Writers In Kyoto

English-language authors in Japan’s old imperial capital

Featured writing

Competition runner-up 2017

The deadline for this year’s WiK Short Shorts Competition will be on March 1, and just a reminder that this year we are offering a top prize of ¥30,000 plus several other smaller prizes. The top three winners will be included in the next Writers in Kyoto Anthology, and details about how to purchase a copy can be found in the righthand column. In addition winners are published here on the website, serving as examples for anyone thinking of entering the competition. For the 2017 winner, click here. For the 2016 winner, click here. For runners-up, click here or here. (For details of how to enter this year’s competition, see here.)

The following entry which won the approval of the judges was submitted by Kate Garnett of the USA. It shows how much can be done within the limit of 300 words.


Maps of Kyoto’s Water:

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


torii, and sky , are

both the surface and the rain

that inspires it.


Writers in focus

Short Short Stories

Driven by social media and falling concentration spans, the trend of recent times is for shorter and shorter fiction. Twitter is a prime example, with writers challenged to fit something meaningful into 140 characters. This was highlighted in a recent article in The Author, house magazine of the UK’s Society of Authors, which cited a challenge to college students to cover the themes of religion, sex and mystery in as few words as possible. The winning entry ran: ‘Good God, I’m pregnant; I wonder who did it.’

In similar vein there’s a popular (but probably untrue) anecdote about Ernest Hemingway, who was noted for paring his stories to the bone. Once after running up a large debt while drinking in a bar, he was challenged to write a complete story in six words. His response was this: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’  Like a good haiku, it leaves the reader to imagine the possibilities.

Science fiction writer Frederic Brown has been credited with the shortest story ever written in his 1948 piece titled ‘Knock’.  It goes like this: ‘The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…’ In response an author called Ron Smith wrote a story with the ironically lengthy title of ‘A Horror Story Shorter by One Letter than the Shortest Story Ever Written’. It was a subtle twist on the same theme: ‘The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a lock on the door.’

The Guatemalan writer August Monterroso devoted himself to penning short stories, the shortest of which was even shorter than a haiku. ‘When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.’ The Canadian writer Margaret Atwood also came up with a short story that moves from hope to triumph to despair in six short words: ‘Longed for him. Got him. Shit.’

By these standards the Writers in Kyoto Competition might seem generous indeed with its 300 word limit. Compare it with the long running 55 Fiction, born in 1986 when New Times, an independent weekly in California, organized a short story writing contest. Steve Moss, the publisher of the paper, proposed the idea and it now receives more than a thousand entries annually.. The stipulation is that within 55 words there must be a setting, one or more characters, some conflict and a resolution.

The 55 Competition is said to have sparked a boom known as Flash Fiction. Two of the best-known sites are Vestal Review and the UK’s Flash: The International Short Short Magazine. While the title plays a vital role in making sense of the concise stories, the punctuation can also be essential to the meaning, as seen in ‘The Proposal’, which has a crucial comma in the last sentence. ‘He asked her as the lift gave way. She smiled. They fell, in love.’

One person who’s been taxing his brain for some time over how to be concise is David Williams, author of the magazine article from which the above is taken. His latest book, self-published, features 1000 stories in 1000 tweets. Here are three very different examples…

They agreed there would be no lies between them. Now the truth they told each other lies between them.

‘A losing hand’.
Their marriage started with two hearts and a diamond. It ended with a club and a spade.

‘Out of the picture’.
When she started handing him the camera to record family occasions, he realised this was the beginning of the end.


The Writers in Kyoto runs an annual competition of 300 words on the theme of Kyoto. For more information, including requirements, prizes and previous winning entries, please see this page. The next deadline is coming up soon on March 1, 2018.

Richardson on Frost (Jan 21)

Robert Frost in 1941

Mark Richardson, one of the most prominent scholars on the poet Robert Frost (1874-1963), will be presenting material related to the poet on Jan 21 (for details, please see the right-hand column). In particular he will be discussing an interesting but never published––and never mailed––letter that affords a fascinating look into the poet’s life and work. As preparation for his talk, Mark has kindly provided the list of links below.

Mark Richardson, author of “The Era of Casual Fridays,” lives and works in Kyoto, Japan. He grew up in South Carolina & Georgia, was educated at the University of South Carolina and at Rutgers University, taught for ten years at Western Michigan University (1993-2003), before moving, in 2003, to Kyoto, where he now teaches  at Doshisha University.

