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.