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Summer 2007, vol 5 no 2

A column by Robin D. Gill


In the Shadow of a Kettle:
Tsukuma Matsuri — Where Haiku and Senryu Meet


"If the festival of Tsukuma in Omi could just come early so I could see the number of pots on that bad girl's head!" (A prosaic translation of a poem from The Tales of Ise, early 10c)

I have never found a definition of haiku or senryu which I completely agreed with. One reason is that the variety of each is such that any definition would, by definition, be wrong. The variety of which I speak is especially large if we look at these forms over the centuries, going back to when haiku were not called haiku and senryu were not called senryu. There is no question that early haikai is full of both. It also has ku which work as part of the linked-verse in which they appear but are properly neither haiku nor senryu, and others that could be either one. This last variety survived even after senryu and Basho-inspired “pure” ku of the type we now call haiku drifted apart, and flourished in those themes that were common to both traditions.

One such theme is the Tsukuma Matsuri. Held at a Shrine in what is now called Maihara Town, Sakata County, Shiga Prefecture, this pot-wearing festival is considered one of the three most famous odd festivals (chinsai), the other being a carnival-like Kurayami Matsuri (Pitch-black festival) where part of Kyoto went into darkness and sexual license was permitted and the buttocks whacking festival, I forget where, but probably for fertility more than anything else. With other festivals where men risk sudden death riding enormous logs down hills, or drowning by wallowing naked in mud, etc., I do not know how the rankings are made.

In Japanese, there are many verbs meaning “to wear” depending where or how something is put on. In this case, the pot or pots were worn on the head. I always imagined them carried as vessels usually are, open-side up, but all of those I have seen pictured show them upside down covering half the girl’s face. Why do girls wear them? Because the enshrined deity is what might be called a food god, one theory is that the original practice was undertaken by newly wed parishioners to make offerings of the first food. The date of the festival, early summer certainly fits that, but if that was once the case it has long since been forgotten as all of the literature tells us the same thing: women were supposed to walk with the sacred float wearing one pot for each man they slept with that year.

We will explore further together with the poems.

kimigayo ya tsukuma matsuri mo nabe hitsotsu  kojin 1691

In our lord’s time, just one pot each,
Even for the old Tsukuma Festival!

This ku is almost always the first found in haiku saijiki. Because the poet was a student of Basho’s, it is easily found on the internet, too. The comment on the times, using a phrase that, mentioning the ruler, generally implies a favorable evaluation, is very common in Issa’s journals. He has scores of them. Like Usanians in the 20c, Japanese in the middle part of the Tokugawa Era sometimes exhibited a smug sense of superiority vis-a-vis foreign countries, and that could include the foreign country within, their own past. Note that because Kojin’s ku is seasonal and true, it is haiku – yes, when I skip the particle, I use haiku like one might use the word kosher – but, the comment on a well-known practice makes it also senryu.

hetsui ni [?]nabe no kazu min neko no tsuma futo 1679

Just count those pots on the stove!
One for each of our pussy’s loves!

daga neko zo tana kara otosu nabe no kazu   sentoku c 1690

Whose cat is that? That is a lot
of pots knocked off the shelves!

These ku, the first definitely earlier Kojin’s ku, are more clearly haikai, in that they take a romantic – or, at any rate, human sex-related – theme and hand it over to the cats, whose early spring (now, winter) love-making would become a top-five-hundred, if not top-hundred seasonal theme. As tsuma can also be a snack, the pots on the stove may contain food for the cat.

tsukuma no nabe no ware o ikutsu me   mu 1755

A headful of Tsukuma pots, how far
From the top is the one that’s me?

