Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dreaming Poetics 6: Saigyo in Hiraizumi

"The usual list of ancient capitals would be Nara, Kyoto, and Kamakura, but some might add Hiraizumi to the list, for in the twelfth century it was the seat of power for a family of warlords that dominated the northernmost part of Honshu. Its visitors have included two of Japan's most beloved poets. Basho, a quintessential Buddhist traveler, recounted his observations in a particularly moving section of his Oku no hosomichi, but by the time Basho went the remaining vestiges of Hiraizumi's ancient glory would have been generally the same as those the modern tourist sees. In contrast, Saigyo, the other great poetic visitor, saw Hiraizumi at the peak of its splendor. In fact, he went twice, first as a young poet in 1144 and again more than 40 years later as an old monk seeking funds to rebuild Todaiji, which had been burnt in the wars between the Minamoto and the Taira. Although Saigyo too was a Buddhist, he seems to have taken little interest in Hiraizumi's famed religious edifices, for they merit only passing reference in the poems he wrote there, none of which appears in the familiar anthologies of translations. To rectify this omission, here is one that at least mentions what today is Hiraizumi's most famous temple:

Because of misdeeds they had committed, many monks from Nara had been sent away to the far north. When I met them at a place called Chuson and told them news from the capital, their tears flowed. It was very touching. Because this was such a rare event, I promised to write down the story, if I survived. To express my feelings in a distant land, I recited:

It is tears
that flow
in the Koromo River,
as we recall
the ancient capital.

Robert Borgen in Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1. (Winter, 2001), pp. 227-232.

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