“The journey itself is my home.”
“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.”―
Thanks for joining me on a journey to who knows where!
Let me begin by introducing our guide and companion, Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉, 1644–1694). He was and is Japan’s most famous poet of the Edo period (1603-1867). While this may sound like literary hyperbole, the kind of praise found on the dust jacket of a new book, consider this: Matsuo Basho refined the poetic form into the haiku we continue to use today.
It is a three part poem – typically, containing a subject, an action, and an explanation that incorporates surprise, all of this usually rendered in 17 syllables. What was refreshing then and now about Basho’s haiku is that they captured the essence of moment in simple words that everyone could appreciate. Many of the haiku have an air of Buddhism to them. That is they strive towards “enlightenment.” Such is the aim of Basho’s well-known frog splashing in the pond haiku.
He did not begin life as Matsuo Basho. That was a pen name he acquired after many years of study and writing. And this name by which we know him today was taken only after Matsuo (his family name) moved from his home in Ueno to Kyoto, then to Edo, the capital of the Shogunate, and from the bustling city center of the Edo to Fukagawa, where Basho took up a humble residence in a cottage. A disciple gave him a house warming gift of a banana tree (芭蕉, bashō), which when planted grew up beside the cottage, surviving many storms, giving him shade in the summer.
Thus, like Jim Croce’s singin’ bird and the croakin’ toad, our poet had a name for the ages.
On the Road
Matsuo Basho followed in the footsteps of others. The 12th century Buddhist monk Saigyo is one, but as Basho explains, he sought to experience what they sought, and he sought his own unique experiences.
To better see the world, Basho and his neighbor and friend Kawai Sora took to Japan’s dangerous back roads in the spring of 1689 with little more than writing supplies, writing his most famous haiku, Oku no Hosomichi, a travelogue that would not be published until after Basho’s death.
Beware, the journey is not always pretty, not always fun, but hopefully witty, and full of surprise.
蚤虱 馬の尿する 枕もと
nomi shirami/ uma no shito suru/ makura moto
Among fleas and lice,
a horse pissing
next to my pillow.
— Matsuo Basho, Oku no Hosomichi, Summer 1689