The Hut of Fallen Persimmons

Posted on Saturday, December 04, 2010, under ,

The koyo season is drawing to a close. Last Sunday I was in Arashiyama, a famous momijigari spot (scenic area of the leaf colour transmutations) located on the outskirts of Kyoto.

Rakushisha is the cottage of the Genroku poet Mukai Kyorai (1651-1704), located in Saga, Arashiyama. Kyorai was one of the most talented and prominent disciples of the great Matsuo Basho. Basho once spoke of Kyorai as ‘…the governor of the Haiku world in the 33 provinces in Western Japan’. Kyorai was born in Nagasaki and after the death of his father, a medical doctor who served at the Imperial Court, moved to Arashiyama. There he lived in a small hut in Sagano, devoting himself to the martial arts of sword-fighting. After getting acquainted with Basho, however, Kyorai took up writing haiku as his main occupation.

The Rakushisha garden is littered with ‘poem stones’. One of the stones bears a haiku made in the autumn of 1772 by Inoue Juko, a relative of Kyorai:

master of persimmons                                                       Kakinushi ya
treetops are close to                                                           kozue wa chikaki
Stormy Mountain                                                                 Arashiyama

As the story goes, Kyorai had about forty persimmon (in Japanese ‘kaki’) trees in his garden. One autumn day a fruit merchant from Kyoto visited his hut and paid advance money to buy all the kaki fruits from Kyorai. That same night, however, a severe storm swept through the area, so severe that every single kaki fruit was blown off the trees, rattling down the roof of Kyorai’s hut. The next day the merchant came over only to find the persimmons lying crushed on the ground: ‘Holy maloney, never saw anything like it my whole life!’ For his part, Kyorai appeared to have been sort of enlightened by the event, subsequently naming his hut Rakushisha (‘the hut of the fallen persimmons’).

Basho visited Rakushisha three times. On his second visit, in the summer of 1691, he stayed at the house for seventeen days, this sojourn recorded as a diary called ‘Saga Nikki’ (Saga Diary), published in 1753. At around the same time Kyorai and Nozawa Boncho (d. 1714), two of Basho’s disciples, co-edited Sarumino (‘Monkey’s Raincoat’), a selection of the haiku from the hands of many poets. The selection was guided and closely supervised by Basho. The Monkey's Raincoat’ contains some of Basho's own finest and most essential haiku. The title of the anthology comes from one of Basho’s haiku: The year’s first cold rain / even the monkey seems to want / a tiny raincoat.

The hanging straw raincoat at Rakushisha used to indicate to visitors that Kyorai was at home

Near Rakushisha there are a number of bamboo groves, which provided the background for a well-known poem by Basho from the same year:

the cuckoo –
through the dense bamboo grove,
moonlight seeping.

The following haiku by Basho is inscribed on the poem stone in the western corner of the Rakushisha garden:

summer rains                                                                       samidare ya
trace of a poem card                                                         shikishi hegitaru
torn off the wall                                                                   kabe no ato

This evocative poem also happens to end Basho’s ‘Saga Nikki’ journal. This haiku is widely taught in Japanese schools, and is so well-known that kids and bored housewives (those who ‘possess a poetic spirit’, to quote Basho) can rattle it off in the middle of the night.

In May 1694, Basho visited the Rakushisha for the third and last time. On October 12th Basho died in the house of a flower merchant Hanaya Niemon, in Osaka. He was 51 years old. Mukai Kyorai died in 1704 at the age of 54.

Visitors to Rakushisha have the opportunity to write their own haiku (paper and pencils provided), thus taking part in a sort of telepathic haikai contest with other callers at the hut. During my short visit there several people turned up and handwrote their lines, afterwards putting them away in a designated wooden box. On the annotated piece of paper you write your poem, your age, your home address (in case someone actually liked it and were perhaps to send you a cheque for your effort). The visiting bards were all men in their fifties, or older. Their composing business was done in silence, purposefully, promptly, ceremoniously. So it occurred to me that their haikus had already been made, ‘pre-cooked’ so to speak, and that coming to Rakushisha meant only reheating the meal. The expedient manner of jotting down their haikus actually spoke in favour of my presumption. Well, if that really is the case, it surely smacks of cheating. The whole idea is to write one’s lines on the spot, inspired by the place and its poetic ghosts, and embrace the spontaneity, the here-and-now. Then again, I might’ve been altogether thrown off the track. And what’s more, what if spontaneity has little to do with the principles of haiku composition?

Well, let’s get our teeth into it a bit. Basho himself very much shied away from writing about the theory of haiku:

Western writings on haiku frequently assert that in Basho's view a haiku is what is happening here and now. But Basho wrote no discourse on the principles of haiku and his works contain few traces of theory that we can draw upon to reconstruct his concepts. [None of my] colleagues who are specialists in the literature of Edo Period (1600-1868; Matsuo Basho lived from 1644 to 1694), hava found a clear statement of the "here and now" principle…

…Kagami Shiko was another of Basho's ten most important disciples. A chapter called "Sonentei yo-banashi" in his Fukuro-nikki reports a discussion about haiku by Kyorai in which he stated that haiku are concerned with "what is spontaneous on the spot." Shiko added that Basho praised that statement.


