Writers In Kyoto

English-language authors in Japan’s old imperial capital

Writers in focus

5 Competition entries, 2016

This years WiK Competition closes in just over a week on March 1, and with time running out for entries we look back on some of the best runners-up from our previous competition in 2016.  Our thanks to all those who submitted, and we hope that their ideas will stimulate new submissions in these closing days for the 2017 Competition. (For details please see the top righthand column under News.)

Maps of Kyoto’s Water:
by Kate Garnett

Eastward, rivers inked
with sakura flow throughout
time. For centuries

they move through ancient
city streets, cleaning deep wounds
of war, dousing shrines

that are asunder,
while tea water, equally
as vital, is poured

into younomi.
This simple act will never
change. Whether whisked by

geisha’s elegant
hands or encapsulated
in vending machines,

even one hurrying
out will always stop to drink—
just as one is stopped

by autumn’s first snow
as it laces the ponds where
koi fish liquesce, just

as spring’s warm rainfall
dissolves into garden lakes
of imperial

castles where even
ancient samurai take brief
reprieve to quench throats—

because that same vein
of water, reflecting glass-
faced towers, scarlet

tori, and sky , are
both the surface and the rain
that inspires it.

STORY SUBMISSION by Mark Schumacher

A sudden downpour stops soon after starting. The water-laden trees shimmer in the radiance of the resurrected sun. The wind caresses the trees, shedding them of their tears. The camellia flower cries in joy, dropping its red petals to adorn the lonely stone path. I descend, not knowing if I remember or forget. Kyoto is such a place. Every stone, every tree, every inch of soil has a story.

           Snow in Kyoto 2015  by Kiyoko Ogawa


this snowless town turning

into a silver world overnight

the yurikamomes are departed

the old river, run slowly, till we end our time


a dingy tiny snowman

standing in the narrow alley


no children in sight fighting snowball

but the ojizo-san is surely watching them


bamboos and aoki trees bent by the snow

sasanquas silent in the garden of a deserted house


afternoon brings the bright sun

melting everything at ultra-high speed


from snow dream

to our Kyoto routine

with splash & bang

TWO POEMS by Travis Roy Venters jr

First poem: Ikkyu Under Shijo Bashi

Every waking, moving moment
His shadow cries. Death. Death is near.
Ikkyu fills anther cup and laughs.
Too bad shadow; I can’t take you with me.

Second poem: Kyoto 2015 AD

Getting into temples costs more
But incense burning is the same.
At Koryuji temple gardeners tel you
The temple moss is also sacred
But there is no clear evidence why.

Tourists from around the world,
Realize all the Buddhas thought
The world of illusion and all that
Unrolled flat like a scroll with the
Center the center of a square.
California was not even a remote
Possibility. Every photo you take of
Kiyomizu-Dera or the tigers in Nanzen-jiI
Is imbued with many, many false memories.
You want Eastern Wisdom to show
The folks back home? Photograph
The ribbons of silk dye rushing by
In the river under Sanjo Bashi.

Kyoto Botanical Gardens in Late October
by Branko Manojlovic

It is the season of high camp:

a monster triptych, anchored

in the lotus pond. A plastic

sylph both smiling and sad,


both looking and staring

at Mount Hiei. To her right

a fifty-foot globe: spike-

beset, turd-coloured.


To the left, a grossness

with electric ruby eyes

vomiting gallons of pond

water back into the pond.


Nearby woods, cameras

with preposterous lenses

waiting in ambush for

an elusive songbird.


They miss a pastiche of ghost

-white: a wedding dress gliding

past nude cherry trees,

the groom ten yards behind.


And by the crocus path

a slender bronze reclining,

worthy of Rodin (no more

than yet another oddity),


four bite-sized dogs scamper

around obā-chan’s legs.

Even the water mill spins

faster than it ought to.


Dinner talk with Judith Clancy

WiK members enjoying a convivial dinner talk with author Judith Clancy, seated on the far side near the centre of the picture

