June 15, 2015

Kenny Tanemura

BASHŌ’S HUT: A HAIBUN

I asked people at souvenir shops, bakeries, at Circle Ks for directions to Konpukuji Temple, but no one had heard of it, and they could only give me vague directions after I circled the temple on the map. I was surprised because the temple was in their neighborhood, and Japan’s greatest poet, Matsuo Bashō, had lived there, and written one of his most famous haiku:

Even in Kyoto
hearing the cuckoo’s cry
I long for Kyoto

I decided to write my own haiku in response:

Dusk falling in Kyoto
I long for the freshness
of morning in Kyoto

By the time we’d reached Konpukuji Temple, we were soaked in sweat and rain and frustration. Finally, after we found ourselves passing the Kyoto University of Art & Design, a super-stylish campus—we were wandering uphill through residential neighborhoods. We usually don’t approach local Japanese who aren’t working in some capacity, but upon seeing a man walking in the rain with two small boys, I couldn’t help calling out “Sumimasen.” Luckily the man stopped and said that he would take us to the temple. Evidently one of the small boys was visiting from America and knew English. He wanted the boy to practice English with us, but like many Japanese children, he was too shy. The man asked the boy to ask us where we are from, but the boy shook his rain-soaked head and said no.

We walked up a flight of stone stairs in the middle of a residential neighborhood and found the temple we would never have found without the kind help of the stranger. An old man sat behind a counter, looking surprised to see us. It was raining out, and late for Kyoto, about 4 p.m. A lot of things close around 5 p.m. in Kyoto.

I was surprised to find out that Yosa Buson’s grave was also on the property. It seemed fitting that Buson, as Japan’s second greatest haiku poet, should have his grave in the yard of Bashō’s house, since Bashō is generally regarded as Japan’s greatest poet.

Sitting on the tatami in the hut where Bashō lived and wrote haiku hundreds of years ago, I felt humbled. I couldn’t read anything in the little museum down the hill from the hut, no scrolls or signs, but it was magical nonetheless. I wanted to stay there for the rest of the evening and write haiku about the summer rain. Few things inspired me in Japan, not my visit to long-lost relatives in Taga, not my travels through Tokyo and Yokohama, but Bashō’s old hut was inspiring for me. I dashed off seven haiku:

Footsteps
the sound of rain …
pages turning

Another visitor come
to visit Bashō’s hut …
garden stillness

Bashō your
neighbors don’t know you—
summer rain

Summer rain
falls into the well
Bashō drank from

Kyoshi wrote poems
of the view from here—
today clouds, rain …

In Bashō’s hut
don’t want to move
an inch

Stretch my aching
legs in Bashō’s hut—
already at home!

I had visited the Keats Shelley House in Rome last summer, but my experience of wandering around the house where Keats spent his last days, while stunning, doesn’t compare to my experience of sitting in Bashō’s thatched hut. His haiku made such a deep impression on me as a teenager when my parents took me to Tokyo’s Maruzen Bookstore and I bought a handful of translations of Bashō’s poetry. I didn’t care about the trend of the moment that was being sported on the streets of the Ginza, I just cared about the essences that Bashō captured so well. These days, I’ve gone far from my youthful idealization of essences and more toward the trivia of the moment. I want to return again to my deep, if lost, love for the core of things that Bashō was always aiming for, both in his life and poetry.

Buson also influenced me greatly. In front of Buson’s grave, I put my hands together in the rain, closed my eyes and bowed. I remembered one of my favorite haiku by Buson:

I leave,
you stay—
two autumns

I used to wonder at the meaning of this poem. Were there two autumns because each individual had a different experience of autumn? Or was autumn doubly autumnal—solemn and lonely, because the other had gone? Of course autumn in Japan is famously beautiful, a time of leaves turning color. So was this poem then an ode to autumn’s beauty? Or is autumn personified here—the “you” is not a friend but autumn itself. When autumn leaves and turns to winter, Buson is left to grieve the loss of this beautiful season. But what about “two autumns?” Doesn’t that suggest that Buson himself is autumn? Is it possible for the autumn in autumn to leave and the autumn in Buson to stay autumnal despite autumn being over? He carries the season he loves within him. This doesn’t seem improbable for a Japanese poet who loved few things more than seasons and their various characteristics and changes. I left a poem for Buson:

Bashō
Buson fixed up your hut
found in ruin

from Rattle #47, Spring 2015
Tribute to Japanese Forms

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Kenny Tanemura: “I became interested in Japanese poetry through J.D. Salinger’s stories. On a trip to Tokyo shortly after graduating from high-school, I visited the Maruzen bookstore in the Ginza and took home as many translations of Japanese poetry as were available, an armful.”