Basho, Frogs and Water

An old pond,
A frog jumps
Makes the sound of the water

An old pond,
A frog jumps
Water speaks!

Furu ike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

古池 蛙飛び込む 水の音

Must I explain?

A message so simple, even a child can understand. The frog jumps, the water speaks. Be the frog, be the water, one acts, the other reacts. It is a Zen thing, if you have to explain, you don’t get it. Like a solitary cloud on a summer’s day. Like a blade of grass waving in the wind. Like a buttercup in a sea of green. It is something special that a child understands and an adult forgets.

Splash, plop, smack, splatter, ploof, platshen, kerplunk, flic-floc, gloob, …

No Politics, Please

Matsuo Basho, Japan’s renown haiku master of the 17th century had nothing to say of politics. Yes, nothing at all.

This may seem surprising for Basho was born in Iga Province which was known for its Ninja traditions. And, it is said, because of their Samurai background, and the family name, Matsuo, the family was accorded a farm.

Matsuo had brothers and sisters. We may guess the farm was not so large, for Matsuo (he was not Basho yet) left the ox and the plow and served Yoshitada Todo whose father was Todo Shinshichiro, a samurai general in charge of the Iga region. Matsuo’s master, Yoshitada had an affinity for poetry, and perhaps that is how Matsuo got his start. But Yoshitada died and Matsuo went to Kyoto to study.

By the age of 28, Matsuo compiled a book of haiku verse called Kai Oi (Shell Matching), which he dedicated to the Ueno Tenjingu Shinto Shrine. Soon after he left for Edo, capital to the ruling Shogun, Tokugawa Ietsuna . Like a child in a candy store, he immersed himself in the sights and sounds of the bustling Nihonbashi District, with its theater, music, performers, and exotic food stalls. In time he gathered students who came to him for instruction.

Enough, he said. And so he moved to the quieter Fukagawa District, across the Sumida River to a simple hut where he was given a banana as a housewarming gift. In time the banana grew to a tree. Battered by the wind, its leaves sometimes tattered, this otherwise useless tree provided some shade.

Fame follows Matsuo. Haiku are written, students gather. In time the banana plant becomes a tree. The banana tree is like me, Matsuo said. And that is how he became Matsuo Basho, “Matsuo the Banana”, or as he himself would say, a useless banana, blown to and fro by the wind, good for little, but to give shade.

How less political can one be.

Let me be an observer of life, he said. Let me listen and see what I hear. Haiku has its roots in  Taoism, Buddhism, and Shintoism. It is an art form which attempts to express ideas in a simple verse form consisting of seventeen syllables. No more, no less, though sometimes Basho would stretch or break this rule.

This would inspire what is perhaps Basho’s greatest haiku.

An old pond, a from jumps in, the sound of water, Aha!

古池 蛙飛び込む 水の音

This is not to say that Basho did not speak of distant politics and war. He admired loyalty. He admired lost cause, but he found melancholy in such loss. Thus, when thinking of General Sanemori who died in battle in 1183, he wrote the following haiku.

How piteous! Beneath the warrior’s helmet A cricket cries.

むざんや   な甲の下の   きりぎりす

muzan ya na/ kabuto no shita no/ kirigirisu

One almost wonders, if Basho thought, what is the point? What is the point of politics, to those who are born on a farm, to those who put down their swords, and take up the pen to write a poem?


This post was written in January of 2012 in the midst of the impeachment of President Donald Trump. The author expresses no opinion on the current political situation.

Shiwasu, December

Being rushed,
I give a forget-the-year party
In a good mood
I wonder?

Setsuka rete  Toshi wasure suru  Kigen kana

せつかれて 年忘れする 機嫌かな

Shiwasu, December, Priests rushing to make ready the Temple

Forget the Year

I have no year for which to date Matsuo Basho’s New Year’s haiku. The winter of 1682 is a likely year, for his Banana Hut was destroyed in a fire. The following year his mother died. There are perhaps other likely candidates, but I don’t suppose we will know.

