hackberries falling,
fluttering wings of grey starlings,
a brisk morning wind


e no mi chiru
muku no haoto ya
asa arashi

Matsuo Basho, date unknown

While hackberries don’t make much of a splash, starlings can create a stunning spectacle, first with their loud morning chattering and then when they all rise at once.

Notes on Translation

e, enoki 榎, the (Asian) hackberry tree; chiru 散る, fall, scatter

muku , grey starling; haoto 羽音, the sound of wings, fluttering wings

asa arashi 朝嵐, literally morning storm, referring in this case to a windstorm


The hackberry tree is a native Kansas species, a tough cookie that can survive prairie fires, It has small tough berries that are a source of food for birds. Several websites including earththplanet.org say “All “hackberry berries are edible and highly nutritious.” The taste, to me, is bland, and better left for the birds. Pioneers in Kansas ate them in a pinch. And hackberries were found in the tomb of Peking Man, dated to be 500,000 years old!

This haiku is like a hackberry, without much meat, unless I am missing something.

Cuckoo for Cuckoos

The cuckoo is considered a lazy bird, a clever bird, whose rhyming call gives it its western name — kyo, kyo. Cuckoos are brood parasites, meaning their young are raised by other birds.

Therefore, much like a poet.

There is also the familiar story of the warlords Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu who said:

Oda Nobunaga:
nakanu nara koroshite shimae hototogisu,
if the cuckoo does not sing, kill it.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi:
nakanu nara nakashite mishō hototogisu,
if the cuckoo does not sing, coax it

Tokugawa Ieyasu:
Nakanu nara naku made matte miyou hototogisu
if the cuckoo doesn’t sing, wait until it does.


Soon after completing his epic journey to the northern interior (Oku no Hosomichi), Basho remembered his student days in Kyoto and wrote:

Even in Kyoto, one yearns for the cry “kyoo-kyoo” and the cuckoo
Kyoo nite mo, Kyoo natsukashi ya, hototogisu
京にても 京なつかしや 時鳥

Matsuo Basho, 1690

Here is a sampling Matsuo Basho’s haiku beginning with 時鳥 and ほととぎす and its variations — hototogisu (cuckoo).

hototogisu / ima wa haikaishi / naki yo kana
the cuckoo sings and the world has no poets

It is a common belief that the cuckoo vomits blood. Bonito or Skipjack Tuna are a popular fish in Japan with a deep red color.

hototogisu / katsuo o some ni / keri kerashi
the cuckoo stains the Bonito fish I suppose

hototogisu / kie yuku kata ya / shima hitotsu
a cuckoo flying to an island becoming one thing

hototogisu / koe yokotau ya / mizu no ue
the cuckoo flies, singing, stretching out, on the cold water lies

hototogisu / maneku ka mugi no / mura obana
a cuckoo invited by barley and its waving fronds

hototogisu / matsuki wa ume no / hana sake ri
the cuckoo and plum flowers in June, both have bloomed

hototogisu / naku naku tobu zo / isogawashi
The cuckoo, crying, singing, flying, oh, so busy

The following haiku makes sense if one imagines that Basho’s writing box (suzuri-bako, 硯箱) has the image of a singing cuckoo on the lid.

hototogisu / naku ne ya furuki / suzuri-bako
the cuckoo singing in a tree and on my writing box

The following haiku is unclear to me. Is the cuckoo in a patch of irises five feet wide, or perched on a five foot tall iris? The later 18th century artist Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川 広重) drew a picture of a cuckoo flying above a tall iris suggesting the later.

hototogisu / naku ya go shaku no / ayamegusa
a cuckoo crying above a five-foot iris.

hototogisu / ō takeyabu o / moru tsuki yo
a cuckoo in a bamboo grove on a moonlit night

In 1689, on the journey north (Oku no Hosomichi), Basho visited the waterfall Urami-no-Taki, so named because one could walk behind the cascading falls. The rhyming words “urami” and “ura omote” coming to mind. The suggestion, I suppose, that one has a private face and a public face. Sometimes we have to hide to see reality.

For a while I hid under the waterfall at the start of the Summer Retreat.”

hototogisu / Urami-no-taki no / ura omote
a cuckoo as seen behind the waterfall, back and front

For additional Basho haiku on the cuckoo and alternate translations and comprehensive explanations see:



Also see Hototogisu, the longest running Japanese haiku magazine.

Hiroshige, Cuckoo and Iris

A Crow Flies Away

A crow flies away in the setting sun
It is Winter,
A tree is shaking, I wonder


Haiku lives!

Haiku lives on. A good example is this poem by Natsume Soseki (夏目 漱石, 1867-1916), Japanese novelist and haiku poet.

