Among the Yamabushi (Narrow Road Part 4)


Back on the road with Bashō and his straw sandals…

One of the high points of his journey, figuratively as well as literally, was his pilgrimage to the 出羽三山(でわさんざん) Dewa Sanzan, three mountains of Dewa Province, which is a very sacred place in Shintō and Buddhism and in the 修験道(しゅげんどう) Shugendō mountain ascetic sect. This is a syncretic religion combining elements of Shintō and Buddhism, Taoism and other beliefs. Practitioners are known as 修験者(しゅげんじゃ) Shugenja or 山伏(やまぶし) Yamabushi (someone who prostrates himself in the mountains – the ‘bushi’ here is not the same as the word ‘bushi’ 武士(ぶし) meaning ‘warrior’). They go on foot through the mountains practising austerities, for example meditating while standing under ice-cold waterfalls – perhaps familiar to anyone who has read Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy? (Here is an interview with a Shugendō practitioner explaining some of the practices and the philosophy behind them.)

The three mountains of Dewa are 羽黒山(はぐろさん) Haguro-san, Black Wing Mountain, 月山(がっさん) Gassan, Moon Mountain and 湯殿山(ゆどのさん) Yudono-san, ‘hot-spring mountain’. As is customary, Bashō visited them in this order. On Haguro-san he and Sora stayed at a temple and took part in a haiku gathering in the abbot’s quarters. He includes the following poem


arigata ya
yuki wo kaorasu

Among the translations and explanations of this poem, the most beautiful I could find was the following from this Japanese-language site on Oku no Hosomichi


My approximate translation: “Ah, how precious and gratitude-inducing! In this southern valley, in this lower world, the south wind has made the lingering snow on this holy mountain give off a fragrance. The atmosphere is full to the brim with purity”.

For those who are unfamiliar with Japanese: such a translation, even of an explanation that is seeking to unpack and explain a haiku, can only be approximate because the structure of English forces one to give sentences a structure of ‘who did what to whom’ that is not necessary there in the original. For example, the expression 有り難い arigatai can, according to the dictionary, be translated ‘grateful’ or ‘evoking gratitude’ which implies that it can describe the subject or object of the gratitude, or both simultaneously, or perhaps the relationship between them at that moment. (I also love the fact that Japanese has a word for ‘lingering snow’ – bear in mind that it was July by the modern calendar when Bashō was visiting so snow lingering on the ground was something worth remarking on!)

On the way to Gassan, Bashō and Sora put on paper cords around their bodies and “sacred crowns” on their heads – pilgrim clothes, perhaps similar to what these two yamabushi are wearing. The man on the right is holding (and perhaps blowing into) a conch shell.

You can see more modern yamabushi photos in this gallery by Tony McNicol.

The way to Gassan went “through the clouds, mists, and mountain air, over snows that never melt” (Keene). Although he used the services of a porter, Bashō nonetheless clearly found the climb exhausting. On the following day, on the way to Yudono-san, he noticed a cherry tree – again, unusual for July – and was deeply moved by it. Visitors to Yudono-san were forbidden to describe what is within the shrine area, and Bashō therefore “lays down his pen”


Yudono ni nurasu
tamoto kana

I cannot speak of
Yudono, but see how wet
My sleeves are with tears (trans: Keene)

The ‘wet sleeves’ expression is an often-used metaphor in Japanese poetry and indicates ‘tears’ (see here on the University of Virginia’s Ogura Hyakunin Isshu page for examples of sleeve-wetting) but there appears to be an extra wordplay here because the word ‘Yudono’ has to do with bathing. The ban on describing the object of worship at the shrine has now been extended to a photography. Having never visited, I was of course intrigued as to what might be there… For anyone who wants to avoid ‘spoilers’ please note that the “Oku Annotated” site, which gives lots of detail on Bashō and Sora’s pilgrimage to the three mountains, does contain one!.

Lesley Downer, in “On the Narrow Road to the Deep North”, tells of her interest in finding out whether there are still yamabushi in the Three Mountains – some of her colleagues in Tokyo pooh-poohed the idea that there were any such thing – and her experiences when she finds them. Most of the people she meets in the mountains are from farms and villages and have been deputised to undertake the pilgrimage to pray for success, good harvests, the safety of their families, etc., together with a few people who have undertaken the rigorous ascetic training and act as guides for the pilgrims. As this Tofugu article also explains, many yamabushi these days are former salarymen who have turned to religion after retirement.

I tried my hand at a couple of yamabushi paintings to accompany this post – the first is after one of the photos in Tony McNicol’s gallery.

yamabushi2 yamabushi1



Recommended links and blogs

A couple of recommended links:

The Contemporary Japanese Literature blog, which is a great collection of comprehensive and in-depth reviews of post-WWII Japanese literature as well as some earlier literature and popular culture.

There is a Japanese Literature Challenge reading project in which bloggers commit to reading and reviewing Japanese literature over the June-Jan period.