Sunday evening’s dinner talk by Judith Clancy proved a convivial literary evening as the author of Exploring Kyoto walked us through her several publications on the city. (Residents of Kyoto will surely have used Judith’s books at one time or another to guide them through the city, but for those unfamiliar with her publications please take a look at her amazon page.)  She first came to Kyoto in 1970, and threw herself into Japanese life, working for Kanebo and then teaching at Otani University as well as acting as guide to foreign visitors. Her first ever book was about her ikebana teacher, a self-publication with gorgeous colour photographs held by Judith in the picture to the right. Judith’s subsequent involvement with Weatherhill, Stonebridge and Tuttle was to some extent built on the familiarity with Japanese aesthetics which she learnt through her ikebana book. It’s an indication of how self-publishing can work to a writer’s advantage, even if it involves a loss financially.  The talk covered her different experiences with Japan specialist publishers, as well as her work on an update of the Kyoto section of the Fodor guidebook. But perhaps her most fascinating stories came in association with a book published last year in Japanese about maiko and geiko (see here). It took her deep into the rarefied world of Kyoto’s geisha districts and the people employed there. The publisher Tankosha had sufficient clout to organise a huge launch party studded with Kyoto’s finest, including the mayor and the cream of the city’s geisha, at which Judith was the sole foreigner. Afterwards,  in response to questions, Judith talked more of the background that brought her to Japan, with tales of Woodstock, Korean shamanism and restoring a machiya in the heart of the Nishijin weaving district.  The evening went on far longer than intended, as anecdotes led one to another, and by the end those attending were deeply impressed by the intrepid enterprise of this trailblazing author.  Thanks very much to Judith Clancy, and to her contemporary Charles Roche of Papa Jons for catering for such a wonderful evening.

Writers in focus

WiK 2016 competition (Adams)

The following were submitted by independent filmmaker and freelance translator, William Adams, currently based in Miyazaki.  Judges were impressed by the original and stimulating nature of the entry, though in the end the prizes went elsewhere.  Nevertheless the submissions show what can be accomplished in less than 300 words with a little touch of verve (and perhaps a lot of bourbon)….

Keywords: Kyoto.

Title: The Thousand-year Capital.

Hue: Aged.

Bureau: Art.

Hours: Kyoto at night.

Kyoto is_

Kyoto is famous for

Kyoto is in what prefecture

Kyoto is known for

Kyoto is tokyo backwards

Kyoto is ovrerrated

Tranquillity ravaged.
Scenic Kyoto temples with Latin spirits.
Few artists of mere windshield shine fame.
Kyoto for Kyoto.
Tourism. Ancient. Unequivocally.
Kyoto travelers quote Kyoto girls’ tongues;
invade their palaces; overload their grids.
Kyoto written off as a hooded off-market Kioto.
An international buffet of Kiotos.
Weeping dialect raids a strong year.
477 kimono instantly from Germany.
Leaf day in Ukyo-ku verse; academic menu in Nijo;
pools of artists scattering in the gardens of Nanzen-ji.

Kyoto’s country.

A long-hooded Buddhist at the A Station.

City canals forecasted for Kyoto in 1002.

A village in Kyoto defined by its zoo; its temple; its every UNESCO.

Unlimited men and days.

Kyoto complexes. Kyoto quotes. Kyoto forecasts inscribed in paper museums.

Once upon the concentration in Matsugasaki Temple,

written until keage connected, retaining Japanese Buddhists in 794.

Nintendo woman helps Karasuma across a Kyoto Shinkansen intersection.

Capital places have the longest hours in Kyoto.

Strong and slow are the whimsy.

One line in Kyoto.

Significant circumstances make for Airport movements.

  1. Miyako.

Blog about the Kyoto Azalea.

A trove of long ordinances.

So begins Miyako.

Temples brightly draining south.
I for Bon; the hooded in the graveyard.
The picturesque Higashiyama snowfalls,
built out of the infamous Tin Bombing;
the blanketed slopes of the temple in Chion;
Buddhist Meiji responding not in Nakagyo;
the temple serving as his own personal Villa,
fanning out of the eastern court.

The special were there.

Rental monkeys bomb

the tranquility of Kyoto.

Rustle along in Spring;

the standing re-placed.

Even in Kyoto

they longed for Kyoto

when the bloggers blogged.

Writers in focus

Hearn on Pontocho

Pontocho as it is now, and as it once was (Kyoto City/ Kyodo courtesy Japan Times)

In the past twenty years Pontocho has changed out of all recognition.  Now it is packed with tourists, English menus are everywhere, and there are shops which cater even to budget travellers. Needless to say, a hundred years ago things were quite different, as Lafcadio Hearn here makes plain when he came on a visit in 1891.  At 400 words the passage is a little long for the WiK Writing Competition (deadline March 1), but I have no doubt if he cut it down a bit he’d be a worthy winner for his fine evocation of a distinctly Kyoto atmosphere!

“Seen at night the street is one of the queerest in the world. It is narrow as a gangway; and the dark shining wood – work of the house-fronts, all tightly closed,-each having a tiny sliding door with paper-panes that look just like frosted glass, – makes you think of first-class passenger-cabins. Really the buildings are several stories high; but you do not observe this at once – especially if there be no moon – because only the lower stories are illuminated up to their awnings, above which all is darkness. The illumination is made by lamps behind the narrow paper-paned doors, and by the paper-lanterns hanging outside-one at every door. You look down the street between two lines of these lanterns-lines converging far-off into one motionless bar of yellow light. Some of the lanterns are egg-shaped, some cylindrical; others four-sided or six-sided; and Japanese characters are beautifully written upon them.

