Monday musings on Australian literature: Japanese poetry in Australia

Engraved writings by Suiin Emi, Onomichi

Haiku by Suiin Emi, along the Path of Literature in Onimichi, Japan

Papa Gums loves to give me clippings of obituaries that he knows will interest me. Last week, from his hospital bed, he gave me one for an Australian poet I’d never heard of, Janice Bostock. She was, according to the obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, “one of Australia’s leading writers of Japanese poetic forms”, and won awards here and overseas. She particularly loved haiku.

Haiku, I must say, was the only form of Japanese poetry I had heard of until my first trip to Japan in 2006 when, on the railway station of our son’s tiny town of Tsugawa, we met an ex-teacher at his school who was heading off to her annual tanka conference. Tanka? Well, we discovered that tanka is an older Japanese verse form than haiku, and its basic structure is 5-7-5-7-7 “onji” (which we roughly translate to “syllables”). I guess most people reading this blog will know that haiku’s structure is 5-7-5. And here endeth the lesson on Japanese verse forms because the story is far more complicated than I’ve presented here, both in terms of these forms and other forms I haven’t mentioned. You can Google if you want to know more!

Bostock, who is briefly mentioned in the Wikipedia article on haiku in English, described haiku as “one-breath poems”, meaning that each poem “spans the length of one breath”. She also, and this was another new thing to me, practised a variation of haiku called “one line haiku”. Here is one quoted in her obituary:

no money for the busker I try not to listen

The obituary says that Bostock created the market for haiku in Australia by founding a journal called Tweed. She also wrote – and this of course appeals to me – The gum tree conversations. This was a series of articles aimed at showing “the relevance of haiku to the Australian landscape and experience”. Eventually her work led to the foundation of the Australian Haiku Society in 2000, of which she was patron at the time of her death. She was clearly a busy, engaged and passionate woman.

And so, haiku is alive and well in Australia … and it seems appropriately so. John Bird, who co-edited The first Australian Haiku Anthology with Bostock, has described haiku as follows: “a brief poem, built on sensory images from the environment. It evokes an insight into our world and its peoples.” As I understand it, haiku tends to involve the juxtaposition of two ideas or images in a way that a relationship is drawn between them. Australia, with its stark, dramatic environment, its odd vegetation and its strange creatures, must provide excellent subject matter for this sort of writing. Here is an Aussie haiku by E.A. Horne:

Brown paddock
Brown sheep
Blue bloody sky.

You can feel the pain of a farmer facing drought! It’s from an article first published in 2006 in the Australian poetry magazine, Five bells. Reeves, the author, says that “Contemporary haiku rarely consist of 17 syllables, may be written in one to four lines, and don’t have to be about the seasons. What they seek to retain is the brevity, clarity, immediacy and resonance of Japanese haiku and to record and share a moment of seeing”. I’m no expert in haiku, but it’s a form that appeals to me – because of this brevity that gives rise to a spareness, an attempt to pare to the essence of a thing. There’s no opportunity in haiku for effusive or loquacious explorations!

Tanka poems show a similar restraint and so, because it’s nicely appropriate, I’ll conclude with one of those:

our front yard gum
grown from a sapling
to a giant –
all those black cockatoos
fair exchange for a lawn

(Michael Thorley, Eucalypt Issue 1, 2006)

Are you familiar with – and do you like – these tiny poetic forms?

On the literary (and linguistic) road in Japan: 3, Matsue and beyond

This will be my last post on our Japanese adventures (unless something specific inspires me to write again – always leave yourself an out is my motto) and I’m going to share a few particular experiences, so here goes.

Matsue and Lafcadio Hearn

Our prime reason for going to Matsue was to visit the Adachi Museum of Art, and its famous garden. However, Matsue is also famous for having one of Japan’s best original castles, so we visited that on the day we arrived – and then explored the castle environs. And here we found a house and museum devoted to Greek-born Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). He only lived in Matsue for a short time, but he met his wife there and the town has taken him as their own. I have downloaded the eBook version of one of his best known books, Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan (1871) which was published just a little earlier than Isabella Bird‘s Unbeaten tracks in Japan.

For now though, I’ll just share two little tidbits that attracted my attention in the museum. The first is that Lafcadio Hearn was apparently the person who introduced the word “tsunami” to the rest of the world. He wrote, in 1897:

From immemorial time the shores of Japan have been swept, at regular intervals of centuries, by enormous tidal waves – tidal waves caused by earthquakes or by submarine volcanic action. These awful sudden risings of the sea are called by the Japanese “tsunami”. The last one occurred on the evening of June 17, 1896, when a wave nearly two hundred miles long struck the northeastern provinces of Miyagi, Iwaté, and Aomori, wrecking scores of towns and villages, ruining whole districts, and destroying nearly thirty thousand human lives. (from “A living god”)

The second is another quote the museum included from Hearn, this one on Japanese gardens:

Now a Japanese garden is not a flower garden, neither is it made for cultivating plants. As a rule a Japanese garden is a landscape garden. Another fact of prime importance to remember is that, in order to comprehend the beauty of a Japanese garden, it is necessary to understand – or at least to learn to understand – the beauty of stones. Not of stones quarried by the hand of man, but of stones shaped by nature only. (From “Glimpses …”)

He’s right, though I hadn’t quite thought of it that way, but stones are a significant part of Japanese gardens and you can’t help but notice and ponder them when you stroll around gardens here. At Korakuen in Okayama, an English-speaking guide told us that stones represent “prosperity” and would often be given as gifts.

