Writers In Kyoto

English-language authors in Japan’s old imperial capital

3rd WiK Competition (March 1 2018)

Writers in focus

Isabella Bird on Kyoto 1878

The remarkable Isabella Bird came to Kyoto on this day nearly 140 years ago…    Her impressions of the city are all the more noteworthy given how few foreigners had ever visited the city. According to research by Eric Johnston in his article for the WiK Anthology 2017, up to 1872 only about a dozen foreigners had ever set foot in the old capital.  Bird recorded her account of the city in the engrossing Unbeaten Tracks (1881). The first edition was in two volumes. Later editions were in one volume, cutting half, including the section on Kyoto. You can find the first edition here, with the account of Kyoto starting from p. 224. https://archive.org/stream/unbeatentracksi00birdgoog#page/n13/mode/2up (with thanks to Joe Cronin).


Nijosan Yashiki, Kyoto, October 30 [1878]

This is truly delightful. As the Hebrew poets loved to sing of mountain-girdled Jerusalem, so Japanese poetry extols Kyoto, which is encompassed, not with forest-smothered ranges like those of Northern Japan, but with hills more or less rugged, wood here, broken into grey peaks there, crimson with maples, or dark with pines, great outbreaks of yellowish rock giving warmth and varied, and the noble summit of Hiyeizan crowing the mountain wall which bounds the city on the north. On fine days, when the sun rises in pink and gold, and set in violet and ruddy orange, these mountains pass through colours which have no names, the higher ranges beyond the Gulf of Osaka look faintly through a veil of delicious blue, and I grudge the radiant hours passing, because rain and mist, persistently return to dim the picture.  There is a pleasure in being able to agree cordially with everyone, and every one loves Kiyoto.


I realised in half an hour that Kiyoto is unlike the other cities of Japan. It is the home of art, given up to beauty, dress, and amusement; its women are pretty, their coiffures and girlies are bewitching, surprises of bright colour lurk about their attire; the children are pictures, there is music everywhere; beautiful tea-houses and pleasure-grounds abound, and besides all this, the city is completely girdled by a number of the greatest temples in Japan, with palaces and palace gardens of singular loveliness on the slopes of its purple hills.

[There follows descriptions of the Christian mission schools in the city, as well as a visit to the house of Mr and Mrs Neesima, the former of whom was to become founder of Doshisha.]


Writers in focus

Hyogo vignette (Simon Rowe)

Notes from Himeji, Hyogo: I am a Passenger
by Simon Rowe

What do commuters think about on their long rides to and from the mills each day? I bet they don’t think about how lucky they are that the wheel was invented.

I was a commuter once—a nameless man in a salt-stained suit and headphones. A Business English instructor, a corporate gun-for-hire with a bandolier of ballpoints, a ronin who could commit hara-kiri with the edge of a Let’s Talk2 cd. But didn’t. Because it was never about the destination—the depressing chemical plants, semiconductor factories and sinister steel mills waiting for me at the end of the line—it was about the journey.

The Kakogawa line train is the quintessential ‘paddy lands express.’ Four years of rattle and roll through the greenest rice fields this side of the Japan Alps, from the Seto seaboard to the lush hinterlands of Hyogo, a place where frog eats fly and snake eats frog and snake gets beaten to a pulp by village boy. The journey (like the boy) neutralised the destination.

The Kakogawa-sen follows a great, slow-moving torrent called the Kako River. If you’ve ever seen Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” or read Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, for four years that guy in the story (Willard in the movie, Marlow in the book), that was me. I wish I could say I found someone as interesting as Kurtz, but alas, there was no badass at the end of the line.

The two-car conductorless train still departs Kakogawa station at 20-minute intervals, bound for upcountry with students, workers, Guinness Book grandmas and sometimes a foreigner or two. Young women still sleep on the shoulders of strangers and college girls still doze and nod their heads like glam-rock groupies as the train bounces down the rails. Some days the entire car looks like it has been gassed; passengers everywhere, draped on each other, slouching, snoring. I stepped over a fat boy asleep on his back on the aisle floor once.

My destination was Yashiro-cho, a place where trains pass hourly and the station attendant is a large, fat ginger cat which eyes passengers suspiciously as they pass through the turnstile.

In summer, midge flies, moths and nymphs cloud the platform. Fuzzy caterpillars crawl over the bench seats and spiders abseil from the rafters. In winter they disappear and the soft, silent misery of falling snowflakes fills the hour-long wait for the night train back to modern-day Japan.

I don’t miss the long commutes. But I do miss the man who was always waiting for me at the end of the line. A taxi driver named Yamamoto. His shiny black Nissan Cedric always got me to the mill on time. Love him or loathe him, I still can’t decide; he was both the endearing face of small town Japan and the Mister McGoo of privatised transportation.

He drove at a speed I could have bettered running on my knees. He clocked 39 km/hr once on a paddy by-pass. He would veer and drift all over the road, squinting over the wheel as he squeezed out his best radio-learned English. He once answered the dispatcher in English: “Oooh yes? How are you today? I am very fine, veeeeeery fine thank, and you? Hahaha-ha!” Every conversation with him ended the same way: “Many thankyous Mister Simon, for the free English lesson.”

Simon Rowe writes short fiction and screenplays from a small room in an old house behind Himeji Castle. This vignette is one of 45 linked ‘letters home to Grandma’ – a project he is working on called Seaweed Salad Days.

