School of Renga 

Jane Reichhold  



Lesson Nine
Renga Variations - The Hyakuin

Before Basho, renga were written with 100, 1,000 or even 10,000 links. Still today you will occasionally find an English renga writer working on a hundred link (hyakuin - HE-YAH-COO-EEN) poem. Naturally the schema is different from the kasen renga.

A secret. The way we (I) make up one of these schema for a renga is to take a translated Japanese renga and follow the example of what those authors did. Naturally not all the Old Masters used the same game plan and even when they were repeated a known one, they made deviations and changes in them. Thus, my pattern sheet may not totally agree with the one made by someone else because they used a different renga. It is not so important whether verse 24 is a love verse or not, but it is important for the people working on the renga to be able to see the long-range plan and to agree to stick with it. It is even possible to make changes in the season blocks or the run of love or travel poems. Nothing is literally carved in stone.

One of the reasons for having a grid and a plan is to give the poem some sort of underlying structure that holds it together. Since renga does not use narrative, which we are so used to having as our spine, there has to be another order. Or maybe not.

When English writers were first introduced to renga not many of the rules were still attached. In many cases even the moons and flowers had been disregarded and the partners gleefully embarked on a stream of consciousness whirlwind. There is much to be admired in these times of early joy.

It was only as more renga were translated (they are harder to translate than single haiku or tanka because the linkage demands the use of precise images and words) that our cache of rules has grown.

Steven Carter's translation of The Road to Komatsubara (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1987) had added immeasurably to our knowledge. This book is especially vital to anyone wanting to attempt the hyakuin or one hundred-link renga. Carter translated "The Rules of Composition from Shohaku's Renga Rulebook of 1501" in addition to valuable additional materials about linked verse or collaborative writing.

Much of our understanding of the one hundred-link renga comes from a study of "Sogi's Solo Sequence of 1492" which Carter translates and then annotates and explains in great detail. This is a must have book for the devoted renga enthusiast.



A renga writer that advances farther than the path of moons and flowers will come across seasons. While we English haiku writers could get away with ignoring season words, deeper work with renga demands that we understand them, learn them and use them.

The Japanese, over their centuries of writing have devised a method of organizing all aspects of life - human, animal, plant, celestial and terrestrial according to seasons. in various ages these saijiki (SIGH-GEE-KEY) have been published in various sizes and degrees of completeness. Naturally no one editor completely agreed with another whether spiders belong in the spring section or the autumn category. In addition Japan is a series of islands stretching over one thousand miles so a phenomena in the south could appear in a differ net season according to the months in the north. This was rather neatly solved by declaring that the seasons were those of Tokyo, the center of the country.

The saijiki also suffers when it attempts to travel outside of Japan because there are plants and animals, and human practices unknown on the fair islands. Where do we put the coyote and sagebrush?

The saijiki gets into big trouble when it has to slip below the equator. Half of the world may be experiencing spring in April but the rest of it is watching the end of summer.

None of these problems have stopped people from their joy in assembling new and individual collections of season words. And this is good for us who do renga with seasonal indications. It is pretty easy to know cherry blossoms are a spring topic where do put lightning or thunder storms?

Saijiki divide the year into five seasons with the addition of New Years to the usual four. Each of these then has the categories of seasonal or moods, celestial, terrestrial, daily life, observances, animals and plants. In each of these divisions, the individual things are arranged alphabetically.

This is an excellent method of keeping many haiku in a system so one can find what one wants. It makes great sense when creating an anthology, but it is often hard to get many people to agree where any one poem should be shelved. Where to put the flower with snow on it? Or the balloons? Or pinata?

In addition to the seasonal indications as unifying device for the renga, there are also thematic categories. Again the names on the list and what they include vary from publisher to publisher but some of the common ones are:

Love - Love in traditional renga was never the sweaty nitty-gritty of real life but always examples from the realm of unrequited love. Missing a lover is the most used image and next comes the anticipation of a meeting and after that is the worry that gossips will smudge the lovers' good names. Still, as in the way of all romances, love interests can perk up the reader and keep the poem going.

Travel -Another way to keep the poem on the go was to introduce themes of travel, far away places (usually the neighboring temple), seeing the famous sites of Japan was always a great ploy for new poems.

Lamentation - Whining and bitching are always in style and easy to do so renga has its sections in which the poet can lament the shortness of life, or its hardships.

Religion - In Japan there are two main religions - Shinto (the worship and recognition of gods or spirits in all things) and Buddhism, in the form of Zen. Not enough hyakuin have been written in English to establish the sub-topics for religion for us.

One of the ways to control the flow of such a long renga is to have runs on various subjects. Often a run will last from 3 - 5 links. This does not mean the links within a run are sequential or follow one another in a narrative way, but that all the links relate someway to water, mountains, dwellings (architecture), famous places, rising things, falling things, shining things, night, clothing, growing things, holidays and yearly activities.

Naturally the sustained effort necessary to do a hyakuin goes best if one does it solo or has someone in charge to direct the traffic, wake up the sleeping writers, and keep everyone informed of what is needed. At the moment Jim Wilson is conducting the renga "August" on the AHAforum. The British have done several that are recorded online with the stories of how they were done.

You can go to: to read the story of the 24 hour Hyakuin Renga held in Great Britain and mastered by Alex Finlay. Also check out Finlay's great work with the Renga

Oh, and you need to know that if you go for 1000 link renga it is called senku in Japanese and takes forty sheets of paper with 80 sides.If that is too scary you can always opt out for the gojuin which is 50 links long and takes a lot less paper.


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Finding a Saijiki

Steven Carter's translation of The Road to Komatsubara (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1987)
has list of many objects with their seasonal reference.

The Haiku Seasons : Poetry of the Natural World by William J. Higginson. Kodansha, 1997. In this Higginson not only gives the traditional reasons for the placement of the item, but gives sample haiku showing the usage.

A Dictionary of Haiku Classified by Season Words with Traditional and Modern Methods by Jane Reichhold. This book is not intended to set season words but to use season words as a method or organizing the over 5000 haiku. Still, by reading the book one gets a feeling for the passing seasons and their richness. The book is free at

Gabi Greve continually works on a monumental database that categories all things Japanese, with marvelous explanations, as well as object and events from around the world. Anyone can contribute, or consult her database at: http://worldkigodatabase.

The University of Virginia Library also has compiled a saijiki at:

I also found Haikai saijiki 1 by 880-03 Yamamoto, Mitsuo at



Page and Materials Copyright © Jane Reichhold 2011.

Please give credit when borrowing.


The above picture of Basho at a renga party was painted by Buson and added to the text of Basho's book Oku no Hosomichi - Narrow Road to the Far North. It was scanned from a facsimile scroll of the original work purchased at the Museum of Art in Tokyo, Japan.