Squirrels and Robins

Bashō no yōna admires Matsuo Basho’s haiku, but can’t seem to find any haiku on the subject of squirrels or robins. That is a pity as I have an old oak tree in my backyard that has been home to a family of squirrels for as long as I have lived here. And I suppose for many generations before since the tree is well over one hundred years old.

From the tall oak, coppery leaves hang
and acorns fall, gathered by squirrels
for cold days ahead

Bashō no yōna, Winter, January 2022

Often we can go a week or so without rain in Kansas. So, dozens of chattering robins gathered in my yard after I watered the lawn and filled the birdbath. Perched on the side of the birdbath, each robin, 駒鳥 politely dips its beak into the water and raises its head. I am reminded of the Japanese custom of bowing in respect and emotion, ojigi, お辞儀.

I wonder.

Robins at a birdbath
Bobbing heads and drinking,
Saying: Arigato

Bashō no yōna, Wichita, January 2022
a row of oak trees along a path

Another year is gone

Japanese girl at work

Irony — the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite. So, the same and not the same. Something else.

年暮れぬ/ 笠きて草鞋/ はきながら

Toshi kurenu/ Kasa kite waraji/ Haki-nagara

Year after year, wearing the same bamboo hat and grass shoes.

Matsuo Basho, 1st year of Jōkyō, 貞享, 1684, Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field
笠, kasa, hat of shaven bamboo

Lost in Translation

HakinagaraHaki, はき – Having the heart to become a champion. Possessing a willingness to confront things. Aspiration. Nagara, ながら, “while,” doing two things simultaneously.

So, Basho is striving to do better while wearing the same old clothes.

Another year has passed my friends, and still we do the same.

Beating on, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” So concludes Nick Carroway, the narrator in The Great Gatsby. Basho delivers an equally epic line. “Year after year, in the same simple bamboo hat and grass shoes, a little less for the wear, yet, still we willingly confront things, striving to do better.”

Surely a task meant for Sisyphus and each of us. Surely Confucian. Forget Zen mindfulness for a moment. Let’s do better this year.

This haiku was written in Nozarashi Kiko (野ざらし紀行), Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field. This was Basho’s journey home to his birthplace at Iga Ueno, the year after his mother’s death. By now Matsuo Basho had been living in Edo for a dozen years, and in his banana hut (Basho-an) for several years.

An idea was forming in his head. That of a long trip to Japan’s northern interior. It was an idea that he would begin the following spring. He only needed a little resolve, a willingness to confront things undone.

Twice Awake

Hiroshige, Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, 1857

Two haiku, both probably written in the winter of 1686. Matsuo Basho was back in Edo for the spring and summer of 1686, staying in his retreat called Basho’an (banana hut). As the two haiku imply, he is into Zen Buddhism. Earlier in the year he wrote his most famous haiku about the frog, the pond, and the sound of water — “splash”.

瓶割るる/ 夜の氷の寝覚め哉
kame waruru/ yoru no koori no/ nezame kana

The bottle cracks
awakened at night
by the ice

Matsuo Basho, Basho-an, Edo, 貞亨3年冬, December, 1686

Note. As usual, Matsuo Basho kept a glass bottle of water by his bedside at night. Basho explains, “The night was cold and I woke to the cracking sound of a bottle. Koori means ice in both haiku. The ice probably broke the bottle.” Nezame means awakening. Yoru no Nezame (夜の寝覚) refers to a 11th century Japanese romance, and it is generally translated as “Wakefulness at Night”. If we take Basho at his word, “wakeful”, then he is not only feeling the cold, but hearing it as well.

abura koori/ tomoshibi hosoki/ nezame kana

oil is freezing
the light is dimming
awakening at night

Matsuo Basho, Basho-an, Winter, ca. 1686

Note. The two haiku could possibly be the same cold winter. Tomoshibi is an oil lamp. Rapeseed oil was the likely fuel source.

