Archive for the ‘haiku’ Category

Photo Essay: Pond in Winter

February 2, 2011

On the last day of January, the sun was shining in a blue sky above Zenpukuji Lower Pond.  It was very cold, and the edges of the pond were laced with thin patches of ice.  The ducks moved slowly or not at all.  More birds than humans were hanging out at the pond that day; the jogging path around the pond was at first deserted, though as I made my way to the other side, a couple of photographers appeared, with high-powered-looking lenses hanging from their necks, and here and there I passed someone sitting alone on a bench contemplating the quiet water.


Except for a distant wailing of a siren, the sounds of Tokyo faded away.  Everything slowed down and grew still, and all I could hear were faint whistles and coos from the ducks huddled together in the middle of the pond.  As I stood beside the water, listening, people hurried by me on the path, in a hurry to get their walk done or perhaps just moving quickly to keep warm.


The ducks had other ideas:  Find a sunny spot and stop there for a while.  When you have to move, do so slowly.  They seemed to be demanding this of the humans, even cooperating in picture-taking as long as you too moved in slow motion.



This duck seemed aware of me, and paused long enough for me to shoot, but then immediately afterwards dove into the cold water with a soft splash.





Three-quarters of the way around the pond, I stopped to watch the lone egret resting on his sunny mound of dried grass.  He was surrounded by paddling ducks.  My eyes on him, I did not see what startled one of the ducks, who suddenly let out a loud quack.  All the other ducks immediately rose up out of the water as one, making a loud WHOOSH and scattering drops like diamonds all around them.  This happened too fast for me to get a picture of it—even the heavy-lensed bird photographers missed it—but I saw it.  It was like a fountain that suddenly turns on without warning.  Jets of water shot up in the air all at the same time.  And then the fountain just as suddenly turned off.

Through all the commotion, the egret did nothing, just kept to his post on the grass, like a meditating old arhat.









Back at the entrance to the park, the water at the edges was still frozen.  Pieces of ice glinted in the sun that was just beginning to reach it.

During the walk around the pond, I looked for signs of spring, but found only some tightly closed buds on a few trees.  But from the path I could see in the garden of a house that looks out on the park a plum tree that had beat them to it.







Slowly but surely/ the suns rays reach the pond and/ penetrate its ice





Rainy Season

July 7, 2010


A cat stretches out

under the hydrangea bush:

Rainy season’s here

Nikko Tour

May 16, 2010

We decided to reprint the entire account of the Nikko tour [originally published in V. 2, n. 9/2], of which the honorably mentioned haibun [see v. 3, no. 4 below] forms the second part.  Our haiku poet-in-residence had reworked the original haibun, improving on them we hope, so what is below will be slightly different.   We also discovered after publishing the original account that November 25, the day the Grand Tour set out on its journey to Nikko, is the anniversary of Basho’s death, which in haiku circles is associated with the seasonal phenomenon of wintry rain.

* * * * * *

[The following article originally appeared in slightly different form in Tokyo Tree, Vol. 2, No. 9/2, June 13, 2009.]   Travel Diary:  Nikko. We’ve mentioned in a previous issue the 17th century haiku poet Basho.  He is also famous for his travelogues, in which poetic essays describing his experiences on the road, called haibun, are interspersed with haiku expressing the same or related experience in pithier terms.  Here is an example, excerpted from Basho’s The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa in The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Harmondsworth, England:  Penguin Books, 1966, p. 81).

I threw away quite a number of things, for I believed in travelling light.  There were certain things, however, I had to carry on my back–such as a raincoat, an overcoat, an inkstone, a brush, writing paper, medicine, a lunch basket–and these constituted quite a load for me.  I made such slow progress that I felt deeply depressed as I walked along with faltering steps, giving as much power as I could to my trembling knees.

Tired of walking

I put up at an inn,

Embraced comfortably

By wisteria flowers.

Inspired by Basho, we have written (or, to put it more accurately, attempted to write) the Nikko segment of the Grand Tour Diary in haibun form.

