The Signs of Summer, 1678

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.

Seeing Aoba
Hearing Hototogisu

An eye for green leaves,
The Mountain Cuckoo
The First Bonito

me ni ha aoba / yama hototogisu / hatsu gatsuo


Hiroshige Utagawa (1842-1894), Bonito Fishing

Yamaguchi Sodo

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!”

Tuna Tataki-style

Hatsu-gatsuo is generally prepared tatakistyle, 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.

Nihonbashi district fish market, Hiroshige Utagawa (1842-1894)

Paddling Satchel Creek

Monday morning, mid-June, warm not hot. A kayak trip up Satchel Creek at Lake El Dorado in southeast Kansas. I am alone in the universe.

The regular rhythm of the paddle in the water inspired these thoughts.

Not haiku, but rules are made to be broken, otherwise how would we improve. Hopefully, the verse is Basho-like, Bashō no yōna. But first, a word from the Master:

With awe I beheld
Fresh leaves, green leaves,
Bright in the sunlight. 

— Matsuo Basho, Road to the Deep North

Let’s Start

Satchel Creek starts out wide as it empties into the lake. Then, as it meanders past rocky shoals, it narrows, until finally the kayak bottoms out on the rocks and one can go no further. But that is still a ways off. A Great Heron accompanies me for a while. Along the way are sunken logs and fallen trees. Spider webs catch their prey. Catfish and carp jump out of the water to catch a fly.

The silence of the water and woods,
The stillness of the air
Is everywhere.
Until one feels a gentle breeze,
And hears the flapping wings of a Great Heron
Leading the way

To who knows where

Paddling up Satchel Creek
In a sleek blue kayak
Past sunken logs and fallen trees
Suddenly, a carp
Grasps a floating bug
Slap goes the water

Matsuo Basho began one his famous journey north with this:

Paddling along, silently wondering, where are the turtles resting on logs in the morning sun? Birds call out sweet songs, unseen in the tall trees.

Turtles will sleep ‘til noon,
Oh, how they hate to get up in the morning.

Have you ever heard a Chickadee call,
High up in a tall tree?

Lake El Dorado was created by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1981. The waters flooded the old town of Chelsea, but its cemetery remains at the north end of the lake. Along the lakeside and up Satchel Creek, flooding left many old trees in the water. Their ghostly gray silhouettes a reminder of what was once woodlands. The first verse mimics Basho’s thoughts of a crow on a withered branch.

On a withered branch
A blue heron keeps watch
Wary of Summer’s strangers

Dead trees like skeletons
Standing in the water
Praying for what?

Water, water everywhere,
And not a drop to think.
A Mulberry tree along the bank,
Its fruit a gift for me…
Thank God


Thomas Wolfe famously said, “You can’t go back home again.” Heraclitus said, “You could not step twice into the same rivers.” Do they mean the same thing?

I am back in Wichita.
Why do they say,
You can’t go back home again.
Why does the river flows on and on?

Uncertainty was the reason for this trip. The uncertainty of tomorrow, the uncertainty that keeps eating away at me, that brings me down. And, as I alluded to in my last post, I felt that with travel I could escape the discontent that uncertainty brings. I was surprised to find it waiting there for me.

As Seneca advises, I need a change of soul.

“Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after a long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.” Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, 29.

Matsuo Basho, on the other hand, gives us his own version of the Serenity Prayer:

Every day’s a journey, the journey itself is home.

Fried Pies

Deep in the Arbuckle Mountains

Sharing a Fried Coconut Pie

At Turner Falls

My wife and I were driving from Wichita to Dallas for a Mother’s Day Weekend with our daughter. A little more than half way, past Davis, where one enters the Arbuckle Mountains, we stopped to let the dog stretch her legs beside the clear creek. Then, as we were about to leave my wife spotted the sign saying Fried Mountain Pies at a rustic drive up cafe. A half dozen cars and a couple of men carrying brown paper bags told us all that we needed to know.

One was enough for two she said. Sharing is caring I thought.

Deep in the Mountains, Saigo

Deep in mountains

The moon to the mind

Shines brightly so

It’s Light mirrors all things,

Like an enlightened mind.

Saigyō, 1118-1190

Every great poet reads and is inspired by other great poets.


Satō Norikiyo (西行法師, Saigyō, 1118-1190) was born in Kyoto to a noble family. Emulating Siddhārtha, at age 22, he quit worldly life, becoming a monk. In his three score and a dozen years, he took many long, poetic journeys to the north of Japan.

