Sado Island

a stormy sea stretches out to Sado Island / the Milky Way

荒海や佐渡によこたふ天河
araumi ya / Sado ni yokotau / amanogawa

[July 1689]

Sea of Japan, island of Sado, Milky Way, Tanabata festival
Sea of Japan, island of Sado, Milky Way, Tanabata festival

Basho writes

Station 33 – Echigo 越後路

After lingering in Sakata for several days, I traveled [south] a stretch of a hundred and thirty miles to the capital of the province of Kaga. As I looked up at the clouds gathering around the mountains alongside the Hokuriku road, the thought of the distance before me almost overwhelmed my heart. Driving myself all the while, however, I entered the province of Echigo through the barrier-gate of Nezu, and arrived at the barrier-gate of Ichiburi in the province of Ecchu. Nine days I needed for this trip, during which I could not write much, what with the heat and moisture, and my old complaint that pestered me immeasurably.

Already, the night looks different
For tomorrow, on July the sixth,
Once a year
The weaver meets her lover.

The immense Heavenly River*
Spanning a single arch
On the white-capped sea,
Falling beyond on Sado island.

*Milky Way

Explanation, if you please

It is now July, several months into Matuso Basho’s account of his famous Journey to the North. Basho is traveling south in the region of Esshū (越州), along Japan’s western coast and the Sea of Japan. The mountains are an obstacle, the heat and the summer rains have made the journey difficult, causing his “old complaints” of rheumatism and arthritis to scream with discomfort.

Basho arrives to a view of the distant island of Sado. It is night and the stars of the Heavenly River (Milky Way) shimmer on the rough sea.

Tomorrow is the Japanese festival of Tanabata (meaning “Evening of the seventh”; the Star Festival) would begin. The festival celebrates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (the Japanese names for the stars Vega and Altair respectively). According to legend, the Milky Way separates these two lovers, and they are allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the lunisolar calendar.

evening-milky-way

Source: Matsuo Basho Archives, Gabi Greve, 2012

Scattered Showers

bridge crossing Sumida River from Edo to Fukagawa
bridge crossing Sumida River from Edo to Fukagawa

A passing cloud like a stray dog relieving itself – scattered showers

行く雲や犬の駈け尿村時雨
yuku kumo ya / inu no kake bari / mura shigure

winter 1677

Weather Report from the Edo Waterworks

Five years after Matsuo Basho moved to Edo, he found himself working as a clerk at the Waterworks Department to support himself. As an aside, Basho joined Nishiyama Sōin, founder of the Danrin school of haikai (haikai no renga), who came to Edo from Osaka in 1675.

The style was witty wordplay bordering on the vulgar.

The Golden Hall

The summer rain has spared the Golden Hall

五月雨の 降のこしてや 光堂

Samidare no/ Furinokosite ya/ Hikari-do

Matsuo Basho visited Hiraizumi on June 29, 1689 in the midst of Japan’s rainy season (五月雨の, samidare no, literally the rainy season of the fifth month). There he composed his famous haiku on the Fukiwara clan. “The summer’s grass / Is all that’s left / Of ancient warrior’s dreams.” After which he visited the Golden Hall where the four Fujiwara leaders are entombed.

golden hall hiraizumi

Chusonji Temple in the town of Hiraizumi in Iwate Prefecture sits atop Mount Kanzan. It is the oldest of the Hiraizumi sites, base of the northern branch of the Fujiwara clan. Its Konjikido (Hikari-do) or “Golden Hall” is a mausoleum containing the remains of all four leaders of the Fujiwara clan, which fell at the end of the 12th century. Kiyohira, the founder, Motohira, Hidehira, and Yasuhira, the last leader, are enshrined.

The first in a line of Fujiwara lords, Kiyohira lost his wife, father and one child to war. The inhumanity he witnessed drove him to create a domain resembling the pure land, a world driven by the higher principals of Buddhism. His vision flourished for a century.

The Golden Hall is encased in a protective glass enclosure. Its ornate structure is decorated with gold leaf and mother-of-pearl. Unbelievably, the Konjiki-dō used to sit outdoors in the open air, but by Basho’s time it was enclosed.

Sora later recounts in his diary that he and Basho could not find anyone to open the doors to the Golden Hall and left without seeing the Golden Hall.