Nikko Tour 1:  “Following in the Master’s Footsteps…”

November 25:  Departing Asakusa Station under cloudy skies, our train sweeps northward to the Prefecture of Tochigi, passing snow-capped Tsukuba to our east, and after an easy transfer at Shimoimaichi Station, brings us to our destination, Nikko.  We expect to find it full of fellow travelers.  Is it because the threat of rain hangs in the clouds above us, and a nip is in the air, or had perchance the latest travel magazine recommended somewhere else?  For on this day, there seems to be no one here but us.

We leave the station and head up Rte. 119 toward the Kanaya Hotel, dragging our luggage behind us.  Had not the guidebooks said the hotel was but a 15-minute walk from here?

Up the hill we trudge

and trudge, taking not fifteen

but forty minutes.


Tired of walking, we come at last to the entrance to our hotel.  Before us rises a steep cobbled drive.  Encouraging each other, we struggle onward and upward to the courtyard of the grand old hotel.  A kindly concierge rushes out to welcome us, despite our bedraggled appearance, and shows us to our room in the Annex.  Its view of the garden scattered with red maple leaves, its nostalgic decor, its up-to-date bathroom with high-tech toilet seat, all embrace us comfortably.

But outside beckons, so we set out to explore.  Behind the hotel we find the entrance to a trail up Daikoku Mountain.  To aid our trembling knees, we help ourselves to bamboo walking sticks decorated with bells, and thus equipped for the steep climb, ascend the wooded hill.   We pause to rest and worship in front of a small shrine, and descend the other side, where we come upon an outdoor swimming pool and skating rink, neither one in use.

On the surface

of a deserted pool only

a tree’s reflection


We return to the hotel, having met no one on our walk but the various gods and spirits of Daikoku Mountain.

Nikko Tour 2:  “After a Night of Cold Rain”

A cold rain falls all night in Nikko, but we are fast asleep in our enveloping room at the Kanaya Hotel, oblivious to the outside world.  The date is November 25.

In the morning the clouds begin to disperse, and the sun to come out.  Unable to afford the hotel dining room, we go out in search of breakfast elsewhere.  Finding none, we turn our steps toward Toshogu.   The air is misty and crisp at the same time, the ground damp beneath our feet.

We come to the Sacred Bridge across the Daiya River.  It costs ¥300 to cross it, but there is no exit on the other side.  We choose instead the profane bridge next to it because it costs nothing and goes somewhere.  When we reach the entrance to the shrine grounds, we feel in the presence of something old and vast.  Above us soar ancient trees, whose rain-sodden branches the sun is just beginning to penetrate.

No coffee yet but

sunlight pours instead through cedar trees,

and mists arise


A shrine maiden in vermilion hakama is sweeping the wide stone steps that lead up into the inner precincts.  We are among the first visitors of the day, soon followed by a group of schoolchildren in yellow hats.  They cluster near the torii and listen to their teacher’s history lesson.

Without a guide

our boy races through the gate

to sacred ground


The steps take us past prayer halls and washing troughs, treasure houses and souvenir stands, all decorated with gold leaf or elaborate, colorful carvings of fantastic dragons and guardian gods, flowers, cats, monkeys and imaginary elephants.

The wooden clappers

crack–and then from somewhere comes

the dragon’s answer.


Nikko Tour 3:  “Absence and Presence”

The bus goes zig zag

zig zag up the road to what

we don’t yet know

The bus stops and lets us out into cold fresh air, sunlight reflecting off new-fallen snow, and a wide blue sky.  We pad through the snow to the lake.  Deer have been here before us, perhaps at dawn, to drink at the water’s edge and return to the mountain.

Here on this still shore

footprints and droppings of deer

left in pristine snow



If Toshogu is rising mists and ornate mysteries, Chuzenji is simple clarity at its illuminated best.  The water of the lake shines blue and clear, the mountainsides around the lake etched sharply against the sky.  We pass two young women making a tiny snowman.  Later they find us again and give the snowman to our boys.  We give up all our plans, surrendering to the scenery and the moment.

