27 July 2008

Wordcatcher Tales: Kuhi, Ayu, Ukai

Our spirits were sagging after a long spell in the steamy, body-temperature heat of Gifu, Japan, during last week's day trip there from Nagoya. We had arrived in Gifu on an early train, then walked 3 km through still-empty side streets to the cormorant-fishing area near the base of Mt. Kinka, site of Gifu Castle. We spent the morning taking the ropeway to the top, having a look around, then walking down the so-called 100-bend (百曲 hyaku-magari) trail, said to be shorter than the 7-bend trail that started from the same spot at the top. The trail proved to be not only much steeper and rougher, but also more twisted than we had expected. The last 35 bends from the bottom were marked with milestones and signs that counted down from 35 out of 135, rather than 100. We arrived at the bottom overheated and soaked with sweat.

We cooled off in the air conditioning of the wonderful Nawa Insect Museum, founded in 1919 by a Japanese entomologist from Gifu, Yasushi Nawa, who discovered what is now called the Gifu Butterfly, Luehdorfia japonica. Cormorant fishing would not start until nightfall, so we spent much of the afternoon relaxing in two hotel lobbies that overlooked the Nagara River, first the bland new Park Hotel, then the more storied 十八楼 (juuhachi-rou '18-storey') hotel.

Nawa Insect Museum sign, Gifu, Japan

句碑 kuhi 'verse monument' – On the far side of the lobby, we found a bench by the window looking directly onto a stone monument in a tiny garden beside a low flood wall bordering the river. We were well into our beers, served in bottles with stoneware goblets, when I noticed a small plaque by the window that explained the significance of the monument, into which had been carved a replica of a verse that the famous traveling poet Bashō was said to have composed on that very spot in 1688. The term for such a monument is kuhi: the ku is the same as in haiku (俳句), while the hi can be read in native Japanese as tateishi 'standing stone' or ishibumi 'stone writing'. The monument itself was not erected until much later, during the late Tokugawa period.

Haiku by Basho at the Nagara River, Gifu, JapanThough my opinion matters little, the verse itself does not strike me as Bashō's best work. The 5-8-5 – rather than 5-7-5 – syllable (or mora) structure is not that important. The haiku tradition was much less rigid in its early days, and Bashō was one of its principal creators. But that verse monument certainly did lend a certain caché to an otherwise unremarkable hotel lobby overlooking a cool river on a hot day. (Of course, the taste of the 啤酒 [Ch. pijiu 'beer'] also made a vital contribution to all that was refreshing about that spot at that moment.)

このあたり 目に見ゆるものは 皆凉し
kono atari / me ni miyuru mono wa / mina suzushi
this spot / things the eye beholds / all is cool
(= in this place all that meets the eye is cool)

ayu 'sweetfish' – Both the cormorants and the humans of Gifu eat a lot of ayu 'sweetfish' from the Nagara River. So we rewarded ourselves for a grueling day by eating dinner at a nice restaurant that specialized in ayu, the Kawaramachi Izumiya. We ordered the shortest multicourse dinner and a small bottle of a local sake named 三千盛, which means '3,000 peak/prime/zenith' but sounds like michi sakari 'the highest point on the road'. The appetizer (前菜 zensai) course included a pungent bit of fish that resembled anchovy, some tiny pickled ayu, and a more subtly fish-flavored breadstick along with some vegetables. Next came a smelt-sized ayu broiled on a skewer, to be eaten whole, from head to tail. The tempura course featured ayu and vegetables, with a salt mixture rather than sauce (dashi) to dip them in. The ayu porridge (zōsui) course also featured a tiny fish steak wrapped in kelp, cabbage pickles, and pickled red turnip (aka kabu). The dessert course was a slightly savory sorbet flavored with mountain vegetables (sansai, 山菜). It was a memorable meal, and much better than what we would have been able to take or buy aboard the riverboat.

Statue of fisherman and cormorant, Gifu, Japan鵜飼 ukai 'cormorant feeding' – The actual exhibition of cormorant fishing involved a lot of waiting around interspersed with bits of verbal and video orientation. The word ukai literally means 'cormorant feeding/raising', not 'fishing'. Despite being leashed to prevent them swallowing large fish, the birds do manage to swallow the smallest fish. On the night we attended, the catch itself was not all that impressive. After the exhibition, we were quizzed a bit by a Canadian photographer aboard our boat who was doing a magazine article on cormorant fishing. He was concerned with the animal cruelty angle, but it seems to me that most city people from developed countries have lost touch with the concept of animals as coworkers, and are only able to view animals as pets—as pampered dependents, not working dependents.

UPDATE: The same word for 'feeding/raising' (飼い) occurred in a sign imploring citizens to pick up after their dogs and not let them 'run loose' (放し飼い hanashigai 'loose-raise').

UPDATE 2: Doc Rock quotes another fitting verse by Onitsura (鬼貫) that I like better than the one Bashō is famous for in Gifu. It's more visual and kinetic. Here's Onitsura's verse, my transliteration, and Donald Keene's translation.
Yuugure wa / ayu no hara miru / kawase kana
At the close of day / you see sweetfish bellies / in the river shallows

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