The street is very quiet – silent as a display of cabinet-work in some great exhibition after closing-time. This is because the inmates are mostly away-attending banquets and other festivities. Their life is of the night. The legend upon the first lantern to the left as you go south is “Kinoya: uchi O-Kata”; and that means The House of Gold wherein O-Kata dwells. The lantern to the right tells of the House of Nishimura, and of a girl Miyotsuru-which name signifies The Stork Magnificently Existing. Next upon the left comes the House of Kajita; – and in that house are Kohana, the Flower-Bud, and Hinako, whose face is pretty as the face of a doll. Opposite is the House Nagaye, wherein live Kimika and Kimiko…. And this luminous double litany of names is half-a-mile long.

The inscription on the lantern of the last-named house reveals the relationship between Kimika and Kimiko – and yet something more; for Kimiko is styled “Ni-dai-me,” an honorary untranslatable title which signifies that she is only Kimiko No. 2. Kimika is the teacher and mistress: she has educated two geisha, both named, or rather renamed by her, Kimiko; and this use of the same name twice is proof positive that the first Kimiko – “Ichi-dai-me” – must have been celebrated. The professional appellation borne by an unlucky or unsuccessful geisha is never given to her successor.”

(from “Works of Lafcadio Hearn“. You can read it for free at: http://a.co/5hHbRMP

Writers in focus

Transience (Peter Macintosh)

One of the entries for the 2016 WiK Writing Competition provides a perfect example of how the restriction of 300 words can be overcome by suggestive vignettes that tell a story in themselves. The suggestion here that ‘a tired old man’ has fallen asleep in the bubble years and woken in contemporary Kyoto is framed by the notion that the kimono-clad beauties are no longer those of maiko and geisha but tourists in cheap rental clothing. This evocation of a changing Gion was very much what the judges had in mind when shaping the competition.


Transience (by Peter Macintosh)

The evening sun begins to set. Along the river, now feeling quite tipsy, a tired old man closes his eyes and slowly fades into a slumber under the withering cherry blossoms….

The streets of Gion are bustling. You can smell the money. It is like the whole country had won the lottery. The spring air scented with expensive perfumes as the bar hostesses flutter past in mini skirts carrying designer handbags. Foreign street vendors selling knock off posters of Hollywood stars and over priced jewelry from India are on every corner. Targeting the “Gods of Gion”, to whom money isn’t an issue. Japan is on the top of the world.

Oblivious to taxis waiting for the big fares back to Osaka lining the streets, he and his underlings drunkenly maneuver between them. Heading into the backstreet alleys laughing in unison with two young maiko at their side, they disappear into the teahouses of the floating world, only to reappear hours later to continue on to karaoke, where drunken song will take them into the wee hours of morning. All of this only to be repeated the following evening and the one after that and the one after that.

….Awakened by loud voices, he finds himself among hoards of kimono clad women laughing and taking selfies. He smiles. Was he still dreaming? Then, he realizes that the kimono were not beautiful silk but polyester and the women weren’t even Japanese. Disheartened, he grabs his bottle, rushes into the busy street and just like the cherry blossoms, he is gone.

Featured writing

WiK Competition 2016 (Newton/Samarit/Rose)

As the deadline for the 2017 WiK Writing Competition approaches (March 1), we’re posting some of the best ‘also ran’ entries from the 2016 competition in the hope that they may stimulate others into creativity….

Richard Newton – 2016

Bainiku John and Supa Dupa

Bainiku John’s wife died when she ventured too close to the edge of a rocky outcropping that jutted out over the Sea of Japan. A high wave consumed her. Bainiku John watched her confused face through his camera’s eyepiece. They were vacationing and happy before the ocean took Yoriko. Back then, Bainiku John was an Osaka salaryman, but he lost his mind with grief. After Yoriko’s funeral Bainiku John quit his job and spent several months alone, rarely venturing out of his and Yoriko’s house in Hirakata-shi, half way between Osaka and Kyoto, near the Keihan Line’s Hirakata Station. Bainiku John eventually steeled himself, sold the house, move to an apartment in Kyoto, and took a job as a taxi driver.

