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.
Robins at a birdbath Bobbing heads and drinking, Saying: Arigato
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
Lost in Translation
Hakinagara — Haki, 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.
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.
油こほりともし火細き寝覚哉 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.
Basho visited Sarashina (Nagano prefecture) and its terraced rice paddies (tagato) the autumn before he made this haiku.
元日に田毎の日こそ恋しけれ 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 tree? 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.
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.
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.
柴の戸に茶の木の葉掻く嵐かな 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.
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:
長安は古来名利の地、空手にして金なきものは行路難し “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?
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.