His books include The Ordeal of Robert Frost (Illinois, 1997), and, as editor or contributing editor, Robert Frost: Poetry, Prose and Plays(with Richard Poirier) (Library of America, 1995); The Collected Prose of Robert Frost(Harvard 2007); The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume 1: 1886-1920 (Harvard, February 2014), co-edited with Donald Sheehy; Robert Frost in Context (Cambridge, April 2014); The Cambridge Companion to American Poets (Cambridge, October 2015); and The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume 2: 1920-1928, co-edited with Donald Sheehy, Robert Bernard Hass, and Henry Atmore.


For a talk Mark gave on Frost at a session organized for the 2014 convention of the American Literature Association: please click here:
The PennSound Project covers a great many 20th century poets besides Robert Frost and can be found at the following link:
These recordings are some of the earliest of Frost, and of particular interest is his reading of “The Code”:
Go here for the text of the poem as it appeared in the first (London) edition of North of Boston in 1914 (digital scan held at the Internet Archive). Title page of the book (signed by Frost):
“The Code” (click on the pages to “turn” them): https://archive.org/stream/northofboston00frosrich#page/80/mode/2up
Here is the page for Frost at the Modern American Poetry site (maintained by the University of Illinois, prepared and compiled by Cary Nelson and Edward Brunner). Click on links to find commentaries on often-read/often-taught poems (and on Frost’s life): http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/frost/frost.htm
Another large digital archive of recordings is held at Middlebury College, where the Bread Loaf Writers Conference was established in the 1920s, in large measure under RF’s influence:

Writers in focus

Tanizaki’s ‘Bridge of Dreams’

It concerns a house Kyoto residents may be familiar with, namely the one in which Tanizaki lived next to Shimogamo Shrine on the eastern side. With its puzzling erotic relationships,  the novella makes a companion to another of Tanizaki’s Kyoto tales, namely The Key (Kagi, 1956). (Text and photo courtesy Ad Blankestijn)

‘The Bridge of Dreams’ (Yume no Ukihashi, 1959) by Tanizaki Junichiro (Book review)

Tanizaki Junichiro wrote several top class novellas, such as The Reed-cutter (Ashikari), Arrowroot (Yoshino-kuzu) and A Portrait of Shunkin (Shunkinsho), but my favorite is The Bridge of Dreams, although also for an extra-literary reason: it is set in Shimogamo, a beautiful area in Kyoto where I lived in the 1980s. Tanizaki himself had lived next to the Shimogamo Shrine from 1949 to 1956 – his residence was called Sekisontei and he used this as the basis for the house and garden in The Bridge of Dreams. In this story, published in 1959, two of Tanizaki’s major obsessions are perfectly united: the search for a lost traditional Japan and the search for a lost mother, who combines the maternal with the seductive.

This is also what the title points at: the “(Floating) Bridge of Dreams” is the name of the final chapter of the Genji Monogatari, and here meant as a reference to the whole novel, which starts with the affair the protagonist has with his stepmother Fujitsubo. And the title is of course also a metaphor for the dreamlike quality of life and of the world of love.

[Bridge in the Shimogamo Shrine, Kyoto]

The story is set in the womb-like enclosed environment of a traditional house and garden where three people live: a father, his wife Chinu and their young son Tadasu (named after the forest of the Shimogamo Shrine). It is an isolated but perfect world, the ideal retreat, full of literary and historical allusions, on which the story is wholly focused – daily activities that fall outside this estate are usually not mentioned. The garden stands deep in a grove and is far removed from the dusty world. You reach it, of course, by crossing a narrow stone bridge.

Here Tadasu lives in the warmth and security of his mother’s embrace, a dim, white world:

The mingled scents of her hair and milk hovered there in her bosom, around my face. As dark as it was, I could still dimly see her white breasts. She would sing while I drifted off into a peaceful sleep, still clutching her breasts and running my tongue around her nipples. Gradually I would slip into the world of dreams.

By the way, the most conspicuous image of the pond garden is the water mortar, a bamboo tube that fills with water from a small stream where the father (and after growing up also Tadasu) used to cool his beer. When the pipe is full, it tips of its own weight and hits a flat stone with a characteristic clacking sound. Empty, it sways up again and the process repeats itself. Such devices were originally employed by farmers to scare away wild boars, but from the 17th century they were as ornaments incorporated in gardens, like the famous Shisendo garden in Kyoto – an enclosed hermit garden with which Tadasu’s estate has many elements in common. When Tadasu went to sleep, the distant, rhythmic clack of this water mortar would mingle with the voice of his mother singing a lullaby and would penetrate his dreams. It became therefore strongly associated with memories of his mother.

