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.


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

Kisaragi (如月) February

Naked am I
Still changing clothes
In Kisaragi, doesn’t it storm

hadaka ni wa, mada kisaragi no, arashi kana


Bridge in a Snowy Landscape, Hiroshige Utagawa, 1842-3

February 2021, it storms

Recent events here in the Midwest reveal that Nature sometimes keeps its worst weather for February. January in Japan is bitterly cold. February, occasionally, will give hints of spring. The February weather changes day by day which explains why the Japanese lunar calendar name for February is kisaragi, 如月, or kinusaragi, 衣更着, which implies the changing of clothes in the anticipation of spring.

Hold on, says Matuso Basho, old man winter is not done.

I am guessing Basho showed up for (or heard about) the Naked Man Festival, Saidai-ji Eyo — Hadaka Matsuri, held in Okayama in February each year. It has been going on 500 years, but in Basho’s time it was somewhat new. The idea of men, nearly naked, hadaka, jostling for a lucky object, hoping to become Fukuotoko, the “lucky man” must have seemed strange.

Thus, it is not hard to imagine Basho saying,

Removing clothes
What, in February, it storms!

Or Basho No-Yona adding,

Dressing today
For yesterday’s weather –
Strange looks

The Lamp Oil is Freezing

The lamp oil is freezing, the light is low, I am awakening!


abura kōri / tomoshi-bi hosoki / nezame kana 

Oil lamp, Shibata Zeshin, 1882, image from The Met

Baby, it’s cold outside

Last night, the temperature dropped to a chilly -2 °F in western Kansas.

If this were 1870, not 2021, I imagine the early settlers would have had a hard time falling asleep in a sod dugout built into the side of a hill. A buffalo robe would help fight off the cold. Dried buffalo paddies when available were used for fuel. In the above haiku, Matsuo Basho gives us his impression of trying to sleep when the weather is bitterly cold, so cold that the lamp oil and the furnace barely provide light and less heat.

At the same time, he manages to turn it into a moment of enlightenment. Basho’s awakening, 寝覚哉, nezame kana, metaphorically is meant as a Buddhist enlightenment.

Does oil freeze?

I did wonder what the Japanese used for lamp oil — rapeseed is the most common answer. I then wondered if rapeseed oil could freeze. It can. While the freezing temperature may vary according to the type of oil, -10 °C or 14°F will do the trick.

This means that our early Kansas settlers would have had a “awakening” like Basho’s.


For those curious as to the when and where of the poem, when is winter 1685-1687, and the place is Basho’s little cottage in the Fukagawa District outside Edo.

Winter’s Garden, 冬庭や

Winter’s garden
Ah, the moon, a silvery thread
As insects hmmm

fuyu niwa ya
tsuki mo ito naru
mushi no gin

冬庭や 月もいとなる むしの吟

2nd year of Genroku, at a tea ceremony with Ichinyū celebrating Banzan.

by the light of the silvery moon, the insects hmmm

Winter, 2nd year of Genroku, 1689

At least one modern day student of Basho dates this haiku to 1689 and adds, “on meeting Ichinyū at a celebration held by Banzan.”

Ichinyū was a lay Buddhist teacher and seven year Basho’s senior. By trade he was a traditional tea potter, fourth generation Raku. Ichinyū lived and worked in Kyoto, which suggests that he was an old friend from Basho’s student days.

Kumazawa Banzan was a follower of Confucius, an advocate of agricultural reform who ran afoul of the Shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. Beginning in 1687, Bashan was confined to Koga Castle in Ibaraki Prefecture, making it likely that the occasion for writing this haiku was not a meeting with Banzan, but a celebration of Banzan’s writings that took place at a tea ceremony in Kyoto hosted by Ichinyū.

We should perhaps give Basho credit here for political commentary. I read this haiku as, “the peasants (i.e. insects) continue through winter’s darkness to work (hmmm) for the Imperial court and the samurai class.

Notes on this haiku

The 2nd year of Genroku refers to the reign of Emperor Higashiyama.

Those who garden know that a winter’s garden, fuyu niwa ya, 冬庭や, has but a few plants and fewer insects. The ending character , ya, turns this phrase into an interjection expressing surprise which I’ve added to the next line. An early frost shrivels the leaves and stills the sounds of the insects who feed on the plants. To me, it is remarkable after an early frost to hear a solitary insect humming. This insect has perhaps burrowed down deep in the earth, found a dung hill, or huddled next to the house to survive the icy cold. And the next day, in the warmth of the sun, merrily goes about its work.

Tsuki mo ito naru. Tsuki is our familiar moon in all its phases. Naru is the verb form for becoming. Mo ito, literally, like a thread, giving us the sense that the moon is waning to a “silvery thread.”

Mushi no Gin, the sound of insects. I render this as “insects hmmm.” Those familiar with Matsuo Basho’s haiku know that as a Zen poet, he was fascinated with the sound of things, whether it was a cricket under a helmet, a frog jumping in an old pond, or insects in rocks.

