Kigo | Autumnal Japanese Poetry

Aki kinu (秋来ぬ) meaning autumn has arrived.

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  • 4 min read

,As the temperature drops, wouldn’t you just love a word to express all those ephemeral ‘things’ in the air- the crunch of a leaf, the sound of the wind in the trees, the sadness at it being all cold again?

Well, in Japan they have this nailed (naturally). Traditional forms of Japanese poetry are written with ‘kigo’, evocative words or phrases associated with a particular season. There’s even a Japanese dictionary of seasonal words, known as saijiki.

Every kigo reflects the Japanese appreciation of nature, a sensitivity to the changing of the seasons and an awareness of the passage of time. Often just a couple of words will capture a whole feeling, mood or sound.

To celebrate (commiserate?) the onset of autumn, we’ve dug out some wonderfully descriptive autumnal kigo to drop into conversation. Don’t blame us if you pronounce them incorrectly, mind, and accidentally call your boss a dog, then lose your job, then go all Michael Douglas in Falling Down.

Aki no kure あきのくれ: autumn dusk. A bunch of youngsters soaking up the last slither of warmth (aka zansho ざんしょ), on the bank of the Kamo River, Kyoto.

A visit to the Yanaka house of poet Masaoka Shiki, one of the greatest writers of the Meiji period. Dried loofahs and gourd laid on the veranda: kabocha カボチャ (pumpkins and gourd) are associated with the autumn harvest.

Autumn's voice and the sounds of the season: aki no koe あきのこゑ. Wind in trees, insect cries, patter of rain.

Imoni 芋煮 is a type of taro and meat soup traditionally eaten in the autumn in the Tōhoku region of Japan, where families get together for imonikai. Yamagata Prefecture is particularly famous for its imoni, but other prefectures in the region also have their own different varieties.

Sitting under lamplight: tōka shitashi 燈下親し.

Fading light: taishoku suru hikari 退色する光, at the aptly named (and wonderfully hospitable) Sunshine Ryokan in Mashiko.

Crisp and refreshing autumn air: sayakeshi さやけし.

Shiranui 不知火 is an atmospheric ghost light mythical in Kyushu, said to appear early in the autumn.

Ogi no koe 荻のこゑ: wind in the reeds, literally voice of the reeds.

Kirifusuma 霧襖: a wall of fog, literally a sliding door of fog, over the dunes at Holkham Bay, Norfolk.

Mi ni shimu 身に入む: soaked to the bone at the famous Kenroku-en garden, Kanazawa. Or, on a more ephemeral and depressing note, ‘feeling that cold air and loneliness of autumn deep in your body’.

Ashikari 蘆刈: reed cutting in the autumn harvest. Usually reserved for rice, but here’s some sorghum straw instead. It’s grown and harvested in Ibaraki prefecture by the lovely Azusa, who makes our brooms and brushes. Plus cotton harvesting at the Higeta Dye House in Mashiko.

Fuyu gomori 冬ごもり, hibernation from the cold, often combined with shūshi 秋思 or autumnal melancholy. You need to get yourself one of those SAD lamps, pal.

The abundant fruits of autumn: pomegranate zakuro 石榴 and fig ichijiku 無花果.

Tsukimi 月見: full moon viewing, common in autumn when the skies are clear, in the historic village of Gokayama.

Momijigari 紅葉狩: leaf peeping, it’s a common group activity to go see the leaves changing colour (that’s called usumomiji 薄紅葉).

The printmaker Catherine Moore, deliciously illustrating the coloured leaves- kōyō 紅葉 - of the fall.

Kakashi 案山子: scarecrows- commonly associated with autumn harvest- taken to the next level in Nagoro, Tokushima. Faced with a declining population, local resident Ayano Tsukimi creates a new scarecrow to resemble each person who leaves the village, creating a new community of friendly faces.

The parading of autumnal deer, shika 鹿 in Nara. And, last but not least, our favourite translation- wild boar aka uribō うりぼ- literally an autumnal ‘melon boy’.

Wishing you a happy and healthy autumn season.

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