This haiku is like a scrap of paper fallen from a pocket as one fiddles about for change to feed the parking meter when rushing about on New Year’s Eve.

Of course it is now January 2021. Being rushed by the holidays, worried about a pandemic, and an election crisis, I almost forgot to celebrate the passing of 2020. Or, Basho would agree, I simply wanted to forget an awful 2020.

Shiwasu, 師

In 17th century Japan, Japanese families prepared for the New Year’s Eve party by rushing to a Shinto shrine to venerate their ancestors. For this reason, December is given the name Shiwasu, 師走, which translates as the “month of running priests” who are busy sweeping up and setting out candles. At the temples and shrines, wishes for the new year must be made, and new omamori (charms) bought and old ones returned to be be burned.

Today, as back then, there is a bit of sadness mixed in with gladness. The Japanese call these New Year’s parties 忘年会, bonenkai, literally forget the year party. For Basho, this becomes 年忘れする, toshi wasure suru, forget the year. Perhaps it was a bad year.

We all have those. And come the New Year don’t we wish to be in a good mood, 機嫌 Kigen. I wonder, かな, kana. And don’t some like to keep grudges. Hmmm?

New Year, Second Day

shôgatsu ga futsuka arite mo shiwade kana

New Year, Second Day,
but already
wrinkled hands

First Month, Second Day
but already
wrinkled hands

I suppose that the first thing a child notices about an aging mother, before the gray hair, are the veins and wrinkles that appear on a mother’s careworn hands.

Kobayashi Issa

Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1828) offers up this guest haiku. Basho would not object, ther is much to learn from others.

The pen name, Issa (一茶), means “cup of tea” which summarizes the subject matter of Issa’s poems — things to his liking, simple things to be enjoyed, something to think over. Issa gives no date for his poem, but we can guess that he was already advanced in years, if not in his understanding of life’s short lease.

There are perhaps two comments worth making. First, that 正月, shôgatsu in Issa’s time meant the first day of spring by the lunar calendar. For that reason, I suppose, if asked, Issa would prefer the literal “First Month, Second Day”.

Second, that Issa’s life was marked by tragedy and sorrow — the death of his first wife and three children, a failed second marriage, and his home burning down. Issa’s response to this was —

In a world of grief and pain
Flowers bloom
Even then

Issa would enter into a third marriage, but Issa died before the birth of his daughter.

Three in One

three in one cup,
but I drink to one name,
who am I, this night?

盃に 三つの名を飲む 今宵かな

sakazuki ni mitsu no na o nomu koyoi kana

Oct. 23, 1685, Edo

Everyone likes a good riddle. So who was Matsuo Basho toasting?

On this date in Japanese history, Yamaga Sokō, original name Yamaga Takasuke died. He was a military strategist, Confucian philosopher, and originator of what would become the Bushido Code by which all Samurai would operate.

Three in One conjures up an image of the Holy Trinity, the Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit. Three for One, makes one also think Alexandre Dumas‘ 19th century novel Three Musketeers, who proclaimed, “Un pour tous, tous pour un. (One for all, and all for one.)”

Sakazuki Takasuke!

No, Basho likely had in mind Takasuke in offering up Sakazuki, a ceremonial cup of wine. This is speculation, but it fits nicely. Basho being descended from a Samurai family would want to honor another. Takasuke Sakazuki! Takasuke Sakazuki! Takasuke Sakazuki! The honorific was said three times.

Li Bai

Matsuo Basho also had in mind 8th century Chinese poet Li Bai (太白,744–762). He of many titles including the Transcendent Poet, Banished Immortal, and Green Lotus House Warrior. The first for his skill as a poet, the second for his prodigious drinking, and the third as an artist.

Basho’s haiku is a response to Li Bai’s well-known poem Under the Moon, Drinking Alone.

In the midst of flowers, with one jug of wine
Drinking alone, and no one else,
I offer up my cup, to the bright moon
My shadows and I, a party of three.

