the moon is here
yet there seems an absence:
summer in Suma
tsuki wa aredo / rusu no yō nari / suma no natsu
seeing the moon
yet something is lacking—
summer in Suma
tsuki mite mo / mono tarawazu ya / suma no natsu
-Matsuo Bashō, Knapsack Notebook (Oi no Kobumi)
Utamakura are “pillow-words” that have, through centuries of literary convention, come to convey a whole slew of imagery and emotion in a concise package. They often also coincide with meisho—famous places that have come to be associated with certain imagery and themes. And, as far as utamakura and meisho go, Suma is a big one.
The above haiku are found in Matsuo Bashō’s travelogue of a journey from Edo into the Kansai region—the third of his famous journals . Lasting from November 1687 to May of the following year, he visits his hometown of Ueno, and then heads further west into places like Hatsuse and Mt. Koya and Osaka, before finally ending up in Suma (in the old province of Settsu) and Akashi. While in Suma, he records these poems, reflecting on the “lack” and “absence” of “something,” and playing on the season. This lack can be interpreted in several different ways: on one hand, he wonders about not finding the “salt-making” that he has heard of in an old poem, instead finding a fishing industry in conflict with thieving crows; on the other, he wishes that the season were autumn, for only then would he “be able to convey some tiny tip of my feelings” because “certainly the essence of this bay is found in fall” (Barnhill 41-43). That “essence” is what defines Suma’s status as utamakura and meisho—the extreme sense of sorrow and loneliness encountered by those who end up in this place. It is the place of literary exile, and it is associated with two romantic figures of bygone Japan in particular: courtier and poet Ariwara no Yukihira (818-893), and Hikaru Genji, the Shining Prince and protagonist of Murasaki Shikibu’s (c.973-1014?) Genji Monogatari.
According to Haruo Shirane (20), this is one of Yukihira’s poems in exile that “helped make Suma an utamakura:”
“The sleeves of the traveler / have turned cool— / the wind that crosses over / the barrier gate to Suma Bay.”
tabibito wa / tamoto suzushiku / narinikeri / seki fukikoyuru / suma no arikaze
Another is the poem that Bashō alludes to in his journal:
“If by chance / someone asks about me / tell them I live in loneliness / by Suma Bay, weeping / as I gather seaweed.”
Wakuraba ni / tou hito araba / suma no ura ni / moshiotaretsutsu / wabu to kotae yo
Both reflect the feelings of distance and displacement Yukihira might have felt, far from the capital and all of its comforts and companions. Two of the enduring images that would be followed up in the likes of Genji Monogatari and other works are that of piercing wind and the desolate and rustic sea.
Indeed, according to Laura Nenzi, Suma and Akashi owe to Genji their “consecration as the embodiments of sadness, detachment, loneliness, and the ephemeral” (Nenzi 37). In the 12th chapter of the novel, Genji feels the need to escape the chaos his trysts in the capital have caused, and so goes into exile in Suma, inspired by Yukihira’s own and alluding to other famous Chinese exiles as well (Shirane 21-22). Staying for a year, “autumn in such a place yielded the sum of melancholy” as, one night, “he lay awake all alone, listening … to the wind that raged abroad, and the waves seemed to be washing right up to him. … he wept until his pillow might well have flowed away” (Tyler 244). Filled with sorrow, he sings:
“Waves break on the shore, and their voices rise to join my sighs of yearning: can the wind be blowing then from all those who long for me?”
Once again, Suma has become a place of isolation and longing. The popular image recurs in a scene in “The Chrysanthemum Vow” by Ueda Akinari (1734 – 1809) in his Tales of Moonlight and Rain. Under the moonlit sky in Kakogawa and lacking the presence of his samurai lover, Confucian scholar Samon waits alone for Akana Sōemon to fulfill his promise to meet on the day of the Chrysanthemum festival, and to him “the waves on the shore seemed to crash at his very feet” (84).
Presently, however, Suma is a far cry from its days as a lonely bay where exiles went to weep. The region, now one of the nine wards of Kobe city in Hyōgo prefecture, is a popular tourist destination, and home to a bustling beach with a vibrant summer scene. Now, the winds spell relief on a sweltering day, and the pounding of the surf drums up feelings of fun and inspires activity. On a busy day, the beach is teeming from end to end, but on the slow days—perhaps in a Genji-esque autumn—the empty shores may recall the times of exile. In any case, with the tightly packed city crowding the edge of the beach, today’s Suma may be lacking that old literary nuance preserved for generations through utamakura.
Matsuo, Bashō. Bashō’s Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Bashō. Trans. David Landis
Barnhill. Albany, N.Y: State University of New York Press, 2005.
Nenzi, Laura Nenz Detto. Excursions in Identity: Travel and the Intersection of Place, Gender, and Status in Edo Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008.
Shikibu, Murasaki. The Tale of Genji. Trans. Royall Tyler. New York: Viking, 2001.
Shirane, Haruo. The Bridge of Dreams: A Poetics of the Tale of Genji. Stanford, Calif: StanfordUniversity Press, 1987.
Ueda, Akinari. Tales of Moonlight and Rain. Trans. Anthony C. Chambers. New York:
Columbia University Press, 2007.
Contributor: Titus Joel