Winding his taxi through Kyoto, serving others, doesn’t diminish his grief, but it rounds off the sharp edges. When he joined the taxi company, Bainiku John attended several Welcome to the Company parties at local izakaya. He allowed himself to smile and drink with new, kind comrades. A couple times he asked the cook for extra bainiku, pickled plum sauce, to enjoy with his yakitori. One of his bosses teased him, saying, “Bainiku John!” The nickname stuck. He’s exceedingly polite to his taxi passengers.

Supa Dupa was homeless until the raw, rainy, January day Bainiku John sideswiped him when Supa Dupa, crossed Kawabata Street against the signal. Skidding to a halt, Bainiku John, bolted from his car and cradled Supa Dupa in his arms. Supa Dupa laughed. He was one of Kyoto’s homeless and his side hurt. But he was alive and the rain felt good on his face and a kind man sought to comfort him. That day Bainiku John took Supa Dupa in. They’re now good friends and look after each other.

Rommel Chrisden Rollan Samarit

In the village (a haiku)

Wooden statues pray

Leaves are roving in wind’s ways

An answered prayer

Kimberly ROSE

The first 18 reasons to love Kyoto….

To hear the two-tone whistle of the tofu salesman’s car as he approaches my house,

the jingles of the oil truck and the Kyoto Coop delivery van,

the beeps and chirps at the pedestrian crossings as they change,

the unique tunes played at every train and subway station.

To see the uniformed school children with their oversized satchels riding the trains in packs or all alone,

the ladies in the cleaners so proud of me now that I can understand the price as I count out my yen,

the man who vacuums the corridor in the subway station,

the street food at a matsuri,

the greeters at the morning opening of Daimaru,

the yasai hawkers who pause their chant as they recognize me, smiling to greet me, with an “ah, konichiwa”,

the girls at the combini,

hanabi and yukata in the summer,

the woman who sells me chirimen jacko and takes such pride as she tries to put the exact amount I ask for on the scale with her first measure,

her surprise and delight when I later present her with a jar of my husband’s homemade sansho chirimen.

To feel the peace and quiet that is always found in a temple or shrine even though it may be in the middle of the city,

the joy of seeing a hurried salaryman stop for a moment to take a photo of a sakura blossom,

the delight when I hand my gohakyu yen and a small wrapped chocolate to the tofu man and as I do I give him a wink and say “service desu.”

Featured writing

Passages into Kyoto’s past (Steiner)

Richard Steiner has an eye for characteristic Kyoto scenes, as his woodblocks display, but here he turns to a verbal rather than visual medium to explore one of Kyoto’s special hidden secrets – and these pockets of forgotten time truly are hidden.


One would not expect there could be something yet remaining in Kyoto to be discovered and explored. There is. If you walk slowly thru almost any of the larger, older neighborhoods, or those neighborhoods that somehow escaped being cleared away for “mansion” building, you may notice some narrow, covered and often dark alleys between houses or shops. If you turn and enter one, it will lead you to an earlier Kyoto, literally untouched by post-war developments, or tradition-destroying renewal projects. There is a housing law on the city’s books that forbids tearing down to rebuild any building whose access is narrower that about two meters. The owner can remodel or re-roof, but cannot remove.

There is one such treasure in the Demachi district I found about two months ago. The passage goes straight back from Imadegawa, but takes a sharp left turn, than another right turn. You find yourself surrounded by very old, wooden, dilapidated, one-storey houses, plus an early Showa two-storey shop that had been turned into a tiny parking structure facing the main street. Weeds were all that were growing in the open spaces around the houses. Some trees were also growing quietly behind broken fences of gardens overgrown by now dead, potted flower plants and bushes. The place smelt of Taisho. Quiet, very still, totally forgotten, happy to be left alone in the sunshine.

Another discovery was a broken, cemented walkway leading back to irregularly shaped, painted cement-block houses with junk thrown here and there, smelling of poverty and age.

Still another narrow passage lead to an open area, clean, cemented over and having homes with small, barred windows facing the courtyard. I could hear voices and other life sounds.

The location of my previous studio was something like this. A covered, flagstone walkway lead back to a row of five identical houses, each two-storied. One house was in total disrepair, and smelt of mold and rat. I could open its front door. Inside was a rank smell that would sicken the weak. Dark, dank, very damp, a dead atmosphere where nurses once lived long ago, I learned. Nothing sanitary remained whatsoever after the doctor, who lived nearby, disappeared with one of them.

Kyoto has stories aplenty. Any brief inspection, even a shallow perusal of Kyoto’s history, will reveal centuries’ worth of tales. The kidnapping and murder of a maid, snatched by a burglar from her master’s house on present-day Karasuma, and taken to Horikawa to be raped and thrown into the moat, the neighborhood ignoring her screams for help, continues to haunt me terribly. I want to hire a Buddhist priest to preform a ritual where she died (Nakagachiuri and Horikawa) to rest her soul, even though she was killed several hundred years ago. Maybe some day I will actually do this.

