Remembering Sylvia Plath

Today is the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death, her final suicide attempt.

Although she graduated from Smith College—to my surprise, exactly 50 years before I did!—I have never taken the time to read much of her poetry. I hope that will change in the future, for her poem “Daddy,” for example, is so brutal and beautiful at the same time. It is perhaps particularly poignant for a fellow German-American such as myself, but that contemplation will have to be left to some future post.

Instead of that poem, “Soliloquy of the Solipsist” was the first to captivate me as I searched for something suitable here. For I see in it a warning related to my most recent post, wherein I wrote that history is only truly understood through the lens of personal experience.

In any case, it’s no good to preface a poem too much, so here it is, followed by an interview recorded on October 20, 1962. The interview took place a week before her 30th birthday, only a few months before she died, and if she were alive today, she would have been eighty years old.

Soliloquy of the Solipsist

I walk alone;
The midnight street
Spins itself from under my feet;
When my eyes shut
These dreaming houses all snuff out;
Through a whim of mine
Over gables the moon’s celestial onion
Hangs high.

Make houses shrink
And trees diminish
By going far; my look’s leash
Dangles the puppet-people
Who, unaware how they dwindle,
Laugh, kiss, get drunk,
Nor guess that if I choose to blink
They die.

When in good humor,
Give grass its green
Blazon sky blue, and endow the sun
With gold;
Yet, in my wintriest moods, I hold
Absolute power
To boycott any color and forbid any flower
To be.

Know you appear
Vivid at my side,
Denying you sprang out of my head,
Claiming you feel
Love fiery enough to prove flesh real,
Though it’s quite clear
All your beauty, all your wit, is a gift, my dear,
From me.


Knowing or not knowing. . .

(Section 99 of The Tales of Ise, curtesy of the Kyoto University Library)

I find the handwriting in old Japanese manuscripts fascinating. When I took lessons in brush calligraphy, I could not get the balance of the kanji right, much less progress to the even more difficult kana letters that constitute this text. Perhaps if I had had a few more years’ patience, I might have some day been able to approximate this style.

Now, my challenge studying noh at the university is to simply read the script. This may be simpler than writing it myself, but I still struggle with the task. I can hardly believe I picked out the beginning characters of the poem I was looking for in an online document that was 211 pages long.

The reason for this search was an intriguing poem, the first line of which I stumbled upon while reading Nijo Yoshimoto’s text on renga (linked verse) today. The whole poem by an unidentified woman in The Tales of Ise fascinates me even more.


Shiru shiranu nani ka ayanaku wakite ihamu omohi no mi koso shirube narikere

Nothing to indicate you know or don’t know, but a sudden flame exciting your thoughts will show you the way

Continue reading “Knowing or not knowing. . .”

The Lonely Season

Bashoan at Konpukuji

(Bashoan, Basho hut, at Konpuku Temple in Kyoto. Basho was a poet who lived more than four hundred years after Saigyo, but he considered Saigyo his greatest influence.)

Moro tomo ni kage wo naraburu hito mo areya tsuki no morikuru sasa no io ni

If only there were someone who would line up their shadow next to mine in this grass hut that the moon has filled with light.

– Saigyō (My translation)

Continue reading “The Lonely Season”

Irises are now out of season, but. . .

(The irises at Heian Shrine a few years ago.)

My undergraduate advisor Tom Rohlich was so nice in pointing out that Ogata Korin’s Irises were inspired by a poem by Ariwara no Narihira, which appears in the Tales of Ise, that I simply had to post it.


Karakoromo kitsutsu narenishi tsuma shi areba harubaru kinuru tabi wo shi zo omou

Having come so far on this trip, I yearn for my wife, who is as familiar and intimate to me as my worn clothing.

Despite the melancholy atmosphere of the poem, something that is untranslatable about it is that it puns on the Japanese word for irises, kakitsubata.  Like the anagrammatic poems I remember writing in elementary school, in which each line began with the next letter of a word, Ariwara no Narihira’s poem begins each line with a syllable of kakitsubata (the fourth syllable of kakitsubata, “ba,” becomes the unvoiced variant of the same phonetic character, “ha,” in the poem).

