Issa’s Humanity and Humour: A haibun passage from his travel journal Oraga Haru

by Ray Rasmussen


When Basho, Buson, Issa and Shiki are mentioned as the “great four” 1 or when Basho is cited as the originator of haibun 2, it’s implied that we should find writing instruction from their examples. Translator Sam Hamill is explicit on the matter:

Know the masters. Know them well enough to quote passages/poems that remain with you (not the same thing as memorising a poem.) 3

My intent as a relatively new writer of haibun (my first published haibun appeared 10 years ago) is:
• To explore the work of Issa who for reasons we will explore is referred to as the best loved of the haiku masters 4
• To introduce Issa’s haibun to writers and readers, and particularly to new writers
• To examine the role of context and culture in appreciating the haibun of the masters
• To ask, “What can be learned from Issa to apply to our own contemporary writing?”

Jon LaCure’s Modern Haiku review 5 of Issa biographies by Makoto Ueda 6 and David Lanoue 7  whetted my appetite for a study of Issa’s prose style and led me to two translations of Issa’s Oraga Haru, his travel journal containing prose with integrated haiku: Nobuyuki Yuasa’s The Year of My Life and Sam Hamill’s The Spring of My Life. 9 From these, I’ve selected an early passage for study that contains several prose paragraphs and three haiku. The full passage is reprinted below with the permission of translator Sam Hamill. There is no title because the Japanese masters rarely used titles in their journals. 10

An Early Passage from Issa’s Oraga Haru

Still clothed in the dust of this suffering world, I celebrate the first day in my own way. And yet I am like the priest, for I too shun trite popular seasonal congratulations. The commonplace “crane” and “tortoise” echo like empty words, like the actors who come begging on New Year’s Eve with empty wishes for prosperity. The customary New Year pine will not stand beside my door. I won’t even sweep my dusty house, living as I do in a tiny hermitage constantly threatening to collapse under harsh north winds. I leave it all to Buddha, as in the ancient story.

The way ahead may be dangerous, steep as snowy trails winding through high mountains. Nevertheless I welcome the New Year just as I am.

New Year greeting-time:
I feel about average
welcoming my spring

And although she was born only last May, I gave my little daughter a bowl of soup and a whole rice cake for New Year’s breakfast, saying:

Laughing, crawling, you’re
exploring – already two
years old this morning

No servant to draw wakamizu, New Year’s “first water”.

But look: Deputy
Crow arrives to enjoy
the first New Year’s bath

About Issa’s Poetry

I had not previously read haibun prose by Issa, but I’d been particularly attracted to his haiku for its humour, accessibility, plain talk and focus on the creatures of the earth. David Lanoue, whose Haiku Guy website on Issa is perhaps the best internet resource, puts it this way:

“While he certainly admired and in some ways emulated ‘boss frog’ Bashô, Issa never placed himself in ethereal heights in his own work. His vision is unpretentious, blunt, non-censoring and, often, tongue-in-cheek, as any random sampling of his many thousands of verses attests.” 11

A favourite of Issa’s haiku of mine is:

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house

– tr. Robert Hass 12

This example and Lanoue’s comment isn’t to say that Issa’s haiku lack depth. Consider:

So hospitably
waving at the entrance gate –
the willow tree.

– tr. Harold G Henderson 13

According to Henderson:

“At first sight this is primarily a sympathetic description of a willow – which of course it is. But we can appreciate Issa’s feelings when he wrote the poem far more deeply after we are told that there was a willow at the entrance of his own house, from which he was so long kept out by his stepmother.”

While some consider Issa’s poetry lesser than that of the other masters, Lanoue puts another light on its quality:

“In the popular Japanese view, Bashô and Buson sit with stern and lofty expressions in the high seats of haiku tradition, while Issa, ‘Chief Beggar of Shinano Province’, stands in the crowd below, shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary people: human and approachable. Issa, I think, would approve of this perception, since he forged it with the aggressive persistence of a Hollywood publicist. This is not to say that his poetic persona is false or not representative of the real man. I am only suggesting that we should keep in mind that our image of Issa is a consciously designed literary construct. Slovenly, lazy, sinful, earthy, compassionate, child-and-animal loving, unconcerned about appearances or public rituals or worldly power … such descriptors pop into our heads when we think of him because he deftly presented himself as such. (Issa’s haiku) leave no doubt as to what he thinks about ‘important’ people who occupy this world’s high seats.” 14

looks like boss frog
in the high seat

– tr. David Lanoue

Understanding and Appreciating Issa’s Oraga Haru : How Important Is The Cultural Gap?

