Whereby Matsuo Basho sees a woman making rice cakes and envisions a scene from The Tale of the Genji.
Tying a rice cake / Held with one hand / Oh, the strands of my hair
粽結ふ 片手にはさむ 額髪
Chimakiyufu katate ni hasamu hitaigami
The Tale of Genji
We have all played this game – summarize a complicated story in a few words. Perhaps, one of Matsuo Basho’s disciples issued the challenge for the 11th century masterpiece, The Tale of Genji is an 11th century tale of the son of an ancient Japanese emperor and a low-ranking concubine. She dies and the Genji (Hikaru Genji, “Shining Genji”) is removed from the line of imperial succession and made a commoner.
Matsuo Basho’s word picture portrays a woman, no doubt she is lovely, wrapping and knotting (結) a chimaki (粽 a sweet and savory rice cake) with a bamboo leaf. With one hand she ties it with a string while with the other hand she brushes a strand of her hair behind her ear.
Notes on Translation
粽 Chimaki, or Zongzi, a rice dumpling wrapped in palm leaves. In Japan this is traditionally prepared on Children’s Day, thus, for Basho, it describes Kiritsubo Consort’s love for her son Hikaru Genji.
I remember many, many things,
do cherry blossoms,
Samazama no koto omoidasu sakura kana
In Japan, in late March and early April, they celebrate the Sakura matsuri, or cherry blossom festival.
All eyes will be on the light pink florets as they fill the city sidewalks, public parks, and temple gardens with quivering bursts of color in the gentle breeze of early spring. Picnicking under the blossoms is an ancient tradition. Then, all too soon, the petals begin to fall, and the scene becomes a distant memory.
One explanation of Basho’s haiku is that he is recalling that he abandoned the way of samurai and decided to live the way of haiku. Or simply that cherry blossoms encourage random thoughts.
Samazama no koto omoidasu sakura ka na
The sibilant repetition of the “s” and “z” sounds (samazama, omoidasu,sakura). The repeated consonants of “k” (koto, sakura, kana) produce a melodic sound to Basho’s phrase. “Do you remember many things?” is today’s colloquial understanding of the phrase. A more literal translation is, “Various things, they call to mind, ah, cherry blossoms!”
Notes on translation
さまざま samazama, various, many, many
事 koto, thing, matter
櫻 sakura, cherry blossoms
かな kana, I wonder
In the morning calm Only the sound of the rock And the voice of the cicada
閑けさや 岩にしみいる 蝉の声
shizukasa ya / iwa ni shimiiru / semi no koe
Journey to the Deep North, Summer of 1689
The clouds were drifting along, and the wind stirred a wanderlust.
Thus it was that Matsuo Bashō decided in the spring of 1689 to journey to Japan’s north. By summer, Matsuo Bashō arrived at the Ryushakuji Buddhist temple on Yamadera (山寺 literally, Mountain Temple), northeast of Yamagata in Japan’s far north.
In his travel diary, Basho explains:
“In Yamagata province, there is a temple called Ryushakuji, founded by the great priest Jikaku. This temple is known for the absolute tranquility of its holy grounds…. The rocks on which the temple is built bear the color of eternity. They are covered with tender moss. The shrine doors are firmly barred and not a sound can be heard. As I move on hands and feet from rock to rock, bowing at each shrine, the purifying power of this sanctuary pervades my being.”
One guesses, I suppose, that Matsuo Basho tries to imitate the cicada’s shrill sound through the technique of sibilance, shizukasaya / iwa nishimiiru / semi no koe.
I will also propose paraphrased variations inspired by other translators (one example and another one). So, you can decide what works best for you. All of which proves to me, if not to you, that the no haiku is perfect.
In the utter silence Of the temple grounds, A cicada’s voice alone Penetrates the rocks
In the quiet The shrill sound of cicadas Seeps into the rocks
Notes on translation
閑 kan, peace, calm
けさ kesa, this morning
や ya, and
like clouds in the wind a wild goose and his friend depart
like a cloud in the wind like a wildgoose and his friend life departs
kumo to hedatsu tomo ka ya kari no ikiwakare
Master Basho explains
A summer’s day near Lake Biwa, the clouds drift by and at sunset the wildgeese descend to the lake. Master Basho and his friend watch the setting sun. “Look at the cloud in the wind, like a wild-goose from the flock, my friend we all too soon depart.”