He is best known for his novels Kokoro, Botchan, and Wagahai wa Neko dearu (I Am a Cat). But here he gives us a good follow up to Matsuo Basho’s autumn crow on a withered branch — a picture of man, a portent of doom. Basho and Crows. Soseki’s take is different.

It is winter, the crow has departed, the tree is shaking, Soseki wonders.

Do you get it, I wonder?

Dammit, Zen moments shouldn’t and can’t be explained.

A Crow Renku

Gentler readers, unencumbered, we shall fly about, but not like crows, coming and going, from tree to tree, but as travelers from time and place, from poet to poet. Such is the mystery and beauty of poetry.

Natsume Sōseki

Today’s guest poet is Natsume Sōseki (夏目 漱石, 1867 – 1916). His literary career did not begin until 1903 when he began to publish haiku and renku. He quickly went on to novels for which he is better known. That he was exploring the joy of haiku before 1906 comes from this haiku, written in 1896, probably while in Kumamoto, on the southern island of Kyushu .

a crow flies off
the winter tree shaking


Coming and Going

Surely, in composing his verse Soseki recalled to mind Matsuo Basho’s haiku, where a crow comes to perch. Soseki has the crow leaving, completing the renku.

on a bare branch
a crow has perched
in the autumn evening

kare eda ni karasu no tomarikeri aki no kure


Having listened to both haiku, Bashō no yōna, tries to keep the renku going, adding:

from countless karasu
upon a withered tree –
a caw-caw-phony

Notes on Translation

Renku, 連句, “linked verses,” a Japanese form of collaborative linked verse poetry. Basho would often attend such party gatherings. Renku can also be informal and spontaneous.

Basho uses for crow. Soseki uses からす, karasu, から (kara, “caw”, imitating the crow’s caw, plus su. “bird”). Both mean crow.

Even in Kyoto

cuckoo bird

Even in Kyoto
Longing for Kyoto
Hearing the Cuckoo

Even in Kyoto
Nostalgia for Kyoto
– the Cuckoo

cuckoo bird

Summer, 1690

By Japanese reckoning it was the era called Genroku (元禄, meaning “original happiness” or perhaps “the beginning of happiness”). It was the third year of the reign of Emperor Higashiyama, 113th emperor of Japan.

That spring Matsuo Basho had completed his trip that would become in time his most famous travelogue, Oku no Hosomichi, Journey to the Far North. Not wanting to hurry back to Edo, where Basho had lived and written for the last 46 years, he decided to stay in Kyoto for four months in a modest hut called Genjuu-An 幻住庵, located on the grounds of the Chikatsuo Shrine.

Summer was approaching. In Kyoto’s trees, now full of green leaves, one could hear the plaintive cry of the cuckoo, “Kyoo-Kyoo.” Basho recalled his early days a student in Kyoto.

Matsuo Basho was 56 years old. Basho’s own death came in 1694.

Japanese and Pinyin

京にても 京なつかしや 時鳥
Kyoo nite mo, Kyoo natsukashi ya, hototogisu

Notes on translation

Kyoo, Kyoto, appearing at the beginning and repeated to imitate the sound of the cuckoo bird. Some say the birds call, “kyoo-kyoo,” is the cry of the dead longing to come back.

なつかし natsukashi, a feeling of nostalgia, a joy for the remembrance of the past. I have used longing.

時鳥 hototogisu, The cuckoo bird. Basho leaves us with the image of a cuckoo bird and nothing more. Nothing else was needed since the cuckoo was a frequent subject of poets.

Who’s that knocking at my door?

great crested grebe

this lodging has a door
to the call of the kuina (water rail)

this lodging
is not even known
to the kuina’s knock

this hut
can the water rail find
its door

kono yado     wa kuina mo shiranu      toboso kana

この宿    は水鶏も知らぬ       扉かな

great crested grebe

Late Spring and early Summer, 1694

“Tyick, tyick, tyick,” who is that knocking at my door? Death would come knocking for Matsuo Bashō, but not until until November.

In the spring of 1694 Matsuo Bashō set out on his last journey to visit friends, making a trip home to his birthplace at Ueno, to Kyoto where he spent time as a student, and around beautiful Lake Biwa visiting shrines.

This haiku was supposedly written to Kosen (Fujimura Izu?), a Shinto priest who lived on the outskirts of Otsu, and, we may presume from the haiku, in a marshy area near Lake Biwa. The house was so remote it was unknown even to the marsh bird, known as kuina in Japanese, translated into English as a water rail.

The courtship cry of the kuina is a tyick-tyick-tyick, like the sound of one tapping (tataku) on a wooden door. The breeding season dates from late March into June.

Source, Matsuo Basho Archives

Notes on Japanese and Pinyin

Language can be an in-artful thing.