Writers in focus

The Hamlet Paradigm (Kimura)

Marianne Kimura is a Shakespearean scholar teaching at a university in Kyoto, and her papers on Shakespeare have proved popular on the website academic.com. She also writes imaginative fiction based on Shakespearean themes, integrating ghostly or SF elements as can be seen in the excerpt below from her second novel, The Hamlet Paradigm, published under the pseudonym of Gemma Nishiyama. (For more about Marianne, click here, and for more about her book see here.)

Chapter 11

“First of all”, said Haruki, “I have to explain what happened next in Dr. Fukuzawa’a apartment. He explained what he had found out, and then he gave me a flash memory stick with all the incriminating files he had and asked me to keep it safe. He wanted to have another person involved, to back him up, in case anything happened to him. He also wanted to ask me what I thought we should do.”

“What was your advice?”

“I said—-and he agreed—–that we should just keep working as if nothing had happened and then wait for a chance to bring the information to light and get the project stopped somehow.”

What project?” I asked, hearing my voice getting loud, “I can’t seem to get you to tell me! It’s very frustrating! What project?!”

Yuuki rolled over and mumbled something in his sleep.

“You’re waking him up!” said Haruki. “I’ll tell you, but try to control yourself a little. How can I rely on someone as emotional as you?”

I was about to get annoyed and defend myself, but he smiled mischievously at me in the flickering light. I could never quite keep up with him. I had to laugh.

Haruki waited until Yuuki was sleeping soundly again and then began to tell me, in a serious tone, everything.

“The project is code named Project Elsinore”, he said.

“Project Elsinore?” I asked, “what a funny name. Why? “

“Briefly, the night sky, crowded with bright stars, above the castle of Elsinore, in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet was the inspiration for the name. There’s a lot more I need to tell you about the Shakespeare reference later, but for now, just remember that—as far as our research was concerned—-it’s basically a weird story based on the phrase ‘two stars that have left their spheres’, like Hamlet’s eyes and Juliet’s eyes.

“Hamlet’s and Juliet’s eyes? Why?”

“Well, you see, we were told that the goal of Project Elsinore was to find the sun’s binary companion star. That’s what the “two stars” refers to. That is, the star that the sun—our sun—-may be going around.”

“You mean, orbiting? Our sun is orbiting another star? Really? Can this be true?”

“Yes, there’s a theory, still only a theory that, in fact, our sun, which is, after all a star, goes around another star. It may be Polaris, Sirius, or it may be a dark companion star or a black hole. No one is sure, and we were extremely excited to be given such a lot of funding and a great deal of freedom to find out whether or not our sun, together with our whole solar system, is in fact orbiting another larger star. The second goal of our research was, of course, to identify this other star, our sun’s own sun, as it were. It would be a major finding if it could be proven.”

“But Dr. Fukuzawa learned something he shouldn’t have about it? So what is ‘it’, this secret?”

Haruki sat up. He seemed focused and taut again, though he also looked drawn and sad now.

“It was quite a shock when he showed me the documents in the files. It seems that Vector has a secret plan to launch hundreds of huge solar-energy-gathering satellites to orbit just beyond the earth’s atmosphere. They will block the sun’s light over a large portion of the Pacific Ocean, since, of course, this light will be used to generate electricity. Vector plans to enter the market for electricity and sell the electricity to the highest bidder, large corporations like themselves, their clients and suppliers.”

“But satellites have to keep orbiting, right? Didn’t you say so once?”

“Yes, but with new technology, the satellite remains almost stationary, moving very slowly in tight circles only over the Pacific Ocean. It’s obvious that no government of any country would tolerate Vector blocking the sun on the territory of the land that makes up their country, but the Pacific Ocean is commonly held, so Vector would use that fact as a wedge to act and in a sense, take over the Pacific Ocean, or at least steal almost all of its solar energy.”

“But how does this horrid plan of theirs relate to the two stars idea?”

“We were told that we were making instruments, like gyroscopes and other items, to measure the earth’s speed relative to the sidereal background—-the stars you can see in the night sky—-but Dr. Fukuzawa explained to me what he had discovered. The ‘two stars’ idea, or identifying the star that our sun is revolving around wasn’t the real goal of Project Elsinore at all. That was just a lie we were told so that we wouldn’t quit or go public with the truth. What we were actually doing was figuring out navigation data that would be programmed into the satellites and then also used to guide them from earth. I was shocked when he told me how we had been tricked into helping Vector with their evil plans. The Pacific Ocean will basically die once a large portion of it is starved of sunlight.”

“My God!” I said, thinking of fish, whales, seaweed, plankton, starfish. Yamaguchi, the western prefecture where Kiyama is located is surrounded by the sea and every town along the coast has a small fishing port. Everything alive in the sea would die once the energy from the sun could no longer reach the plankton and carry out photosynthesis.

It would devastate the food chain!

“The whole Pacific ecosystem would be disrupted and subsistence fishermen all along the coasts of the whole ocean, of course, not only in Japan, would go out of business and millions would starve. The poor would bear the brunt of it.”

“Can’t the government stop Vector?” I simply couldn’t believe that Vector was going to be allowed to go through with this devious scheme!

“I asked Dr. Fukuzawa the same thing, but he explained that unfortunately, Vector is so immense that it secretly pays off many politicians and political parties, not just here in Japan, but in many other countries too. I had always had a kind of bad feeling about working for Vector. It’s an enormous corporation with large offices and facilities and factories in almost every country you can think of. Although they were once only an American company, now they are all over the world and elected representatives in practically every country are in their pockets. Vector has kept the plan a secret, but their idea seems to be that if it becomes known, they will use their funds to pay off any powerful political entities that try to stand in their way before the satellites are launched.”

“Good heavens!”

This was ghastly news indeed!

“So my plan is to bring this out into the open before the huge satellites go up. Once the satellites are established up in the sky, it’s too late.”

