Here’s this month’s poetry contribution from Keiji Minato:
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.
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:
The earth remembers
Saint Kuya too
walked on this road
with snowflakes in spring
to Rokuhara-mita Temple
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 Hojoki – Visions of a Torn World
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