Category Archives: waka

Heartfelt Waka of Saigyō

(public domain image)


As we were thinking about kototama, we came across the chapters on Saigyō in the book, Words to Live By, by Nakano Kōji, 2018, translated by Julia Winters Carpenter. For a fuller discussion of Saigyō the monk and his works, we refer you to this book.

Saigyō , 1118-1190

The monk Saigyō  lived during the turbulent times of the Genpei War between the Genji and the Heike, and the Kamakura shogunate was established. He is beloved for the honest feelings expressed in his waka, waka that reflect the kototama of Wosite and Yamato Kotoba.

Saigyō  was born Satō Norikiyo (佐藤 義清) in a samurai family; the Satō clan originated from the Northern Fujiwara, whose founder was Fujiwara no Fusasaki. The very first Fujiwara was Fujiwara no Kamatari, 614-669, of the Nakatomi clan, who received the Fujiwara name from Emperor Tenji. The Nakatomi were descended from the Mononobe of the Wosite period, who were in turn descended from Kasuga no Kami, of the Amanokoyane lineage. Saigyō was actually related to Fujiwara no Hidehira who ruled Mutsu Province and who sheltered Minamoto no Yoshitsune from his warlord brother Yoritomo during the Genpei War.

Cherry blossoms and heart

Saigyō was entranced by sakura, cherry blossoms, which are referred to as hana in waka. Here is one of his cherry blossom waka.


kozue no hana o

mishi hi yori

kokoro wa mi ni mo

sowazu nariniki

Since the day I saw

cherry blossoms in treetops 

on Mt. Yoshino,

my heart is no longer 

here inside me.

Saigyō wrote a lot about his heart.


kokoro wa mi ni mo


ika nari totemo

ika ni ka wa semu

My heart, I find,

wanders off in ecstasy

quite out of myself;

I neither know where this may lead

nor what to do about it.

Let us explain the word mi which has been translated as “I” or “me”. According to Mr. Nakano, mi refers “to the whole person without the division into body and heart/mind that is typical in the west.” Saigyō often wrote about mi and kokoro, heart/mind or simply heart. 

iza kokoro

hana o tazunu to


Yoshino no oku e

fukaku irinamu

Come away, my heart!

I’m going to search for blossoms,

I will say,

then be off to Yoshino

to enter mountain depths.

Don’t you just love the first line, iza kokoro, Come away, my heart!


If you are a lover of Bashō’s haiku, you know about his journey to Michinoku, following the footsteps of Saigyō. Saigyō wrote this at the Shirakawa border gatehouse.

Shirakawa no

sekiya o tsuki no

moru kage wa

hito no kokoro o 

tomuru narikeri

At Shirakawa

filtering into

the old gatehouse

moonlight beams arrest

the human heart.

Saigyō in his old age made another arduous journey to Michinoku. On the way, he saw the smoke of Mt. Fuji.

kaze ni nabiku

Fuji no kemuri no

sora ni kiete

yukue mo shiranu

waga moi kana

Trailing on the wind,

smoke from Mt. Fuji

fades into the sky,

drifting toward an unknown end

just like my own thoughts.

When the blossoms fall…

Saigyō wrote several waka about dying when the blossoms fall.

morotomo ni

ware o mo gushite

chirine hana

ukiyo o itou

kokoro aru mi zo


when you scatter,

take me with you too!

My heart is oh so weary

of this cruel world.

Saigyō died on the sixteenth day of the second month, as the cherry blossoms fell.



Kototama and “Now” — An Izumo Taisha Shinto Perspective


Okunomichi and WoshiteWorld are deeply interested in the study and practice of Kototama. This is another in the Kototama series of expository articles. Here, we share a Shinto view of Kototama. We received the statements below from a representative of Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine. 


Izumo Taisha (Izumo Ōyashiro) is one of the oldest and largest Shinto shrines in Japan. The taisha enshrines Ōkuninushi no Ōkami, kami of earth and spiritual world.

Shinto is the native Japanese religion which is based on traditional nature worship and animism. It does not have a particular founder, doctrine, or scripture. This is similar to old Hawaiian and Native American religions.

Nakaima, The “Now”

The word Nakaima comes from a national history book, Shoku Nihongi, Sequel to Chronicle of Japan, 797 CE [sequel to Nihon Shoki, 720 CE]. Nakaima is made up of two words, naka and ima, where the former means middle and the latter means now, the present time.

As Shinto does not have concepts about heaven and hell in the hereafter, “this world” is considered the most valuable and important time for all lives. It is the “middle” between the past and the future. “Now” is the precious time to reflect the past and expect the future.

Kototama of Norito

Shinto prayers, norito, are based on Kototama, the worship to words and language itself. From ancient times, it is said that, “The words can move the heaven and the earth” especially in the Japanese poems (waka, tanka). Traditionally, people use and choose words very carefully when they compose the poems because of Kototama, especially yamato kotoba (ancient Japanese classical words). This is why norito is composed only from yamato kotoba. When the words are pronounced, Kototama is involved — with its vibration toward the world.

Kototama and Nakaima

In Shinto cosmology, Kototama is the basic tool to affect Nakaima.  

Experience Kototama and Nakaima

To experience Kototama in Nakaima, recite Ōharae no Kotoba, the prayer for Great Purification, one of the most famous norito. 


The Harae no Kotoba below is an invocation often recited at Izumo Taisha asking Ōkuninushi no Ōkami, and all the myriads of Kami to join in the ceremony. There are three basic types of harae purification and blessing:

  • the body (to maintain health and well-being, to heal or avoid illness;
  • the soul or spirit of the living and the dead;
  • our surroundings and natural environment.

The last three lines can be recited as a short prayer for purification and blessing.

Harae no Kotoba

kakemaku mo kashikoki Izanagi no Ōkami

Tsukushi no Himuka no Tachibana no Odo no

Ahagihara ni misogi harai tamaishi toki ni

narimaseru haraido no Ōkami tachi

kamunagaranaru Ōmichi no naka ni umarete

arinagara sono mikage woshi fukaku omowazute

sumekamitachi no mimegumi wo oroka ni omi

tarishitoki ni ayamachi okaseru wa saranari

ima mo tsumi-kegare aramu woba harai tamai

kiyome tamae to mousu kotowo yaoyorozu no

kamitachi tomoni kikoshimese to

kashikomi kashikomi mo mousu

harai tamai kiyome tamae

harai tamai kiyome tamae

harai tamai kiyome tamae


Izumo Taisha, Izumo Ōyashiro, website:’

Izumo Taisha:

Norito and Oharae:  []

Kototama on Okunomichi and WoshiteWorld: Type the word “Kototama” in the Search box.

This post also appears on Okunomichi.





Kototama Waka of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken

Kototama Researchers

In a previous post, Woshite World introduced Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken as Kototama researchers of the 19th century. Both of them wrote thousands of waka, inspired by kototama and their strong feelings for their country and their people.

Waka and Wosite

The entire corpus of the Wosite literature of the Jomon period is written in waka, the 5-7 rhythm of the earth and the heavens. It was spread by Isanami and Isanagi in the Awanouta, and by their daughter Wakahirume. Wosite waka is an expression of kototama, the spirit of language. Waka poetry in the rhythm of 5-7-5-7-7 has continued on into the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Waka has given its name to the prefecture of Wakayama.

Waka is classical poetry of Japanese literature. Waka means “Japanese poem” or “Japanese poetry.” Waka poetry can be found in the eighth century documents, the Kojiki, the Nihon Shoki, and the poetry collection, the Man’yōshū . Up to the eighth century, waka was the general term for poetry composed in Japanese and included several genres including the chōka (long poem) and tanka (short poem). By the time of the Kokinshū in the tenth century, waka became synonymous with tanka. After that, “tanka” fell out of use until it was revived at the end of the 19th century. 

Emperor Meiji

Emperor Meiji

Emperor Meiji composed a multitude of waka. One of his most famous expresses his anti-war sentiment.

yomo no umi     mina hara kara to     omofu yo ni

nado nami kaze no     tachi sawa gu ra mu

The four seas are all born from one womb

I wonder why do wind and waves clamor so?

Empress Shōken

Empress Shōken

Empress Shōken composed many waka including this one that is truly heartfelt:

Shikishima no Yamato kotoba wo tate nuki ni

  oroshizu hata no oto no saya kesa

She is speaking of the Yamato kotoba of Shikishima (Nihon), as the pleasant sound of weaving the warp and woof threads with the hata-ori loom. She suggests that time and space (warp and woof) are created in harmony, and the country is doing well.