It is probably best to investigate these narrow passageways in the daytime, otherwise you too may disappear, eaten by blood-sucking weeds!

Writers in focus

Basho and Supernatural Women

Supernatural Women:
From Kwaidan to Basho

Selection, Translation, and Commentaries by Jeff Robbins

Those reading this article are probably familiar with Lafcadio Hearn’s life and writings, especially since this website has recently carried articles about him. Here are two legends told by Hearn in his famous collection of supernatural tales Kwaidan, which may (or may not) have been the source of particular Basho verses.

The Legend of Uba-zakura, the ‘Wet-Nurse’s Cherry Tree,’ which is older than Basho’s time, originated in Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku; Basho’s mother came from this province, so it is possible she told it to him when he was a child, a tale from the faraway place where mama lived when she was a child.

Basho’s parents must have wanted children very much because they had six of them – two boys and four girls, all of whom reached adulthood. Anthropologist Sarah Hardy says, “Without nutritionally fortified baby formulas and sterile water to mix with them, the availability of breast milk has always been the single most important predictor of infant survival.” In upper class Japanese families, it was not the mother’s role to feed her child. To ensure the life of the baby (especially if he was the oldest son and future heir) families hired uba, or wet-nurses. Often an uba might bring her own baby into the house, and the two babies would grow up together and might even become lifelong companions. Such a woman often stayed on with the family to nurse later infants and care for the growing children. (Likewise in 19th century England, novelist Jane Austen was the seventh child in her family to nurse from one uba.)

Historian Gary Leupp, in Servants, Shophands and Laborers in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan (1994), translates from the popular author Iihara Saikaku, an almost exact contemporary of Basho:

“Wet-nurses were especially well fed, and their behavior was carefully supervised, to ensure the quality of milk (given to the future heir). Even their food is special: for breakfast every morning, aside from flying fish and mackerel with their white rice gruel, their diet changes every day….The wet-nurse’s duties were taxing, allowing her little free time or privacy. She was expected to watch over the infant all night, noting the number of   diaper changes. Three times a day she applied the Five Medicinal Fragrances.”

The Legend of the Wet-Nurse’s Cherry Tree

An old childless couple appealed to the gods at the local temple, Tosai-ji (a short walk from Matsuyama Station) and were blessed with a daughter. An uba breastfed the infant, and after weaning, was her attendant. The girl grew up in beauty until at age 15 she became fatally ill. The uba went to the temple and beseeched the gods, “spare the child, take me instead”. The gods accepted, the girl got better and the old woman faded. Before she died she told the parents of her bargain with the gods and asked them to fulfill the promise she made to plant a cherry tree in the temple garden in gratitude for the child’s life. They did, and the tree prospered for 254 years. Each spring, on the anniversary of the uba’s death, the tree came into glorious full bloom. Hearn says “The flowers were always pink and white like the breasts of a woman full of milk.” We notice how feminine-positive the legend is. The little girl is loved and cherished, the uba a paragon of kindness and altruism.

In 1664, when he was just 20, Basho wrote:                    

Cherry blossoms

of the uba — in old age

her memories

The standard interpretation of this haiku posits that uba zakura is one species of cherry tree, and the verse concerns an old man recalling his glorious youth. Another interpretation takes it to mean “a faded beauty,” an old woman who recalls her days (and nights) or youthful elegance under cherry blossoms. The interpretation here, in accord with the legend, takes the uba in uba-zakura to actually be a wet-nurse.  The memories may be of the babe at her breast, the child playing merrily, the teenager getting sick, the prayer to the gods that saved her life. Or Basho may be ‘sketching’ his family’s uba with baby Basho – or maybe his little sister Oyoshi, a baby nursing when seven-year old Basho first became aware of the world. Or it can be a sketch of any woman who can remember breastfeeding. All these feminine memories are seen and felt in the gorgeous cherry blossoms filling the tree with pink and white, like the milky nipples long ago.

In the legend the uba’s job was to care for the infant/child/teenager and she gave her life to do so. The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet however, instead messed things up. Her astonishingly verbose speech in Act I is inspired comedy. Only four teeth remain to her, but she has plenty of memories, and speaks of them profusely in iambic pentameter; she tells how she weaned Juliet (“it”) at age three:

For I had then laid wormwood to my dug. . .

When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple

Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool,

To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug!

