October 1, 1691

Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō

Such things as cherished tears
color
the scattered red leaves

尊がる涙や 染めて 散る紅葉
tootogaru namida ya somete chiru momiji

Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō
Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō, near Kyoto

The Autumn Years

It is near the beginning of the end.

Beginning in 1690, Bashō was gone from Edo, living in quiet retirement at the Genju-an (the Phantom Dwelling), what had been an abandoned hut with a rush door, near Lake Biwa. He spent his days working on the book that would make him famous, Narrow Road to the Deep North and making short trips to visit friends and former students. On the first day of October he called on the Priest Ryu, at the Myosho-ji Temple in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture.

This visit inspired the above haiku.

After calling on his friend, Bashō returned to Edo to a new house near the old one in Fukagawa, complete with five banana plants. For the next three years, he would work on another anthology of poetry before setting out once more in the spring of 1694 for his birthplace.

On the way, at Osaka, he took ill and died, age 50.

Notes on translation

Momijigari, 紅葉狩り –  Maple viewing, a Japanese autumn tradition of visiting where the maple leaves have turned red. From momiji (紅葉) meaning the “maple tree” as well as “red leaves” and  “color changing”; and kari (狩り) “hunting”.

Bashō, Spring 1678

The Captain-General too
Kneels before
His Imperial Majesty in Spring

Kabitan mo/  tsukubawakeri/   kimi ga haru

甲比丹もつ  くばはせけり   君が春

Dutch_tribute_embassy_to_Edo 

Tsukubawakeri

According to Japanese legend, thousands of years ago a deity descended from the heavens and asked both Mount Fuji and Mount Tsukuba to offer themselves as a place to spend the night. Proud and arrogant Mount Fuji said that it was already at a peak of perfection and didn’t require any other blessings. Thus, it refused.

Mount Tsukuba, on the other hand, thought of nothing but being a good host. So, it offered itself as a place of rest, giving the deity its trees as cover, its nuts and fruit as food, and streams as water. This is why, as the story goes, Mt. Fuji is cold and stark while Mount Tsukuba is always covered in beautiful foliage.

Spring 1678

Matsuo Basho’s poetry was an extension of the art form of haikai-no-renga. This is a group activity in which each participant displays wit by spontaneously composing a verse in response to the verse that came before; the simpler the two verses, the more interesting the images, the more impressive the poet’s ability.

As a young man, Matsuo served the family of Todo Shinshichiro, a samurai general in charge of the Iga region where Basho was born. He attended the young Todo Yoshitada, who wrote verse in the renga style. Yoshitada died at the young age of 28 and Basho, now freed of his obligation, moved on, continuing his interest in poetry. Matsuo Bashō studied under the likes of Kigin Kitamura in Kyoto before moving to Edo in 1672. By the spring of 1678, he had moved up through literary circles, receiving instruction from Nishiyama Sōin, who founded the Danrin school (談林派, literally talkative forest).

Bashō became the tree that towered over the forest.

Kabitan mo/  tsukubawakeri/   kimi ga haru

This haiku, that uses the Dutch Captain General as a subject, is perhaps a tongue in cheek reference to himself, Bashō paying due to those that came before him and taught him the art of haiku.

Two years later in 1680, Bashō would complete the break and move to Fukagawa on the forlorn eastern bank of the Sumida River. There he took on his well-known haigō, “Bashō” taken from the banana tree given to him by a student.

Notes on Japanese translation

甲比丹 kapitan, captain general, likely derived from the original Portuguese and later Dutch term for the head the head of a trading company in Japan
mo, also
kanji lord, ruler
haru, spring, springtime

君が春
kimi ga haru, I am not sure I am happy with my translation of “His Imperial Majesty in Spring”. There is some semblance with the Japanese word Kimigayo, which is usually translated as “His Imperial Majesty’s Reign”. This is the former Japanese National Anthem based on a poem from the Heian Period (794–1185). The first lines of the poem (Kimigayo wa, Chiyo ni yachiyo ni) are roughly translated as “Thousands of years of happy reign be thine.”