“What do you mean by ‘too late’?” I asked.

“No matter how many international protests are registered, it won’t matter. There’s no way to bring the satellites down unless they malfunction on their own and drop or get shot down by missiles, which is risky and dangerous, so Vector is calculating that people will accept its effective takeover of the Pacific Ocean once the satellites go up, kind of a fait accompli. Then Vector will mount an expensive PR campaign to drown out any remaining opposition.”

“The beautiful Pacific Ocean! Nami’s favorite ocean!”

Everyone’s ocean.

Not Vector’s to steal!

I felt my body go weak and limp; just hearing this bad news was making me depressed. How could people like those who ran Vector be allowed to have so much destructive power?

“You have to understand something fundamental about all of this”, said Haruki, sounding more calm and scholarly, but looking haggard and weary in the shadows of the lantern light, “Mari, you see, the basic and underlying problem is that oil is getting more and more expensive. It isn’t just the price in money or currency, which is influenced by many things, but the physical effort, the expense and energy that companies have to put in to get it out. To extract the oil, the oil companies have to dig deep through the ocean floor, or mine oil sands, or else they have to blow up oil-soaked rock. The same is true for uranium, for nuclear power and it can be said for coal too—with all of them the easier deposits are drained first. It’s sayaku. Things become harder and harder.”

Sayaku. Terrible.

“I think I understand the basic concept.”

“All of the work involved in oil drilling is tough, expensive, and time-consuming and getting more so, of course, every day, so Vector wants to corner the energy markets with its massive Pacific Ocean satellites before the oil gets even more expensive and remote and difficult to obtain. When the global petroleum energy situation starts to really bite, Vector’s factories that make everything from aerospace technology to pharmaceuticals to weapons to communications, their large investment bank, and their other divisions might not be profitable anymore, and they’ll face an end to their power and influence. Frankly speaking, they must be worried, or they wouldn’t be trying this rather extreme, risky and rather devilish idea. Developing these truly revolutionary and remarkable satellites has cost them billions of dollars.”

In the darkness, Haruki poured out more wine for us. I drank mine nervously in one gulp. This was too fast, and some rose up uncontrollably into my nose and my eyes started watering.

“I see” I coughed, “Their satellites will also keep them going, in other words”, I said, wiping my eyes. What we were up against was becoming clearer to me now.

“Of course. And all the TV stations, the big advertisers, the huge corporations, the plastics makers. The electric cars, for those who will be able to afford them.“

“And Dr. Fukuzawa found out about all this?”

“He hated to think about a large dead Pacific Ocean. He told me that he was sent the files detailing the satellite plan anonymously, so there must be at least one other person in Vector who also hates this plan and wants it to come to light. But perhaps he or she is also being watched by now, or maybe even dead, too. I don’t know. Anyway, somehow, someone at Vector must have found out about the fact that Dr. Fukuzawa knew too much.”

“What exactly happened that night, then?”

“As I was leaving Dr. Fukuzawa’s shukusha, I saw a man in a car pulling into the parking lot. It was dark, but I saw his face clearly under the light in the parking lot. I couldn’t remember where I had seen him, but he looked vaguely familiar.”

“When you got home, what did you do?”

“I heated up a frozen pizza for dinner that night, then took a look at the files showing the designs for the satellites, their proposed launch locations, all the specifications. I was eating my pizza while studying the files, and the details of the plan just amazed me, but all the while, somehow, in the back of my mind, I was still wondering who the man was in the car. It was bothering me that I couldn’t remember. Later, as I was about to take a shower, I got a call from Dr. Aoyama, the Department Chair. He told me, in a shocked voice, that Dr. Fukuzawa had been found dead on the ground outside his shukusha. It seemed he had fallen or jumped from the balcony. I was shocked. Dr. Fukuzawa hadn’t been depressed or sad. I just knew it couldn’t be suicide. I hung up. I didn’t know what to do. I took a shower after all, unable to think about anything except Professor Fukuzawa. I went to bed, but I was too worried to sleep.”

“You should have called me!”

“I was already worrying about what was going to happen. Probably, I didn’t want you and Yuuki to become involved. I couldn’t sleep, of course. And it was then, anyway, while I was lying tossing and turning in my bed, that I remembered who the man in the car was!”

“Who was he?”

“It was someone who had visited our research center. He could have been someone from Vector. I don’t know his name. I had only seen him in the hallway once or twice very briefly. He had never introduced himself or spoken to any of us, it seemed. In fact, when I recalled him, it was as someone turning his head away and seeming to blend in with the scenery, almost as if he had wanted not to be noticed.”

“My god! How sinister!”

All of my exhaustion was gone, and I could feel my heart pounding with fear.

“I finally fell sleep, although I was worrying about the next day. What would we hear about Dr. Fukuzawa? I was also wondering if the story would break and everything would become public. But at 6 am, someone called me on my cell phone. I woke up right away, I was sleeping very fitfully, as you can imagine. On the other end of the line, there was a woman, but I had never heard her voice before. She said ‘Professor Muramatsu, Don’t go to work today, and don’t stay in Kubatsu either. Get out as fast as you can. Someone knows you were visiting Dr. Fukuzawa last night. They know you have the files, and you are in danger. ‘ I said ‘who is this?’ and there was a pause before she said, ‘My name is Sumiré’ . Then she hung up. I didn’t even have time to say a word.”

“I don’t suppose you know anyone actually named Sumiré, right?”

“No, of course not.”

“Was her voice familiar? Had you heard it before?”

“No, never.”