Okayama and folk tales

Okayama manhole cover featuring Momotaro, the Peach Boy

Momotaro and friends on Okayama manhole covers

Japan, like many countries, is rich in folktales, and we came across several during this trip. There was one particular story, though, Momotaro, the Peach Boy, that I think is somewhat known in the west – at least, I came across it when our children were young – so it was rather meaningful to meet him in his home, Okayama. The Momotaro story involves his fighting marauding demons with the help of a dog, monkey and pheasant. The demons may, according to Wikipedia, have been from the island of Megishima – and we did visit the demon cave there some days later (but that’s a whole other story). What I want to introduce here instead is the topic of Japanese manhole covers. Each town seems to have its own design (or two) – and if you search Flickr you will find a goodly number of them. They are appealing and are just one of those little details that make Japanese travel fun. Anyhow, for Okayama the design is based on the Momotaro story.

Ogishima and John Masefield

One of the most surprising literary experiences of the trip was finding, within sight of the lighthouse on the little island of Ogishima, a beautifully polished marble stone monument engraved with the three verses of John Masefield’s famous poem “Sea fever” . I haven’t been able to find out what Masefield has to do with Ogishima, and perhaps it’s simply that it’s an applicable poem for a little sea-focused island, but with Japan’s close relationship with the sea I would have thought it had its own famous sea poems to use in such a situation. Whatever the case, this westerner rather enjoyed coming across something familiar in an unfamiliar place.

Onomichi and the Path of Literature

Engraved writings by Suiin Emi, Onomichi

Suiin Emi's stone on the Path of Literature

There is, as the Rough Guide to Japan will tell you, a long temple walk you can do in Onomichi, that takes you up and down the hillsides that line this little port town. We decided to follow the Rough guide’s advice and just do selected components of the walk, which happened to include the Path of Literature. According to an Onomichi Travel Guide the path was developed because Onomichi is known to have inspired many poets/writers because of its “beautiful scenery and quiet life style”. The walk contains 25 stones (stones, again), each inscribed with some words from a particular writer and each accompanied by an interpretative sign which includes the writer’s name in English. (Nothing else was in English, but the name’s a great help for later research.)

I have chosen the Suiin Emi stone to illustrate this post because he was born in nearby Okayama. Basho is, of course, represented … as he is also in the little fishing town of Tomo-no-ura.

An apparent incongruity

Japan is a country of contrasts, paradoxes even you could say, and so I thought I’d illustrate this with something from our second day in Japan when we visited the quiet little town of Obuse (which I mentioned in my first post for its Hokusai connection). We walked out of the station and across the rather empty little street to discover what appeared to be a restaurant (albeit closed at the time) with the following sign on its door:

We have NO relation with Yakuza.

We are still pondering that one …

On the literary (and linguistic) road in Japan: 2, Kanazawa and Kyoto

Isabella Bird (Unbeaten tracks in Japan, 1880) doesn’t appear to have visited Kyoto or Kanazawa, which is a shame as I would have enjoyed reading her comments. However, I thought I’d quote from her anyhow, from Letter I. It covers her arrival in Yokohama harbour on May 21 which is close in time of year to now:

The day was soft and grey with a little faint blue sky, and, though the coast of Japan is much more prepossessing than most coasts, there were no startling surprises of colour or form.

She’s right. Japan is a subtle country. When I, an Australian, see a weather forecast for a fine day, I expect bright blue skies, but in fact that’s pretty rare in Japan. Even when there are blue skies they aren’t particularly bright. I am gradually getting used to it … and this softness goes, as Bird says, for colour in general here. It’s mostly muted, subtle … variations of green in the countryside, and beige and grey in the cities and towns. It’s quite a shock to see bright colours (in anything but flowers, which are of course blooming now that it’s late spring).

Anyhow, onto the subjects of this post, Kanazawa and Kyoto. By the end of this trip, our third in Japan, there will be three cities that we have visited every time: Tokyo, Kanazawa and Kyoto. Tokyo, primarily because we pass through it; Kanazawa because we fell in love with it on our first visit; and Kyoto because who doesn’t love Kyoto?


