Hyakunin Isshu No. 6: On the Bridge that Magpies Cross

By: Counselor Otomo no Yakamochi (718 – 785)
中納言大伴家持

On the bridge                                                      かささぎの
That magpies cross                                          渡せる橋に
The frosty white                                                 置く霜の
Is laid across                                                       白きのみれば
As night grows old                                            夜ぞふけにける


Finally! After two tanka without translation notes, this one does, and with two relatively lengthy paragraphs too wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee but first, introduction of the poet!

Counselor Otomo was active during the Nara period as a Japanese statesman and prominent waka poet.  Although he never quite made it to the level of becoming a god of poetry, his skills did qualify him as a member of the Thirty-six Poetry Immortals (三十六歌仙), being proficient at not only writing poetry, but also transcribing, rewriting and refashioning ancient poems and folklore.  Otomo was the most prolific and prominent writer of his time, and as a result was one of the compilers of the Man’yōshū, the first Japanese poetry anthology created, and had a great influence on the Shika Wakashū, an imperial waka anthology.

Magpies | Warren Photographic

Magpies | Warren Photographic

So.  Moving on to the actual tanka

According to the notes, the bridge that the magpie crosses could be symbolic of the night sky, as the black-and-white colours of a magpie is reminiscent of the streamers of stars trailing across the night sky.  Another reference to the night sky could be the white frost, which could symbolise the swirls of star dust between the clusters of the stars.

Supposedly, another layer of meaning to the tanka is to view the magpies as representations for Japanese people secretly meeting their lovers on a lonely bridge during the night, white frost building up as the night grows old.  Since this mode of communication was apparently very very common in the Japanese aristocracy, Otomo probably wrote it with both meanings in mind.

And it could be true, since the legend for the tanabata festival is based on the meeting of two separated lovers, who can only meet once a year from their exile on opposite sides of the world, with the road between them a bridge of flying magpies.  That explains both the magpies as an arc in the sky and looking like the stars of the Milky Way, and as a symbol of the secret meetings between lovers during the deep hours of the night.  However, since tanabata is traditionally celebrated in July, which is summer in Japan, I wonder what inspired Otomo to reference this legend in the depths of winter, as snow heaped along the shores and across bridges…

Tanabata | overdoor | zerochan

Tanabata | overdoor | zerochan

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Hyakunin Isshu No. 3: If I’m to sleep alone

By: Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (662 – 710)                 柿本人麻呂

On a mountain slope                                                        あしびきの
The copper pheasant’s tail                                            山鳥の尾の
Just flows and flows –                                                      しだり尾の
So long, like this night                                                     ながながし夜を
If I’m to sleep alone                                                          ひとりかも寝む


Legend has it that poet gained his name because he was found at the foot of a kaki, or persimmon, tree as an infant and subsequently adopted. As an attendant of Emperor Monmu, the grandson of Empress Jitou (the poet of No. 2), Kakinomoto no Hitomaro had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate his poetic prowess.  He definitely showed off his skills, because he became known as one of the great poets of early Japan, and after his death was deified as a god of Poetry, complete with temples dedicated to his name.

In this tanka, the translation notes merely say that the night will seem to be as long as the tail of the copper pheasant if he cannot be with his lover tonight.  However, the fourth line can be interpreted as also ‘To drift, like my life’ instead of ‘So long, like this night’.  If you add that interpretation into the poem, then instead of just being just a pining lover in the night, the poet could be instead yearning for a companionship in his life of solitude.

Copper pheasant | Internet Bird Collection

Copper pheasant | Internet Bird Collection

Even though both interpretations are about longing for a lover in a relationship, I personally like the second interpretation about drifting in life.  Because it’s true.  If a person lacks companionship, whether it be a lover, or a partner, or a friend, or family, then regardless of how introverted a person may be, life will seem long and dreary.  Without anyone to share with, or any person to rely on, nights would seem long, and life would drift like and flow just like the tail of a copper pheasant, in solitude as it follows unquestioningly the pheasant, without its own purpose, without its own meaning.