Riding the shinkansen from Tokyo to Hiroshima, I am glued to my iPhone when Stephen Gill tells me to look outside the window. The countryside — rolling hills and rice paddies — is shrouded in mist. Perhaps inspired by the scene, he begins reciting an English translation of a 17th-century haiku by Matsuo Basho:

Even not seeing Mount Fuji
Hid in misty autumn rain
Something to behold!

And with those verses, my weekend of poetry begins.

Gill is a British university lecturer, haiku poet and founder of the Hailstone Haiku Circle, which is based in Kyoto. He and four of the circle’s members have been invited by travel agency JTB to test out a haiku-themed package tour that it hopes to launch later this year. The tour will take us to Hiroshima and then to Matsuyama, a city with deep haiku roots — at various points it was home to celebrated writer Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), poet Taneda Santoka (1882-1940) and haiku modernizer Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902).

Tourists often put Kyoto and Hiroshima on their itineraries when traveling west, but only the more adventurous make it to Matsuyama. The usual route there goes via Osaka or Kobe through Kagawa Prefecture. However, Matsuyama’s city officials want to siphon off some of Hiroshima’s tourists, enticing them south with three things: haiku, Matsuyama Castle and Dogo Onsen, one of the oldest hot springs in the country.

Upon arriving in Hiroshima, our group meets a JTB tour guide and we head straight to one of the country’s most popular tourist spots, Itsukushima Island (aka Miyajima). It’s still misty, which makes for some dreamy snapshots. The fog obscures the top of Mount Misen, but the vermillion torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine stands out brightly against the gray backdrop. While the rest of the ferry’s passengers eagerly snap pictures with their smartphones, the haiku group is jotting down ideas, taking advantage of the cloudy inspiration for later poems.

After seeing the shrine we head back to the mainland. Our group boards a high-speed boat that takes us to Hiroshima Peace Park. Though the Atomic Bomb Dome doesn’t have anything to do with haiku per se, at dusk it proves to be a striking muse: skeletal form, setting sun, broken dome.

Gill has been encouraging me to think of some haiku phrasing, and I suspect the group is expecting me to produce a poem by the end of the trip. However, when he asks me what I know about haiku, I can only recall the 5-7-5 syllabic form I learned in elementary school.

“5-7-5 is a happy meter in Japanese, but not in English. Each language has its own preferred cadences,” he says, explaining that the Japanese moji (character) and the English syllable are “different animals.” The 5-7-5 format in English can sound artificial — and the best poets know when to break the rules.

“Some don’t even keep to the three-line approximation of the Japanese form,” Gill says, adding that a one- or four-line haiku can even work. “Haiku is currently more about the spirit and degree of resonance evoked in the mind of the reader rather than the accomplishment of having fitted it all into a precise form.”

While the structure can be changed, the use of kigo (seasonal words) are more important. There are obvious choices, of course, such as references to snow, cherry blossoms or the moon. But when we later attend a haiku competition, the moderator mentions a discussion on whether or not “sneeze” or “mask” could be considered kigo thanks to the annual bouts of hay fever many people suffer from each spring.

Following dinner, the Hailstone crew decide to look over the day’s notes. We try to find a pub, but everything is full so we settle for a Starbucks that ends up having a large round table that’s perfect for a haiku circle. Gill says it can sometimes take up to two weeks to perfect a poem, and at the group’s gatherings one member will present their verses and everyone else will give their impressions and make suggestions. Together, a poem is created. It’s not unlike the meetings that existed in Shiki’s time, though those poets didn’t have lattes and light house music at their sessions.

The following day we head to Matsuyama, the capital of Ehime Prefecture and the biggest city on the island of Shikoku. It’s not on the usual route for tourists, but it’s not devoid of attractions: the 88-temple pilgrimage draws a fair number of people (Matsuyama has eight locations on the journey) and the nearby Seto Inland Sea hosts an art festival that is gaining in popularity (this year’s Setouchi Triennale runs July 18 to Sept. 4 and Oct. 8 to Nov. 6).

