Chilly on a Sleepless Night

The other day I woke up around 2–3 am and couldn’t get back to bed. I know this is a common thing for some folks, but it doesn’t hit me very often. That said, occasionally it will. My mind will instantly flood with thoughts—things I have to do, worries for the future, that kind of thing—and before I know it I’m awake enough that just laying there starts to become uncomfortable and I want to move a little.

Before I got up to take a midnight walk, a haiku popped into my head. hah yes, among the other things that had come in to wake me up, a haiku was one of them. Anyway, after I got up, I went to my desk to write it down.

summer night—
it’s surprisingly chilly
as I lay sleepless

View from Takatsu in Osaka by Kawase Hasui
“View from Takatsu in Osaka” by Kawase Hasui

I suppose it’s not really the real summer yet. It is summer by the traditional Japanese almanac that the haiku world still uses. The old thinking was that each season starts at the midpoint between equinox and solstice, the point where the previous season was at the peak of its strength. The rational for this was that from this point forward more and more of the next season starts to show up, so in that sense it is the beginning of the next one. It’s an interesting way of looking at things.[1]

Anyway, so it is summer by the traditional reckoning (which started on May 5th) but the real summer heat won’t come until after rainy season ends around the end of June. Until then, we’ll still be in the early summer[2] mode of being hot during the day but fairly cool at night. That explains why I was a bit chilly as I laid in bed awake last night. So I suppose it really isn’t that surprising when we consider everything, but still, it is summer and summer carries the image of hot all the time, so when taken against that image it is surprising.

Yes, grammar nerds, lay is transitive (it requires an object), so the correct word to use here is lie, but there is an object suggested here and unspoken (my bed) so in that sense lay is correct. It sounds better, anyway.

Buy actually, the first version I wrote down was:

three am
it’s surprisingly chilly
as I lie awake

Using the correct verb there. But I decided to replace “three am” with the season so that we could understand why being chilly is surprising. I don’t always follow the season word requirement of traditional haiku, but in this case it seems to need more context. Without the time in the first line, I now have to specify why being awake is a big deal, so adding “sleepless” and suggesting “in bed” by using lay instead of lie.

At any rate, after writing that haiku, I took a short walk outside, then read a little, then went back to bed. Many people who study this sort of thing have in recent years suggested that before the electric light, most people slept in two separate phases with an awake period of an hour or two in the middle (usually called biphasic sleep). On the rare times when I do have these sleepless periods at night, I’m reminded of that.

  1. I haven’t written any posts directly about this traditional system yet (called 二十四節気) but I have referred to it a few times in my Today in Japan posts. Go look!  ↩

  2. Or later spring, by the modern way of looking at things.  ↩

To Not be Enlightened – The Zen of Bashō

Just as today, in Bashō’s day there were many people who claimed expertise about things they really didn’t know much about. Bashō was a follower of Zen and it annoyed him that many people at the time pretended to know more about it than they did. He wrote:

inazuma ni satoranu hito no tattosa yo[1]

one who sees lightning
without becoming enlightened
how admirable!

Kamakura Shrine by Tokuriki Tomikichiro
Kamakura Shrine by Tokuriki Tomikichiro

All of you reading this likely know the stereotypical images of a Zen monk achieving sudden enlightenment (satori) upon something dramatic happening, such as him being slapped, or a bucket falling, or some such. A lightning flash is often used as a symbol of this satori. Bashō is playing off that popular image and attacking those people of his day who would learn a little about Zen or do a little meditation and suddenly start claiming deep knowledge of Zen and enlightenment; while at the same time praising those who don’t feel the need to boast about themselves or spread their own superficial knowledge.

Bashō wasn’t the only one frustrated by this trend. Before this haiku, he quotes a contempt Zen priest who remarked “A shallow knowledge of Zen leads to great harm”. Real Zennies who have followed the discipline for years and have some degree of knowledge and experience typically don’t talk much about it and downplay any profound experience they might have had. This isn’t usually due to modesty or any Zen rule that seeks to keep this knowledge a secret, but rather to avoid being misunderstood by those not studying Zen and to prevent these ideas of Zen being a mysterious art that can lead to enlightenment from spreading.