This 7-7 ku is one of the oldest senryu on Tsukuma and is rare for having a first-person in it. But, the Japanese first-person functions much like the English second-person: in other words, it may be read as a male response. At first, I thought of the Tale of Ise’s protagonist, but that context, if I recall correctly, has him assuming a woman he had high hopes of introducing to sex was inexperienced, then hearing she had secretly had a tryst with another. The poem speaks of a “heartless/faithless/cold person,” not a slangy “bad girl,” as I translated. A much later senryu (19c) would strike back at this Don Juan presumptuous enough to criticize a would-be lover for her possible loves: “We’d like to see / Narihira wear them himself – / Tsukuma pots! (Narihira ni kabusete mitaki tsukuma nabe 140-11), and another throws in the far more gracious romantic hero of what some have called the world’s first novel – I, personally, see it as a cross between Tristram Shandy, a soap opera and a Harlequin Romance – as well, “Prince Genji, too! / You’d like him to wear / Tsukuma pots! (genji ni mo tsukuma no nabe o kabusetashi ya 159-20). This sort of playing literary figures against the concept of a festival is one place where senryu splits from haiku. With Mutamagawa’s earlier ku, it is hard to say, for if you were to grant “the one that’s me” to be a genuine observation/thought, it could be haiku. As we will see, however, the festival as depicted by Narihira was long defunct.

nabezumi ya hage o kakuseshi tsukuma hime   gonsui 1681

Kettle black! The Tsukuba princess
Has no trouble hiding her bald-spot!
Kettle black! How the Princesses
In Tsukuba cover their baldness!

This is by a well known haiku poet, but had the ku been published in a book of senryu, it could be one. Bald? Explanations of the festival mention young women. Must we imagine the inverted pots themselves as bald heads with the soot giving them hair?

kyo ichido baba mo kabure-yo tsukuma-nabe   issa d.1827

Gramma, too, show us your mettle.
Today, for once, Tsukuma kettles!
Today let all old ladies show they’re hot:
You, too, show off your Tsukuma pots!

Here, old women are brought in for good. It is hard to find a better example of why the necessity to indicate number in English can spoil poetry than in my first reading of Issa’s ku, his best known for this theme. The “today” is what makes Issa’s ku work as a haiku. Before explaining why, let me introduce Issa’s first and least known Tsukuma ku, where he first got that “today.”

kyo koso wa nabe-kaburi-hi zo yuri-no-hana   issa

Hey, lilies! Today is it;
Your day to wear pots!
Lilly, hey, today’s the day,
For you to wear your pot!

This ku was in a somewhat risque verse-jam. A lily is standard trope for a sexy walker. A century later, Santoka was to haiku “a maiden with a pail on her head walking voluptuously” (musume tarai o atama ni ura-ura aruku) The adverb (uraura) in it suggests Spring, but I would guess it dates to within days of the Tsukuma Festival, which came at Summer’s start. Back to Issa. Real lilies might also be in bloom at this time and we could imagine someone joking about covering one, but what matters, again, is the “today,” for bringing the time of the festival home with him (or wherever Issa was) is what makes the ku real instead of an imagined happening at Tsukuma. Years later, when Issa was almost sixty, he finally added a missing age group:

kowarawa mo kaburitagaruya tsukuma nabe   issa

Little kids also want to wear them!
Tsukuma pots.

There are two naturals here. First, children copy us. It’s called wanting to grow up. A famous senryu has samurai children teaching commoner playmates to play harakiri and less often encountered one has children pretending to commit an, romantic (and illegal) double suicide. Issa’s ku could as easily be senryu. Second, children enjoy costume. A bowl over the head is just that. By this time, the festival was a remnant of what it once may have been and only a small number of young women wore bowls. How young, I do not know, but two and a half centuries earlier, a shrine document records the girls were up to and including 15 years old (jugo-miman). And, today, can you guess? The girls are eight! That is right, eight 8-year-old girls parade on the 8th day of what was the 4th month, which is the date of Buddha’s birth! (Another source says the 3rd day). Originally, the festival was held in the dark of the moon, on the first day.

tsukumabito kazashi no hana ya shinchu-nabe   hihei? 1681

Brass kettles! In Tsukuma,
They call it dressing up!

“Dressing up” is a creative translation. The original uses the expression “ornamental (for wearing on the head) flowers.” The typifying cast of the ku marks it as the type haikai soon be called senryu. Originally, the pots were earthenware. Issa most probably enjoyed food from such a pot, for he has a ku about “running across earthen pots, too, in today’s festival” (tsuchinabe mo kyo no matsuri ni ainikeri). A senryu jokes about there being more pot than hatchet stores in Tsukuma (onoya yori nabeya no ooi tsukuma mura ya 113-18). But the truth is that festival aside, the area was known for its stew. It is also possible Issa happened to see a woman carrying a right-side-up pot on her head. While Japanese never carried as much on their heads as Koreans, they probably did use their heads more often in Issa’s day than most people today might imagine. The mo, or “also/even” in Issa’s ku and the cast pots in the older ku tell us that artificial pots – today they are paper-mache – were already used. If the large size of today’s “pots” are any indication of those hundreds of years ago, they were probably very thin to keep the weight minimal. But, maybe not. Maybe the weight was part of it. As one 1771 ku put it, “Even one lies heavy on the head: Tsukuma pots” That ku could be a senryu as easily as a haiku and having little in it tempts us to play:

hitotsu sae omoki koube ya tsukuma nabe   sencha 1771

Even one makes a heavy crown – the earthen pots in Omi town!
Tsukuma girls find even one pot a heavy cross to bear . . .

Because Sencha’s ku was in a haiku anthology, I am tempted to believe him literally. He held a pot and found it surprisingly heavy. The word he used for head, koube, something like “noggin” supports that, but there is still room for a figurative reading, which would make it more senryu.

nabe kaburu matsuri mo hito ga nie-kobore   ya c.1820

At a festival of pot-wearing, how crowds boil over
A pot upon head festival: women are boiling-over
Our people boil over for pot-wearing festivals, too

With the first two translations of the 19c senryu, I picked up the metaphor but probably lost the point of the senryu which, as we have seen, is usually the case with haiku, lies in the “mo,” meaning “even” or “also/too.” With further thought, I think the “too” alludes to the far more common and always popular festivals where phalluses are paraded through the fields and villages.

otoko ni nabe o kisete mitagaru   mu 1760

She’d like to try putting
Those pots on the men!

surikogi o sasu beki hazu o nabe kaburi   ya?

While it should be pestles,
What they wear is kettles!

surikogi no kazu nabe de shiru omatsuri-fuda???   ya?

How to divine the number of pestles?
From the kettles tallied by the shrine!

These are senryu. The first does not say “she” but I believe that is the poet’s intent. Mutamagawa senryu sometimes could take the woman’s point of view. The second could as well have been haiku, for it is a perfectly natural observation. Japanese didn’t need Freud to tell them the implications of the concave and –vex. and convexity. Another less poetic version of the same: “Pestles rather than pots, will make a better God-thing [Shinto rite]” (nabe yori mo surikogi de ii shinji nari ya c.1830). The third seems like logic for the sake of logic. That was acceptable with senryu, not for haiku.

tsukuma matsuri nabe wa hajikakidogu kana   issetsu 1666

Tsukuma Festival: Those pots with names
Fine tools to display a thing called shame!
Those pots give Tsukuma a bad name:
Tools for Fools to display their shame!

The original, from an early haikai collection the name of which translates as Laundry, points out that the pots are the equivalent of what we might English as doing one’s laundry in public. My readings fill in: “Tsukuma festival pots-as-for, shame-scratching-tool!” The odd “shame-scratching-tool” (hajikakidogu) is actually in the dictionary! It reminds me of an imaginary tool in a book I have long wanted to translate. One side is a scratcher made from poison-wood and the other a spongy head with powerful itch relief cream. The idea is to always have a scratch for your itch and vice-versa. It is a sort of perpetual motion machine of animal pleasure. But, to return to the ku. If it were not for the exclamatory/interrogatory kana – midway between a “Eureka!” and “Could this be it?” at the end (note: kana was not just a caesura), the ku could be a senryu. It also raises what is, for me, the central question about Tsukuma’s custom. But, first one more ku:

adahito yo uso na tsukuma no nabe no kazu   kakuro 1777

Fair liars who laid around come true
Or Tsukuma’s pots will tell on you!!!
Heartless girls, you had better not lie!
And I’ll tell you why: Tsukuma pots!

This ku, in early haikai style, combines an obsolete literary grammar for a negative request with a partial pun upon the name Tsukuma (the explanation eventually, when this is made into a book). I hinted at the reason his idea of telling the girl’s not to lie has validity. A Shrine report dated 1568 explained that if the young maidens had violated their chastity (committed lewdness), they will “surely be found out when their pots fall.” To me, this suggests that by this date, multiple pots may already have been a thing of the past and the whole idea was to use religious belief to shame teenage girls to keep chaste until marriage! Not knowing this when I first read about Tsukuma in the Tales of Ise and in Issa’s ku and the tiny editor’s note with them, I thought the Festival reflected old Japan’s free attitude about sex, with women out there proud to strut their stuff. Maybe it once was like that, but it surely was not so at the time haiku and senryu were born. Coming of Age in Japan, like in Samoa, probably never was simple, even if it might have been a bit more sane than it was in Europe at the time!

tsukuma nabe henoko o kaete omoku nari   ya 19c?

