Fuji Over the Clouds: The Dangers of Travel Haiku

First published in Under the Bashō in March of 2018. Originally written in December of 2014, with revisions in subsequent years. See also “The Mended Shōji” (poems indented to the right appeared in this sequence).


        “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
                —Marcel Proust

        “Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.”
                —Anita Desai

        “The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”
                —G. K. Chesterton

When you write haiku poems while travelling, you face inherent aesthetic risks. No small children will die as a result of your poetic reportage, but the poems might not measure up to your usual standards. Because of the novelty of many travel experiences, the chief danger of travel haiku written about these experiences amounts to recording impressions
, even after revision, rather than writing effectively resonant poems. Such poems risk the shallowness of surface observation rather than deeper understanding, and too often succumb to the unearned emotion that comes with cultural borrowing. This does not mean that all your poems written in Timbuktu or Vanuatu will be trivial (they will at least remind you of your experiences, much like snapshot photos, and thus have personal value), but they may be unlikely to rise above common weaknesses, even if you have gained a great deal of experience as a haiku poet. Remember that Bashō wrote his book Oku no hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Interior) chiefly in the four or so years after the trip itself, frequently revising poems—and even the facts of experience—to suit his literary needs. You should still write as much as possible, of course, but it might be worthwhile to set your expectations lower, being content with accumulating impressions or seeds for haiku rather than necessarily writing excellent haiku at every temple, cathedral, or natural wonder. More importantly, if you recognize that your attempts at writing haiku while travelling are likely to produce mere impressions rather than polished poems, that recognition may well free you to relax more and notice more. I once read that those who take lots of photographs while travelling are actually likely to remember less of their trip rather than more, and I suspect the same is true for those who try too hard to write haiku. In short, it’s okay to recognize the limits of travel haiku. Yet, by being aware of such limitations, perhaps you can occasionally rise above them, or give yourself the discernment to see beyond the novelty of travel experiences to recognize poems of deeper insight.
        To illustrate these contentions, I’d like to share a set of haiku and senryu written on my first trip to Japan, in December of 2000 and January of 2001, presented in the order of composition. Twenty-six of the following forty-eight poems were published in a different order in Clover: A Literary Rag #9, in June of 2015, in the sequence, “The Mended Shōji,” but might have been less likely to receive publication in a haiku journal, although as a sequence perhaps they are able to convey a sense of place in ways that each individual poem might not. I’ve indented the poems from this sequence further to the right, so you can tell them from the other poems, which I’m pretty sure are all unpublished. I’m omitting all tanka I also wrote on this trip to give this discussion focus, and also omit two haiku I wrote that were essentially drafts, but I include everything else to show the highs and lows of my first experience of haiku’s homeland. The poems are by no means a complete record of my experiences, but my focus here is not to present a record of my trip. Rather, I use these poems to illustrate the typical successes and failures of travel haiku. Perhaps others don’t have the writing challenges I’ve had, on this trip and others, but perhaps others will see their own writing experience in these poems.

                                                                                               descending plane—
                                                                                               my sudden reflection
                                                                                               in the video screen

You know that moment when they turn off the in-flight entertainment, no matter where you are in the movie? That was my moment, and the video screen on the back of the seat in front of me went blank, letting me see my own reflection. And of course I mean not just the visual reflection but also a contemplative “reflection” about having embarked on such a trip. Poems about one’s reflection (including the double meaning) in a train window, computer screen, or other glass surface are common in haiku, to the point of becoming old hat—being “used and reused,” as Cummings once wrote, “to the mystical moment of dullness.” Such a poem as this may set the context in a sequence, but does little on its own that hasn’t been done a hundred times before.

                                                                                               second in-flight meal—
                                                                                               this time served
                                                                                               with chopsticks

I wrote this poem after the preceding poem, but the event it describes took place earlier. There’s some novelty in the shift from knives and forks to chopsticks, but what else would you expect on a flight from the United States to Japan? On its own, the poem suggests a trip to the Orient without actually naming the destination, so it has that going for it, but little more.

                bending for a drink
                at Narita airport—
                cigarette butt in the ficus

Here’s an example of a poem that achieves little more than being an impression. It suggests that public smoking laws might differ in Japan compared with the United States, but it’s a so-what poem, and the fact that it happens to be at a famous Japanese airport does not rescue it. We should not delude ourselves that a foreign location itself will elevate any of our poems.

                futons over the railing—
                the clacking of the train
                splitting winter air

My wife is Japanese, and we flew from Narita to Nagoya, where her family picked us up. We hadn’t yet married, but would get married a few months later. On later trips her family met us by car, but this first time (since I no longer remember for certain) I presume they had come by train, and we all took the train back to their home in Minokamo, north of Nagoya. It must have been morning, when many Japanese households hang out their futons on balcony railings to air them out, even in the winter. This was a novel impression for me, and definitely something to be written down. But what of it? I see this image from a train in winter, and that’s it. It’s ultimately a shallow impression, a record of what was seen, with no further resonance.

                approaching the station,
                the uniformed train driver
                raises a white glove

Again, so what? Yes, the train drivers wear white gloves. This was a small enough train that I could see the driving compartment in the front carriage. The act of raising the glove indicates formality and routine, but what of it? This is just a minor novelty for me as a wide-eyed traveller, a first-time visitor to Japan, but nothing more than that.

