The Cricket in the Helmet & Warrior Dreams

I was reading one of Matsuo Basho’s travel diaries, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, last night. Those of you have been with me long enough, know that Basho is regarded as the greatest – the first, the last and the only 🙂 – haiku poet who ever lived. (Those of you haven’t been long enough can find links to an introduction to his poetry and to haiku poetry in general below.) Now haiku can be a bit cryptic sometimes, and I was delighted when I came across some of the Basho’s most famous haikus in his travel diary, accompanied by the stories or landscape that inspired them.

Matsuo Basho by Sugiyama Sanpu [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

I’m sharing two of these today and maybe some others at a later time. Although neither of today’s haikus is difficult to understand or interpret, the story behind them might be of interest to those of you who like history!

The Cricket in the Helmet

so pitiful—
     under the helmet,
          a cricket

I think we had this particular haiku on the blog before, albeit in a different translation. This translation is by David Landis Barnhill.

Basho introduced the haiku in his travel diary with the following explanation:

In this area, I visited the Tada Shrine which contains Sanemori’s helmet and a piece of his armour brocade. In days of old, it is said, at a time when he still served the Genji clan, these articles were given to him by Lord Yoshitomo.

Certainly they were meant for no common warrior: from eye shield to ear flaps there is an engraved arabesque of chrysanthemum inlaid with gold and at the crown is a dragon’s head with the hoe-shaped crests attached.

In the annals of the shrine it is written that after Sanemori’s death in battle, Kiso Yoshinaka dedicated these relics to the shrine with a message of prayer; Higuchi no Jiro his emissary. 

Here they lie before my eyes, just as in the legend.

It is remarkable, at least to my western eyes, that in the late 1600s Basho visited, in effect, a museum, where a precious piece of armour has been preserved from the civil wars of some five hundred years earlier. And of course, he knew the story behind it; but then he was a learned man.

Now I suspect that most of you are not that familiar of the early medieval history of Japan, so a little explanation about who Sanemori was, or indeed who the Genji were, and what civil war we’re even talking about. Some of it will be relevant also to the second haiku we will look at today.

The Genpei War

You probably all know that Japan has been ruled by emperors since time immemorial; however, for most of the time, the emperors’ rule was purely nominal and real power were held by the heads of various warrior clans (I expect the term shogun is familiar to all of you?).

Now back in the 12th century, three clans competed for power: the Fujiwaras, the Genji and the Heike. They were all descended from some earlier emperors, and eventually their contest for power resulted in repeated civil wars. (Just to confuse matters a little, the Genji are also known as Minamoto and the Heike as Taira; but bear with me.) The fight between these two – the Genji and the Heike – is knowns as the Genpei war, in the second half of the 12th century.

Their story is well known in Japan and provided literary inspiration to authors for centuries.

The Story of Sanemori

Sanemori’s helmet in the Tada Shrine

Saito Sanemori, in whose helmet the cricket was sitting, was originally a retainer of the Genji, whose then leader, Minamoto no Yoshitomo gifted him the armour; but he later changed sides. At the time of the battle of Shinohara, in 1183, Sanemori was seventy-three years old. He died his hair black to disguise his age and died in the battle, fighting for the Heike.

Warrior Dreams

summer grass—
     all that remains
          of warriors’ dreams

Again, we had this haiku before, although in a different translation.

And these were Basho’s thoughts and the scenery, where and when he penned the haiku:

The splendor of three generations is now but a dream; the ruins of the great gate lie one league off. All that remains of Fujiwara Hidehira’s castle are fields and paddies. Only Mount Kinkei retains its form.

First we climbed up Takadachi, Yoshitsune’s “high fortress”, and looking out we saw Kitakami, a large river flowing from Nambu Province. The river Koromo encircles the castle of Izumi Saburo and then below Takadachi it pours into the larger river. Beyond the Koromo Barrier is the ruins of the castle of Hidehira’s son, Yasuhira, which protected the approach from Nambu; it probably guarded against the Ezo tribesmen. 

Yoshitsune’s retainers took this castle as their fortress; their glory, in a moment, has turned to grass. “A country torn apart, the mountains and rivers remain; in spring, in the ruined castle, the grass is green.”

I laid out my bamboo hat and I wept without sense of time.