In this way, he also refers to the location he has traveled to, Yatsuhashi, now in Aichi Prefecture near Nagoya, an area famous for its irises.  Therefore, although the poem doesn’t mention irises directly per se, the irises embody Ariwara no Narihira’s desire to see his wife.

As this poem inspired Ogata Korin’s iris screens, the irises, which take up the whole screen, may be said to be more than a representation of the natural world.  Rather, it embodies or represents human emotions. Continue reading “Irises are now out of season, but. . .”


I recently came across this poem in the Kokin Wakashu, a collection of poetry from the turn of the 10th century.  It was written by Ki no Tsurayuki, whom I’ve mentioned in a previous post about empathy.

世の中はかくこそ有りけれ吹く風の 目に見ぬ人もこひしかりけり

yo no naka wa kaku koso arikere fuku kaze no
me ni minu hito mo koishikarikeri

in this world some things are lacking and yet present like the blowing wind    yearning for an invisible person

(Please forgive the roughness of my translation.  In the Japanese, the wind is not personified by yearning.  The use of the auxiliary verb -keri in this poem indicates exclamatory recognition or discovery.)

This poem caught my attention for the depth of possible interpretations.  At first, since it is classified with the love (or romantic) poems in the Kokin Wakashu, it is easy to imagine the poet sending this in a message to his distant lover, who is waiting for him in the capital, while he is tending to an official post in the distant provinces.  Or perhaps it is for someone he is not able or allowed to see for one reason or another.

The fascinating question is, therefore, why can’t the poet see the object of his love?  Although it may very possibly be because of spacial distance, differences in class, or court politics, it might very well be that this “invisible person” is very literally not visible – not to anyone, anywhere.

And yet, despite being invisible, this person is present to the poet.  One interpretation would then be, the “invisible person” is someone who has passed away.  Only memories of this person remain.  The memories exist, while the person remains invisible.

Another interpretation might be that the “invisible person” is someone who never existed.  Perhaps it is a person only present in the poet’s mind.  The poet wishes the “invisible person,” perhaps a person who fully understands him, were alive nearby, but also expresses that such a person has no actual physical presence.  Like the wind.

Empathy: from social neuroscience to the Kokinshu

I’ve recently been spending quite a bit of time deliberating empathy.  Yes, empathy, feeling the same emotions as another person or setting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

All these popular ideas about the unbridgeable relationship between the subject and the object has made me feel a little alienated.  (I guess that’s normal, I guess.)  A story about Rousseau watching his “Maman” put a piece of food in her mouth and realizing he would never know how it must taste comes to mind, and that just sends shivers up my back telling me there’s something a little off. Continue reading “Empathy: from social neuroscience to the Kokinshu”

A New Blog


It’s cherry blossom season in Kyoto

I have been living in Kyoto for almost 2 years, and I want to start this blog to write more seriously about thoughts from my experiences, from Japanese literature, and from my various traditional arts classes. I have been taking private lessons in tea ceremony for two years, took lessons in wearing kimono for one year, and I recently started lessons in Japanese calligraphy and Noh theatre. Although I do have a food blog, Cooking with Chopsticks, I wanted an outlet that forced me to organize more serious observations. And so, everything I write here is a work in progress. Please bear with my strange flights of reason (if they may even be called reason instead of fancy).

Whenever I meet a European or North American unfamiliar with life in Japan, the divide between East and West is brusquely revealed. I felt the same divide when I was graduating high school and realizing most of my education thus far had been quite Euro-centric. I write this blog to begin refining my own understanding of Japan. If in the process I might help someone understand my fascination with the beauty of Japanese arts or help someone understand a theory in Japanese thought, I will consider my writings a huge success.

Finally, in choosing the title of this blog, “While the Mountain Sleeps,” I drew on a poem by Yosano Akiko, and applied it to my own drive towards certain personal goals.


“Mountain moving day has come,”
is what I say. But no one believes it.
Mountains were just sleeping for a while.
Earlier, they had moved, burning with fire.
But you do not have to believe it.
O people! You’d better believe it!
All the sleeping women move
now that they awaken.

Yosano, Akiko. “Mountain Moving Day.” River of Stars: Selected Poems of Yosano Akiko. Trans. Sam Hamill and Keiko Matsui Gibson. Boston and London: Shambhala Press, 1996.