Section : Ryushaku-ji - 立石寺
("There is a mountain temple in the domain of Yamagata")
There is a mountain temple in the domain of Yamagata called the Ryushaku-ji. It was founded by the Great Teacher Jikaku, and is a place noted for its tranquillity. .... we climbed to the temple itself at the summit. Boulders piled on boulders had created this mountain, and the pines and cedars on its slopes were old. The earth and stones were worn and slippery with moss. At the summit the doors of the temple buildings were all shut, and not a sound could be heard. Circling around the cliffs and crawling over the rocks, we reached the main temple building. In the splendor of the scene and the silence I felt a wonderful peace penetrate my heart (こころすみ行く).


shizukasa ya
iwa ni shimiiru
semi no koe

How still it is here --
Stinging into the stones,
The locusts' trill.

(from The Narrow Road to Oku,
Donald Keene, translator)

The Risshaku-ji (Ryushaku-ji in Oku) is a mountain temple with long paths through dark, old cedars and rocky pathways. (The temple's Jse language homepage and map are here.) The number of steps down, for example, from the summit (Oku no In) to the main building of Risshaku-ji count out to 870 (according to the Bashouan web site). The crags there are of volcanic rock and rather porous. There is a possibility that Basho is speaking about a sense that these rocks mute the sound of the cicadas in comparison to how they sound in the forest. Below are some pictures of the crags ("iwa") that he refers to. In the first you can get a sense of scale, and if you look closely, a stone lanter on the path gives you a sense of the nature and narrowness of the walk. In the second, the volcanic characteristics of the rock are quite clear. The third is a large crag near the main building of Risshakuji.

A poem by Tu Fu says, "Cicadas' voices merge together at an old temple." Basho further enhanced the poetic beauty of the scene by introducing the image of rocks absorbing the voices. --Moran (1713-1779, haiku poet and chief priest of Myoho Temple in Shimousa)

Not a single sound was heard at this quiet place, except the voice of the cicadas that was so forceful that it seemed to seep into the rocks. --Sanga (Haiku poet who wrote a book on Basho in 1793)

If my sensibility is reliable, there should not be many circads here. -- Mizuho (1876-1955, tanka poet and classical scholar)

I disagree. The whole mountain is filled with the cicadas' screech. -- Watsuji (1889-1960, philosopher and scholar, an "intellectual leader of his generation")

In the word shimiiru ["to seep / stain into" -- Wallace] we sense motion in stillness, and stillness in motion. Basho, with his consummate art, captured this oneness of motion and stillness in a short poem. -- Ebara (1894-1948, scholar of renga and haikai at Kyoto University)

(excerpted from Basho and His Interpreters by Makoto Ueda)

Poetic technique -- alliteration in this poem

With the consonant "s" and the alternating vowels "i" (ee) and "e" (eh), Basho has brought together in this poem sounds that echo the actual sounds of cicadas and that metaphorically seem resonant with the concept of staining or seeping into something:

shizukasa ya iwa ni shimiiru semi no koe

(shee-zoo-ka-sah-yah / ee-wah knee / shee-mee-ee-roo seh-me no koh-eh)

What was the sound Basho heard?

Of course we cannot say exactly what Basho heard, nor would that necessarily be the final say in how he chose to write the poem even if we did know. Basho wrote and rewrote Oku no hosomichi, so we are in a poetic world, not just an empirical world, in this case of this poem and the work as a whole.

That being said, it might be useful here to make available some possible sounds. There is no agreement among scholars as to which of the many, many cicadas was singing at that time in that location, or indeed if only one species was prominant. Further, cicada songs vary from solo songs, to chorus, to "screeching" for each type of cicada. For a very complete, bilingual cicada web site go here. On a separate page (because of the file size they download extremely slowly for individuals with dialup, not cable, dsl or other internet connections) are .wav files of solo and chorus song for the two cicada which have been leading contenders for this temple at that time of year: aburazemi / Graptopsaltria nigrofuscata and niiniizemi / Platypleura kaempferi. Go here.