“Is Sumiré her real name or a code name then? All of these bizarre events are like something out of a spy novel, not real life. I can’t even believe it myself. Sumiré must be her code name. But why would she choose ‘violets’ for a code name?”

“It could be her real name, obviously; I mean, it is a name, a woman’s name.”

“Of course, and we just have no way of knowing either way. But anyway, what did you do next?”

“Since I realized now that Dr. Fukuzawa had probably been murdered, and I had seen the man in the car, I recognized that Vector would be worried about what I knew too. Sumiré’s warning haunted me. I had to assume that the man in the car had seen me on my bicycle.”

“So what did you do? They could have been outside your apartment too! Those dangerous thugs! How did you get away?”

“Well, don’t laugh, but remember how you brought up a bag with one or two of your old cotton summer dresses for me to rip up and use as cleaning rags? I can now safely admit to you that I actually had never gotten around to cleaning anything with them, or even to ripping them up. It was lucky as it turned out. You and I are not so different in size, I realized. I put one on, and cut the other one up to make a large flowered scarf that I put on my head. I packed a small nylon bag with some of my own clothes and put on a pair of loafers and a sweater and walked out casually. There may have been someone watching in the parking lot or not, I still don’t know. Maybe people just thought I looked crazy, someone dressing for a cosplay. Maybe people thought I was really a woman, even with my razor stubble. I don’t know, but somehow, it worked. Probably, it was just weird enough to work.”

I had to laugh. Haruki could be very practical when he had to be.

Haruki smiled and continued, “I just kept my head down so no one could see my face and I went to the nearest bus stop and the next bus took me to a train station on the Joban Line. That’s where I changed back into my real clothes in the men’s bathroom and melted into the crowds. I spent the morning riding different trains, changing lines, going first west towards Takasaki, then south down to Kanagawa, then over west towards Nagano. I got as far away as I could. I kept my cell phone off the whole time, since, actually, you can be tracked with your cell phone, though they need sophisticated equipment. But Dr. Fukuzawa told me that Vector has good friends in the NSA, one of the major spying organizations in the world, so the technology wouldn’t be a problem for them, I guess. By the time I got to Hakone, I was fairly sure that I had evaded them. I called you later that afternoon, when I was sure your classes would be finished for the day. I was near Shizuoka but I thought it wouldn’t matter if they picked up my location since I was just passing through.”

“Thank you. That was considerate of you. It would have been awkward to leave in the middle of class.”

“Yes, I was fairly sure that it would take them time to think of accessing your address and name on the university computer, and since you weren’t at home anyway, I decided rather than have you panic and rush out of the classroom, it would be better to wait.”

“Well, they did show up, as I told you.”

“Yes, they were quicker than I had expected. As I told you, there are some powerful people on their side. They can probably deploy an army to seek us out. Certainly they can use the police force as they wish. We are totally outnumbered, of course. To tell you the truth, our situation looks so hopeless that I’m thinking, a little, of just giving up. It might be safer. They’ll let you and Yuuji go, I’m sure, even if they keep me locked away somewhere until after the satellites go up.”

“But what a world it will be if they succeed with their plan!”

“Exactly. So my thinking is that if I can contact some journalists at some reputable newspapers to bring this out in the open, then there will be enough opposition, probably, to force them to abandon their heinous and cruel scheme. Decimating the largest ocean on the planet for money or for any reason must be where human beings draw the line.”

Haruki lay back down and stretched and I checked the time. It seemed like we had been talking for a long time, but it was only eleven o’clock. All the emotions and fears associated with his story had utterly sapped me. I managed to crawl into my sleeping bag, and I was tired enough not to care about the fact that we didn’t have soft futons to sleep on. Haruki had done his best to keep us warm and safe. I closed my eyes and felt my body becoming more relaxed. I was almost asleep, but, then unexpectedly, suddenly two bright, glowing and beautiful stars came into my mind and I opened my eyes wide in the dark, half expecting the stars to be before me in the little room.

The two stars were still a mystery!

Hamlet’s eyes!

Juliet’s eyes!

The stars that had left their spheres!

And now I was desperate to know more about these stars!

In a whisper I asked Haruki, “What about the two stars that have left their spheres?”

But there was no answer. My husband was already asleep. My lingering questions would have to wait.


The Life and Death of Chine (Robbins)


Selection, Translations and Commentary by Jeff Robbins

Assisted by Sakata Shoko


Words of Basho, Kyorai, and Chine in bold to stand out

In this article we meet Kyorai, the second son of a doctor of Chinese medicine in Kyoto, born in 1651, and his fascinating yet retiring nine-year younger sister Chine (pronounced “Chee-neh”). When the father died, Kyorai’s older brother continued the medical practice. In the autumn of 1686, Kyorai took Chine on a pilgrimage from their home in Kyoto to the Ise Shrine, central shrine of the Sun Goddess.  The distance round-trip was about 200 miles, and apparently they walked the whole way, staying the nights in ryokan, or Japanese inns. Kyorai’s Ise Journal is an absolutely unnoticed gem, not only of literature but also of anthropology. As far as I can tell, it has never been translated, and even in Japanese is difficult to find. Most of the journal does appear in the biography Mukai Kyorai by Oichi Hatsuo and Wakaki Taiichi (Tokyo, Shinkyosha, 1986, pp. 34 ~ 41).                                                    

The journal consists of prose by Kyorai and haiku by both Kyorai and Chine. For this article, I have selected prose passages in which 35 year old Kyorai observes his 26 year old sister as she learns the world outside her parents’ house. Sensitive to her feelings, supporting her with positive energy, and paying attention to the poetry she writes (far better than his own), Kyorai transcends the patriarchal assumptions of his society to reveal the exuberant and playful heart of this young woman in 17th century Japan.

