Iroha Uta いろは歌

Iroha Uta

An ancient poem & an order of kana (like あいうえお)

About いろはうた


Bulletin いろは歌


An Order of Kana


いろは歌 is an old poem said to have been written by 空海(くうかい 774~835)who was a famous Japanese monk in the early 平安時代(Heian Era 794~1185).

It uses each kana only once just like あいうえお, but it is a poem with meaning.


In Kana: In Kanji:

ゑひもせす 京(ん)

わが世 誰ぞ
酔いもせず 京(ん)


Because it is an old poem, the way to use the かな is different from now. There are also many rules that are different from modern grammar. 

  • Some don’t have 濁点(゛ – the voiced consonant mark)
  • 匂えど is written as 匂へど
  • ん is written as む
  • きょう is written as けふ
  • 酔いis written as 酔ひ
  • Some old letters are used (like ゐ, ゑ), etc.


A breakdown of each sentence, how to read it, and the meaning of it in Japanese and English:


Original 「色は匂へど散りぬるを」
いろはにおえど ちりぬるを)
Modern Japanese



The colors of the flowers are so beautiful and fragrant–like a person’s beauty or the interesting things in this world.

(いろ) here is the color of flowers, but it has also the meaning of the affairs of men and women, or the many events of this world.  These flowers despite their beauty today will disappear. My life is also ephemeral just like these flowers. There are many things I enjoy in my life, but they all have an end.




「わが世 誰ぞ常ならむ」

(わがよ だれぞ つねならん)

Modern Japanese



My life is like that. Who can say it won’t long last forever without change? No, nobody can. It ends at last.

Some says わが世 is "I rule my world" and the author is the one who ruled that era.





(ういのおくやま きょうこえて)

Modern Japanese



I pass over the deep mountain called 宇井(うい)in 京都(Kyoto today.


He was a 武士(ぶし samurai warrior) and he decided to leave his life as a 武士 to become a monk to go to the temple in 高野山(こうやさん Mt. Koya in Wakayama prefecture). He travels by foot passing over the mountain in Kyoto. He leaves behind the 武士 life because he has an unendurable angst in his life. I don’t know what it was, but I imagine it may have arisen from too much killing, or his love affairs, or the struggle for power within the 武士 system, etc.


有為(うい) is also the word which means to wake up to the true reality; to remove from being a slave of mutable matters in our daily life which he compared to flowers. That is to say, to attain enlightenment in Buddhism.


So, ‘passing that mountain’ means, he chose to become a pupil of Buddhism leaving his enjoyable life behind, but having sorrow, too.


今日 also rhymes with of 京都.




「浅き夢見し酔いもせず 京」

(あさきゆめみし よいもせず きょう)

Modern Japanese



No more shallow dreams; no more wanton drunkeness.


I passed over the mountain of life, but it was like having a shallow dream or being drunk. But now that dream no longer intoxicates me anymore. I’ve cleared up worldly desires, feel peace and the state of enlightenment.
I don’t have any concerns about anything at all. I’m on the way from Kyoto toward the gate of the temple.



It is really difficult to stop being anxious about all desires and greedy feelings in our lives.  But I think he thought on how to accomplish that when making this poem.


It is a very short poem, but it contains many ideas. There are more allusions in this poem I found, but I think I’ll write about it next time…..

Inubou Karuta uses the Iroha order, see the Karuta page for translations and audio.

For more information and several more poetic English translations, see the Wikipedia entry.

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