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March 16, 2014

Basho's haiku on Nara (3): "Deer crying"

Nara's deer are considered the messengers of the main deity of the Kasuga Shrine, Takemigatsuchi, who came riding a deer all the way from Kashima in present-day Ibaraki Prefecture to Nara. At the same time, they remind of the Deer Park in Benares, where the Buddha gave his first sermon. They therefore have both a Shinto and Buddhist meaning and admirably fit the religious multiplex of Kofukuji Temple and Kasuga Taisha shrine which originally stood here. There are about 1,000 of them and they have always been a protected species. In the past, people who killed one of these animals received the death sentence by being buried alive; now offenders are punished in a somewhat lighter manner. It seems, unfortunately, that this protection has rather spoiled the deer, who have lost their natural meekness and have become positively aggressive. They have been observed to snatch and consume handbags of unsuspecting visitors.

[Deer in Nara Park near Kofukuji]

At night the deer are gathered in an enclosure lying to the side of the path leading to the Kasuga Shrine. A trumpet signal calls them together. To prevent them from getting into fights in rut time, their antlers are cut every year from the middle of October to early November. This is done in a special ceremony on Sundays and holidays in that period and attracts many spectators.

On the 8th day of the 9th month in 1694 (so just before his visit to Shonenji) Basho, accompanied by three disciples, took an evening walk near Sarusawa pond and heard the melancholy call of the deer in the distance. Autumn is rut time, when the deer let their cry resound through the forest. These cries in fact vary from a short presence cry, to a long and sad languishing cry (as in the haiku), a defiance cry on a high note, a pursuit cry (when the buck runs behind the doe) and triumph cry. To hear the languishing, melancholy cry in the forest, while around you the shadows are falling, can impart a feeling of deep loneliness, especially when you are a traveler.

languishing cry
sadly drawn out
deer at night

bii to naku | shirigoe kanashi | yoru no shika

[Deer in the Kasuga Shrine]

Nara's deer inspired Basho also to other haiku, for example when he came across a baby deer born on the very day the Buddha's Birthday was celebrated (April 8 in the modern calendar, the Kanbutsu Festival, also called Flower Festival):
happening to be born
on Buddha's birthday
a baby deer!

kanbutsu no | hi ni umare-au | ka no ko kana

The haiku stone stands in front of the deer enclosure to the right side of the path leading to the Kasuga Taisha Shrine. This is where the deer are gathered at night and where the ceremony of cutting the antlers takes place.30-min. walk from Kintetsu Nara Station. Or bus from JR or Kintetsu Nara Stations to Kasuga Taisha Honden bus stop. The place where the haiku stone stands is always freely accessible.