Tsukuma pots are a sort of levy –
Change cocks, they grow heavy!

Had I only seen senryu mention more than one pot, I would think the poets had their heads still stuck back in the olden times of the Tales of Ise.

mono iwa de kiru ya tsukuma no nabe futatsu   seibi d.1816

Saying nothing, she wears them
Two Tsukuma pots
She never said a word, just puts on
Her two Tsukuma pots

But we have already seen numbers of pots mentioned in haikai and even Issa’s teacher Seibi mentioned a properly moderate post-Basho sort of number, two. It makes us think. Did she have one boyfriend, then marry someone her parents thought better? Did one die? If it were three, four, a handful or more, our thoughts would be less. I will have to test out my two readings on an educated Japanese audience. While my second reading seems too dramatic for haiku, who knows! (A ku from Haizange, an anthology by Oemaru to which young Seibi contributed also has two pots: “Wiping off sweat / It starts in Tsukuma after / the second pot” (ase fuki ya tsukuma no nabe futatsu yori. Oemaru? 1790) Doubtless, there are more two-potters out there).

soushuu ni tsukuma matsuri ga aru naraba   ya?

Now if there were a Tsukuma Festival in Soshu . . .

I would not be surprised if this simple senryu became a woodcut print or vice-versa, for Soshu is also known as Sagami, and Sagami was, according to the world of senryu, home to girls who were all what Occidental psychiatrists would later call nymphomaniacs. We can imagine pots piled up as high as the Eiffel tower. One never hears of the Sagamis in haiku – in senryu, people often stereotyped were called by their types, “dowry” for a woman so ugly she had to come with a big one, "Shinano" for the ravenous country bumpkin from that region, etc. – or, for that matter, another of my favorites, the "Ikebu-kuro," maids (sometimes brides) from that locality, held to cause what parapsychologists call poltergeist effects! Imagine them with all those pots (I would bet someone has!).

kaburazu ni tsukuma matsuri o komachi-suru   ya c 1820


No more pots: So Tsukuma festival is Komachified?
Bare-headed, A Komachi does her stuff at Tsukuma.
Bare heads at Tsukuma – Girls doing the Komachi?

Komachi is Japan’s most famous female poet of love. There are scores of senryu about her; almost all concern one thing. Or, rather, no thing. The Elizabethans made a big ado about nothing – a euphemism some feminists, who rightfully think it some thing, resent – but in Komachi’s case, there was literally nothing between her legs! It is hard for me to tell if this senryu is by someone who 1) noticed women did not carry all the pots they used to at Tsukuma and regretted the change 2) noticed a girl in the procession, potless, or 3) many girls. If the ku were by a female haikai poet rather than a senryu, it could be translated in the first-person. Note that Japanese nouns do not verb, like English nouns can, from position alone, but must use a helper verb, suru, or “do.” Here, with a parade involving special walking, it does sound, especially in translation, a bit like a type of dance, doesn’t it?

tanabata ya nisen jonen no hitotsu nabe 1801

The loving stars . . .
            Over two millennia
                           . . . with one pot.

This ku is probably by Oemaru, a humorous and unpretentious poet Issa studied under. Like many of his ku, it is hard to say if it is brilliant or utterly worthless. The Herder and Weaver Stars are said to cross the Milky Way (in China, the woman travels, in Japan, the man) and renew their vows once every year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, which was the start of Fall but is now in the summer, at least in Japan. Most thought once-a-year sex a very lonely proposition, but Lady Ukyo Daibu (12c) confessed to being jealous as she was involuntarily chaste, which is to say, going to waste (Right now, after almost a decade of the same, I can see her point!). But love poets and loving stars, even introduced in jest, whitewash the ugly truth:

waga koi o hito ni shirareru oressai   ya?

In public, our private loves
are weighed – a pot parade

hatsunabe wa kasaneta yori mo de-nikugari   ya?