On New Year’s Day

Basho visited Sarashina (Nagano prefecture) and its terraced rice paddies (tagato) the autumn before he made this haiku.

ganjitsu wa/ tagoto no hi koso/ koishikere

On New Year’s Day
I long to see
The sun over the rice paddies!

Matsuo Basho, New Year’s Day, Ueno, January 1, 1689, age 46.
Moon over the Rice Paddies at Sarashina, Utagawa Hiroshige, c. 1837, The Met


It is said that this haiku was written on New Year’s Day of 1689 when Basho was at his birthplace in Ueno in Mie Province. He was 46 years old. He had completed the long difficult trip to the Northern Interior of Japan that he and Sora had begun in May of that year.

Before returning to Edo, he made a trip to the place of his birth. Whether he was visiting his brother who ran the family farm is not said. Basho rarely spoke of his family, and by this time, both his father and mother were dead.

It is explained that in the autumn of 1688, Basho had made a journey to Mt. Obasute (Nagano Prefecture) where there are thousands of small rice paddies, tagoto in Japanese. The autumn moon reflecting off those paddies is a famous sight. On a bitterly cold winter’s day, the sight of the sun reflecting off the rice paddies would have been a much better to see than the cold moon.

For Basho, the reference to the moon over Sarashina also recalled memories of his mother. He had written, “I see her now / an old woman crying alone / the moon is her friend.”



In 1683, Matsuo Basho’s mother died and his hut burned down. Not surprising, that on New Year’s Day, he recalled the warmth of the autumn days.

元日や/ 思へば淋し/ 秋の暮
ganjitsu ya / omoeba sabishi / aki no kure

On New Year’s Day
thinking I’m lonely
on an autumn day

Matsuo Basho, 1683 天和3年, age 40.

toshidoshi – year after year,

monkey on motorcycle in front of nuclear plant

The master said, “Year after year, people stop at the same place and do the same thing, making resolutions and throwing them away.” The year 1693 is ending. Matsuo Basho, age 49, is back in Edo in his familiar Basho–an (his third Banana Hut). He was living there quietly with few guests. To others he was saying, “saru” go away. Now he is wondering — “Am I making any progress?”

年々や/ 猿に着せたる/ 猿の面
toshidoshi ya/ saru ni kisetaru/ saru no men

year after year,
dressed like a monkey
in a monkey’s mask

Matsuo Basho, 6th year of Genroku (元禄6年元旦), 1693

Year after year

It was the 6th year of the reign of Emperor Higashiyama Genroku of Japan. Ninety years since Tokugawa Ieyasu was designated Shogun, the start of the Edo Period. Almost 60 years had passed since the policy barring Japanese from leaving the island and foreigners from entering on pain of death.

At the Hatsukoshin Festival, during the New Year, one buys a monkey mask to ward off evil spirits, as the Japanese word for “monkey” (saru) is a homophone of “go away.”

Matsuo Basho would die in November of 1694.

monkey on motorcycle in front of nuclear plant
a monkey on a motorcycle

[previously translated last New Year’s Eve]

Toshi, meaning year. Doshi meaning constantly, without interuption. Toshi-doshi, 年々, year after year.

So what if the past was hard,
today, you can
begin again.


Shiro, Shiroki

December 30th is not too late to learn, if indeed one learns.

月白き 師走は子路が寝 覚め哉
tsuki shiroki / shiwasu wa / Shiro ga nezame kana

Under the white moon
Of December
Shiro wakes up

Matuso Basho, 貞亨3年, December, 1686

Note. Tsuki shiroki, means White Moon. Shiwasu, December. Shiro, a disciple of Confucius. Shiroki, a homophone, (also Shirozake), a white colored saki.

saki, 白酒, Shiroki,

December 1686

Back in Edo, living in his cottage, Basho’an, Matsuo Basho was still learning. Earlier in 1686, Spring Days (Haru no Hi) was compiled in Nagoya by Basho’s disciples, edited by him, and published in Kyoto. In 1686 he also composed his best known haiku about a frog, an old pond, and the sound of water. That December, back at Basho-an, under the moonlight he was thinking of Shiro, a disciple of Confucius.

