In his youth he studied with Minamoto no Shunrai and Fujiwara no Shunzei.
As a youth, he worked as a guard to retired Emperor Toba, but in 1140 at age 22, for reasons now unknown, he quit worldly life to become a monk, taking the religious name En'i (円位). He later took the pen name, "Saigyō" meaning Western Journey, a reference to Amida Buddha and the Western paradise. He lived alone for long periods in his life in Saga, Mt Koya, Mt Yoshino, Ise, and many other places, but he is more known for the many long, poetic journeys he took to Northern Honshū that would later inspire Bashō in his Narrow Road to the Interior. He was a good friend of Fujiwara no Teika. Some main collections of Saigyō's work are in the Sankashū, Shin Kokin Wakashū, and Shika Wakashū.
He died in Hirokawa Temple in Kawachi Province (present-day Osaka Prefecture) at age 72.
(Softcover collection of Saigyo's poetry, published by New...)
In Saigyō's time, the Man'yōshū was no longer a big influence on waka poetry, compared to the Kokin Wakashū. Where the Kokin Wakashū was concerned with subjective experience, word play, flow, and elegant diction (neither colloquial nor pseudo-Chinese), the Shin Kokin Wakashū (formed with poetry written by Saigyō and others writing in the same style) was less subjective, had fewer verbs and more nouns, was not as interested in word play, allowed for repetition, had breaks in the flow, was slightly more colloquial and more somber and melancholic. Due to the turbulent times, Saigyō focuses not just on mono no aware (sorrow from change) but also on sabi (loneliness) and kanashi (sadness). Though he was a Buddhist monk, Saigyō was still very attached to the world and the beauty of nature.