Posts Tagged ‘Robert Yellin’

Japanese culture: poetic aesthetics, artistry, and martial arts, inspired me to write haiku and tanka

January 9, 2021

Discovering and writing haiku and tanka

Many years ago, at a local bookstore I used to frequent, I came across a profound little poem on a poster with a beautiful image from nature. The name of the poet, Kiyo, appeared under the poem. It may have been the first type of Japanese poetry I’d ever read, in English translation of course. I had discovered haiku—a 3-line poem of 5-7-5 syllables respectively. I had written it down and recently found it. Here it is.

Softly unfolding,
Beauty awakens each heart
to wonder … to life.

I’d never heard of Kiyo. Did a search and found Ungo Kiyo (1582–1659), a Japanese Rinzai Zen master and poet. Couldn’t find any more poetry, just a quote on enlightenment in an antique book of calligraphy.

Even though we can’t adequately translate haiku into English due to the syntactical differences of a pictorial language, an important aspect of it was explained to me by a Japanese TM teacher I had met on an international course. Haiku was part of his educational upbringing. They usually have a seasonal reference. To be effective, the first 2 lines describe something in nature, but the 3rd line brings in another element that causes the mind to skip a beat, have an ‘aha’ moment of realization.

Kiyo’s beautiful short poem inspired me to start writing haiku and then tanka, a 2-stanza poem combining haiku with 2 lines of 7 syllables each. The second part would continue the theme of the first part, but give it a slightly new angle. In olden times, the Japanese court poets used to compete with each other in rounds of tanka called renga, linked verses.

I wrote my first haiku after a walk-and-talk about relationships with a lady friend. I noticed a furry caterpillar crawling on the ground. It became the metaphor for a poem on commitment and spiritual transformation.


Caterpillars spin
increments of commitment;
Butterflies fly free!

I wrote many haiku and tanka over the years. I even wrote Haiku on The Nature of Haiku, which was very meta. These first 4 haiku—Defined, Discovered, Transformed, Translated—were among the 13 Ways to Write Haiku: A Poet’s Dozen, published in The Dryland Fish, An Anthology of Contemporary Iowa Poets.

Five Haiku, selected from The Dryland Fish; Cold Wet Night, a tanka; and Poetry—The Art of the Voice, a poem; were published in This Enduring Gift—A Flowering of Fairfield Poetry. The University of Iowa’s “Iowa Writes” program also published Five Haiku on The Daily Palette.


3 lines, 2 spaces,
17 feet to walk thru;
then,   the unending


a poem unfolds
as words take their place in line
this one’s a haiku

(Inspired by Gareth Jones–Roberts’ painting “Egrets in Morning Light”)

on the edge of space
two egrets in morning light
woken from a dream

I recently came across a poem I had written a while ago, but never posted it. A photograph of cranes flying in a snowstorm inspired this Japanese Haiku.

Red-crowned cranes in Akan National Park, Hokkaido, Japan. Photograph by Vincent Munier. Click on image to enlarge it.

Three Japanese cranes
Soar above trees in snowstorm
Grace under pressure

Tanka on the Japanese art of kintsugi

I discovered other aspects of Japanese culture, which inspired tanka poems. Click on the titles below for more information and images.

The first is about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold or silver lacquer thereby making it appear more beautiful than the original. Robert Yellin had tweeted an image of a repaired bowl to show this art, which is how I discovered it.

kintsugi tanka

turning obstacles into

life’s lessons build character
what was broken is now whole

The Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs selected Robert to introduce Japanese craftsmen to the world in a special documentary, Takumi: Japan’s artisan tradition. Because of his expertise, Robert became a cultural ambassador. His film inspired people from all over the world to visit the country, and helped boost Japanese tourism.

How Robert ended up in Japan is revealed in the documentary film, Jerry’s Last Mission, about his father, Jerry Yellin, who was the last WWII fighter pilot, an author, and proponent of TM for veterans with PTSD.