But humans are mortal and when Tadasu is only five years old, his mother dies. After a while, his father remarries and now something strange happens: he has his new wife impersonate the deceased one. She has to take the same name, Chinu, wear the same type of clothes and allow Tadasu to sleep with her in the same way he did with his own mother. She also plays the koto and practices calligraphy, like Tadasu’s first mother. And so the idyllic life in the enclosed paradise garden continues even after the intrusion of death, the stepmother conflated with the real mother… When he nurses on his stepmother’s breast, Tadasu again hears the clack of the water mortar – everything is again the way it used to be…

What happens further is not so clear, for Tadasu is an unreliable narrator – what he tells is true, but he doesn’t tell everything. Time passes and when he is eighteen years old and at high school, Tadasu learns that his stepmother is pregnant. A boy, Takeshi, is born, but the baby is soon sent away by his father to be brought up by farmers. A weird scene happens in the seclusion of a small tea house in the garden, where the stepmother has Takeshi suck the milk from her breasts, heavy so soon after giving birth. As a grown-up man, he is allowed to enter the milky white world of childhood again, now mixed with a decidedly erotic element…

Later that year, Tadasu’s father – who had been ill since more than a year before – dies and asks Tadasu to take good care of his (step-) mother. In other words, Tadasu is asked to take over the role of the father. By now, Tadasu has learnt his stepmother’s real name, and also that she was a geisha before she married his father. In order to keep up appearances (there is after all an outside world) Tadasu marries the daughter of their gardener, Sawako – but it is clear he is more interested in his stepmother.

A few years pass. Then the stepmother dies – she had a weak heart and was frightened by a centipede, while undergoing massage by Sawako. Tadasu now separates from Sawako and seeks out his half-brother, Takeshi, whom he decides to bring up himself. But he has to sell the large estate and instead moves to a smaller house near Honenin temple – not accidentally a place just as secluded as the first one.

The ambiguous story leaves us with several questions – the reader has to act as detective:

  • Was the death of Tadasu’s stepmother homicide? Did Sawako kill her out of jealousy – Sawako who after all was a disparate element in the household, and who was treated very coldly by Tadasu? Was that the reason Tadasu decided on a separation?
  • Whose child was Takeshi? Was he really Tadasu’s half-brother, or was he his son? There are some hints that Tadasu’s custom of cuddling up to his stepmother and suckling her breasts when he was a young boy, continued also when he grew up and then developed into outright lovemaking… On top of that, the father was already ill when the child was conceived. In addition, this would explain not only why the baby was sent away but also why Tadasu later decided to bring the boy into his house and take care of his upbringing.
  • And, finally, the most radical interpretation: was it perhaps Tadasu himself who killed his stepmother rather than Sawako (the killing was of course in either case indirect, by dropping a centipede on her to frighten her)? There are indeed some hints that Tadasu was getting tired of her as she was getting plump and therefore was losing the image of his original mother… (while in Takeshi, Tadasu found the face of his mother again). Another fact supporting this interpretation, is that the negotiations for the separation from Sawako took two years and also that Tadasu had to sell his estate – in other words, he probably had to pay a large amount of money to Sawako and her family to buy their silence about the real events.

But the story does not give us any clear clue to the right interpretation, and in that vagueness lies its beauty. Life is a dream and dreams can be wild and convoluted, shimmering like a chimera…

P.S. Perhaps we can also see the secluded estate as a symbol for a traditional Japan that had been lost in the 20th century, a loss finalized by postwar Americanization.


The Bridge of Dreams has been translated by Howard Hibbett in the collection Seven Japanese Tales (together with six other works by Tanizaki, including “A Portrait of Shunkin”), published in various editions by both Tuttle and Vintage. The novella is discussed in The Secret Window, Ideal Worlds in Tanizaki’s Fiction by Anthony Hood Chambers (Harvard University Press, 1994). The interpretations mentioned above are based on Chambers.

Writers in focus

Hearn on art and shadows

Kyoto, April 16. The wooden shutters before my little room in the hotel are pushed away; and the morning sun immediately paints upon my shoji, across squares of gold light, the perfect sharp shadow of a little peach-tree. No mortal artist-not even a Japanese-could surpass that silhouette!

Limned in dark blue against the yellow glow, the marvelous image even shows stronger or fainter tones according to the varying distance of the unseen branches outside. it sets me thinking about the possible influence on Japanese artd of the use of paper for house-lighting purposes. By night a Japanese house with only its shoji closed looks like a great paper-sided lantern,-a magic-lantern making moving shadows within, instead of without itself. By day the shadows on the shoji are from outside only; but they may be very wonderful at the first rising of the sun, if his beams are leveled, as in this instance, across a space of quaint garden. There is certainly nothing absurd in that old Greek story which finds the origin of art in the first untaught attempt to trace upon some wall the outline of a lover’s shadow. Very possibly all sense of art, as well as all sense of the supernatural, had its simple beginnings in the study of shadows. But shadows on shoji are so remarkable as to suggest explanation of certain Japanese faculties of drawing by no means primitive, but developed beyond all parallel, and otherwise difficult to account for. Of course, the quality of Japanese paper, which takes shadows better than any frosted glass, must be considered, and also the character of the shadows themselves. Western vegetation, for example, could scarcely furnish silhouettes so gracious as those of Japanese garden-trees, all trained by centuries of caressing care to look as lovely as Nature allows. I wish the paper of my shoji could have been, like a photographic plate, sensitive to that first delicious impression cast by a level sun. I am already regretting distortions: the beautiful silhouette has begun to lengthen.

