Briton aims to restore poets’ peak to former glory

Working with locals, Stephen Gill pens poems, haiku in praise of Kyoto's famed Mount Ogura

by Jane Singer

Special To The Japan Times

Nineteen university students and civic-minded Kyoto residents squat on a mountain pass on a cloudless afternoon in early October as a tall British poet, Stephen Gill, 58, reads from a collection of haiku.

In British-inflected but fluent Japanese, he recites poems about this mountain, Mount Ogura, in the western Kyoto suburb of Saga-Arashiyama. The group listens thoughtfully, then returns to their main task for the day: retrieving illegally dumped garbage that has been tossed from the road to blight the steep mountainside.

Mount Ogura is a “paramount poet’s peak” in Gill’s words. Matsuo Basho, Kyorai and Saigyo are among the famous poets in the past who wrote of the turtleback mountain’s beauty. The Japanese card game karuta is based on the “Ogura Hyakunin Isshu” (“One hundred Poets’ Poetry Anthology”) compiled by 12th century poet Fujiwara no Teika when he lived near the base of Mount Ogura.

Yet today the mountain is badly neglected, visited mainly by trucks at night that dump corrugated tin strips, tires and other detritus from the roadside. With his volunteer group, Gill is now seeking another type of poetic justice for this once beloved and now besmirched mountain.

In an interview after the NPO event, Gill is asked to describe the kind of work he does. He pauses, then quickly calculates: “About 60 percent on my day is now occupied with translation of a Japanese dictionary on stones, 20 percent on writing or teaching haiku, 10 percent on Mount Ogura volunteer work, 10 percent on teaching and radio scripts for BBC programs, and another 10 percent on ike-ishi, (an original art form featuring found stones that Gill often exhibits with his poetry).”

This man of many parts (excluding arithmetic, perhaps) initially read haiku as a youth in Yorkshire, in northern England. He first came to Japan in 1974, intending to visit many of the sites where Basho had written his poems.

After a year studying arts and Japanese, Gill returned to the University of London, from which he graduated in 1979. Thereafter he worked mainly in London as a licensed gemologist and in writing for broadcasting media, but he also did similar work for a few years in Tokyo and Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture.

While in London he deepened his haiku study as a director of the 300-member British Haiku Society. In 1994 he helped organize a conference on Basho’s haiku at his London alma mater, where he met his mentor, the literary translator Nobuyuki Yuasa, who greatly influenced his subsequent work.

In 1995 Gill and his wife, Kazumi, took up long-term residence in Japan, settling in the atmospheric western Kyoto suburb of Saga. Gill initially taught comparative culture at local universities and explored the local mountains on foot. “I soon noticed that people were no longer spending time on the mountains, collecting firewood or mushrooms, as they used to. And there was a lot of rubbish there, rampant tree disease, trees falling on the footpaths,” he says.

One day, back in August 2003, Gill spent 16 hours walking the paths of Mount Ogura. In the course of the day he wrote 100 poems, which he published in a book, “One Poet on Mount Ogura, 100 Verses in a Day.” His poems are unsparing:

Heat of the day — A pine-clad cliff

Down which a washing machine

Has tumbled.

In March 2004 he displayed the poems along with photos, collected stones and some discarded trash at a gallery show that received local media coverage. At his show, Gill met a local environmental activist, Okiharu Maeda, and together they decided to capitalize on the attention by starting a cleanup campaign at Mount Ogura.

“The exhibition served as a catalyst for volunteer activities and large-scale events, including haiku walks. In 2008 five or six of us formed an NPO, People Together for Mount Ogura (PTO),” he says.

Mount Ogura is rich in contradictions: Stately oaks and red pine tower above, but many are beset by deadly insect-borne infestations; far below lies the sparkling Hozu River, traversed by pole-propelled sightseeing boats, yet the underground springs that once flowed here are now just trickles, after a train tunnel was bored through the mountain in the 1980s.

The young saplings needed to regenerate the mountain are being nibbled away by invasive deer and wild boars, and the paths for hikers are often choked with fallen trees and brush.

PTO now sponsors two or three activities a month on the mountainside, including felling and sawing red pines infected with pine wilt, maintaining the overgrown mountain paths, repairing bamboo fencing to protect saplings from ravenous deer, and garbage cleanups; in short, tackling many of the environmental problems that now plague Japan’s abandoned secondary forests nationwide.

Some of the cleanup volunteers first learned of Mount Ogura in Gill’s haiku classes, which he teaches once a month at a Doshisha University building in downtown Kyoto. The haiku group, Hailstone Haiku Circle, shares haiku in English among its Japanese and non-Japanese members.

Gill says that Japanese write fine haiku in English: “Japanese already understand the poetic ideas of haiku, the underplayed emotions and the seasonality, so they’re brilliant, although they may sometimes have to explain their references in English.”

In 2008 PTO solicited haiku and tanka about Mount Ogura from hundreds of people and in 2010 they published a fundraising book, “One Hundred Poets on Mount Ogura, One Poem Each.” The book’s 100 contributors, aged 7 to 89, wrote in English or Japanese about their fondness or nostalgia for the mountain.

To Ogura I have come,

The hill I have looked at

Every morning and eve:

Enjoying again its mountain paths

I once walked as a child

- Yoshihiro Tsuchida

Mount Ogura has also been featured in one of the many radio shows Gill has produced for the BBC. His broadcast on Japan’s singing insects — crickets, grasshoppers, cicadas — was awarded a Sony Radio Academy Award in the late 1980s for best arts documentary.

“I love introducing a Japanese message to people around the world. Haiku has been a great vehicle for introducing Japanese culture, particularly through radio programs,” he says.

The irony of a foreigner leading conservation efforts for this historic mountain is not lost on the Japanese. As an 89-year-old local resident writes in one of the poems in the One Hundred Poets book,

To the nation’s mount of poetry . . .

a foreigner guides me there!

- Mie Takazawa

In Japan, Gill says, “people will re-create nature in a small area like the cherry tree in Kyoto’s Maruyama Park, but no one goes to view the ancient cherry trees in the surrounding mountains. We need to get people to enjoy the nature on their doorsteps.”

He points to the traditional landscaping principle of shakkei, or “borrowed scenery,” as contributing to this neglect. “With shakkei the mountains behind the temple are regarded as merely a backdrop and no more. Yet these mountains, with their wild boars and deer, their birds and footpaths, are the nearest ecology we have. These are lived in, vital places, and we should understand their beauty and their utility.”

For more information about People Together for Mount Ogura, visit ptogura.web.fc2.com/ep.html. The next volunteer cleanup activity will be held Nov. 27.