Cettia diphone, the Japanese Bush Warbler (or Japanese nightingale), known here as 鶯 uguisu).

While they are typically associated with the coming of spring and have many poetic names to that effect*, I first noticed these little birds while I was taking a winter walk around Matsue Castle and saw a few of them playing in the bare, snow-laden bushes. At the time, they weren’t making their signature “Hō-hoke-kyo” chirp**, but I did enjoy their twinkling voices. Cute as they were, they were a little too fast for me to take a picture of.

Now that it’s spring, however, I’ve been asked a few times: “Have you heard the uguisu yet? They sing hō-hoke-kyo.”

Yes, and I’ve seen them plenty, too!

Here’s what Lafcadio Hearn had to say about them in his essay, “In a Japanese Garden“:

Wild uguisu also frequently sweeten my summer with their song, and sometimes come very near the house, being attracted, apparently, by the chant of my caged pet. The uguisu is very common in this province. It haunts all the woods and the sacred groves in the neighborhood of the city, and I never made a journey in Izumo during the warm season without hearing its note from some shadowy place. But there are uguisu and uguisu. There are uguisu to be had for one or two yen, but the finely trained, cage-bred singer may command not less than a hundred.

It was at a little village temple that I first heard one curious belief about this delicate creature. In Japan, the coffin in which a corpse is borne to burial is totally unlike an Occidental coffin. It is a surprisingly small square box, wherein the dead is placed in a sitting posture. How any adult corpse can be put into so small a space may well be an enigma to foreigners. In cases of pronounced rigor mortis the work of getting the body into the coffin is difficult even for the professional dōshin-bozu. But the devout followers of Nichiren claim that after death their bodies will remain perfectly flexible; and the dead body of an uguisu, they affirm, likewise never stiffens, for this little bird is of their faith, and passes its life in singing praises unto the Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law.**

With this in mind, I played the call of the uguisu to my friend’s parakeet. Now that got it chirping!

*Poetic names:
harudori or harutsugedori: “spring Bird” or “spring-announcing Bird”
hanamidori: “flower-viewing bird”
utayomidori or kyoyomidori: “poem-reading bird” or “sutra-reading bird”**
Might also be referred to as a sasako bird in poetry.

**Hō-hoke-kyo is an abbreviated name for the Lotus Sutra.