Writers in focus

Simon Rowe goes marketing

Peddling Papa: A Writer’s Tale of Selling His Book
by Simon Rowe

On a foggy November night, a ship named the MOL Grandeur hauls anchor and departs Hong Kong bound for the port of Kobe. Listed on its bill of lading are eighteen cartons of freshly-minted paperbacks, destined for the samurai castle city of Himeji in western Honshu.

Days later, the author of these books sits at his kitchen table counting the money in his bank account—then in his pocket. He looks at the Kobe Port customs clearance fee again, then takes out a hammer and smashes open his Hello Kitty money box. It is to be a case of ‘good night Hello Kitty’ for a thousand copies of Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere (2017).

Only after a Camel-puffing deliveryman has taken the writer’s signature and left a pallet of cartons streetside does the full weight of his self-publishing caper hit him. With no marketing team, no distributor, and not a pair of sensible walking shoes to his name, he realises that he will have to become ‘salesperson of the year’ to break even.

At this point he could accept the wisdom of Lao Tzu and begin his journey of a thousand miles by haranguing friends and family to buy a copy of his book, thus making him feel that he hasn’t completely wasted a year’s savings. Then he remembers novelist Anaïs Nin words: “Good things come to those who hustle.”

“Hustle” becomes his one-word marketing plan. He sells copies of his book to his students. He sells them to the teachers at the university where he works. He even offers them to his community night classes, and to his surprise, they devour his stock voraciously. Some order extra copies for friends and family. Suddenly Lao Tzu’s journey is looking a whole lot shorter.

The big jumpstart comes when one of his night class students creates a ‘media release’ in Japanese. She sends it to her friend on the public affairs desk at City Hall, who then sends it on to a reporter at the provincial newspaper. Now, this writer is no Lafcadio Hearn, but the reporter, perhaps seeing some semblance in the long-term foreign resident who teaches at the local university and writes short stories in his downtime, sets up an interview.

The reporter focuses on the lead story (Good Night Papa), a tale set in Himeji’s much loved—and much despised—nightlife precinct called Uomachi, or “Fish Town”. Here, down the narrow streets of red lantern eateries, raucous clubs and bars, noodles joints and liquor stores, the tale of Papa Matsumoto, a down-on-his-luck call girl driver who picks up a mysterious passenger, unfolds with crime-noir intrigue.

When the newspaper story breaks the following weekend, every barman, bouncer and barbershop owner in Uomachi wants a signed copy. The writer starts taking books with him on his drinking missions. This proves unwise because, although the barflies are interesting people and buy his book, he ends up drinking the profits.

So he returns to the original marketing plan and buys himself a pair of sensible shoes. This time he adds leverage to hustle. He compiles a book profile in both Japanese and English, and with copies of the newspaper interview, takes his paperback to the university campus store of national book giant, Kinokuniya. The affable floor manager lends him an ear, and after reading the ‘pitch pack’, agrees to give Good Night Papa a six-month trial run.

Fearing dust will settle if he sits idle, the writer pins up fliers of his book around the university campus and leaves samples in the staff rooms to generate interest. The tactic works; two months later, a second order from Kinokuniya arrives. Buddha is smiling on the writer with sensible shoes.

With a toe-hold in the retail book market, the writer now approaches Kinokuniya’s rival, Maruzen-Junkudo, offering a similar deal: a 30% discount to the store on the recommended retail price of ¥1,500. Within a month, Good Night Papa is muscling up against Murakami and Mishima in the city’s busiest bookstore.

The writer uses Weebly to set up a website called mightytales.net and enables it with PayPay and Amazon buttons so his far-flung friends and acquaintances can purchase copies of the book. But, as good as this all sounds, his stock has hardly diminished. A new tactic is needed.

So the writer meets with the boss of the City Flea Market. The following week, in a predawn chill, amidst a lively encampment of antique sellers, venison burger chefs, blind masseurs and an hourly monkey act, he erects a small table with a red magician’s cloth. Onto this he arranges his books, sends out for coffee and waits.

The day’s takings barely cover the cost of the coffee. Sightseers, on their way to and from the castle, are not interested. He ponders this conundrum and the answer hits him like a velvet hammer. Social media.

He sets up an Instagram account and joins every Facebook group within a thirty kilometre radius, posting photos of the market with his book strategically positioned. The following week, foreign residents appear, JET teachers travelling down from their paddyland postings, retirees, as well as university teachers looking for something unacademic to read.

However, it is local residents who surprise; they gravitate to the stall in steady numbers, keen to brush up their English reading skills, curious to find out where the story of Good Night Papa will lead them in their town.

The power of social media becomes obvious. Leveraging this promotional tool, the writer sends out a request to his friends and acquaintances, asking them to photograph the book’s cover on their spring holidays. The images flow in—Good Night Papa in Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Trinidad, Tennessee and the Scottish Hebrides islands—and are promptly posted on Facebook and Instagram. Strengthening the image of Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere as a ‘traveller’s companion’ becomes the long-term marketing goal. Book sales through www.mightytales.net grow steadily and the first Amazon and Goodreads reviews begin to appear.

Beyond the Sunday flea market and bustling bookstores of Himeji, howeveJapan’s big city booksellers beckon. The writer wonders: is there a place for his paperback on the world’s biggest book shelves?

A few weeks later, shoes polished, and hauling a suitcase filled with books, he boards a train to Osaka, City of Merchants, where he cold-calls on the book buyers of Kinokuniya, Junkudo and Tsutaya megastores. There is no time for nervous sweats or tongue-tied sales pitches; the managers are busy people. They watch, listen, feel the pages of the book, run fingers down the spine, finger the barcode, the ISBN…then they speak. ‘Look around you,’ says one. ‘Almost all of our stock comes through a few American and British distributors. It simplifies out paperwork…’

The writer looks around him; yes, he is a minnow in a salmon race. The big fish—literary prize winners, represented authors—swim gracefully by to the cash registers while the hatchling must make every inch go a mile on the smell of an oily rag. However, he has nothing to lose and everything to gain. So the writer offers free shipping. The manager listens. The writer offers to pay for return delivery of unsold books. The manager smiles.

Japan may be home to light-speed living, but when it comes to decision-making, stalactites happen faster. So the writer leaves his business card, titled “Storyteller”, thanks each book buyer for their time and returns to castle town.

The following week he sends emails thanking the managers of all the bookstores for their time. The replies are courteous, encouraging even; some of the staff have begun reading the book—and are enjoying it!

A year on, the writer is pleased to report that the mountain of books in his backroom has been reduced to a proverbial molehill, the first print run of a thousand copies of Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere almost sold out. Bookstores in Kobe, Osaka and Tokyo are currently stocking. It is also selling well in New Zealand, Australia, and there is even a copy or two inside the Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore on Paris’s Left Bank. In Himeji, it sits in tourist kiosks, English language schools, cafes, a wine shop, and is even on sale at the Chamber of Commerce.

The independent writer’s journey, with a nod to Lao Tzu, has been a long and slow one, measured in single steps not leaps-and-bounds. Nevertheless, it has been a journey of learning, meeting people and receiving the ultimate accolade for all those hours spent writing, packaging and pacing city sidewalks in sensible shoes—that the reader enjoyed the book.


On the Web:

Mighty Tales (author’s website) www.mightytales.net

Amazon Japan: Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere

Also available at Kinokuniya (Shinjuku, Tokyo), Junkudo (Umeda, Osaka), Tsutaya (Umeda, Osaka – 2018), Kinokuniya (Kobe)

Other Media:

Simon Rowe: Adventures in Self-publishing, Tablo, March 2017.    Link

Featured writing

‘Common Sense’ by Hearn

‘Common Sense’ By Lafcadio Hearn (a short story set in Kyoto and contained in Kotto, 1902)
by Andrew Sokulski Zozaya (WiK intern)

Kyoto is a city with abundant temples and rich in Buddhist history, so it is not surprising that a tale about a priest would be set there. ‘Common Sense’ by Lafcadio Hearn is a story about a priest in a temple on Mt Atago who thought that after meditating and reciting the sutras for many years he could see the spirit of Fugen Bosatsu (a bodhisattva). However, a simple-minded hunter shot the apparition and explained to the priest afterwards that it was in fact a wild animal.

The story begins with the priest inviting the hunter to stay overnight and share his vision of Fugen Bosatsu. ‘You are aware that I have been meditating, and reciting the sutras daily, for many years; and it is possible that what has been vouchsafed me is due to the merit obtained through these religious exercises,’ he says. Filled with anticipation, the hunter obliges and asks a young acolyte if he has seen the vision, to which the boy replies that he has already seen it six times.

Though the hunter is doubtful, he is eager to see for himself. Close to midnight the priest opens the temple’s main doors and kneels down with the acolyte and the hunter behind to wait for the coming of Fugen Bosatsu.  A white light like a star approaches, taking the shop of a divine being riding upon a white elephant with tusks. The priest and acolyte fervently repeated the invocation to the deity, but the hunter stood up and fired an arrow at it. The priest was left aghast: ‘O miserable man! O most wretched and miserable man! – what have you done?’

The hunter however responds by saying that if the priest was right, only he could have seen the holy vision for only he had accumulated merit. A hunger however kills for a living and the taking of life is hateful to the Buddhas. He then suggests the priest was deceived by goblinry and that they should wait till daylight to learn the truth. By the end of the story the priest has come to realise that what he thought to be Fugen Bosatsu was actually a great badger.

The lesson of the story is that even an intelligent, dedicated priest can lack common sense, which commoners on the other hand may have in full. It was the simple-minded hunter who spotted the great illusion and revealed the truth.

Historically, Kyoto was capital during the Heian period (794-1186), which is when the imperial class created many noteworthy contributions to the arts, such as the Tale of Genji. In this age there was a large divide between the wealthy and the poor, and a stringent class system was in place. As a result, the lower class were seen as simple-minded. As such, a hunter would not be one of the first people from whom to expect wisdom. However, his humility and open mindedness, since he is not encumbered by attachment to any particular teaching, allows him to see the situation clearly and react in a natural manner.  

However, the priest’s mind is enscheckled by the belief that having recited the sutras repeatedly he is able to see Fugen Bosatsu, and this ironically becomes an immense obstacle on his path to enlightenment and seeing clearly. Moreover, the hunter, simply curious about things, was willing to accept the idea of chants producing a vision yet was just as willing to believe that it might not work.  Therefore, when the ‘spirit’ of Fugen arises before the priest, the hunter promptly shoots it down knowing that it was not real.  

Hearn’s story marks an interesting contrast between the priest, a well-renowned figure, and the hunter who is given little esteem. Being that Buddhist priests were part of the higher echelons of Japanese society, it is interesting to see a story in which the priest’s way of thought proved less reliable than that of the hunter. It is reminiscent too of Kyogen in which delight is taken in gently mocking priests. 

Kyoto, as the old imperial and religious centre of Japan, retains traditional values and is devoted to the pursuit of a higher truth. A story such as this reminds us of the importance of common sense (in the story termed ‘mother wit’). It reminds us too that truth may come from a simple commoner as much as from a well-bred scholar.

Writers in focus

Echoes: Writers in Kyoto Anthology 2017

Echoes: Writers in Kyoto Anthology 2017 now on sale from Lulu for $14 (less during Lulu’s frequent discount offers). (See this Youtube video by Amy Chavez.)

The anthology collects writings by established and new writers associated with Kyoto. The contents range widely from fiction to non-fiction: an extract from a novel, a short story, and a fantasy; articles on child-rearing, ceramics, the tokonoma, and the spirit of rocks; contemporary free verse, poetry with a Taoist flavor, and new translations of Basho. Also included are three winning entries from the Writers in Kyoto Competition, and two longer pieces about that giant of Japanology, Lafcadio Hearn, who continues to cast a shadow more than a hundred years after his death. Rounding out the anthology is an essay by Alex Kerr, leading commentator on present-day Japan, together with photographs by award-winning designer, John Einarsen.


Echoes arrived yesterday, and I read through it all in the night. Absolutely splendid! I’m really thrilled to be a part of this volume! It arrived with the first snowfall of the year (the earliest ever here), so the night was doubly magical.”
– US contributor in December, 2017

Click here to go straight to the Lulu page.


About Writers in Kyoto

Preface (Alex Kerr)

Three Poems (A.J. Dickinson)

On Childraising in Japan: Expanding into Interdependence (Karen Lee Tawarayama)

Dateline: Kyoto – Western Journalism from Japan’s Ancient Capital (Eric Johnston)

Poem: At Koryu-ji (Ken Rodgers)

Lafcadio Hearn and Basil Hall Chamberlain (Joseph Cronin)

Hearn, Myself and Japan (John Dougill)

Haiku Cycle (Mayumi Kawaharada)

Three Old Men of Kyoto (Alex Kerr)

Sprawling City, Sacred Mountain (David Joiner) 

Writers in Kyoto Competition: 2017 Winners
1) The Joys of Silence and   Bewilderment (Jane Kramer)
2) Palm of the Hand Story (Mark Cody)
3) Yamaguchi-san (Florentyna Leow)

Basho’s Appreciation for Women: 15 Poems of Female Experience (Jeff Robbins)

Tokonoma Lessons (Paul Carty)

Pride of Place – Saké Vessels (Robert Yellin)

Equivocal Ceramics (Allen S. Weiss)

Chieko’s Story: First Love at Daimonji (Isil Bayraktar)

Under the Light (Edward J. Taylor) 

Six Poems (Mark Richardson)

Return to Goat Island (Amy Chavez)


Please see Writers in Kyoto Anthology “Echoes” 2017 Youtube video by Amy Chavez
 For information about the WiK Competition (300 words about Kyoto), please check the righthand column and click on the relevant link.


