Sleeping Mountains

Reflections on life, literature, and culture.

Category: Poetry

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

Read the rest of this entry »


(Homage to Wilson A. Bentley #4. 2005 – 2006.)

I recently stumbled across this snow photography by Yuji Ogawa, and by the next day had this image installed as my current desktop. Ogawa developed a technique to photograph snow crystals as they fall from the sky. I find it hard to imagine how small these flakes must be, and yet they have so much fine structure.

To go with it, a fitting waka that I first learned as a part of the kuse dance for the noh play Yuki. I quote it here in the original from the “Ukifune” chapter of The Tale of Genji.


Mine no yuki migiwa no kōri fumiwakete kimi ni zo madō michi ni madowazu

Snow on the peaks, breaking the ice along the shore with each footstep, you confound me, but the road does not

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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

For a friend, 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.

(My translation)

Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »


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.


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