Li Bai


Why three? Things that come in threes are funnier, interesting, and more memorable. Comedians, magicians, and poets know to set up a sequence with three short lines, then the punch line. Three is mystical. The Holy Trinity, as I’ve said. It also creates a unique pattern and a relationship that the brain can understand. The Three Blind Mice, The Three Little Pigs, The Three Stooges. Three is also an odd number, the first Prime number, if one excludes the number “one.” Two fit together nicely, but three rarely do.

Basho explains

By way of explanation, Basho’s haiku came at gathering for moon-viewing (観月) at his home in the fall of 1685. He he had returned to Edo and his Banana Hut after the first of his wanderings. Present were three friends all named Shichiroubei. No doubt Basho founds some humor in the homonyms, zuki, as in cup, and tsuki, moon; as well as the visual similarity of the flat circular cup and the circular full moon.

Basho ends his haiku alliteratively with koyoi kana, 今宵, literally, this night, but also a question, as in, who am I?


Gentle Reader, nomu, 飲む, let’s drink: Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu

Saki, Sake cup from Wikipedia

shirobusuma 白襖

sliding white doors,
in color


shirobusuma shimete gokusaishiki no yume

Iro no yume 色の夢 Dreams of color

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) was quite the dreamer, explaining in The Tempest that towers, palaces, temples, even the globe itself shall dissolve for:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Isaac Newton (1642-1726) was more serious, explaining in a series of scientific papers that white light refracts in a prism, devolving it into a richly colored rainbow of light. Meanwhile, in Japan, Matsuo Bashō (1644 – 1694) simply said that by closing the sliding white doors in his home he was colorfully dreaming. Gokusaishiki, which Basho uses can be translated as “richly colored,” “extremely colorful” or “colorfully” dreaming. This was a back door way (pun intended) of introducing the seasonal word, as Shiki (四季) means Four Seasons.

Dreams (yume, 夢) were a major theme of Basho’s haikus. There were butterfly dreams, soldiers’ dreams that lay within the grass, good luck dreams of snow on Mt. Fuji, and of course, dreams of life and death, and somewhere in between.

Bashō no yōna

In her well-written blog, Gabi Greve explains that the sliding doors of a Japanese house are newly papered in winter to keep the room warm. Sigmund Freud would have looked at the closing of the door as a transition from reality to wish fulfillment. A Buddhist, a change in state, one of purity to a colorful existence in the after life.

Finally, Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote (1605) said, “When one door closes, another opens.” A fitting way to end this post. Now, to sleep, perchance to dream in color.

In the middle of the night

Sometimes it comes in the middle of the night
My head on the pillow, half asleep
A thought

来る 真夜中
枕に頭、 眠そう

Kuru mayonaka makura ni atama, nemu-sō omoi

Matsuo Bashō, a short bio

Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉, 1644 – 1694) arrived, the son of a samurai, several siblings; a student, a teacher, who wandered and wondered, who listened and spoke, then scribbled and wrote, never married, never hurried, now he is gone.

芭蕉のような, Bashō no yōna

Master to the student, “What are your thoughts?”

“I wish to be Basho-like,” said the student.

“Nothing else?” the master asked.

A Pillow of Grass

Let us dine on barley grain
On a journey nowhere

(kusa makura)

come, together
let us eat barley grain
on a grass pillow

iza tomo ni/ homugi kurawan/ kusa makura


barley field, 麦畑

Summer 1685

On “a journey of a thousand leagues,” one that began in the autumn of 1684, a trip in which Basho would enter “into nothingness under the midnight moon,” and now, in the summer of 1685, was near its end, a chance meeting took place. It was a meeting that meant everything and nothing, remarkable enough to inspire a haiku, to remember, but nothing else.

The poet from Edo and the priest from Hirugakojima met somewhere near Nagoya in Owari province. Let us imagine the introduction:

“Come let us go together. As you see, you and I have no place to be. Asking for very little, eating a simple fare of barley grain, ‘neath the stars at night, sleeping on a pillow of grass until we say our goodbyes.”