In Japan at this time young women were trained to stay quiet, smile, and nod to what the man says.  Historian Tokuza Akiko in the The Rise of the Feminist Movement in Japan (Tokyo: Keio University Press, 1999, p. 41) says “Criticism of women’s intelligence, autonomy, and moral worth was essential to the total subordination of women that society demanded.” A pretty grim prognosis, but Kyorai appears to have been an exception (as was Basho). Tokuza continues: “Parents thus protected their daughters’ chastity and morality by isolating them both from men and from rational and critical thought”. Chine’s parents however, allowed her to go on this journey,  and she seems quite capable of rational and critical thought. Anthropologists should take note.

In a prologue to Kyorai’s journal, Basho writes:

The first time I read this journal, my feelings awoke.
The second time, entranced by it, they were forgotten.
The third time, I realized how perfectly it is written.
This person Kyorai has fully traveled the path.

The Ise Journal begins:

The sun hot yet wind cool on our heads,
I take my younger sister on a pilgrimage to Ise.

Until Ise
such good companions,
morning geese

The genius of Chine’s verse is in the double meaning: “Kyorai and I are good companions” along with “wild geese are our good companions.” These birds spend the summer in Siberia then in autumn fly south to winter on the marshes of Japan; south is also the way from Kyoto to Ise. The feeling Chine has watching a flock of geese fly in the direction they are walking, and her feeling for her brother, become one. Chine’s spirit along with her brother’s take flight in the haiku.

Affection between adult brother and sister occasionally appears in old-time literature – Ophelia and Laertes in Hamlet, Sebastian and Viola in Twelfth Night – but the circumstances in these plays are extraordinary beyond belief. The brother-sister bond portrayed in the Ise Journal is unique in literature because it is so ordinary.

Kyorai and Chine stay at an inn, and Kyorai writes:

The innkeeper’s wife is such an uba. She turns her face toward us and shouts  “Fresh from the mortar! Before they cool down!” Chine cannot stop laughing.

Uba, “old woman” suggests a former wet-nurse, a rather earthy sort of woman (think Juliet’s Nurse). I love the sound of uba (rhymes with “tuba”) here. The innkeeper’s wife was making mochi rice cakes: kneading the mass of cooked rice in a mortar where her husband pounded it with a mallet, then molding into a cake with a surface soft and smooth as a baby’s bottom. At this time women used face powder containing white lead to fill in the wrinkles and obtain a mochi-hada, skin as smooth as mochi.

On behalf of the innkeeper Chine writes:

If you will not
remove that face powder,
when oh when
can we see the wrinkles                                                                                                        
in your uba mochi

Kyorai says it is the innkeeper’s job to advertise his wife’s rice cakes, but Chine does that job for him in her tanka. Chine uses the classical poetic form for her hilarious look into women’s concern for their aging skin. Change uba mochi to “old woman’s skin,” and you will see what 26 year old Chine is saying to this uba in her fifties or sixties. Shoko comments that Chine’s verse is onna-rashiku, “womanly, feminine.” I, like Chine, cannot stop laughing.

For the following night, Kyorai writes:

This being Chine’s first time away from the realm of our parents, in sympathy with her upset, I say what I can to divert her.

Kyorai actually pays attention to his sister’s mind and heart. Where else in male literature is there such a record of male consideration for a woman who is not his mother or romantic interest? Basho seems to have had much affection for his seven-year-younger sister Oyoshi – since he often mentions her by name in his letters – so he could easily appreciate Kyorai’s feeling for Chine. If you too have a younger sister, you may also feel as they did.

Another night, another inn:

In a house across the way, young and old women  gather to hull rice while singing until late night, with the door open, we hear them.

 At each lodging
the rice-hulling songs
are different

On her first journey, Chine learns of human diversity— that people only one day apart do the same work, to different songs. Her verse is anthropology in its purest form. A standard anthropologist would record the location and lyrics to each song, but Chine summarizes her conclusions in one concise observation.

Beside a river near Ise where Basho wrote of women washing the tuber taro in the flowing water, Chine wrote                                    

Put in water
hands better be wiped,
the autumn wind

Chine is so fundamental, so sensory, so conscious of her body: where skin is wet, how the wind penetrates! In our time we provide warm water to many people, yet the hundreds of millions of women in the temperate zone who work in unheated water may be able to appreciate Chine’s hands’ awareness of the need to wipe well with a dry cloth, so they can endure the work for decades of the four seasons.

Chine’s haiku about her hands has an ally in an early spring haiku by another Basho woman follower, Chigetsu:

Hands stopped
by the bush warbler
kitchen sink

The bush warbler sings in February when the weather is still very cold, and the well water a woman used to wash dishes is especially chilly. The lovely call of the bird takes her consciousness away from her hands, and without consciousness, they stop moving.

Hands also appear in a haiku another woman follower, Uko, writting about her small daughter Sai:

I shall breathe
on your frostbit hands —
big ball of snow

She breathes warmth on her daughter’s red and inflamed hands. Mom and Sai-chan rolled the ball of snow together.   These three woman poets follow their teacher in his frequent focus on body parts and the sensations and activities of these parts. (See Article F-2 HANDS in Basho4Now.)

Kyorai and Chine arrive in the part of Ise where the Grand Shrine is.

We change our clothes and fix our hair then with deep respect go to visit the Inner Shrine. Our eyes could not be parted from the scene…

It is not appropriate to wear dirty travel clothes or loose hanging hair when visiting the home of the Sun Goddess.

In the evening we buy souvenirs for everyone and so it became night.

