A reader asked me to discuss this hokku by Bashō:


Kyō nite mo Kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu

First, this is a subjective hokku — not a daoku.  It has a lot of “thinking.”  To understand it, you need to know that kyō means “capitol,” as in the capitol of a country.  But here it refers specifically to the old city of Kyōto, which was the capitol of Japan from 794 to 1869. So it is a very old place, with lots of venerable buildings and temples, and filled with nostalgia for those interested in Japanese history and culture.

Second, you will need to know that a hototogisu is a kind of cuckoo (Cuculus poliocephalus).  In the old system of season words, hokku about hototogisu were written in summer.  If you want to see it and hear its song, open the link below:

As you can tell, it sounds nothing like the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) — no “cuckoo clock” sound.  Its name — hototogisu — is an imitation of the sound it makes. 

It helps in understanding the verse to know that the word hototogisu can not only be written in Japanese phonetic hiragana symbols as ほとゝぎす, but it can also be written in characters borrowed from Chinese as 時鳥,  meaning “time bird.”  So already we have two things associated with time in this verse:  first the ancient city of Kyōto, and second the “time bird,” the hototogisu.

Further, the song of the hototogisu is considered to be rather melancholy, and reminiscent of the spirits of the departed longing for what has been left behind.

Knowing all this, we are ready to translate the verse.  First, here it is rather literally:

京にても      京    なつかし    や  ほとゝぎす
Kyō nite mo Kyō natsukashi ya hototogisu
Capitol/Kyōto being-in mo Capitol/Kyōto longing-for ya hototogisu

Mo here adds a kind of stress.  Ya, as you may know from past postings, is a particle that in hokku functions as a pause word — or as I call it, a “meditative pause.”

So how then shall we translate the verse into English?  Well, here is how I would do it while remaining close to the original:

Though in Kyōto,
Still longing for Kyōto;
A cuckoo.

In hokku, as I have said before, the reader is sometimes required to make an intuitive leap; that is, to know what the writer intends without having it completely spelled out.  That is the case with the last line.  When we read “The cuckoo,” we are to understand it is the song of the cuckoo.  So we could also translate like this:

In Kyōto,
Yet on hearing a cuckoo,
Longing for Kyōto.


Though in Kyōto,
On hearing the cuckoo,
Longing for Kyōto.


In Kyōto,
Yet longing for Kyōto;
A cuckoo calls.

Or even like this, being far more loose:

In Kyōto,
Yet when the cuckoo calls,
Longing for Kyōto.

Now what does all this mean?  It means that though Bashō has come to the Kyōto of his day, when he hears the song of the cuckoo — the hototogisu — the “bird of time,” it evokes a nostalgia in him, a  longing for Kyōto as he imagines it must have been in times long past. 

Now as I said, this is a subjective verse, and for those interested in the hokku-Zen connection, it is a very un-Zen verse, because Bashō is off in his romantic imagination instead of in the present moment.  Bashō did this now and then in his verses, for example, he wrote the following verse about his visit to Sumadera, a temple in Kobe.  It refers to an old incident in a war between the Minamoto and Taira clans.  Kumagai Naozani of the Minamoto clan killed the young Taira no Atsumori in battle — but on the body of the boy — who was the same age as Kumagai Naozani’s own son — a flute was found.  The combination of the youth and beauty of the slain boy and the aesthetic significance of the flute had such a profound effect on the boy’s killer that he became a Buddhist monk.  

When Bashō saw the flute of Atsumori, he wrote:

Sumadera ya fukanu fue kiku ko shita yami
Suma-temple ya played-not flute hear trees under shade

Suma Temple;
Hearing the unblown flute
In the shade beneath the trees.

Bashō actually based this verse on an earlier and of course longer waka about hearing the flute of Atsumori quite well, even though it was “unblown.”  So actually Bashō’s verse is just a condensed version of the waka.  And of course it is Bashō off in his romantic fantasy again, imagining he hears the flute of the beautiful but dead youth Atsumori  — who was about  16 — in the shade of the trees at the temple where the flute was kept.  Keep in mind that from all evidence, Bashō was basically homosexual — attracted to males.  So this is a sadly romantic verse, filled with a sense of the evanescence of life.