We learn little of the priest other than the fact that he hails from the island of Hirugakojima (蛭が小嶋) in Izu. The significance becoming apparent only when we realize that the shrine and the temple on the island was built by Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), who established the Kamakura shogunate, a play on words with kusamakura (草枕), the grass pillow.

In 1689, pursuant to his last wishes, Basho would be buried next to Minamoto no Yoshinaka, a member of the Minamoto samurai clan.

Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field

It was the first of Matsuo Basho’s major wanderings, a trip that took him from Edo to Mount Fuji, then on to Ueno, Nara, Kyoto, and Nagoya, a trip begun in uncertainty for Basho made trip alone without provisions. Basho was 41, old enough to have achieved fame as poet and teacher, still uncertain about where life was leading him.

We need not tarry too long on this journey. David Landis Barnhill has given us a translation online of the Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field, (Nozarashi kiko).

Dewa Province Mogami River


David Landis Barnhill gives us a chronological translation online of the Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field, (Nozarashi kiko) .

WKD – Matsuo Basho Archives, Gabi Greve, Iza, let’s go

The Route, Nozarashi Kiko (野ざらし紀行), Several sources indicate that Basho was accompanied on the journey by his disciple Chiri. Chiri (塵) is an interesting moniker for it means dust. Dust was on occasion a subject of Basho’s haiku.

blossoms falling, birds startled by the harp’s dust
chiru hana ya / tori mo odoroku / koto no chiri

A Crow Upon a Withered Branch

Upon a withered branch
A crow has stopped this
Autumn evening

Kareeda ni/ Karasu no tomarikeri/ Aki no kure


detail of image by Kawanabe Kyōsa (1831 – 1889)

Autumn 1680

Matsuo Bashō has by the autumn of 1680 now achieved fame. Moreover, he has just moved from Edo across the Sumida River to the Fukagawa neighborhood where he lives in a simple hut with a new banana tree, a gift from a student. A bridge had yet to be built across the river.

At the age of 36 Bashō was experiencing what we would call a Mid-Life crisis, he was cut off, dissatisfied, and lonely. In a couple of years he would begin his epic journey to the North. But for now, he took up the practice of Zen meditation, but it seems not to have calmed his mind.

This haiku has more than 30 published and hundreds of online translations. Why so many variations? Why so many attempts?


The answer, I suppose, lies in Zen’s ineffability. For Zen’s essence is to understand directly Life’s Meaning, without being misled by language. Life is what we view directly, no more, no less.

Bashō sees a crow perched upon a withered branch. It is autumn, more precisely, an autumn evening as the dusk settles in and darkness descends. The air is still or perhaps there is a gentle breeze. Then a crow stops upon a withered branch. Its crow and tree become one color against the ever deepening blue of the evening sky.

Bashō, like the crow, stops for a moment. And in that suspended moment this haiku is formed.

The Crow, , Karasu

Do I need to say that the crow is a bad omen? In Japan, there is a belief that if a crow settles on the roof of a house and begins cawing, a funeral will soon follow. Did the gloomy Bashō foresee his own death? Did Basho in his own unique way presage Yates who wrote, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick.” Is there not a little of Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven to be heard tapping at one’s door?

A melancholy thought, for which I have little to add other than that I love the repetition of the “k” throughout the haiku which must bring to mind the cawing that Bashō must have heard.


  1. I see that I watched this crow stopping on his withered branch before, September 19, 2019.
  2. For the semantically punctilious, much depends on the translation of とまりけり, tomarikeri. Perched, alighted, arrested are all possibilities. “Stopped” seems best to me.
  3. For an academic discussion of various English translations, see A CROW ON A BARE BRANCH: A COMPARISON OF MATSUO BASHŌ’S HAIKU “KARE-EDA-NI…” AND ITS ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS, by Elin Sütiste of Tartu University in Estonia.