Understanding Haiku

in the stillness—
sinking into the rocks,
is the cicadas’ cry 

Let us abandon the self. Let us enter the mind of Matsuo Basho for a moment.

From a distance we see him standing outside his small house in Fukagawa, underneath the famous banana tree given him by one of his students. The tree has grown over the years and now towers over our small group. It bears fruit. Let us now imagine that it is a summer’s day and the sky is blue except for the occasional cloud that shades the sun. Basho and his disciples are discussing the art of the haiku. From our lofty perch let us descend and enter the mind of Basho.

Matsuo Basho: “In Yamadera District there is a scenic temple that was founded almost a thousand years ago. It is located on a mountain top northeast of Yamagata City. Near the top, the way passes by the massive Mida Hora rock, which is shaped like Amida Buddha. I paused in the stillness and listened to the sound of the cicadas.”

Matsuo Basho: “Things, like humans, have qi, (). It is a life spirit, which can be felt. This is the universal force that makes up and binds all things together. It is paradoxically, both everything and nothing.”

Toho [Basho’s disciple]: “How do we learn of this spirit? How do we feel it?”

Matsuo Basho: “The mind merges with the object, which is taken in nature without obstruction. Detach from oneself, enter the object with the mind, feel the subtlety of the thing. Let the mind become the object.

Learn the pine from the pine, the bamboo from the bamboo.”

Toho would later recall this conversation in his red booklet, Akazoshi:

The master said: ‘Learn about a pine tree from a pine tree, and about a bamboo plant from a bamboo plant.’ What he meant was that the poet should detach the mind from his own self. Nevertheless, some people interpret the word ‘learn’ in their own ways and never really ‘learn’. ‘Learn’ means to enter into the object, perceive its delicate life, feel its feeling, whereupon a poem forms itself. Even a poem that lucidly describes an object could not attain a true poetic sentiment unless it contains the feelings that spontaneously emerged out of the object. In such a poem the object and the poet’s self remain forever separate, for it was composed by the poet’s personal self.

bamboo

What do my neighbors do?

Autumn deepens, next door, what does my neighbor do?

秋深き / 隣は何を / する人ぞ

aki fukaki / tonari wa nani wo / suru hito zo

Matsuo Basho on the 26th day of the Ninth Month, 1694

Basho was now 51 years old. In the summer of 1694, he left Edo (Tokyo), and after stops in Ueno, his place of birth, and Kyoto, he went to Osaka where he stayed at a country inn. Here he became ill. He was well enough earlier to visit the Sumiyoshi Shinto shrine (住吉大社), but by evening decided against attending a poetry gathering at a disciple’s house and sent this poem.

He died a few weeks later on the twelfth day of the tenth month.

Autumn deepens, the man next door, what does he do for a living?

Zen, which aims at the perfection of the person-hood, must acknowledge the impossibility of knowing someone else. Still, one is curious about others and what they do. Gentle reader, I am curious about you. Are you curious about me?

cropped-basho.jpg

Sora Speaks

This child Kasane, if she were a flower, would be a pink carnation

かさねとは八重撫子の名なるべし
Kasane towa yae-nadeshiko no nanarubeshi

 

Sora Tabi Nikki (曾良旅日記, “Travel Diary of Sora”) was Kawai Sora’s (曾良) memories of the journey 1689 and 1691 that he and Matsuo Bashō took to the north. The diary was lost and rediscovered in 1943.

pink carnation

Basho explains the setting:

“I have an acquaintance in a place called Kurobane in Nasu, and I decided to take a short cut from Nikko straight across the broad plain. The rain began to fall, the sun was setting and in the distance we happened to notice a village. Lodging for a night at a farmer’s house, at daybreak we headed off again over the plain. We came across a horse grazing in a field. We sought assistance from a man cutting grass and though he was a peasant, he was not without compassion.

‘Hmm, let’s see. The plain is criss-crossed with trails and someone unfamiliar with the way is bound to get lost — that’s a real problem — say, why don’t you take this horse as far as he’ll go and just send him back,” and he lent us the horse.’

Two children came running along behind the horse. One was a little girl named Kasane, a truly elegant name I’d never heard before.”

Notes

Nade-shi-ko meaning a frilly pink flower in Japanese is homophonous for “the child who is lovingly caressed / patted” and it is considered a charming name. The similar term Yamato nadeshiko (やまとなでしこ or 大和撫子) means the “personification of an idealized Japanese woman”, or “the epitome of pure, feminine beauty”.

