Hyakunin Isshu No. 7: The Sky’s Meadow Above

By: Abe no Nakamaro (701 – 770)                             阿倍仲麻呂

I gaze into the distance                                                天の原
And the meadow of the sky above                           ふりさけ見れば
Becomes the Kasuga Shrine                                      春日なる
On Mount Mikasa                                                            三笠の山に
In the coming moon                                                      出でし月かも


Abe no Nakamaro | Katsushika Hokusai | Galerie Zacke

Abe no Nakamaro | Katsushika Hokusai | Galerie Zacke

Abe was descended from a previous emperor, and growing up was applauded for his academics and intelligence.  Since he was active during the Nara period, as a smart young man he became part of the mission to China during the Tang dynasty.  Somehow or other, he was the only person to stay, and became an official Chinese.  He first tried to return to Japan when he received a Japanese employ, but his ship sank not long after leaving China.  When he attempted to return to Japan again after several years, his ship was wrecked again.  After that, he gave up trying to return to his homeland, instead becoming a high class Chinese official and living the rest of his days in Hanoi (then part of Chinese territory).

Abe never really lost his academic prowess, and was a prolific writer and close friend of prominent Chinese poets.  However, although he lived quite successfully in his adopted land, Abe never really forgot his homeland, and this tanka is supposedly written at his farewell party before his second departure.  In my notes, this tanka is apparently a reflection of his reminiscing about how he prayed at Kasuga Shrine (a symbol for departure in Japanese classical literature) for a safe trip to China, and seeing the same moon that now hung in the sky before him.

Katsushika Hokusai | Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

Abe no Nakamaro | Katsushika Hokusai | Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

The intense longing for Nara, his homeland, the anticipation that he must have felt at finally being able to set homeward bound, the stillness and quietness of the night as it enveloped him in memories.  Nothing is quite like home, and the fact that he never really made it back to his beloved Nara is kind of (read: very) heartbreaking.  He wanted to stay for a while, and ended up staying forever.  For everyone who has been on long long holidays, or lived overseas, or been away from home for extended periods of time, I’m sure there have been times where you just wanted to go home.

And Abe never really got to go home.  Sure, he became a Somebody in China, with the career and the friends, but this tanka just shows how much he missed Nara.  It’s not evident in the translation that my book provides, but an alternative translation reads this:

When I look up into the vast sky tonight,
is it the same moon that I saw
Rising from behind Mt. Mikasa
At Kasuga Shrine
All those years ago?

And I can’t help but think about my own imminent departure for Japan, and the moment that I realise that I’m not quite home, that home is far far away, and I wonder how this tanka will feel then, when I gaze up at the sky at the moon that is shining on the distance that separates my home from me.

optictopic | Flickriver

optictopic | Flickriver

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