The first pot makes a girl blush more
Than stacking them high as a whore!
More ashamed with that first pot
Than older girls (who boast a lot)
First-pot girls have a harder time
Coming out than those with nine

It was not just a matter of embarrassment for sleeping around. It is just the idea of going public that made it true for some – at least in the mind of whoever wrote the senryu – that many pots are easier to carry than the first. But the idea of numbers appealed to senryu. Nabe no kazu, literally, “pots’ number” may be the most common phrase found in these ku.

waga koi o mina buchi-makeru nabe no kazu   ya?
Every scrap of private love cast out by kettles, count them!
tsumamigui shita ga matsuri no nabe de shire   ya?
You may not swell, but if you snacked, the pots will tell!
ikunin ni saseta mo shireru matsuri nari   ya?
A festival, this, to know how many men knew them.
(Or) A festival to learn how many men made them.

Call this sacred rite a cross between a wordless Public Confession – perhaps bringing some absolution for those who had doubting relationships, or at least preventing a dangerous build-up of suspicion – and what might be called a Love Inquisition, though the only punishment was mental.

nabe matsuri tanin no kuchi ni futa wa nashi   ya c.1830
Pot festival / where people's mouths have no lid

This senryu is wittier than it looks, for in a pot = woman context, a lid usually means a husband.

atama e haji no furikakaru nabe   mu 1760
Those pots pouring shame down upon the head
nabe no kazu kabutte kao ni hi ga moeru   ya 1791
Numerous pots! How luminous, how hot, those cheeks burn!
kao ni hi o taite matsuri no nabe no kazu ya 1804
indling fires upon faces, the festival with pot upon pot!

Fires go under pots, but the “pouring” in the oldest Mutamagawa senryu indirectly suggests that the pots were already worn like caps, upside down. But flames and love have long been a pair in Japanese for punning reasons (omoi = omohi=hi) I will not explain now, so the poets needed them right-side-up. Unlike classical fires in the heart, the pots call for blushing, i.e. flaming faces and that puts a new tooth on the old saw.

nabe kamuru yoku no matsuri ga yome zuutsu   ya?
Tomorrow’s pots give the Tsukuma bride a headache

ona ni go o hatakaseru shinji nari   ya?
A sacred rite to pound a woman’s karma into her

omatsuri ga iyasa ni mino e yomeri suru   ya?
Hating that festival, she marries into the rival town

Needless to say, the burden of shame in this festival was lop-sided, unfair for women. The first of these senryu needs no explanation. The verb in the middle of the second is hard to guess. The closest thing to it means pound, but the syllabet count is a bit off, suggesting a possible error in the transcription. Could it be, perhaps, a rite making the woman’s karma – meaning both place in life and sins – naked to the eye (hadaka ni saseru), i.e. patent? Regardless, the wit lies in the observation of a Shinto rite is aimed at making women good Buddhists! That women, or some women, at any rate, were not only ashamed but unhappy with that is made clear from the third ku. The original gives the name of the town, Mino. It lies next to Omi (now, Maihara?), home of the Tsukuba shrine. The wit lies in an allusion to a saying about the closeness of the two towns divided by administrative fiat: “Mino and Omi’s Bedtime Tales.” With the paper-thin border, the residents of one town can hear those of the other talking through the walls as they lay in bed. In a sense, those pots told “tales of sleeping” (nemonogatari) so there is a secondary reason for the allusion. Evidently, girls in Mino were not pressured into participating in the festival.

nabe no kazu oya no kao made sumi o nuri   ya c 1830

So many pots! The soot even shows on her parents’ faces!
So many pots, her sins are apparent, even to . . her parents

oyagokoro hitotsu wa nabe mo kabusetashi   ya?

A parent’s heart: if it’s one, they want her wearing a pot!
Pot-luck festival: Both parents prefer one . . . to none!

Though senryu are largely the literature of single men, they had parents and do not forget them. The first ku needs no comment. The second, showing the parents’ other worry is also clear.

nabe no kazu itadaki matsuru tsukuma kana   sansei 1660

Tsukuma! Where we’re given
a number of stew-pots to fest!
By the Grace of God, we learn the Number
Of pots to celebrate! Ah, Tsukuma, so odd!