Arriving late and greeting his host, Kosen, Matsuo Bashō might have  apologized by composing this haiku, explaining that he heard the familiar tyick-tyick-tyick of the kuina bird, but couldn’t discover its secretive nest, i.e. his host’s lodgings somewhere along the shore of Lake Biwa.

The sound of “kono… kuina… kana” imitates the kuina’s call to its mate.

Shiranu 知らぬ , not knowing, as in the proverb, Shiranu ga hotoke (知らぬが仏), meaning ignorance is bliss, literally,  not knowing is Buddha.




Cape Irago – Iragosaki

A solitary hawk
I am happy to find
Cape Irago

鷹一    つ見付てうれし   いらご崎

taka hitotsu / mitsukete ureshi / Iragosaki

Cape Irago Iragosaki, hawk flying


On the 25th day of the tenth moon, Matsuo Bashō, now 43 years old, is ready to set out on another journey. This time he would travel south and west, to the regions of Iga (his boyhood home), Ise, Aichi and Nagoya, Yoshina, Nara, and Suma.

The account, called Oi No Kobumi (Knapsack Journals), would not be published until 15 years after his death.

From Nagoya it is 70 miles or so to the Atami peninsula, and another 30 miles down the promontory to Cape Irago. Today, the peninsula is home to the Mikawa-Wan Quasi National Park, and some of Japan’s most beautiful sandy coastlines and spectacular Pacific Ocean views (above image Google Maps).

The meeting

Bashō was going to meet Tsuboi Tokoku (坪井杜国), who had been exiled for financial speculations, from Nagoya to the rocky promontory. Hobi (Hobicho) the tiny village where Tokoku lived was a mile or two from the end point on the cape. One can picture a tired Bashō standing at the very tip of the cape, spotting a hawk circling above, when happily Tokoku appears.

Tokoku would die three years later while Bashō was still compiling the memories of his journey.

The meaning

Poetry by its nature is ambiguous and capable of different interpretations. This is even more true of haiku, which often intends to surprise. Tokoku could have been the solitary hawk that Basho was in search of. Or, it could have been that Basho was the hawk, happy to find Tokoku. This seems to me the more likely interpretation. After the meeting, Tokoku would join Basho for part of Basho’s journey.

It is a stretch, not a long one, and perhaps just coincidence, but I wonder if the Iragosaki is a play on words with Irago and Sake, rice wine. Various sources allude to Tokoku’s financial speculations as a grain merchant. Perhaps it involved Sake.

Notes on translation

Taka hitotsu. A combination of taka , meaning hawk; and hitosu 一, meaning one or solitary.

Mitsukete ureshi  つ見付てうれし, a combination of the verb mitsuke, to find, and and adjective/adverb ureshi, happy, happily

Iragosaki いらご崎, Cape Irago,  Iragomisaki, 伊良湖岬. Saki translates to rough, or cape.


Many Sources including:

World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-modern Era, Volume 1, By Donald Keene, giving an account of Bashō’s relationship with Tsuboi Tokoku.

WKD – Matsuo Basho Archives, gives Tokuko’s age as 34 at the time of his death. It explains that he was a grain merchant in Nagoya, before his financial disgrace, moving to the tiny village of Hobi (Hobicho),  on the Akami peninsula.

A Quail Sings – naku uzura

the hawk’s eyes now, dim that it is dark, so the quail sings

鷹の目も今  や暮れぬと  鳴く鶉

taka no me mo / ima ya kurenu to /   naku uzura



Early in 1691 Matsuo Bashō stayed for a time in Saga (southern Japan, near Nagasaki), with his disciple Mukai Kyorai, who like Bashō had been born into a Samurai family. In late fall or early winter, he returned to Edo to stay in his third banana hut. The anthology, Monkey’s Raincoat (Sarumino 猿蓑) is published.

Another Hawk haiku

In 1678, on a visit to the Atsumi peninsula and Cape of Irago (Iragosaki), Basho wrote this haiku:

By a stroke of luck, I saw
A solitary hawk circling
Above Iragosaki (Cape Irago)


taka hitotsu mitsukete ureshi Iragosaki

Notes on translation of a Quail Sings

Line one. Taka no me mo, literally the “Hawk eyes now”.

Hawks have excellent eyesight. They can see 8 times better than we be-speckled humans. But like humans, the hawk’s vision dims in the night. And the quail hiding in the tall grass during the day, waits until it is dark, to sing.

Line two. Ima ya kurenu to. Ima, now, Kurenu, that it gets dark, also meaning to come to an end. The hawk’s hunting must end for the quail to sing.

Line three. Naku uzura. The quail (uzura), it sings, it cries, its voice resounds now that the hawk is in its nest. Naku also means to sob, which is what the hawk must me doing.