Now from this we can tell that old hokku was often not simple at all, but sometimes required a knowledge of historical allusions in order to be understood.  And of course the flute was heard only in Bashō’s imagination, so his “unblown flute” verse is a subjective hokku.  And obviousy we need to know all this in order to fully understand it.

Now back to Bashō’s “In Kyōto” hokku:

If we were to translate the verse very loosely while retaining its meaning — an “explanatory” translation — we might do it like this:

Though in Kyōto,
I long for Kyōto past;
The call of the bird of time.

Put that way, it makes the meaning of the verse quite clear, but it has the disadvantages of being wordy and awkward and of explaining too much.  But if you want to know what the verse is all about, there it is.

We could also move things around and present it like this, which again is rather awkward in phrasing and too long, but conveys the meaning clearly:

Though in Kyōto,
On hearing the hototogisu,
I long for the Kyōto that was.

Now what do we learn from all this?  Well, it is obvious that we cannot compress all the information necessary to understand this verse well into a single hokku translation, and have it be both fully meaningful and graceful in wording.   No matter how we may try, something will be lost.  That tells us this is one of those hokku that do not “travel well,” because readers in other countries and cultures must know all the information I have presented here in order to fully “get” the hokku, and that is never a benefit.  It is also why I tell people to be very careful to write hokku that one can quicky “get,” because otherwise it is like explaining a joke; when the explanation is finished, the joke is no longer funny.  Similarly, when one has to explain a hokku, it loses strength.  And of course I favor daoku — hokku that are objective rather than subjective.



Well, by the Hokku Calendar we are in summer now. Coincidentally, someone just forwarded a question to me about a verse found in loose translation in the old Peter Pauper books that some may remember from the middle of the last century (if you were even alive in the last century). There it is mistakenly attributed to a “Gijoens.” But the name of the writer was actually Gijōen. And being a hokku about cicadas, it is of course a summer verse — though a bit farther into summer than we are now.

In the forwarded message, the person had asked for the original Japanese. Well, as you know, now I like to concentrate on hokku in English here most of the time, but given that the inquirer could not locate the original, perhaps others might be curious as well, so here it is:

Matsuyani wo hanare kanete ya semi no koe

Pine-pitch wo get-away-cannot ya cicada’s voice

松脂をはなれかねてや せみ の 聲

Here is my rendering:

To escape the pine pitch;
The cicada’s cry.

In the Japanese summer, the cries of cicadas can be very loud and noisy and persistent — a kind of constant background drone.

Not a very cheerful hokku — but there it is.



An early summer hokku by Dempuku:

Though the blossoms
On the cherry tree have gone —
The young leaves!

It is not a very strong verse, but nonetheless we understand what he is getting at:  while the universally-appreciated blossoms of the cherry have all fallen, after them come the fresh young leaves, and it takes someone with a rather developed aesthetic sense to appreciate those as well.  That is a part of the hokku aesthetic — to appreciate the beauty of things that are not flamboyant, things that one may easily overlook.

We may say that after the beauty of a cherry tree in full blossom, the fresh green young leaves can hardly compare; but that is the point.  In hokku we do not compare, but appreciate each part of Nature for what it is.  In general, hokku favors the less obvious beauty, preferring the dandelion to the hothouse orchid.

I have added “though” to the original, because it makes its meaning more evident in English.



A summer hokku by Shōritsu, in daoku form:

At the sound of thunder,
Its petals fall —
The poppy.

Well, that’s a rather dramatic hokku.  The thunder must have been boomingly loud.

The verse is reminiscent of Buson’s summer hokku as loosely translated by R. H. Blyth:

The heavy wagon
Rumbles by;
The peony quivers.

But Shōritsu’s verse makes the effect even stronger.

One could change Buson’s verse like this:

At the passing
Of the heavy wagon,
The peony petals fall.

But getting back to Shōritsu’s verse, what we have is a harmony of opposites:  the loud, strong boom of the thunder against the delicate frailty of the poppy petals.



Charles Tuskey wrote and kindly shared the following hokku, after an old pattern used by Bashō.  But Charles has made it completely new and fresh by giving it a different season and subject. Bashō wrote for winter, but Charles wrote for the season we are in — spring. Well, actually by the old Hokku Calendar, we just entered summer on May Day. So how you place yourself in a season depends not just on the calendar, but on your local climate as well. Where I am, a gentle rain has fallen and flowers are blooming, but higher in the mountains there is still snow on the ground.