The Story of Yoshitsune

Minamoto no Yoshitsune is the great tragic hero of the era and was always a particular favourite of mine.

He was the son of the aforementioned Lord Yoshitomo. When Yoshitomo was defeated in battle by the Heike in 1160, he was killed and many of his sons were executed outright.

Yoshitsune, then a babe in arms was spared but was separated from his mother and sent to live in a far off monastery. He escaped from there while still a teenager, and when his elder half-brother Yoritomo rebelled agains the Heike, he fought on his side in the Genpei war.

He was a legendary swordsman and an able general, winning several battles for Yoritomo, but after victory was hunted down by his brother and killed. He was only thirty at the time; it’s not known what became of his mistress and his son who was born posthumously. (There are a lot more details to this story but those would make a post in themselves!)

At the end of the war, Yoshitsune’s brother Yoritomo founded the Kamakura shogunate, the first shogunate in Japan, which lasted until  1333.

The line quoted by Basho towards the end, about the country torn apart, is from a Chinese poem, A Spring View by Du Fu (written in 735 AD).

Further reading:
An Evening with Matsuo Basho
Four Seasons in Japan - with Matsuo Basho
The Four Seasons in Japan
The Dark Side of Life (In Nine Haikus)

And more haikus in the following Lockdown Diary entries:
Day 36: Hiking the Kii Peninsula with a Book of Haikus
Day 42: Cherry Blossom Viewing
Day 48: Serenity
Picture credit for Sanemori's helmet: Picture by  www.hot-ishikawa.jp  retrieved via the blog post Daruma Pilgrim's Gallery (Fair Use) where you can also see a photo of the statue of Basho at the Tada Shrine!

Lockdown Diaries: Day 48 (Serenity)

Locked Down in London, Day 48: Overworked

So I worked 3 hours extra today, and then despite of the fact that tomorrow is a bank holiday, I had to agree to work tomorrow as well, to meet all those people’s deadlines who have forgotten that tomorrow, actually, is a day off in the whole country. What makes it even more annoying is that of course I won’t even get paid for it or get time off in lieu…!

So what I need right now is, first of all, a large gin & tonic… and then a book of haikus. To regain my serenity.

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 48 (Serenity)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 42 (Cherry Blossom Viewing)

Locked Down in London, Day 42: Olympics in Quarantine

The Two-Tailed Dog Party in Hungary (I did hesitate whether I should be naming political parties here but the name add spice to the story!) is going to run a quarantine olympics this month – events include:

  • Speed Disinfecting
  • Indoor Gazing Into the Distance
  • Synchronised Couch Movement
  • Pancake Making Commentary
  • Toilet-roll Tower Building

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 42 (Cherry Blossom Viewing)”

Lockdown Diaries: Day 36 (Hiking the Kii Peninsula with a Book of Haikus)

Locked Down in London, Day 36: J-Pop

I’m becoming an expert in designing walking routes through the neighbouring streets. I now know on which street are the trees in bloom; which front gardens have the nicest tulips (on the way out now), lilacs or artistically arranged evergreens. I connect the streets with patches of woodlands, parks and playing fields in an effort to device myself that I’m walking in the country.

How many days in a row have I walked these exact streets without seeing anything else? Listening to the same music? I had to have some variety so now I’m cycling through world pop, a different country each day. I’m learning new phrases to search Spotify: Latin pop, Euro-pop, J-pop.

Continue reading “Lockdown Diaries: Day 36 (Hiking the Kii Peninsula with a Book of Haikus)”

Twelve Books in Twelve Months (2019)

About a year ago I looked back at 2018, admitted it had been a real struggle to keep the blog going and hoped for things to go better in 2019. Well, I can tell you this: they didn’t (if you didn’t work this out already for yourselves by the scarcity of the posts). What can I say? May 2020 be better than 2019 and may I write some good posts this year! 🙂

But while you’re waiting for those posts, let’s have a quick review at some of the books of 2019: books you might enjoy – or you’ll want to avoid! 🙂

By the way, if you ever want to know what I’m reading, you can always take a look at the Reading Log (which I do try to keep reasonably up-to-date).

Continue reading “Twelve Books in Twelve Months (2019)”

Musashi: The Master Swordsman of Medieval Japan

The Battle of Sekigahara… anyone?

Well, I’d never heard of it either before I read Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel, Musashi.

