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Archive for the ‘January In Japan’ Category

The Narrow Road to the Deep North‘ is a collection of travel essays by the great Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, who invented the Haiku poetic form. This book has five essays recounting travels that Basho did at different times. All the essays have prose interspersed with poems. Sometimes the poems describe the poet’s impression of a particular scene, sometimes they delve on past events and fascinating personalities, sometimes they take the story forward.

In her introduction to the anthology of classic Japanese travel writing, ‘Travels with a Writing Brush‘, translator Meredith McKinney says this –

“The greatest pleasure a literary traveller could experience was the pleasure of arriving in person at a place hallowed in poetry. The brief scene in the early Ise Tales in which the man (traditionally identified as the poet Ariwara no Narihira) sends a poem to his beloved from distant Mount Utsu echoes down the centuries in the journals of travellers along the Tōkaidō, who continued to search out the place identified with this scene…it was not the characteristics of the place itself so much as the presence of its name in literature (and sometimes in history) that lent it special power. The term for such place names, and by extension for the places that bore those names, was utamakura (poem-pillow), and their central role in travel literature was one of its defining features. Utamakura places were in a sense sites of literary worship in a manner similar to holy places on a pilgrimage route, places where the traveller would pause in awe, perhaps recite the poem or poems associated with the site, and compose a poem in turn, often incorporating some allusive reference to that earlier poetry, almost as a pilgrim will offer up a prayer…A traveller who was moved by an utamakura site, or by seeing far overhead a flight of wild geese in an autumn evening, was moved the more deeply by partaking in an experience shared with so many others, and thereby drawn into the force field of a greater tradition that imbued his or her own insignificant and contingent experience with far richer meaning.”

This passage describes Basho’s travels and his essays in this book perfectly, far better than I ever can.

While we read the essays we can feel Basho’s style evolving across time, till it all comes together perfectly in the title essay which is also the longest essay in the book, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North‘, which is a perfect blend of prose and poetry. It starts with these famous lines – “Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by” – and from there onwards proceeds to reach sublime heights. Basho’s prose is beautiful and poetic, and he delves into deep ideas while also displaying a fine sense of humour, occasionally mocking himself gently, which makes us smile.

The book has an insightful introduction by the translator Nobuyuki Yuasa, in which he gives a short history of the Haiku poetic form and Basho’s contribution to it. At one point, Yuasa quotes Basho’s most famous haiku poem –

“Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water –
A deep resonance.”

And then he proceeds to give a two page commentary on it which is brilliant.

Yuasa also gives a brief introduction to Basho’s life and work, and looks at the essays in this book in detail, on the travel experiences which shaped these essays and how Basho’s prose style evolves across time.

I loved ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’. I can’t wait to read more of the Master’s poetry now.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book. It is from the essay ‘A Visit to Sarashina Village‘.

“Above my head, mountains rose over mountains, and on my left a huge precipice dropped a thousand feet into a boiling river, leaving not a tiny square of flat land in between, so that, perched on the high saddle, I felt stricken with terror every time my horse gave a jerk. We passed through many a dangerous place…the road always winding and climbing, so that we often felt as if we were groping our way in the clouds. I abandoned my horse and staggered on my own legs, for I was dizzy with the height and unable to maintain my mental balance from fear. The servant, on the other hand, mounted the horse, and seemed to give not even the slightest thought to the danger. He often nodded in a doze and seemed about to fall headlong over the precipice. Every time I saw him drop his head, I was terrified out of my wits. Upon second thoughts, however, it occurred to me that every one of us was like this servant, wading through the ever-changing reefs of this world in stormy weather, totally blind to the hidden dangers, and that the Buddha surveying us from on high, would surely feel the same misgivings about our fortune as I did about the servant.”

Have you read ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Sei Shōnagon’sThe Pillow Book‘ ever since I discovered it. I picked it up recently and read it slowly and finished reading it yesterday.

