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


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

By: Counselor Otomo no Yakamochi (718 – 785)

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

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.

Hyakunin Isshu No. 4: White Cloth on Fuji’s Peak

By: Yamabe no Akahito (700 – 736)       山部赤人

At Tago Bay,                                                  田子の浦に
I’m hit by the sight of                                 うちいでて見れば
White cloth                                                    白妙の
On Fuji’s peak                                              富士の高嶺に
And falling snow                                         雪はふりつつ


東海道江尻田子の浦略図 | 葛飾北斎

Surprisingly, there are no translation notes provided with this tanka.  The only information that I have is that the poet, Yamabe Akahito, was a contemporary for the poet for No. 3, and that he, like Kakinomoto,  was regarded as one of the greatest of the early poets and subsequently deified as a god of Poetry.  Looking up Tago Bay, according to the interwebs, Tago is a seaside town/village/place that is known for its amazing views of Mt. Fuji.  Tago is also one of the locations in the super famous Mt. Fuji/boat/wave art series (No. 36 in a series of 36 paintings), so it is most probably a place that Yamabe would have strolled along before being struck by inspiration to write this tanka.

In a way, it’s kind of refreshing to read a tanka that wasn’t inspired from some sort of intense emotion (I’m only on No. 4; by the time I get to No. 100 I’ll be all drained out of emotions haha).  It really shows how the Japanese people appreciated and enjoyed nature and the environment around them, I think, and how the beauty of the environment could connect so strongly to their spiritual selves or souls.  I know Western poets get inspired by the beauty of the environment too, but I’ve found that they don’t capture the simplistic depths of nature and its reflection on the human spirit quite as well as Eastern poets.  This tanka, in any case, paints such a reverential scene of falling snow, and it could mean something deeper, with the cleanliness of snow and the passage of winter, or it could just be a poet enjoying the scenery as he walks along the shores of Tago Bay.

T. Enami | Flickr

Morning Light on the Shores of Lake Yamanaka | T. Enami

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.

Hyakunin Isshu No. 2: Spring has past

By: Empress Jitou (645 – 702)                                      持統天皇

Spring has past                                                                 春過ぎて
And summer begun;                                                        夏来にけらし
The strange, shining                                                        白妙の
Robes of royals dry –                                                       衣ほすてふ
At Kagu, perfumed mountain of the sky                  天の香具山

In Japanese history, there were only ever eight empresses, and Empress Jitou was the third.  When I say empress though, they were only ever regents, people in power until a suitable emperor was chosen, or grown-up, because Imperial Japan follows male succession.  Following that vein, Kagu Mountain is the mountain of a stone door behind which resides the Sun goddess, whom, in Japanese religion, bore the first Japanese emperor.  Which means that all Japanese royalty are descended from gods, supposedly.

In the poem, my translation notes says that the speaker merely realises that spring has passed before they knew it with the mention of drying summer robes, and Mount Kagu is there to give the poem imperial symbolism, and as a hint that the poem is about succession.

I agree about the succession, and the fact that it is written by one of rare female empresses means, to me at least, that the poem is about what the Empress Jitou feels about passing  on her rule.  The passing of Spring – the promise of new beginnings and refreshing – and the beginning of Summer – strong with the pulse and energy of life – means that she is either realising that she was only there like Spring to pave the way for the ‘true’ emperor, the Summer, or that her reign has already entered its peak and she will soon have to abdicate her rule to the following emperor.

KisaragiChiyo | DeviantArt

KisaragiChiyo | DeviantArt

In any case, I feel that, despite the brightness and vivaciousness of Summer, Empress Jitou is feeling nostalgic for the power that she only temporarily has, and that looking onto the bright summer robes drying in the sun has woken her to the inevitability of the passing of time.  However, it also gives off a sense of purpose and of hope, that she is here to prepare the way, and that her work during her rule will be fundamental in maintaining a strong Japan and will stay as a guide for her successor.

And who hasn’t felt like this before? Feeling the inevitability of moving on… losing the powers of being in the highest grade as you graduate from primary school, losing a sense of innocence and being a child as you graduate from high school, losing a sense of freedom as you graduate from whatever and enter the work force… we may not ever lose the powers to rule a country, but every time we move on from one stage of life into the next, the same sense of helpless nostalgia for lost times and the hope that we have for the future is and will, I believe, remain the same.

Hyakunin Isshu No. 1: Harvest-time in the field

By: Emperor Tenji (626 – 671)             天智天皇

Harvest-time in the field                      秋の田の
A hut that’s coarsely-thatched          かりほの庵の
An autumn refuge –                              苫をあらみ
My sleeves                                                 わが衣では
Are wet with dew                                    露にぬれつつ

Supposedly, the emperor was inspired to write this poem when he was scaring birds away while harvesters were gathering crop in the fields.  However, sudden rain forced to him to take shelter in a thatched hut that offered zero protection from the rain anyway, and so he and his sleeves became wet.

According to my translation, the vignette is of a hard working harvester wiping away his sweat with his sleeves as he takes a rest in a hut.  Or that the speaker is separated away from his love as he sits alone in a hut, wiping away his tears with his sleeves.

Since the Japanese are all for meaning upon meaning, layer upon layer, I personally like the idea of the forlorn lover in a hut.

And since Autumn is a symbol of loneliness, of drifting away from the warm brightness of Summer, and harvesting is usually a solo activity, who knows? The Emperor could have been travelling on the road, passing by fields full of lone harvesters and something unexpected forced him to take shelter in a road side hut, delaying his return to the side of his beloved person.

HoshiKouken | Youtube

HoshiKouken | Youtube