Featured writing

Persimmon (Book review)

Persimmon Book review
by Andrew Sokulski Zozaya (WiK intern)

[Persimmon is a publication by the Hailstone Haiku Circle based in Kansai. The group was formed in 2000 and its webpage Icebox can be viewed here.]

Persimmon emits an aura of originality.  A particularly pleasing passage, for example, is a poetic sequence about Carmina Burana, the descriptive cantata.  In talking with editor Stephen Gill about the book, I was struck by how inspiration came to him when he was looking at the persimmon tree in his yard. Bright and sweet, the persimmon is a pristine representation of the natural richness and beauty of poetry and its ability to convey emotions within the changing seasons. He also explained how the chapters in his books, which he terms “villages,” are not theme-based. He simply took the submissions and separated them alphabetically by author into the various ‘villages’. And the reason why they were called village was to highlight the connection between poetry, nature, and community.

Some of the ripest poems, so to say, would include the following.

Lingering cold –

through the shoji

the cry of a crow

    – Lawrence Jiko Barrow.

This poem shows the relationship between silence and a single sound. The silence of a winter’s day is rudely broken by the piercing caw of a crow. The noise gives the previous silence definition, drawing attention to its existence. Ironically, the call of the bird highlights the silence more than if the crow had not cawed at all.

Timidly toddling

on water-lily leaves –

a brood of rail

    – Takashi Itani

Impermanence and the fragility of life are prime concepts of haiku, typically represented by the changing of a leaf’s color. The first line captures the thin line between success and failure, or between life and death. The toddling takes place upon water lilies, a symbol of peace and beauty, which can be easily unbalanced. As each bird treads on the wavering lily, the observer watches sympathetically and muses on the precarious nature of existence.

Elephant Pass –

dry earth, headless palms

peanuts from a soldier

    – Sally McLaren.  

This poem has a rather dark atmosphere, yet one that is powerful nonetheless.  With the setting of Elephant Pass and a presumably rough pathway, the author wonders about those who have passed before and looks for vestiges of previous travelers. The discarded peanuts are all that remains of an unknown soldier.

Winter copse –
at the sky above
like a heroine
I look up
   – Tomiko Nakayama

This puzzling poem depicts the simple act of looking upward at the sky as a gesture of transformation. By gazing up through the leafless trees, the author strikes a pose “like a heroine”. Is she imagining herself rising above the mundane problems of the present? Like many poems, it is elusive and yet filled with potential significance.

Though a collection of poetry, the spirit of a persimmon seems to pervade the pages. After reading one is left with the refreshing aftertaste of poetical inspiration. Written by everyday people, the haiku have a fresh aroma, and though written for the most part in simple terms, some of the poems seem like a gem to have an inexplicable luster. Ah, the rejuvenation one gets from eating a persimmon!


John D. adds a note to point out that the collection features three of our WiK members. Mayumi Kawaharada, whose Haiku Cycle is included in Echoes: Writers in Kyoto Anthology 2017, has five poems in the book. One in the Introduction, which considers the role of the persimmon in Japanese poetry, is apposite in its choice of subject:

An orange colour
rises in the moonlight –
ripe persimmons

Another of Mayumi’s poems has a very different setting and a different seasonal feel…

Seafog covers
an empty beach house –
the end of summer

Another WiK member with a poem in the collection is Michael Lambe of Deep Kyoto fame.  Like Issa, and many another haijin, he enquires somewhat humorously into the insect world:

To what tune
does the spider spin
this disc that snares the light?

The third WiK member to contribute to the collection is Richard Steiner, known locally for his woodblock prints. As one might expect for an artist, there’s a strong visual quality to the poem. As for the content, one could say it would have made a fitting finale to the collection as a whole…

To a silent Buddha
empty limbs reach upward –
one last persimmon

(Hailstone Haiku Circle Publications can be contacted at hikamey7[at]yahoo.co.jp)

Featured writing

The Ladies’ Temple in Saga (Robbins)

The Ladies’ Temple in Saga

By Jeff Robbins

(Thanks to Sydney Solis for providing feedback on this.)

