Hyakunin Isshu No. 8: My Hermit Hut

By: Monk Kisen (early Heian)                             喜撰

My hermit hut                                                          わが庵は
Above the capital,                                                  都のたつみ
I live with just a deer –                                           しかぞすむ
The world a mountain house                            世をうぢ山と
And the people, abandoned                              人はいふなり

Apart from being a monk, being an accomplished poet, and living near Ujiyama near Kyoto, nothing much is known about Kisen.  He was chosen by Ki no Tsurayuki as one of the six poetic sages, whose work was acknowledged to be superior over other poets.  However, only two known works can be confidently traced back to him, of which this tanka is one.

In the tanka, shika can be read as either deer or ‘but’ or ‘thus’.  And both translations work, given where shika is placed in the tanka.  Because there is no kanji given for it, technically ‘deer’ works too, but really, it makes more legitimate, serious sense if its meaning is ‘but’/’thus’.  Apparently, according to the notes, ‘but’/’thus’ is actually the main reading anyway, but he liked the sound of ‘deer’, and so put ‘deer’ instead.  If that is true, then the tanka now reads:

My hermit hut
Above the capital,
Thus I live –
The world a mountain house
And the people, abandoned

Personally, I like the reading with ‘Thus’ more (choosing ‘thus’ because it sounds more grammatically correct than ‘but’), because it then shows that Monk Kisen is commentating on the simplicity of his life, with only his hut and his own self to replace the world and its people.  And the quiet he captures in those five lines makes me feel peaceful, just by reading it.  It makes my once-serious thought of becoming a hermit sound wonderfully attractive again.



Hyakunin Isshu No. 5: In the Mountain’s Heart

By: Sarumaru no Dayuu (active ~ 708 – 715)   猿丸大夫

In the mountain’s heart                                           奥山に
Through crimson leaves                                          红葉ふみわけ
A trampling deer lets out a cry                             鳴く鹿の
A voice that is heard                                                 声きく時ぞ
In Autumn sadness                                                   秋は悲しき

Compared to the preceding poets in this anthology, Sarumaru is relatively unknown.  The only things really known about him is that he lived no later than 800AD, and that his time active as a Second Assistant Minister was from approximately 708 – 715.  Apparently, he was also a member of the Thirty Six Poetic Sages (according to Wikipedia).  However, there’s so little known about him, that some scholars suggest that this Sarumaru never really existed, and was instead an alias for Prince Yamashiro no Oe (also according to Wikipedia).


Deer in autumnal forest | Pinterest

In any case, this tanka that Sarumaru has created is a classic example of Autumn poem (秋歌).  Although there are, once again, no notes on this tanka, it is clear that both crimson leaves – presumably maple – and deer are symbolically synonymous with Autumn in Japanese culture.  And with the deer’s cry ringing through the sadness and emotion that the poet can feel, you can almost feel the sadness for the passing of Summer and warmer, brighter times and the loneliness that the port anticipates with the onset of harsh Winter.

What’s interesting though, is that the last tanka expressed the awe-inspiring beauty of cold clean Winter, while the beauty of Autumn is described here with a little melancholy. Even though both poets were inspired by different emotions as they absorbed scenic nature surrounding them, already it is clear that nature and scenery and the environment and things are important to Japanese culture.  And now that I’m soon going to be in Japan, it’ll be amazing to see how it translates from these ancient tanka to modern Japan.