Comments that Issa’s writing is unpretentious, open and, often, tongue-in-cheek are apt when applied to the passage I selected for study. I enjoyed his openness in sharing thoughts and feelings.

Much of what I know about ancient Japan comes from historical fiction like James Clavell’s Shōgun, films like Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and bits of deeper reading of some of the translated classics of the period (for example Basho’s Oku no Hosomichi with commentaries by the translators) 15. In saying this, I recognise that Issa’s period is separated from Basho’s by more than a century and isn’t necessarily well depicted by such books and films. I add to the quasi-fictional information with research excursions into biographies and history. So by no means is this essay to be viewed a scholarly treatment. I gratefully leave that to scholars and translators.

The passage I selected comes early in the journal and is more or less an introduction to Issa’s travels. It has a focus on his feelings about New Year’s celebrations, observations of his daughter, comments about his poverty and preparation for a forthcoming journey. A spiritual quest forms the basis for the journal. Initially, he states his feelings about the falseness and materialism of Japanese holidays:

… I am like the priest, for I too shun trite popular seasonal congratulations. The commonplace “crane” and “tortoise” echo like empty words, like the actors who come begging on New Year’s Eve with empty wishes for prosperity. The customary New Year pine will not stand beside my door. (tr. Hamill)

In reading this and other passages, I feel that I have sufficient understanding to enjoy the writing without the full context of Issa’s era. After all, most of us experience casual well-wishing around days like Christmas and New Year’s as similar to the everyday “How are you?” Carter puts the issue of understanding into perspective with his comments on earlier period hokku (the predecessor of haiku): “Does the many-layered allusive nature of . . . hokku mean that we cannot understand it without knowing . . . background circumstances, allusions, and so forth? The answer is, of course, no. Like all texts, hokku survive the demise of the events that produced them, taking on a different life.”16

But, consistent with Henderson’s example of allusive connotations (shown above), Carter goes on to indicate what can be gained by deeper exploration of context: “What the exercise of exploring the rhetorical complexity of poems . . . does teach us . . . is that hokku when they were first composed, were seldom straightforward poems of natural description, even when they may easily be understood that way, which was usually true for later haiku as well.”

In short, there’s a contextual richness that is lost but isn’t necessarily essential to appreciating writing from another period and culture – good writing stands the test of time.

Returning to Issa’s opening lines: The internet can be a rich source of contextual information. For example, the crane and tortoise are two of the longest-lived animals and are used in greetings to express something akin to our own New Year’s toasts: “To a long life and happy new year.” 17 With respect to the pine, in Japan today many households put up pine decorations known as ‘kadomatsu’ on either side of entrances. The gods are said to descend from the heavens and dwell in the earthly realm for three days, after which time the decorations are burnt, releasing the spirits back to their realm. 18 So Issa’s reluctance to put a pine beside his door is perhaps akin to me not putting a lit Christmas tree in my window.

A second prose theme in Oraga Haru alludes to the difficulties of the path Issa has chosen:

My own way of celebrating the first of the year is somewhat different (than the priest’s), since the dust of the world still clings to me. . . . I live in a tiny cottage that might be swept away at any moment by a blast from the wild north wind. . . . I will leave all to Buddha, and though the path ahead be difficult and steep, like a snow-covered road winding through the mountains, I welcome the New Year – even as I am. (tr. Yuasa)

Again, context is important, but not essential. Issa isn’t clothed in dust simply because he’s travel worn. This passage serves as a preface to the start of his travel as a spiritual journey and, as we learn as we read further in his journal, to the difficulties that he is likely to encounter. Indeed, the journey was so trying, he considered turning back many times. The passage also alludes to Buddhism’s emphasis on suffering and compassion and to Issa’s own suffering. A haiku that indicates his feelings about the suffering he witnessed and about the indifference of those better off is:

we walk on the roof of hell,
gazing at flowers.

– tr. Robert Hass

The haiku is perhaps an apt depiction of first-world readers who are likely to understand such wholesale suffering only from a distance. One has only to be tuned into today’s (bad) news to know that the Four Horsemen have been particularly active in our lifetimes. But isn’t our suffering more in the form of guilt at the plight of the poor in our own country and that of people living in impoverished countries? Yes, some of us contribute funds, encourage foreign aid, adopt children, sponsor various development missions, help build schools, fund medical teams and contribute to food banks. But speaking for myself at least, I feel helpless and guilty and, as best I can, I ignore the news of the world’s suffering and sniff the flowers.