Shiwasu, December

Being rushed,
I give a forget-the-year party
In a good mood
I wonder?

Setsuka rete  Toshi wasure suru  Kigen kana

せつかれて 年忘れする 機嫌かな

Shiwasu, December, Priests rushing to make ready the Temple

Forget the Year

I have no year for which to date Matsuo Basho’s New Year’s haiku. The winter of 1682 is a likely year, for his Banana Hut was destroyed in a fire. The following year his mother died. There are perhaps other likely candidates, but I don’t suppose we will know.

This haiku is like a scrap of paper fallen from a pocket as one fiddles about for change to feed the parking meter when rushing about on New Year’s Eve.

Of course it is now January 2021. Being rushed by the holidays, worried about a pandemic, and an election crisis, I almost forgot to celebrate the passing of 2020. Or, Basho would agree, I simply wanted to forget an awful 2020.

Shiwasu, 師

In 17th century Japan, Japanese families prepared for the New Year’s Eve party by rushing to a Shinto shrine to venerate their ancestors. For this reason, December is given the name Shiwasu, 師走, which translates as the “month of running priests” who are busy sweeping up and setting out candles. At the temples and shrines, wishes for the new year must be made, and new omamori (charms) bought and old ones returned to be be burned.

Today, as back then, there is a bit of sadness mixed in with gladness. The Japanese call these New Year’s parties 忘年会, bonenkai, literally forget the year party. For Basho, this becomes 年忘れする, toshi wasure suru, forget the year. Perhaps it was a bad year.

We all have those. And come the New Year don’t we wish to be in a good mood, 機嫌 Kigen. I wonder, かな, kana. And don’t some like to keep grudges. Hmmm?

A Pillow of Grass

Let us dine on barley grain
On a journey nowhere

(kusa makura)

come, together
let us eat barley grain
on a grass pillow

iza tomo ni/ homugi kurawan/ kusa makura


barley field, 麦畑

Summer 1685

On “a journey of a thousand leagues,” one that began in the autumn of 1684, a trip in which Basho would enter “into nothingness under the midnight moon,” and now, in the summer of 1685, was near its end, a chance meeting took place. It was a meeting that meant everything and nothing, remarkable enough to inspire a haiku, to remember, but nothing else.

The poet from Edo and the priest from Hirugakojima met somewhere near Nagoya in Owari province. Let us imagine the introduction:

“Come let us go together. As you see, you and I have no place to be. Asking for very little, eating a simple fare of barley grain, ‘neath the stars at night, sleeping on a pillow of grass until we say our goodbyes.”

We learn little of the priest other than the fact that he hails from the island of Hirugakojima (蛭が小嶋) in Izu. The significance becoming apparent only when we realize that the shrine and the temple on the island was built by Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), who established the Kamakura shogunate, a play on words with kusamakura (草枕), the grass pillow.

In 1689, pursuant to his last wishes, Basho would be buried next to Minamoto no Yoshinaka, a member of the Minamoto samurai clan.

Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field

It was the first of Matsuo Basho’s major wanderings, a trip that took him from Edo to Mount Fuji, then on to Ueno, Nara, Kyoto, and Nagoya, a trip begun in uncertainty for Basho made trip alone without provisions. Basho was 41, old enough to have achieved fame as poet and teacher, still uncertain about where life was leading him.

We need not tarry too long on this journey. David Landis Barnhill has given us a translation online of the Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field, (Nozarashi kiko).

Dewa Province Mogami River


David Landis Barnhill gives us a chronological translation online of the Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field, (Nozarashi kiko) .

WKD – Matsuo Basho Archives, Gabi Greve, Iza, let’s go

The Route, Nozarashi Kiko (野ざらし紀行), Several sources indicate that Basho was accompanied on the journey by his disciple Chiri. Chiri (塵) is an interesting moniker for it means dust. Dust was on occasion a subject of Basho’s haiku.

blossoms falling, birds startled by the harp’s dust
chiru hana ya / tori mo odoroku / koto no chiri

Wintry Wind, Kogarashi

The wintry wind,
Swelling cheeks and throbbing pain on
Peoples’ faces

Kogarashi ya/ Hoobare itamu/ Hito no kao

こがらしや 頬腫痛む 人の顔

Though we don’t know, let us imagine that the year is 1672, Basho at age 28, has moved to Edo (now Tokyo), the seat of the newly established Tokugawa shoguns. He is there to make his career as a professional haiku poet. Picture a street in Edo, it is winter, the trees have been striped of their leaves by a strong wind blowing out of the North. Men and women, old and young, pull up their collars and tighten their scarves and scurry down the street trying to avoid the bitter wind that bites their cheeks.

In the words of Lao Tzu, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” And those who feel know how truly cold it is. Normally, a face reveals nothing, but a bitterly cold wind reveals the pain one feels on a winter’s day.

Kogarashi is a marker for the start of the winter season. According to the Japan Meteorological Agency, the wind must blow from the north at a speed of 28.8 kph (18 mph) and be capable of stripping leaves from the tree.

Wintry Scene in Edo, Utagawa Hiroshige