Historically Speaking: The Hermit Poet Known by Emperors and Shoguns

A Kabuki Play's Rendition of Poet Saigyo leaving Kyoto
A Kabuki Play’s Rendition of Poet Saigyo leaving Kyoto

Saigyo (1118-1190) achieved a complex combination of ideals by being both a hermit monk and one of the most prominent tanka poets of his day. He lived during the immensely violent end of the classical Heian Era and the beginning of the medieval Kamakura Era. In addition, Saigyo continues to be one of the most beloved poets in Japanese Literature as a prime inspiration for those who want to live a life of solitude in nature. He was the herald for many who came after him, including Basho.

Saigyo’s birth name was Sato Norikiyo and he was a samurai in the Sato branch of the illustrious Fujiwara family. He began writing tanka at an early age. At 23, when he was an elite guard of retired emperors in Kyoto, he decided to give up a promising career, to become a monk. In Seeds in the Heart, Donald Keene wrote that:

It is likely that the life of a hermit, secluded from the world in a lonely hut, attracted the young Saigyo more than any religious teaching, and induced him to “leave the world.” From this time on, the writings of recluses (inja) form an important genre . . .”

The reason for Saigyo’s decision to become a monk is unclear though various scholars suggest that it was because of his dislike of the corrupt lifestyle of the Imperial Court, his distaste for civil war, and/or a disappointment in love. As a monk, his choice was to live alone and as unattached to temple life as was possible. He lived on more than one mountain near Kyoto and later lived for 7 years near the main shrine in Ise, which is the center for Japan’s indigenous religion of Shinto. In Awesome Night: The Life, Times, and Poetry of Saigyo, William La Fleur explains what this syncretism between Buddhism and Shinto meant: “the official [Buddhist] doctrine of the day insisted upon a fundamental unity on the deepest level between beings revered in the temples and the kami [gods] worshiped in the shrines.”

Since he was not officiating in a temple, he was responsible for raising money for temples and that took him on many solitary travels. His willingness to combine Buddhism with Shintoism is not unusual in Japan even in modern times. It is common for Japanese to interchangeably visit both temples and shrines and have both Buddhist altars and Shinto altars in the same house.

Interestingly, Saigyo’s life as a hermit monk and a tanka poet was not as acceptable as what one might think. He struggled with the fact that as a hermit he did not give up poetry and was criticized for doing so, yet he felt strongly that writing poetry was integral to who he was. Thus, as Saigyo sought progress in his spiritual journey, he also found greater depths in his poetics. He regarded poetry similar to a Buddhist mantra or prayer. This unity of religious practice and poetry aided his personal journey. This can be seen in his tanka.

La Fleur states that Saigyo was “moved to write about paradoxes, about gaps between reality and appearance, and about attitudes and actions that ordinary society cannot comprehend because of its own attachment to illusions.”

Saigyo’s poetry is as fresh as if it had been written yesterday. And even in these two selections, which are interspersed with deep philosophical musings, lightness prevails (all the tanka are translations by Burton Watson from Poems of a Mountain Home):

If I no longer think
of reality
as reality,
what reason would I have
to think of dreams as dreams?

In this mountain village
where I’ve given up all hope
of visitors,
how drab life would be
without my loneliness

Saigyo’s continued to be attached to certain people, such the Emperor he had formerly served. “The waves” was written while he took a trip to Matsuyama where Emperor Sutoku, came to a tragic end. “We saw you off” is one of his poems written in memory his friend, Lady-in-Waiting, Fujiwara Asako:

The waves
of Matsuyama—
their aspect unchanged,
but of you, my lord,
no trace remains

We saw you off,
and returning through the fields
I thought the morning dew
had wet my sleeve

Even a person free of passion
would be moved
to sadness
autumn evening
in a marsh where snipes fly up

My mind I send
with the moon
that goes beyond the mountain,
but what of this body
left behind in darkness

“Even a person free of passion” is the most popular tanka of Saigyo’s. It dispels the image of a monk who has lost all interest in this world and shows his keen sensitivity to the movements in nature. “My mind I send” may be one of the tanka that Saigyo wrote after meditating on the moon. LaFleur states that this kind of meditation “is referred to as gachirinkan and prized by the Shingon school, the mind/heart (kokoro) of the practitioner was visualized as progressively filling with light.” (Awesome Night)

Saigyo was so famous that in 1186, when he traveled to Kamakura, which had become the military capitol of Japan after the Minamoto overcame the Fujiwara clan, he was immediately recognized at Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine and given an audience with the future Shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199). Saigyo was asked to give an impromptu lecture on tanka, the arts of archery and military horsemanship for the Yoritomo. There is a legend, that when Saigyo received a gift from Yoritomo, he immediately gave it to the first child he saw as he left to continue his travels. Not so many years later, Yoritomo’s son, Minamoto Sanetomo (1192-1219) became a well-known tanka poet and the third Shogun. At the age of 27, Sanetomo was assassinated at Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura.

It was the memory of Saigyo in the 12th century, that inspired Basho, in the 17th century, to take a trip up North to visit places where Saigyo stopped on his travels to compose tanka. Basho was certainly inspired by Saigyo’s themes and sensitivity towards nature. Basho chose to link his reputation as a poet to Saigyo even though he was not a hermit monk. Haruo Shirane writes the following in Traces of Dreams:

The Narrow Road to the Interior, which traces Basho’s journey of 1689, can be interpreted as an offering or tribute to the spirit of Saigyo (1118-90) on the five-hundredth anniversary of his death. As the ultimate host of Basho’s journey, Saigyo becomes the object of various poems of gratitude, tribute, or remembrance, particularly at the utamakura, the poetic places in which the poet’s spirit resides.

Saigyo was born into the court life of Kyoto and he was already an accomplished tanka poet when he decided to withdraw from life. This cultivated poet-monk, who was welcomed by Emperors and Shoguns, continues to be one of the most revered and inspirational of all poets in Japanese Literature.


Keene, Donald. Seeds of the Heart: To the Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century, N.Y.: Henry Holt and Company Inc., 1993.

LaFleur, William. Awesome Nightfall: The Life, Times, and Poetry of Saigyo, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003.

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

Watson, Burton. Poems of a Mountain Home, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Carmen Sterba lived in Japan for 31 years. Her first degree is in Far East Asian Studies and her second is in literature. She is an award-winning English-language haiku poet and a former officer of the Haiku Society of America. This article was first published in The Tanka Society of America Journal, Ribbons, Vol. 4 No. 1, in 2008, and also published on The Samurai Archives History Page, which can be retrieved at http://www.samurai-archives.com/sai.html.

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