The Deer I used to See

we will never forget

life goes by

there are animals we miss

all of our days

Prince the buck with his first antlers
Nancy would let me be right near her. She has the biggest eyes among the does
Theodore liked to come up by the house
The bulldozer stopped. Nancy’s first daughter, Nellie knows things are changing
Ned is a twin. He was looking for the other bucks in the snow


Raise Up

I woke up from the most amazing dream. I was driving a strange contraption through the sky saving some people and their things. I remember telling myself, you will be okay if you don’t look down. I started to look down a couple of times but would immediately raise my chin up. Below me, things were crashing and piling up. I took a round trip, and then everything settled down. At the end, some ladies were thanking me, but an old man said he never saw it happened. 

Historical Kamakura Women – Part One

Hase Temple
Hase Temple in the Hase District of Kamakura

Even as a child, Horiuchi Adachi was athletic and drawn to archery and kendo. Her personality was strong-willed, compassionate and curious. In other words, she was a change maker and an independent tomboy.

Horiuchi also liked poetry, and her heroine was diarist and poet Nun Abutsu and her hero was Shogun Sanetomo, a tanka poet. Her academic Aunt Zeni was instrumental in her education because she was well-known for her calligraphy, poetry, and studies. In fact, a famous book by recluse Chomei’s The Ten Foot Square Hut (Hojoki) mentioned Zeni’s organization skills; thus, she was known for her ideas to make something out of next to nothing and her many guests who would come to seek her advice.

On New Year’s Day, Horiuchi’s family sat around the large low table at their home in Hase district of Kamakura to drink a toast. After the meal, while the adults were playing the card game, 100 poets. Her aunt, Zeni, won and blushed when everyone cheered for her. Next, her brothers and her cousin Tokimune ran outdoors to play shuttlecock. A servant tied back her long kimono sleeves so that she could play with all her strength and she beat her cousin twice.

winter crispness

red camellia blossoms

slip on the ground

Horiuchi was eight now, and she knew that she would eventually wed her cousin, Tokimune Hojo. He was like another brother to her, but since she heard of the plans, she felt a bit shy towards him for the first time. He was quiet, bookish and honest. These were things she liked about him better than her brothers who were always fighting. They would replay the battle between the Heike and Taira the outcome of which resulted in the establishment of Kamakura as the seat of the military government of Minamoto no Yoritomo who became the first shogun in 1185. Horiuchi was proud of her family, the Adachi clan. Tokimune was related to Yoritomo’s wife, Masako Hojo, and  was bound to be a regent some day.

Horiuchi was glad she lived in Kamakura where everyone knew her family, and she could play outside with her friends and brothers every day. Zeni read to her about the court women in Kyoto long ago, who wrote poetry and wore seven layers of kimono. She was glad she was born in the military capital of Kamakura and not in the imperial capital of Kyoto. Such a life seemed utterly restraining to her. She was thankful for
the life she had even though her aunt was overbearing at times.

The family went to the Tsuruga Hachiman Shrine to pay respects to the gods for the New Year and pray for a good year. Horiuchi came home with charms for good luck.  She watched the beautiful shrine maidens wrap the family’s charms.

Everywhere, families were out visiting relatives and visiting shrines and temples. They got home before dinner to eat the special New Year’s delicacies like carp; dried fish inserted wrapped in seaweed; and sweet chestnut sauce. Before bed, the children did their first calligraphy of the year, and the adults critiqued their efforts. Zeni said to Horiuchi that her calligraphy was bold for a girl her age, but she needed to work harder on her technique.

As she went to sleep, she could hear the adults talking about politics. Early the next morning, she awoke to shouts from her brothers. It had snowed during the night. What a happy day watching the snow cover the town. She wanted to hike in the nearby hills to see the view of Kamakura and the ocean from high up, but the adults decided that there could be too much wind that day and the trails would be slippery.

Horiuchi thought she would be happy when she was older and was allowed to go anywhere she decided. What a luxury that would be! Tokimune and Horiuchi were married when he was nine, and she was eight in 1261, and then they moved to Tokimune’s residence. Seven years later in 1268, they settled into a real marriage and Tokimune became the 8th Hojo Regent of the Kamakura Era of Japan.

dreams of the hills . . .

female relatives spy

on the regent’s wife

Historical Underdog


Mt.Fuji from Koshigoe wharf, Kamakura—TripAdvisor UK

Within the classic Tales of the Heike, there is a sub-story of two famous historical brothers Minamoto no Yoritomo and his younger brother Minamoto no Yoshitsune. In 1185, Yoshitsune was the hero of the war between the Genji and Taira. As he returned to Kamakura, he stopped at Koshigoe to wait to meet his older brother and sent a letter to him to prove his loyalty to him. However, Yoritomo never met him. Instead, the jealous older brother sent assassins, and thus Yoshitsune committed ritual suicide as was the custom of samurai warriors. Though Yoritomo became the first Shogun of the Kamakura Era, his brother has been loved by the Japanese people for nine centuries.

           Kabuki play

    shouts for the hero

    and sidekick Benkei


Haibun: Prose and Haiku by Carmen Sterba

Medieval Poetic Diaries: Nun Abutsu and Lady Nijo


Article by Carmen Sterba. Painting of Japan’s Immortal Poets Part II: The Great Female  Poets

Medieval Poetic Diarists Nun Abutsu and Lady Nijo

The Japanese Medieval period was launched when the Japanese warrior class gained hegemony over the nobility and Minamoto Yoritomo established the Kamakura Shogunate (1185-1333). Changes occurred not only in the government, economics, and religion but also in literature. As travel greatly increased between Kyoto (the imperial capital) and Kamakura (the military capital), imperial court diaries and tales (which included five-line poetry called waka or tanka) decreased while travel diaries, religious essays, and military tales proliferated.

The major works of this period were An Account of My Hut (Hojoki) by Kamo no Chomei (1153-1216), Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa) by Yoshida Kenko (1283-1350?) and The Tales of the Heike (Heike Monogatari) written in the 14th century. Poetic Diaries declined in quality and quantity compared to those of the Heian Period. Nevertheless, two of the best-known poets were Buddhist nun Abutsu (1222-1283) and Lady Nijo (1258-1306). Abutsu wrote the poetic diary, The Waning Moon (Izayoi Nikki) and the lady-in-waiting at the imperial court, Nijo, wrote Confessions of Lady Nijo (Towasugatari).

Nun Abutsu was married to a fellow poet, Fujiwara Tamie. His father and grandfather were the distinguished poets, Fujiwara Teika and Fujiwara Shunzei. The family’s poetry was so exceptionally important that she wanted to protect it as a legacy. She also taught the art of tanka to her three sons. After her husband died in 1275, she became a nun. Her other goal was to grant her husband’s wishes to make her first-born son the legal heir of both the Fujiwara land and poetic dynasty. The biggest obstacle for Abutsu was her husband’s eldest son born to another wife. In order to make an official claim for her oldest son, she had to travel on the Tokaido road from Kyoto to Kamakura.

Scholar and Ambassador Edwin Reischauer concludes that The Waning Moon was “The best-known poetic travel journal in Japanese written between the 12th to 16th century.” However, he also laments, “It is imitative in concept and formalized in expressions.” On the brighter side, Matsuo Basho was influenced by Abutsu and chose to use the newer genre of haiku rather than tanka to include his poetic travel-journals known as haibun.

Abutsu’s diary includes 88 of her tanka. “Let me ask” shows her nostalgia for Kyoto on her way to the more provincial Kamakura. The translator is Christina Laffin:

Let me ask

if the red-beaked

red-footed bird bears

the name of the capital

which I left behind

The second diary of note is by Lady Nijo. There is a similarity of theme between hers and the most famous diary of Izumi Shikibu in the Heian era. Neither lady was afraid to write about their affairs at court in Kyoto. There is a parallel between Lady Nijo’s relationship with the ex-emperor Gofukukasa and the main characters in the world famous Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari).

In her latter years, she was able to accomplish to walk in the legendary samurai-poet-priest Saigyo’s footsteps by visiting many temples, shrines, and scenic spots. William Deal, a scholar of the medieval era, explains in this way, “Becoming a nun was one method by which women could take control of their lives in a society that gave them few lifestyle choices.”

Abutsu and Nijo both traveled from Kyoto to Kamakura in the 1280s. Abutsu died there waiting for the results of her claim for her eldest son. Twenty years, later this son finally became the legal heir. In Nijo’s case, she returned to Kyoto after traveling, and was able to unite with the ex-emperor before he died, and then continue her travels. The following tanka, translated by Karen W. Brazell, was written for one of Nijo’s lovers, a priest and half-brother of the ex-emperor. She refers to the “dawn moon” to allude to this lover who she had nicknamed Dawn Moon:

On my sleeves

reflected in tears,

the dawn moon,

if only it would remain here

after daybreak

Lady Nijo’s diary is known to have influenced only one pre-modern book, The Clear Mirror, because her manuscript was hidden until it was discovered in 1940. On the other hand, Matsuo Basho, the best-known Japanese poet in the world, acknowledged that Nun Abutsu’s work had been an inspiration for his famous travel journal, haibun, A Journey to the Far North. Basho stated, “As for travel diaries, ever since Tsurayuki, Chomei and Nun Abutsu, all have been imitation.”

It would take six centuries after the Kamakura period until two more women tanka poets to be acknowledged in Japanese literature: the first modern woman novelist and poetic diarist, Higuchi Ichiyo (1872-96) and the celebrated tanka poet and translator of a new version of The Tale of Genji, Yoshino Akiko (1878-1942).

Originally written by Carmen Sterba as Historically Speaking: Medieval Poetry Diaries in Ribbons, the journal of The Tanka Society of America, Vol 5:2 2009.


Deal, William K. Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Reischauer, Edwin, and Joseph K. Yamagiwa ed. Translations from Early Japanese Literature, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory and the Poetry of Basho, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Shirane, Haruo ed. Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, NY: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Whitehouse, Wilfrid and Eizo Yanagisawa eds. Lady Nijo’s Own Story.

Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, Inc, 1974.

Pacific Northwest American Poet Carmen Sterba, who has lived 32 years in Japan, shares her haiku, tanka, sijo, photograpy and articles along with woodblock prints.

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