In the next passage, Issa shifts from his negative attitudes about the rituals to the family gatherings surrounding those rituals. Here he expresses his joy of seeing his young daughter explore the world.

* * *

And although she was born only last May, I gave my little daughter a bowl of soup and a whole rice cake for New Year’s breakfast, saying:

Laughing, crawling, you’re
exploring – already two
years old this morning

– tr. Hamill

* * *

And again, context lends further understanding: … the Japanese New Year (shogatsu or oshogatsu) is today the most significant holiday in Japan … On Japanese New Year’s Day, the family starts the New Year with a “breakfast of mochi” or rice cake. For us, the rice cake offered to his daughter would be viewed as a sparse and inexpensive celebration treat. After all, our typical holiday banquets consist of abundant spreads of sumptuous foods and our problem is obesity, not near starvation. For the poor in Issa’s time, a rice cake would have been an expensive gift to a child too young to appreciate the sacrifice. As for the seeming incongruence about his daughter having been born only the previous May and yet being two years old, traditionally in many Asian cultures, babies are considered one year old when they are born. The passage may have simply been a joyful moment worth noting, but it may also serve as a metaphor for Issa’s wish that his forthcoming journey will be approached with the freshness of a child experiencing the early years on life’s path. Indeed, many of Issa’s haiku reflect the attitude that becoming child-like was a worthy aim:

turning into a child
on New Year’s Day …
I’d like that!

– tr. Lanoue

About this, Lanoue writes:  “Issa’s decision to become a child again isn’t completely absurd, for it is his mission as a haiku poet to see the world with open, non-judgmental, child-like eyes. Too many adults, in their daily rush, hurry past Nature’s treasures without paying attention to them, without really seeing them. This year, Issa vows to do otherwise.”

Another contextual issue that might be considered is that a Japanese reader, knowing about Issa’s life and particularly about the early death of his daughter, is likely to respond to the passage with more compassion than an uninformed Western reader.

Even without the various pieces of contextual information presented above, contemporary readers will readily understand Issa’s reactions to New Year’s celebrations and identify with his love of his daughter, expressed by his delight in watching her at play. While I have curmudgeonly attitudes about our Christmas celebrations, their materialism, falseness and lack of focus on Christian charity, I’ve always treasured the family gatherings. I was enchanted, for example, when my young daughters, dressed as elves, delivered the gifts handed to them by my father-in-law, dressed as Santa. I’m fairly certain that the girls had been psychologically transformed into elves during this family ceremony. On the other hand, a greeting card from my auto dealer or dentist leaves me cold, just as Issa had disdain for the actors arriving at his door to offer New Year’s salutations (and receive an offering).

The last passage and the third haiku takes us into Issa’s transcendence through humour:

* * *

No servant to draw wakamizu, New Year’s “first water.”

But look: Deputy
Crow arrives to enjoy
the first New Year’s bath

– tr. Hamill

* * *

Wakamizu, the first water drawn on the morning of New Year’s Day, is believed to have the magical power to maintain health and prolong life. It is practiced today with ritualistic splendour. 19

Here Issa is sharing his delight in watching a crow enjoy a bath in a rain puddle. And who among us has not enjoyed watching birds (sparrows, jays, robins in my backyard) enjoying puddles and even dust baths? Also worth mentioning is that crows figure prominently in Issa’s haiku and thus may serve as an allusion. In my culture, the crow is considered by many to be a noisy, invasive pest, and in a mythical or superstitious sense, a harbinger of bad news or even death. However, in Issa’s era the crow may have been seen in a more positive light. In China and Japan, for example, the crow has a positive mythology: three-legged crow lives in the heart of the sun and his three legs represent the morning, afternoon, and evening. 20 And Issa, with his compassionate focus on creatures, is likely to have had a more balanced view of crows as the social, intelligent and playful yet noisy nuisances and crop raiders that they are. Here’s an example of how Issa sees crows and that leads me to think that with his peasant roots he may have identified with the crow:

crow and nightingale
pass through it too …
purification hoop

– tr. Lanoue

This haiku is best understood with Lanoue’s comments on its context: “This haiku refers to a hoop made out of miscanthus reed, used for a summer purification ritual. If one passes through it, one is protected from infectious diseases. In this haiku, both a crow and a nightingale pass through, suggesting that the hoop welcomes both commoners (crows) and nobility (nightingales).”

