Day 08 in Ise… Ise and Literature

Kōgakkan University‘s professors have presented a lot of great material on a wide variety of topics so far. One topic that I was anxiously awaiting was about the literary connections to Ise. I already wrote a post about a trip to the saikū 斎宮 where I was able to learn a lot about the historical background of some poems found in the Manyōshū 万葉集, but today’s presentation (3 March) on literature was the one to which I was really looking forward.

Arakida Moritaka

The presentation was given by Fukatsu Mutsuo-sensei 深津睦夫氏, who is a member of the literature department here at Kōgakkan. A few of the topics he spoke about were:

  1. The History of Japanese & Sino-Japanese Poetry (shika 詩歌)
  2. Waka 和歌 Poetry Connected to Ise
  3. Linked-verse Renga 連歌 Poetry
  4. Haikai 俳諧

In the History of Japanese & Sino-Japanese Poetry portion of his talk, Fukatsu-sensei provided a brief history of how Chinese writing (Japanese did not exist in a written form until the arrival of Chinese writing) prompted the Japanese people to begin writing their own poetry. He also introduced some of the main poetry collections of the early Japanese canon.

In the Waka 和歌 Poetry Connected to Ise portion, he spoke about how aristocrats in the Heian period would write waka poems both about Ise and while in Ise. He also spoke about the famous poet Saigyō’s 西行 connection with Ise. I found this really interesting because Saigyō was a Buddhist monk and all things Buddhist were banned from the Ise Jingū area. Apparently Saigyō revered Ise Jingū and had no problem stripping himself of Buddhist accoutrement during his stay. Shrine officials also had a penchant for writing waka, apparently. I love Saigyō’s poetry and strongly recommend it to everyone.

Linked-verse Renga poetry is poetry composed in groups, when each member writes a stanza building on the previous member’s stanza. This form of poetry was a very popular way for aristocrats to entertain themselves and was also a favourite pastime of shrine officials in Ise. One Ise Shintō priest, Arikida Moritake 荒木田守武 (1473-1549) is particularly famous for writing renga. This is the first time that I have ever heard of him, I think, and am interested to read about him some more.

Finally, waka and renga gave way to haikai, so Fukatsu-sensei ended with a brief explanation of haikai and of course Matsuo Bashō 松尾芭蕉 whose hometown is in Mie and who travelled to and composed poems about Ise.

What was most interesting to me was the very idea of “Ise” as a theme in literature. I had never considered it before, but as Fukatsu-sensei demonstrated, literature was “happening” at Ise from very early. Ōku no himemiko 大来皇女 (661-702) who is famous for her poetry in the Manyōshū is one of the Thirty-six Poetry Immortals, is a key figure in Ise history. Saigyō had a very influential effect on later poetry, especially with the way he incorporated Buddhist messages and themes into poems. His poetry and style influenced poets for generations to come (for example Bashō was a huge fan of his, 500 years later). At a time when Buddhist language and culture were taboo in Ise, renga became a popular pastime–case in point, Arikida Moritake. And finally Bashō and his connections to Ise are important to note.


Day 06 in Ise… Japanese Pilgrimages

About 8 years ago I was part of a program that retraced Matsuo Bashō’s 松尾芭蕉 (1644-1694) Oku no hosomichi 奥の細道. Many western scholars refer to Bashō’s journey as a type of pilgrimage. What I had read about Bashō’s pilgrimage gave me the impression that Japanese pilgrimages were circular (starting and ending in the same place) whereas western/ European pilgrimages were linear (a start point differing from the end point). However, participating in the Ise and Japan Study Program has changed my understanding of Japanese pilgrimages.

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Bashō’s counterclockwise pilgrimage route.

As for western pilgrimages, consider the Canterbury pilgrimage, the Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage, or even the Hajj (which is not western or European obviously but I feel as though Christianity and Islam share enough history for their respective pilgrimages to be similar). The Canterbury pilgrimage, made famous by Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, begins in London’s Southwark and ends in Canterbury. The Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage begins at various starting points in Europe that all lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where the remains of St. James the Great are buried. Similarly, the Hajj has various starting points all which end in Mecca. Each of these pilgrimages follows a linear route.

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The Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury.

Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi

Bashō’s pilgrimage route was circular, following a counterclockwise path. His route starts in Tokyo then proceeds north along Japan’s east coast towards Sendai, then traverses Honshū to present day Yamagata/Akita, and back south down to Ogaki, just outside of Nagoya. The Shikoku Junrei 四国巡礼 starts in Tokushima, Shikoku and follows a clockwise route ending in Kagawa.

I thought that these pilgrimages were indicative of all Japanese pilgrimage traditions, but this is wrong. Take for example the pilgrimage to Ise Jingū. Since the Jingū was originally only for the tennō 天皇 (emperor) exclusively to make pilgrimages, it began wherever the tennō was (generally in the areas of Nara and Kyoto) and ended at Ise Jingū–a linear route. In the Edō period 江戸時代 (1600-1868), pilgrimages to Ise Jingū were open up to everyone. Pilgrimage starting points were thus established any place where people could gather in groups and make the journey. One such gathering spot is located in Osaka at Tamatsuri Inari Jinja 玉造稲荷神社 and follows a linear route to Ise.

Image result for 江戸時代 伊勢巡礼 大阪出発点

Linear Pilgrimage Route from Tamatsuri Inari Jinja to Ise Jingū

Since checking out more information on Japanese pilgrimages, I have found quite a lot of linear pilgrimage routes, especially into mountain regions (i.e. the base of the mountain, to the top, and back). I’ve learned that in Japan there are a variety of pilgrimage routes through out the country and that they vary in either linear or circular layouts.

Bashō and Tohoku in the BBC News

“There was a shopping mall
Now it’s all covered with flowers”

–Talking Heads, “Nothing but Flowers”


When I open my browser, the BBC automatically opens showing me world news headlines and current events. It’s the first thing I see when I get on line, and I usually take the time to scroll down the page before moving on to check my e-mail and start my day.  Today I saw a section labeled “Japan” with the phrase “Japan’s most heavenly village.” Of course I had to click and I’m glad that it did–it brought me to an article titled “A Pure Land Inspired by Treachery.”

Image result for hiraizumi yoshitsune benkei

The article is about a town called Hiraizumi 平泉 in southern Iwate 岩手県, which is right next door to Akita 秋田県. Hiraizumi is significant to me for two reasons: it is where (according to legend) Minamoto no Yoshitsune 源義経 and his side-kick/ retainer Saitō Musashibō Benkei 斎藤武蔵坊弁慶 died; and it is one of the places in Tohoku 東北 where Matsuo Bashō 松尾芭蕉 stopped during his Oku no hosomichi 奥の細道 journey. My M.A. thesis as well as my current research is on Yoshitsune lore, which basically encompasses any type of literary genre that features Yoshitsune. Also, I’ve been teaching an intensive course on  Bashō for a few years now.

Yoshitsune is known as a tragic hero in Japanese history. The article mentions his older brother Minamoto no Yoritomo 源頼朝:

“the Buddhist utopia was attacked by warlord Minamoto no Yoritomo in his successful quest to become shogun and establish his military dictatorship in Kamakura 鎌倉, a town not far from present-day Tokyo”

Yoritomo saw the younger Yoshitsune as a threat to his maintaining power over the country, and so sought to have him killed. The kōwakamai 幸若舞 librettos  I studied for my thesis (Shikoku-ochi 四国落, Togashi 富樫, and Oi-sagashi 追探) were about Yoshitsune running all over the country, trying to escape his brother. His attempts to escape Yoritomo’s grasp ended when Yoshitsune was finally cornered at Hiraizumi where he took his own life as the enemy closed in. His retainer, Benkei, armed with a bow and a quiver of arrows, fought off Yoritomo’s invading forces to allow his lord, Yoshitsune, to commit suicide. There is a famous woodblock print of Benkei riddled with arrows while fighting off hordes of enemy soldiers.

The second reason Hiraizumi is special to me is because–like the article mentions at the end–it is one of the places Bashō visited during his last long journey through Japan–the journey from which he based his book Oku no hosomichi. Although almost 500 hundred years after the death of Yoshitsune, the historical significance of Hiraizumi was not lost on Bashō. As the article mentions while there he composed the haiku:

The summer grass

‘Tis all that’s left

of ancient warrior’s dreams




Natsu kusa ya

Tsuwamono-domo ga

Yume no ato


This haiku is an example of what I call Buddhist irony–Hiraizumi was once a beautiful, palatial city. It was called the Kyoto of the North for a darn good reason: politically the Ōshū Fujiwara 奥州藤原 rivaled the powers in central Japan, the city employed hundreds of skilled artisans, had a large Buddhist population, and had many gardens that added to the aesthetics of the city, much like the gardens of Kyoto. However when Bashō visited Hiraizumi all this majestic wealth had all but gone away. All that was left was overgrown grass, reminding Bashō that everything in this world is momentary. It reminds me of the Talking Heads song “Nothing but Flowers” which describes a post-apocalyptic word where all the signs of our mass consumerism have been overgrown by grass and flowers.



Also check out the version by our beloved Guster…!

2nd Class Haiku Contest

This past Monday was my Oku no hosomichi class’s 10th class–only 5 more to go! It was also the night of our 2nd haiku contest.


About how I manage the contest: I set the deadline for the students to e-mail me their poems as the day before the class, which was Sunday. Then Monday afternoon before class I prepare the score sheets. Each student gets a score sheet with the poems listed in alphabetical order, which randomizes them. Students are then given about 15 minutes or so to read the poems and score each one from a scale from 1~5 with 1 being BEST and 5 being GOOD. As in golf, the lowest score wins.

After we tally the scores, and before I announce the winners, we discuss the day’s entries. I ask the students to comment on which haiku they enjoyed the most and why, and other things like which one did they score a “1” and why, etc.

Then after significant discussion, I announce the winner. Also, the poems are still anonymous at this point, which allows students to speak more freely. Sometimes during the discussion the actual winning haiku is discussed, unbeknownst to the class, which is really interesting I think. Other times in the past, a certain haiku has generated a lot of discussion, but has not won. The goal of this discussion is for students to express their opinions and think critically about the day’s entries. Also, I hope that it gives them something to think about for when they write their next haiku.

Finally, after I announce the winners, I ask the winners to comment on their poems and tell us a little bit more about the story behind them.

This type of activity takes about the whole 90 minutes of class, but it’s only successful if everyone participates and passes in their haiku (on time!). This week only one student didn’t hand hers in. She’s a med student, so I’m sure she’s pretty stressed out. For the 1st contest she handed in two, so I knew that this time it must have just been a mistake.

We had a tie for 3rd Place this time (last time there was a tie for 2nd). Here are this week’s winning haiku as voted on by the students themselves. (They have not been edited/proofread yet–they’re RAW HAIKU!)

-1st Place-
In dark silent night
Only frogs crying rice fields
Far from my hometown

-2nd Place-
Slowly life is dream
Snails lay off on hydrangeas
So they are my crave

-Tied for 3rd Place-
In morning mist
Subtly cloud looked
Take a deep breath


the rainy season
drops flow on my cheek
sad the spring end

The winner, T.U., won 1st Place both times so far! I was surprised and happy to see that he is really making an effort, and that it’s being recognized! I was also surprised at the consistency with which the class voted for his–keep in mind that everything is carried out anonymously.

Another repeat winner was H.M. who won 3rd Place in both contests! Again, what consistency!

Reading these haiku, one can obviously see some strange grammar mistakes or word-choice errors. We’ve discussed these in class and we’ll do some peer-editing next week. Needless to say, when they submit their poems for the 5th Annual Japan-Russian Haiku contest, I’ll help them polish up their haiku before they submit it.

1st Class-Haiku Contest

at Yamadera

This spring I’m teaching a course on Matsuo Bashō‘s 松尾芭蕉 epic journey-turned-book Oku no hosomichi 奥の細道, or as it is sometimes translated, “The Narrow Road to Oku.” As part of the class I teach haiku 俳句 writing-in-English.  At the beginning of each class, which meets once a week, we do a writing warm-up activity that is meant to help the students write better haiku. Even though the majority of the class are Japanese students, in the past I’ve had Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Romanian. Since the students aren’t native speakers and have a wide range of English language ability, it is difficult to teach this kind of ‘creative writing,’ but also it can be really fun.


There are 3 haiku contestskukai 句会, spaced evenly throughout the semester. All students MUST participate by 1) submitting an original haiku2) by scoring each haiku, and then finally 3) by joining in a discussion about the submitted pieces after the contest. The idea is that by doing the writing warm-up activities and having the discussions after each contest, the students haiku writing will improve through the semester.


Here are the top 4 haiku from last night’s contest, as scored on by the class:

1st Place

Cherry blossoms blown away

I knew I am

no longer a freshman

Tied for 2nd Place-

On the surface of the river

–the very clear river

Spring winds are running

New days begin

Spring wind push my back

I create brand new life


3rd Place

Bottom of the sky

As far as the eye can see

A lot of sunflowers


This is how I received them, without any editing or anything. Depending on which ‘school’ of haiku you align yourself with, there can be various rules for writing them, but I didn’t set any ‘rules.’ I just said, ‘write a haiku!’ Some students really tried to get the 17-syllable count, other tried making their poems rhyme, tried for alliteration, and other little devices, which I was really happy to see!


I’ll post the winners next time, too, and see if the poems and/or the judging get more sophisticated.

Akita Japan Association for Language Teaching (Akita JALT) December 2015, Meeting

Matsuo BashōTitle and Speaker: Teaching Haiku and Haiku Composition to English Language Learners

Ben Grafström, Akita University

Summary: The presenter teaches an English immersion-style course titled “Journey to the Interior” at Akita University. This presentation introduces the two-pronged approach that he took to the planning and preparation of the course. The first approach he took was to make the English language-course content-based: the course is an in-depth study of the haiku poet Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi. The second approach he took was to design class activities that fostered active-learning vis-à-vis a writer’s workshop.

During the presentation the presenter will introduce the course materials that he uses as well as guiding participants through some of the writing exercises that he did with his students. For educators who wish to design similar content-based courses, he will also be discussing some of the successes and obstacles that he discovered.

Bio: Ben Grafström holds a B.A. in English from Susquehanna University in central Pennsylvania and an M.A. in East Asian Language Civilizations (Japanese Literature) from the University of Colorado at Boulder. In 2009 he experienced Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi himself by following in the haiku poet’s footsteps and travelling the “narrow road to the interior.” He has been on the faculty of Akita University since 2012.

Date: Saturday, December 12, 2015

Time: 14:00– 16:00

Place: Student Support Center, Akita University.
(秋田大学 教育推進総合センター)

Room: (Floor 2, Meeting Room)


Cost: JALT Members and students – Free; Non-members – 500 yen

Battle over Bashō: Adachi or Arakawa?

My friend, Kaori, from grad school sent me the link to a recent article about the famous 17th century haiku poet Matsuo Bashō (松尾芭蕉, 1644-1694). When I graduated from CU, I was fortunate enough to have been selected (along with Kaori) by our adviser, Dr. Laurel Rasplica Rodd, to guide a group of American teachers through Japan and trace the steps of Bashō’s famous journey up through northern Honshū–the journey that Bashō wrote about in a book titled The Narrow Road to Oku, or Oku no hosomichi 奥の細道. Bashō’s travel writing is very introspective, and self-reflective. He writes about the nature of those with whom he comes in contact with on the road, as well as on the nature of the environment through which he passes. I teach a class on Bashō every spring and sometimes attempt to write haiku, so Kaori knew that I would be interested in the article.

