Visiting Shiki’s House

Words and photos by Susumu Takiguchi

Uguisu-dani is a small station on the Yamanote Railway Line, five stops and due north from Tokyo Station. On the map, it looks drowned by the hurly-burly of the Ueno sprawl which is the centre of that part of the gigantic metropolis. Tokyo is on flat land. There are, however, hillocks and hammocks here and there, of which Ueno is one.

suzume yori uguisu ooki Negishi kana

more bush warblers
than sparrows are here –
Ah, Negishi!

Shiki, 1893 1

When Shiki came to live around here on February 1, 1894, it was referred to as Ueno-no-Mori (Ueno Woods) and Uguisu-dani, which means the dale of bush warblers, and was still relatively a quiet part of the rapidly expanding capital. In addition to the warblers, the area was famous for its plum blossom and black bamboo. What an apt name for a place where the poet was to live his last eight and a half years! His house was situated in the district called Negishi, which according to a local elder was so named by the combination of “ne” (at the foot of Ueno Woods) and “gishi” (shore, the sea used to come as far as here). It was also a district where literary figures and artists used to live, the famous Sakai Hoitsu being a renowned resident.

Fushi nagara amado akesase asahi teru Ueno no mori no hare wo yorokobu

lying in my sickbed
I had the rain shutters opened,
the morning sun pouring over
the Ueno Woods, and I rejoice
at the fine day


No. 82 Kami-Negishi was the address of the Shiki-an (Shiki Hut), which housed the bed-ridden genius, his mother and sister, and frequented by his friends and followers. He had also lived for 2 years in No. 89. Having been a “semi-detached” house of a lower-grade samurai of the Maeda Han (clan), his new house was a relatively big one by the standards of the time. The size of the whole place was 55 tsubo (1 tsubo = 6 “shaku” square) of which more than half was the garden (according to Hekigodo, the house measured 24 tsubo). Shiki paid a rent of 6 yen and 50 sen per month. According to his Gyoga Manroku (Stray Notes While Lying On My Back), the entry on September 30, 1901 says that his income was 50 yen (40 yen from the Nihon Newspaper Company and 10 yen from Hototogisu) per month. It also records the breakdown of September’s household expenses, including the rent, which amounted to 32 yen 72 sen, resulting in 17 yen 28 sen in the black (saving). To see roughly how much one yen was worth, the expenses include one month’s milk, costing just over 1 yen 48 sen; groceries 3 yen 73 sen and a bit; charcoal 1 yen 11 sen; soy sauce, miso paste and vinegar 1 yen 52 sen; and interestingly fish 6 yen 15 sen (of which bought sashimi was 15 to 29 sen per plate).

kogarashi ya toro ni imo wo yaku ya-han

withering winter wind!
On the oil stove, I roast
a sweet potato at midnight

Shiki, 1900

One rainy autumn day in 2001, I got off the Yamanote Line and stood still for a while on the platform of Uguisu-dani, trying to imagine what it must have been like for visitors to the Shiki-an to walk the last few hundred metres from here. I was excited beneath my external quietness. Shiki-an is normally closed to the general public, except for its garden. However, being the year of the centenary anniversary of Shiki’s death 2 (according to the Japanese reckoning) it was open to the public as part of the celebrations. Also, restoration work on the house and garden had been completed earlier in the year. Five minutes later, I found myself standing in front of the gate which led to what, for me, had become the final destination of my pilgrimage.

Shiki-an ni tsukeba furi-somu shigure kana

just as I arrived
at Shiki-an, autumn rain
started to fall, ah!

Susumu Takiguchi

Inside, I could not quite believe that I was actually in the 8-jo drawing room, looking over at the 6-jo room in which Shiki died (a jo is the size of one tatami mat or about 1.6m²). The original house that Shiki lived in suffered two disasters. First, it was partially, though not seriously, destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Years later, it was burnt down by the American air raid in the dawn of April 14, 1945.

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The south side of Shiki-an. The right was Shiki’s “sick-room” of 6-jo tatami. The left was the drawing room where his visitors were shown and meetings were held.