                                                                                               warm December sun—
                                                                                               the commuter train’s empty hand rings
                                                                                               sway around the corner

It’s okay that this poem doesn’t proclaim any image peculiar to Japan. At least these travel poems aren’t limited to the exotic. Where this poem excels slightly is the implication of time. If this is a commuter train, where are all the commuters? The hand rings are empty, so it must be a time after the busy commute is over, as indeed it was. This was written on my first morning in Japan as I travelled with my girlfriend into Nagoya for a day of sightseeing. The first line feels arbitrary to me, though, and while the image of the empty hand rings swaying around the corner is interesting enough, I don’t think the poem quite found enough of a juxtaposition to go anywhere memorable.

                futons airing
                from every balcony—
                December sun

Really, just a so-what poem. Not only do I repeat the sentiment in my previous poem about futons over a railing, airing out on a winter morning, I am certainly repeating what so many millions of people have seen for centuries. It’s beyond dull. But of course one should still write such a poem, and be content to toss it aside when it fails to rise above dullness.

                                                                                               leafless trees
                                                                                               at Nagoya Castle—
                                                                                               I choose a Western toilet

I do a better job here of implying the season. The season may also seem incidental to the rest of the poem, rather than deeply integrated, but I do think there’s more to it than that. Perhaps the nakedness of the trees has something in common to how naked I feel—not the temporary nakedness when using a toilet, but the cultural nakedness of encountering a Japanese squat toilet instead of Western toilet on which one can be seated. Western toilets have replaced the majority of Japanese toilets, in both private homes and in businesses, but one can still regularly encounter Japanese toilets. Some hotels or public parks provide both, for example. In any event, this poem may be motivated by the novelty of a particular travel experience, but I do think it does a slightly better job than my other poems thus far in rising above mere novelty. I think it does this by presenting the vulnerable plight of a foreigner. In this case I had a choice to make, but the implication is also present that at other times I did not.

                                                                                                       Kyoto station—
                                                                                               a woman mops the restroom floor
                                                                                                       while I pee

If you have ever been able to visit Kyoto, you will know that Kyoto Station is very modern, in deliberate contrast to the oldness of all the city’s temples and shrines. Here is a poem of novelty, where I’m aware of someone of the opposite gender in a public bathroom, ignoring me and my business while she goes about hers. It’s another impression, but little more than that—although not without possible humour. On other trips to Japan, I’ve had the occasion to visit a sentō (銭湯), or a communal bath house. One takes a towel, soap, and a wash basin into the shower area, where one is expected to clean oneself thoroughly. The shower heads are only about three or so feet high, and one sits on a small stool while washing oneself, perhaps not even using the shower head at all but by dipping one’s washcloth into the plastic washbasin. Only when one is clean does one dip into the hot baths, much like hot tubs. In these bath houses, although segregated by gender, the staff of opposite genders might routinely walk in and out to collect wet towels or tend to other necessities. Prudishness at nakedness is strong in North American culture, and I was first reminded of this at Kyoto station, but again, is the poem anything more than a superficial impression?

                                                                                               a break in winter clouds—
                                                                                               gas station attendants
                                                                                               bow to the departing car

I know in Oregon and New Jersey it’s against the law to pump your own gas, but throughout most of the rest of North America nearly everyone pumps gas into their cars themselves, unless one is handicapped or perhaps feeling extravagant. When I first visited Japan, however, gas was always (or often) pumped for you, or at least that was my impression. Self-serve stations are now more common, but even those differ greatly from Western self-serve gas stations. Japan is a country dedicated to honourable service, where a typical gas station visit struck me, at least in 2000, as being more like a pit-stop at a Nascar race. A team jumps to your service, tending to your car by pumping the gas, checking the tires, washing the windshield, emptying any trash you may have collected in your car, and perhaps even checking your oil. That’s the way American service stations used to be in decades past, but now, on this trip to Japan, such service was a novelty—topped off, if you’ll pardon that pun, with all the attendants bowing to each car as it left the service station. Another novelty. And yes, the service station attendants all wore white gloves.
        This poem and the one before it were the only poems I wrote on my very first visit to Kyoto, a city of intense cultural and historical impressions. I wish I had written down more impressions and images, if not attempts at haiku, as a way to have better memories of my time there. My girlfriend and I stayed in a ryokan (旅館, traditional Japanese inn). A couple of months later, after returning home, I would write poems such as “the charcoal fire / in the traditional Japanese inn, / lit just for tourists.” In Kyoto we visited Nijo Castle, Kiyomizu Temple, the Golden and Silver Pavilions, the Heian Shrine, and many other sites—all of it delicious
ly overwhelming to the point that no haiku came at all. It seems that travel haiku may well be a sort of feast or famine—you can write nothing at all, or so much that what you write is too superficial.

