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I wanted to read a Yukio Mishima book today, and I decided to read his ‘Five Modern Nō Plays‘.

In this book, Mishima has taken five classic Nō plays and put them in a contemporary setting, and adapted and reshaped them for a modern audience. ‘Sotoba Komachi‘ is inspired by the legend of Ono no Komachi, a real poet and one of Japan’s foremost women poets, who lived during the Heian era, around a thousand years back. ‘The Damask Drum‘ is about an old janitor who loves a beautiful young woman and sends her a love letter everyday. This woman is quiet for most of the play, but towards the end, she speaks and reveals unsuspected hidden depths which amazes us. As they say, still waters run deep. ‘Kantan‘ is about a young man who meets his governess after many years and the fascinating things that happen after that. The first half of the play was wonderful, then there was a dreamy surreal part which was a commentary on politics and world happenings which was okay but not really my favourite, and then the play ended the way it started in a beautiful way. ‘The Lady Aoi‘ is a beautiful love story filled with some psychological horror and fantasy. It had some of my favourite passages from the book, and it was probably my favourite play from the book. ‘Hanjo‘ is a triangle love story, in which a older woman and a young man love a young woman. It must have been unusual for the times in which Mishima wrote it, and it is beautiful.

This book has a beautiful introduction by Donald Keene, that lover and translator of Japanese literature, who has also translated this collection.

I loved this collection of Nō plays by Mishima. Very entertaining and very fascinating. Mishima seems to have written other plays too and I want to read them now.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘Sotoba Komachi

Poet (teasing her) : “Oh! And tell me, old lady, what is your reason for living?”

Old Woman : “My reason? Don’t be ridiculous! Isn’t the very fact of existing a reason in itself? I’m not a horse that runs because it wants a carrot. Horses, anyway, run because that’s the way they’re made.”

From ‘Kantan

“It’s simple enough to become a hero. Any man can become one, provided he has no desires. You can get more power and profit through indifference than through greed. Just imagine – in times like these a mere stripling can take over the country, just because he acts indifferent and claims – apparently in sincerity – not to need money, women, or fame.”

From ‘The Lady Aoi

“The night is not like the day, it’s free. All things, people and inanimate objects alike, sleep. This wall, the chest of drawers, the window panes, the door – all of them are asleep. And while they sleep they’re full of cracks and crevices – it’s no problem to pass through them. When you pass through a wall not even the wall is aware of it. What do you suppose night is? Night is when all things are in harmony. By day light and shadow war, but with nightfall the night inside the house holds hands with the night outside the house. They are the same thing. The night air is party to the conspiracy. Hate and love, pain and joy : everything and anything join hands in the night air.”

From ‘Hanjo

“I have only known Hanako since she lost her mind. That has made her supremely beautiful. The commonplace dreams she had when she was sane have now been completely purified and have become precious, strange jewels that lie beyond your comprehension.”

From ‘The Lady Aoi

Mrs. Rokujō : “What’s the matter? You’re not saying a word.”

Hikaru (gently) : “There’s no need to say anything.”

Mrs. Rokujō : “It’s medicine to me to hear you talk that way, a medicine that cures all my wounds in an instant, a marvelous medicine. But I know the kind of person you are – you give the medicine first and only afterward inflict the wound. You never do it the other way. First the medicine, after the medicine the wound, and after the wound no more medicine… I understand well enough. I’m already an old woman. Once I get wounded I won’t recover quickly like a girl. I tremble with fright whenever you say anything affectionate. I wonder what horrible wound awaits me after so efficacious a medicine. Of late, the less affectionate you talk the happier it makes me.”

Hikaru : “You seem convinced that you’re going to suffer.”

Mrs. Rokujō : “Pain comes, as night follows the day, sooner or later.”

Hikaru : “I can’t believe I have the strength to cause anybody pain.”

Mrs. Rokujō : “That’s because you’re young. One of these days you will wake up in the morning with nothing on your mind, and while you are out walking with your dog, perhaps, you will suddenly become aware that dozens of women somewhere, unseen by you, are suffering, and you will understand that the very fact you are alive is in itself a cause of suffering to many women. Even though you can’t see them, they can see you, and it is useless for you to turn your eyes away, for you are as plainly visible as a castle that rises on a height over a city.”

Have you read this collection of plays by Mishima? What do you think about it?

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I’ve wanted to read Akira Yoshimura’sShipwrecks‘ for a while. I finally got to read it today.