“Dug” is properly used for the nipple of an animal, but Juliet’s Nurse is a rather earthy type of woman. I too would get “tetchy” – touchy, peevish – if someone put yucky oil of wormwood in my mouth when I was expecting warm sweet uba milk from the dug.

Juliet’s Nurse compliments her teenage mistress,  “I would say thou hadst suck‘d wisdom from my teat”

Modern pediatric research has shown the Nurse spoke true.   A Harvard University study of 1000 women found that each month of breastfeeding up to one year improved language skills at age 3 and intelligence at age 7. The lead author of the study, Dr. Mandy Belfort, emphasizes that breastfeeding is only one of many factors building intelligence. She notes that more research is needed to determine whether the boost is caused by nutrients in the milk or interaction between mother and baby. I say both.

The uba dies in the legend, so we finish this section with a suitable single stanza of Basho renku:

Kite string cut —

soul of the milk-giver

soars to heaven

The vivid physical image of a kit string cut, a bond being broken, the kite floating off to the vastness of space, flows into the spiritual image of the nurse parting from the living earth.  

The Legend of Green Willow

A samurai on a journey overtaken by storm and night, takes shelter in a cottage. Here live an old couple and a maiden named Green Willow as graceful as a sapling. They fall in love and marry to live happily for five years — until suddenly one day Green Willow cries out in pain, saying she will now die. Someone has taken an axe to the willow tree which is her heart, its sap her life blood.

Her whole form appeared to collapse in the strangest way, and to sink down, down — level with the floor. Tomotada sprang to support her, but there was nothing to support! There lay on the matting only the empty robes of the fair creature and the ornaments that she had worn in her hair: the body had ceased to exist

Tomotada shaved his head to wander about offering prayers for her salvation. Returning to the cottage, he found three willows stumps remaining, two old and gnarled, and a sapling cut down long ago.

Green Willow

reaching to the mud

of low tide

Scholars say a willow tree on the riverbank has some of her branches ending underwater, but now at low tide, these reach down to mud.   If the verse is merely a “nature verse,” this interpretation may be sufficient – however perhaps we can find a more interesting interpretation along a personal, feminine path. Willows in Japan are always associated with the young female. If we allow “Green Willow” to be the young woman in the legend, we can spend some time with her slender graceful youthful form at low tide reaching down for a shell stranded in the mud, a shell containing a creature full of protein, minerals, and omega 3 fatty acids. If we search for humanity in Basho’s works, we find it.

We can also meet the female Green Willow in linked verse with Basho’s stanzas in bold:

Green willow her hips

and hair like willows

 Wretched waiting

  wind through the pines

  also is yearning

Both hips and hair, as slender and flexible as willow branches covered with young green leaves swaying sensually in the wind; a most gorgeous female image. Basho, now 22 years old, chooses to have this young willowy woman waiting for a lover who may never show.   Notice the contrast between willow beauty and unfulfilled desire so intense it overflows self to fill the wind with longing.                  

Here Basho wrote the first and third stanzas:

“Weak as green willow”

the wife is despised —

‘Path of blood’

her day by day misery

in the spring rain                                                                   

 She drops a tea bag

 in steam from her chest

 Willow branches are pliant and flexible, submissive to every breeze, so we may think them weak. Women too are flexible, and in a patriarchal society expected to submit to every male desire.   Men admire strength and rigidity, despising the flexibility of willows or women, as they despise the ‘path of blood’ from women’s reproductive organs, and also the sickness that comes with bleeding. During her period the long spring rains make this woman feel weaker and more shameful. For some relief, she boils the herbal tea bag in the steam rising from her inflamed heart.

As a man without experience of menstrual disease, I cannot comment on the female experience in these stanzas – however I can see that the poets had some experience of their mothers or sisters with the “path of blood,” and chose to put these experiences into their poetry – and this, to me, seems unique in world literature.

To access several hundred Basho poems about women children, friendship, love, and compassion, which I believe among some of the most pro-female, child-centered, and life-affirming works, please go to


There you will see many of my articles. Click on any one of these, and when it appears, scroll down to see the first pages of all the Basho4now articles published on this site. Click on any one to read it. Sign up with Yumpu and you can download it.

I plead for your help in finding a person or group to take over my 3000 pages of Basho material, to cooperate with me to edit and improve the presentations, to receive all royalties from sales, to spread Basho’s wisdom throughout the world and preserve for future generations.