                yuzu peelings
                placed in a bowl—
                New Year’s morning

I wrote this poem on December 27, in anticipation of New Year, and in anticipation of a haiku meeting I planned to attend on January 6, for which we had an assigned season word to write about—yuzu or citrus. Before leaving for Japan, I had also written another poem for this haiku meeting: “half-finished painting— / shadows in the citrus / left in a bowl,” such as it may be. The haiku meeting was with Ikuyo Yoshimura’s English-language haiku group, Evergreen, which met monthly at Asahi University in Gifu City, not far from where my girlfriend’s parents lived in Minokamo, in Gifu prefecture. I had met Ikuyo in April of 2000 at the Global Haiku Festival held at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. When she was introduced there, my ears perked up when I heard that she was from Gifu, barely half an hour from my girlfriend’s home. I was glad to make her acquaintance in Illinois, and I have since visited her several times in Japan—on one trip we even wrote a rengay together, called “The Hilltop Castle,” in the Gifu City train station after she had spent the day showing me Gifu’s sights. Ikuyo has also written a biography of R. H. Blyth, in Japanese, a book that I hope might someday be translated into English. In any event, my “yuzu” haiku is less of a tourist poem, but perhaps it still suffers from tourist problems. Yuzu are common at New Year, just as mandarin oranges are common in the West at Christmas. But what of my poem? Peelings in a bowl on New Year’s morning. So what? No wonder the poem wasn’t selected when I entered it into the Evergreen kukai on January 6. On January 1 I would also write “at the shrine / on New Year’s Day, / a taste of yuzu,” another so-what poem.

                                                                                               New Year’s Eve—
                                                                                               a Japanese kite unfolded
                                                                                               in the hotel lobby

This poem was written at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel back in Tokyo. I’ve forgotten now what significance the kite might have had for New Year. Perhaps none at all. The poem is an accurate record of what I saw, but that is not enough to make it a haiku. That’s because it lacks emotion, a problem with being yet another so-what poem. The word “unfolded” shows a slight bit of promise, in that it’s ambiguous whether the kite is unfolded, or is being unfolded. But either way, what of it? On its own, we have no sense that this is taking place in Japan (the Japanese kite could be in a London hotel, after all). It’s more commonly known that New Year is the most important event of the year in the Japanese calendar, so the connection between New Year and the fact that this is a Japanese kite carries some significance, albeit very slight. But any further significance eludes me now, writing about this poem many years later. Perhaps the significance, if any, also eluded me then. This was also the only poem I wrote on my first visit to Tokyo, again overwhelmed with the sights of so many tourist attractions and the activities of meeting friends.

                                                                                              first dream of the year—
                                                                                              a reflection of Mt. Fuji
                                                                                              in the just-melted lake

                                                                                              first dream of the year—
                                                                                              an eggplant rolls off
                                                                                              the pinewood cutting board

                                                                                              the year’s first dream—
                                                                                              a hawk’s eye
                                                                                              in a martini glass

                                                                                              trees without leaves—
                                                                                              first sight of Fuji
                                                                                              from the bullet train

These poems were all written in response to learning that classical subjects for New Year haiku include the first dream of the year, Mt. Fuji, hawks, and eggplants, each with various associations and overtones of meaning, which I have probably run over in a roughshod manner. Indeed, I’m afraid that most of these poems come across as manufactured rather than felt, as wooden and stiff rather than more supple and organic. These poems seem forced rather than insightful. Here I am being a tourist with the culture, if not particular tourist destinations. My girlfriend had a cousin who lived in Fuji City, near Mt. Fuji, so we had the good fortune to visit her there, and she took us to a few shrines and temples, to Shiraito Falls, and to one of the famous five lakes near the mountain’s base. A large dragon boat was docked at the shore for the winter, and the clear sky made for marvelous reflections of the famous mountain. But the only poems that came were these. I have not earned these references to Fuji, and even less so the references to eggplants and hawks. Perhaps only the fourth poem exhibits any kind of authenticity, but still it does not rise above being merely an impression. It tells without showing, and fails to convey the emotions I was feeling on seeing Japan’s iconic mountain for the first time.

                bending to stroke
                the cold Nadi Botokesan Buddha—
                my reflection it its forehead

We know Wordsworth for defining poetry as presenting powerful emotion recollected in tranquility. Well, there was some recollection and tranquility here, but I can’t be sure about any powerful emotion. This was written back in Nagoya, after my first visit to Tokyo, about Senso-ji temple at Asakusa in Tokyo. You’re supposed to rub this particular Buddha statue to ease your aches and pains. I rather suspect that rubbing the same spot that thousands of other people rub probably creates more aches and pains from shared germs than it prevents, but still one does it anyway—like kissing the Blarney Stone in Ireland. It’s a small outdoor metal statue, about life size, and I have many charming photographs of people touching it. At touching it myself, I was struck by seeing my own reflection (again, that double meaning rears its wordful head), so there you have this impression. The poem serves a useful purpose for me in bringing back memories, and reminds me of my girlfriend explaining the traditional purpose of the statue—not that she necessarily knew this herself, but was able to read the Japanese signage explaining this statue in Tokyo’s most famous and spectacular temple complex, Asakusa Kannon (where Bashō also wrote a number of famous poems). While this poem is useful to me, what use does it serve to anyone else? The reference to a specific Buddha (also “Nade” rather than “Nadi”) could easily alienate many readers, especially if this poem were to appear on its own rather than in a sequence or haibun. That’s a common problem with place names in travel haiku. They can feel like showing off—“I went to this exotic place, and aren’t you jealous?” Or they can seem arrogant—“I know what this means and you probably don’t.” To avoid these problems, the poem could be rendered simply as “bending to stroke / the bronze Buddha— / my reflection in its forehead” but the poem would then lose the overtones of this Buddha’s usefulness in curing aches and pains, for those who happen to know, or choose to research “Nadi Botokesan Buddha.” Even without that specific reference, the poem may still suffer from being Japanesey—a sort of “cheesy” Japaneseness that I’ve decried before (there are too many imitative haiku out there about bamboo and cherry blossoms and beguiling Buddhas—and some of these poems are mine). I would hope the problem here could be redeemed by the presentation of this poem in the context of a set of travel poems. It is just what it is, a truthful record of what I saw at Senso-ji. There’s no real arrogance or bragging, except what the reader might assume. Yet still these are problems that travel haiku encounter.

                                                                                              a little before midnight,
                                                                                              a bowl full of soba
                                                                                              warm in my hands

I like the tactile emphasis in this poem. Perhaps this poem is more subtle than others, in that it helps to know that this is not any midnight, but New Year’s Eve. And it helps to know that one traditionally eats soba noodles on New Year’s Eve to ensure long life. But much of that context in not in the poem itself, and I can hardly expect readers to know all this. In the context of new year poems, it might work better, but not so much on its own. On the other hand, a great majority of haiku in Japan have made exactly these sorts of demands on its readers—to know the cultural significance of the slightest of references. What works in the geographically and even culturally limited scope of haiku in Japan may not work beyond its shores, however, and this poem, while striving for some degree of cultural acknowledgment, may simply fall short for non-Japanese readers. And for Japanese readers, it may simply be a common-thought poem (they have a word for this sort of poem). So perhaps this remains as just another impression that doesn’t quite rise into any literary resonance.

                a walk up the dark hill
                to the small-town shrine
                stones crunching underfoot

Just a few minutes’ walk from where my girlfriend’s parents live, in Minokamo, is what I believe to be Japan’s largest tengu statue (see video). The statue is about forty feet tall, and is perched atop Mt. Atago (more of a hill than a mountain). Tengu (天狗) have very long noses, and are said to be guardians of mountains and forests (Minokamo lies in mostly flat terrain by the southern foothills of the Japanese Alps). This poem brings to mind, at least for me, not just the hill’s distinctive statue, but also the mundane detail of the walk up the hill to get there. So again the poem has personal value but little universal import. The haiku might provide narrative detail in a sequence, but fails to work well on its own. This could be any shrine in Japan (and not necessarily even in Japan), and it could be any hill, and any crunching gravel. What’s also lost in the poem is that this was written on New Year’s Eve, as we were ascending the hill to witness the ringing of the temple bells 108 times to welcome the new year, each ring of the bell representing the 108 earthly temptations one must overcome to reach nirvana. The word “dark” gives the poem some mystery, perhaps, and alludes to a midnight ritual, but most likely that is all.

                                                                                              waiting in line
                                                                                              to ring the new year bell—
                                                                                              breath fogs the air

Minokamo is a small town of about 56,000 people. Like any town in Japan, it has many temples and shrines. All temples and shrines are mobbed on New Year’s Day, the biggest holiday of the year, as everyone, even those without Buddhist or Shinto beliefs, goes through the rituals of ending one year and beginning another. This involves buying new good-luck charms or fortunes on wooden plaques, and taking the old ones to be burned, or buying new bright-red Daruma dolls, on which you paint one eye when you make a wish, and paint the second eye when the wish comes true. But at midnight, when the new year begins, there are fewer people thronging to these religious sites. So the line to ring the bell was not that long, and it was a great treat for a gaijin like me to have a chance to ring the bell at Tengu-san on Mt. Atago. I also got to ring bells at other nearby temples on New Year’s Day. This description may sound exotic, but it’s utterly common—one of tens of thousands of shrines and temples in Japan that all do the same thing every New Year’s Eve and 
New Year’s Day. As for the poem, it risks being yet another haiku in imitation of Japanese subjects, unless part of a sequence or travel diary, as it was for me. The breath fogging the air gives a tactile sense to the time of year. And obviously the poem carries rich memories for me—at a place I’ve been back to at New Year in subsequent years, and have also visited at other times of year. But what does it do on its own? To me, it shows that, with travel haiku, context is everything.

                the new year’s bell
                louder than I expected—
                its lingering quiver

This is the sort of poem that one enters in one’s journal or notebook and then moves on from. The bell was louder than I expected, but then I failed to find an adequate juxtaposition in the rest of the poem to give this moment any significance (the last line is simply more information about the bell’s sound). It was, nevertheless, my first poem of the new year. A possible revision is “the new year’s bell / louder than I expect— / shimmering stars” (if I put myself back at midnight).

                disused high school—
                still a few shoes
                left in the lockers

My memory fails me in trying to recall where this poem came from, or why I was moved to write it on New Year’s Day. I vaguely recall my girlfriend and I taking a walk from her parents’ home to an elementary school she had attended, but it’s not a high school, and not abandoned. I just asked her (she’s now my wife) about this poem, and if there was any abandoned school near her childhood home, and she gave me a completely puzzled look. The poem itself is best abandoned. But I mention it here because the energy of whatever prompted the poem in the first place has not survived in the poem itself. It’s when the energy does survive, and still rings freshly even after many years, that you know you have a good poem. There’s some pathos here, if the poem is to be believed (and even I have my doubts), but the poem does not really earn its emotion.

                about to ring
                the new year bell—
                the smoothness of the temple rope

To my mind this is a draft, an unfinished impression. I like the image of the rope’s smoothness, indicating that the bell has been rung many times by many people, but the crafting in the rest of the poem leaves a little to be desired. It’s really a bell rope, not a temple rope, and the grammatical relationship of the first and second parts of the poem is awkward, suggesting, grammatically at least, that the rope’s smoothness is about the ring the bell. This poem contains good seeds for haiku, and I’m glad I planted them by writing them down, but they have failed to germinate.

                                                                                              the old rope
                                                                                              smooth in my hand—
                                                                                              new year’s bell fading

This was my immediate revision to the preceding poem. A little better, I think. The Japanese context lies outside the poem itself, but the image and crafting are sharper. I like the mix of sensory experience—touch and sound.

                a shell dropped
                into a wooden box—
                new year bell fading

To keep track of the 108 times one rings a temple bell at the new year, many shrines uses boxes of shells. They bring out the box every New Year’s Eve, and each time the bell is rung, a shell is moved from one box to another. I vaguely recall that the shells I saw were cowries, small and nearly round, about the size of peanuts. Here the practical detail of keeping track of all the rings is made real and personal. It would be so easy to miscount all those rings if you were counting in your head, especially when each ring might be interspersed with brief conversations with the people coming to ring the bell. But ultimately, despite the novelty of the story here—novel, at least, to many Westerners—this remains a common poem, somewhat flat and ordinary.

                                                                                              just before midnight—
                                                                                              a box full of shells
                                                                                              to count the bell rings

The moments in these poems tumble around a bit, but I’m presenting them here in the order I wrote them. Although I composed this poem on January 1 (in Japan, they say that one “composes” haiku rather than “writing” them—a nod to rhythm and lyricism), I was trying to preserve the moment of the night before—just a few minutes before, in actual fact—of being prepared to ring the bells, and keeping track of counting them. The same problems apply to this poem as to the previous one. If one doesn’t know the context of ringing the bell 108 times, or the challenge of keeping track of the number of times the bell has been rung, then the poem might easily confuse or exclude its readers. It may work in a very generic sense (and not even with a Japanese context), but doesn’t provide much more. So much is lost that I’ve been unable to capture.

                New Year’s Eve—
                an earthquake trembles
                the temple bell

I no longer remember if there really was an earthquake strong enough to make the bell tremble, let alone if I actually saw this. I suspect not. Thus I believe this poem to be manufactured. I do recall a few very light earthquakes on various trips to Japan, including Minokamo, but I have a feeling I was just making this up. I have nothing against judiciously making things up in haiku, just as Bashō did for some of his haiku and prose in the Oku no hosomichi, but the end result still has to seem authentic, and come across as if it really happened. Is that the case here? If it’s easy for me, as the author, to be skeptical, resistance would be even easier for readers, even if the possibility is not entirely implausible. These topics—New Year’s Eve, earthquakes, and temple bells—are such quintessential Japanese topics, however, that they lose all freshness and begin to stink of being overly Japanesey. If there’s any redemption to the poem, it might be that, by writing it, I got it out of my system—I hope.

                                                                                              old good-luck charms
                                                                                              piled by the shrine’s bonfire—
                                                                                              the new year bell rings