Tanka on the Japanese martial art of Aikido

On a visit to see my son in California, I wrote this tanka after watching his Aikido teacher demonstrate how to defend oneself from attack. She stood in one spot and effortlessly deflected the repeated charges from her students. It was mesmerizing! It took me a while to process what I had seen before writing the poem. I had emailed it to my son to read to her on her birthday. A volunteer at the dojo found the poem and posted it with a photo of a leaning tree as a screensaver on the office computer. It’s beautiful. Click the title and scroll down to see it.

My Son’s Sensei

Rooted to the ground
She repels her attackers
Flowing, not moving.

In storms, trees bear great burdens
Bending, not breaking.

Two tree tanka

Speaking of trees, this tanka is from the perspective of a willow tree. Click the title to see a photo of a special one, and links to audio clips of me reading the poem on different media platforms.

Willow Tree
An Overflowing Fountain of Green

Willow Tree Whispers
People say … Weeping Willow
But I’m not crying

Just bowing down … to the Earth
Kissing the ground … with my leaves

Another tree tanka resulted when I saw the willow that inspired the previous poem, and the honey locust next to it, intertwined on top! They were on each side of the entrance to the place I was living in at the time.


Trees like to hold hands
Bending branches to link leaves
They forge deep friendships

Swaying with the wind—they dance
Under the moonlight—romance

A two-haiku relationship poem

When it comes to a committed relationship, this two-haiku poem turned out to be prophetically true.


when the tide rolls in
bows of boats bump each other
tethered to the dock

with our ups and downs
we remain tied together
solid as a rock

© Ken Chawkin

See more haiku and tanka archived on The Uncarved Blog.

Suggested Reading

Jane Hirshfield’s 29-page essay about the life and poetry of Matsuo Bashō—recognized as a master of concise, compelling Japanese haiku—is worth reading. The Heart of Haiku was named “Best Kindle Single of 2011.” It was the first Kindle I ever bought, and described it in a post, Haiku on The Heart of Haiku, with links to interviews and more.

Author and translator Harold Stewart‘s essay On Haiku and Haiga in A Net of Fireflies: Japanese Haiku and Haiku Paintings, was very edifying.

This classic was recommended to me: Unknown Craftsman by Soetsu Yanagi. I see it’s been updated and illustrated by Bernard Leach and Soetsu Yanagi: The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty.

Although not Japanese, Creativity and Taoism: A Study of Chinese Philosophy, Art, and Poetry by Chang Chung-yuan was also worth reading. A 2nd Edition is now available. I reference the Taoist concept of the uncarved block explaining How The Uncarved Blog got its name.

You may also find this post from nine years earlier also interesting: Singing Image of Fire, a poem by Kukai, with thoughts on language, translation, and creation.

kintsugi: japanese pottery inspires poetry

April 11, 2013

This poem was inspired by a tweet from @RobertYellin The art of making broken pottery more beautiful, kintsugi.

I replied @kenchawkin Wow! What a metaphor for turning obstacles into opportunities. Life’s lessons build character.

I thought about it and made it into a haiku, then a tanka, and sent it as another reply to his tweet.

I also thought it was appropriate for a piece of Japanese pottery to have inspired a poem in one of the forms of Japanese poetry. I don’t speak Japanese but am reading kintsukuroi as having five syllables.

Here is a link to Wikipedia explaining kintsugi or kintsukuroi. Read the explanation under the picture of the piece of pottery, then the poem.


kintsugi tanka

turning obstacles into

life’s lessons build character
what was broken is now whole

Robert Yellin was featured on this blog before. See Takumi is not ‘lost in translation’ in this beautiful film about Japan’s diverse artisan tradition.

Speaking of cracked things, Leonard Cohen said there’s a crack in everything—how the light gets in. It came thru him & lit up a broken humanity.

Same for this Canadian writer, but from a different perspective: Richard Wagamese bravely entered the cracks in his life to reveal the hidden gold buried within.

Another post on this theme: William Stafford’s poetry lightened his life having woven a parachute out of everything broken.