Jeff Robbins  basho4now@gmail.com

Featured writing

Kyoto tengu

The Tengu at Kurama Station on the Eiden line

John Dougill writes…

Lafcadio Hearn had a taste for the macabre, as is well-known from his Kwaidan (1903) collection of strange stories.  In Ghostly Japan (1899) contains one such story which is set in Kyoto.  Fittingly enough, it concerns a tengu, for the creatures were much associated with the city, particularly the northern area around Mt Hiei and Kurama, where the King of the Tengu famously taught martial arts to Yoshitsune.  It’s thought these tengu were in fact warrior-monks like Benkei, whose nocturnal exercises excited the imagination of those who caught glimpses of them in the woods.  (An alternative tradition claims that they were a folk legend inspired by the first Westerners with big noses to visit Japan, though personally I see them as more likely inspired by the Jomon/Ainu mountain folk of old, since the crow-tengu in particular is so obviously shamanic in form.)  The story below comes from the Kindle edition of Hearn’s Collected Works, though the paragraphing is by myself.  The story is particularly appealing because of the concern with animal suffering which Buddhism teaches and which was once such an important part of Japanese culture.


One of the floats at Kyoto’s Awata Jinja festival depicts the Karasu Tengu (tengu in the form of a crow)

“In the days of the Emperor Go-Reizei, there was a holy priest living in the temple of Saito, on the mountain called Hiyei-Zan, near Kyoto. One summer day this good priest, after a visit to the city, was returning to his temple by way of Kita-no-Oji, when he saw some boys ill-treating a kite. They had caught the bird in a snare, and were beating it with sticks. “Oh, the, poor creature!” compassionately exclaimed the priest; – “why do you torment it so, children?” One of the boys made answer: – “We want to kill it to get the feathers.” Moved by pity, the priest persuaded the boys to let him have the kite in exchange for a fan that he was carrying; and he set the bird free. It had not been seriously hurt, and was able to fly away.

Happy at having performed this Buddhist act of merit, the priest then resumed his walk. He had not proceeded very far when he saw a strange monk come out of a bamboo-grove by the road-side, and hasten towards him. The monk respectfully saluted him, and said: -“Sir, through your compassionate kindness my life has been saved; and I now desire to express my gratitude in a fitting manner.” Astonished at hearing himself thus addressed, the priest replied:-“Really, I cannot remember to have ever seen you before: please tell me who you are.” “It is not wonderful that you cannot recognize me in this form,” returned the monk: “I am the kite that those cruel boys were tormenting at Kita-no-Oji. You saved my life; and there is nothing in this world more precious than life. So I now wish to return your kindness in some way or other. If there be anything that you would like to have, or to know, or to see,-anything that I can do for you, in short,-please to tell me; for as I happen to possess, in a small degree, the Six Supernatural Powers, I am able to gratify almost any wish that you can express.”

In the wooded surrounds behind Nanzen-ji, people still pray to Karasu Tengu (statue top right)

On hearing these words, the priest knew that he was speaking with a Tengu; and answered:-“My friend, I have long ceased to care for the things of this world: I am now seventy years of age; neither fame nor pleasure has any attraction for me. I feel anxious only about my future birth; but as that is a matter in which no one can help me, it were useless to ask about it. Really, I can think of but one thing worth wishing for. It has been my life-long regret that I was not in India in the time of the Lord Buddha, and could not attend the great assembly on the holy mountain Gridhrakuta. Never a day passes in which this regret does not come to me, in the hour of morning or of evening prayer. Ah, my friend! if it were possible to conquer Time and Space, like the Bodhisattvas, so that I could look upon that marvellous assembly, how happy should I be!”

“Why,” the Tengu exclaimed, “that pious wish of yours can easily be satisfied. I perfectly well remember the assembly on the Vulture Peak; and I can cause everything that happened there to reappear before you, exactly as it occurred. It is our greatest delight to represent such holy matters…. Come this way with me!” And the priest suffered himself to be led to a place among pines, on the slope of a hill. “Now,” said the Tengu, “you have only to wait here for awhile, with your eyes shut. Do not open them until you hear the voice of the Buddha preaching the Law. Then you can look. But when you see the appearance of the Buddha, you must not allow your devout feelings to influence you in any way; – you must not bow down, nor pray, nor utter any such exclamation as, ‘Even so, Lord!’ or ‘O thou Blessed One!’ You must not speak at all. Should you make even the least sign of reverence, something very unfortunate might happen to me.”