Of crystals and choirs: the Heisig method of learning kanji

When I took a Japanese-language class while working at Tōhoku University, my Chinese-speaking colleagues seemed to make much more rapid progress than me. Although the grammars of Chinese and Japanese are very different and the characters are pronounced differently for the most part, the meanings of most characters in the two languages are the same or similar. Even when characters are different – for example, there are differences between character forms in Simplified Chinese, Japanese and Traditional Chinese and there are certain characters that exist only in Japanese – people who have grown up learning a language that requires several thousand characters to write have already acquired the facility to assimilate characters and fit them into their ‘mental map’. Those of us who grew up learning an alphabetic language only had to learn 50-odd characters and then we were set to go – although, in the case of English, we had to spend the next years learning irregular spellings!
The aim of James W. Heisig’s method in his “Remembering the Kanji” series is to bridge the gap between people with an alphabetic-language background and those with a Chinese background by teaching the characters, each associated with an English meaning or keyword. No Japanese pronunciations, compound words or examples are included in Part 1, which instead concentrates on teaching simple kanji and elements and using these to build up more complex kanji. For example, the first chapter includes the numbers and the relatively simple kanji:

口(くち) kuchi: mouth
日(ひ) hi: day, sun
月(つき) tsuki: moon, month
田(た) ta: rice field
目(め) me: eye

(but without the pronunciations) and the second chapter introduces more complex kanji using these elements, such as the following, given with their Heisig keyword:

品: goods
明: bright
朋: companion
昌: prosperous
唱: chant
晶: sparkle

Each of these kanji is assigned a keyword in English and there is a mnemonic ‘story’ suggested to help remember how the meaning of the kanji is related to those of the component parts. In my experience, some of these stories are helpful, particularly when they relate to the etymology of the words – after all, the kanji are not arbitrary series of squiggles but were developed as symbolic representations of objects and concepts and some insight into the way of thinking in ancient China can sometimes be enough to make certain characters meaningful and memorable. However, others of the keywords and stories were much less helpful for me personally. For example, the character 九(きゅう) (kyuu, nine) is introduced with its simple meaning, but when this character is used to make up other characters, it is assigned the meaning of ‘baseball’ , something which has resonance for US readers but means very little to those of us from the non-baseball-playing part of the English-speaking world and made me constantly fight against the ‘obvious meaning’ of the character when it appeared subsequently. (Interestingly, I had fewer such problems with the use of the character ‘ten’ to mean ‘needle’.) The French version of the book (a sample chapter of which can be obtained here) has eliminated the baseball references and instead used the element to mean ‘new’, a play on neuf which actually works a lot better than the original in that the character 旭(あさひ) (asahi: morning sun) can then be remembered as a new sun rather than a sun rising over a baseball field!)

One of the results of this methodology is that the kanji are not taught in the usual order used by textbooks (e.g. the order used by the Japanese Language Proficiency Test or the Japanese school system or frequency of usage). This is not necessarily a problem since all commonly used kanji are eventually covered in Part 1 (and Part 3 introduces some rarer ones). However, it does mean that the book is not especially useful as the companion to a more standard Japanese or kanji course and is perhaps best tackled before starting such a course. (This was the exact context in which Heisig developed his method.) Of the compound kanji listed above, for example, 明 is taught in Grade 2 of Japanese schools and at JLPT level N4 (it does, however, have 13 different possible pronunciations in – hoorah for Japanese for keeping things interesting!) , 唱 is taught in Grade 4 and at level N1 (example usage: 合唱団(がっしょうだん)gasshoudan: choir) and 晶 is taught at junior high school and at level N1 – and has only one pronunciation in (example usage: 結晶(けっしょう)kesshou: crystal).

To avoid potential future confusion it should also be borne in mind that the keywords do not reflect the full range of meaning and nuance of the kanji, and were additionally influenced by the need to find a unique keyword for each kanji. It’s perhaps easier to think of them as a kind of hook to hang the kanji on than as “the meaning” of the kanji. If you come across this book part-way through your kanji studies, as I did, you may find these keywords conflicting with the meaning you already associate with the kanji or the associations that you have built up around it.

What of the mnemonics? As I said before, some were helpful and some less so. The author does encourage readers to make up their own mnemonic stories as they progress through the book but there seems to be no way to change the keywords if they do not work for you, so English-speaking readers are stuck with having to develop stories based on baseball. I have also heard criticism of the stories (unfortunately I don’t remember from where) for relying too much on Judaeo-Christian cultural heritage in developing the stories. Since this is my own culture this is not a problem for me personally but I could see how this could be difficult for those who have grown up in other cultures. As with the baseball, it is not so much the idea of a foreign culture (after all, if we are learning Japanese then chances are that we are interested in getting to know other cultures) so much as of the basic associations we make in our minds. In the main, I found the mnemonics most helpful when they were derived from the etymology of the characters rather than invented stories, as I felt that I as learning something more about the characters rather than having to remember a mnemonic story in addition to the character itself, its pronunciation, etc. Presumably the mnemonics are intended as staging-posts, and the ultimate aim is that we see the character and remember its meaning and pronunciation without (conscious) recourse to a mnemonic, otherwise we are still at the equivalent stage as reading alphabetic words letter-by-letter.

Personally, I am much more able to remember bizarre and unusual words and kanji than mundane, everyday ones and I don’t believe that I am alone in this – in “Use Your Head”, Tony Buzan points out that, given a list of common words and the name “Leonardo da Vinci” to memorise, participants always recall the famous name. (In fact, until referring to it just now, I had not looked at the book “Use Your Head” for at least ten years and did not remember the book title but I still recalled the fact that there was an exercise involving memorising a list of mundane words and “Leonardo da Vinci”.) As a result, interesting kanji tend to stick in my head fairly readily, while the ones for which I really need helpful mnemonics are the somewhat more dull words – or rather, I need the mnemonics to make the seemingly dull characters interesting, and this is what Heisig is striving to provide.

In short, the Heisig approach is based on an interesting concept and does take the very important step of saying that the most effective approach for adults is to learn kanji in a systematic way rather than ‘picking them up as you go along’ and developing such a system. The difficulty for those who are already part-way along the kanji-learning journey by the time they encounter the book is that it is very much an all-or-nothing approach that is not easy to integrate with other books or approaches.

There are various websites devoted to the Heisig approach and mnemonics including Kanji Cafe.
I’d be interested in hearing about your Heisig experiences and any other links in the comments!
And finally, how about a Heisig haiku? The rules are: only the characters in the first two chapters of Heisig, plus kana, are allowed!

LibraryThing and Goodreads

There is now a LibraryThing bookshelf and Goodreads group for this blog. I’m trying both out for the moment and will decide which to stick with based on experience.

Japanese Culture Through Rare Books on FutureLearn

Anywone who is following this blog will probably be interested in the FutureLearn course “Japanese Culture Through Rare Books”.

For those who don’t know it, FutureLearn is a provider of free, online courses (MOOCs) that are taught by different educational institutions, in this case, Keio University (motto: Calamus gladio fortior, the pen is mightier than the sword). The courses run in real-time, enabling interaction with the course instructors and other students, but the course materials remain available (including for download) after the course has finished.

What I particularly liked about the course was the insight into how books were physically put together, as well as looking at the many beautiful illustrated books in the Keio library.

Vestiges of dreams (Narrow Road part 3)

When we read Bashō’s account of his travels, it is clear that what was important to him was to visit places that were famous from history or poetry (歌枕, utamakura), but unless we are scholars of Japanese literature and history then many, if not all, of these references are lost on us unless we have the assistance of notes. Keene, in the Kodansha bilingual edition (ISBN 4770020287) provides some notes, and there is also a comprehensive annotated translation by Prof. Dennis Kawaharada of Kapi‘olani Community College, Hawaii here (discovered since the previous post!): Summer Grasses, Autumn Wind: A Translation of Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi

Interspersed with passages that talk about the pleasures of travelling (enjoyable time spent with fellow poets) and its inconveniences (illness, tiredness and sharing sleeping quarters with lice, fleas and a urinating horse!) are sections that speak of the pathos of war and the way in which time erases the traces of past glories:


natsukusa ya tsuwamonodomo ga yume no ato

summer grasses: all that’s left of warriors’ dreams (trans.: Dennis Kawaharada)

summer grass –
that’s all that remains
of brave warriors’ dreams (trans.: Gabi Greve)

The summer grasses –
Of brave soldiers’ dreams
The aftermath (trans.: Donald Keene)


muzan ya na kabuto no shita no kirigirisu

heartless: beneath the helmet, a cricket (Trans: Dennis Kawaharada)

how tragic and pitiful …
a grashopper under
his helmet (Trans: Gabi Greve)

Alas for mortality!
Underneath the helmet
A grasshopper. (Trans: Donald Keene)

The former of these two poems was written at Hiraizumi (平泉) which was once the northern capital of the aristocratic Fujiwara family and a town with golden temples to rival those of Kyoto, but fell into disrepair and obscurity after the fourth lord, Fujiwara no Yasuhira, was attacked and defeated by the shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo for sheltering Yoritomo’s outlaw half-brother Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune had previously distinguished himself in battle fighting alongside Yoritomo during the war between the rival Minamoto and Taira clans (the Genpei war) but relations between the two brothers later deteriorated to the extent that Yoshitsune fled and took refuge in Hiraizumi with his faithful, and giant, companion Benkei (a Japanese analogue to Little John).


“Yoshitsune and Benkei Viewing Cherry Blossoms” by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi – note that in samurai culture, manliness and love of flowers were certainly not considered to be mutually exclusive!

Hiraizumi can still be visited today, although only a few of the temples remain. The golden hall (金色堂 Konjikidō) of Chūson-ji (中尊寺), which today is protected by glass and concrete, is thought to be one of the ‘palaces’ made of gold that Marco Polo describes (Excursion in Zipangu, the Land of Gold) and that later prompted explorers such as Columbus to go off in search of golden lands in the Orient.


Lotus flowers at Hiraizumi – photo by author

A compilation of “Oku no hosomichi” links:

Summer Grasses, Autumn Wind: A Translation of Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi

Accompanying map by Dennis Kawaharada

Narrow Road cycle trip by a modern-day Sora

World Kigo Database Matsuo Basho archive