Which brings us to the next question: Miyamoto Musashi, anyone?

Your answer, of course, is in the title of this post: Miyamoto Musashi was one of the most famous – if not the most famous – swordsman Japan ever produced. Already in his lifetime he became a legend.

Continue reading “Musashi: The Master Swordsman of Medieval Japan”

The Dark Side of Life (In Nine Haikus)

It’s February, it’s cold, it’s dark, life is s**t for so many different reasons.

In other words:

It’s Time For Poetry

I could, of course, dig out something uplifting, like Odysseas Elytis painting an Aegean heaven. I usually do, at moments like this. But you know what, not tonight. After all, life is not all song and dance, and sometimes, just ever so often, you do have every reason to sit in a dark corner and howl. (Some of you might have a lot more reasons to sit and howl than others – rid yourself of the notion that life is fair.)

Continue reading “The Dark Side of Life (In Nine Haikus)”

Twelve Books in Twelve Months (2018)

For certain unfortunate reasons I don’t wish to detail here, I struggled to keep the blog going last year and, as you might have noticed, there were times when weeks went by without me being able to publish any other post than the weekly quote. Nevertheless, I still did manage to read a few books… so to start the new year off (may it be better than the last), let’s look back on some of last year’s readings.

Books you might enjoy – or you’ll want to avoid! 🙂

Continue reading “Twelve Books in Twelve Months (2018)”

The Samurai

…and the Priest

Because The Samurai, this novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, has two protagonists for all that only one of them is mentioned in the title. Two main characters in parallel, united in purpose – yet in contrast to each other.

The purpose that unites them is gaining an agreement for the establishment of direct trade between Japan and Nueva España, New Spain, in exchange for Japan allowing Christian misssionaries to proselytise in the country. What separates them is… everything else, beginning with their reasons for setting out on the embassy. The year is 1613, and the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu has recently managed to unify Japan under his own rule.

The samurai, Rokuemon Hasekura, hopes to get his ancestral lands back; the priest, Father Velasco, dreams of becoming the Bishop of Japan. Their desires will only be granted if their mission is successful…  can they carry it off?

Continue reading “The Samurai”

Four Seasons in Japan – with Matsuo Basho

“Haiku”, it is said in Japan, “began and ended with Basho.”

Translator’s Introduction to The Sound of Water: Haiku by Basho, Buson, Issa and Other Poets by Sam Hamill

Two weeks ago, in the conclusion of The Four Seasons in Japan, I promised that I would revisit haikus, with a specific focus on Matsuo Basho (you know: the first, the last and the only… in other words, the greatest writer of haikus), so:

  • first a little introduction to Matsuo Basho’s life and poetry
  • followed by part II of The Four Seasons in Japan

Enjoy. 🙂

Continue reading “Four Seasons in Japan – with Matsuo Basho”

An Evening with Matsuo Basho

Matsuo Basho by Sugiyama Sanpu [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]
I was reading haikus last night. A haiku – for those of you who don’t know – is a traditional, non-rhyming Japanese poem of 17 syllables, arranged in three lines of 5-7-5 syllables respectively.

The greatest – the first, the last and the only, some would say – haiku poet was Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) but we’re not going to enter into a thorough discussion of his qualities right now because:

a) it’s getting on for midnight and I’ve got to go to work tomorrow, and

b) nobody’s first introduction to a poet or a style of poetry should be spoiled by literary criticism.

(You’ll just have to subscribe and wait until I revisit the topic.)

I love haikus because I love my poems evocative, ephemeral and emotive. The best haikus are capable of combining those three qualities within measly seventeen syllables.

(We’ll take this step by step.)

Continue reading “An Evening with Matsuo Basho”

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

A Writer Remembered for the Wrong Reason

Japanese literature is not one of my strongest fields (to put it mildly!) but Yukio Mishima is a writer whom I have found interesting – although perhaps for the wrong reason. Because Mishima, who was three times nominated for the Noble Prize in literature, ultimately is probably more famous for his failed coup d’état followed by his seppuku (ritual suicide) in 1970 than for his novels. To somebody like me, who is interested in history, Mishima’s coup d’état throws up lots of questions about postwar Japan. Nevertheless, it’s probably not what you would want to be remembered for as a writer.

Continue reading “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion”