The Lamp Oil is Freezing

The lamp oil is freezing, the light is low, I am awakening!


abura kōri / tomoshi-bi hosoki / nezame kana 

Oil lamp, Shibata Zeshin, 1882, image from The Met

Baby, it’s cold outside

Last night, the temperature dropped to a chilly -2 °F in western Kansas.

If this were 1870, not 2021, I imagine the early settlers would have had a hard time falling asleep in a sod dugout built into the side of a hill. A buffalo robe would help fight off the cold. Dried buffalo paddies when available were used for fuel. In the above haiku, Matsuo Basho gives us his impression of trying to sleep when the weather is bitterly cold, so cold that the lamp oil and the furnace barely provide light and less heat.

At the same time, he manages to turn it into a moment of enlightenment. Basho’s awakening, 寝覚哉, nezame kana, metaphorically is meant as a Buddhist enlightenment.

Does oil freeze?

I did wonder what the Japanese used for lamp oil — rapeseed is the most common answer. I then wondered if rapeseed oil could freeze. It can. While the freezing temperature may vary according to the type of oil, -10 °C or 14°F will do the trick.

This means that our early Kansas settlers would have had a “awakening” like Basho’s.


For those curious as to the when and where of the poem, when is winter 1685-1687, and the place is Basho’s little cottage in the Fukagawa District outside Edo.

One thought on “The Lamp Oil is Freezing

  1. Well… it was -7°F here in central Québec last night.
    So your post hit its mark here this morning, too!




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