The problem here is once again novelty. It’s an interesting cultural detail to an outsider to see that this is done in Japan, but to the Japanese this is surely boring. It’s just too common. So bloody what. Thus the question may be raised: Who am I writing for? Not the Japanese, obviously, since I’m writing in English, so what does it matter if the Japanese would find this poem to be commonplace? I think the problem that remains, in English, is the problem of borrowedness. Appropriation is perhaps one of the chief issues with travel haiku. As outsiders, we don’t really earn the right to write about everything we experience. There’s a stock emotion in writing about what’s foreign, in that we assume the foreignness, the novelty, can carry the day. But it doesn’t, not really—or usually not. If haiku are about the ordinary and everyday (being “as simple as porridge” as Kerouac said), then they may be doomed to failure when they veer into focusing on the exotic, as they seemingly must when written about one’s travels. This issue is not limited to the exotic and foreign, mind you. A poem about a homeless person living on the streets in your own hometown can also fail to work because of the problem of unearned, holier-than-thou emotion, of borrowing someone else’s experience, of expecting what amounts to a stock reaction rather than presenting or generating genuine empathy. This problem can happen with haiku (or photographs) about puppies and kittens and babies, too. But it’s also evident in poems about foreign subjects. It’s very difficult to get truly inside these subjects, to really earn the emotions that go with them, in the sense that the emotion comes from something other than exoticism or novelty. That being said, sometimes the outsider offers a fresh sensitivity towards what a native takes for granted and no longer sees. One of my favourite books about Japan is The Compact Culture: The Japanese Tradition of “Smaller Is Better” (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1982) by O-Young Lee, who is Korean. Reviews of the book have pointed out the value of his “outsider” stance.

                first light—
                a poem written in bed
                about fireworks

I don’t recall any fireworks going off in Minokamo at New Year’s, but I understand that this is a tradition in other Japanese locations. So this poem is made up. But what really flattens it is its self-consciousness. Ray Bradbury, in his book Zen and the Art of Writing (Santa Barbara, California: Capra Press, 1989), has said that “Self-consciousness is the enemy of all art” (108). Exceptions exist, to be sure, but in haiku, poems about haiku are mostly tedious, and often produced by beginners (Marlene Mountain is about the only exception to this rule, with her many short poems that critique haiku and all its sacred cows). You start off, as I do with this poem, with a workable image, and find you aren’t going anywhere with it, so you resort to writing about the writing itself. Or, for many haiku beginners, the word “haiku” itself is a novelty, and they feel compelled to write about “high coup” and “lowku” and endless punning variations thereof. Haiku about haiku do occasionally work, but for the most part they are tiresome, part of a stage that most haiku poets go through, and may even return to (as I did here). But hopefully one can get it out of one’s system. The first light here, of course, is New Year’s morning, although that wouldn’t be clear from the poem itself (Americans might easily interpret this as a July 5th poem), but the poem is doomed to failure by its self-consciousness.

                between rings
                of the temple bell,
                the report of fireworks

There’s some amusement for me here in the word “report”—the bangs of guns or cannons or fireworks can be called “reports.” But my girlfriend and I had simply seen a news report on TV about New Year fireworks. Here I think the imagination I sought to employ didn’t entirely engage. I had a desire to write about new year fireworks, and threw in the temple bell reference, but had nothing else. And nothing really to start with.

                                                                                              New Year’s Day—
                                                                                              still a few persimmons
                                                                                              in the neighbour’s leafless tree

If you’ve had the small privilege of seeing persimmons in a tree after all the tree’s leaves have fallen, you know what a distinctive image this can be—so many round circles punctuating the stark calligraphy of twigs and branches. But it’s just an impression, something seen. What of it? It might improve the poem to remove “leafless,” so that detail could be implied by the fact that one can see all the persimmons. “Persimmon” is a late-autumn season word, and I’m deliberately writing of persimmons out of season (thus “persimmon” isn’t functioning as a season word in this poem, since “New Year’s Day” clearly trumps it). If the poem achieves anything, it might lie in the assertion that just as one year turns into the next, so too does the autumn season turn to winter. The persimmons grow and die, and the persimmon tree’s leaves also grow and die. Can we avoid being aware that we too will grow and die?

                fallen leaves
                on the temple path—
                new year’s bell fades

This poem is not much different from the poem shared earlier: “a walk up the dark hill / to the small-town shrine / stones crunching underfoot.” Perhaps I’m walking home this time, and instead of stones, I now hear fallen leaves. But that’s all there is.

                distant new year bells—
                the sigh of winter wind
                around the garden shed

                sweet sake
                on New Year’s Day—
                a stiff breeze

                flags fluttering
                along stairs to the shrine
                withered grasses

                                                                                              red capes on the stone foxes—
                                                                                              the clack of bamboo
                                                                                              in the year’s first wind

I tried too hard, didn’t I? “Withered grasses” may bring Bashō to mind, but I’m not sure what that allusion actually accomplishes. Stone foxes and jizō (地蔵; statues of children, sometimes representing unborn fetuses) are typically redressed in red capes at New Year, but what is achieved by pairing that image with the clack of bamboo?

                warm futon—
                the first sunrise
                happens without me

I think this poem works better. The “futon” reference sets the poem in Japan, and “first sunrise” is a well-established seasonal reference for New Year’s Day. The poem gains some humanity, and humour, by trading the tradition of being up to witness the year’s first sunrise with the comfort of staying warm on one’s futon.

