Basho tells the feeling of life in Kyoto, the ancient Capital of Japan, and home of many unconventional people.
Kyoto is one of the best preserved cities in Japan – yet everyday more of old Kyoto is torn down to modernize the city. The “Kyoto” in the first line is city now; that in the second line is the city of long ago. The characters for the name of the little cuckoo, which represents its call, mean “time bird.”
Basho describes summer night parties at the Kamo River at Shijo
Basho, as a skillful journalist, uses human sensation – food and drink, visual, auditory -- to bring us into the scene, so we feel the coolness too. Humanity and diversity are everywhere in this passage. The blacksmith and bucket maker keep their apprentices busy every minute, so here the youths make the most of their night of freedom. Their counterparts today do the same. The prose flows into the haiku.
Someone at a party on a platform over the Kamo river wears a robe dyed with persimmon juice; that color expresses the rejuvenation we feel from coolness after a long hot day. “The color orange radiates warmth and happiness…orange is optimistic and uplifting, rejuvenating our spirit… orange also stimulates the appetite… and promotes conversation and social interaction.” Good for parties.
The haiku is a superb example of Basho’s poetic ideal of Lightness: ordinary people enjoying themselves, without tragedy, loneliness or desolation (i.e. no wabi-sabi). Basho provides only satisfying tactile sensation, invigorating color, and an appreciation for human life.
This pair is undated, but written before 1676, and probably before 1672 while Basho still lived in his hometown of Iga (now Mie Prefecture) about 50 km. southeast of Kyoto and traveled to Kyoto to study. Walking from Kyoto to Iga, apparently he spent the night in Mika no Hara, a place in Kizugawa south of Kyoto, alongside the Kizu River which leads east to Iga. “Hara” is both “plain” in the place name, and also “belly.” Already in his twenties he suffered from the bowel disorder that ended his life more than two decades later in 1694.
Maruyama was a famous sumo wrestler in Basho’s time. A victory in sumo is recorded with a white circle, a loss with a black circle. Basho jumps from sumo to the board game of go, from Maruyama the wrestler to Maruyama a section of eastern Kyoto famous for cherry blossoms. The objective in go is to surround the opponent’s stones and remove them from the board. Here the one playing black is totally overwhelmed: white stones are everywhere on one side of the board, as if all the blossoms in the eastern half of Kyoto have fallen. Those of you who watch sumo, or play go, or hang out in Maruyama: this verse is for your especial enjoyment.
The juvenile cicada sheds its skin – or “exoskelton” or “shell” -- to emerge as an adult; the utsusemi, or abandoned skin, remains, on the bark of the tree. Utsusemi, in the Tale of Genji, is a woman who resisted Genji’s romantic advances; one night he tried to force himself on her, but she escaped, leaving her outer robe behind and giving her the name she is known by.
The Yoshino Mountains, are far enough from Kyoto that she can play her koto in peace without Genji bothering her. The mountain trees are full of countless adult male cicadas making their “cries” by rapidly vibrating abdominal membranes; the sound goes on and on all day long in the heat of summer, driving some people crazy, while some, such as Basho, compare the notes of a koto, or Japanese 13-string harp.
Shinsho maintains the theme of music as an expression of nature sounds, shifting from koto/cicadas to a bamboo flute which sounds like wind through the leaves. Basho then gives this flutist a hermitage among the trees where he can master his instrument by imitating that wind – still with access to the City.
From the villages where life goes on at a natural pace, young folk migrate to the cities where competition and the high cost of living make life difficult -- but more fun than in the village -- so they must “calculate” to survive. The term ukiyo o tateru , “to stand against the floating world,” means to endure the forces of transience which can in one night destroy a lifetime achievement. I translate “the flow.” To stand tall with dignity in that raging flood of ephemerality, to not be knocked over by “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” we must “calculate.” Nowadays Kyoto residents struggle to “stand” against the flood of tourism and modernization for the tourist market.
Many have discussed the peculiar difficulties of Kyoto: Oussouby Sackos says “they try to keep everything a little bit expensive here, to keep the high standard Kyoto image.” Cara Clegg adds that “Due to its location in a basin, the area has bad wind flow, making it especially cold in winter and especially hot in summer” and “Buses often run right past their stops without pausing because they’re already filled up with tourists, enraging people trying to get to work or school.” Kaori Shoji says, “Kyoto has always been a snobbish, expensive and unwelcoming kind of place, with surprisingly little in the way of amenities and facilities for the casual traveler.” Alex Kerr says, “After centuries of political intrigue and relentless scrutiny by tea masters, the people of Kyoto have developed the technique of never saying anything.” So in Kyoto today, Basho is right; you gotta “calculate.”
Yaba takes Basho’s thought into an entirely different realm: city people, in their endless calculations, lack reverence for human life -- they send out birth notices for boys, but girls are not worth mentioning. Boys bring wealth to the family; girls marry out, exporting wealth to another family. In many places in Asia, by longstanding habit only boys are cherished, and girls considered a liability.