More generally, this haiku can be seen as praising all who realize their limited-knowledge and don’t go around promoting themselves. It’s very much in line with the statement attributed to Socrates, “All I know is that I know nothing”—or in modern terms, the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Butterflies on the Path with Chiyo-ni

Butterflies are with us all year, or at least for the warmer parts, yet they are most often used as a symbol for spring in haiku. Here Chiyo-ni, the most famous female haiku poet, wrote of them, saying:

chōchō ya onago no michi no ushiro ya saki[1]

ahead and behind
on the woman’s path

Butterfly and Hydrangea by Inuzuka Taisui
Butterfly and Hydrangea by Inuzuka Taisui

Butterflies can have several usages in haiku. As I’ve mentioned a few times previously, they often are used as a shorthand for philosophical musings about the nature of reality and identity, a pointer to Chuang-Tzu and his famous question “Am I a man who dreamed I was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he is a man?”[3]

At the same time, butterflies could also be used as a symbol for femininity and delicacy, and this is one that female poets like Chiyo-ni used often for this effect, to evoke a sense of lightness, grace, and sensuality.

In this haiku there may be some elements of both. The butterflies fluttering around the woman’s path might be representing femininity, yet at the same time they might also be suggesting a more philosophical reflection on the ephemeral nature of life. Like Chuang-Tzu’s dream, life ends soon, and perhaps we move on to another, changing and moving about just like the butterflies fluttering around.

Either interpretation or both are waiting there for the reader to decide on.

  1. See: Pronunciation of Japanese  ↩

  2. See: a note on translations  ↩

  3. 俄然覺,則蘧蘧然周也。不知周之夢為胡蝶與,胡蝶之夢為周與。周與胡蝶,則必有分矣。
    When he awoke, Chuang Tzu became confused.
    “Am I a Man”, he thought, ”who dreamed that I was a butterfly?
    Or am I butterfly, dreaming that I am a man?
    Perhaps my whole waking life is but a moment in a butterfly’s dream!"
    trans. Richard Zipoli  ↩

Fleeting Beauty of the Cherry Blossoms and Life

The cherry blossoms came and have now almost entirely went. As Charlie Brown might have said, Another Cherry Blossom Season has come and gone. I have thoughts…

fallen already
like a passing dream on a spring night…
cherry blossoms

I wrote this only a day or two after the cherry blossoms reached full bloom. I was taking a time-out from the general hustle and bustle of the cherry blossoms area and escaping into a shrine for some quiet and a bit of space.

In the shrine area, I noticed that the cherry tree near the komainu statue had already lost half its blossoms and they were scattered on the statue. I suppose that tree is positioned just perfectly to be hit by a gust of wind that did the job. Looking at the petals, the above verse came to me.

The second line is a reference to the poem leading off The Tale of the Heike (heike monogatari). The overall theme of the story is impermanence, specifically the impermanence of rule: how one family can rise to power, but that power ends before they know it. This theme is introduced by a poem so famous that every Japanese schoolchild has to memorize it.


The ring of the bells at Gion temple,
echoes the impermanence of all things.
The color of the sala flowers,
reveals the truth that to flourish is to fall.
The proud do not endure long,
like a passing dream on a spring night.
The mighty fall at last,
like dust in the wind

Translation mine, which is why you see the exact same line that I used in the haiku. 😃

Influenced by Buddhism, many things in Japanese culture point to this acceptance of the transience of life and the embrace of its sad beauty. This idea is summed up by the phrase mono no aware, “The pathos of things”. You can find this idea everywhere in Japan, but probably the cherry blossoms are most often used as the best example of it. Here today, beautiful for a very short time, then gone, scattered to the wind.

Shakespeare famously said of the briefness of life:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Of course Macbeth was somewhat depressed in that scene,[1] but in some ways this is very much the Western perspective: that this evanescence of life ultimately signifies the pointlessness of it; this might play in to the desire in the West to ignore that things are in fact not static and are changing. The Japanese response to this nihilism might be ichigo ichie (一期一会), literally “one time, one meeting”, but maybe better said as “once in a life”, an idea that every encounter is unique and beautiful, never to be repeated, and therefore treasured. No matter how fleeting something is, it should be cherished. Rather than a shadow signifying nothing, each moment is imbued with profound significance.

Anyway, after enjoying that brief respite in the shrine grounds, I rejoined the crowds enjoying the festivities. Those also would be gone soon, so I wanted to enjoy them as much as I could.

  1. Spoilers: His wife had just died.  ↩

No Mount Fuji For You

First a month or so ago, Kyoto made new restrictions on tourists in the geisha district, now the small town Fujikawaguchiko, near Mount Fuji, is building a barrier to prevent tourists from seeing the mountain from a certain view.

Evidently it has become popular to take a photo of the mountain rising behind a Lawson convenience store. The contrast probably is amusing, I suppose. So the town is building a barrier to prevent this view, hoping that it will cause misbehaving tourists to… suddenly start following the rules.

I can’t imagine this will have much of an effect. The misbehaving tourists will just find other spots to take the photo from and misbehave at.

This makes the second place in a relatively short time trying to fight against a few bad apples. I wonder what the next one will be.

LINK: Japan town to block Mount Fuji view from troublesome tourists

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