To summarise, Issa’s haibun can be understood and identified with on personal level even across the gap of several centuries and the differences between his and a reader’s culture. Even this brief exploration into context has helped me to understand Issa’s particular circumstances which inform his prose and haiku. However, for a deeper set of examples of the roles that allusion and culture played in Issa’s writing, I recommend David Lanoue’s recent article “Stories Behind the Haiku: Cultural Memory in Haiku” where he explores Issa’s practice of packing his haiku with allusions to literary classics and folklore.

Lanoue writes: “When Issa incorporates such allusions into his poetry, it is not with an intent to show off cleverness or erudition. He is simply looking both inward and outward, mingling memory with perception. Earlier cultural narratives infiltrate his consciousness and join with the immediate impressions of his five senses, producing haiku in which past stories and present situations seamlessly combine.21 This, Lanoue concludes, should inform the practice of haiku composition and, I would add, the writing of haibun. Paying attention to this aspect of Issa can lead to an insight that might be helpful for haiku poets today: the immediate moment of a haiku can legitimately include cultural memories triggered in that moment. In a sense, such poetry exists in the interval between the past and now.”

A final point: As I made my way through Oraga Haru, I realised increasingly that while some contextual detail may increase appreciation, it may be that a single introductory passage from a lengthy travel journal would be better understood as part of a whole, just as with the opening pages of a novel where there is much to follow. The entire work should be read to gain a better appreciation for the man, his times and his writing style. And I would hope that the passage I’ve selected for purposes of this essay would encourage readers to do so.

What can be learned about writing from this prolific poet?

There’s a personal openness in directly relating his feelings and thoughts.

* * *

And yet I am like the priest, for I too shun trite popular seasonal congratulations … I welcome the New Year just as I am.

New Year greeting-time:
I feel about average
welcoming my spring

– tr. Hamill

* * *

His story feels real. There’s no hint of fiction in the service of writing a good story. This isn’t to say that Issa’s journal is factually accurate. As Woodward has stated: “In the case of Basho’s Narrow Road, for example, the diary of his travelling companion, Sora, was rediscovered and the various departures from Sora’s factual reporting demonstrate that Basho’s goal was art, not exactitude, and that he took many liberties to achieve his aim.” 22

This should come as no surprise to writers of haibun, with its emphasis on reportage and storytelling. To have our stories evoke the sentiments we wish them to convey, we select facts, pay attention to sequencing and use language with care in an attempt to make them interesting and poetic.

Issa’s language is plain-spoken, yet poetic. He knows how to turn a phrase. His prose is succinct, yet his use of simile and metaphor enriches what otherwise might be what Ken Jones eschews as “mud banks”. That is, Jones sees much haibun prose as “narrations … rendered in flat, deadpan prose, and enlivened only by their haiku” which he likens to “diamonds in mud banks”. 23

Among Issa’s passages that I found well written are:

* * *

Still clothed in the dust of this suffering world, I celebrate the first day in my own way.

The commonplace “crane” and “tortoise” echo like empty words, like the actors who come begging on New Year’s Eve with empty wishes for prosperity.

. . . though the path ahead be difficult and steep, like a snow-covered road winding through the mountains, I welcome the New Year – even as I am.

* * *

His passage contains bits of philosophising, his feelings about certain cultural practices and Buddhist philosophy as well as allusions to literature: “I won’t even sweep my dusty house, living as I do in a tiny hermitage constantly threatening to collapse under harsh north winds. I leave it all to Buddha, as in the ancient story.” Overall, the passage captures my interest in the man and his times despite the common pronouncements that haibun and haiku should not contain very much “telling” and that haiku should focus mainly on “showing”. Were there an imbalance in the mix of show and tell, Issa’s piece would read more like a social essay. As written, the mix feels like what I expect in a contemporary haibun.

To this point, one of Lanoue’s “Issa Haiku-a-Day” readers attests to the immediacy of Issa’s haiku: “This is so contemporary. It might have been written today!” And in response Lanoue writes: “Actually, my internet friend has it backwards: Issa does not write like contemporary haiku poets; contemporary haiku poets, the best of them, write like Issa.”

