Kanikakuni ceremony

In the Gion area of Kyoto on November 8, a tanka poem is celebrated in the Kanikakuni ceremony when geiko and maiko (geisha and apprentice geisha) gather at 11am at a poem boulder to offer white chrysanthemums. Later there is a reception where matcha (green tea) and soba noodles are served. Read more about the geiko tradition in Kyoto.

The poem boulder in Gion, a translation may be seen further down the page. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The poet being honoured is Yoshii Isamu (1886-1960), who was also a well-known novelist and playwright – and a bit of a lad who enjoyed all that the entertainment area of Gion had to offer!

Born in Tokyo, Yoshii dropped out of university in 1908 to join the Tokyo Shin-shi Sha (Tokyo New Poetry Society), and began contributing tanka to the society’s literary magazine, Myōjō (Bright Star). He then formed a new group, Pan no Kai, and in 1909 helped edit a new literary magazine, Subaru.

In 1910, Yoshii published his first tanka anthology, Sakehogai (Revelry), describing the joys and sorrows experienced by a young poet given to wine and women. Later collections included Sakujitsu made (Until Yesterday), Gion kashu (Gion Verses, 1915), and Tokyo kōtō shū (Collection from the Tokyo Red-Light District, 1916). Read more about his life here.

The poem boulder in Kyoto can be found near the Tatsumi Bridge that crosses the Shirokawa River. It was installed to celebrate the poet’s 70th birthday on November 8, 1955. The name of the ceremony, Kanikakuni. translates as “no matter what happens” and comes from the first line of the poem carved into the rock:

Kani kaku ni
Gion wa koishi
neru toki mo
makura no shita o
mizu no nagaruru

No matter what happens
I yearn for Gion
even when I sleep
the sound of water
flows beneath my pillow

Yoshii’s tanka was written in 1910.

The boulder stands where the poet’s favourite tea house, Daitomo, used to stand, a meeting place for writers which was built out over the river. In the early 20th century, the proprietress was Taka Isoda (1879-1945), a retired ‘literary geiko’ who cultivated friendships with writers and who is described by John Nathan, the biographer of the novelist and haiku poet Nasume Soseki (1867-1916), as having ‘seductive charm’.


Taka Isoda, the famous mistress of Daitomo teahouse. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Soseki has his own poem boulder in Kyoto, unveiled in 1966 to mark 100 years since his birth. His poem is about Taka Isoda (this is about the only readable translation I can find and comes from the Kyoto Soseki Society):

A man and a woman separated by a river in spring 

Soseki visited Kyoto four times, with his final visit in the spring of 1915. At the time, he was pursuing a friendship with Taka Isoda. One day, the two had a slight falling out and Soseki wrote his poem while thinking about Taka, who was in Gion, across the Kamogawa River from his lodgings.

Daitomo was among the buildings demolished at the start of World War 2 to create a fire break. Tea houses, by the way – and if you hadn’t guessed – were about much more than just tea!

It’s still possible, just, to imagine what the pre-war teahouse area was like, even though buildings on the northern bank were cleared in World War 2. This photo was taken near Yoshii’s poem boulder. Photo: Sandra Simpson


Haiku of the moment, Part 2

American poet and editor Scott Mason has produced, in The Haiku Hecameron, another outstanding hard-cover collection to follow his delightful The Wonder Code (2017).

Inspired by the 14th century book The Decameron, a collection of stories told over 10 days by 10 young people who were isolating to escape an outbreak of plague in Florence, Mason offers 100 days’ worth of reading (each day a double-page spread) of work by 100 poets with the subtitle, Gratitude in the time of Covid-19.

full moon
my daughter reads me
a bedtime story

Vanessa Proctor, Australia

While the majority of the collected works are haiku, the book, which is dedicated to English poet Stuart Quine, who died of Covid-19, also contains haibun, linked verse and haiga.

“Attending closely to what is (and who are) immediately around us constitutes our most basic act of respect,” Mason writes in his Introduction. “Gratitude naturally follows.”

even this spring
embracing the drain-spout
a burst of daffodils

Penny Harter, USA

early days –
a lone goose picked up
by the skein

Sandra Simpson, New Zealand

Later, Mason writes: “Ultimately this collection could be read as a time capsule from a highly unusual chapter of our very recent past … For months now we’ve been at sea – all of us in the same boat. These works welcome us home.”

closer & closer
the mountain’s silence coming
into view

Gary Hotham, USA

attic sunshine
there is nothing
we want to get rid of

Marcus Larsson, Sweden

Mason’s Introduction is dated “June 2020” but waymarking emails to contributors shared the rigors of trying to print and dispatch pre-orders around the world with all human endeavour slowed down, if not stopped. However, the post finally came through and my copy arrived in mid-October.

The vast majority of the haiku are about personal experiences that coincided with or were created by the time lockdown offered and although a few overtly mention coronavirus and its associated vocabulary, Mason has, I think, got the ratio nigh on perfect.

do-it-yourself masks
complete strangers sharing
a secret smile

Michele Root-Bernstein, USA

time for a walk
I explain coronavirus
to my dogs

Rosa Clement, Brazil

Until the end of November, Mason is offering a generous deal – buy two copies and receive a third free (all must be shipped to the same address). To place an order visit the website and scroll to the bottom.