A Journey Through Japanese Haiku

The Kitten and the Snail

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A curious kitten discovers a snail in this haiku by Saimaro.

猫の子に齅れて居るや蝸牛 才麿

Neko no ko ni / kagareteiru ya / katatsuburi

The kitten
sniffing at
the snail

(Poem by Saimaro, written in 1697 or earlier.)

Children are captivated by snails, as much by the droll appearance and leisurely movements of the creatures as by the way they retract their eyestalks when touched. A children’s song from the late Heian period (794–1185) has the lyrics: “Dance, dance, snail. If you don’t, I’ll get the foals and calves to kick and trample you.” Although cruel in its tone, the song’s comparison to dancing comes from the movement of the snail’s eyestalks, which have been compared to “horns” in both Japanese and English. In fact, the kanji for snail (蝸牛) includes the character for cattle (牛), prompting the appearance of calves in the song. The twelfth-century poet Jakuren makes a similar reference in his waka: Ushi no ko ni / fumaruna niwa no / katatsuburi / tsuno ari totemo / mi o na tanomi so (Don’t be trampled / by a calf, / garden snail— / don’t think that your / horns will protect you).

Saimaro’s haiku takes a novel tack, with a sniffing kitten replacing a trampling calf, creating a more appealing scene. A kitten born in spring and bursting with curiosity finds a snail. “What’s this?” it seems to say as it meticulously examines the strange creature. The snail can only hide in its shell and wait for the tiresome intruder to go away.

In his younger days, Saimaro (1656–1738) searched for a new haiku style together with Bashō. Later he became a great master with many followers in Osaka.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo © Pixta.)

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