Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Hitomaro's sense of sasa

And how Japanese deer threaten to make a meal of literary sensibilities

Just pages into today's breakfast book, I lit on a verse that halted my coffee-mug in mid-air, twixt table and lips:

The whole mountain is a storm
of rustling leaves
of dwarf bamboo
but I think of my wife
having parted from her

The poet who performed this coffee-mug arrest was Hitomaro (right), mediated through Ian Hideo Levy’s masterly translation of the Man'yōshū. If this eighth-century collection of verses is "Japan's premier anthology of classical poetry" (Levy’s words), then Kakinomoto Hitomaro (c.662-710) is its premier poet.

It was the dwarf bamboo that did it for me, or rather the new perspective on it. As a former workman alpinist, I never suspected the plant had such poetic depths. After all, it is everywhere. Dwarf bamboo, sasa, kumasasa - call it what you will - covers mountainsides all over Japan.

Apparently, there are four main kinds: Sasa kurilensis (chishima-sasa) and Sasa senanensis (kuma-zasa) grow where the winter snow is deep, as on the Japan Sea coast, while Sasa chartacea (sendai-sasa) and Sasa nipponica (miyako-sasa, as seen above) prefer the Pacific side with its shallower snows.

Hitomaro was probably writing about kumazasa (above); he sets his poem in snowy Iwami (today's Shimane Prefecture), his native province. I imagine him standing waist-deep on a slope of bamboo grass, on his way to the capital and looking back regretfully to his home village and the wife he'll never see again.

Senanenis or nipponica, it was all sasa to us. We pushed our way through endless thickets at the top of sawa climbs or bivvied in nests of it. Once – after coming out of the Kurobe gorge at Uozu – we were offered delicious sushi that had been wrapped in sasa leaves for freshness. But never did it occur to us that a storm of rustling bamboo leaves could stand for a world of loss. Until this morning, that is.

Hitomaro's highly refined sense of sasa started me wondering. What part does dwarf bamboo play in that slightly less famous work of literature, the One Hundred Mountains of Japan? Riffling through the pages of Nihon Hyakumeizan, we find sasa all over the map.

Hyakumeizan’s northernmost mention of the ubiquitous plant is in the chapter about Gassan, an extinct volcano in Tohoku. There, the haiku poet Basho is quoted as having made a pioneering bivouac:-

When we reached the summit, we were thoroughly chilled and could hardly breathe. The sun had already set and the moon had come out. Making ourselves a bed of bamboo grass with twigs of bamboo for a pillow, we lay down and waited for the dawn. (Translation: Dorothy Britton)

Now there is another reason for reading the classics: pay attention to Basho’s survival hints and, one day, the sasa may save you from a bad night out.

At the southern end of its range, the plant is mentioned in the very last Hyakumeizan chapter, on Yakushima's Miyanoura-dake. There's also a referencein the one about Odaigahara, a wooded upland in the Kansai:-

Ushi'ishi-ga-hara is a broad meadow covered in dwarf bamboo. Stands of tall trees here and there give it the appearance of a natural park. The place takes its name from a large stone shaped like a sleeping ox in one corner of the field.

If you went there now, though, you'd see less sasa. Much of it, reports a quartet of savants,* has been grazed out by the ever-increasing herds of deer. Let's hope the animals can keep their appetites in bounds. Otherwise, future heirs of Hitomaro may never get to hear the sasa rustle up a storm.


Fukada Kyuya: Nihon Hyakumeizan in a forthcoming translation as One Hundred Mountains of Japan

Ian Hideo Levy: The Ten Thousand Leaves: A Translation of Man'yōshū, Japan's Premier Anthology of Classical Poetry: Volume I

*Furusawa Hitomi, Hino Teruaki, Kaneko Shinji, Araki Makoto: Effects of dwarf bamboo (Sasa nipponica) and deer (Cervus nippon centralis) on the chemical properties of soil and microbial biomass in a forest at Ohdaigahara, central Japan. These savants also say there may be as many as 30.9 deer on each square kilometre of the mountain. No wonder the sasa is thinning.

Pictures: Hitomaro from Wikipedia; Sasa pictures from YamaKei guide to Japanese trees.


wes said...

Plenty of sasa on most of the other Hyakumeizan as well. I remember swimming through head-high stuff on Poroshiri, and wading through kilometers of endless grass on the ridge walk to Tsurugi on Shikoku.

I had no idea of the receding bamboo lines on Odai-ga-hara. Perhaps it's worth another visit for an investigative report......

Edward J. Taylor said...

I remember sasa creating quite a dramatic effect at the end of Kurosawa's "Sanshiro Sugata."

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Wes: yes, I don't think the sasa is in any danger, globally speaking. Indeed, when the deer kill off the young trees (by gnawing their bark), it can even increase the "opportunities" for sasa. However, the plant is definitely getting thin in some areas where it used to be. On Nabewari-yama in the Tanzawa range, for example, the ridges have been denuded. As for Odaigahara, that's your area - maybe you should do that investigative report, as you suggest!

Ted: many thanks for reading and for that movie reference. Sasa is turning out to be a much more literary and artistic plant than I ever imagined...

Edward J. Taylor said...

There is a low peak in central Tottori who's approach is through a sea of sasa. I found myself wading through, on an October afternoon growing late. As I climbed, the image of surprising a bear never left my head. The fear eventually overtook me, and I turned back toward my car.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Ted: yes, I can certainly understand that sasa has a threatening side too, especially when it's high enough to block your view of whatever lurks ahead. But, fortunately for would be sasa-nauts, it seems that bear attacks are far and few between, at least on the open mountainside. The author of the (literally) gripping story of a bear attack (published in the Japan outdoors magazine) says that the bear ambushed him on a road, not in the middle of the outback ... See:-


This you have to read, if you haven't already...

sunnybeauty said...

I don't know how to copy and paste photos here, but if you can see the two photos I'm trying to refer to here, you see that in some parts of Japan, all the sasa have gone. This is an area between Kyoto and Fukui. My elderly friends say when they were on a project to walk all along the prefectural borders between Fukui and other prefectures more than twenty years ago, this place was all bush covered with sasa and others and that they often lost sight of each other. There's no bush walking around this area any more. The roots of trees are exposed. The second photo below shows how unbearable this situation is for trees. Also, local people say the deer around this area are extremely thin because they have eaten up their own food. This is very sad and frightening.

But still, in the northern part of Fukui, we still enjoy Hitomaro's world. It is a pleasant joy for me to stand on a hill covered with sasa, feeling the nice breeze listening to the sounds of sasa rustling.