Sei Shōnagon lived around a thousand years back in the Japan of the Heian era. She served the Japanese empress of that time. One day someone got the empress a big bundle of paper as a gift and the empress gave it to Shōnagon, and Shōnagon decided to write on it, recounting anecdotes and sharing experiences and her thoughts on different topics. The book is like a diary and shows a detailed description of court life of those times. In addition to anecdotes and experiences and stories, the book has lists. Lots of lists. There are different kinds of lists in the book. Some are simple, like lists of mountains, rivers, gardens, forests. They are deceptively simple though. Because they all have poetic associations to classical Japanese and Chinese poetry or famous stories. The second kind of list is descriptive. In those lists, Shōnagon shares things that bring joy, that are beautiful, that are annoying. These lists are charming and make us smile and we can relate to them even after a thousand years from the time they were written. Some of the lists describe beautiful experiences and images and scenes. These lists are beautiful, and they bring a lot of joy and delight if we read them slowly and linger on. This third kind of list was my favourite. I will share some excerpts here from this kind of list.

“A beautifully arranged brazier with fire burning, its rim swept clean of ash, the firelight revealing the painting on its inner surface, is a most delightful sight.”

“Delightful too to hear the soft sound of fire tongs being gently pushed into the ash of the brazier, and sense from this the presence of someone who isn’t yet asleep.”

“It’s also very elegant the way, when the gentlewomen are gathered seated here and there in the room talking, you hear the silk rustle of people as they leave or enter and, though it’s only a soft sound, you can guess who each one would be.”

“Late that night, I woke and was deeply moved at the sight of the moonlight shining in through a window and casting its white light over the bedclothes of the sleeping forms around me. This is precisely the sort of moment when people compose poems.”

“The setting sun. Just after it’s set, it’s very moving to see how a reddish light lingers along the rim of the mountains, with pale yellow clouds trailing in the sky above.”

“Endearingly lovely things – A sparrow coming fluttering down to the nest when her babies are cheeping for her.”

There are pages and pages of these beautiful, soft, delicate images and they give us a lot of pleasure. I loved reading them and dreaming about them.

You can find more of these charming images in my previous post here.

Sei Shōnagon lived at around the same time as Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote ‘The Tale of Genji‘. There seems to be some kind of rivalry between the admirers of Shōnagon and Shikibu since the old times. I am not sure why. They served rival empresses and maybe that was one reason. Shikibu appears to have criticized Shōnagon in her own diary – unfairly, in my opinion. Having attempted to read ‘The Tale of Genji‘ earlier, and now having read ‘The Pillow Book‘, I can now say that I am firmly on Team Shōnagon 😊

When I read Sei Shōnagon’s book, I remembered one of my favourite lines by one of my favourite writers Yoshida Kenko – “It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met.” It was wonderful to meet Sei Shōnagon who lived a thousand years back, and hear her voice through this delightful book. When I read the last line – “That seems to have been the moment when this book first became known – or so it is written” – I felt sad that our conversation was over.

Have you read ‘The Pillow Book‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Haiku poems years back and have been reading them off and on. One of the great things about haiku is its short length, its brevity. No long meanderings, it is over before we know it. This feature of the haiku has also made it challenging for readers like me. Because there is so much packed in those short three lines, most of the meaning and beauty is lost if one is not aware of what the poet is referring to, whether it is Japanese culture or history or geography. Also, typically the last line or the last word in the haiku summarizes the whole poem or elevates it to a new plane by adding a whole new dimension to the meaning. If we can’t recognize what that last line or word says, we can’t experience the beauty and the profound insight of the haiku. For something which is so short and looks deceptively simple, the haiku turns out to have a lot of hidden depth. And the reason for all this complexity lies in its short length, its brevity. So in a sense this short length is a double-edged sword. It is like packing too many things in a small suitcase which makes it difficult to close. In the haiku’s case, the suitcase is beautifully and elegantly closed by the poet, but it resists the reader’s attempt to open it and it refuses to reveal its secrets. I have always wondered since whether there were longer forms of Japanese poetry. I love the beauty of Japanese literature and the Japanese style of literary aesthetics and I wanted to experience the beauty and joy of Japanese poetry in a more accessible way. Then I discovered that there was a longer poetic form called Tanka. I hoped to explore Tanka poetry some day and see whether I’ll have better luck here.

Why all this rambling about Japanese poetic forms? I’ll come to it now.

I discovered ‘The Ink Dark Moon : Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu‘ recently. It featured two women poets from the Heian era (around 1000 years back) and I wanted to read it. When I got it yesterday and started reading the introduction, I discovered that the poems featured were written in the tanka style. I was so excited! I was finally going to read some tanka poetry!