One of the ways Japan kept her population constant for 200 years was by strangling unwanted newborns, usually the females. And so “no notice of a girl’s birth” could have a sinister meaning. Yet even if the parents are devoted to her care and the baby girl in fine health and mood, the failure of her parents to send out notice of her birth suggests a subtle marginalization of the female.Basho, however, in his tanka SPRING PASSES BY, blesses the newborn girl, giving full notice to her. In his letters to his oldest friend Ensui about Ensui’s newborn granddaughter, Basho clearly, more clearly than any male writer, says “cherish the newborn female.” Yaba also does something very pro-female here; he gives the character 産 for “birth” (which ordinarily reads as umu or san) the life-affirming reading yorokobu, “to be joyful,” a clear expression of Yaba’s positive feelings for the birth of a musume.
The point, the learning and the fun, of linked verse is to discover how ‘not sending out birth notices for girls’ relates to the ‘difficulty of getting through life in the Capital.” Getting inside the mind of Yaba as he responds to Basho’s lead. Above are the ways I have found to connect these two stanzas. You, dear reader, find your own ways.
In this stanza-pair from 1679 Isshun begins and Basho follows.
A female imperial attendant took the tonsure upon the death of the emperor she served, and has come down from Court to live in the ordinary bustle of Kyoto streets. When another nun, a friend of hers who still lives at Court, comes to visit her, the first nun asks about the cherry blossoms she used to know and love. Butterfly is of course an image of feminine elegance, whereas the obnoxious climbing weed mugura –having no name in English, we call it “wireweed” -- grows wild over anything in its path without the slightest hint of elegance. The second nun exclaims “Imagine you, a person of the Imperial Court, among these lowly gossips” while she chokes up with tears of emotion filling her nasal passages.
Here we have a bit of Anthropology, a tiny conversation between two women in 17th century Japan. The common thread running through the three stanzas is the contrast between elegance and vulgarity – the Imperial Court vs. nose-blowing – in this unique city known for elegance yet with its share of vulgarity
Takigi O-Noh is a traditional Japanese musical drama performed on an open-air stage lit up by a bonfire. The custom originated in the Ninth Century at Kofukuji Temple in Nara where it is still held in May; it is also performed and the Heian Shrine in Kyoto in June.
Noh theater is characterized by mystical beauty – beauty which is felt rather than seen, the profound beauty of the transcendental world, including the mournful beauty of sadness and loss – so altogether boring to children. The music played by drums and flute is harsh and monotonous, like all traditional Japanese music, devoid of chords and lacking the chord progressions which make music “interesting.” The singing is within a limited tonal range, with lengthy repetitive passages in a narrow dynamic range. Noh has none of the light, happy melodies that make Disney movies popular with children. Ordinarily Noh is not the sort of performance that would interest children – but Noh illuminated by a bonfire is such a trip that in the days after the performance, the local children enthusiastically imitate the actors. Again we see Basho’s unique attention to the activities and consciousness of children.
The next poet realizes that what these children are doing – imitation, postural and vocal control, emotional expression -- is more than merely an immature form of an adult Noh performance; rather it is a demonstration of the miracles of human development preparing a child for adulthood..
Basho stayed in Uko’s house in the summer of 1690; that autumn, he wrote a letter to her containing this tanka:
Basho recalls the tea ceremony Uko performed for her guest. Kon elaborates Basho’s meaning in the first two lines: “as I think of the kettle boiling in your tea cottage, I imagine your peaceful, settled lifestyle” -- a lifestyle so serene that each evening she has the time and heart to make tea in the formal meditative Way of Tea.
In a Japanese home of refinement, the houseguest never puts out his or her own futon and pillow; the wife of the house always performs that role while the guest is in the bath. Because Japanese line things up in parallel as an expression of respect, and because Basho was her teacher and a guest in her house, we can assume that Uko diligently lined the futons and pillows up in three even vertical columns -- like the three strokes of the Chinese character for ‘river,’ 川, which suggest a baby nestled between mommy and daddy, receiving warmth and security from both sides. In the tanka the heat of “kettle boiling” flows into the warmth in Basho’s memory of “those three pillows.”
He wrote many haiku praising the splendor of Kyoto’s temples and shrines, as well as yearning for Kyoto long ago, however here Basho praises the living humanity in Kyoto, the graceful serenity of his hostess, the intimacy of their friendship.
Although Basho’s follower Uko became a Buddhist nun in 1691, she continued her ordinary family life, living in Kyoto with her husband Boncho and infant daughter Sai. From reading Basho’s letters to Uko, Shoko and I infer that Uko becoming a nun had little or nothing to do with Buddhism. I believe Uko became a nun because she did not want any more children. Officially sanctioned celibacy was the only way she could keep Boncho off of her. So Uko was not really a nun, it was just a disguise, a tatemae for appearance, a means of contraception. Basho wrote this tanka to the “nun Uko”:
Kyoto, designed as a scaled replica of the then Chinese capital Chang'an, became the seat of Japan's imperial court in 794. Kokonoe, “nine circles” suggests that Kyoto resembles the ancient Chinese Capital laid out in nine concentric rings with the castle at the center – although in reality there are no such circles around the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. The long hanging sleeves of a kimono get wet from tears, thus in experiencing strong emotion, the Japanese (in poetry) ‘wring out their sleeves’ – although this image corresponds to no reality. Kyoto is one of the few major cities in Japan without a sea coast, so poor Uko has no salt water/tears in which to wring out her sleeves. Basho dedicates this nonsense to the “nun Uko”.