Echoes of Absence: Bashō’s Autumn Reflection

In the poignant silence of early winter, Matsuo Bashō, a master of haiku, crafts a verse that resonates with the essence of absence and seasonal change:

留主のまにあれたる神の落葉哉 芭蕉
rusu no ma ni aretaru kami no ochiba kana[1]

while the god is gone
the shrine is blanketed
with dead leaves

Kozu Shrine by Kawase Hasui
Kozu Shrine by Kawase Hasui

In this haiku, Bashō captures a moment of profound stillness. This isn’t just the normal stillness of winter, but one augmented by the physical desolation of the shrine and a deeper spiritual void left by the absent god converge. Winter inherently suggests a hush, a gradual retreat of the world into silence. The cease of autumn’s nightly insect choruses and nature’s gradual withering deepen this quiet. The belief that the gods have left most shrines to gather elsewhere only intensifies this sense of abandonment and stillness.

This idea that the gods have left is an interesting one. It is said that during the tenth month, gods from across Japan gather at Izumo Grand Shrine in Shimane Prefecture. During their absence from the rest of Japan, other shrines feel stark and forlorn. The tenth month on the old calendar is around November on the modern one, so it’s likely Bashō was writing this haiku around this same time, 332 years ago, in 1691.

He was writing during an extended absence from Edo and from his disciples, as a new hermitage was being constructed for him. This haiku may well be a contemplation of his own absence, mirroring the gods’ departure.

This is a lovely reflection on the nature of absence, not only in the physical sense but also in the spiritual and emotional realms. As the leaves fall and the gods withdraw, we are reminded of the ever-changing cycle of life, the fleeting moments of presence, and the profound silence that follows.

There are two kigo (season words) here. Absence of the gods and fallen leaves, both kigo for early winter.

Tsukagoshi Shrine by Takahashi Hiroaki
Tsukagoshi Shrine by Takahashi Hiroaki

Zen in Motion – Mount Fuji and the Broom

In the realm of Zen and the essence of simplicity, this haiku offers a profound yet understated glimpse into the spirit of Japanese Zen Buddhism:

daruma ki ya hōki de kakishi fuji no yama[1]

daruma memoriał day
with my broom I draw
mount fuji

“The Moon Through a Crumbling Window” by Yoshitoshi, illustrating a famous story of Bodhidharma meditating for so long that the building crumbled around him.

Dharma, or Bodhidharma, is a revered figure in Zen Buddhism, credited with bringing the teachings of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism from India to China. His influence spread to Japan, shaping the unique contours of Japanese Zen. There are many great stories about him which have worked their way into both Japanese legend and the culture. One of the most common ways he’s worked into Japanese culture is the Daruma dolls, considered good luck and used for setting goals (or wishes).

Daruma historically is thought to have died on the fifth day of the tenth month on the old calendar, which is sometime in November on the current calendar, so that is when we celebrate his memorial day (daruma ki). It functions as a kigo (season word) for early winter. This day is not just a memorial but a celebration of the profound impact of Dharma’s teachings.

A Daruma Doll – via Wikipedia

Mount Fuji itself is a symbol of Japan, its beauty and majesty. But here, in this haiku, it’s more than just a mountain; it’s a canvas for expression, a metaphor for Zen’s simplicity and profundity. The broom, an everyday object, becomes a tool for artistic and spiritual expression, emphasizing that enlightenment and beauty can be found in the most ordinary of activities.

Issa followed Pure Land Buddhism, not Zen, but he would have been more than aware of Zen ideals. The act of drawing Mount Fuji with a broom is a beautiful metaphor for the Zen approach to life and art: simplicity, spontaneity, and the beauty of the moment. Here he is inviting us to see beyond the obvious, to find depth in simplicity, and to appreciate the spontaneous moments of beauty that life offers.

Whispering Winds: Autumn’s Touch

In the quiet embrace of the changing season, Teiga pened this delicate yet profound haiku.

kusa no to ya tatami no tie no aki no kaze[1]

a humble hut
over the tatami mats blows
the autumn wind

Shining Wind by Sano Seiji
“Shining Wind” by Sano Seiji

We are talking about a simple house here, a “grass hut” symbolizing simplicity and impermanence. This kind of hut wouldn’t have kept out the weather very well, especially allowing the wind to blow straight in, which could be good or bad but certainly would bring us closer to nature.

The idea of allowing the wind straight in may sound somewhat miserable, but the autumn wind is not thought of as being especially cold; it is more a gentle reminded of the season, bringing to us that crisp autumn smell that is a pleasant welcome after the hot and humid summer. When that scent hits us, it brings a tranquility, where the hustle of the world fades away, and one is left with the simple, yet profound beauty of nature. I think that’s why most of us enjoy autumn.

From Wikipedia

Tatami mats were the traditional floor coverings of Japan. They are typically used in karate practice halls or other Japanese martial arts, so you may be somewhat familiar with them. They are made from straw and are soft to walk on. They are beautiful, give off a pleasant fragrance, and are nice to sit, walk, and sleep on. Unfortunately they are rather expensive and somewhat difficult to maintain, so newer houses no longer have them, or at most limit them to a single room.

The kigo (season word) in this haiku is autumn wind. It is a kigo for all of autumn. The nature of this wind changes as the season progresses: it starts with the residual heat of summer and gradually becomes cooler and more refreshing, and by late autumn, it carries a chill, contributing to a more desolate atmosphere.

To Kill an Ant

As parents, we always need to be mindful of acting in ways opposite to how we tell our kids to act. Of this, Shūson wrote:

ari korosu ware o sannin no ko ni mirarenu[1]

I killed an ant…
then realized
my three kids were watching

Shinsuke Minegishi - An Ant
Shinsuke Minegishi – “An Ant”

Shūson was one of the more famous modern haiku poets. Initially he hated the restrictive format of haiku and preferred the 31-mora tanka.[3] Then he met Shūōshi Mizuhara, a highly acclaimed haiku poet, and fell in love with the small verse. He had a serious illness in the 1960s and once recovered from it, his haiku took on ideas of human life and life in general.

His mentor, Mizuhara, was one of the free style haiku poets of whom I’ve talked of before. We can see that influence in this haiku, which by my count is 5/8/6 instead of the standard 5/7/5 count.

This may be one of Shūson’s most famous verses. It illustrates a tricky situation that I’m sure all parents have found themselves in at least once, the moment when we are caught doing something we tell them not to do.

I can especially relate. I always teach my boys to not kill and be kind to insects and animals. If we find spiders or even cockroaches in the house, I always get my boys to help me trap them, then we let them go outside. Yet a few summers ago I was being bothered by mosquitoes at my in-law’s house and I impulsively smashed one that was biting my leg. Suddenly I heard a small voice cry: “Papa, why did you kill that bug?! That was a bad thing to do!”

How do you respond to something like that?

  1. See: Pronunciation of Japanese  ↩

  2. See: a note on translations  ↩

  3. We usually say 17 and 31 syllables for haiku and tanka out of convinience and simplicity, but the Japanese poems actually use mora, not syllables. Briefly, mora are almost the same but are often shorter. Perhaps I will write about this sometime, but check out Wikipedia for now.  ↩

Rainy Season Flowers

ajisai ya yabu o koniwa no betsuzashiki[1]

a thicket for a little garden
of this cottage

Tomoda Mitsuru - Hydrangea in Rain
Tomoda Mitsuru – Hydrangea in Rain

In Japan, it’s currently the season of the beautiful hydrangea. My wife always calls them rainy season flowers because they begin their bloom during this season. I’m not sure if that’s a common nickname in Japan or a term my wife coined herself. At any rate, they are an absolutely beautiful flower. The grey skies of the rainy season make their color and beauty pop even more than they otherwise would.

This haiku was written for a renga session Bashō was invited to that was held in a small room surrounded by a very rustic garden. Bashō used this haiku not only as the leading verse of the renga, but also to illustrate his concept of karumi, or “lightness”, in haiku.

Karumi was Bashō’s final and ultimate philosophy of haiku which he created not long before his death. It highlights that great attention should be paid to the mundane aspects of life and that the seriousness of classical Japanese and Chinese poetry should be avoided. In many ways, karumi really shows Bashō’s progress in his Zen Buddhism. When he was a young man, his haiku were full of clever wordplay, numerous inside jokes, references to deep topics of old Chinese poets, and so on. But the older he grew, and the deeper he settled in his Zen, the more his haiku philosophy moved in the direction of being simpler and simpler, ultimately resulting in his idea of karumi.

An interesting thing about this haiku is it is one of only two that he wrote about hydrangea. I’ve searched thousands of them, but I can’t find that Issa ever wrote any on the flowers either, nor Buson. There is a reason these three haiku masters avoided featuring the flower. During the Edo period in which they all lived hydrangea became very unpopular because they were considered a symbol of moral infidelity. While I’m sure Bashō would have cared little for any strange samurai influenced moral outlook imposed on flowers, it seems he was influenced by it. Like all of us, Bashō was a product of his culture, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it influenced his work.

20 Sen from 1909・Old Japanese Coins

If you’ve ever been curious about old Japanese coins, this is the post for you! I have a small collection of old Japanese coins and I think I’m going to start sharing some of it.

Today I want to cover a 20 sen coin I picked up a while ago. First we’ll give you some stats then we’ll look at the design a little closer and finally I’ll give some historic info.


4.1 g
20.3 mm diameter
1.2 mm thickness
edge: reeded

It’s 80% silver and 20% copper.

I’ll give a comparison with US money at the end to but that diameter in perspective.

Front side

The front side has a radiant sun shining in the middle surrounded by cherry blossoms. Around the edge it reads: 20 Sen, Great Japan (大日本), Meiji 42 (明治四十二年). It’s read from right to left, which is not the normal way today, but was common at the time.

Meiji 42 means the 42nd year of the reign of the Meiji Emperor, Mutsuhito, which would be 1909.

Back side

The back features the text 20 sen in the middle (二十銭). The imperial crest which is a chrysanthemum is at the top, and we have the arms of the laurel wreath on the sides. The left arm is a paulownia flower and the right is a Chrysanthemum flower, both important in Japanese culture.


All in all, a beautifully designed coin. It’s a shame they don’t use this design anymore. This is the third of three different designs they used during the production of the 20 sen coin. It’s the smallest of the three.

Here it is laying on top of a ¥100 coin, which is just slightly smaller than a US quarter.

And on a quarter.


Before the hyperinflation following World War II rendered it useless, the yen was subdivided into 100 sen, making it a little like dollars and cents. But with the incredible inflation after the war it was decided to eliminate the sen and rebase the yen to make it the only unit used.

Interestingly, in the 1990s the Bank of Japan was considering adding a new unit above a yen so we could have returned to this mixed unit system, but ultimately they thought it would be too confusing so they decided to stay with only the yen.

A Nightcap

Written the other night as I relaxed before bed.

reishu susuri sekai wasurete shibashi kana[1]

sipping sake
while I try to forget the world
for a while

Sake set, by Epopt
Sake set, by Epopt

’m not a big drinker, but I do enjoy sake sometimes (usually called nihonshu 日本酒 in Japanese). If you’ve never tried it before, it has a wonderful smooth taste. Not as strong in effect as whisky, nor as strong in taste as red wine; a little stronger than beer, but smoother, with some hints of fruitiness which is always very mysterious to me given it comes from wine. That’s something the koji adds, I suppose? (koji is the mold used to ferment the drink). It is usually translated as “rice wine”, but since rice is a grain it’s more of a beer than a wine. But the taste is more similar to a wine. All around great drink.

Whatever the case many be, it’s a delightful drink. If you’ve never tried it before, see if you have a Japanese grocery nearby and if so go buy some. I’m not an expert, so I don’t know well all the different types. My friend who is an expert told me to look for junmai daiginjo (純米大吟醸) or daijinjo (大吟醸), so those are what I always get. You might look for that too if you have a chance. But even the cheap stuff is usually pretty good. When I buy it I look for the good quality kinds that my friend suggested, but when my wife buys it for me she often buys these big 2 or 3 liter cartons that are only something like ¥1000. Cheap stuff, in other words. But even that is pretty good, so I have no complaint.

Although you may have read that some places serve it hot, it is best cold, so I’d suggest that.

I wrote the above haiku when I was having a cup at the end of the day. That particular day had been a little busy. Not bad, just busy and hectic so I was worn out. I always try to leave work at work and clear my mind of things. My zazen (Zen style meditation) helps with that and has conditioned my mind enough that I’m pretty good at leaving the world behind and living in the moment. That said, the sake does help with that, loosening my thinking just enough to allow the stress of the day to more easily slip away.

Like many many Japanese men say, I look forward to when my sons are of age so I can drink with them.

You may be surprised that sake is a kigo (season word). There are actually many kigo for sake of all different seasons. Reishu or hiyazake, words for “cold sake” would have been used back in the day instead of nihonshu. All three can be used as summer kigo. According to the traditional Japanese almanac which haiku follows, we just started summer a few days ago, making the summer kigo apt.

