haru miete

The wind from the river
sways weeping willows
now it’s spring

舟さすおとはしるき明がた     宗祇
Fune sasu oto wa shiruki akegata

The pole of a boat makes
a clear sound at dawn

月は猶霧わたる夜にのこるらん   肖柏
Tsuki wa nao kiri wataru yo ni nokoru ran

The moon must be
visible even
in a foggy night

霜おく野はら秋はくれけり     宗長
Shimo oku nohara aki wa kurekeri

Frost on the field
autumn at its end

Above are the first six verses of Minase Sangin Hyakuin (水無瀬三吟百韻; 1488), a renga written by Sogi (宗祇; 1421-1502), Shohaku (肖柏; 1443-1527), and Socho (宗長; 1448-1632). Renga is a type of collaborative poetry with linked 5-7-5 and 7-7 verses. Lengths vary from just two (tan-renga) to 10,000 or more(!). The genre was at its height in the late fifteenth century, and Minase Sangin Hyakuin is often considered the best work in its history. Renga emulated the aesthetics of the world of classic waka and were thought to please gods, especially war gods. At that time renga masters travelled around the country, often invited by feudal lords, and “rolled” scrolls of their verses for religious/political occasions.

The first verse in Minase Sangin Hyakuin is based on a waka by the retired emperor Gotoba-joko (後鳥羽上皇; 1180-1239):

見渡せば山もと霞む水無瀬川夕べは秋となに思ひけむ    後鳥羽上皇

Miwataseba yamamoto kasumu minase-gawa yube wa aki to nani omoiken

I look over the misty base

of the mountain where

the Minase River runs through —

Why did they say the evening

was best in autumn? (Gotoba-joko)

Gotoba-joko (This is a public domain image. The original is at the Minase Shrine)

Gotoba-joko was the strong center of culture in his day and led the editing of Shin-kokin-wakashu (新古今和歌集), one of the best anthologies of waka. Most of all Gotoba-joko was a great poet himself, who wrote great works like the above. He often visited Minase, situated right between current Kyoto City and Osaka City, to spend time at his favorite villa there. He is reported to have been fond of writing renga too, and he enjoyed rolling renga scrolls in Minase for sure. In the poem above he challenges his predecessors’ judgment that evening time is most beautiful in autumn, the common view even among contemporary Japanese. Continue reading

Ryojin-hisho, Popular Songs in the Twelfth Century

Go-Shirakawa. This public domain picture from the Museum of the Imperial Collections (三の丸尚蔵館)

Here’s this month’s poetry column from our friend Keiji Minato

Ryojin-hisho (『梁塵秘抄』), compiled by Goshirakawa-Joko (後白河上皇; the ex-emperor Goshirakawa)in the late 12th century, is an anthology of popular songs called “Imayo Kayo” (今様歌謡; directly translated it means “contemporary-style popular songs”) at that time. They were mainly performed by itinerant female dancers and singers. The ex-emperor was so much into the type of song that he trained himself as a disciple of famous singers, who were regarded very low in the social hierarchy, or rather totally outside of it, and spared no efforts to sing them in genuine styles and record lyrics. As many critics argue, his enthusiasm probably resulted from the change of the power structure in the political system, in which the royal family and old aristocrats were being replaced as the dominant force by the military caste: the old power holder psychologically needed to recapture cultural power from the bottom of the society. Such historical consideration is quite interesting, but here let’s look at the lyrics themselves from the anthology.

The songs take up a wide variety of topics, and their styles also widely vary from comic to philosophical. One of the important themes is religion:

仏は常にいませども、現ならぬぞあわれなる、人の音せぬ暁に、ほのかに夢に見え給ふ (26)
[ Hotoke wa tsune ni imase domo / Utsutsu naranu zo aware naru / Hito no oto senu akatsuki ni / honoka ni yume ni mie tamau ]

Buddha is always around, but we sadly cannot see him in reality. Only at the dawn with no human sound, he faintly shows himself in our dream.

In the process of Buddhism getting into Japan a lot of waka (5-7-5-5-5 sound unit poems) and songs like the above were composed so that people got used to the Buddhist ideas and worldview. Of course, it is impossible to expound deep philosophy in such short forms. As the poem above, most of them are aesthetic expressions so as to strike the emotional chords of even those who cannot understand highbrow concepts.