If only things could

always be so crystal clear:

Lake Chuzenji!


The boys want to find monkeys, so we leave the shore and walk behind the shops in search of them.  We come upon a parking lot as big as a football field.  Not a single car is parked in it today.  We tramp through a wooded hillside above the lot, looking for monkeys.

Beside a blue lake

an empty parking lot

no monkeys either


It’s time to catch our train back to Tokyo.

The bus goes zig zag

zig zag back down the hill to

what we used to know





March 8, 2010

Train Stories. February 10, 2010.  On the Chuo line between Yotsuya and Ochanomizu  Stations.  I was standing up, looking out the window at the passing scenery.  On this stretch of the Chuo line, the tracks run beside the outer moat of the Imperial Palace, a tributary of the Kanda River.  On the opposite bank a cluster of plum trees in various shades of pink were doing their best to imitate an impressionist painting, their budding branches all gradually shading into one another like feathery fans.

As the train pulled into Ochanomizu Station, an elderly woman sitting in front of where I was standing made moves as if she were about to get off, so I stood back to give her room.  As she passed me I just caught her English “Thank you,” whispered like a code word it would be wrong for others to overhear.  As I sat down in her vacated seat, I realized her pronunciation had been perfect.

For a native Japanese speaker, many English sounds are hard to make because they do not exist in the Japanese language.  Two of these troublesome sounds are present in the word thank: th and a The nearest approximation to tha one can make, without retraining the tongue, is the Japanese sa with a pronounced like the a in father. It is hard for Japanese mouths to form the a in thank  (pronounced as the sound ash and written as æ in the International Phonetic Alphabet).  For this reason, many people find it easier to say “thank you” in English by saying “3-9” instead.  The word for 3 is san and the word for 9 is kyu, thus san-kyu.

But this woman had not said “3-9.”  Even though she had whispered, what resonated in my ears afterwards clearly began with th and proceeded to nk via æ.  I experienced this tiny variation in the usual Japanese pronunciation of “thank you” as a kind of secret greeting.  It was as if she were telling me that hidden inside her thoroughly Japanese exterior was a history of intimate experience with the English language.  Perhaps she had once taught English to junior high school kids, or had lived abroad as the wife of a diplomat, or had traveled extensively on her own.  Or maybe she had just listened every morning to the NHK radio English lessons, repeating after the announcer, “thank you thank you thank you” until she got it perfect.

However she reached mastery of these troublesome sounds, the accomplishment admitted her to a secret unacknowledged society of Japanese people who speak English fluently.  Few of them advertise themselves.  While the English language is studied assiduously here, especially its grammatical and lexical aspects, there is great resistance to actually speaking it and making practical use of it as a tool of communication or an instrument of creative expression.  And one way to maintain and strengthen that resistance is to make those who can speak it well feel they are somehow odd or “un-Japanese,” effectively silencing them.   Thus,  I only learn from an essay written in the last class of a university English course that a student who has kept her mouth shut all year actually spent the first ten years of her life living in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Or, when I finally speak on the phone to a man for whom I do proofreading work and who always corresponds with me in Japanese, only then do I discover that his English is impeccable and far superior to the hesitant Japanese I’ve been using to explain an English point of grammar to him.

The other day I heard the plaintive call of a tofu-seller’s horn making its way around the neighborhood.  I hurried downstairs and found the young tofu-seller parked with his wagon on the corner.  Another woman was loading up on tofu, soy milk bread, and curried “bean curd refuse” croquettes.  When she was done shopping, she turned to me and asked if I were German, and when I replied no, she excused herself and hurried away.  “Where are you from then?” the young man asked in Japanese, and when I replied “America,” he switched to English.  “I used to live-a there!” he grinned.  “But I was-a born-a in-a Italy!” he added proudly.  I had found another member of the secret society, one who spoke not only fluent English, but fluent English with an Italian accent.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Hai-pho Gallery

Shadows lengthen as

sunlight withdraws to the west

the moss grows greener