Kasane means layered or double.

Station 24 – Dewagoe

Fleas and lice,
A horse pissing
Close to my pillow.

蚤虱  馬の尿する  枕もと

nomi shirami/ uma no shito suru/ makura moto  

It is now 330 years since Matuso Basho and his companion Saro left on their journey north. They departed on May 16, 1689 and the two now find themselves close to the northernmost end of their journey, having just left Hiraizumi.

From Iwate to Shitomae

Leaving Hiraizumi and the Fujiwara clan behind, Basho and Saro proceeded some 50 miles north to Iwate, then west to Shitomae (尿前) where they stayed for three days.

The nights proved fitful, much like the stay at Iizuka where the fleas and mosquitoes were relentless and sleep impossible. To this torture, add the stench of a urinating horse. Originally, Basho had intended to go further north to Nanbu (南部町) in Yamanashi Prefecture where the Nanbu clan (南部氏 Nanbu-shi) ruled most of northeastern Honshū for over 700 years. Rain and difficulties would change his mind.

The journey towards the west and Shitomae took them towards Dewa Province and the western coast of Japan. The route would be treacherous. On the road to Dewa, Basho and Sora had to cross Kofukazawa River by climbing down a steep gorge through hairpin turns. In summer, when Matsuo Basho and Sora crossed the river they had to negotiate six treacherous bends to climb down and up the rocky gorge.

Basho explains:

Station 24 – Dewagoe

“Turning away from the high road leading to Nambu (Nanbu) Province, I came to the village of Iwate, where I stopped overnight. The next day I looked at the Cape of Oguro and the tiny island of Mizu, both in a river, and arrived by way of Naruko hot springs at the barrier-gate of Shitomae (Shitomae no seki 尿前の関) which blocked the entrance to the province of Dewa. The gate-keepers were extremely suspicious, for very few travelers dared to pass this difficult road under normal circumstances. I was admitted after  a long wait, and darkness overtook me while I was climbing a huge hill. I put up at a gate-keeper’s house which I was very lucky to find in such a lonely place. A storm came upon us and I was held up for three days.

Bitten by fleas and lice,
I slept in a bed,
A horse constantly pissing
Close to my pillow.

According to the gate-keeper there was a huge body of mountains obstructing my way to the province of Dewa, and the road was terribly uncertain. So I decided to hire a guide. The gate-keeper was kind enough to find me a young man of tremendous physique, who walked in front of me with a curved sword strapped to his waist and a stick of oak gripped firmly in his hand. I myself followed him, afraid of what might happen on the way. What the gate-keeper had told me turned out to be true. The mountains were so thickly covered with foliage and the air underneath was so hushed that I felt as if I were groping my way in the dead of night. There was not even the cry of a single bird to be heard, and the wind seemed to breathe out black soot through every rift in the hanging clouds. I pushed my way through thick undergrowth of bamboo, crossing many streams and stumbling over many rocks, till at last I arrived at the village of Mogami after much shedding of cold sweat. My guide congratulated me by saying that I was indeed fortunate to have crossed the mountains in safety, for accidents of some sort had always happened on his past trips. I thanked him sincerely and parted from him. However, fear lingered in my mind some time after that.”

Written on the 17th day of the 5th lunar month at Shitomae, which literally means “before the urine” or vulgarly, “in front of pissing”. Matsuo Basho Archives, Gabi Greve, 15/11/2012.

The Road North

horse-urinating

The Narrow Road to the North Prologue

matsuo basho

matsuo basho

Station 1 – Prologue

Days and months are eternity’s travelers. As are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the land, finally succumbing to the weight of years, spend each minute of their lives traveling. There are also a great number of the ancients who died on the road (including Chinese Tang poets Li Bai and Du Fu and Japanese poets Saigyo and Sogi). For a long time, tempted by  cloud-moving winds, I myself  have felt a strong desire to wander.

It was only toward the end of last autumn that I returned from rambling trip along the coast. I barely had time to sweep the cobwebs from my humble house on the River Sumida before the New Year, but no sooner than the spring mist had begun to rise over fields that I wanted to be on the road again, in due time to cross the barrier-gate of Shirakawa . The gods seemingly possessed my soul turning it inside out and from every corner the roadside images seemed to entice me, so that it was impossible for me to stay idle at home.