Other songs take up more down-to-earth human feelings. The most famous one from Ryojin-hisho is the following:

遊びをせんとや生れけむ、戯れせんとや生れけん、遊ぶ子供の声きけば、我が身さえこそ揺るがるれ (359)
[ Asobi o sentoya umare ken / Tawabure sen toya mumare ken / Asobu kodomo no koe kikeba / wagami sae koso yurugarure ]

We are all born to play, born to have sport. Listening to the voice of children who play, even my body will shake itself.

Although most readers agree that its speaker is a yujo (遊女; a performer-cum-prostitute), they are divided into two camps regarding its emotional content. Many read the yujo’s regret for her life, especially in the last part “揺るがるれ.” This reading has a strong appeal even to the modern reader, and is probably why the song is so popular. On the other hand, some think it as an expression of a more natural, spontaneous reaction, and argue that the first camp wrongly reads modern moralistic feelings into the song. In my opinion, you do not have to choose one over the other. I am sure this great poem shows different sides of life according to what frame of mind you have when you read it.

Small creatures often appear in the Ryojin-hisho songs and play important roles:

[ Mae mae katatsuburi / Mawanu mono naraba / muma no ko ya Ushi no ko ni kuesase ten / humiwarase ten / makoto ni utsukushiku mou taraba / hana no sono made asoba sen]

Dance, dance, Snail. If you do not dance we’ll make a young horse or cow kick you, stamp and crush you. If you dance so beautifully, we’ll let you go free to a flower garden.

The poem shows the same type of childish brutality as in Mother Goose songs, which is saved by the beauty of the last part and gives us strong catharsis. Such a technique is often used in Imayo-kayo probably because they are originally for performance, sung with a dance (What a pity that the music and dance parts were lost in history!). Common techniques in Ryojin-hisho also include exaggeration and enumeration as in the following song:


Man who gave me hope but does not come, you become a demon with three horns shunned by people. Become a bird in a rice paddy with frost, snow, hail falling and stand on cold feet. Become floating weed and wander around endlessly rocked.

A Japanese demon (鬼; oni) usually has two horns. Rice paddies, which have water in summer, usually do not have cold water in it. Clearly, these expressions playfully exaggerate the speaker’s feelings toward the man. Such witty words are much better to bring him back than just nagging at him. The same kind of playfulness sometimes appears even in songs about religion:

[ Kumano e mairan to omoe domo / Toho yori maireba michi toshi / Sugurete yama kewashi / Uma nite maireba kugyo narazu / Sora yori mairamu / Hane tabe Nyakuoji ]

I am thinking of going to Kumano, but it is too far on foot, with such steep mountains. Going on a horse, however, isn’t an act of merit. I will go flying. Give me wings, God of Nyakuoji.

The Ryojin-hisho. Click to buy on

In Kumano there are important shrines (Kumano Hongu Taisha; 熊野本宮大社, Kumano Hayatama Taisha; 熊野速玉大社, Kumano Natchi Taisha; 熊野那智大社), and emperors and ex-emperors often went there from Kyoto over steep mountains. Goshirakawa-Joko, the compiler of Ryojin-hisho, was also a devout worshiper and visited Kumano 34 times in his lifetime. In the song above, the speaker turns down the idea of going on a horse as too easy and not giving a merit, but right after that he/she asks a god for wings to fly! It might not sound serious, but I think it somehow successfully expresses his/her real longing for Kumano.

Ryojin-hisho was once thought to be lost not long after its compilation. It was dramatically rediscovered in the late 19th century, and surprised and greatly moved poets in the modern era. The variety of form and content testifies to the fact that there used to be a wider range of poetic expressions than public forms of poetry like waka, renga, and Chinese types of poetry in Medieval Japan. Its return in a new age does not seem just a coincidence, does it?

* Sasaki Nobutsuna, ed. Ryojin-hisho. Iwanami-bunko (22-1). Tokyo: Iwanami-shoten, 1933.

This text and translations by Keiji Minato. Keiji writes a guest blog for Deep Kyoto once a month introducing Kyoto’s poets and poetry. You can find former articles by Keiji Minato here.