With haiku, the vista broadens. I think the point here is how funny it is to make a big thing out of not only something as humble as a pot but of something less substantial yet, their number. That makes this typical pre-Basho-style light and logical haikai. The God and his rhyme in the second reading is indeed odd, but English has no good verb for receiving something as a gift is received from on high. Some of the wit is lost in translation because “celebrate” is not as meaningful in English as in Japanese, where it includes an element of worship.

koronda o e ni mite hisashi nabe matsuri   otsuni d.1823

Again you see
her tumble down that hill –
the kettle festival
Here again to see
fallen women made concrete –
the pot festival
Recalling our love
for the first time in a while . . .
That pot smiled

Otsuni is a well-known poet and his actual metaphor, which translated too long to use is that he could see [her] tumble as if seeing a picture of it. Maybe, I should add a “clearly” to the “see” to match its meaning. To tumble was idiom for sleeping with someone and standard for dancing girls sleeping with their clients. For the first reading, I thought of “take a spill” but tossed it out and kept the rhyme-found hill, so at least anyone who read about the roots of Jack and Jill could chuckle with me. For the second reading, “fallen” has too much Christian baggage and “concrete” sounds too modern, but the general idea that the poet has found a way to poeticize his seeing the Festival for the first time in say, five or ten or twenty years is more likely than the last, erotic reading.

musubanu o kami no ginmi ya tsukuma nabe   somaru 1712-95

Where the gods check over
Virgin girls? tsukuma pots

Again, we have one of Issa’s teachers/employers, Somaru. Like Issa, he was not shy of using senryu vocabulary. The word used for “check” ginmi, implied the careful scrutiny of people, usually women, attempting to sneak out of pleasure quarters or cross fiefdom checkpoints in disguise, or dealers in women giving their equipment a once over. This ku seems like a senryu in its ironic if not satirical slant, but if we take the ya as not only a caesura but a rhetorical question, there is something serious in his humor, namely, Somaru notes the incongruity of the Festival as it is explained and as it appears. At this time, I would bet there were no longer any women with lots of pots but a parade of innocent little girls, halfway between the fifteen-and-under maidens of the 16c and the eight year-olds of the 20c. Senryu, content with their stereotypes, never could let go of the titillating and/or misogynist fiction. Actually, I exaggerate a bit, for I know of at least one exception:

nabe hitotsu teijo ga kamuru shinji nari   ya?

A sacred rite, it is, where hot women are chaste
through the streets wearing nothing but one pot

While Issa, in his journals, does mention a Lady Godiva drawing vast crowds into an understandingly popular Buddhist temple (before the authorities cracked down, probably at the instigation of the competition), I really overdid that translation (don’t you dare quote it anywhere!). The original, in the undated copy I found, means: “It’s a sacred rite where chaste women carry single pots.” If I am not mistaken, the shinji in the senryu should have been written with phonetic syllabary, rather than characters, leaving open the possibility of the “god-thing” (sacred rite) also meaning one of its homophones: “my body / one’s own self” – for without that much wit, it is as good as dead – but I could not translate that.

yaburi-nabe no fuchi mo medetaki matsuri kana   seibi 1790

Such a festival
joyful even to the rims
of the broken pots!

This ku by the third and last of Issa’s teacher-employers, Seibi is the last of eleven Tsukuma Matsuri ku found in Shiki’s huge Categorical anthology. Following the critical takes on the pot festival we have been reading, such a savoury is just the thing, is it not? I think we already have a remnant of a festival and girls too young to really have to worry about anything. But broken pots does not seem like paper-mache. Could there have been some short plays on the side? Or was the practice of throwing pots off the mountain (See the description in my recent book Cherry Blossom Epiphany) enjoyed here as well? If historians need poems, poems need historians and I will have to find someone in Japan (or with access to resources such as J-Stor, which I do not have) to make more sense of these things. All I can say is that Seibi’s approach reminds me of Chiyo’s New Year ku, where she found even the dust from the straw something worth celebrating (See my other recent book, The 5th Season).

nabe nuide kike ya tsukuma no hototogisu   taigi d.1800

Take off your pot and bend an ear!
Is that a Tsukuma cuckoo I hear?
Off with that pot, girl, bare your ears!
The Tsukuma cuckoo is coming near

That is clearly haiku (Note, this Taigi is “big-ant,” not the famous Taigi). The cuckoo once was trope for a lover who flew from nest to nest if it were, but with the young age of the girls at this time, we may imagine an older poet who is sympathetic to the girls with their heads buried in their bucket-sized pots. Sumer is icumen in. It might actually be hot.

kaminoke ni kuse mo tsukuma no matsuri sugi   ya c.1830

Her hair indented for days
after the tsukuma matsuri

yokuhi matsuri hitomura arau nabe no shiri   ya?