Most likely, Basho was moon viewing and sharing a cup of saki with his friends. 白酒, Shiroki, Shirozake, is a white colored saki.


Shiro, (子路, 543 – 481),  Chinese, Zhong You (仲由), courtesy name Zi-lu, one of the ten most important disciples of Confucius.

Of him, Confucius said, “If to your present ability you added the wisdom of learning, you would be a superior man.”

“What is learning be to me?” asked Zi-lu. “The bamboo on the southern hill is straight itself without being bent. If I cut it and use it, I can send it through the hide of a rhinoceros, what then is the use of learning to me?”

“Yes,” said Confucius, “but if you feather it and point it with steel, will it not penetrate more deeply?”

Zi-lu bowed twice, and said, “Reverently I await your teachings.”

The Gift

A gift becomes his name — 松尾 芭蕉, Matsuo Basho.

bashō uete / mazu nikumu/ ogi no futaba kana

Planting this banana,
Now I hate
Sprouting Silvergrass

Matsuo Basho, Fukagawa, Basho-an, Spring 1681
Silvergrass, Ogi, Miscanthus

[Previously translated]

A Simple Gift

No gift had a greater impact on Matsuo Basho than the giving of a banana plant by his disciple Rika. Indeed, when he was given this gift in the spring of 1681, Matsuo was not yet Basho, a word that means banana plant in English. The occasion of the gift giving was Matsuo’s move from central Edo south across the Sumida River to the rural Fukagawa District.

The basho plant (芭蕉) was a housewarming gift.

The ogi, 荻 which once grew profusely near Matsuo’s cottage, dwarfing his tiny banana tree, had now become a threat to his new banana plant. The Latin name of the ogi is Miscanthus sacchariflorus, better known in a nursery as Amur silvergrass, that flowers in the fall and keeps its silvery silhouette throughout the winter.

As the banana plant thrived, Basho’s cottage would become known as Basho’an.

Becoming Basho

I can think of three reasons why Matsuo would choose Basho as his pen name. First, he was then writing under the name Tosei, meaning an unripe peach. Matsuo had by this time mastered much of what there was to learn about haiku, so it was time to become something more substantial.

A banana plant is anything but substantial, and that is probably what Matsuo liked most about this plant. Its broad leaves blew in the wind, and in a storm, they were often torn. Moreover, this particular banana did not produce fruit. It was decorative.

An artist’s view of himself or herself in society.

Finally, I will add this — the banana originated in China, in Sichuan to be more precise. And Matsuo owed a debt to his Chinese counterparts, the poets of the Tang dynasty like Li Bai and Bai Juyi.

The Basho plant, ばしょう

As Years Go By

Years later when the first Basho-an burned down, a second one was built. Basho brought to this new location a sprout from the original banana plant, then reflected:

What year did I come to nest here, planting a single Bashō
The climate must be good — around the first one new trunks have
grown up, their leaves so thick they crowd out my
garden and shade my house. People named my hut after this
plant. Every year, old friends and students who like my tree
take cuttings or divide the roots and carry them off to this place and that.

Matsuo Basho, Basho-an, 1683-84

Later that year Matsuo Basho left Basho-an on the first of four major wanderings.

Simple Gifts

The simplest gifts are the best gifts. The gifts that mean the most is the gift of family and friends.

Tis the gift to be simple,
’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be

Simple Gifts, Shaker song, Elder Joseph Brackett, 1848

Of Jim and Della, it is said they were not wise. Each sold the most valuable thing he and she owned in order to buy a gift for the other. And discover the greatest gift is each other.

Being in Love,
their gifts were Wise ones
— the Gift of Each Other

O’Henry, The Gift of the Magi, 1905

Note. This post was written December 26, 2021, after all the gift giving has been done.


Merry Christmas

The author of this blog who goes by the pen name Bashō no yōna wishes you a Merry Christmas and offers this humble selection of Christmas haiku.

Kids know
Santa is Real
They sense his presents

Elves who work
Listen to music
— Wrap

A Christmas tree,
A Colorado beaver,
Nice Gnawing You!