Of Related Interest:
Irish Haiku!
One Hundred Poets on Mount Ogura, One Poem Each
Introducing Keiji Minato
Songs and Stories of the Kojiki retold by Yoko Danno
Japan International Poetry Society

Two Poems by Amano Tadashi

Here’s this month’s poetry column from our friend Keiji Minato

This image from

Kobo-san (弘法さん) is the popular name of Toji Kobo-ichi (東寺弘法市; Toji Kobo Market), the monthly fair that takes place at Toji Temple. On the 21st every month, hundreds of stalls occupy its huge precincts and alleys all around and sell a wide variety of goods from food and drink through accessories and clothes to plants and flowers. The most interesting to see are numberless curios, some of which cannot be found in our modern life and make us wonder what on the earth they are for. (See this website for visual images of the market:

Fantasy at a Fair (縁日幻想) by AMANO Tadashi

In the middle of the crowd at Kobo-san,
I turned around feeling tapped on the shoulder by someone
who quickly disappeared between boxes on which combs were lined up.
The quiet old lady beside me
gave off the smell of incense from her whole body,
and it was already dark,
and somewhere an electric lamp
turned on as if throbbing.
It was so dark, but, around there
must be a kobore-ume stall,* I thought,
and kept walking
dragging my heavy feet
and realized that the one who hided
was no other than my father.
He was ten years younger than I am when he died.**

* kobore-ume: the lees of mirin (a Japanese sweet seasoning) with the moisture squeezed out, eaten as a snack
**The original poems in Japanese are posted at the end of this article.

Amano Tadashi 〈思潮社版 天野忠詩集の裏表紙より〉

Amano Tadashi (天野忠; 1909-1993), a Kyoto poet, came to fame in the 1970s, in his later years. He published books of poetry since 1932, but living in Kyoto, which was away from Tokyo, the center of the Japanese publishing culture, made it hard for his works to be widely recognized. His poetry humorously takes up scenes from daily life and somehow turns them into something like dreams. This style does not belong to the main-stream post-WWII Japanese poetry, which is generally highbrow or socially critical. In “Fantasy at a Fair,” the speaker walks with his old wife among stalls at Kobo-san, and meets his dead father, who shyly (or playfully?) hides himself. The father’s playful shyness goes so well with the feelings you get from Amano’s works.

Antiques(古物) by Amano Tadashi

On an alley where gloomy winds pass through
is an old antique shop.
It is cramped with heaps of bric-a-brac.
Some look still useful,
and others utterly useless.
Some will break down
sooner or later.
From time to time a small old man visits there
staggering on his walking stick.
He went to the same school as the owner of the shop.
Small talking among the bric-a-brac heaps
the two men look like
the most valuable curios
in the shop.
They have no price tags.

In this poem, perhaps, either of the old guys is an image of the poet himself. (He ran a secondhand book shop for some time, so the owner of the antique shop in the poem might be built on that experience.) If you walk around Kyoto City you will encounter a lot of antique shops. Some are well-managed and sell really valuable antiques at exorbitant prices, but many are like the shop described in the poem above lazily leaving heaps of bric-a-brac buried with dust. The latter might not be significant in any sense of art and history. However, as leftovers from the past, they give us a sense of nostalgia that no museums and galleries could do.

Toji Temple is a 20-minute walk from JR Kyoto Station (or 5 minutes on foot from Toji Station on the Kintetsu Kyoto Line). If you have a chance to stay in Kyoto on the 21st I strongly recommend you visit there. That would be quite an experience. Other popular old fairs in Kyoto City include Tenjin-san (天神さん), which is held on the 25th each month at Kitano-Tenmangu Shrine (北野天満宮), and Chionji-Tedsukuri-ichi (Chionji Temple Handmade Goods Market), which takes place on the 15th at Chionji Temple (知恩寺). See: and Each market has a different feel, but I am sure you will enjoy them with their relaxing atmosphere.

* Amano Tadashi, Amano Tadashi Shishu (Gendaishi-bunko 85). Shichosha, 1986. [天野忠『天野忠詩集(現代詩文庫85)』思潮社、1986.]

This text and translations by Keiji Minato. Keiji writes a guest blog for Deep Kyoto once a month introducing Kyoto’s poets and poetry. You can find fomer articles by Keiji Minato here. Here are Amano Tadashi’s original poems: