Food in Classical Haiku: First Thoughts

top view photography of green crop field

While saijiki generally focus on contemporary haiku, I also felt called to take a look at classical haiku to see how poets of the past incorporated food into their work. Since I have to rely on translation, and no two translations are the same, I plan to revisit this topic from time to time, exploring different translations of the same poem when I can. For this post, all poems come from The Sound of Water (Shambhala Centaur Editions, 2000), which is Sam Hamill’s collection of classical haiku translations.

Earlier this year, I wrote about how I detected three primary ways that food relates to haiku seasons:

  1. Food words that are a definite seasonal referent;
  2. Food words that are not part of any specific season;
  3. Food words that become seasonal with an additional modifying word

In The Sound of Water, most of the haiku I found fit into the first two categories. I also found that most of the poems connected to food were summer poems. Of course, this is just one small book, so I’m not making definitive statements yet. At the very least, it was interesting to see what turned up in the context of this anthology.


Breakfast enjoyed
in the fine company of
morning glories

Matsuo Bashō

I begin each day
with breakfast greens and tea
and morning glories

Takarai Kikaku

Breakfast is an all-year word. You either eat breakfast, or you don’t. While the Muslim observance of Ramadan requires fasting during the day, this holy period isn’t tied to a specific season. Even the image of “breakfast greens” in Kikaku’s poem doesn’t inherently create a specific season; there are bitter herbs in spring, abundant greens in summer, and hardy greens in autumn. Only in winter is it tough to find fresh greens. Even then, the poem might be referring to pickled greens. It’s the word morning glories in each poem that signify summer.

sweet healthy sliced melon in white bowl
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

Wet with morning dew
and splotched with mud, the melon
looks especially cool

Matsuo Bashō

All by itself,
that beautiful melon,
entirely self-sufficient

Hattori Ransetsu

Melon is generally a summer kigo. While there can be some early spring melons, and some that appear in autumn as well (you could get a decent cantaloupe shockingly late in Texas), they are generally at their best in the summer. These 17th-century haiku have a timeless feel to them. While there are some stylistic elements that indicate they are classical rather than contemporary, they don’t seem stodgy or old. I love that haiku poets have been writing about cool, beautiful melons for centuries. The above poems show me how food really does connect us to ancestors, whether they be family members, or our artistic lineage.

Singing, planting rice,
village songs more lovely
than famous city poems

Matsuo Bashō

With the noon conch blown
those old rice-planting songs
are suddenly gone

Yosa Buson

My noontime nap
disrupted by voices singing
rice-planting songs

Kobayashi Issa

For rice-planting women
there’s nothing left unsoiled
but their song

Konishi Raizan

Rice was the food I found referenced the most in The Sound of Water, yet in this collection, poems about it are entirely related to agriculture. Many poets wrote specifically about rice-planting, and about the songs that the field workers sang. (I’m sure it’s an effect of the translation, but Bashō’s rice-planting poem has a certain Whitmanesque quality to it . . . or perhaps “Song of Myself” has a certain Bashōesque aspect.) These poems also illustrate the value of not just having a saijiki, but having a few different ones on hand! It’s easy to make assumptions about a time of year based on your own experience, which is necessarily limited. I associate planting of all kinds with spring, which isn’t even accurate in the United States! There are a number of crops and flowers that get planted in the fall to winter over, and bloom in spring. At first, I was putting these classical rice-planting haiku in the spring category. Then, however, I consulted with Yamamoto Kenkichi’s The Five Hundred Essential Japanese Season Words. There, I found that rice-planting related to summer! It would have been so easy for me to assume these were spring haiku, and I’m glad I had reference material on hand to guide me in the right direction.

Without a sound,
munching young rice-plant stalks,
a caterpillar dines

Hattori Ransetsu

The only haiku I found related to eating rice didn’t involve humans, nor the grains of rice that make up a staple of the human diet. Rather, a caterpillar is dining on the fresh, young stalks. The young stalks, as well as the caterpillar that is not yet a butterfly, ground us in summer.

When the wild turnip
burst into full blossom
a skylark sang

Kobayashi Issa

While I’ve never seen a wild turnip in real life, Issa’s haiku reminded me of the giant squash blossoms that appear in the summer, and how glorious they are. Whether in a domestic garden, or something you might forage, the vibrancy of summer is something that endures over the centuries in the haiku tradition.


Autumn breezes
spin small fish hung to dry
from beach house eaves

Yosa Buson

While certain species of fish are best harvested at certain times of the year, that level of specificity doesn’t appear in Buson’s haiku. Rather, the direct naming of the season tells us where we are in the year. The general concept of fish is an all-year term, but the seasonal referent can lend clues to what type of fish they might be. Perhaps Buson is referring to sardines, which are in season late summer and through the fall. The image of the drying fish also reminds the reader that this is the time to preserve food for the long winter ahead.

cooked ramen
Photo by Cats Coming on

In this mountain village,
shining in my soup bowl,
the bright moon arrives

Kobayashi Issa

Here in Shinano
are famous moons, and buddhas,
and our good noodles

Kobayashi Issa

Neither soup nor noodles are inherently seasonal. As with fish, specific types of soup or noodles better correspond to certain parts in the year. A chilled soup is more appropriate in the summer. Soba noodles are part of the New Year’s ritual. Yet the words “soup” and “noodles” in and of themselves need modifiers. I place these two haiku in autumn because of the presence of the moon, an autumn kigo.


Plum blossoms in bloom
in a Kitano teahouse,
the master of sumo

Yosa Buson

As I mentioned in my June post “The Seasons of Tea,” people consume tea year-round. In formal tea ceremony, the dishes you serve varies from season to season. The presence of plum blossoms in Buson’s haiku indicate that we’re at a teahouse in springtime.

Only the shoots
of new green leaves, white water,
and yellow barley

Yosa Buson

The shoots of young plants, whether leaves or grasses, is a common spring kigo. None of the plants are fully formed. The water is frothy with melted snow and spring rain. There is nothing yet to harvest, whether that be mature barley or fruit from the tree. Yet this haiku points to the sheer amount of potential inherent in springtime.

barley field
Photo by Filippo Peisino on

People, more people
scurrying through spring breezes
along the rice-field dikes

Ichihara Tayo-Jo

Rice fields once again appear in spring. Here, the emphasis is on humans coming and going on their journeys, walking along the fields that grow their food. The verb “scurrying” suggests that these people are busy, inattentive, perhaps not even noticing that the source of a staple crop is all around them. It turns out it’s not only the modern age that takes people out of the present moment!


Through frozen rice fields
moving slowly on horseback,
my shadow creeps by

Matsuo Bashō

One of the things I found interesting while rereading The Sound of Water is the extent to which rice fields can appear in all seasons, but no haiku about people eating rice. That’s not to say those types of haiku don’t exist in the classical tradition; they just didn’t make their way into this book. I’m curious to reread more classical anthologies to see what differences I find. The above haiku also points to how a rice field in and of itself isn’t inherently seasonal; it’s other words, such as frozen, that ground us in a specific time of year.

yellow latex gloves on dish rack
Photo by Lisa Fotios on

Walking on dishes
the rat’s feet make the music
of the shivering cold

Yosa Buson

Maybe the dishes are lying dirty in a basin, because it’s so cold, nobody wants to deal with them. Or maybe the dishes are clean and put away, but the rat is rattling around on them, looking for some warmth. While my mind initially went to the first interpretation, the second is just as valid. Either way, I delight in this haiku because it reminds me that something as simple as doing the dishes are worthy of poetic moments.

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