Though he never wrote a treatise on the subject, there is no doubt that Basho conceived some unique ideas about poetry in his later years… [as] he began thinking about poetry in more serious, philosophical terms.
(The Master Haiku Poet Matsuo Basho, by Makoto Ueda)

Indeed it was not Basho, but some of his disciples who best convey the principles and ideas behind the haiku composition. Among the best ‘theoretical’ works was Kyoraisho, written by Mukai Kyorai himself. The book is in fact an assortment of bits and pieces collected from conversations with Basho, which closely reveal Basho’s own views. Here is an excerpt from Kyoraisho, in which Kyorai is explaining the subtleties within the Japanese concept of sabi, or ‘lightness’.

My fellow haiku poet, Nomei asked me : " What is "sabi" ?"
I answered him: ‘ The "sabi" is a nuance of a poem. It is not a superficial loneliness. For example, even an old warrior clad in beautiful armour and an elegant helmet, combats bravely in a battlefield; and even an old man clad in a gold broidered costume, who attends an important party, carries with him the pathetic old age. The "sabi" exists in joyfulness as well as in gloominess.’ I cited one of my haiku as an example.

Two white-haired guards
of cherry blossoms
Two heads getting closer
to converse                             Kyorai

Our master, Bashô said : "You are right. Kyorai. It conveys well the nuance of sabi".

from Kyôrai-shô, on "sabi"

Do I dare imagine Basho’s half-smile here, cheered up by the profundity of his disciple!

In his mature years Basho further developed the concept of sabi.

Sabi urges man to detach himself from worldly involvements; "lightness" makes it possible for him, after attaining that detachment, to return to the mundane world. Man lives amid the mire as a spiritual bystander. He does not escape the grievances of living; standing apart, he just smiles them away. Basho began writing under this principle and advised his students to emulate him…  Characteristic verses in [later] collections reject sentimentalism and take a calm, carefree attitude to the things of daily life. They often exude lighthearted humour.
(The Master Haiku Poet Matsuo Basho, by Makoto Ueda)

So, the spontaneity which Basho praises is rather different from what you and me might consider a spontaneous reaction to the outside stimulus. Writing haiku is, well, a little more than, say, coming across a splendid waterfall and promptly snapping the moment of your temporary exaltation.

The ‘Cipher Journal’ has a good article on Basho, shedding further light on the workings of the haiku creation. Here is the author, Clayton Eshleman:

Bashō is a sterling example of the spiritual poet/scholar. He did his homework on the lore and history concerning the sites and temples he planned to visit on his three long hikes. The narrative drift of his haibun is like a parachute weighted with a haiku body under it. Or to put it another way: it is a pleasure to visit and describe precisely what one has seen ('haibun'); it is more challenging, after, to sense the essence of the seen, to sound it in the tiny crucible of a haiku.

So what is one to make of the haiku principles? Obviously the perception by senses of the here-and-now is an indelible part of haiku. But the essence of the place seems to be even more important, not least because it is harder to achieve. In Basho, this ‘essence’ always is, and should be, subjective (hence subject to a reader’s interpretation), because a poet’s ‘personal untainted perception’ is what enables him to capture the atmosphere, the substance of the thing described. This substance is gradually arrived at, as ‘the colour of a poet’s mind becomes the poem’. It looks to me Basho’s genius lies in his right timing, in his ability to turn the spontaneous, after just enough reflection, or ‘becoming’, into the essence of the thing observed. To submerge yourself within a natural object, you would need perseverance and also time, like listening to a moving river with eyes closed.

A successful haiku is therefore more than just a first-hand observation, even if it comes from an experienced master (although, according to Basho, it is preferable that it does). The famous anecdote in which Basho is having a dream of being let into a shrine on a rainy night only after he has produced a suitable haiku on the spot is quite telling of his ambitions, but in reality it would have most likely produced an average haiku, I think, simply because there would be not enough time for his mind to grow into a poem (unless he already had a 'pre-baked' poem up his sleeve).

The artistic spontaneity of the moment that Basho so praised is in fact a sign of one’s poetic maturity. ‘The Monkey’s Raincoat’, a collection in which the poems are linked by a subtle emotion of sabi rather than by a logical sequence, shows perhaps for the first time that haiku could be considered a unique, and worthy, art form.

Last Sunday, while visiting Kyorai’s hut, I wrote a haiku on the spot:

At Rakushisha
visitors write haiku
below kaki fruits

I am not sure if this would have sneaked me into Kyorai’s hut on a rainy night. The poem sounds too matter-of-fact. Today I've come up with

at Rakushisha
kaki about to drop off –
the ripe haikus

Think I’ll stick to this one.

You can find a selection of Kyorai’s haiku here:
If you are a haiku fan, do yourself a favour and browse other poets on the site.

A great interactive (VR) view of Rakushisha at

                                                                                       Taken on Sunday, November 28th, 2010

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