Just like their descendants traveling today, Kyorai and Chine buy souvenirs for the folks at home. Here ends our time within Kyorai’s journal.

Chine’s journey with her brother was her final fling before marriage. She had one daughter in 1687, but in the summer of 1688 when Basho was in Kyoto, he learned that Chine was gravely ill, possibly from complications from her second pregnancy. Her brother used all his medical skill, but still she passed away.

Chine’s jisei no ku or “farewell to life” poem was:

Easily glows
and easily goes out
a firefly

Kyorai responded to his sister with:

On my palm                                                                                                                      
sadly goes out
the firefly

Simple words to express Chine’s humility and Kyorai’s grief.

While in Gifu I hear that Chine has passed away so I send these words to the home of Kyorai.

Now the house robe
of the one who is gone —
airing in the heat

Clothing gets musty in the warm moist summer, so one sunny day everything is hung outside to “air in the heat.” Basho cannot be with Kyorai’s family in their grief, but he sends them an image which transcends the distance between Gifu and Kyoto. One of Chine’s kosode, a simple kimono for household wear, is being kept as a memento and is hanging outside with the rest of the family’s clothing. The traces of Chine’s being linger in the fabric she wore, gently dispersing in the warm breeze.

The trio of her death-verse, her brother’s response, and Basho’s ode to her existence form a testament to the warm feelings among these three people. Chine’s laughter resounds through the centuries.  May her light continue to shine in our thoughts.

Jeff will be running a workshop on Oct 28 from 2.00-5.00 at Ryukoku University, Omiya campus, sponsored by WiK and Kansai SWET. For details, please see the top righthand column. Jeff’s previous articles for this website on Basho include Kyoto vs. Home, New Year BashoBasho’s Letters to Uko, Basho in Saga and Basho in Zeze.
For an interview with him about his work, see here.

Jeff writes: “Basho’s several hundred poems about women children, friendship, love, and compassion, are almost unknown in Japan and in the West, yet I believe the most pro-female, child-centered, and life-affirming works in world literature.

Here a few Basho4Now articles [see below] which relate to themes in The Life and Death of Chine:
On a Journey – 10 Basho haiku, 10 renku, 6 haibun, and 3 letters about the nature of traveling
Women at Work – 12 Basho haiku and 13 renku about the labor of Asian women
Anthropology in Basho — 6 Basho haiku, 15 renku, 5 letters about human nature and behavior

I ask for your help in finding a person or group to take over my 3000 pages of Basho translations and commentary, to edit and clarify, to receive all royalties, to spread Basho’s works on humanity worldwide and preserve for future generations.”




Writers in focus

Teddy and Daruma (Weiss)

“Teddy and Daruma” by Allen S. Weiss

Like the shaman from his cave, Teddy (yes, Teddy, my teddy bear!) finally emerged, resurrected after a hibernation of forty years, with what particular wisdom I cannot say. I have no idea if Teddy is an adept of Zen, but I am sure that the roly-poly Daruma who now shares, alongside a bizarre pin-cushion doll, his tiny abode – a knitted ski cap full of embroidered galloons – knows by heart the famed kyōgen Jizō’s Dance, about a wandering monk who asks for shelter for the night, but is refused because of the strict interdictions against lodging travelers. After repeated pleading, the owner agrees to at least take in the monk’s large precious straw hat, and soon afterwards the monk appears, as if by magic, under the hat, arguing that as long as he stays beneath the hat, it is the hat that is sheltering him, and not the house, so no law is broken. The owner, amused, agrees to the arrangement, and in repayment for the kindness the monk does a dance that is the finale of the piece. In the manner of true Zen humor, Teddy’s compatriot Daruma relishes the fact of living not under a hat transformed into a shelter, but inside a hat. Superficially, it might seem easy to interpret a world where there are so few elements: a hat, three occupants, eight galloons. To describe it, one might think of a cheap magic trick, or the stage of a destitute childrens’ theater straight out of Dickens, or an addendum to Through the Looking-Glass, rather than of an entire world. But it is grandiose: heaven and earth transposed, a coincidentia oppositorum, a corpus hermeticum for our times. Teddy’s very eyes are an allegory of this primal conflict, one that sees straightforward and clearly with the acuity of an eagle, the other askew and askance; approbation and disapprobation in the crossing of the eyes, a perpetual double-bind that touches all that his gaze falls upon. Can one possibly attempt the interpretation of a world where everything is already its double, its opposite? The calculus is incomprehensible, and with just the thought of it I am already lost in the labyrinth of infinite semiosis!

I have no idea as to what is happening within the terribly confined quarters that house Teddy, Daruma and the disquieting pin-cushion doll whose identity and origin are a total mystery, just as I have little idea about what is going on inside Teddy’s mind. In fact, I even wonder about the reality of Daruma, he who at one point spent nine years staring at a wall in a cave, and, having briefly fallen asleep during the seventh year, immediately cut off his eyelids so as to prevent such an indiscretion from happening again. Is his presence yet one more incarnation of Bodhidharma, during yet another moment of his endless travels, having alighted here because he somehow sees interaction with Teddy as a path to the salvation of humanity? Or is he an emanation of Teddy’s mind, whether stemming from unconscious guilt at having slept so long, or from religious fervor at finding a compatriot who so complements, by sheer antinomy, his long-lived lethargy? Or perhaps Teddy has chosen, for simply pragmatic reasons, an adherent whose zealously wakened state will guarantee vigilance in case Teddy once again falls asleep for an extended period? Or is Daruma just a drinking buddy? As for the sinister pin-cushion doll, I won’t even begin to speculate, fearing what I may find.