Issa’s and Basho’s approaches to their journals

In the inaugural issue of A Hundred Gourds I wrote a commentary on the passage “Hiraizumi” from Basho’s travel journal, Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North). In preparing this essay on Issa’s journal I noticed how different Issa’s style and structure is from Basho’s. I corresponded on this issue with Jeffrey Woodward and he offered the following in an email correspondence:

Basho situates his own book within the travel genre; its organisation therefore follows his itinerary which, as Japanese literary tradition would have it, is centred around “poetic places”, spots made famous by poems written over the generations. These poetic places offer a chronological sequence in his visitation and allusion (based on the poems previously composed about them). The very absence of any such convention in the UK or North America, of poetic places with conventional associations based upon the poems composed there, is one reason that travel haibun in English are so often impoverished. The structure of Issa’s Oraga doesn’t have an itinerary, as his intended pilgrimage is comically cut short by his own homesickness, and so, at a first glance, his haibun seem to be a tissue of anecdotes, some concerning himself, others concerning memorable characters such as the New Year’s priest, the gardener with his false paper peonies, etc. You cannot look at Basho for parallels but must turn, therefore, to Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book, Kamo no Chōmei’s An Account of a Ten-Foot-Square Hut and Yoshida Kenkō’s Essays in Idleness. While Issa presents what superficially appear to be many disconnected anecdotes, the anecdotes, observations and poems are like so many beads quietly joined by unifying threads (motifs) such as his daughter’s death and his general reflections upon mutability, his impoverished status and his willingness to “leave it all to the Buddha”. The repetition of major motifs, with variations, is what makes the chaotic surface phenomena cohere at the deeper level.

Can a lay exploration be of use to other writers new to haibun who will also hear about the masters and wonder about their approach to haibun?

One place in the haiku genre world that I enjoy visiting is the editor’s choice page in The Heron’s Nest. 24 There the editors explain their best-of-issue picks. Initially, I’d quickly read the selected haiku and not get much from them. Then I’d look at the editors’ explanations and their impressions of the work. They’ve learned how to appreciate haiku through exploring context, highlighting specific poetic phrases and relating the content to their own experiences, as when they personally step into the writer’s shoes. I came to realise that most haiku are not readily appreciated with a quick reading, nor even, as some have suggested, through several readings aloud. It takes intuition, method and work to ‘get it’. Of course, the editors, other readers or we ourselves may have a different interpretation than intended by the writer, but that’s another matter. It’s my belief that commentaries by well-versed readers are potentially as valuable as scholarly treatments in lending insights, particularly to readers and writers who are newer to the form.

Of course, the work of scholars is critical to guiding us to a deep understanding of a work, but often their writing is lengthy, academic and jargon prone. As such, it fails to engage on an intuitive level. Thus, as has often been asserted, the scholars may be mostly speaking among themselves. However, without their translations and commentaries, we’d not be able to have a conversation with the masters because it wouldn’t exist in our language in the first place.

In an editorial in Haibun Today, Jeffrey Woodward has commented on the need for a critical literature on English-language haibun:

“If haibun is to survive and develop as a viable genre, bibliographies, anthologies, monographs, book reviews and critical essays will play a role that is only slightly less central than the writing of haibun itself. Nor may haibun poets cast their eyes about the larger environment and blame their relative obscurity, with any justice, upon an indifferent ‘mainstream’ literati or broader haikai community. Writers in any arena have an obligation not only to write well but to work, also, to promote that writing, to secure an audience and to improve, thereby, the odds of their art’s survival.” 25

I would agree that two levels of literary criticism are essential – that done by scholars and translators, and that done by contemporary readers and writers. We non-scholars can do this by sharing our impressions on a deeper level than “I enjoyed this” or “I didn’t get it”. Today there is a world of resources on the internet, widespread availability of inexpensive books, and increasingly rich resources found in our own haiku-genre journals to assist us in doing so.

On a personal level, I’ve found that writing commentaries takes me further into a haibun than one or two readings would. Reading haiku and haibun is, after all, an acquired skill – one that has to be worked at. And deconstructing a piece of fine writing can lead to ideas for improving one’s own writing.


