In this blog, I’ll discuss events in Kyoto and Kofu, how to pronounce the word ‘haiku’ and what Japanese students know about brillo pads.
My first reading in Japan was in Kyoto, was in an Edo period house (c. 17-18th century), all tatami (rush) matting and sliding paper doors, the sort of rooms that you believe everyone lives in before you come to Japan. I’d been invited by a wonderful poetry collective – JUNPA (Japan Universal Poets Association), whose 70 members are mainly based in Kyoto and Osaka. JUNPA, under the directorship of Mariko Sumikura, also has strong international ties, with members abroad, and its founders Mariko Sumikura and Hiroshi Tanuichi, have read at international festivals, including Struga and Ledbury.
Over tea (ocha) and moshi (chewy rice cakes, which I’m happy to report are vegan), I was interviewed about poetry and what I liked about Japan. I was also asked what I understood about haiku – as it turns out, not as much as I’d thought. The rest of the group all started writing haiku, it was like turning on a tap to make more tea. The theme set was ‘autumn’. Seemingly everyone had written several in the time it took me to chew a pencil. Keep an eye out on JUNPA’s website, they are publishing them all in Japanese and English.
Here’s one by Kikumi Shimoda (in a rough translation):
Haiku poems like gentian
come across in the meeting
Rather hesitantly, I shared one of mine:
Umbrella held high
a woman walks by a stream
I also asked the JUNPA poets about poetry and what’s important to them. I’ll be interviewing several Japanese poets while I’m here. I’m particularly interested in how and whether Japanese poetry differs from poetry in the UK/US, whether haiku are still popular and where poetry in Japan is heading. I hope to publish my findings on contemporary Japanese poetry.
I liked the very inclusive style of the reading in Kyoto. Everyone read, everyone talked, everyone drank tea and ate moshi. Importantly, everyone listened to everyone else – even when everything had to be interpreted back and forth, people were patient and kind. And I’ve also learnt how to pronounce the word haiku. In English, we tend to draw out the second syllable, or at least I do – ‘haikooooo’. In Japan, people almost drop the second syllable, haiku is pronounced pretty much like the English word ‘hike’, with the stress on the ‘k’. So that’s one thing I’ve learnt about haiku. I’ll be attending a haiku workshop in a week or two with the haiku poet Yasuaki Inoue in Kofu, so I hope to learn a little more about report back.
After a scrummy meal in a vegan café in Kyoto, and a good discussion on the Japanese election result and the sorry state of the UK leaving Europe, I said my goodbyes to JUNPA. It was a very short visit to Kyoto. Everyone raves about the temples and the city’s beauty. I didn’t have time to see all the streets and sights that Kyoto is famed for. But I did spend an afternoon and evening with a fine group of poets and that’s what I came here for.
On to Kofu, five hours by bus from Kyoto. Kofu is the capital of the Yamanashi region, to the south of Tokyo and is surrounded by mountains, including Mount Fuji. I’ll be based in Kofu for three weeks. And that means three weeks of looking at Mount Fuji. The first time I saw it and realised what it was, I almost fell over. Anyone who knows me, knows I love mountains.
I’m being hosted in Kofu by Yamanashi Prefecture University (YPU) and without the YPU’s Professor of English Literature Michiyo Takano, my trip and this whole project in Japan wouldn’t have happened at all. Michiyo has had to organise and interpret for me constantly. Needless to say, I’m incredibly grateful to her. She’s a busy and highly respected academic and writer, and I hope I haven’t disrupted her schedules too much.
On my second day in Kofu, after another delicious vegan dinner (I should stress that very, very few people are vegetarian in Japan, my not eating fish, in particular, is seen as incredibly odd but you do find the occasional veggie restaurant), I went to the YPU for a reading with Michiyo’s English language students.
Walking into a room where everyone has a copy of your book is a first for me. Michiyo explained that her students have been translating poems from The Way the Crocodile Taught Me (my latest collection, published by Seren, 2016) into Japanese. I was amazed, not to mention gobsmacked. The students asked about specific issues on different poems, things that they’d found difficult to translate. Was the crocodile in the title poem real? Did I really bite my attacker’s arm? And what, exactly, is a brillo pad?
The translations will appear on a large screen when I give a public reading in Kofu on 12 November. At this YPU gathering, after we’d discussed some of the finer points and difficulties of translation, it was lovely to read the seven poems that the students had chosen. Some listened intently, some followed the reading in the book. I really enjoyed meeting these students and my nan would be chuffed to bits that three of the poems they’ve chosen to translate from The Way the Crocodile Taught Me are about her.
I’m beginning to understand a little about Japanese names. Take the student who I sat next to, Tzitkito, and apologies if I’ve spelt that incorrectly but it’s hard to say how you should spell in English what is written in Japanese characters or kana. Tzitkito means ‘moon man’ in Japanese. Rather poetic, eh? Still, I don’t think many of the students were particularly interested in poetry before. Whether spending time wrestling with crocodiles will have killed or kindled any such interest remains to be seen. But after meeting them, I’m optimistic.
I hear another typhoon is on its way. I’ll blog again in a while, thanks for reading.
And if you missed my first Japan blog, ‘From Basho to Bassey’, it’s here https://www.katrinanaomi.co.uk/basho-bassey-blog-japan/
Oh and Kernow is the Cornish language word for Cornwall, where I live.
And thanks to Arts Council England/British Council for an Artists International Development Fund grant, which has enabled me to travel to Japan. Here’s a little on what I’m doing overall in Japan https://www.katrinanaomi.co.uk/japan-and-writing/.