Mexican sheep
Say, Merry Christmas,
“Fleece Navidad!”

Santa’s sleigh
Cost nothing
It’s on the house!

A serene sentiment …

A Withering Winter
Of Snow
A Frozen Wonderland

Withering Winter is a Wonderland

Night Snow, Utagawa Hiroshige, circa 1833, The Met

Chili Peppers

To the non-foodies: shichimi togarashi is a spicy blend of seven spices that goes well with everything.

青くても/ 有べきものを /唐辛子
aoku te mo / arubeki mono o / tōgarashi

It should have stayed in
Its green attire
– A chili pepper

Matsuo Basho, September, 5th year of Genroku. 1692

Not So Spicy

Autumn 1692, Matsuo Basho is back in Edo (Tokyo), living in his third Basho-an, the cottage by a banana tree, from which he took his name. Tired of traveling, tired of guests, he lives for the most part in seclusion with a nephew and a woman named Jutei, possible his nephew’s wife. She perhaps tended the garden. She maybe cooked the dinner using the popular tōgarashi (唐辛子), red chili peppers. Basho, who lived with a stomach ailment for most of his life, would have preferred something not so spicy.

The red chili pepper did the trick.

I liked this haiku because I planted some chili peppers in my garden this spring and watched the green pepper turn red in late fall. Basho, I suspect thought the chili pepper none too spicy, and therefore, it should have kept its green attire.

Notes on Translation

The subtleties of the Japanese language often befuddle me. What should be so simple gets complex the more I try to delve into the meaning of things. For instance, ても, te mo should mean “even though”, but that doesn’t work. And tōgarashi, 唐辛子, the red chili is red because we know it ripens to that color. It is a popular ingredient in Shichimi, where a little bit goes a long way.

I have of course clothed the chili pepper in green “attire” like the Jolly Green Giant. Others have too.

Chili pepper and tomatoes

Are those tea leaves scratching at your door?

shibanoto ni cha no konoha kaku arashi kana

Are those tea leaves
Scratching at my brushwood door
In this storm?

Matsuo Basho, Fukagawa, 1680

Notes. Shibanato, 柴の戸 a brushwood gate. Arashi, 嵐 a storm or tempest. Tea leaves were used as a means of foretelling the future. Cha no ki, 茶の木, literally a tea tree, but I have chose to use the more familiar tea leaves.

tea ceremony, reading tea leaves in cup

Becoming Basho

Late in 1680, the poet who would become Matsuo Basho left behind the bustle and noise of Nihonbashi, the Edo’s theater district, where he had lived for nine years. His future was uncertain, for he was not yet named for the Banana tree (Basho) that would grow outside his new cottage. Seeking quiet, he moved to Fukagawa, a sparsely populated piece of reclaimed land beyond Edo, south of the Sumida River. The gift of a banana plant by a disciple would grow into a tree.

For now, Basho explained his move:

For nine springs and autumns, I lived austerely in the city. Now, I have moved to the banks of the Fukagawa River. Someone once said:

“Chang’an, in ancient times, was a place to seek fame and fortune, so hard for a traveler empty-handed and penniless.”
Is it because I’m poor myself that I understand this feeling?

Matsuo Basho

Note. Chang’an was the capital of the Tang dynasty, China’s Golden Age. Its population exceeded one million souls.

Basho noted that his verse was close to a poem by the Tang poet Bai Juyi (白居易,772 – 846)

Author’s Note. I have not come across such a poem. But I did find this — Late Spring, Yuan Zhen to Bai Juyi.

Late Spring
Calm day outside my thin curtain, swallows quickly chattering
Upon my steps, fighting sparrows kicking up dust.
In the rising wind at dusk, a brushwood gate swings shut.
The last flower petal drops and no one notices.

Yuan Zhen, (元稹, 779 – 831), to Bai Juyi
  • Not yet Basho, for he took the name Basho for the banana tree, frail and useless, that was planted outside his cottage.
Cherry blossoms on a branch