The story is set in medieval Japan. Isaku lives in a coastal village with his family. The village is mostly cut off from the outside world. So the people in the village are mostly fishermen and get most of the things they want from the sea. For clothes, they get bark from the trees in the forest, and get the fibre from it and use it to make yarn and weave clothes. Life is hard, it involves work throughout the year, and whether life is manageable or filled with suffering, depends on nature, the vagaries of the seasons and the bounties from the sea. When things get too hard, parents sell their kids to a labour contractor in the neighbouring village as indentured labour, for many years. Sometimes, parents sell themselves, if they don’t want to inflict it on their kids. At the beginning of the story Isaku’s father sells himself and goes away for three years. What happens during this period, when nine year old Isaku has to learn the skills required to survive and take care of his family with his mother’s help, and how he has to bypass childhood and quickly become an adult at this young age, is depicted in the rest of the book.

One of the things which the book describes is the gifts bestowed by the sea. One of the gifts bestowed is a ship which is wrecked when it dashes against the reefs. This happens once in many years. When this happens, the people in the village are happy, because the supplies and provisions in the ship and the parts of the ship itself will alleviate their poverty for a few years and they don’t need to send anyone on indentured labour for a while. So the inhabitants of the village pray for a shipwreck. This, of course, leads to a moral conundrum – not for the villagers, but for us readers. A shipwreck helps the villagers, but it definitely doesn’t help the ship’s crew. So are we going to rejoice because the villagers have a windfall because of a shipwreck, or are we going to be critical of them for praying for a disaster which will afflict sailors and for doing questionable things when it happens? Or are we going to contemplate on what David Mitchell says in his introduction to the book – “That we are here at all in the twenty-first century, reading about Isaku’s life, is due to our own forefathers – and foremothers – taking whatever measures they had to take to survive”? It is a fascinating moral dilemma to ponder on.

The story is mostly about how life is a struggle, but it is not all doom and gloom though. There are some beautiful scenes, for example when Isaku’s mother takes the bark he brings and weaves fabric out of it, and when Isaku himself after multiple failed attempts, finally catches a saury fish, and we cheer for him. These and other small beautiful victories in everyday life, bring a ray of sunlight to the story.

I loved ‘Shipwrecks‘. Most of it is stark and bleak, of course, but it is realistic, it takes us across time to medieval Japan, where a small people in a tiny village, fight everyday against the odds to survive, and inspite of all the disasters that the world and nature throws at them, they are still standing at the end. It is stirring stuff.

Have you read ‘Shipwrecks‘? What do you think about it?

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I’ve wanted to read Yuko Tsushima’s slim gem ‘Territory of Light‘, for a while now. I finally got around to reading it today.

The narrator of the story is a single mom who has recently separated from her husband. She moves into a new apartment. The rest of the story depicts her life during the course of a year, during which she struggles with the challenges of being a single mom, tries to love her young daughter and care for her in the best way she can, while handling social pressure and her own need for companionship and friendship.

I loved ‘Territory of Light‘. It is beautiful, realistic, sometimes filled with travails for our narrator, sometimes filled with joy. The relationship between the narrator and the people in her life is very beautifully depicted. I loved the way her relationship with her daughter evolves over time, culminating in a beautiful scene at the end of the book. There is also a beautiful friendship between the narrator and a college student, a friendship which is hard to classify or describe but which is beautiful nevertheless, that is depicted so beautifully in the book. It was one of my favourite parts of the book.

The blurb says this about the book – “In this short, powerful novel lurk the joy and guilt of single parents everywhere.” It is a perfect description of the book. I couldn’t have put it any better.

I loved ‘Territory of Light‘. I’m glad I read it. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“To my daughter, flowers were a beautiful and strange life-form that, with each plucking, sprang up in greater abundance. She ran about like mad inside this life-form, and on walks with her I too found their profusion overwhelming. The cherries were blossoming, as were the azaleas; the spiraeas were snowy with flowers. My daughter would gather the cherry blossom petals that lay at her feet, and more would flutter down as she did so, alighting in her hair and on her body.”

Have you read ‘Territory of Light‘? What do you think about it?

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I read Hiromi Kawakami’sThe Nakano Thrift Shop‘ last year and I loved it so much that since then I have wanted to read another book by her. I got Kawakami’s ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo‘ recently and finished reading it today.

