One Hundred Leaves: A new annotated translation of the Hyakunin Isshu – Fujiwara no Teika, Blue Flute (Editor and Translator)

Rating: ★★★★

Soon, we will not be
in this world together
And all will be a memory:
Now, for just a moment,
How I wish to meet.

— Izumi Shikibu, #56

Better than Neruda, I tell you.
One hundred people, one poem each. That’s the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, a Japanese anthology compiled by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241), a renowned poet from Ogura, Kyoto. He is considered one of the masters of waka, a type of poetry which consists of five lines with a total of 31 syllables that now is commonly known as tanka.
Among the ones I highlighted there are poems by Sarumaru no Dayu (#5), Ono no Komachi (#9), Fujiwara no Kanesuke (#27), Ki no Tsurayuki (#35), Gyōson (#66), Lady Suō no Naishi (#67) and Retired Emperor Sutoku (#79).

Each English version is followed by the original text in Japanese and romaji and a literal translation. Some of them include long chains of possible words, so several poems can be read in so many ways and they all work – a masterful demonstration of wordplay. Additionally, some of them come with a brief explanation of the historical context in which they were written or something about the personal life of the poet.

by Ki no Tomonori (c. 850 – c. 904)

Eternal moon
And fading light-
This spring day,
A restless heart
And scattered blossoms.




Hisakata no
Hikari nodokeki
Haru no hi ni
Shizu-gokoro naku
Hana no chiruran

This poem gives a sense of long-lasting happiness (“the eternal moon”) combined with a worry that it is ending (“losing light”, “restless heart”, “scattered [cherry] blossoms”). Cherry blossoms are known for their vivid beauty, but they only bloom for a couple weeks a year before scattering and disappearing…

A recurring, useless and yet sometimes inevitable way to experience a brief moment of happiness, isn’t it? I love it for that.

As it usually happens with Japanese poetry, nature and human emotions are vividly entangled, developing strong visual descriptions. A thousand words – often difficult to utter – are replaced by one single and effective image. An endless night, a pale moon, autumn leaves, a broken brook, scattered cherry blossoms.

My personal favorite:

by Fujiwara no Toshinari (1114-1204)

Society’s midst
A tearful path,
Desiring retreat
To mountain depths–
But there too, a deer cries.




Yo no naka yo
Michi koso nakere
Omoi iru
Yama no oku ni mo
Shika zo naku naru


* Photo credit: Book cover via Goodreads.
Photo / CC


2 thoughts on “One Hundred Leaves: A new annotated translation of the Hyakunin Isshu – Fujiwara no Teika, Blue Flute (Editor and Translator)

  1. Some reviews are generous gifts, which give great joy! Thank you for this precious present. My week could not have ended on a more meditative note: I greatly appreciate the emotional entanglement of nature and humankind.

    The colour of this flower
    Has already faded away,
    While in idle thoughts

    My life goes by,
    As I watch the long rains fall.

    Ono no Komachi

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Delighted to hear you enjoyed this. And many thanks for quoting that poem, which I could read countless times and it wouldn’t lose any trace of beauty. What a joy, these poems. 🙂
    Thank you very much for reading.

    Liked by 1 person

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