In October, just before I left my home in Fukuoka to go to Kyoto, I discovered a Basho renku about the Nonomiya Shrine in Saga, west of Kyoto, and made time in my schedule to explore the verse in the place where it occurred – although it actually concerns the temple Gio-ji which is walking distance of Nonomiya. I had no idea of the odyssey ahead for me with this stanza-pair. Basho’s stanza is the doorway to a remarklably woman-centered section in the otherwise male-dominated Tale of the Heike: the Story of Gio, in Chapter One of the Tale, tells of four women making their own decisions and interacting with each other without male presence in much of the long detailed story. “The Story of Gio” by this title is available online.

Gio and her sister Gijo were shirabyoshi, “white rhythm” dancers who captivated men with their graceful movements, beauty and hair. Their mother Tashi had been a shirabyoshi as well. Gio became the favorite of the arrogant leader of Japan, Taira Kiyomori, who alloted large allowances to the family so they could live in luxury. But then a younger shirabyoshi appeared on the scene, attracting much attention. Kiyomori refused to hear her because he had Gio. Gio spoke out, “It would be cruel to turn her away with harsh words. Shame and distress would follow her out. I can so easily imagine myself in her place for I too once walked the same paths.” Out of kindness, Gio convinced Kiyomori to allow the younger girl to perform. She did and took Kiyomori’s heart. From that moment he abandoned Gio and her family, leaving them in poverty. Gio eventually shaved her head to become a nun and live in seclusion in Saga, then her sister and mother joined her.

One night came a knock on their door: it was the new favourite who realized that the same thing would happen to her, so she voluntarily gave up her position in Kiyomori’s service, and joined them. Gio said, “And what could bring greater happiness than for us to tread the same path together for the rest of this life?” She is known as Hotoke Gozen, Lady Buddha, because while the three others gave up the world from poverty, while Lady Buddha did so from wealth and comfort.

The four nuns lived and prayed together in solidarity, and it is said they all reached enlightenment. The temple became known as Gio-ji; visitors can see statues of the four ladies, and also their gravestones. From this story and its message of female solidarity, I translate “Gio dera” to “ladies’ temple” in a stanza by Basho taken from linked verse, known as renga.

Her hair gone,
chamberlain’s daughter
grown weary

Storm over Nonomiya
ladies’ temple bells

The Grand Chamberlain (Jijū) is a chief functionary of the Imperial court, and aide to the Emperor of Japan. He also keeps the Privy Seal and the State Seal, but his high rank does not prevent his daughter from experiencing the travails of life.  She cuts her hair and escapes to Saga, at the foot of Mount Arashi (Storm Mountain) where there are many temples. Because “Gio” sounds like “Gion,” the stanza in Japanese recalls the famous opening to the Tales of the Heike:

“The bells of the Gion Shōja echoes the impermanence of all things…. The proud do not endure, like a dream on a spring night, the mighty falls at last, as dust before the wind.”

The Gion Shōja (or Jetavana) temple in India is where the Buddha gave most of his discourses.  This passage is usually said to portray the fall of Kiyomori and his clan from power and wealth to exile and death – however the words well apply to the tale of the four dancers who became four nuns.

Basho sets up the opposition of storm and bells. The first is wild, violent, uncaring; the second deep, steady, and unifying. The storm represents the arrogance and intimidating behavior of men such as Kiyomori; the bells are the steady, focused energy of women. A bell, shaped like a uterus, is clearly female. Temple bells, with their reverberations of up to a full minute, are conducive to meditation, and have become a symbol for world peace. “Bells,” as final word of the verse, resounds through the weariness of the daughter as well as the violence of the storm. In “bells” there is resolution.

When I visited Gio-ji, I spoke to a priest who pointed out that the temple has no bell, so in Basho’s stanza we hear the bells of many temples in Saga combining their reverberations. While Gio-ji lacks a bell, it does have a beautiful moss garden which you can walk through but not touch. The temple is a twenty minute walk from Arashiyama Station which is a fifteen minute ride on the JR Sagano Line from Kyoto Station. There are statues of the four women, and their graves; they remained together for eternity. Maybe if you are there in the evening, you will be able to hear the kindness of Gio, the wisdom of Lady Buddha, the solidarity of the four women, in the temple bells of Saga. Furthermore, through this renku pair, we can explore the multi-faceted issue of gender politics, the ways men use their power to dominate women, the adaptations of women to survive, the chamberlain’s daughter who seems to be alone in her weariness, the ladies who found happiness in sharing their lives of devotion.


For more on Basho in Saga, please click here.

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