The Sound of Cicada

cicada clinging to a tree

One can travel by train today from Tokyo to Yamadera in less than five hours.

In 1689, Matsuo Basho made the journey by foot in four or five months, give or take a day or a week. Basho left behind the comforts of his thatched cottage in Fukagawa, his friends, and his students for an uncertain journey with his companion Sora. They arrived in Yamadera in late August. There, Basho and Sora climb the rocky steps to the mountain temple called Yamadera (山寺, lit. “Mountain Temple”), shedding each step of the way their human worries and cares, until even the wind had ceased and all was silent.

Beholding the beauty of the scene, all Basho heard was the sound of the cicada.

ah, the silence
sinking into the rocks
the voice of the cicada

閑かさや
岩にしみ入る
蝉の声

shizukasa ya
iwa ni shimi-iru
semi no koe

Basho’s haiku is inspired by my own experience with cicadas in Kansas and elsewhere. It is a common experience shared by anyone who has heard the incessant high pitched cry. What they are saying and to whom is a mystery. Perhaps, spending 16 out of 17 years underground, they are happy to be set free, learning too soon that it is time to die.

Perhaps, I wonder is it the heat?

ah, in the heat of August,
from each and every tree
comes the cry the cicada

Notes on Translation

Shizukasa could also be “such silence”, the feeling of awe that comes across the traveler when the wind dies completely and one is left alone with the beauty of Nature.

Shimi-iru is literally “penetrating,” giving one the sense the cicadas have burrowed into the rocks to escape the heat. “Sinking” is more sublime, and suggestive of a Buddhist stage of meditation.

Semi no koe, at its simplest, is the voice of the cicada, but that doesn’t stop translators from adding a little spice with verbs like “shrill of the cicada” or “cry of the cicada”.

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