Moonlight & Wisteria

The other day I posted some photos of the wisteria on a different blog. Around 300 years ago, someone else was thinking of those pretty flowers. He wrote:

tsuki ni tōku oboyuru fuji no iroka kana[1]

in the moonlight
the scent and color of the wisteria
seem far away

Wisteria at Tsushima by David LaSpina
“Wisteria at Tsushima” by David LaSpina

Is “wisteria” also the plural form? “Wisterias” sounds strange to me, but I could just be under the influence of Japanese here which would not change form. As you can see in the photo above, the wisteria bloom in pretty big patches so I’d tend to use the word with a plural meaning.

Anyway, Buson is generally considered one of the top haiku masters in history, probably second only to Bashō. He was a painter in addition to a poet and in fact made his living primarily from his painting, at least when he was younger. Due to this, most of his haiku have an artistic quality, as if he were painting with words. This arguably makes his style more influential than the great Bashō. A hundred and fifty years later when Shiki created the modern haiku it was from Buson that he took influence, not from Bashō whom he considered overrated. And today, at least when people aren’t playing simple syllable counting games, the majority of haiku people write follow this “painting with words” approach. Shiki called this shasei by the way.

There is a wonderful ambiguity in this haiku above. Is he talking of a real distance or an imagined one? If he talking of the here and now or is he wistfully thinks of the past? The wisteria already have an ephemeral quality as they only last a short time; both the setting of night and the ambiguity of the poem emphasize this. As so often with Buson, there is a sense of tranquility here, an atmosphere of contemplation. There is a strong feeling of mono no aware, which is seeking beauty and meaning in the fleeting moments of life.

The kigo (season word) here would be fuji (“wisteria”). It is a kigo for late spring.

Dreaming of Turtles

hatsuyume ya masashiku kozo no hanashi-game[1]

first dream
it was last year’s
freed turtle

Turtles and Sake Cup by Yashima Gakutei
“Turtles and Sake Cup” by Yashima Gakutei

The New Year in Japan brings a collection of firsts that people enjoy doing. Of these, first dream and first sunrise may be the most popular.

This haiku looks at one of those firsts: the first dream of the year. Gonsui’s dream of turtles would be a very auspicious dream—a dream of turtles he set free in the previous year, doubly so.

Liberating animals once or twice a year is an old Buddhist practice, and that is what Gonsui is referring to here. Turtles are a very special creature in Japan. In mythology the turtle is associated with long life—1000 years, they say—and it is also a very thankful creature, always returning any kindness shown to it. One may be reminded of the folk tale Urashima Taro in which as a reward for saving him the turtle rewards Urashima by taking him to the kingdom at the bottom of the sea.

In olden times fishermen would throw back any turtles they caught, but not before treating them to a bit of saké. No doubt they hoped the turtle would be thankful and would come back to reward them.

In Gonsui’s dream, was the turtle (or turtles) he released showing up to express gratitude and perhaps give a gift of long life? I’m sure Gonsui hoped so!

A New Years Resolution

It’s now been almost three years since I bought this domain and set up this page. I had big plans. But I was a perfectionist. I wanted every post to be perfect. I wrote plenty of material about Japan and about haiku, but I never actually posted most of it because it wasn’t perfect. As a result, this site has laid fallow for far too long.

I actually have still been writing for the internet. I’ve been writing and posting every day over at Hive. Here. I do earn money there, but not much—only about $5-$10 per post, and it’s paid in crypto, making it a pain to withdraw to either dollars or yen—so that is hardly a draw. For whatever reason posting there has not triggered my perfectionism in the same way that this blog has, as a result I actually post what I write there instead of sitting on it until it’s perfect. Perhaps it’s because I have no control over formatting there, whereas on this blog I have complete control; complete control can be good, but it can also be crippling because we want to use that control to make everything perfect.

Whatever the case may be, going forward I intend to push past this perfectionism and start publishing here again, ideally often. At first I may just continue my habit of publishing daily on Hive and then copy that post to here, but eventually I would like to reverse that, instead writing the post for this site and then copying it to Hive.

I don’t think I have comments turned on on this site. And I know the internet loves comments, so I’ll get on that. In the meantime, I will be using Twitter (until Elon kills it) and Mastodon. I’ll work out a footer with links to both of those. It’s been so long since I designed this site that I don’t remember offhand where to put the code for a footer. Please bear with me as I rediscover WordPress and the theme that I designed.

If I don’t make another post today (and if anyone discovers this), have a happy new year! May 2023 be a better one for us.

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