I later put this related post together: Japanese culture: poetic aesthetics, artistry, and martial arts, inspired me to write haiku and tanka.

Takumi is not ‘lost in translation’ in this beautiful film about Japan’s diverse artisan tradition

March 8, 2012

Takumi: Japan’s Artisan Tradition

I think you’ll find this beautiful video both informative and fascinating. It’s a documentary about traditional Japanese artisans hosted by Robert Yellin, an American living in Japan who’s become a ceramics expert.

Some of you may know Steven Yellin. Robert happens to be one of his brothers. And you probably remember hearing their father, Jerry Yellin, talk about his WW II experiences as a young fighter pilot who, years later, would make peace with his enemy after one of his sons, Robert, had gone to Japan for a year and ended up marrying a Japanese girl, whose father had also been in the war. See Jerry Yellin: Healing the Hidden Wounds of War and Jerry Yellin discusses Operation Warrior Wellness.

Robert Yellin has been living in Japan since 1984. He fell in love with the art of Japan, especially Bizen pottery, and the concept of Wabi-sabi, the aesthetic of things in life being imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, yet each with their own unique natural beauty captured in a work of art. His passion and broad knowledge of Japanese pottery led him from collector, to columnist and author, to ceramics art gallery owner.

The Robert Yellin Yakimono Gallery offers some of the finest works available in Japan online at or at his gallery located near the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji) in a magnificent old Sukiya-style home in Kyoto. You can read some of his articles on Japanese pottery in various magazines, including a ceramics column in The Japan Times.

Robert also authored a beautiful book about sake utensils that was later translated into English as Ode to Japanese Pottery. Read the rave reviews listed on his sister website from the Clay Times and Ceramics Today, and check out his Japanese Pottery Blog.

When Steve Jobs came to Japan and wanted to learn about Japanese pottery, he asked for Robert Yellin to be his guide. With this video, Robert inspires thousands of viewers about Japan’s cultural treasures.

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Takumi: Japan’s Artisan Tradition is one of five short episodes in a series called Japan: Fascinating Diversity. Five presenters—well-known foreign specialists with extensive knowledge and insight on Japan—guide viewers to intriguing destinations, introducing them to Japan’s fascinating culture and heritage along the way.

They also take viewers to the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan, which was devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011. The people of Japan are continuing their tireless reconstruction efforts, which shows every sign of recovery. The film’s goal is to help viewers around the globe rediscover the appeal of Japan.

In this episode of the series, Robert explores the diverse forms of Takumi with veteran artisans, savoring samples of Japan’s pottery, indigo dyeing and lacquer ware traditions. His tour also includes a visit to a museum, a tea house, and ends in a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn.

For an American, Robert knows a lot about Japanese culture. He even speaks and moves like a native; his intonations and mannerisms are Japanese—refined and respectful.

With his expertise in Japanese ceramics, Robert acts as a cultural ambassador, helping to give a boost to Japanese tourism for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by inspiring people from all over the world to visit.

I truly enjoyed watching this beautiful short documentary film. I think you will too. Robert sums it up nicely when he says, “It’s been an amazing journey. Every place we visited there’s been something new to learn. It’s been a joy to see how people still create handmade beauty in different regions. All the beauty in Japan—it’s all based on this spirit of craftsman, or Takumi. And that really is the foundation—what Japan has to offer the world.”

Click the title to see this beautiful video (17:48) on the MOFA YouTube channel. Japan: Fascinating Diversity (Takumi: Japan’s Artisan Tradition) © 2012 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan

Related post: kintsugi: japanese pottery inspires poetry

This interview was streamed live on Aug 11, 2020: Deep-Dive Into Appeal of Japanese Pottery with Robert Yellin. Also join Robert on an online tour he gave for Kyoto Journal of Japanese ceramic art in Kyoto at the Robert Yellin Yakimono Gallery. Follow him on Instagram @ry_yakimono_gallery_kyoto.

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