The Tanka of Eishin-ryū: Part 1 – Yokogumo (revised)

26 August, 2009 by Richard

Note: all articles in this series can be found here.

Musō Jikiden Eishin-ryū and Musō Shinden-ryū are the two most widely-studied schools of iaido in the world. Both were derived from Hasegawa Eishin-ryū, which was founded by Hasegawa Chikaranosuke Eishin during the Edo period. Two generations later, the ryūha moved to Tosa, where it was transmitted until the modern era. Eishin, the seventh-generation shihan of Hayashizaki Jinsuke’s Shinmei Musō-ryū, was responsible for adapting that school’s battō techniques for the uchigatana, as well as creating a number of waza himself. The waza he created are today collected in both Musō Jikiden Eishin-ryū and Musō Shinden-ryū at the Chūden level, in the set of techniques known as Tatehiza no Bu. This set may also be referred to simply as ‘Eishin-ryū’ or ‘Hasegawa Eishin-ryū.’

Tatehiza no Bu today consists of ten waza, all but one of which is performed from the half-kneeling tatehiza position. In this position one kneels with one leg as in seiza, whilst the other is placed with the foot alongside the knee of the first. This seated position is said to come from the correct posture for kneeling in armour.

It is perhaps little-known outside Japan that Eishin-ryū has an accompanying set of nine short poems (tanka), each corresponding to one of the Tatehiza no Bu waza. It is not unusual for koryu (be they martial or otherwise) to transmit certain teachings via poems, referred to as dōka (道歌). These poems usual carry a moral message in an easily-digested format. Eishin-ryū is no exception, and contains many dōka with moral messages. The nine poems corresponding to the waza, however, metaphorically outline the basic movements of each, and perhaps more importantly they describe the feeling (心持) with which each waza should be performed.

I may be mistaken, but as far as I am aware these tanka have yet to be translated into English. Therefore, a while ago I attempted a series of tentative translations on this blog. This was a fun project but was really only meant as translation practice. However the interest many people have shown in the tanka recently prompted me to return to them and try to improve my translations. I found I had made several major errors in my previous work, and that the Japanese source I had been using also contained a couple of mistakes. This time, hopefully, I will be able to put together a better set of translations. There are a number of variations on the tanka, but for simplicity’s sake I will be translating the ones that appear in Musō Jikiden Eishin-ryū Iaidō by Jisaku Kamo (Airyudo, 1999).

Tanka usually have 31 syllables, in a 5-7-5-7-7 structure. Although I was caught out a couple of times when I first tried translating these poems, I am now satisfied that the Eishin-ryū tanka do not break this rule. In my translations, I will attempt to keep this syllabic structure, but where this is difficult I will abandon structure in favour of an accurate translation.

I will be presenting my translations in several articles. All articles in the series can be found here. Future articles may cover more than one tanka each; however, due to the length of the introduction, this first article will cover only my translation and analysis of the first tanka: Yokogumo.

Ippon-me: Yokogumo

Mist and Cherry Blossom at Yoshino-yama

The first technique in the set, Yokogumo, is the most fundamental. It takes the form of a horizontal drawing cut (yokoichimonji nukitsuke) followed by a downwards cut (kirioroshi). The waza as it appears in Musō Shinden-ryū can be seen in the video below:

Yokogumo can be translated as ‘trailing clouds,’ or ‘bank of clouds,’ and refers to low-hanging clouds that span the sky. It is often used in reference to the eastern sky at sunrise. The image of the Eishin-ryū tanka is of cherry blossom appearing to be a cloud; perhaps petals blown in a line across the sky by a storm. Its relation to the motions of the waza are clear. Tanka often reference previous classics, and this is no exception: for details, see the notes following the poem.




Okuyama wa
Arashi fuku ka ya
Miyoshino no
Hana wa kasumi no
Yokogumo no sora

Deep in the mountains
A storm is surely raging-
In Miyoshino
The blossom is a mist of
Trailing clouds across the sky

Firstly, Japanese poetry contains words associated with season (kigo, 季語). The poem above contains words associated with spring: hana (literally ‘flowers,’ here it specifically means cherry blossom) and kasumi (mist – autumn mist is kiri) are the two most obvious, but it may be worth noting that yokogumo no sora (a sky of trailing clouds) appears in a spring-themed poem by Fujiwara Teika from the Shinkokin Wakashū.

A key word in this tanka is ‘Miyoshino.’ Miyoshino refers to Yoshino, in particular Mt. Yoshino, in present-day Nara prefecture (historically, Yamato-no-kuni). “Miyoshino” is written here as 三吉野, literally “three Yoshino.” However the origin of the word is 御吉野, which is an honorific form of “Yoshino.” The pronunciation of the honorific as “mi” carries a sense of admiration for the beauty (美) of the mountain. Both forms of writing Miyoshino may be used.

Yoshino is famous for two main reasons: firstly, it is renowned for beautiful cherry blossom (sakura), which is the origin of the cherry blossom trees planted on Arashiyama in Kyoto. Secondly, it is the place where Minamoto no Yoshitsune and Shizuka Gozen supposedly parted following the Genpei War. It is also known as a misty place, and the sight of the cherry blossom in the mist is breathtaking.

It may be interesting to note that the word for “mist” used here (kasumi) is reflected in the name of the first waza of Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryū’s Okuiai, Kasumi. This waza bears several outer similarities to Yokogumo.

Yoshitsune and Shizuka under cherry blossom

Yoshino features prominently in a wide range of traditional Japanese arts. In Nō drama, it is the setting for such plays asFutari ShizukaYoshino Shizuka and Yoshino Tennin. Please understand that my following translations of lines from the Nō plays are extremely rough and only intended to give a vague sense of what they say.

A line in Futari Shizukadescribes Miyoshino thus: “One would think the flowers are clouds. If one does not draw closer, they appear to be clouds.” (花をも雲と思ふべけれ。近く来ぬれば雲と見し。)

Yoshino Shizuka contains the lines: “That sky. In the mists of Miyoshino. A waterfall of petals. A waterfall of petals in the mist. Those that fall are white clouds.” (そなたの空を。三吉野の霞のうちの。花の滝。霞のうちの花の滝。落ちゆくかたは白雲の。)

Futari Shizuka and Yoshino Shizuka are both, as their titles suggest, based upon the story of Shizuka Gozen and Minamoto no Yoshitsune. A third play, Yoshino Tennin, tackles a different theme. In the play, a man from the city (Kyoto) travels to Mt. Yoshino to see the cherry blossom. There he encounters a woman who turns out to be a celestial being (Tennin). In final part of the play, as the character disappears upon a cloud of cherry blossom, the chorus recites the following lines:

Miyoshino, with mist trailing low overhead;
The mountains of Yoshino are coloured with cherry blossom
Ride upon a cloud of petals
Ride upon a cloud of petals
Without knowing the destination.

The “mist trailing low” (kasumi mo tanabiku) and the “cloud of blown petals” (fuku hana no kumo) fit the same imagery as the Yokogumo tanka (cherry blossom, clouds of petals, low-hanging mist).

Of course, these dramas are far from the only appearances of Miyoshino in Japanese literature. I am merely scraping the surface here. I will now introduce some much older poems that the Eishin-ryū tanka echoes significantly.

Saionji Kintsune

Saionji (Fujiwara) Kintsune was a poet of the late Heian/early Kamakura period. He was a court noble and minister who became a monk, and is also known asNyūdōsaki Daijōdaijin (literally, the Grand Minister before he entered the priesthood). He wrote the following poem about Miyoshino, which appears in Gyokuyō (194). I cannot find an English translation, so I will make a rough one myself.

ほのぼのと 花の横雲 明けそめて
桜に白む 三吉野の山

Honobono to
Hana no yokogumo
Sakura ni shiramu
Miyoshino no yama

Flowers like trailing clouds
Illuminated faintly
In the growing light
The mountains of Yoshino
Are white with cherry blossom

Hana no yokogumo” is linked to the more common phrase hana no kumo, which is a metaphor for (cherry blossom) flowers that from a distance appear to be clouds. A similar image appears in the Eishin-ryū tanka, but there it is “hana wa kasumi no yokogumo no sora” (“flowers are a sky filled with trailing clouds of mist”).


Saigyō (西行) was another famous Japanese poet of the same period. His poetry is marked by an appreciation of natural beauty and a sense of loneliness.

Saigyō, who lived for part of his life as hermit on Mt. Yoshino, was particularly enamoured with the cherry blossom there. He wrote a considerable number of poems on the subject.

Although I there are many poems that I could have chosen to look at here, I will only examine two. Again, I will make rough translations myself, as I have been unable to find English versions of these.

Firstly, this poem from the Sankashū (987):


Sora haruru
Kumo narikerina
Hana mote wataru
Kaze to mitareba

When I saw the clouds
Clearing from the sky above
Yoshino’s mountains-
They looked like they were flowers
Carried upon the wind

In this poem, Saigyo describes how the clouds clearing from above the mountains of Yoshino appear to be the petals of the cherry blossom blown on the wind. The poem for Yokogumo above contains a similar image of the clouds appearing as a “mist of petals” carried upon the winds of a storm.

The other of Saigyō’s poems that I will look at also comes from the Sankashū (1454):


Takane no sakura
Kakaran mono ka
Hana no usugumo

When cherry trees
Begin to blossom upon
Mount Yoshino’s peak
Do the flowers not lie like
Thin clouds upon the mountain?

Again, flowers appearing as hazy clouds across the peak of Mt. Yoshino make an appearance. This distinctive image is clearly reflected in Yokogumo.

The tanka for Yokogumo itself seems to suggest the flowers of Yoshino drawing a horizontal line across the sky, appearing as hazy, low-hanging clouds. It may also refer to flowers carried upon the wind of a storm, into the sky, forming a literal cloud of petals. A third possible interpretation is a combination of the two: low, trailing clouds in the sky appear as if they are carrying the flowers away on the wind. Whichever interpretation is made, fundamentally this seems to be a reference to the nukitsuke of the waza (like a low-hanging cloud bank) and a certain level of “haziness” desired.

This is of course a very basic interpretation, and I make no pretense to understand the waza in enough depth to make a comprehensive analysis. However, I hope that this series of articles will offer some background on the poems that describe the desired feeling of each waza, and allow readers to reflect on how they relate to their own training. The process of translation has certainly given me a new way of looking at the waza.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR Richard Stonell Richard practises kendo, iaido, and koryu in Osaka and Kobe, Japan.