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Saigyō Hōshi (西行 法師)
Saigyō Hōshi in the Hyakunin Isshu
Saigyō Hōshi in the Hyakunin Isshu
BornSatō Norikiyo (佐藤 義清)
Kyoto, Japan
Died1190 (aged 71–72)
Pen nameSaigyō

Saigyō Hōshi (西行 法師, 1118 – March 23, 1190) was a famous Japanese poet of the late Heian and early Kamakura period.


Born Satō Norikiyo (佐藤 義清) in Kyoto to a noble family, he lived during the traumatic transition of power between the old court nobles and the new samurai warriors. After the start of the Age of Mappō (1052), Buddhism was considered to be in decline and no longer as effective a means of salvation. These cultural shifts during his lifetime led to a sense of melancholy in his poetry. As a youth, he worked as a guard to retired Emperor Toba, but in 1140 at age 22, for reasons now unknown, he quit worldly life to become a monk, taking the religious name En'i (円位). He later took the pen name, "Saigyō" meaning Western Journey, a reference to Amida Buddha and the Western paradise. He lived alone for long periods in his life in Saga, Mt Koya, Mt Yoshino, Ise, and many other places, but he is more known for the many long, poetic journeys he took to Northern Honshū that would later inspire Bashō in his Narrow Road to the Interior. He was a good friend of Fujiwara no Teika. Sankashū ("Collection of a Mountain Home") is Saigyō's personal poetry collection. Other collections that include poems by Saigyō are Shin Kokin Wakashū and Shika Wakashū. He died at Hirokawa Temple in Kawachi Province (present-day Osaka Prefecture) at age 72.


In Saigyō's time, the Man'yōshū was no longer a big influence on waka poetry, compared to the Kokin Wakashū. Where the Kokin Wakashū was concerned with subjective experience, word play, flow, and elegant diction (neither colloquial nor pseudo-Chinese), the Shin Kokin Wakashū (formed with poetry written by Saigyō and others writing in the same style) was less subjective, had fewer verbs and more nouns, was not as interested in word play, allowed for repetition, had breaks in the flow, was slightly more colloquial and more somber and melancholic. Due to the turbulent times, Saigyō focuses not just on mono no aware (sorrow from change) but also on sabi (loneliness) and kanashi (sadness). Though he was a Buddhist monk, Saigyō was still very attached to the world and the beauty of nature.

Poetry examples

Saigyō by Kikuchi Yōsai
  • Many of his best-known poems express the tension he felt between renunciatory Buddhist ideals and his love of natural beauty.


    negawaku wa hana no shita nite haru shinamu, sono kisaragi no mochizuki no koro
    Let me die in spring under the blossoming trees, let it be around that full moon of Kisaragi month.

    Most monks would have asked to die facing West, to be welcomed by the Buddha, but Saigyō finds the Buddha in the flowers.


    kokoro naki mi ni mo aware wa shirarekeri shigi tatsu sawa no aki no yūgure
    Even a person free of passion would be moved to sadness: autumn evening in a marsh where snipe fly up.

    To be "heartless" was an ideal of Buddhist monkhood, meaning one had abandoned all desire and attachment.
  • Saigyō travelled extensively, but one of his favorite places was Mount Yoshino, famous for its cherry blossoms.


    yoshino yama kozo no shiori no michi kaete mada minu kata no hana wo tadzunemu
    I'll forget the trail I marked out on Mount Yoshino last year, go searching for blossoms in directions I've never been before.

In popular culture

  • 2016: The Great Passage, anime, episode 7
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Saigyō.

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