Nine lives: meditating cats in paradise


Celebrity cat profile

Name: Haiku

Age: 1 year, 8 months

Breed: tabby mix

Favorite foods: catfish, paw-paws

Favorite plants: junipurr, “neko jarashi,” cattails

Favorite artist: Cat Stevens

Hobbies: meditating, writing haiku

Today I will introduce you to a cat who writes haiku. This cat, named Haiku, lives in northern Okayama Prefecture and was adopted by a German couple, Gabi and Bernd Greve, who run GokuRakuAn (Paradise Hermitage), a retreat in the mountains.

Upon my arrival at GokuRakuAn, however, the cat was nowhere to be found. “He’s off writing haiku,” said a three-colored cat curled up in a basket on the table. She stretched her neck in my direction, and I responded to her subtle request by stroking her head.

“But I had an appointment,” I said.

“Not so simple,” said the cat. “Cats are not people. We don’t keep appointments.”

“Catastrophic!” I declared. “How will I complete my interview? And who are you?”

“I am O-tsu,” she mewed, “Haiku’s mother.”

I kept my hand on her head, hoping to stroke some information out of her.

“Maybe I can help you,” she said.

“Could you tell me a little bit about your son?”

She pawsed for a moment to think, and then began: “Haiku-kun was born on the auspicious day of April 9, 2004, when the haiku master and chairman of the World Haiku Club, Susumu Takiguchi, came to visit GokuRakuAn. It was early in the morning and I hadn’t gotten a lick of sleep, but I had found a nice warm birthing spot under the ‘kotatsu’ table. His first mews were so poetic, we knew he would be a natural, so we named him Haiku-kun.

“These days cats cannot compete with the modern mousetraps, so many of us are unemployed. So we groomed him to become a haiku master by making him the honorable vice director of the World Kigo Database Project.

“Would you like some hot milk?” she offered. “It’s a delickacy around here.”

“Thank you,” I accepted, warming to her feline charm. “What is the World Kigo Database Project?”

“This is Haiku-kun’s pet project to collect and catalog words from all over the world that may be used as ‘kigo’ (seasonal words) for haiku of the respective areas. It is based on the concept of a Japanese dictionary of seasonal words (‘saijiki’), but addresses all cultures and regions of the whole world. Cats are a kigo for spring, for example.

“Haiku-kun was also the catalyst for starting the cat haiku genre, and he has really brought the art form to purrfection,” she said.

“Cat haiku?”

“You don’t know? Let me explain. Haiku comes from traditional ‘hokku,’ a form of poetry with five, seven and five syllables. There is often a pause at the end of the first five, such as in this poem by the great Japanese master Matsuo Basho”:

An old pond —
The sound of a frog jumping
into water

“Cat haiku is a little different, since it is tailored to cats and written by cats. Whereas hokku uses a five-seven-five pattern, cat haiku uses a four-one-M pattern: four paws, one tail and a meow. Haiku-kun is responsible for letting the cat out of the bag on this one, and catapulting cat haiku to popularity.”

“Is cat haiku really that popular?”

“Well, you’ll never find it in the tabbyloids, but it is gaining popularity. Even humans are pawning off their haiku as cat haiku nowadays. You’ll also find some excellent cat ‘haiga’ (paintings to match haiku) such as the works by the Russian artist Olga Hooper.”

“Can you give me an example of cat haiku?”

O-tsu squinted her eyes, started purring, then recited:

quince in full bloom —
I just love the smell
of that Siamese tomcat

“The catch is, we like to give our poems a little chutzpaw, even make them amewsing.”

“What was the purring for?” I asked.

“I wasn’t purring,” she said, “I was meditating. Here is a cat haiku by Haiku-kun”:

love season for cats —
the neighbor’s daddy too
returns in the morning

“Can you give our readers some general tips on writing haiku?”

“I will give you some wisdom from the master cat. Haiku entails emptying your mind, because the mind has to be empty for something to come in. This is why cats like to meditate. Find a quiet spot, or listen to some quiet mewsic to help you relax, then turn your mind off and let nature work. Let nature communicate with you.”

That evening I stayed overnight at GokuRakuAn. Gabi and Bernd prepared the ‘rotenburo’ outdoor bath (heated with a wood furnace), and I watched the snow fall with a beer in my hand. Later, snuggled in my futon, I dreamed about the mountains with a fresh layer of snow on them. The next morning, near the tail end of my stay, there was still no sign of the great master Haiku-sensei. When I went to breakfast, however, there was a haiku waiting on the table for me from the master himself:

Heavy snowfall —
a white silence