Saddle my horse, uma ni kura

The Dutch too are coming,
To see the flowers blossom,
Saddle my horse

阿蘭陀も 花に来にけり 馬に鞍

Oranda mo/ hana ni ki ni keri/ uma ni kura

A Close Encounter of a Dutch Kind

In a closed society (sakoku, 鎖国), as Japan was, strangers would elicit a curious look.

The Dutch with their bearded faces and yellow hair would have been doubly strange to the Japanese. Not quite a close encounter of a third kind, but alien no less.

Since 1633, the Shogun in Edo had banned foreigners from entering Japan and Japanese from traveling abroad. Only the Dutch were permitted a trading post in Nagasaki harbor on the small island of Deshima (Dejima). The island was ” 82 ordinary steps in width and 236 in length through the middle,” according to Engelbert Kaempfer who spent two years there with the Dutch East India Company.  The Japanese were still curious about western ways and each spring, the Dutch brought tribute to the Shōgun in Edo, bringing news of the world and bearing gifts: weapons, clocks, telescopes, medicines and rare animals.

It must have been quite a spectacle.

Dutch_tribute_embassy_to_Edo

[From Engelbert Kaempfer: The History of Japan (1727), based on observations made between 1690 and 1692 with the Dutch East India Company. Image Wikipedia.]

Hanami

The Dutch trip to Edo occurred in April when Japan was in the midst of its Hanami festival  (花見, flower viewing festival). We associate this festival with the well-known cherry  blossoms (桜 sakura), but they would have also included flowering plum.

Notes on translation

阿蘭陀 Oranda, Holland, The Dutch
mo, too, also
hana, flower
馬に鞍, uma ni kura, saddle my horse, literally put the saddle on my horse

Important Sources

Matsuo Basho – WKD Archives
Cherry Blossom Epiphany, page 145
Dutch Encounters, excerpt from Kaempfer’s observations

 

seken no aki o sakaichō

A rainy day
This autumn world
Sakai town

雨の日や世間の秋を堺町

Ame no hi ya seken no aki o sakaichō

Utagawa Hiroshige, White Rain on the Nihon Bridge

[Utagawa Hiroshige, White Rain on the Nihon Bridge, 1838, credit, Yale Art Museum]

A Rainy Day in Autumn, 1678

“…seken no aki o sakaichō”

It sounds good to the ear even when you don’t know Japanese.

It is 1678, Matsuo Bashō, age 35, is living in Edo (Tokyo) in Nihonbashi, Edo’s city center . He is part of the Japanese literary society composing haikai no renga, comical linked verse (now shortened to haiku).

Two years from now, Bashō will move across the Sumida River to the then rural and unconnected by a bridge  Fukagawa District. The bridge would come soon and Bashō would write a haiku about its construction. It would be nine more years until Matsuo Bashō and his traveling companion, Kawai Sora, would make their celebrated journey Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道), Journey to the Narrow North.

For now, Bashō is taking in all that Edo has to offer.

By the 17th century, the population in Edo (Tokyo) numbers in the neighborhood of 150,000 people. Along the western edge of the Sumida River, Edo’s theaters and playhouses are being built, mingling with houses of prostitution, with a mixture of tea-houses and Geisha-houses, where conversations with poets and actors are the main attraction.

Of course, they serve sushi and sake in Sakaichō.

It must have been a sensational sight, walking shoulder to shoulder, even in the soaking rain.

Ame no hi ya, seken no aki o sakaichō.

sakai-cho-color

[Kabuki Theaters at Sakai-cho, Opening Day of the New Season (Sakai-cho Shibai no Zu), artist Utagawa Hiroshige, 1838, credit, Metropolitan Museum of Art.]

Notes on Japanese translation

雨の日, ame no hi, rainy days
世間 seken, world, society
aki, autumn

Closure, the final haiku

Meoto Iwa Married Couple Rocks
Meoto Iwa Married Couple Rocks
Meoto Iwa, Married Couple Rocks

As firmly cemented clam shells
Fall apart in Autumn
So too, I take to the road again

Farewell my friends

蛤の
ふたみにわかれ
行秋ぞ

hamaguri no / futami ni wakare / yuku aki zo

September haiku

It is September 1689. The leaves begin to change colors. Though it may still be hot, the weather can be unpredictable. The typhoons that come in August may still appear.