                                                                                              the year’s first sleet
                                                                                              ticking at the window—
                                                                                              the calligrapher’s flowing arm

Right after new year, my girlfriend and I went with her family to Kanazawa (home of haiku poet Chiyo-ni) to visit relatives—something commonly done at the start of the year. As it turns out, one of my girlfriend’s uncles, Hoshiba Shōryū (干場昇龍; this is his calligraphy name), is a master calligrapher, one of the top masters in Japan—who seemed impressed by my interest in haiku. It was a privilege to visit his studio in Tsuruga and to see him in action. He showed us many of his award-winning calligraphy pieces, some of which were of haiku by the Japanese masters. He very kindly gave us some of his calligraphy (we have one piece displayed inside the front door of our house, and a large scroll by the landing halfway up our stairs), and also gave me two marble signature chops or hanko (判子), each one with a carved Japanese lion at the top. Perhaps the poem here succeeds better than others because it’s not trying to be Japanese. This could be a calligrapher anywhere, writing in any language. Calligraphy in Japan is known as shodō (書道, or the way of the brush), and the flow of the arm shows in the flow of the ink. Just as flow is vital to the art of calligraphy, it is also central to the unfolding of the seasons. The “first sleet” can be taken as a traditional reference to the new year (as is the first anything in most Japanese haiku), but can also be read as the first sleet of the season, whether fall or winter. The staccato ticking of the sleet contrasts with the smooth flow of the calligrapher’s arm. This was the only poem I wrote on our trip to Kanazawa, despite also visiting the city’s famous Kenroko-en garden, one of the three great gardens of Japan.

                                                                                              new chopsticks
                                                                                              wrapped in bright ribbons
                                                                                              the year’s first meal

Here I am again putting my haiku in a kimono. This was actually written on January 5, so hardly the first meal of the year, but still the various “firsts” linger in one’s imagination, and “first meal” is an established season word. This was written in Kuwana, in Mie prefecture, where we went to visit another aunt and uncle after travelling to Kanazawa. This uncle was a passionate hiker and had explored Japan and Europe extensively on many arduous hikes. He told me, through my girlfriend’s translation, about how the Japanese love their gardens, but not actual nature, and how so much of the Japanese wilderness was hardly wild at all, overrun by trash and disregard. My poem isn’t about this, but this poem reminds me of this conversation. One typically uses new chopsticks at the start of the new year. Here I am recording a cultural event, but perhaps that is all.

                                                                                              year of the snake—
                                                                                              hole in the shoji
                                                                                              now mended

In Japan it’s customary to mend one’s shōji (障子) at the start of the new year—the thin paper screens that separate rooms in traditional Japanese houses. This happened to be the start of 2001—the year of the snake in the twelve-year cycle of Chinese and Japanese zodiac calendars. As already mentioned, I wrote this poem in Kuwana, although I no longer remember the details of what inspired it, except that the house we were visiting did have a few shōji screens.

                late for matins—
                red paintball paint
                at the boy’s neck

I’m definitely not in Japan with this poem, even though it was written, on January 7, back in Minokamo. Something triggered the poem and I let myself go where the poem took me. Nothing is to say one must restrict one’s self to the place where one is visiting in writing one’s haiku! But even when you are writing poems about your hometown, you still have the challenge of looking for resonances deeper than mere novelty. In this sense, every poem, no matter where it’s written, has the same challenges as travel haiku. The poem must earn its emotion, not rely on tired tropes with built-in tugs at emotional heart-strings, such as writing about puppies or beggars. There’s much to be said for the ordinary in haiku, as we all know, and one reason for that is to get beyond novelty.

                                                                                              the Bashō bronze
                                                                                              silhouetted against bare branches—
                                                                                              the slow-moving river

This poem was written on January 7 about my visit to Ōgaki the day before, where Ikuyo Yoshimura took me to the Ōgaki Castle and the Bashō museum (Ōgaki was the last stop on Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi trip). On January 6th I also attended the monthly kukai for the Evergreen haiku group at Asahi University in Gifu, conducted mostly in English (they are an English-language haiku group). There it was a privilege to meet many of the group’s regular members, including Seifuh Iwakoshi, who later made beautiful haiga with his brush paintings combining my haiku and haiku by regular members for the Evergreen Haiku Anthology published in 2003 (for which I wrote a foreword). I also met Avery Fisher Udagawa, who later took my girlfriend and me on a nighttime cormorant fishing excursion on the Nagara River in Gifu (you’d think this experience might produce some haiku, but no—too busy enjoying the experience). In November of 2004, I would return to Ōgaki to speak at the Haiku Pacific Rim conference, organized by Ikuyo and various Evergreen members. If I recall correctly, this poem about the Bashō statue is not about the Nagara River, but the Ibi River, which has been shaped into canals in Ōgaki. I have a picture of me standing in front of the Bashō bronze that I treasure. I recall that Bashō travelled from Ōgaki to his next destination by boat, probably on the Ibi River. What does this poem accomplish? It dishes out rich memories for me, as you can see. But on its own it’s rather self-involved. Bashō statues are all over Japan, and there’s nothing very particular about the location suggested here. Is it enough for the poem to pay attention to whatever was happening then and there, as Bashō himself would advise? I think there’s more to haiku than that.

                after the cold snap,
                fewer persimmons
                dotting the sky

Another persimmon poem—they were making an impression on me. My reference to “dots” suggests, of course, the round shapes of these last persimmons still in the trees. The cold temperatures have made more of them drop to ground, but a few persist in the trees, the last of their orangeness beginning to shrivel. But still, what of it? Another visual impression, which I was driven to record by novelty rather than any kind of deeper understanding. The challenge of travel haiku, indeed, lies in moving from impression to insight.