The priest gladly promised to follow these injunctions; and the Tengu hurried away as if to prepare the spectacle. Then forgetting utterly his pledge, – foolishly dreaming that he stood in the very presence of the very Buddha, -– he cast himself down in worship with tears of love and thanksgiving; crying out with a loud voice, “O thou Blessed One!”… Instantly with a shock as of earthquake the stupendous spectacle disappeared; and the priest found himself alone in the dark, kneeling upon the grass of the mountain-side. Then a sadness unspeakable fell upon him, because of the loss of the vision, and because of the thoughtlessness that had caused him to break his word. As he sorrowfully turned his steps homeward, the goblin-monk once more appeared before him, and said to him in tones of reproach and pain: – “Because you did not keep the promise which you made to me, and heedlessly allowed your feelings to overcome you, the Gohotendó, who is the Guardian of the Doctrine, swooped down suddenly from heaven upon us, and smote us in great anger, crying out, ‘How do ye dare thus to deceive a pious person?’ Then the other monks, whom I had assembled, all fled in fear. As for myself, one of my wings has been broken, – so that now I cannot fly.” And with these words the Tengu vanished forever.”

At Yuki Jinja on Kurama hill you can get special tengu fortune slips

Featured writing

Kyoto Journal 88

The latest Kyoto Journal update, from managing editor Ken Rodgers

Kyoto Journal’s 88th issue, to be released in February, is another eclectic feast; I’d like to share a few highlights with Writers in Kyoto, as an appetizer.

An extraordinary set of “cadenzas” by a notable British poet, calling himself John Gohorry, celebrates the real-life exploits (leavened with some literary licence and wicked dystopian insight) of a gang of ostriches on the lam in the Fukushima Exclusion Zone, post-disaster:

14 June, 2011

The Great Japanese Dictionary wants

the best word for a cohort of ostriches.

A flock, suggests Alban, while Bounder


proposes a pride. Groupie suggests

an adventure, Einstein an exploration.

No ostrich tolerates a containment,


none favours a rapture. Cloak wants

a concealment, Fantail a reinforcement

but Dagger is Major Bird and it’s his call.


An endurance? a disaffection? They bury

their heads in semantics; from now on

two or more ostriches are a survival.


An outstanding and rather spooky fiction piece, “An Incident on the Hokuwan Line” by Shaun O’Dwyer, also considers the aftermath and impact of the earthquake:

A Buddhist priest had been called and a ceremony held at the disaster site to console the spirits of the dead. It had not gone well, much to the anguish of bereaved families who took part. “The dead are restless and angry,” the priest was quoted as saying. “They cannot be appeased.”

As part of our recent focus on aspects of Noh, John Oglevee of Tokyo’s Theatre Nohgaku introduces one of their recent contemporary Noh productions, Blue Moon over Kentucky — featuring the wandering spirit of none other than, yes, Elvis. And Bob Brady takes us on a ramble through “The Forest of the Accountants”…

Looking back over our 30 years of publishing KJ, we also decided to take the opportunity to reprint an intriguing essay by Dan Furst, on Kyogen, from our very first issue. It’s accompanied by Dan’s own original Kyogen, The Salaryman and the Office Lady, an update based on Busu, one of the plays in the classic medieval farce repertoire.

Last year an extremely talented Tokyo photographer, Irwin Wong, originally from Melbourne, Australia, contacted KJ with an as-yet-undecided joint project in mind. We introduced him to one of our Kyoto volunteers, Elle Murrell, coincidentally a Melbournian fresh from an extended stint as a reporter and editor in Amman, Jordan, and they collaborated to produce a remarkable set of portraits of creative Kyoto women, which we look forward to sharing.

Of course the issue also features sparkling poetry, scintillating reviews, and more offerings in our In Translation series: a short story by Koda Rohan, titled “Wind in the Reeds,” translated by Nagata Tsutomu; a vale for Soseki translator Valdo Viglielmo; plus some non-standard Occupation-era haiku from Suzuki Shizuko, via Mariko Nagai:

Ashes gently fall

atop an ant as I tap

my lit cigarette


Lastly, I don’t know why I’m even mentioning this, but we have a travel piece by some pseudo-Buddhist loony who just can’t restrain himself from sharing his recent experiences in India:

In Rajgir,

on the rocky outcrop of Gridhakuta, Vulture Peak, it’s said the Buddha once taught by holding up a flower. Just one disciple smiled, receiving the transmission.

Two and a half thousand years on, there’s a Japanese post-Hiroshima World Peace Stupa on the ridgeline above, with a long line waiting to ride its effortless ropeway; down here dedicated pilgrims chant, pray, take photos, apply fine gold leaf to disciple’s cave walls, rocks, vihara bricks.

A wildflower-scented breeze surges over the site, snatches a flimsy scrap of foil, whirls it aloft; a freshly-minted bright gold butterfly.

Amid a pile of freshly-offered flowers, ceremonial scarves, worn banknotes. A sculpted golden Buddha, his wry smile.

Vulture Peak Buddha

« Older posts

© 2017 Writers In Kyoto

Based on a theme by Anders NorenUp ↑