[10th in a series of posts about a recent trip to Japan.]
Reading is as much a part of understanding a place to me as walking, seeing and tasting. I still remember how the historical fiction novel, Under the Pomegranate Tree (by Tariq Ali – recently retitled to Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree), changed my experience of visiting Granada and the Alhambra in Spain. In my mind’s eye, I saw the pile of books – thousands of years of wisdom and learning – burning in the town square as Christians took control of the city, where they had until then co-existed peacefully with Muslims and Jews under Islamic rule.
For Japan, it was Bashō, the greatest of Japan’s poets in a long tradition of great poets, who framed my perceptions.
Though a foreigner’s first view of a place tends to the romantic, I am not cynical or jaded enough not to be awed by the attention to nuance, the elevation of aesthetics to the level of competitive sport.
Simple, strong, laced with meaning: it’s everywhere in minute details. Flower arrangements are an obvious example: a few blooms, shaped in pleasing proportion, forming graceful lines. Visual haiku.
I wonder if the heart of it all – the visual art – comes from the word.
Hiroaki Sato’s translation of Bashō’s 17th century travel journal, “Narrow Road to the Interior,” begins with an explanation about the evolution of the haiku, which has its origins in the opening sequence of a much longer form of poem called a renga. Renga were often crafted by multiple writers who alternated writing of sequences and earned tournament points according to an arcane set of rules. Lines would be hashed over for subtle effect, incorporating humor, puns, word plays and allusions. The opening of a renga had to salute the occasion, while the close had to compliment the host. Those receiving compliments often “replied” with clever, self-deprecatory phrases. Season symbols, “kigo,” were compulsory in certain lines, a tradition that continues in most haiku. Summer, for example, was associated with flowers and green leaves, as well as swallow chicks and lotus. Also required were lines referring to spirituality or Buddhism.
Visiting the three temples of Dewa-Senzan was planned as a pilgrimage. In losing my father this year, it appealed to me that the shrines represent birth, death and rebirth. In the temple that honors the mountain deities on Haguro-san, I asked Thom to write a prayer for me on a wooden placard: Let Papa be with Nana. Here, in a place that calls us through the beauty and vigor of nature to purify our bodies and minds, I envisioned Dad’s restoration to Mom in the afterlife.
A haiku to Dad began to form as I settled down for sleep:
Red-bibbed Buddhas feast
Lapis-blue petals unfurl
The forest eternal
Next: Stepping Back into the Time of Samurais, in Kakunodate