Seeing fresh green leaves (青葉), hearing the Mountain Cuckoo (山時鳥), and tasting the season’s first Bonito (初鰹, Skipjack Tuna) — these are images that express the feeling of early summer in Edo, 1678, written down by Yamaguchi Sodo (山口素堂).
Picture a bustling, smelly, noisy fish market in Edo’s fashionable Nihonbashi district. Sanpu Sugiyama, the imperial purveyor of fish is there, supervising the sale of fish. Throngs of people have gathered to see the season’s first Bonito catch. The fish are taken from the boats and displayed on fresh green leaves. Cuckoo birds gather about making their distinctive sounds — ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-kow-kow.
Matsuo Basho and Yamaguchi Sodo, fellow poets and friends of Sanpu, are there as well.
An eye for green leaves,
The Mountain Cuckoo
The First Bonito
me ni ha aoba / yama hototogisu / hatsu gatsuo
Yamaguchi Sodo (山口素堂, 1642-1716) was a contemporary of Matsuo Basho, who outlived him by almost 20 years. This simple haiku, which is Zen-like in its sparseness, was collected in “Edo Shindo” (New Road in Edo) in 1678.
In 1675, Sodo met Matsuo Basho for the first time in Edo. Sodo took up residence at Shinobazu-no-Ike Pond in Ueno Park, a former temple, near Basho.
This was Basho’s early period, before Basho moved from noisy Edo across the Sumida River to the quiet Fukagawa District. It was there that Basho took up residence in a simple cottage, planted a banana tree (芭蕉, Bashō) next to the cottage, and, in time, became Basho, and the cottage Basho-an.
The two became fast friends. Perhaps it is merely coincidental, but one cannot help but see and hear the similarity between Matsuo Basho‘s name and Hatsu Gatsuo, the last line of the haiku. The word choice is perhaps not entirely coincidental. The person who provided Basho Matsuo with financial help was his pupil, Sanpu Sugiyama, also known as Ichibei Koiya, Edo’s official fish procurer for the Shogunate.
In old Edo, there was a saying:
女房 を 質屋 に 入れて も 食いたい 初鰹
nyōbō wo shichi ni iretemo hatsu-gatsuo,
“I must taste the season’s first bonito, even if I must pawn my wife!”
Hatsu-gatsuo is generally prepared tataki–style, that is — seared on the outside, raw on the inside, then plunged in ice water, patted dry and showered with fresh green herbs, and finally pressed with cracked pepper and roasted garlic.