The present house was rebuilt five years later, mainly through the effort of Shiki’s friend, Samukawa Sokotsu (1875-1954). Even so, the house did have the atmosphere and even the smell of the old house, which to me is very familiar from my own experience of living in my grandparents’ house which was similarly built. I restrained my strong urge to want to look at everything quickly, as I knew that such a rush would spoil the purpose of my visit – to pay tribute to Shiki. To that end, I deliberately started to look at what seemed unimportant.

nure-en ni uchi-sute-rareshi hechima kana

on the wet veranda
I see a few snake gourds


Susumu Takiguchi

My guide was not a person, but a plan of the house which Kawahigashi Hekigodo, a principal follower of Shiki, drew. I also had, in my head, the memory of Shiki’s life about which I had read over many years. Hekigodo’s plan shows the snake gourd pergola, the very first thing I had wanted to see. And there it was, just outside of Shiki’s room, facing south! I saw a pergola and about a dozen dangling snake gourds of various colours, with those unmistakable yellow flowers displaying themselves here and there. The three death poems by Shiki, all about snake gourds, were etched in my memory. Shiki loved different flowers and plants, but from where he must have been lying, I guessed, all he could see were these snake gourds and flowers.

hechima suku hito netari-keru tatami kana

the man used to lie here,
who loved snake gourds –
now only tatami mats

Susumu Takiguchi

Shiki-an, where the house master lay bed-ridden for seven of his last eight and a half years, was cold during winter. There were only primitive “hibachi” (braziers) for the family to warm themselves. Whenever Shiki wanted to see the garden, the shoji sliding doors had to be opened, letting in cold air. Followers of Shiki, who were constantly visiting Shiki-an, got very worried about this situation. One of them, Takahama Kyoshi, finally suggested that they should have the shoji doors glazed for their master. In early December of 1899, Shiki was presented with glazed shoji, which became his version of French windows. First and foremost, the glass shoji let in the winter sun, bringing in its warmth and light. From Shiki’s point of view, he could now see the garden without opening the shoji.

garasu-goshi ni fuyu no hi ataru byo-ma kana

through the glass
winter sun streams into
this sick-room!

Shiki, 1899

Shiki was overjoyed. He could, for the first time, see his withered garden, the bird cage, pine trees, birds, clothes-rod and the hill of Ueno beyond — without moving an inch. He could now also sun-bathe, even in winter. His remarks of joy are recorded in various documents:

… I am in a fabulous mood as I myself clean the glass … (his letter to Kyoshi dated  December 11, 1899)

… I became quite cheerful, so much so that I sat upright and saw things [through the glass shoji].

While I did, so I forgot I was ill … (Shin-nen Zakki)

In addition to the glazed shoji, Hototogisu magazine paid to buy an oil stove for Shiki. Ito Sachio helped to install a coal stove with a chimney.

sanjaku no niwa ni ueno no ochiba kana

In three feet of garden,
The falling leaves
Of Ueno.

Shiki, tr. R. H. Blyth

With silent rain falling, autumn light was soft on the tatami mats of Shiki’s sick-room. I wondered in which way his futon was arranged. Japanese people never sleep with their head pointing to the north because that is how a dead person is placed (called “kita-makura”, or north pillow). If he slept like that, it would have also meant that his head was in the nearest point to the adjacent 4.5-jo small room which belonged to Ritsu, his sister. Japanese etiquette requires that no one should be allowed to walk about anywhere near the sleeping person’s head. I realised that this sleuth work could be a long haul, as I was beginning to be obsessive about this detail which is probably insignificant. So, I went to the “kawaya” (an old-fashioned loo) to spend a penny.

Shiki-an no kawaya ni tachi-te shigure kiku

standing still
in the Shiki-an pissoir, I hear
the sound of autumn rain

Susumu Takiguchi

Back to the drawing room, my mind was still on the question of the direction in which Shiki lay. After all, his futon was his whole world as he could not leave it on his own. From 1901, Shiki wrote, read, conversed, ate, met visitors, viewed the garden, painted, cried, laughed, writhed in agony, shouted, swore, got medication and treatment, went to the loo and slept — all within this “byosho rokushaku” (The Six-foot Sickbed). The most obvious way for Shiki to sleep would be with his head nearest to the garden, due south. However, in this case he could not have seen the garden without sitting up, or by lying on his stomach and raising his head in a recumbent position, which was for him a physical impossibility. So, my conclusion was that he must have been sleeping with his head away from the garden, i.e., toward the north and Ritsu’s room. He would not have slept east-to-west, or west-to-east because it was the shorter length of the rectangular room. Such an arrangement would have left no room for his sister, Ritsu, Yae, his mother, or anyone else for that matter to walk without striding over him.

Imagining myself to be Shiki in bed:

ashi-oto to akikaze no oto kiku mi kana

the sound of footsteps
and the sound of autumn wind,
both reach my ears

Susumu Takiguchi

One of the rare photos of Shiki during his “sick-bed” period (taken on June 19, 1899)  with Shiki sitting on the “rohka” (narrow veranda) of the drawing room, shows his “sick-room” on the right hand side. We can just barely see his “shiki-buton” (mat bed) and a summer “kake-buton” (bedding) on the tatami. There is no “makura” (pillow) where it usually should be, which may indicate that the bit we see is the lower end of his futon, i.e., his head should be on the other end, but this observation is not conclusive. Another photo of him, half sitting up in the futon (taken on April 5, 1900), gives us more of a clue. If he was in his 6-jo “sick-room”, then he was certainly lying with his head to the north — judging from the position of the four “fusuma” sliding doors and the straw cape with a sedge hat which were hung over the pillow in the middle of the “fusuma”. There is another photo of the “sick-room” itself, which attests to my conclusion. 3

Once I was satisfied with my speculation about how Shiki was lying in this small room, my imagination started to wander around the now empty room, positioning his writing desk, the square “hibachi” (brazier), sedge hat, flower vase, inkwell and bookcase. (A special exhibition of these items had taken place.) As I contemplated, the light seemed to have grown a shade darker.

Shiki-an ya arishi hi omou aki no hi ni

in the feeble autumn light
I imagine his futon and writing desk –
at Shiki-an

Susumu Takiguchi

The room in which I was transported to such reverie was the largest in the house, and all of Shiki’s visitors were taken there. Visitors – what visitors? It looked as if most of the glittering literary figures and artists in Tokyo at that time frequented there – Meisetsu, Ogai, Soseki, Fusetsu, Chu, Kyoshi, Hekigodo, Sachio, Takashi, Tekkan, Fumoto, Toson, Yaichi, Setsurei, Shihoda, Koroku, Rogetsu, Kakudo, Sokotsu, Izan, Hozuma — the list is long. The main meetings were kukai (for haiku), utakai (for tanka) and yama-kai (for prose-writing) and a number of study meetings of which “rin-ko” (an appointed person made a report, which was then discussed) on Man-yo-shu (The Ten Thousand Leaves anthology) and on Buson was much valued.

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Shiki hosted the First Buson-Ki Meeting at Shiki-an on December 24, 1897. Shiki was helped to sit on the “engawa” veranda of his drawing room. I sat there too and thought of Shiki.

byo-sho wo kakomu reisha ya go-roku nin

surrounding my sick-bed,
New Year’s Day visitors are sitting –
five or six at a time

Shiki, 1900

On December 24, 1899, the third annual Buson-Ki Meeting (Anniversary of Buson’s Death), was held at Shiki-an. There were as many as 45 participants, compared with 20 in the first meeting, and 22 in the second meeting. Participants flocked together in this small house from morning until well after 9pm. Shiki had written the famous series of articles, Haijin Buson (Haiku Poet Buson), for the Nihon newspaper. The series, which began in April 1897, was published as a book in December 1899.

Also, Shiki was holding study meetings on Buson which he had started in the previous year. Shiki was heartened that his campaign to endorse Buson was going well. A commemorative photograph was taken with Shiki in the middle of the front row. He was carried by Hekigodo, who later recalled how light Shiki was, and wrote that it was like “carrying an empty wastepaper basket”. It has become something of a custom to provide a “furofuki” dish at Buson-ki. This is a popular food in winter, consisting of pieces of daikon radish and/or kabu radish, which are boiled, then eaten with miso and sesame sauce. It proved to be quite a job to feed 45 people with “furofuki”.

furofuki no hito-kire zuzu ya shi-ju nin

furofuki dish —
only one piece each
for forty guests

Shiki, 1899

Thinking about all these things, I did not know how this drawing room, which is small by Western standards, could accommodate so many visitors. Granted, the Japanese were much smaller and leaner in those days. I still felt it was something of a miracle that this house was once the hub of some of the most important literary activities and reform movements in the late Meiji Japan. Tuberculosis, from which Shiki was suffering, was one of the most highly infectious and greatest killers. Even so, people were not deterred. Because of his rapidly deteriorating condition, towards the end, Shiki was not always a nice, polite host.

