A Poem a Week (May 2)

According to Japan’s old calendar, spring is over. The four seasons are neatly divided into 3 months a piece: February, March, and April (Spring); May, June, and July (Summer); August, September, and October (Autumn); and November, December, and January (Winter). By that reckoning it’s the second day of summer. If I were living down in Tokyo or Osaka then I’d agree with that. But up here in Akita, it’s definitely not summer. And in Hokkaidō, the cherry blossoms haven’t even opened yet, so it’s not summer up there yet either.

This will be my last “poem a week” posting. I didn’t quite do one each week during the spring. That’s ok though, because it was more of a test of whether I could maintain a blog or not rather than a true commitment to translating poetry!  I’ll probably come back to this series of linked-verses again sometime, but for now I need to focus on preparing my presentation on Tōhoku literature that I’m giving at the Conference of Asian Studies in Israel held at the University of Haifa at the end of the month, and on my studies on Muromachi era literature, which I hope to publish this year (don’t let the word “publish” fool you–it’ll probably just appear in a minor, non-refereed journal, not like a book or anything).

Here are the final two stanzas that I’ll present here for a while, a 7-7 pattern and a 5-7-5 pattern:


kumori ni oki no iha kuroku mie

A storm cloud far out at sea

Appears to be a dark rock


Sumadera ni ase no katabira nugikahemu

At Suma Temple

Visitors change out of their

sweat soaked summer wear

Gulls were mentioned in the 5-7-5 stanza prior to these, which is where the jump to the sea came from. Sumadera (Suma Temple) was a famous Buddhist temple by the sea in modern day Kobe (then, Settsu, 摂津の国). I just found this link to an English page dedicated to it, check it out.

In Japan, you’re never too far from the sea. As a matter of fact, I can not think of a single major city (past or present) that isn’t within relatively close proximity to either the Sea of Japan or the Pacific.

I wasn’t raised in a beach-going family. Maybe we’d stop by a beach on the way to somewhere else, but our vacations were always mountain or countryside bound. Not to mention Philadelphia is not coastal, no matter how much we want to believe that the Jersey shore belongs to us. However, for three [long, hard] years I lived in a tiny, tiny fishing town in Hokkaidō called Rausu. There, I definitely fell in love with the charms of the ocean, not with the boardwalks and beach-goer lifestyle characteristic of American and European beaches, but with the cold, harsh sea–existing for itself, and not for anyone or anything else. On a daily basis I enjoyed what it had to offer (delicious seafood, ocean life I’d never seen outside of magazine-pages, and beautiful views) and once I came close to experiencing it’s destructiveness (Japan’s March 11th tsunami). The ocean is truly life-making and life-taking.

One thing I noticed about the sea is it’s ability to play tricks on your eyes, which is what happens in the first stanza here. This stanza reminds me of a night I was camping up on Oga Peninsula last spring. There was a full moon that night and the hill (they call it a “mountain”) that I was camping on overlooked the water. Out over the water I saw what I thought was a single cloud in the night sky. It turned out to be the peak of Mount Chōkai, which was about 80 miles (128 km) south of me. Normally I can’t see Chōkai from where I live in Akita, so I never imaged that what was reflecting the moon’s silver glow back to it, was Chōkai’s peak. And like I said, because of how the coast curves, it really looked like a cloud out above the water.