I hope that I’ve been able to encourage others to similarly read in greater depth and to consider writing commentaries on haibun that appeal to them for whatever reason. As for further gains by reading the ancients, Jane Hirshfield’s thoughts about two Japanese female master poets are apt: We turn to these poems not to discover the past but to experience the present more deeply. In this way, they satisfy the test of all great literature, for it is our own lives we find illuminated in them. 26

Indeed, the next time I decline to put up Christmas lights, I’m sure that Issa’s distant voice will come to mind as I gaze out into the darkness of night. And Issa’s haiku will continue to remind me of my good fortune despite life’s myriad problems:

What good luck!
Bitten by
This year’s mosquitoes too.

– tr. Robert Hass

* * *

Winter Renewal, a haibun by Ray Rasmussen

We’ve resided in this remote Ontario cabin for a month now. He speaks to me through his writing and accompanies me on my walks. Today, he’s lecturing on compassion …

Don’t worry spiders
I keep house

So instead of engaging in my usual spider mayhem by employing the broom as a weapon of web destruction, I try to keep the spiders at a comfortable distance as I write a commentary on Issa’s travel journal, Oraga Haru.

Finished for the day, I don snowshoes and come across numerous tracks: wild turkey, fox, deer, and porcupine … and find myself saying aloud …

Don’t worry turkeys
I hunt
quite ineptly

Issa continues sharing his angst …

we walk on the roof of hell,
gazing at flowers.

I’m taking photographs of the long bluish tree shadows cast by the setting sun, and yes, it’s the same as gazing at flowers while ignoring the humankind’s woes.

we reside in a world of plenty,
yet, we complain

On our last evening together, I look out at trees stripped of their leaves, just as I’ve been stripped of friends, routines, obligations, dismal news, and the usual dose of self-recrimination. And this time Issa is on about how to transcend …

What good luck!
Bitten by
This year’s mosquitoes too.

True enough. It’s been my best winter for beauty and companionship, in this, the winter of my life.

What good luck!
yet another
biting-cold winter

* * *

Information about Issa

There is a vast amount of information on Issa and his works on the internet and in various books. Here are a few facts condensed from Wikipedia’s “Kobayashi Issa” and Lanoue’s “About Issa” websites:

Kobayashi Yatarô (June 15, 1763 – January 5, 1828) chose Issa (Cup-of-Tea) as his haiku name. In his typical self-deprecating manner, he called himself “Shinano Province’s Chief Beggar” and “Priest Cup-of-Tea of Haiku Temple”. A devout follower of the Jôdoshinshû sect, he imbued his work with Buddhist themes: sin, grace, trusting in Amida Buddha, reincarnation, transience, compassion for the creatures of the Earth as well as the poor, and the joyful celebration of the ordinary.

Reflecting the popularity and interest in Issa as man and poet, Japanese books on Issa outnumber those on Buson, and almost equal in number those on Bashō. Issa is perhaps the most loved of the Japanese masters for his humour, and accessibility and focus on creatures.

Issa wrote more than 20,000 haiku, which have won him readers up to the present day. Though his works were popular, he suffered great financial instability. Despite a multitude of personal trials, his poetry reflects a childlike simplicity, making liberal use of local dialects and conversational phrases. He wrote many verses on plants and the lower creatures: 54 haiku on the snail, 15 on the toad, nearly 200 on frogs, about 230 on the firefly, more than 150 on the mosquito, 90 on flies, more than 100 on fleas and nearly 90 on the cicada, making a total of about 1,000 verses on such creatures. By contrast, Bashō’s (total) verses (on all subjects) are comparatively few in number, about 2,000 in all).

Issa was the first son of a farm family. He endured the loss of his mother, who died when he was three. Her death was the first of numerous difficulties. He had a falling out with his stepmother, who was a woman of hard-working peasant stock. He was sent to Edo (present-day Tokyo) by his father one year later to eke out a living. Nothing of the next 10 years of his life is known for certain. During the following years, he wandered through Japan and fought over his inheritance with his stepmother (his father died in 1801). After years of legal wrangles, Issa managed to secure rights to half of the property his father left. He returned to his native village at the age of 49 and soon took a wife, Kiku. After a brief period of bliss, tragedy returned. The couple’s first-born child died shortly after his birth. The daughter referred to in Oraga Haru died less than two-and-a-half years later, inspiring Issa to write this haiku:

The world of dew –
A world of dew it is indeed,
And yet, and yet …

– tr. Lewis Mackenzie


Acknowledgments: My thanks to Margaret Dornaus and Beverly Momoi for bringing Issa’s travel journal to my attention; to Beverly Momoi, Nancy Hull and Gary Ford for comments on various drafts; to Jeffrey Woodward and Beverly Momoi for their detailed comments; to Lorin Ford for her comments and copy editing; to Ron Moss for his wonderful haiga with Issa’s haiku; and to Jim Sullivan for his website layout.