Tsukiko is a woman in her thirties. She is single, she works hard, she doesn’t have many friends and she enjoys lots of me-time. One day when she goes to Satoru’s bar for a drink, she bumps into her old high school teacher. It is a bar that she visits often and Tsukiko and her teacher bump into each other frequently and before long a beautiful friendship develops between them. This friendship becomes something more as time passes. What happens after that is told in the rest of the story.

Strange Weather in Tokyo‘ is vintage Kawakami. Kawakami doesn’t spend time on long descriptions and internal monologues but gets into the story in the first page, in the first sentence. There is no superfluous sentence, no wasted word. All the things that Kawakami fans expect and look forward to, are there in this book – showcasing of Japanese culture in the everyday world (I learnt about furoshiki and kotatsu through my previous book of hers) and gorgeous descriptions of Japanese food. I always look forward to Kawakami’s food descriptions – I learnt about edamame, grilled aubergine (probably Nasu Dengaku), yudofu, salted yakitori, Soka Senbei (rice crackers), Asakusa Nori (seaweed), konnyaku, different kinds of mushrooms, the difference between Sawanoi saké and Tochigi saké and other things through this book. There are also literary nods to Sei Shonagon, Basho, Seihaku Irako and The Tale of the Heike, which I loved. Towards the end of the book, there is an extra chapter called ‘Parade’ which was probably added later on to the original book, which describes a day in the life of the two main characters. They just sit and have a long conversation and it is very beautiful. There is a beautiful afterword by Hiromi Kawakami after that, in which she says that “the world that exists behind a story is never fully known, not even to the author.”

The only thing I found strange in ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’. was the title. I find it disappointing that British publishers frequently change the title of a translated book and put a city’s name in the title. For example, they took Hans Fallada’s  ‘Every Man Dies Alone‘, which is a beautiful, poignant title, and changed it to ‘Alone in Berlin‘, which doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes they go crazy and do that even to American books in English which are published in British editions. For example, they took the beautiful title of Matthew Crawford’s book ‘Shop Class as Soulcraft : An Inquiry into the Value of Work‘ and changed it to the unwieldy ‘The Case for Working with Your Hands : Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good‘. It is one of the worst changes of title I have ever seen. In Kawakami’s book, the story happens in Tokyo, but there is no strange weather there, just typical Tokyo weather. There is a passage in the middle of the book, which goes like this – “Thunder rumbled in the distance. After a little while, there was a flash among the clouds. It must have been lightning. A few seconds later, thunder could be heard again. “This strange weather must be a result of the strange thing you said…”” I don’t know whether this is an accurate translation or whether it was inserted here by the translator to justify the title of the book.

I loved ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo‘. The story is beautiful and charming – it is one of the most beautiful younger woman–older man love stories I have read. I can’t wait to read my next Hiromi Kawakami book.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Being with Kojima always brought to mind the word ‘grown-up’. What I mean is, when Kojima was in primary school, he was a child, of course. A suntanned kid with thin little shins. In secondary school, Kojima had seemed like a sprouting boy, on the verge of casting off his boyhood skin and becoming a young man. By the time he got to college, he must have been a fully-fledged young man, the epitome of youth. I can just imagine. Now, having reached his thirties, Kojima was a grown-up. No doubt about it.
      His behaviour was commensurate with his age. The passage of time has been evenly distributed for Kojima, and both his body and mind had developed proportionately.
      I, on the other hand, still might not be considered a proper adult. I had been very grown-up when I was in primary school. But as I continued through secondary school, I in fact became less grown-up. And then as the years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person. I suppose I just wasn’t able to ally myself with time.”

“The calligraphy was utter gibberish to me, but I found myself enjoying the time as I listened to Sensei’s murmured bursts of ‘Such a nice hand’ or ‘A bit prosaic’ ‘Now that’s what’s called a vigorous style.’ The same way as when you’re sitting at a pavement café, furtively passing judgement on people as you watch them go by, it was amusing to attach my own impressions to these calligraphed works from the Heian or Kamakura eras : ‘That’s nice’ or ‘This one’s not bad’ or ‘It reminds me of a guy I used to go out with’.”

“With Sensei, his benevolent nature seemed to originate from his sense of fair-mindedness. It wasn’t about being kind to me; rather, it was born from a teacherly attitude of being willing to listen to my opinion without prejudice. I found this considerably more wonderful than him just being nice to me. That was quite a discovery for me, the fact that arbitrary kindness makes me uncomfortable, but that being treated fairly feels good.”