Matsuo Basho has made his way from Tsuruga, north of Lake Biwa, and proceeded on horseback to the relaxing city of Ogaki in Mino Province. This was coincidentally (or not) near the site of the Battle of Sekigahara, which brought relative peace to Japan and the beginning of the Tokugawa period. In Ogaki, Sora (Basho’s companion on much of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Oku no Hosomichi, 奥の細道) and another friend Etsujin join Basho at the house of Joko. Other friends, including Zensen and Keiko and his sons, came to see Basho, as if he had returned from the dead.

Closure

It is only fitting that Matsuo Bashō end his journey in Mie Prefecture, the province of his birth near the city of Ueno, and the location of Iga Ueno Castle where he had served as a young boy and man.

On September the 6th, though fatigued from his long journey, Basho went to see the dedication of a Shinto Shrine. Stepping into a boat, Basho makes the journey down the Suimon River to the eastern coast. If he stopped along the way to visit his birthplace or the Iga Ueno Castle, that fact was not recorded. His destination, the Okitama Shrine in Futami (or the more famous Grand Ise Shrine, I am not sure which). There Basho watched the waves crashing against the well-known Meoto Iwa (夫婦岩, Married Couple Rocks) that separate at high tide.

Observing the water come and go, Basho looks to find closure to his journey. So, he included this final haiku in his book The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Literally

A literal translation is:

Hamaguri clams of Futami break apart in Autumn.

Or,

Hamaguri clams of Futami part in Autumn.

Futami is a pun on the words body and lid, two bodies, thus the stretch by translators to “Clams firmly cemented”. The second line is also a pun on the idea of parting for Futami and breaking apart. Futami suggests another image, that of Married Couples Rock. Married couples, whose love blossoms in spring and heats up in summer, now by autumn, find their love has cooled and faded.

There is a final coincidental reference – the Hamaguri clam’s hard shell is used to make stones in the Chinese game of Go.

man-womqan-hands

Original Image of Married Rocks from Wikipedia.

A crow on a withered branch

On a withered branch
A crow is perched
An autumn evening

枯朶に  烏のとまりけり  秋の暮

kare eda ni
karasu no tomarikeri
aki no kure

Kawanabe Kyōsa Crow on a snowy plum branch
Image by Kawanabe Kyōsa (1831 – 1889)

Bashō’s poetry

Written in the autumn of 1680. Matsuo Bashō was then living in Edo (Tokyo) and teaching poetry to a group of 20 disciples. In this wonderfully simple poem, a crow alights upon a withered branch, and Bashō is moved by the sight to write this haiku.

Painting by Morikawa Kyoriku
Painting by Morikawa Kyoriku

Kare eda ni

A withered branch, kare eda ni. Much is implied, little is said.

Karasu no tomarikeri

A crow, karasu, alighting on the branch, tomarikeri.

Beyond the obvious phonetic assonance of repeating “Ks” is the symbolism of a solitary crow. Normally we associate these noisy and annoysome birds with flocks.  In Japanese mythology the crow symbolizes the will of Heaven.

Gentle reader, I ask: Is Basho the crow, imposing his knowledge and will upon his disciples?

Aki no kure

The final line is aki no kure, autumn evening. This completes the harsh repetition of the K sound, and imitates the cacophonous call of the crow.

Timeline of the poem

Let us visit for a moment with Bashō in Edo. It is still autumn and the leaves are turning red and gold. Winter is about to come.

Perhaps we can imagine Matsuo Bashō sitting on a log in one of the many gardens of Edo surrounded by his student disciples. He is dressed in black, or they are. It is a cool autumn evening and the leaves are gathering at their feet. The students wait in anticipation of what the master is going to say.

Bashō’s poetry was developing its simple and natural style. The point of view in many of Bashō’s haiku is that life (the human condition) is best described as a metaphor. Bashō died at the early age of 50. Perhaps at the age of 36 when this haiku was written he was feeling both the effects of age and the anticipation of death.

Rhyme, rhythm, and assonance

For those who focus more on rhyme, we could translate as follows: “On a withered bough a crow is sitting now.” It is not a choice I like. Better yet, On a cracked and broken branch sits a crow. Some may think of Edgar Allen Poe’s the raven gently tapping… Others may call to mind Yeats line, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick…”.

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