Open the window,
We’ll share something nice ––
The sound of spring rain.

If you are curious about the old pattern used here, it was this verse by Bashō, in R. H. Blyth’s translation:

You light the fire;
I’ll show you something nice, ––
A great ball of snow. 

I have to say that in this case, I much prefer the hokku by Charles Tuskey — but then I really like the spring and the sound of rain — and the delightful sentiment of sharing that simple but wonderful pleasure — the simplicity of spring rain, the simplicity of good hokku. The verse connects us immediately with Nature, which is what hokku is all about, with its subject matter being Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.



Well, we have again reached May Day — May 1st, Bealtaine, Beltane — the ancient beginning of summer by the old agricultural calendar and the Hokku Calendar.

There is an interesting poem by Edith Nesbit. You remember Edith Nesbit, don’t you? She is the lady who wrote those delightful novels for children — among them The Railway Children, and of course The Enchanted Castle. When I was a boy in grade school — elementary school — I came across an old copy of The Enchanted Castle in our tiny country school library. I thought I had found an undiscovered treasure, with the very unusual and absorbing story and the quaint illustrations.

(Edith Nesbit: 1858-1924)

But on to the poem. Perhaps you remember the earlier discussion here of Housman’s poem “Oh See How Thick the Goldcup Flowers,” about a clever girl who escapes seduction. Well, this poem has much the same theme, only this time seen from the female perspective — the very “liberated” female perspective — of Edith Nesbit. It is in the form of a dialogue between a young man whose thoughts have turned to love — well, most likely to sex, given the interests of young men — and the object of his affections — the girl.


Will you go a-maying, a-maying, a-maying,
Come and be my Queen of May and pluck the may with me?
The fields are full of daisy buds and new lambs playing,
The bird is on the nest, dear, the blossom’s on the tree.’

The young fellow asks the girl if she will go out with him “a-maying” — ostensibly to celebrate May Day in one way or another — here he mentions only “plucking the may,” and of course from past discussions here, you will know that by “may” he means the white hawthorn blossoms, a symbol of May in Britain. But of course there is a subtext here, because to “go a-maying” also mean a romantic and often sexual encounter of young man and maid, out of the village and away from prying eyes.

‘If I go with you, if I go a-maying,
To be your Queen and wear my crown this May-day bright,
Hand in hand straying, it must be only playing,
And playtime ends at sunset, and then good-night.

The girl responds with the sensible comment that if she goes a-maying — if she is his Queen and wears her crown, and goes out to celebrate with the young man — she wants him to know it is only for playing — and that playtime ends at sunset — so no rolling on the ground with him in the twilight or night — no sex. She intends to make no commitment. Often in villages a Queen of the May was chosen for May Day festivities, and that is what the girl means when she speaks of being his Queen.

The girl explains her reasons:

‘For I have heard of maidens who laughed and went a-maying,
Went out queens and lost their crowns and came back slaves.
I will be no young man’s slave, submitting and obeying,
Bearing chains as those did, even to their graves.’

Well. She has very definite ideas, and has obviously heard the warnings about girls who were too free with young men, who lost their virginity (their “crown”) and ended up pregnant and in a forced marriage. Those were the days when brides were admonished to “love, honor, and obey,” and this girl has no intention of being seduced into pregnancy and marriage, and certainly no desire to spend the rest of her days “obeying” a male.

‘If you come a-maying, a-straying, a-playing,
We will pluck the little flowers, enough for you and me;
And when the day dies, end our one day’s playing,
Give a kiss and take a kiss and go home free.’

So that is the agreed outcome. If they are to go a-maying together, they can have their fun for the day — some delightful kisses perhaps, but nothing that turns into the smouldering desire that leads to sex. And when the day has ended, each can give a kiss, and take a kiss from the other — and then go home free. No bonds. No obligation. No pregnancy. No obeying.

As in Housman’s poem, this is a very clever girl who knows how to avoid trouble, and big trouble it was in those days to have an unwed pregnancy.

Of course behind all this is the ancient connection between spring and fertility and rites of sex among the young.