Have you read ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo‘? What do you think about it?

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Ten Nights Dreaming (and The Cat’s Grave‘ is my first Natsume Sōseki book and I was so excited to read it. This book has ten stories, each of which is around three to four pages long. Each of the stories is a dream recounted by the narrator, and so there are ten dreams. Most of these dreams have a fantasy element to them. There is also a eleventh story ‘The Cat’s Grave‘ which is a standalone story and different from the other ten. It is about a cat and it is sad and heartbreaking.

I liked all the dream stories. But my favourites were the first, third and the sixth. The first is a beautiful, poignant love story with a beautiful ending. The third one is about a father and his blind child whom he is carrying on his back and walking into a forest. That blind child – he is extraordinary, he is cool. You will know why when you read the story. The sixth story is about a famous sculptor. It has this legendary conversation :

Narrator : “Amazing that he can just throw the chisel around like that and still get the eyebrows and noses to come out the way he wants.”

Young man : “Oh, it isn’t the chisel that makes those eyebrows and noses. Those exact eyebrows and noses are buried in the wood, and he just uses the hammer and chisel to dig them out. It is just like digging a rock out of the ground – there’s no way to get it wrong.”

I have read this thought in so many places. It was so nice to read the original version in Natsume Sōseki’s story.

I loved ‘Ten Nights Dreaming‘. It is beautiful, dreamy, fascinating. And look at that cover? Isn’t that exquisitely beautiful? Like a classic Japanese painting? I can’t stop looking at it! The book has a beautiful foreword by Michael Emmerich, which is such a pleasure to read.

I can’t wait to read more Natsume Sōseki stories. I should do a Natsume Sōseki month later this year and read all his works together.

Have you read ‘Ten Nights Dreaming‘? What do you think about it?

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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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I discovered ‘Showa : A History of Japan‘ by Shigeru Mizuki last year. I have coveted it since then 😊 Finally last week I took the plunge and ordered it and got the final volume a few days back.

Mizuki’s book is a 4-volume nonfiction manga comic. It describes the history of the Showa era in Japan starting from 1926 when Emperor Hirohito was crowned and it continues till 1989 which was the end of the Showa era. So it gives a significant account of 20th century history through a Japanese point of view. Each volume has an introduction, a different one, and the artwork is exquisite.

In the best manga tradition, I have put the volumes in the picture in the classic manga order. You have to start with the book on the top right and then proceed to the top left and go counterclockwise to the bottom left and then bottom right, to view the covers in sequence 😊

I started reading the first part ‘Showa 1926 – 1939 : A History of Japan‘ as soon as I got it a few days back. This first part of the 4-part book covers the history of Japan from the beginning of the Showa era in 1926 till the beginning of the Second World War.

The book has two strands of stories which are woven together. The first is the history of Japan as the title indicates. The second is the author’s own memoir. So we get to see the Japan of that era through both the big and the everyday – the major political and social happenings and things which are considered news, and the everyday happenings of the author’s own life. Shigeru Mizuki does an interesting thing to differentiate between these two story strands – the artwork is very different. For the historical events and happenings he uses a realistic style of art, while for the memoir part he uses a comic style of art. It is fascinating. We hear the story through the author’s voice, but sometimes (or many times) a new narrator comes on the scene and takes the story forward or handles the transition between history and memoir. This new narrator is a yokai character (a supernatural being from Japanese folklore) called Nezumi Otoko (translated in English as Rat-man). Nezumi is a fascinating narrator and I loved this aspect of the book – a supernatural being narrating history.

I know only the broad outlines of Japanese history in the 20th century and I learnt a lot from this book. One of the interesting things that I learnt was how hard it was for democracy to put down roots in Japan. The book describes how the military felt that the civilian government wasn’t decisive enough and how military officers repeatedly tried orchestrating coups to overthrow the civilian government (once even assassinating the Prime Minister).

I loved Shigeru Mizuki’s style of storytelling – dispassionate, sometimes critical but always sticking to the facts, and following the golden rule ‘Show, don’t tell’.

I loved the first part of ‘Showa‘. I can’t wait to start the second part.

I’m sharing the pictures of some of the pages to give you a feel of the artwork. The first picture is the comic style artwork for the memoir. The second and third pictures are the realistic style artwork for historical events. The fourth picture has Nezumi Otoko narrating the story.

Have you read ‘Showa‘? What do you think about it?

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