Life Distilled in Japanese Poetry

Tanka are a form of Japanese poetry that date back more than 1,000 years. Meaning “short song” in Japanese, tanka are 31 on long, written on a single line—an on is similar to a syllable.

Tanka remain very popular in Japan, and these poems have captured every facet of the human experience and the natural world. In the Heian period (794–1185) and the 20th century especially, a number of women stood out as writers of tanka of great beauty, insight, and passion.

We take an in-depth look at tanka and their place in Japanese poetry in a recent online presentation Fireflies Above the Stream on poetry from Kyoto, that you can access here. And in March 2024, we will read tanka, the landmark The Tale of Genji, and contemporary Japense stories on our tour Everyday Beauty: Art and Literature of Japan.

You can read all the tanka discussed during the presentation in this blog post.

Ono no Komachi

花の色はうつりにけりないたづらに わが身世にふるながめせしまに

Japanese print of female Heian poet Classical PursuitsThe blossom’s tint is washed away
By heavy showers of rain;
My charms, which once I prized so much,
Are also on the wane, —
Both bloomed, alas! in vain

Autumn nights, it seems,
are long by repute alone:
scarcely had we met
when morning’s first light appeared,
leaving everything unsaid.

The autumn night
is long only in name—
We’ve done no more
than gaze at each other
and it’s already dawn

Murasaki Shikibu

Print of Murasaki Shikibu writing The Tale of Genji Classical PursuitsPetals bloom then scatter
a sorrowful spring parting
but surely you will come again
to view the flowering capital

– written in response to Genji

“When the spider’s ways this evening gave fair warning that I would soon arrive,
how strange of you to tell me, Come after my garlic days!”

“If I meant enough to you that you came to me each and every night,
why should my garlic days so offend your daintiness?”

from “The Broom Tree” chapter in The Tale of Genji



The light shining from
The moon upon this wine cup;
In our grasp
Let it circle for a thousand years!

Izumi Shikibu


Japanese print of a female poet in a red robe.From darkness
On a shadowed path
I must make my way;
Let it faintly shine,
The moon upon the mountain’s edge.


Now only
Thoughts of it
Fill my mind;
To forget, even more
Pain is what I want!



Melting from beneath,
The snow opens for the grasses
The one I think upon
Would I want to meet.


Reflecting on my life—
the fireflies above the stream
seem to be my yearning soul
wandering free of my body

Yosano Akiko

Photo of writer Yosano Akiko standing by a window.Cutting through Gion
on my way to Kiyomizu
in this cherry-blossom moonlight
everyone that I meet
is beautiful!


Black hair
Tangled in a thousand strands.
Tangled my hair and
Tangled my tangled memories
Of our long nights of lovemaking.



This agony within,
The unknown music;
Finally it’s this, girlfriend,
The God who invites us,
Lightly into darkness.

Travel with Classical Pursuits to Japan in March 2024 to explore classical and contemporary Japanese poetry and art in Kyoto. For more information, contact Ivan at


Sources for poems by Ono no Komachi:;; translations by William Porter, Helen Craig McCullough, and Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Arantani
Sources for poems by Izumi Shikibu:, numbers SIS XX: 1342; GSIS X: 573; GSIS XI: 635, translated by Thomas McAuley; Tokyo Literary Guide, ed. Dougill et al, Camphor Press, 2020
Sources for poems by Murasaki Shikibu: Tokyo Literary Guide; The Tale of Genji, translated Royall Tyler, Penguin, 2006
Sources for poems by Yosano Akiko:Tokyo Literary Guide;, translated by Kenneth Rexroth;, translated Stephen Cahaly

One Comment

  1. Diana Gendron

    Thanks for bringing this form of poetry to us, Melanie! I had known of haiku, but not tanka until your webinar about it. This form of poetry is quite interesting and beautiful in its expressions.

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