Haiku Appreciation

As many of you are surely aware, a chap by the name of Matsuo Basho is widely considered to be one of Japan’s greatest poets, and, in particular, a master of the haiku. Getting above myself somewhat, I’ve recently been reading some of his work.

You see, on wandering around the Internet I stumbled upon a publication in which Basho’s haiku poems have been translated into English and I began to read through them. They are the perfect literary form for the Internet generation, being so short that you needn’t concentrate very long to read one. I read one after another and I realised a couple of things. The first was that I quite like them; they are nice; they convey an image or tell a small tale in very few words. Take this, for example:

Chilling autumn rains

curtain Mount Fuji, then make it

more beautiful to see

I like this because it is beautifully simple yet perfect, for nothing is surer than the fact that after a good rainfall on a chilly day down on the ground, Mount Fuji will soon appear in a blue sky blessed with a fresh crown of snow. The miserable weather allows her to touch up her make-up.

But the other thing I realised when reading Basho’s work was that I am missing something. Or at least, I think I am. I know the vagaries of translation can play their part in the impact of a piece, but still, there are times when I have to wonder why something is considered to be so wonderful. One such haiku, so revered, is perhaps Basho’s most famous creation. You know the one – the one about the frog and the old pond.

In Japanese it reads:

Furu ike ya

kawazu tobikomu

mizu no oto

You see, when I read that I begin to feel my ignorance. I can’t help but think I must be missing something. There must be some subtleties in the Japanese choice of words that escape me, and which continue to escape me no matter which of the myriad English translations I choose to read.

The esteemed Japan scholar Donald Keene has translated it fairly straightforwardly thus:

The ancient pond

A frog leaps in

The sound of the water.

I mean, it is nice. It does convey an image. But  I’m still not sure why it is the genius everybody seems to say it is. And it doesn’t get any easier to appreciate when reading other translations. Allen Ginsberg’s effort is,

The old pond

A frog jumped in,

Kerplunk!

while, that of philosopher and writer Alan Watts is,

The old pond,

A frog jumps in:

Plop!

Now, at the risk of being scoffed at by intellectuals, let me tell you something. I am quite certain that if I ever came running out of my study, pen in hand, sweat on brow and demanded, ‘Stop what you are doing and listen! I’ve done it!’ and then proudly said, ‘The old pond, a frog jumps in: Plop’ nobody would put down a cup of tea,  stare at me in open-mouthed awe for a moment, and declare ‘By jove! You, sir, are a poetic genius.’ Even were I to give a delicious enunciation to the word ‘Plop’ that reaction would seem unlikely.

Now, some have apparently said that it is the very fact that Basho focused on the sound of water, not the sound of a croak that lends his work its majesty, but is a plop that much more intriguing than a croak? Were his readers chuckling at his genius, muttering, ‘I so thought that would be a ribbit!’?

Who knows? As I said, I like it, but perhaps it reveals more about my character that this one speaks much more to me personally:

a hangover:

but while the cherries bloom,

what of it?

Indeed. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I shall try and compose my own, for the cicadas are humming and the beer bottle is sweating and that seems like a splendid combination for a summer effort.

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Lizard vs Cicada

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Power Rangers Taking a Selfie

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An Extract: Arriving In Japan

This is an extract from my book Lifer – How To Be A Bald Middle-Aged English Conversation Teacher in Japan. It tells of my first day in Japan.

My original teaching contract was for two years. I had every intention of staying for that length of time and then going back home and figuring out what to do with my life. My Japan trip was a diversionary adventure, intended to delay the important decision of what my life plan was. After meeting my first other foreigner in Japan, however, I suspected I might not last the two years. He was in Japan for the long haul, a lifer, and was also what I believe is commonly known as a genki arsehole. His name was Paul and he was absurdly enthusiastic about anything and everything. He was a man that you could peg in an instant as a complete dork. Unless you were one of the Japanese who are the food of the genki arsehole; one of the ones who didn’t see him as a first class tosspot but rather as just being full of beans and overflowing with eau de westerner, like the foreigners on the telly.

Paul’s optimism manifested itself most in his choice of hairstyle. He had a combover, a barcode as the Japanese so wonderfully call it. That in itself was unusual in a man just on the cusp of thirty, but he had gone to the trouble of dying it peroxide blonde. Granted, it kind of killed the barcode joke but I’m of a mind to think that if you are a man who opts for the combover, the colour of the hair isn’t going to make a whole lot of difference to your attractiveness. Paul obviously thought differently.

He was a teacher at the chain school which had hired me and he had been sent to meet me at the airport. It was then that I found out the school had thought I had been arriving the day before.

‘I came down here to meet you yesterday,’ he said, beaming with joy as if that in itself had been just great!

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘Oh, don’t worry about it,’ he said. ‘They’re not pissed that you got your dates wrong.’

‘I didn’t,’ I said.

‘Hey, it’s cool,’ he said. ‘Really.’ And then, once we were on the bus into town, bouncing with unbridled energy on the seat next to me, he said, ‘So, whaddaya wanna know?’

‘Sorry?’ I said.

‘About Japan! Whaddaya wanna know? You can ask me anything.’

I wanted to ask if he thought Japanese people didn’t realise he was bald.

‘Well,’ I said, resting my greasy head against the bus window, ‘I’m a bit tired just now, so I can’t really think of anything. I’m sure I’ll have lots to ask you soon enough though.’

Paul told me that would be just fine and then he sat grinning at me with widened eyes and saying nothing. And when it looked like he was just going to continue to sit and grin at me for the whole journey, I felt a bit uncomfortable about going to sleep and decided to ask him how far it was to my apartment.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘So what’s happening there is that you can move in tomorrow. Tonight you can stay at mine!’ I emitted a small squeak through my fake smile.

