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. 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


DP141071

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