Ultimately, it is impossible for me to tell whether Teddy’s domain – the world in a hat – is cosmos or chaos. But then, who can really distinguish ostensible accumulation from hidden organization, who can know object from allegory, reality from symbol? I even wonder what Teddy is to me, and me to Teddy.

[Excerpted from The Autobiography of Teddy, forthcoming.]

For more by Allen S. Weiss, please see the WiK piece about his 2016 book, The Grain of the Clay, or his Manifesto for the Future of Landscape where you can find an overview of his biodata and multifarious creations.  (His Author Page with amazon can be viewed here.)


Featured writing

Interview with Yoppy (Tawarayama)

Karen Lee Tawaryama has been interviewing Kyoto people on her blog, Kyoto Faces. In her latest piece she writes of the non-verbal long-running performance called GEAR, which in 2015 was voted on TripAdvisor one of the city’s best attractions!  In the interview below, she questions Yoppy, one of the dance performers about the show and his involvement.  [For more about Karen’s blog, please see here.]


I’d like to hear about your story. When did you start breakdancing?

A: I began breakdancing when I was eighteen years old. Until then, I taught hip hop, but I saw someone breakdancing at Kyoto Station and thought it was really cool. At that time, I was with Katsu, another breakdancer in GEAR. I started acting in GEAR about three years ago.

Can you tell your perspective about the GEAR story? What do you feel when you’re acting in the show, and what would you like to convey to the audience?

A: In the show, I’m the yellow robot, who acts as a bit of a fool. In that role, I always try to smile to show my positive attitude and that I’m having fun.

How about the meaning behind the character Doll?

A: Because of the doll’s appearance, each robot discovers his own originality. Over time, the tension builds and everyone starts to have fun together. At the beginning, all of the robots are the same and their routine is rigid, but because of the doll, this all changes. The robots take on their own personalities and talents, and they begin to “feel”. In my opinion, it’s this kind of story.

What’s your favorite part of the play, and also the part your consider the most difficult?

A: I love it when everyone is running around the desk on the revolving stage. There’s a big surge of excitement and there’s a big flurry of activity. That’s really fun for me. As for the difficult part, hmm… There’s a part where, even though I had been moving around, I suddenly have to freeze in place. I always get nervous about that.

What’s your “Kyoto #1”?

A: I live in the neighborhood of Toji Temple, but I often go to the mountain beside Fushimi Inari Taisha, Mount Inari, for training. I climb all the way up the mountain. There’s a place at the very top where the view is really beautiful and you can buy a small juice for 200 yen. I love the satisfying feeling of opening and drinking that juice at the summit.

YOPPY, thank you very much for your time and a wonderful performance!!

GEAR performances take place on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 2pm and 7pm, and Saturdays, Sundays, and Holidays at 12pm and 5pm. Tickets without reservations are on sale one hour before the show at the show venue. If it is your birthday month, you are also eligible to receive a small gift!

For more detailed information about the show, or to reserve tickets, please refer to the GEAR website: (English): http://www.gear.ac/en/



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Writers in focus

Poems & Photos (James Woodham)

A collection of poetic images by James Woodham.  (For an earlier posting of James’s rendering of Lake Biwa in poetry and photography, please see here.)


papers on the desk
blown by the wind that blows leaves
on the hillside now


Plato’s ideas –
discussion suddenly stopped
by windborn blossoms


the baby mantis,
stretching one leg all the way
to the next petal


clouds on the pond
a murmur of voices

ducks float slowly
over trees the wind quivers

a fish rises
ripples the mountains

trees spill birdsong
white egret landing



Crossing my legs in the cafe,
my pocket tilted, coins fell,
jingling the wooden floor.

Salaryman beside me unflinching,
locked with his business finger
into cell phone dream time.



also fact –

for I am


the rocks

in the








Featured writing

Hearn on Higashi Honganji

In Chapter 6 of Kokoro (1896), Lafcadio Hearn writes of some of Kyoto’s sights, an unusual topic for a man who normally looked to folklore and tradition for insight into the culture of his adopted land.  However, his belief that religion reveals the heart of the people comes across in the final part of the description below, where he writes of Hongan-ji (representing Jodo Shinshu) as a true expression of the common folk.  Anyone who has seen the amazing ropes there made of women’s hair will know just how much the faith meant to the people of the 1890s. (Elsewhere in his writing, Hearn waxes lyrical about the grace and elegance of the Japanese female, and how vital a role their hair played in their attractiveness.)

But the gift of the people to Kyoto is still grander. It is represented by the glorious Higashi Hongwanji, – or eastern Hongwan temple (Shinshu). Western readers may form some idea of its character from the simple statement that it cost eight millions of dollars and required seventeen years to build. In mere dimension it is largely exceeded by other Japanese buildings of cheaper construction; but anybody familiar with the Buddhist temple architecture of Japan can readily perceive the difficulty of building a temple one hundred and, twenty-seven feet high, one hundred and ninety-two feet deep, and more than two hundred feet long.

Because of its peculiar form, and especially because of the vast sweeping lines of its roof, the Hongwanji looks even far larger than it is, – looks mountainous. But in any country it would be deemed a wonderful structure. There are beams forty-two feet long and four feet thick; and there are pillars nine feet in circumference. One may guess the character of the interior decoration from the statement that the mere painting of the lotus-flowers on the screens behind the main altar cost ten thousand dollars. Nearly all this wonderful work was done with the money contributed in coppers by hard-working peasants. And yet there are people who think that Buddhism is dying!

