I arrived in Matsuyama mid-evening. It’s a city on the north coast of the island of Shikoku, but in the dark we hadn’t even seen the bridge connecting it with the main island of Honshu from our express train. I was travelling with the writer and translator Kyoko Yoshida; she was on a research trip, I was coming along for the ride. We were met by Kyoko’s former classmate, Tomoka Kai, and taken to a Vietnamese restaurant for dinner. Sitting at the counter, Tomoka’s eyes lit up when she heard I was from Norwich, as she has plans for Matsuyama to become Japan’s first UNESCO City of Literature. And there are plenty of reasons why, as I learned over the next thirty-six hours.
First and foremost, Matsuyama is a haiku city. The tradition of writing haiku, senryu (humorous haiku) and tanka was revived in Shikoku in the late nineteenth century by the local poet Shiki, and continued by his followers after his death. Salons, clubs and journals dedicated to haiku flourished in Matsuyama, and the countryside is scattered with standing stones inscribed with haiku by generations of poets. This tradition continues today, with an annual haiku championship, haiku posters and engravings across the city, and daily programmes dedicated to haiku. Each week there’s a particular theme, to which the public responds by sending in their haiku; on Monday the presenter reads the worst of those received, but as the week continues the quality improves and the best are read on Friday.
Next day, after a stroll around the port of Mitsuhama, we visited a restaurant in an old-style house with a record playing on the gramophone. Everyone sat on the floor, eating off a tray, but when the waitress spotted my western sprawl she brought me a low stool and table, so that I could enjoy my fish and rice, black seaweed and orange juice in comfort. The same family had lived in the house for decades, and upstairs we visited their museum and archive, dedicated – of course – to haiku. The family business was originally commerce, and the current owner showed us the family logo on ancient curtains that used to hang in the doorway when the building was a shop. One of his merchant ancestors would travel around the country, allegedly on business, but in fact would spend most of his time on the road writing a haiku diary, proudly on display.
Another ancestor was the patron of a haiku club, the second oldest in the country. The club had its own journal, printed exquisitely on single sheets of paper using woodblocks, with the print getting smaller as the membership of the club grew, until a magnifying glass was needed to read the poetry. We saw copies of the final issue from the early twentieth century, still waiting to be sent out to subscribers, one of whom was the author Natsume Soseki, then a student. Although we now think of it as a novel, Soseki’s first book, I Am A Cat, was serialised in a haiku journal as prose haiku. At the back of the museum we entered a room that Shiki, Soseki and others had used for their haiku salon, with low tables and notepads laid out, waiting for twenty-first century poets to come and write their own haiku.
On the outskirts of Matsuyama we paid a visit to the lifelong learning centre, which was hosting an exhibition dedicated to Goken Maeda, the subject of Kyoko’s research. He was a poet, broadcaster and artist, producing beautiful scroll drawings and journals that combined words and pictures to charming effect. On display was his diary of life in wartime, when his house burnt down during a bombing raid, so for a month he and his family had to camp, along with many refugees flooding into the city. Although the subject matter was difficult, the ink drawings were imbued with an infectious humour.
There was also a delightful scroll diary of a trip that he and some friends took in 1948, which seemed to involve a lot of drinking; although himself a teetotaler, Goken Maeda’s fame stems in part from his enjoyment of the haiku drinking culture. As well as editing a literary baseball journal, he was the manager of the local baseball team; after his team lost very badly to a team from a neighbouring prefecture, Goken Maeda invented a baseball version of the rock, paper and scissors parlour game that continues to be performed in Matsuyama to this day.
In the neighbouring room we perused an exhibition of famous people from the region. Alongside the rows of haiku poets, I spotted various cartoon characters, which turned out to be characters from the novel Botchan, by Natsume Soseki. The novel is set in Matsuyama, but isn’t exactly complimentary about the place; the narrator Botchan hates the slow pace of life and everything about the city, eventually quitting his job as a school teacher to make his escape. Despite this, or perhaps as the city’s revenge, nowadays Botchan is everywhere, with sweets and streetcars dedicated to him, and crowds gathering around a clock waiting for Botchan characters to appear on the hour and re-enact the story. Tomoka told us that in some hotels, instead of a religious text in the bedside drawer, you can find a copy of Botchan.
Unlike Botchan, I was sad to leave the city after so short a visit, though perhaps if Tomoka Kai achieves her ambition of UNESCO city of literature designation, there’ll be more literary exchange between Matsuyama and Norwich. As the express train wove its way slowly along the coast, with views of sea and small islands on one side and low mountains on the other, past small towns, ports, rice fields, allotments and orchards full of the fifty varieties of citrus fruit for which the region is famous, I composed my own small contribution to the poetic tradition of Matsuyama.
(for Tomoka Kai)
Fish out of water
The non-poet perches on
Her stool, dropping rice
This blog first appeared on the NCW website in 2016.