Plaque in Kenrokuen containing Basho's Haiku

Sign containing Basho’s Haiku in Kenrokuen

Haiku by Basho. In my first post I quoted a haiku by Issa, one of Japan’s four haiku masters, so this time I’ll quote one from Basho, another of the four. A major reason people visit Kanazawa is to see its famous garden, Kenrokuen. In the garden is a stone monument engraved with a Matsuo Basho haiku in 1689. I had a tricky time trying to find the actual haiku because it is, of course, written in Kanji (on the stone and the wooden sign). But after some googling I found haikugirl who has kindly agreed to my copying from her post the translation given to her. Here ’tis:

Aka aka to
Hiwa tsure naku mo
Aki no kazu

This roughly translates to “How brightly the sun shines, turning its back to the autumn wind”, which sounds pretty appropriate to me, regardless of the accuracy of the translation. So thankyou haikugirl.

Carson McCullers in Japan. It took three trips to Kanazawa for us to finally visit its impressive 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. They were running two excellent exhibitions, but I’ll just mention one, “Silent echoes”. The curator’s notes start with the following quote from Carson McCullers’s The heart is a lonely hunter:

How did it come? For a minute the opening balanced from one side to the other. Like a walk or march. Like God strutting in the night. The outside of her was suddenly froze and only that first part of the music was hot inside her heart. She could not even hear what sounded after, but she sat there waiting and froze, with her fists tight. After a while the music came again, harder and loud. It didn’t have anything to do with God. This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. The music was her – the real plain her.

Murata Daisuke, the curator, goes on to explain that the centrepiece of the exhibition is “L’echo” by Tse Su-Mei, a Luxembourg artist whose work “resonates deeply with the world of music and human life conveyed by the above quote”. The aim of the exhibition, Daisuke writes, is to highlight “an artistic world created through a complete fusion of self, technique and the world”.

We found the exhibition appealing and accessible, and demanding engagement. It occupies 8 galleries/spaces, with each space containing only one or two works of art. This gives the viewer a wonderful opportunity to engage with the work, to contemplate its meaning for herself without being overwhelmed by surrounding works. The pieces range from three-dimensional sculptures and installations to two-dimensional pictures. One, for example, by Brazilian-born Vik Muniz, is a cibachrome print of an image of a (sky)diver he’d created using chocolate sauce. It’s two-dimensional but is tactile and free-spirited. It’s titled “Picture of Chocolate: Diver (After Siskind)”. Most of the works are monochromatic or use minimal colour, which also forces us to engage more deeply with the work I think.

But the exception to this muted colour use, and also the highlight for me, was “L’echo”. It’s a video projection showing a rear view of the artist playing a cello in a mountain landscape. She wears a red vest, while sitting on a stool on bright green grass and facing a very high dark green/blue forested mountain. She plays short simple sequences on the cello and pauses while the echo comes back. Sometimes she starts playing again before the echo finishes, so it sounds almost like a round. Sometimes the echo doesn’t quite replicate what she has just played. It’s mesmerising and beautifully evocative of the way humans and nature/landscape can engage on a level beyond reason and logic. I found it moving, and hard to leave.

Other works in the exhibition work at a similar level, and generally complement each other well, but I’ve not the time to dwell more on this now.


Our main reason for revisiting Kyoto this trip was to see Ginkaku-ji again and re-walk the Philosopher’s Walk because last time we’d done these it was late in the day and we had not “done” them justice. It was worth the effort. Ginkaku-ji is a lovely comparatively subdued temple with smallish but beautiful grounds which incorporate a dry landscape garden as well as “strolling garden” of paths, trees and shrubs.

In the grounds of the Honen-In, Kyoto

In the grounds of the Honen-in, Kyoto

The literary connection I want to refer to was not here though, but along the Philosopher’s Walk from which you can detour to visit a number of other temples. One of these is Honen-in and I was rather thrilled to discover that Junichiro Tanizaki is buried in the grounds here. We visited the cemetery but of course couldn’t read the tombstones. However, I rather liked knowing he was there, since this sort of literature-spotting is not such an easy thing to do in Japan (though I’m sure I could do more if I put my mind to it!). I read Tanizaki’s The Makioka sisters about 20 years ago, and found it a real eye-opener. It introduced me to a more multi-cultural Japan than I was aware of, while also conveying the challenges of maintaining traditions in a changing world. Max of Pechorin’s Journal recently wrote a post on a book by Tanizaki on reconciling tradition and modernisation in Japan. Do read his post – and the following discussion.

A little more Japlish

And just for fun, I’ll conclude with one bit of Japlish. It comes from some instructions for hotel guests:

Washing machine: 300 yen
Desiccator: 30 yen for 10 minutes.

I decided not to find out how long it would take to desiccate our clothes, and so left the washing for another day and hotel. Funnily enough, the “desiccator” itself was well labelled by the manufacturer as “dryer”. Clearly though the translator chose a dictionary over the object itself … and I’m rather glad s/he did.