The Heian era saw an explosion of literary creativity in Japan. It was the time when many women poets and writers burst out on the literary scene. Some people say that it was the era which saw the greatest concentration of women poets and writers in ancient or medieval times, anywhere in the world. It was the time the world’s first novel ‘The Tale of Genji’ was written by the great Murasaki Shikibu. It was also the time when the two great poets Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu wrote their poems.

This book has around 160 poems. Around one-fourth of them are by Ono no Komachi. The rest are by Izumi Shikibu. Most of the poems are about love, longing, desire, loss. Some of them are about other topics.

The poems in the book are written in tanka style. How does it differ from the haiku? I am sure there are poetic and technical differences between the two forms, like the number of syllables in the poem and the poetic form and meter used. But these don’t really matter to us much. The thing which is easily visible to lay-readers like me is this. While the haiku has three lines, the tanka has five. This isn’t much, as I was expecting a sonnet-style fourteen lines. But those two extra lines, though they don’t seem to be much, change the poem in a fundamental way. They add a lot of breathing space, in which the poem can stretch itself, relax, and reveal its glorious beauty to us. And it happens in page after page, poem after poem. The poems are beautiful, sad, poignant, heartbreaking, insightful, philosophical. The words are soft, the images are delicate. I read them and I laughed and I cried. Mostly cried, because of what the poem said. I think tanka is my Japanese poetic form, my precious. I love it.

I loved the poems of both Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu. At one point, I thought that I could differentiate between their styles, and then I couldn’t. It didn’t matter. They are both wonderful poets. The book has an informative introduction to the life and work of the two poets. It also has an essay at the end, ‘On Japanese Poetry and the Process of Translation‘, by one of the translators, Jane Hirshfield. Hirshfield’s essay reveals a deep scholarship, a passion for Japanese poetry, a delicate poetic sensibility, a lightness of touch. It is one of the most beautiful essays on poetry and translation that I have ever read. I fell in love with Jane Hirshfield after I read that. I discovered that she was a poet herself (who else but a poet can write so beautifully?) and I went and ordered two of her books. I can’t wait to read them. I already know that she is going to become one of my favourite writers and poets.

This is early days yet, but I think I can safely say that this is one of my favourite books of the year and one of my favourite poetry collections ever. It is a beautiful book to read on a winter evening, sitting in front of the fire, with your beloved sitting next to you, with both of you taking turns to read the poems aloud to each other and taking pleasure in listening to each other’s voice, while experiencing the beauty of the poems. And if your beloved is not around and is away, you can read a poem, close your eyes, let the poem wash over you and dream of your beloved.

I’m sharing some of my favourite poems from the book so that you can experience their beauty yourself.

Poems by Ono no Komachi

Poems by Izumi Shikibu

Have you read ‘The Ink Dark Moon‘? What do you think about it? Did you like the poems above? Which of the above poems is your favourite?

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I started reading Sei Shōnagon’s classic ‘The Pillow Book‘. Wanted to share some of my favourite excerpts from the little I read. They are so charming that I couldn’t resist 😊

Sei Shōnagon includes descriptive lists in her book.

Under ‘Infuriating Things’, she includes these –

• A guest who arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages. If it’s someone you don’t have much respect for, you can simply send them away and tell them to come back later, but if it’s a person with whom you feel you must stand on ceremony, it’s an infuriating situation.

• You’ve just settled sleepily into bed when a mosquito announces itself with that thin little wail, and starts flying around your face. It’s horrible how you can feel the soft wind of its tiny wings.

• Someone who butts in when you’re talking and smugly provides the ending herself.

• I hate it when, either at home or at the palace, someone comes calling whom you’d rather not see and you pretend to be asleep, but then a well-meaning member of the household comes along and shakes you awake with a look of disapproval at how you’ve dozed off.

• And I hate people who don’t close a door that they’ve opened to go in or out.

This made me laugh 😁

Under ‘Things that make your heart beat fast’, she includes this –

• To wash your hair, apply your makeup and put on clothes that are well scented with incense. Even if you’re somewhere where no one special will see you, you still feel a heady sense of pleasure inside.

In ‘Things that make me feel nostalgic’, she includes these –

• Coming across a torn scrap of lavender- or grape-coloured fabric crumpled between the pages of a bound book.

• On a rainy day when time hangs heavy, searching out an old letter that touched you deeply at the time you received it.

I found the last one very beautiful.

Loving these lists!

Did you like them?

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