He told me he had made his home here in Japan and had no plans to return to The States, because there was nothing there for him anymore. He was one of the many guys I would later meet who appeared to be hiding out in Japan because they couldn’t hack it at home. They were people who had found a place where they could walk down the street without fear of a wedgie, people who had discovered that somehow, somehow, they had found a place where reasonably pretty girls would shag them. People, I was sure, quite unlike me.

Paul had a friend called Don. He was about 31 and had a huge Ned Flanders on his top lip. Without the moustache he would have had an enormous expanse between nose and mouth and a lip to keep his chin in permanent shade; with it he looked absolutely ridiculous. I first met him in a bar with a Japanese girl whom he proudly and loudly proclaimed to be his girlfriend. She was pretty and slim and so far out of his league that you would be forgiven for assuming he was making a pathetic joke, like a sleazy uncle hugging his niece in front of friends and thinking it funny to try to pretend she is a conquest. But he wasn’t joking, and she was his girlfriend, and it was all I could do to restrain myself from taking hold of her by the shoulders and giving her a thorough shaking while pointing at Don’s top lip and shouting, ‘Look! Just look at that for fuck’s sake!  DO YOU UNDERSTAND?’

I used to laugh at Paul and Don but I could hardly blame them for staying. When you’re a loser like that, staying here and getting a Japanese wife and teaching English for a career is the best you can hope for in life. Oh, how I pitied them!

But, well, I’m still here. I’m bald and my wife is Japanese.

We arrived in downtown Fukuoka and Paul took me into a large office building. He summoned the lift and he, my large suitcases and I made our way up to the eighth floor. A high-pitched voice announced that the lift doors were opening and we stepped out into a reception area with blue carpet tiles, a couple of sofas, and walls decorated with photographs of Japanese students playing various kinds of party games. There were also random English slogans on pieces of card! ‘How are you?’, ‘What do you do?’, and ‘Boy, it’s hot today!’ were some I remember.

By now it was around 11 o’clock on a Wednesday morning. I had left my home on the Monday. For some reason the Japanese staff at the school seemed to be under the impression that I had spent a pleasant evening relaxing in Tokyo before catching a connecting flight to Fukuoka the next morning. I have no idea why they thought this or why they thought my plane was due to arrive the day before, but they were mistaken on both counts. In fact, I had left on the Monday morning, had spent some time in Heathrow enjoying a few airport pints, had flown to Singapore and had spent six hours or so in Changi airport enjoying a few more airport pints before flying on to Fukuoka. I had left my house almost thirty-six hours earlier and had slept little on any of the flights. So it came as something of a shock to be taken directly to the school and then to be asked by the manager if I had a suit.

‘Yes, of course,’ I said, thinking that she was worried that I would show up for work the next day in the same sort of clothes I had travelled in. She told me I could get changed in one of the classrooms. I was too much of a coward to object and anyway had nowhere else I could go. My apartment, Paul had already told me, was not yet ready and I would have to spend the night with him in his tiny, one-room flat. He would be finishing work at 9:00 that night and I could go home with him then.

I was unshaven and smelled faintly of stale beer and sweat. I was shown to the small room where I was to change. I dug out a suit. It was brown and so crumpled that when I reappeared some of the staff thought I had come to my first day of work dressed as a walnut.

I sat in the corner of a classroom until nine that evening, watching my predecessor say tearful goodbyes to students who clearly wished he wasn’t going anywhere. I held my arms close to my body lest any errant breezes waft in the direction of others and struggled not to blink in case I started snoring immediately. I made odd facial expressions as I perfected the art of the covert, closed-mouth yawn.

Students pointed with quivering arms and said, ‘What? That?’ when told that the starey man grimacing in the corner was soon to be in charge of their classes. I’m surprised any of them came back again.

Actually, some didn’t.

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Children Of The Tsunami

Since publishing has become digital, I have on occasion bought individual essays or short stories online rather than forking out for an entire anthology. A single as opposed to an album, you might say. I did so this morning. It cost me less than a dollar and I read the entire thing over my lunch break, but it was worth every cent.

The book, if it can still be called such, is Children of The Tsunami by Patrick Sherriff, and it is the tale of the author and his family taking a short trip into the disaster zone of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, four years on.

Early in the story, the author expresses concern that he may be engaging in some sort of disaster voyeurism, but his fears are unfounded. He strikes the right tone in his storytelling. He tells the facts as they were on his trip and he does so without being maudlin or overly dramatic. That’s not to say the story doesn’t have power. It does. He talks with people who survived; teenagers who have lost parents, a mother who lost her young child, a grandmother who lives alone in a tiny prefabricated house hundreds of miles from any remaining family members. You can’t help but be moved by their stories and indeed the kindness that the author’s family, particularly his wife, appears to have shown to the victims of the quake and tsunami since that dreadful day.

As the author drives through the disaster area, the polite female voice of the car’s satellite navigation system urges him to turn left at petrol stations that are no longer there. It demands he turn right onto roads that are now just figments of a ghostly computerised memory. It is a reminder that the area is not what it used to be.

And the story is a reminder, too. It is a reminder that while we are back to shopping in fully lit convenience stores with working automatic doors, while we have long ceased feeling guilty at switching on the air conditioners or heaters, and while we have resumed living reasonably comfortable lives, there remain many who have not. I am sitting with my wife and a beer watching television in my snug living room. Elsewhere, a pensioner is sitting alone in a tiny cramped room of just 7.5 square metres with paper-thin walls. She once had a living room ten times that size. Things aren’t like they used to be, though.  Not for those who were there.

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Lake Towada

The rather lovely Lake Towada at sundown.

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Nice way to spend a day

Came across this old fellow yesterday, spending his afternoon just reading in a  field of purple flowers:

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