Tag Archives: Japan

Smiles in my pockets

Very often I find stuff in my pockets. Usually it’s receipts or old tickets. Sometimes I extract a crumpled piece of paper I can no longer decipher but which I know is a now unidentifiable idea which I tried to jot down while tripping over a dog or avoiding a motorcycle.

There are pockets in my  mind as well. Mostly I find junk there too, but every now and then I come across something which makes me smile mysteriously while I am waiting to cross the road or just as they announce that my flight has been delayed again.

For example there are three or four haikus by Kobayashi Issa which I keep on coming across again and again:

Pissing in the snow

outside my door–

it makes a very straight hole.

The holes in the wall

play the flute

this autumn evening.

In a dream

my daughter lifts a melon

to her soft cheek


Visiting the graves

the old dog

leads the way

I first encountered Issa’s poems while reading an anthology of Haiku  edited by Robert Hass (The Essential Haiku), so when I noticed a clip of him reading some of his translations of Issa I thought I would share it with you. Perhaps some of them will end up in your minds’ pockets too.

(here’s a link to the video in case you can’t see the embedded version.)

If you want to read more Issa, there is a website with all of his poems http://haikuguy.com/issa/

Sei Shonagon’s Things – Lists from the Pillow Book (1)


(Sei Shonagon was born in Japan around the year 965 CE and served as a lady in waiting to Empress Sadako. In her Pillow Book, she gives an account of the things she saw and her feelings. Every now and then she provides a list of things, which are like tiny exhibitions organised by an unpredictable curator).

Elegant Things

A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat.
Duck eggs.
Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl.
A rosary of rock crystal.
Wistaria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow.
A pretty child eating strawberries.

Things That Should Be Large

Priests. Fruit. Houses. Provision bags. Inksticks for inkstones.
Men’s eyes: when they are too narrow, they look feminine. On the other hand, if they were as large as metal bowls, I should find them rather frightening.
Round braziers. Winter cherries. Pine trees. The petals of yellow roses.
Horses as well as oxen should be large

Things That Should Be Short

A piece of thread when one wants to sew something in a hurry.
A lamp stand.
The hair of a woman of the lower classes should be neat and short.
The speech of a young girl.

(Translation Ivan Morris – The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon – Penguin Classics)

The Poemarium (2)


Which of you owns that red moon, children ?

That is the entirety of a poem by Kobayashi Issa. It has the magic of successful haiku. It makes a pinpoint in the wall surrounding us and lets in a flood of surprising images and thoughts.  I by now have my own story sprung by these few words. Issa reaches a village at twilight, sits near the well to drink and wash, the children gather at a safe distance to watch the stranger. There is a tree nearby and a hill, and following it rising up the slope with one’s glance one finds the red rusty moon in the sky to which he points and asks the children whose toy is that ? Read more…