The family’s belongings have all been removed from the house to different museums. Quite a few of them were displayed in the Centenary Commemoration Exhibitions at the Shiki Museum in Matsuyama and the Basho Museum in Yamadera. Because of this, the drawing room where I now stood was empty, as were all other rooms. The total emptiness of Shiki-an had, however, an unexpected effect on me: instead of looking at those exhibits which could give one a flavour of Shiki’s daily life, I could visualise, in the very emptiness, all sorts of Shiki’s objects: writings, letters, drawings and diaries and even more, simply by the power of imagination.

kiku no ka ya ku-shitsu ni Shiki yomigaeru

chrysanthemum perfume –
Shiki’s daily life revisited,
these empty rooms

Susumu Takiguchi

From the drawing room, I stepped into the garden. It was far from empty. All sorts of flowers, plants, bushes and trees were vying with each other for space and light. An old photograph of the house indicates that the garden was much more sparse than it is now. I did not have the time or inclination to check which of those plants were original, and which were added after Shiki’s death.  The garden has been reconstructed, according to a painstaking estimate — made by examining his haiku, tanka and all other writings — of how the garden must have been in Shiki’s time. I thought it a wonderful tribute to Shiki, who loved the garden so much, but could not attend to it himself. More numerous among the many plants were cockscombs, snake gourd flowers, a persimmon tree, hagi (bush clover), oshiroibana (marvel of Peru or Mirabilis jalapa), nogiku (wild camomile), peonies, sekichiku (pink) and Shudaido (begonia).

toburai no hana ooku shite Shiki no niwa

many flowers in bloom
in memoriam of Shiki —

his own garden

Susumu Takiguchi

I looked from the garden at what was Shiki’s “sick-room”. Then, shivered. I did so partly because the air was getting cold, penetrating all the warm clothing I brought from England. Moreover, I suddenly thought I saw a pathetic prisoner within the six-foot futon bed, laid on the small 6-jo tatami room; the one who had been confined there for the greater part of his eight and half years’ residence at this magic address. 

Byosho Rokushaku (The Six-foot Sickbed) was serialised from May 5, 1902, his last year in this world. It went on appearing until two days before his death, i.e.,  September 17; all 127 instalments. It was a six-foot sickbed prison. However, what a prison it was! It was a prison where Shiki gained maximum freedom – freedom of creation, freedom of innovation and freedom to realise himself. What, then, are we doing — most of us being given maximum physical freedom, as well as far greater spiritual and poetic freedom than we deserve, except for those restrictions to freedom which we impose upon ourselves as we blame others for imposing restrictions?

Again, what then, are we doing, by way of creating even a single haiku, or of saying even a single remark, which is worthy of Shiki’s phlegm, cantankerous outbursts or pus? I shivered because of my inadequacies. And I shivered because of human arrogance, ignorance, fanaticism, prejudices, exploitation and aggression, all of which can sadly be seen in the haiku world as well as in more obvious worlds.

aki fukashi Shiki no kuraku ya shimi-tooru

Shiki’s mourn of pain
and cry of joy, all permeate
deepening autumn

Susumu Takiguchi

1: Unless indicated otherwise, translations of the Shiki poems are by Susumu Takiguchi.

2: This visit was made in 2002.

3: There is an illustration by Asai Chu for Shiki’s essay, Rampu no Kage (The Lamp’s Shadow), which appeared in Hototogisu, Vol. 3, Issue 4. It depicts nine visitors in the drawing room. Shiki is in bed, looking at them from his “sick-room” and he is lying with his head to the north.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in World Haiku Review in 2002 and appears here with the author’s kind permission.

Susumu Takiguchi is a Japanese poet, artist, and essayist who has lived in England since 1971. He began to write haiku “seriously” while researching Basho as lecturer in Japanese Language and Civilisation at the University of Aston in Birmingham. His haigo (nom-de-plume) is Ryuseki, which means “stream and stone” (or more mysteriously, “floating stone”).

Susumu is a member of the Japan Classical Haiku Association, the Haiku Society of America, and other haiku organisations. He served as vice-president of the British Haiku Society and in 1998 founded the World Haiku Club. He is managing editor of the World Haiku Review.