Saigyo’s best poetry was written while quietly observing nature from his mountain home. In a spring poem entitled 'The Bush Warbler Idling', he compares himself to that reclusive bird. Saigyo is alone in his hut, like the bird:
Seeping through the haze,
of the bush warbler—
few people passing,
mountain village in spring.
This poem evokes the sound of gentle spring rains, and gives us a glimpse of the poet’s frame of mind:
Curtained by spring showers
from the eaves,
a place where someone lives,
idle, idle, unknown to others.
He identifies his lonely hermit hut with his physical body, expressing the spirituality of his beliefs:
If I can find
no place fit to live,
let me live no place—
in this hut of sticks
flimsy as the world itself.
Satō Norikiyo (佐藤義清) was born in 1118 in Kyoto to a noble and a fairly wealthy family, and grew up studying martial arts and training to serve the emperor. During his teens, he became a private guard for the emperor Toba, who had abdicated his throne. Satō Norikiyo witnessed the traumatic transition of power from the old court nobles to the new samurai warriors.
After the start of the Age of Mappō (1052) , Buddhism was considered to be in decline and no longer effective as a means of salvation. These cultural shifts contributed to the sense of melancholy or sabishisa in his poetry.
In 1140 at the age of twenty-two, for reasons now unknown, Satō quit worldly life to become a monk. He later took the pen name, Saigyō meaning Western Journey, a reference to Amida Buddha and the Western paradise, and spent the rest of his life traveling throughout Japan, returning to the capital periodically to participate in imperial ceremonies. He lived alone for long periods of his life in Saga, Mt. Koya, Mt. Yoshino, Ise, and many other places, but he is best known for his many long, poetic journeys to Northern Honshū, which later inspired Basho in his Oku no Hosomichi” (“Narrow Road to the Deep Interior) .
Sankashu (Mountain Hut Anthology) , his major work, contains poems on love and other seasonal and miscellaneous topics. The Mimosusogawa utaawase (“Poetry Contest at Mimosusu River”) is a poetic masterpiece in which he pitted his own poems against each other. Many of his poems are included in the imperial anthology Shin kokin-shu. He wrote about solitude and loneliness, often using images from nature to portray his emotions.