More than one hundred thousand peasants came to see the grand inauguration. They seated themselves by myriads on matting laid down by the acre in the great court. I saw them waiting thus at three in the afternoon. The court was a living sea. Yet all that host was to wait till seven o’clock for the beginning of the ceremony, without refreshment, in the hot sun. I saw at one corner of the court a band of about twenty young girls,– all in white, and wearing peculiar white caps,– and I asked who they were. A bystander replied: “As all these people must wait here many hours, it is to be feared that some may become ill. Therefore professional nurses have been stationed here to take care of any who may be sick. There are likewise stretchers in waiting, and carriers. And there are many physicians.” I admired the patience and the faith. But those peasants might well love the magnificent temple, – their own creation in very truth, both directly and indirectly. For no small part of the actual labor of building was done for love only; and the mighty beams for the roof had been hauled to Kyoto from far-away mountain-slopes, with cables made of the hair of Buddhist wives and daughters. One such cable, preserved in the temple, is more than three hundred and sixty feet long, and nearly three inches in diameter.

Writers in focus

Sake Vessels (Robert Yellin)

‘Pride of Place—Sake Vessels’ by Robert Yellin

Drinking sake in Japan is an art when done with the right vessels. The history of sake vessels—collectively called shuki in Japanese—dates back millenniums and the variety of shuki found throughout Japan is as varied as there are clouds in the sky. For me, collecting shuki was my introduction into the Japanese pottery world as a young twenty-something in 1984 who couldn’t afford an expensive imported California Cabernet Sauvignon and so I thought better to go local, and that of course meant sake.

Iga flask by Shiro Tsjujimura

Almost all potters in Japan make shuki and they are avidly collected, often the first items to sell-out at exhibitions. Some of the earliest pieces I bought are shown here and have taught me quite a lot about Japanese history, regional styles, the joy of functional art, and of course the immense pleasure that comes with using fine vessels at the table, something the Japanese call Yo-no-Bi or Beauty through Use.

Iga is one of Japan’s ancient high-fired unglazed stonewares named after the town it was made in, as often is the case for Japanese styles. And shown here is an Iga tokkuri—or flask—by the celebrated potter Shiro Tsujimura. At first I didn’t ‘get it.’ Look, the neck is leaning, there’s grit all over it, the base has a fused bit of clay on it, the glazing is uneven! In most western traditions—and certainly at art schools—this would have been a failure piece, yet here in Japan it’s the epitome of good taste. The reason being we find nature and man working together without one wanting to totally control each other or the process, yet letting intuition, passion, experience, and letting go take over. Meaning the beauty of this Tsujimura tokkuri is of course the clay he dug, processed and formed, yet also his willingness to let the process also have a say in the outcome, in a sense what we might call the ‘Beauty of the Imperfect.’ Kind of like you and I.

In the picture below I‘ve matched the Iga tokkuri with three of my most treasured guinomi or sake cups: a slender Ki-Seto (Yellow Seto) by Shukai Kagami, a robust Bizen by Rokuro Nakamura and a spouted Shigaraki by Michio Furutani. I had the honor and pleasure to have met all three of these now gone potters and each had a heart of gold, for as the 6th B.C. Chinese poet Lao Tsu said, “There is no real beauty without character.”

A robust Bizen by Rokuro Nakamura; a slender Yellow Seto by Shukai Kagami; and a spouted Shigaraki by Michio Furutani.

Kagami devoted his life to Ki-Seto, one of the Mino styles of pottery, the others being Shino, Oribe and Black Seto. There’s richness to Kagami’s Ki-Seto glazing that no other Japanese potters have been able to re-produce. The subtly of the green copper embellishments along with the brown-toasty shades make this delicately carved slender work a masterpiece of his.

Nakamura was known mostly for his shuki, although he did make other forms. He learned from drinking experience, often taking a 1.8 liter bottle of sake and starting the day with 380ml, same at lunch, tea time called for another round and then of course the bottle was emptied at dinner; he lived to be 90. Once he told me the lip of a good guinomi should touch the lips as if you’re kissing your lover. One can see here the undulating and angled lines that make this guinomi do just that. The tones are autumnal with what the Japanese call good ‘clay flavor.’ As with cooking, a Japanese potter often wants to bring out the inherent ‘flavor’ found within the ingredients used. That especially holds true for Japan’s great unglazed stonewares such as Bizen, Iga, Tamba or Shigaraki.

This aspect is also clearly seen on the spouted Shigaraki guinomi by Michio Furutani. The orange-tones are called ‘hi-iro’ or ‘fire-color’ and are one of the most distinctive characteristics of Shigraki, the others being shizen-yu or natural ash-glaze and bidoro, goblets of natural ash glaze that form glass-like beads on pieces. Here the spouted lip is merely for decoration and one would not pour sake into their mouth via it! As with most stonewares over time the piece changes and takes on a richer patina, this piece surely has seen a lot of sake and I often dipped my finger in the cup and rubbed sake on the outside; I once saw a Japanese collector do that as well as rub nose oil on a piece! Furutani was a master kiln builder as well, building more than thirty in his all-too-short life with the aim for each kiln to bring out desired effects. He was most often successful at that and wrote the Japanese potter’s anagama single-chamber kiln building ‘Bible.’

Such deep joy these pieces have given me over the years, simple timeless joy. They have taught me about many of the grand ceramic traditions here in Japan, they allowed me to meet fascinating artists, they have provided me with poetic inspiration and of course functional beauty, and that in a nutshell is why I love Japanese ceramics as much as I do.



For Robert’s gallery, see the Yakimono Gallery.
For an introduction to Robert’s lifework, see here.
Click here for Robert’s book, Ode to Japanese Pottery.





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