Bashō and Sora departing on their journey.

Bashō and Sora departing on their journey.

The article was on the Asahi news website (dated 16 October 2015) and titled, “Where did Bashō start his journey? The dispute between Adachi-ku and Arakawa-ku.” Bashō set off on his 1,522 mile-journey (2,450 km) from Edo (the area of Tokyo more or less around present day Tokyo Station) on 16 May 1689. The trip would end up being one large loop up the east of Honshū (Japan’s main island) to present day Iwate, then across to the Japan Sea on the southern edge of Akita bordering Yamagata, then down south to Ise.

Bashō is highly revered in Japan to this day. Even in countries outside Japan, students as young as those in elementary school read his haiku. It is no surprise then that all along the route that he traveled, you may find restaurants, coffee shops, statues, gift shops, inns, museums, and the like commemorating the famous writer’s journey, and luring tourists & their money!

I’m becoming increasingly interested in the social and economic effects that literature has in regions, and this is a fine case. It may seem silly that two little neighborhoods in Tokyo are in a dispute over where Bashō began his journey, but there is a real economic effect, albeit at the micro level. Every year perhaps a half dozen people or so (maybe even more. There aren’t any records–someone should try to keep track of this!) set-off on their own to re-trace the steps of the great poet. They eat at restaurants and cafes, they sleep at inns, they bathe at local onsen, they buy souvenirs, leave donations at temples and shrines, use mass transit, etc., etc., all things that require money! School students, while not embarking on the full 1,522 mile journey, will spend a day visiting museums and historical sites dedicated to the poet, which, again, require money to be spent on admission fees and the like. City councils use tax dollars to maintain areas related to Bashō’s journey, and in some cases may even apply for extra government money to create new attractions or to upkeep ageing ones.

Indeed, it is not clear in “The Narrow Road to Oku” from where Bashō departed. He writes that he sold his hut and stayed in the home of a man named Sugiyama Sanpū’s 杉山杉風 until he departed on his trip. On the day of his departure, he writes that he left at dawn and that a group of friends had come to see him off. They all got in a boat, which carried him up a river to the northern edge of the city to “a place called Senjū.” His friends accompanied him no farther than Senjū.

Modern day Senjū straddles the Sumida River (north of Ueno Station). Arakawa-ku is on the south of the river and Adachi-ku is on the north. Minami Senjū Station (South Senjū Station) is in Arakawa and Kita Senjū Station (North Senjū Station) is in Adachi. Thus, two different municipalities vying for the attention and spending of travelers, tourists, and researchers.

Bashō does not write specifically where he got off the boat, only indicating that it was “at a place called Senjū.” Canals and rivers crisscrossed and wrapped around the old city of Edo, allowing goods to be moved by boat all throughout the city. So it is not so strange that Bashō avoided the busy streets and took a boat to the northern edge of the city. It is also probably likely that his friend Sugiyama Sanpū paid for the cost of the boat ride. What is odd to me is that Bashō writes “a place called Senjū” (senjū to iu tokoro, 千じゅうと云所). He writes as if it is an unfamiliar, not very well-known place. If this is so, then why did he get off there?

I don’t know if the history of commerce on the Edo waterways is well documented or not, but I feel like if it were, then this debate could be easily answered. There are boat rides for tourists that go up and down the river as well as small Bashō museums and monuments in both Arakawa and Adachi. However, if it were decided that Bashō began his journey from Adachi, then this would cause people to avoid Arakawa altogether, thus having a definite impact on the local economy that relies on Bashō enthusiasts.

In case Asahi takes down the article, here it is:
芭蕉さん、旅の始まりどこでした? 足立・荒川区が論争:朝日新聞デジタル