                                                                                              a day of sun, cloud, rain,
                                                                                              sleet, hail, and snow—
                                                                                              Kenroku-en Garden

This was written as a memory of the famous garden in Kanazawa, visited a few days previously. It helps to know that the name “Kenroku-en” (兼六園) refers to the “six attributes” or “six ideals” of a perfect garden: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, waterways, and panoramas. Kenroku-en has all of these, and has become famous for them in Japan. The character for six () is pronounced as roku or loku, and this character’s shape is echoed in the shape of the garden’s famous two-legged stone lantern. I play on the number six by describing six attributes of winter weather. I don’t recall if we had all of these on the day of my visit—I rather suspect not—but we probably had some of them. As Haruo Shirane has reminded us in Traces of Dreams (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998), Japanese haiku relies on both vertical and horizontal axes, coordinating both time and place in the moment of haiku, bringing together both cultural and spatial resonances. This meant that haiku routinely included elaborate allusions to famous poems and other literature (Chinese and Japanese), to famous places, and to famous people. Readers would be expected to know these references. I can’t expect Western readers to know Kenroku-en (I hardly know the garden myself), let alone its associations with the number six. So what am I to do with such a poem? Who is it for? Perhaps just for me. One’s self is a perfectly fine audience for travel haiku, of course, but too many such poems are foisted on readers where the poems fail to move beyond the pitfalls and potentials for self-involvement.

                                                                                              Ryōan-ji temple’s
                                                                                              garden of raked sand—
                                                                                              the beginnings of hail

Here is a poem of imagination—hopefully reasonable, but perhaps not. I hadn’t visited Ryōan-ji on this trip, and wouldn’t make my first visit there for several years. But of course I had heard and read about Ryōan-ji’s famous sand garden and its fifteen distinctive stones. Hail was on my mind from the previous verse, and I wondered what effect hail might have on a raked sand garden. If one’s private journal or notebook is meant to be a true account of one’s travels, perhaps poems like this have no place therein, since I hadn’t visited Ryōan-ji. But perhaps, as I neared the end of my trip, it indicated desire, of a place I knew I wanted to explore of a future trip to Japan, a future trip to Kyoto. That’s a psychological ambiance to the poem that I doubt I was conscious of at the time, but see now, later, in retrospect.

                                                                                              Mt. Fuji’s shadow—
                                                                                              a dusting of snow
                                                                                              on the bullet-train tracks

My girlfriend and I had taken the shinkansen to and from Tokyo earlier on our trip to Japan, and this is a memory of a dusting of snow that fell in Fuji City. Or at least I think it is. With time’s passing I am less sure of the details. To some extent that may not matter, because poetry, it seems to me, is best written from empathy, not just from experience. I can easily imagine snow falling on train tracks such as these. The snow high on Mt. Fuji had come down, all the way here, nearly to the coast, where the bullet-train speeds past many times each day. The gentle, delicate slowness of a light dusting of snow contrasts with the fast, efficient brusqueness of precisely timed bullet trains. These contrasts may find commonality in the chill of steel train tracks, where the falling snow has not yet melted. Does a poem like this rise above mere novelty? I’m not sure.

                the year’s first sunrise—
                Fuji’s triangular shadow
                over low clouds

My girlfriend and I saw Mt. Fuji protruding through the clouds as we flew from Nagoya to Tokyo, on our way back to the United States, the mountain’s long triangular shadow stretching over those clouds. It wasn’t really the first sunrise, but I enjoyed projecting myself back to that first day of the year in combination with the auspicious subject of Mt. Fuji. I thought, too, of my friend Jerry Kilbride, who reached the summit of Fuji with a team of cancer survivors, whose pictures of the mountain’s shadow stretching away from them at dawn, seen from the summit, were vivid in memory. But of course there’s not much more to my poem. Fuji at first light—the first light of the new year. What of it? Another tourist impression rather than a poem with resonance. Yet still I would record such a poem, and advocate that others record in a similar vein. Out of such seeds—such records of experience—perhaps true poetry might arise, protruding above the clouds now and then, if we are lucky, like Fuji.

                                                                                              awaiting takeoff—
                                                                                              while he looks out the window
                                                                                              his fingers flip through a magazine

It is fitting, and predictable, that this journey should end in the airplane. Is the “he” in this poem me, or someone else? I don’t remember. But whatever the case, the person in this poem is turning pages by rote, his thoughts elsewhere, somewhere out the window, already missing the country he has visited for the very first time—knowing, surely, as was the case for me, that he would be back. Along the way, maybe he too had written some haiku, poems that had suffered from the challenges of being travel haiku, succumbing to novelty over insight. But hopefully one or two poems did indeed rise above, like Fuji over the clouds, as a result of seeing with new eyes.