Even as I was getting ready, mending my torn trousers, tying a new strap to my hat and applying moxa to my legs to strengthen them, I was dreaming of the full moon rising over the islands of Matsushima. Finally, I sold my house and temporarily moved to Sampu’s cottage. Upon the threshold of my old home, I wrote a linked verse of eight lines and hung it on a wooden pillar.

The starting piece:
Behind this door
Now buried in deep grass
A different generation will celebrate
The Festival of Dolls.

The Narrow Road to the North

Joined by his traveling companion Kawai Sora (河合曾良), Matsuo Bashō left his home in Edo (Tokyo) in the spring of 1689 for a journey to the north and west coast of Japan. The journey took approximately five months, with Bashō and Sora traveling on foot about ten miles a day.

There were some 40 stations and stops on his journey including: the Tokugawa shrine at Nikkō, Kurobane in the province of Nasu, a Zen temple called Unganji, the Shirakawa barrier, on towards Sukagawa crossing the River Abukuma, through the famous hills of Asaka, through the castle towns of Abumizuri and Shiroishi, arriving at the province of Kasajima, crossing the River Natori and entering the city of Sendai, stopping at the River Noda no Tamagawa and the so-called Rock in the Offing, at the pine woods called Sue no Matsuyama, then to the islands of Matsushima, to Hiraizumi where the glory of three generations of the Fujiwara family passed away like a snatch of empty dream, then down the west coast of Japan to Sakata, Kisakata, and Etchū.

He and Sora parted ways at Yamanaka, but at Ōgaki he met a few of his other disciples before departing alone to the Grand Shrine of Ise near Kyoto, where the account ends.

After his journey end, Bashō spent five years editing the work before publishing it.

The Work in Full

View the Matsuo Basho Archives

 

The Chrysanthemum – 菊の花

mass of white chrysanthemums

Drinking his morning tea calms the monk – Chrysanthemum

朝茶飲む 僧静かなり 菊の花

Asa cha nomu / sō shizukanari / kiku no hana

mass of white chrysanthemums

The Chrysanthemum

Matsuo Bashō (松尾 金作), Japan’s most famous poet of the Edo period, made the chrysanthemum the subject of several haiku. In Japanese the flower is called Kiku-no-hana, literally blossom of the chrysanthemum, or Kiku for short.

As early as the 5th century, it was imported from China into Japan by Buddhist monks, originally as medicine then becoming an object of beauty and admiration. Japanese royalty came to love the flower because they believed it had the power to prolong life. In 1183, the sixteen petal chrysanthemum became the imperial symbol. In November Chrysanthemum Festivals across Japan celebrate the many varieties of the late blooming flower.

As medicine, chrysanthemums are used to treat chest pains and high blood pressure, as well as fevers, colds, headaches, and dizziness.

The delicate petals are brewed into tea, which in our case calms the nervous monk in the morning.

Rainy Day 雨の日

Rainy day, falling into the world, Sakai town
雨の日  や世間の秋を  堺町
ame no hi / ya seken no aki o / sakai-chō

Matsuo Bashō, age 35, autumn 1678

By the autumn of 1678, Matsuo Basho had been living in central Edo (Tokyo) for six years and had published several haiku anthologies. He was, one imagines, having to deal with what fame brings.

Sakai-chô

It was a rainy day. Basho decided to go to the Kabuki Theater District in Sakai-chô. What strange sights greeted him, stranger sights still awaited him when he entered the theater.

Ya seken no aki o / sakai-chō

Seken (世間) refers to the ancient Sanskrit loka (secular world), first borrowed by the Chinese then Japanese. Falling in and falling out, one might say, between reality and fantasy, theater or life itself, who is to say which is more real?

Kabuki Theater

Kabuki 歌舞伎 comes from the verb kabuku, meaning “to slant or to sway.” The colorful costumes suggest a world out of the ordinary.

Okumura-Masanobu-1686–1764
Okumura-Masanobu, c. 1745, Kabuki Theater District in Sakai-chô and Fukiya-chô,
Boston Museum Fine Arts

Fukagawa

Bright lights and theater are not compatible with the life of a poet.

In 1780, Basho moved across the Sumida River to the Fukagawa District. There, a benefactor provided him with a simple house. The next year a disciple gives him a banana plant (basho-an).

He plants it and thereafter called himself Bashō, 芭蕉 .