I am currently reading The Heart of Haiku by Jane Hirshfield. In it, there are many examples of haikus by Bashō. In them, they always appear to give reference to a time, either explicitly or through description of the moment. Are there any examples of early Japanese haiku that attempt to describe a place rather than a moment?

TL;DR: The extreme shortness of haiku, and the traditional requirements of the form, mean that they are most suited to describing moments. But it’s not a rule and there are some exceptions.

Traditionally a haiku has three requirements:

  1. Seventeen phonetic units (音, on) divided into groups of five, seven, and five.
  2. A juxtaposition of two ideas or descriptions via a ‘cutting word’ (切れ字, kireji).
  3. A word relating to a season (季語, kigo).

The most natural kind of juxtaposition is one in which the two descriptions take place simultaneously or in quick succession at a particular time and place. The majority of haiku have this form, which has led to the idea that the description of a ‘moment’ is another requirement:

[…] haiku has largely been conceived [in the English-speaking world] as the poetry of the object (particularly small things), of “sensation” and of the moment.

Haruo Shirane (1998). Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō. Stanford University Press.

However, describing a moment is an accident, not a requirement, of the form:

We are often told, particularly by the pioneers of English language haiku […] that haiku should be about the “here and now”. This is an extension of the notion that haiku must derive from direct observation and personal experience. Haiku is extremely short, and therefore it can concentrate on only a few details.

Haruo Shirane (2000). ‘Beyond the Haiku Moment’. Modern Haiku 31:1.

It’s not too hard to find early haiku that aren’t ‘moments’. Here are two that describe longer spans of time:

櫻狩きとくや日々に五里六里

[hunting cherry blossom—every day, twenty or twenty-five kilometres]

年々や猿に着せたる猿の面

[year after year—the monkey’s face wears the monkey]

And here’s one which links the present with an imagined past:

夏草や兵どもが夢の跡

[summer grass—the traces of soldiers’ dreams]

The question asks whether there are haiku that describe a place “rather than a moment”. The requirement for juxtaposition and a seasonal word mean that it’s most common for haiku to describe a place by describing it at a time within a season, but the time need not be a moment, for example these two could be interpreted as describing a whole day and night respectively:

暑き日を海へ入れたり最上川

[entering the sea on a hot day—Mogami River]

松島や水を衣裳に夏の月

[Matsushima—the summer moon in a costume of water]

In this example you have the choice of reading it as the poet noticing the gate at a particular moment, or as a description of the place without specific reference to a time, since vines put out leaves throughout the summer:

芋植ゑて門は葎の若葉哉

[taro planting gate—vine’s new leaves]

(All quoted haiku are from 芭蕉俳句全集, the complete haiku of Matsuo Bashō. Translations mine, so please point out errors in the comments.)

Traditional Haiku has Buddhism as a background and in the philosophy of Buddhism impermanence is a key notion; and what is more impermanent than the present notion which is always slipping away?

Since poetry is concrete compared to the abstractions of philosophy and we cannot see, feel, smell or hear time the poet relies upon objective correlatives to the notion of time: the falling cherry blossom, the frog jumping into a pond, the moon reflected in a lake at night. These correlatives will always take place in a place.

So the answer to your question is a definite no. Time and place tie together.

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    Could you provide any examples to support your argument? – Gallifreyan yesterday

Here is one of Boshō poem from 1686, probably his most famous.

古池や 蛙飛び込む 水の音

furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizuno oto

old pond | a frog dive | sound of water

Other poem by Sōgorō from 1689.

剃捨て黒髪山に衣更

Sorisutete Kurokamiyamani koromogae

Shaving my head | at Black Hair mountain | time for summer clothes

Translated from the book 'Boshō – Kapea tie pohjoiseen' ISBN 951-30-5008-4

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    These don't really seem to be what the OP is looking for. Both "a frog dive" and "shaving my head" are descriptions of moments/events rather than just places. – Rand al'Thor Dec 6 at 9:35
  • The mountain and the pond are places. – Oni Dec 7 at 16:15
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    But the haikus aren't just 「古池」 or 「黒髪山」 - the rest of them describe events happening at these places. – muru Dec 9 at 3:41

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