Haiku and Kanji

An old English professor of mine offered each student extra marks for memorizing 16 lines of Shakespeare.  The impetus for this, he claimed, was not because it would necessarily enrich us, but because it would impress people at dinner parties(!).  Ulterior motives aside, much is to be gained from memorizing great literature, and the works of master poet Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉) certainly qualify.  His poems are a pithy way to: (a) learn new vocabulary in context; (b) learn new kanji; and (c) impress people in the process.

Ukiyoe.Hiroshige.Asakusa

Bashō was born in 1644 and would grow to become one of the most famous poets of the Japanese Edo Period (1603-1868).  He was originally trained as a teacher, but then removed himself from his urban existence and travelled throughout Japan composing remarkable works of poetic magic (for more about his life, click here).  He is famous for his haiku poetry (then known as hokku) – a poem characterized by (a) the juxtaposition of two images or ideas; (b) three phrases of 5, 7, and 5 syllables; and (c) the use of kigo, Japanese seasonal words drawn perhaps from a saijiki (a dictionary of seasonal words, many of which are found here).

Bashō was prolific, as can be seen from this collection of all of his haiku.  This being winter, I thought a few snowy excerpts may whet your appetite to learn them – including their vocabulary and kanji – and deepen your understanding of the Japanese language and culture.

初しぐれ猿も小蓑をほしげ也
(はつしぐれさるもこみのをほしげなり)

First winter shower, even the monkeys would want, a straw raincoat. 
Here we have a classic kigo (shigure or winter shower), and the unusual 蓑 kanji (a raincoat made of straw).

初雪や懸けかかりたる橋の上
(はつゆきゃかけかかりたるはしのうへ)

First snow, falling, on the half-finished bridge.
Hatsuyuki (first snow) is an early winter kigo.

石山の石にたばしる霰哉
(いしやまのいしにたばしるあられかな)

Hailstones, glancing off the rocks, at Stony Pass.
This haiku uses the 霰 (hail) kanji, and the unusual “tabashiru” verb (rain down).  It is said that Bashō was caught in a hailstorm while visiting the ishiyama temple in 1690, inspiring this poem.  The poem, in turn, inspired the creation of the “tabashiru” treat, which is a bean filled sweet (which can be viewed, and purchased, here).  Incidentally, this is not the only sweet inspired by a haiku.

So, with that, you have much to look into:  The kanji in a haiku, the vocabulary in a haiku (including the concept of kigo), and the intersection of food and poetry.  Isn’t Japanese grand!?!