Sunday, 30 November 2014

Autumn – change and loneliness

Kyoto, November 2014

Autumn in Japan is characterised by its mild temperature and the brilliant colours of the foliage that tinges the hills with russets and brilliant reds, and the occasional burst or brilliance dotted throughout the cities. However, in literature and art, the season has strong links with feelings of desolation, loss and longing, which in western literature are more often associated with winter. Indeed, the ‘withering wind’ (kogarashi) is so intimately associated with autumn, that its mention alone is sufficient to conjure up the season.

Such phrases used in poetry are known as kigo, and among the educated, they had strong associations. Indeed, it with such a phrase that Yagyu Sekishusai began his collection of 100 verses:
One autumn evening, to while away the hours, I went to visit old friends in Yamato, but found some of those old men had already passed away, while others had gone, I know not where.

In fact, the term yugure (evening) which he uses doesn’t strictly refer to autumn, but since the late Heian period it has had particularly strong associations with the season, being mentioned by Sei Shonagon in her Pillow Book as being the exemplary time of day for that season. Given the generally sparse tone he takes, it would not seem out of place to translate it as autumn evening, rather than simply evening.

Autumn grasses in the Moonlight - Shibata Zesshin
Other common symbols of autumn include deer, the full moon, flying geese, the seven grasses of autumn (nanagusa) and, of course, momiji or scarlet maple leaves.

Despite the strong seasonal associations, there is less specific mention of such symbolism in traditional martial arts than might be imagined. This may partly be owing to the strength of these cultural associations – loneliness and loss, though all fine and good in everyday life, are quite far from the kind of feelings that are normally encouraged in the training and practice of bugei.

There are some connections, however. I have discussed Musashi’s use of the autumn monkey (also here)(stretching for the reflection of the full moon) before; likewise his momiji uchi (falling leaves strike) which cuts downwards, knocking an opponent’s sword away. 

Hiza-guruma - a technique of the Kito-ryu

Occasional references also occur in other ryu-ha – both the Mujuushin Kenpo of Harigaya Sekiun and the Kito Ryu school of jujutsu contain what is substantially the same verse extolling the virtues of flexibility:
Autumn wind, deep in the mountains, fiercely sways and shakes the leaves of the oak, while barely moving the pampas grasses

Rarer is the example provided by the Jikishinkage ryu, which includes a foundation kata named Hōjō no kata, based on the energies ascribed to the four seasons in the Chinese theory of the five elements. Autumn, in this case, emphasizes varied tempo and cutting to left and right, illustrating change. This specific linkage to elements seems unusual in Japanese bujutsu - although the basic principles illustrated by the Hōjō no kata are said to have been transmitted by Matsumoto Bizen no Kami, the school's founder, it is possible that they were later reorganized and matched to the four seasons.

Still on the subject of the five elements, there is another set of verses which is worth mentioning, although this is from the Chinese art of Xinyi, and is attributed to the founder Dai Fengzhong:

Red Maples have forgotten the six alignments
Tranquility will reveal the Five Elements
The first verse points to the naturalness and spontaneous nature of advanced technique, while also
suggesting (at least to me) the spirit of forging oneself – the bright leaves can certainly look like hot 
coals or heated metal, and I feel the specific choice of maple leaves must be saying something about the redness.
Kyoto, November 2014
This particular aspect was also used by Hikita Bungoro in momiji no metsuke (gaze of red leaves) in his Hikita Kage Ryu. Yagyu Jubei mentions this in his Tsuki no Sho, describing it as an important concept of the school, a technique of the mind to effect the opponent’s mind and movements from a distance, as if ‘viewing red leaves on yonder mountain.’ Jubei, on describing the technique in his own school describes it as ‘dying the opponent’s movements with the blood red intentions of your own mind.’
This symbolism might also be read into Hojo Ujimasa"s death poem:

The blossoms of spring do not resent the spring wind
For the red leaves of autumn are still to come
In this case, the blossoms would be the Hojo family, defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi's spring wind, while the red leaves would, perhaps, be future generations of the Hojo.
Uesugi Kenshin, by Utagawa Yoshitoshi
Although autumn symbolism may not have featured strongly in the bugei as a whole, bushi seemed to use it often enough when they turned their hands to artistic pursuits. One example of this is a poem by Uesugi Kenshin:

Frost Fills the Camp and the Autumn Air is Still
Lines of Returning Geese Cross the Moon of the Third Hour

Another of his poems runs:

The warrior makes
Of his armor a pillow
For his head alone
The first wild geese cry nearby
…which returns us to the theme of loneliness. 
Personally, however, my own feelings are closer to Keats and his
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness