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 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’.
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!