a poetic pilgrimage

Posted on: Fri, 05/11/2007 - 09:50 By: Tom Swiss

finger wet with tears
i touch the monument to
haiku poets

-- written at Rakushisha, Kyoto

A poetic pilgrimage today. Back out to Arishiyama, this time with the intent to visit Rakushisha, the reconstructed cottage of haiku poet Mukai Kyorai. Kyorai was a friend and student of Basho, who said of Kyorai that he was "in charge of haiku in Western Japan."

Some of his haiku (gathered from the internet):

Chanting and humming / gongs immerse the green valley / in cool waves of air

Returning from a funeral / I saw this very moon / high above the moor

Awakening faith / At the time when blossoms / Are just in the bud.

Sadly fading / its light on my palm - / a glowworm

Trees as well as stones / glaring in my sight - / heat wave

I'm coming, I yelled / yet knocking on the gate - / it's snowing

Rakushisha literally means "Cottage of the Fallen Persimmons". Apparently, Kyorai had a bunch of fruit trees with a bumper crop expected, and had made arrangements to sell it. But a storm blew up one night, and knocked all the persimmons to the ground. (Arishiyama means "stormy mountain".)

When Kyorai saw the damage the next day, and saw the mountain through the now-bare trees, he had an awakening experience (even if an expensive one, since he had to pay back advance payment on the fruit.)

Basho stayed at the cottage three times, in the late 1600s. So the place has some gravitas in the haiku world.

So much so, I found (and this wasn't in the guidebook) that there's a monument to haiku poets in the garden. This "haijin to" (haiku poets memorial) gorinto (five-stone monument, a traditional form often found in graveyards representing the five elements - in Japanese thinking, earth, water, fire, wind, and heaven/void) is dedicated to all haiku poets of the past, present, and future.

Well, having written a few haiku myself, I figure that's a monument to us, not a monument to them, if you see my meaning, so I got a little teary-eyed. Touched my eye, then touched the stone, finger damp with a tear.

A poem stone next to the monument (added later, I think) reads:

the spring rain
heaven and earth here
the monument to haiku poets

haru no ame
ame tsuchi koko ni
haijin to

The folks who keep the grounds have an interesting variant on o-mikuji, the fortune-telling you find at shrines and temples. You shake the can to get numbered stick, but the fortune you get is a haiku. My fortune was "so-so", my haiku was by Basho:

this road...
no passers-by
autumn evening

The haiku mikuji notes the desolate feeling of the poem, and that Bassho died about twenty days after writing it.

Kyorai's grave is in a cemetery just a little bit north of the cottage; I stopped by to pay my respects.

Stopped in at Nonomiya jinga, a small but apparently famous shrime where women who were going to be priestesses at Ise apparently spent several years preparing and purifying. There's some sort of "electric" or "lightning" kami stone there (I didn't get the full story), that people are allowed and encouraged to rub and touch. So I did. Felt a little tinglely.

Then back to Tenryuji to enjoy the garden a bit. So much greener now, in summer mode when just a few weeks ago all was blossoms.

Made my way downtown, got dinner, Now, coffee at Cattle-ya, the sacred well coffee place.

Now, a Magner's at an Irish pub a bit down the way. Now that's a fine thing to find in Kyoto, a fine cider and some good live Irish music.

Something from last Saturday...so I'm dancing to the Native Toungues, having a fine time, when this guy - European I'd say, from some Mediterranean country, Greek or Spanish maybe, starts trying to get me to dance with this girl who's sitting quietly, not showing any desire to dance or any interest in me. I think he was aiming at her friend, and thought if he could get them both dance partners it would be to his advantage - a sort of "a rising tide lifts all boats" philosophy. But he was trying way too hard, and I've always found that pushing you way into a woman's space is a fine way to end up going home alone. ("Boy, boy, crazy boy, stay cool boy...")

So when I don't rise up and jump at this chance to dance with this girl (let me note that I was talking to someone at the time), dude asks if I'm here with anyone. No, I know some people but I'm not here with anyone.

"Ah, so you're a stranger here?"

Snappy reply comes: "I'm sort of a stranger everywhere I go, friend."

Which of course isn't quite true; when I'm in my element, I'm home, familiar with and to many. But that element isn't simply defined as geographical region.

After my first trip here, when I got back home people asked me if I didn't feel out of place in Japan. No, I replied - no more so than I do walking down a random street in Baltimore.

Now, around the poetry scene, or at one of my regular haunts, or at an event like FSG, sure I'm in my element. But these are disconnected in time and space. There have even been a few time/space loci here in Japan where I've been in my element.

In between, though, "you ain't from around here, are you?" can apply a hundred meters from the place I was born, just as much as halfway around the planet. It's a state of mind.

Hi, so do you live in Japan or were you just here for a visit? I live near Kyoto and have been to Rakushisha, a place I certainly wanted to see because of my interest in Japanese literature, but I've never met even a Japanese person who knew what it was. I once made a friend on the internet before when I searched for Rakushisha (oddly, I realized that I had actually seen that person in real life somewhere else in Kyoto!), and I found your page doing the same type of random search. So, nice to see your impressions. You seem like a cool person. - Bonnie

In reply to by Bonnie (not verified)

Hi Bonnie, thanks for the kind word.

I was just visiting, spent three months in Osaka and Kansai this spring. Hoping to get back for a week or so in December if things work out - there's a karate tournament in Nagoya I want to go to, and figure if I can, I might as well stay for a while and make it worth my while.

I found Rakushisha thanks to my Lonely Planet guidebook, but that led me on to Basho's birthplace in Iga Ueno, and his grave in Otsu.

Lot of neat stuff near Kyoto! I really liked the Arishiyama area, the garden at Tenryuji was one of my favorite things. The Zen center I visited, Tekishin Juku, was also out that general way, in Kameoka.

Tom Swiss - proprietor, unreasonable.org

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