And so, five hundred years later, … inspire Bashō and his Narrow Road to the Interior. And four hundred years later inspire me:

Lovely thought, I think,

Do you?

An enlightened mind

Original Japanese Characters

深き山に 心の月し すみぬれば

鏡に四方の 悟りをぞ見る

fukaki yama ni kokoro no tsuki shi suminureba

kagami ni yomo no satori o zo miru

Notes on Translation

心 is an ethereal concept encompassing many things including: heart, mind, thought, idea, intention, center, and core. One wonders if a single word can convey an image. One wonders if everything is changing, in a state of flux, so to speak, temporary and ephemeral. “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” Heraclitus, 6th century BC.

Saigo, Basho, and you, gentle reader see the same sun rise each morning.

Enjoy the moment!

Stone upon stone

Saigo’s lovely thought was in turn based on a verse dialogue between Yuquan Shenxiu (玉泉神秀, 606?–706), Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, and Dàjiàn Huineng (大鑒惠能, 638-713) Tang Dynasty eminent monk. (638—713)唐代高僧。

Our body is the Bodhi-tree
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we clean them hour by hour
And let no dust alight.

“Wisdom has no tree, no stand of a mirror bright. Since all is a void (everything is nothing), where can dust alight?” 

Basho took a different path, “Learn about the pine tree from the pine, about bamboo from bamboo.” meaning that Nature is diverse.

Upon the Shoulders of Giants

Inspired thought comes by standing on the shoulders of others, using their insights to further ours. The image can be traced to the 12th century philosopher, Bernard of Chartres. Its most familiar English expression is”If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Isaac Newton, 1675. The idea is however ancient, Confucius also having said similar things.

From parent to child, from teacher to student, we are inspired, we inspire.


My wish, to disappear
Under the flowers.
Let it be a Spring death,
In Kisagari (that changing month),
That Bright Moon time of year

bright moon, man walking on beach, ukiyo-e 浮世絵, floating world

Farewell to February, 2021

Before the month of February has passed, I thought it fitting to add one more poem on the subject of Kisigari.

This poem is written not by Basho, but by Saigyō Hōshi (西行法師, 1118 -1190) a poet of the Heian period who lived to the age of 72. His life as a monk and his frequent journeys inspired Basho’s many journeys.

February is a month often overlooked because of its shortness, but also its in-betweenness, caught as it is between winter and spring. Nineteenth century American poet Henry David Longfellow gave us his thoughts on a February Afternoon, which begin like this: The day is ending, The night is descending; The marsh is frozen, The river dead. Matsuo Basho also gave us some thoughts on February (Kisagari). Both are a bit depressing.

Saigyō’s poem, on the contrary, is more uplifting, at least in the Buddhist sense of regeneration with Saigyō imagining that he is reborn as an early spring flower , Hana. The third line is particularly poignant. 春死なむ, Haru shinan conbines the idea of a death in spring and なむ which I understand to be “let it be,” and a reference to the Buddhist concept of Namu 南無.

Kisigari, 如月 is the Japanese lunar name for the month of February. It suggests the changing of the seasons, Spring approaching, a month with spring-like days. Sometimes written as Kinusaragi (衣更着, “Changing Clothes”) .

Yesterday, February the 24th, in Kansas it was 70 degrees, two days before that it was 0. What a difference a day or two makes.

I have one final comment to make on Saigyō’s use of , no through out the poem. This personalizes, for me, the thought. Not being a native Japanese speaker it is just my personal thought.

My wish, to disappear
Under my flowers.
Let my death be in Spring,
In Kisagari (that changing month),
My Bright Moon time of year

Original Japanese


Negawaku wa
Hana no moto nite
Haru shinan
Sono kisaragi no
Mochizuki no koro


Fukuda Chiyo-ni, Lady Kaga no Chiyo,
Fukuda Chiyo-ni, Lady Kaga no Chiyo

Chiyo-Ni 千代尼 (1703-1775) was born in Matto, Kaga Province (now Ishikawa Prefecture), the daughter of a picture framer.

She began writing haiku at the age of seven, was apprenticed to two of Matsuo Basho’s disciples, and was quite popular as a poet by the age of 17. In 1720, she married into the Fukuoka 福岡某 family in Kanazawa, becoming the Lady Kaga no Chiyo, or Kaga no Chiyo Jo. Jo 女 meaning “woman”, signifying her status as poet. Within two years of her marriage, her infant son died, and then her husband. She returned home to care for her parents and run the family business.

In 1752 she became a nun and was henceforth known as Chiyo-Ni, Ni 尼 meaning “nun”.

There is a museum dedicated to her work in her hometown.