1. Kobayashi Issa taken on Jan. 30, 2014 from Wikipedia.

2. Donna Fleischer in her The American Haibun essay writes: “The first haibun are found in Matsuo Basho’s (1644 – 1694) travel diaries in which he recorded his outer and inner journeys on foot throughout 17th century Japan, of which, Oku no Hosomichi, or Narrow Road to the Interior, is the best known.”

3. Sam Hamill from Sam’s Haibun Tips taken on January 17, 2014 from Paul Nelson’s website.

4. Kobayashi Issa by Petri Liukkonen, taken on January 27, 2014.

5. Jon LaCure, Kobayashi Issa: Two Very Different Views: Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa, by Makoto Ueda; Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa, by David G. Lanoue, Modern Haiku, 35:3, autumn 2004.

6. Makoto Ueda, Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa, Brill Academic Publishers, 2004.

7. David G. Lanoue, Pure Land Haiku: The Art of Priest Issa, Buddhist Books International, 2004.

8. Kobayashi Issa, The Year of My Life: A Translation of Issa’s Oraga Haru, translation and notes by Nobuyuki Yuasa. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1960.

9. Kobayashi Issa. The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku, translation and introduction by Sam Hamill. Boston: Shambhala, 1997.

10. Joan Zimmerman, What English-Language Haibun Poets Can Learn From Japanese Practices, Contemporary Haibun Online 9:4, January 2014.

11. Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku, The Ecco Press, 1994.

12. Ibid.

13. Harold G. Henderson, An Introduction To Haiku: An Anthology of Poems and Poets From Basho to Shiki, Garden City, NY, Doubleday Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company.

14. David G. Lanoue, Master Bashô, Master Buson … and Then There’s Issa, Simply Haiku, 3:3 Autumn 2005.

15. Oku no Hosomichi, taken from Wikipedia on January 30, 2014. Basho’s travel journal is translated alternately as The Narrow Road to the Deep North and The Narrow Road to the Interior.

16. Steven D. Carter, from the Preface of the Kindle Reader version of Haiku from the Renga Masters: Before to Basho Haiku, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Carter writes: “Abroad or in Japan, mention of the word haiku brings to mind Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), the greatest master of that genre.”

17. Tsuru & Kame (Crane & Turtle) taken on January 15, 2013 from the Miyokographix website.

18. A guide to Japanese New Year traditions, taken on January 15, 2015 from the Japan Today Website.

19. For an example of wakamizu in today’s Japan, visit the Ryukyu Gallery website.

20. Crow, Wikipedia, taken on February 17, 2014.

21. David G. Lanoue, Stories Behind the Haiku: Cultural Memory in Haiku, Modern Haiku, 44:3, Autumn 2013.

22. Jeffrey Woodward. From a personal correspondence with the author. March 1 and 2, 2014. Published with permission.

23. Ken Jones, Writing Reality: Fictional Haibun Stories, Contemporary Haibun Online 3:3 September 2007.

24. The Heron’s Nest website.

25. Jeffrey Woodward, Haibun Tomorrow? Maybe, Maybe Not, Haibun Today (March 12, 2008).

26. Jane Hirshfield, The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (Vintage Books, 1990) with Mariko Aratani

Editor’s note: Ray Rasmussen is haibun co-editor at Haibun Today. Previously he has been haibun editor at A Hundred Gourds, Notes from the Gean and the World Haiku Review. His haibun, haiku, haiga and articles have appeared in various journals and his haibun are carried in several anthologies. Ray was introduced to haiku when he photographed the Kuramoto Japanese Garden near his home in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. In putting up a website on the garden he wanted to include Asian poetry, and the internet led him to haiku. He became a member of the World Haiku Club and subsequently his world expanded into the fullness of English-language haiku forms.

Seeing a need for more venues that featured haibun, he co-founded Contemporary Haibun Online and A Hundred Gourds. Ray currently leads a Haibun Study Group, particularly for writers newer to the genre. If interested, contact him. His photography and haiku may be found at Ray’s Web and a list of his commentaries and articles can be found at Ray’s commentaries and articles.

This article was first published in A Hundred Gourds 3:3 June 2014 and appears here with the author’s permission.