kirigirisu, a cricket cries

How piteous!
Beneath the warrior’s helmet
A cricket cries.

むざんや   な甲の下の   きりぎりす
muzan ya na/ kabuto no shita no/ kirigirisu

grasshopper-1

Saito Sanemori

An everyday object comes alive when Basho hears a cricket chirp underneath a warrior’s helmet. Winter is approaching.

On the 8th of September, 1689, Matsuo Basho, and his companion Sora, visited Komatsu and the Shrine Tada Jinja 多太神社, the birthplace of the Genji-clan, in Ishikawa prefecture. The shrine was famous as it contained contained the 12th century helmet of the Samurai warrior Saito Sanemori 斉藤実盛 who sided with the losing Heike. The old warrior was brought back from retirement, when he died in battle in 1183. To conceal his age, Sanemori dyed his white hair black.

Basho explains:

We visited Tada shirine where Sanemori’s helmet and a piece of his brocade robe are stored. It is said they were given to the Sanemori by Lord Yoshitomo of Minaoto,when Sanemori served with the Genji clan.

It was no ordinary helmet. From the peak to the turned-back ear flanges, it was embellished with chrysanthemum arabesques in gold. The crest was a dragon’s head, and the helmet had proud and graceful fla, gilded “horns.”

When Sanemori was killed in battle, Kiso Yoshinaka sent Jiro of Higuchi to offer these relics to the shrine. All this is vividly recorded in the shrine’s chronicles.

The first line of Basho’s haiku comes from a play, Sanemori, by Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443), in which a traveling priest encounters Sanemori’s ghost, who narrates his own story and death at Shinowara. During the clash, Sanemori’s head is struck off, only to be found later by an enemy general, Higuchi Jiro. The severed head is washed in a pond and the white hair is revealed. Recognizing the familiar white hair, Higuchi Jiro cries out “Muzan ya na!” “How piteous!”. Awe-struck with grief, Higuchi Jiro is brought back to reality by the sound of a cricket.

Notes on translation

むざんや, Muzan ya na, clearly more than a simple interjection, muzan conveys the sense of grief and tragedy.

, Kabuto, a Japanese Samurai helmet

きりぎりす, Kirigirisu, literally a cricket or a grasshopper and nothing more; unspoken, but implied is the human emotion of crying. A cricket seems less significant to me than a grasshopper, though the two terms were indistinguishable to Basho. Moreover, in Japanese culture, the cricket is an autumn symbol, a sign of approaching winter and death, a kind of melancholy, nostalgic feeling.

samurai costume

Oh dear, green leaves, bright sun

Oh dear! green leaves, young leaves, sparkling sun

あらたふ と青葉若葉の 日の光
ara touto aoba wakaba no hi no hikari

Nikko

Basho and his traveling companion Sora arrived at Mount Nikko (日光 nikki, the sun’s brilliance) on March the 30th and lodged at an inn at the foot of the mountain.

Basho writes:

“The inn’s host introduced himself as ‘Honest’ Gozaemon (五左衛門) and told me to sleep in perfect peace on his grass pillow, that his sole ambition was to be worthy of his name ( to protect). I watched him carefully, and found him stubbornly honest, utterly devoid of worldly cleverness. It was as if the good Buddha himself had taken the shape of a man to help me in my wanderings. Indeed, such holy honesty and purity like his must not be scorned, for it verges on the perfection Confucius preaches.”

Basho continues:

“On the first day of the fourth month, I climbed Mount Nikko, which means the bright beams of the sun… A thousand years ago, the sainted Kobo Diashi (Kukai) built a temple upon it. He must have had the power to see into the future, for the mountain is now the seat of the most sacred of shrines and its benevolent power protects the land, embracing the people like the bright beams of the sun. To say more about the shrine would violate its holiness.”

How awe inspiring, to stand in solitude amidst the newly budded maple trees and towering cedars ( Sugi), with the blue morning sky a background, and the brilliant yellow sun sparkling through the pale green leaves. Surely, sainted Kobo Diashi had experienced this moment too.

Gentle reader, who has not seen the sun sparkling through the new pale green leaves of spring and summer and not been inspired?

Notes

あら ara, Oh!
若葉 wakaba, young pale green leaves
青葉若葉 aoba wakaba, the young leaves of early summer
日の光 no hi no hikari, sunlight
光 hikari, gleaming, sparkling light
日光 nikki, bright sunlight
morning

First Snow on Shin Ohashi Bridge

初雪や
懸けかかりたる橋
の上に

Hatsu-yuki ya
kake-kakari-taru hashi
no ue ni

First Snow
falling on the unfinished bridge,
Oh, if only on top

わからない, Wakaranai, I don’t understand

“Master Basho,” the disciple says after reading this haiku, “Wakaranai, わからない, I don’t understand.”

After a momentary pause, Master Basho replies, “Those who speak, do not know. Those who know, need not speak.”

The disciple bows his head, the fingers of his two hands interlaced in his lap, and exhaling a deep breath before repeats, almost as if in prayer, “Wakaranai.”

The old master removes his cap and runs his hands through his graying hair. Then he strokes the beard of his chin as if it were the fur of a cat and says, “We are all looking for answers. But some things in life are mysteries. There are no answers my son. Perhaps, a haiku, a word picture may suffice.”

After a moment, the disciple nods.

Unexplainable, unknowable, ineffable

Even the most gifted writers know than not all experiences can be rendered into language. A common example, the first light of the morning sun parting the darkness greeting the new day. “You had to be there,” one usually says when trying to describe the unexplainable, the unknowable, the ineffable.

Matsuo Basho’s haiku is inspired by the building of the lofty Shin Ohashi (New Great Bridge). Constructed in the fall of 1693, it spanned the Sumida River, and for the first time linked the bustling city center of Edo (old name for Tokyo) and rustic Fukagawa, where Basho lived in a hut provide to him by his disciples. One source reports that the construction was begun “in July and finished in five months on Dec. 7 1693.” (See the online essay, The Spaces of Robert Hass, March 10, 2015, James Karkoski). If so, it still allows time for the a first winter’s snow before the bridge’s completion, a moment for Matsuo Basho to stand below the unfinished bridge.

Although it depicts rain and a completed bridge, this later day painting by Japanese artist Hiroshige, 1857, conveys a sense of being exposed to the Nature’s elements.

Hiroshige Atake Shin Ohashi  bridge Shizuoka city Tokaido Hiroshige Museum of Art
Hiroshige Atake, Shin Ohashi bridge, Shizuoka city Tokaido Hiroshige Museum of Art

Lost in translation

Translators rarely agree about wording and Matsuo Basho’s poem is no exception.

The most Spartan example by David Landis Barnhill:
first-snow ! / make / bridge ’s top

Robert Hass:
first snow
falling
on the half finished bridge

This last example seems to eliminate the last line of Basho’s poem, の上に, no ue ni, which I render as “If only on top” and adding the gratuitous exclamation “Oh”.

One might add a little more context to the haiku by explaining that Basho moved from Edo to Fukagawa in 1680. The river Sumida separated the two and there were no bridges. I suspect that not all of the residents would look forward to becoming a part of metropolitan Edo (Tokyo).

Understanding and knowing

One has to wonder if there is a difference in Japanese between understanding and knowing. My answer is: わかりませんです, Wakarimasendesu.