What JTB is hoping for, however, is that tourists will go to Matsuyama via Hiroshima on the Super Jet Ferry. The ferry takes 68 minutes between the cities and has recently begun offering discounts to overseas travelers, provided they display their passport. On its journey the ferry passes under colorful bridges and by a smattering of small islands. For the poets, the ride is a good chance to think of some ideas for that night’s haiku circle.

Matsuyama hopes to sell itself as the heart of haiku in Japan. Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of both Shiki and Soseki. Native son Shiki played a part in the creation of Hototogisu haiku magazine (which is still in circulation) founded by Yanagihara Kyokudo in Matsuyama in 1897. Matsuyama-born Takahama Kyoshi later took it to Tokyo.

“Matsuyama’s haiku heyday was quite short, though it continued to produce and house fine poets,” Gill says. “Shiki coined the term ‘haiku’ for the new 5-7-5 form. Until then it had been hokku.”

Unlike the more staid poetic styles of the time, Shiki’s was interested in shasei, meaning sketching directly from nature, in all its messiness — a form of objectivism in line with the New World ideas that had begun entering Japan in the late 1800s. And, says Gill, “his style went forward into modern times, though Shiki himself died young.”

Even if its moment in the poetry spotlight was brief, Matsuyama is still pinning its hopes on haiku. As we head to the 400-year-old Matsuyama Castle on Mount Katsuyama, our group encounters a haiku mailbox. About 100 such boxes are scattered around the city and outside Ehime Prefecture — at tourist spots, on streetcars and in some hotels. Residents and visitors have only to write down their verses on a piece of paper and drop them in the post. From there the poems are taken to a government office where officials select the best compositions to post on public bulletin boards.

We enter the castle grounds and the poets take a moment to jot down what they see. I look out of the castle’s windows and see lush green hills bursting through the city sprawl. I like the action implied in the word “bursting,” and I think I may have something to bring to the table later that night — the poem’s kigo could be the spring green hills.

The city’s other main tourist attraction is the Dogo hot spring, which is said to date back around 3,000 years. The honkan (main building) was erected in 1894 and is one of a number of traditional baths that served as the inspiration for the bathhouse in the Hayao Miyazaki film “Spirited Away.” When we arrive there in the evening, a festival has begun — performers bang away on drums, treats are thrown from the balconies and it seems like almost everyone is dressed in yukata (summer kimono). After our short ride here on a street tram it feels like we’ve entered a different city, it has an incredibly southern vibe to it — all that’s missing is a beach.

The line outside Dogo Onsen Honkan is very long (arrive early if you want to get in), so our group heads to the nearby Yamatoya Honten Hotel as an alternative. After a quick soak we gather at the hotel’s noh stage to catch a short show by the establishment’s owner, lit by torches and under a moonlit navy blue sky. I find myself trying to find words for the colors, the surroundings — after two days of watching the group recording their trip through poetic turns of phrase, I find myself doing the same thing. Haiku is contagious.

That night, a bar in Matsuyama hosts a haiku event in honor of the tour. The table is a little more cramped than the one we scored at Starbucks, but it’s a good chance to share the day’s verses and ideas.

I tentatively present my first poem:

Emerald green hills
Bursting through
An urban sea

The group ponders it for a moment. Someone suggests “Bursting through the cement of,” to which Gill adds that it would be good to mention Matsuyama so the reader doesn’t have to guess the location.

I try again:

Emerald hills
Bursting through Matsuyama’s
Cement sea

The group gives a toast to my effort and we move on to the next poem.

As a Tokyoite, I tend to block out my surroundings. And while I learned a lot about the history and innovators of haiku on this trip, the biggest impression that it left on me was the need to look up from my iPhone, and reflect on the natural world around me.

Matsuyama is 4½ hours from Osaka (via Okayama) by train, or a 68-minute ride from Hiroshima on the Super Jet Ferry. Shaun McKenna traveled courtesy of JTB.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.


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