The real party comes the next day,
a whole village cleaning pot butts!

The first late 19c senryu is a fine detail for something that came from the imagination alone. I wish I had a date on the second senryu, which, if a real observation, might have been a haiku and makes a perfect ending.



I am happy to be back after time-consuming family and publishing and computer-related matters took too much of my time to allow this luxury. But, I barely made this deadline and have only cooked those stewpots for a couple days, so there are many haiku and senryu I have not yet had time to solve or find someone to help me solve. For example:

shichie yae hosomichi tsuyoshi nabe-matsuri   ranko d.1799

Piling up seven or eight, the narrow way is strong, pot festival.
Hairpin turns, seven, eight – the curves energize the pot festival.
On the winding way to the pot festival we find our second wind.
The winding paths of lovers bear heavy traffic: seven pots, eight!

This is a well-known Basho-school haiku poet. I am torn between a dozen possible interpretations, from Tsukuma Festival mimicry by young-crowd (gays), as the “narrow-way” could refer to male-color, as homosexual love was called, to an old poet who likes walking winding roads, to an allusion to the “night-crawling” path of a lover. If senryu are hard to start reading because of the allusions to stereotypes and the specialized vocabulary, haiku can be hard to finish because they are just too damn subtle. Here, for contrast, is an early 19c senryu about male-color:

otoko da to kama o kabuseru matsuri nari   ya c.1830

If men took lovers, would the Gods
Of Tsukuma settle on an iron kettle?

Homosexuals, which in Japan did not mean the heterosexuals who sometimes slept with them, but those on the receiving end (the attitude was Greek or Spartan), were called Okama, or Honorable Kettle. The difference between a kettle and a pot is so small that I have used the former for the latter in some of my translations, but in Japanese, where kettles are always metal, one must be careful not to confuse these metaphors! (Honorable is an affected translation, the result of English lacking a less explicit honorific. If you are interested in such things – the reason things must be lost in translation – please read Orientalism & Occidentalism, one of my many books that do not sell.) Speaking of things lost in translation, there are those lost for never being translated. Obscene senryu are one:

tsurai koto henoko o kaburu matsuri nari   ya 1786

What’s really painful: a festival
With a cock on her head

Because I was interested in showing where haiku and senryu came together, I did not give any examples of the type of senryu none have dared to translate (never fear, I will publish the first book of the real thing in September [write me if you want an alert]). The above senryu, which, by alluding to the Tsukuba festival, is a Tsukuba festival ku, is gross. It does not refer to the fertility festivals with enormous phalluses shouldered about town. (Those rites still bring people great joy today. Little children shout with glee and everyone laughs. Can you imagine what would happen if such were paraded in the USA? (Macy’s would be the perfect place – skyscraper meets phallus!) Does that not say everything about our culture? But the senryu really is about a horrific event, or possible event, which was reported by Carletti around 1600, that is, on the tail of the savage warring era, where an adulterous woman was made to parade around town with the severed penis of her partner in crime on her head (while he, also paraded, had to wear her vulva, so this cannot be called misogynous!). Carletti added, lest his readers thought the Japanese barbarous, that the Portuguese were worse, for they killed their women at whim, based on mere suspicion of adultery (that is misogyny). With something that happened in the Tale of Ise offered up as recent news (breaking a pledge of chastity, he got locked, like a dog, in intercourse) by an astute 18c German traveler, one can never tell about such stories. If the fiction was believed by foreigners, in many cases, it was because it was believed by the Japanese who told it to them. For more of Carletti’s story, the relationship of the sexes and the position of women in Japan from 1500-1900, see ch. 2 of my Topsy-turvy 1585).


obotsukana tsukuma no kami no tame naraba ikutsuka nabe no kazu wa irubeki

What’ll we do?
I haven’t the foggiest take
on how many pots
we are supposed to make
for the god/s of Tsukuma!

This waka by Fujiwara Akitsuna was poem #1098 in the Goshui-waka-shu, published c.1005, about ninety years after the Tales of Ise, when the festival first appears, and contemporary with The Tale of Genji, 1005. If my quick read of the explanation accompanying it on-line is correct, the poet was in charge of some office for supply and requisitions and supposed to supply the women in charge of the Imperial kitchens earthen pots to the number of one for every man the women in the palace had slept with, which would later be presented to the Shrine. It was important to get the numbers right because a correct votive offering would bring good health to the woman while a mistaken one would endanger the same. But it was not easy to guess how many pots would be needed and the women were not eager to say anything ahead of time. So he was stymied. What I don’t get is that some of the language suggests that women made their own pots. Did they? If so, was the poet’s concern more with some odd requirement that he make a forecast? Or, did he need to go out to dig up clay somewhere? Or, nothing has been said about food, but seeing the head of the kitchen was involved, is this proof the pots were originally carried right side up and bearing food? In that case, comestibles must be gathered ahead of time. I’ll bet dried sea-cucumber was in those pots! The missing pestles! Hah!


urameshiya tsukuma no nabe no au koto o ware ni wa nado ga kasanezaru ran

Tsukuma Pots make me furious all the same
– Not a pot on that stack that bears my name!

That is a rough translation of a line from an early 16c poem/song about various workers (nanajuichi-banshokunin uta-awase). And, in Bunsei 3, which is to say 1820, the same year Issa joked about little kids wanting to wear Tsukuma pots, a famous actor in Edo sang a song (naga-uta Asazuma-bune) from a woman’s point of view with the line that questions why the Gods of Tsukuma should allow men (only) to get away with anything (tsukuma matsuri no kamisan mo naze ni otoko sore nari ni). To fully understand where haiku and senryu come from, such sources outside of conventional poetry also must be studied and I have hardly begun.


Perhaps, by the time this once-over article is shaped into a chapter for the Haiku In Context book (By 2010, maybe?), some of these questions may be answered. Yet, it is possible I will make little progress, that my few hours of googling and yahooing got me all the information to be found. Once standing up in the Kitazawa bookstore in Jinbocho, Tokyo, reading from the Loeb classics, which I could not afford to buy and still cannot afford to buy, I recall coming across some fragments about the relationship of crows and marriage and, perhaps, special slippers or something, definitely some odd charm-words that the author, probably a Roman, confessed to not understanding. He wrote of going back to the oldest mention of the practice in Greek and finding that author himself said that the practice came from ancient times so the meaning of the words was lost . . . All of my readers have doubtless come across the expression “turtles all the way down” – if not, you are not reading enough – explaining the final ground upon which the Cosmos stood; but, here I am thinking of something far more nebulous, and it is a world of nonsense without end. And yet, we can always make some sense of nonsense. Isn’t that why we continue to culture it?



Abbreviations: mu means the Mutamagawa senryu, sometimes considered proto-senryu and on the whole more tasteful than the slightly later and longer continuing ya = Yanagidaru senryu. The “ya?” senryu were found in an online anthology and I am not yet sure if they are Yanagidaru or not for my index only goes up to book 24. To buy the whole collection costs about $300 the last time I checked and I can not afford it. Some may come from other senryu collections.

Romanization. Sorry, I did not mess with diacritical marks for long vowels this time. I will add them in the book. I may have stuck on a few long vowels. It is hard to say what’s best.

Translations. All are tentative in form as well as content. Some names and other Romanizations of the Chinese characters may be wrong (not too many I hope). These will be fixed and the Japanese originals of all poems provided when this becomes a book, at which time, multiple translations of single ku will be arranged in good-looking one-two and three-column clusters rather than in serial, and word-by-word English glosses will be given for all poems as is the case for all my other books, which may be found at Google or Amazon or my website,

Robin D. Gill presently lives in Florida with his Puerto Rican Crested Anole and the ocean breeze.

Previously, he resided in Japan for 20 years and is a well known author there.

He has six books published from leading houses, including Hakusuisha, Chikuma Bunko, and Kousakusha.

He has had shows of his etchings and sculpture in the USA, Japan and Korea, and has experimented with free-tension string-instrument-making (one string), inventing new methods of making music by feel that he hopes to share with the world some day.