Matsuo Bashō had several connections with Lake Biwa and the surrounding area. He was born in nearby, in Iga Province, and may have studied in nearby Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital. Basho is know to have visited Lake Biwa in 1684 and again during the summer of 1690, enjoying the scenic views, the wild life, and nearby temples.
Basho departed this world in November of 1690.
Notes on translation
雲 kumo, cloud
雁 kari, wildgoose
や ya, kana word used to connect wildgoose and friend
友 tomo, friend, companion
生 yǒu, life
別れ wakare, farewell, depart
like a sick goose
on a cold night I fell ill and went to bed
sleeping away from home, alas
Yamukari (byōgan) no yosamu ni ochite tabine Kana
Matsuo Basho (芭蕉) explains
I had gone to see Lake Biwa and then to travel to the island of Awaji to visit friends. It was late on an autumn night.
I get sick and go to bed. Above me, I hear the honking and flapping of a flock of wild geese heading south. One among them drops out and falls to the lake. He must have gotten sick and found flying unbearable. For me, the trip is likewise unbearable. Sleeping impossible. Getting sick is bad enough.
Alas, being away from home, it’s worse.
Notes on translation
病雁, Yamukari, sick goose
夜寒 yosamu, cold night
旅寝 Tabine, trip sleeping, sleeping away from home
哉 kana, alas
The translator Gabi Greve dates this haiku to 1689, explaining that “Basho was visiting friends at the temple 本福寺 Honpuku-Ji [near Awaji] in Katata (Katada) and fell ill himself. His disciple Mikami Senna 三上千那 cared for him.” From Sarumino (猿蓑 Monkey’s Raincoat), a 1691 anthology, the date is given as 1670, which is quite a discrepancy.
Amid the clouds of blossoms
Is the bell’s chime Ueno
花の雲 鐘は上野か 浅草か
Hana no kumo/ Kane ha Ueno ka Asakusa ka
Trailing clouds of blossoms we walk
In Japan, it is spring and the cherry trees are in full bloom.
We cannot know, but perhaps Matsuo Basho and his students are in Kiyosumi Gardens, in the Fukagawa District where Basho lived. A disciple begins the discussion by saying, “Is it not heavenly, Master Basho, to walk in the midst of so many cherry blossoms?”
Then a single blossom falls. To which Basho replies, “In the even the smallest flower that falls, I fear, lies a truth too deep for tears.”
At that moment the sound of the bell is heard.
Fukagawa, Ueno, Asakusa
Fukagawa, where Basho lives, is on the other side of the Sumida River from Ueno and Asakusa. These well known areas include Buddhist and Shinto temples, as well as shopping and residential areas. In Asakusa is the famous Buddhist Sensō-ji temple. In Ueno is the Shinto shrine Ueno Tōshō-gū. Ueno is known as a working class district, while Asakusa is home to the more prosperous citizens of ancient Edo.
Notes on translation
花 hana flower, blossom
雲 kumo cloud
鐘 kane bell, chime
上野 ueno, temples include the Shinto shrine Ueno Tōshō-gū; a working class area
浅草 Asakusa, an area along the Sumida River including the ancient Sensō-ji temple; it is an upscale area, a place for the rich and prosperous
清澄庭園 Kiyosumi Garden, today’s strolling garden was developed after Basho’s time on earth, but an earlier garden no doubt existed. The garden contains a stone monument to Basho and his most famous haiku, an ancient pond, frog and the sound of water.
Basho’s haiku is based on an episode from the life of the Daoist Chinese philosopher Chuang-tzu (Zhuangzi, or Sooji in Japanese) of the Warring States Period. One night he had a dream that he was a butterfly flying from flower to flower, feeling free, blown about by the breeze. Upon waking, he wondered, “Am I a man, dreaming I am a butterfly; or a butterfly, dreaming I am a man?”
You are the butterfly while I pursue the dreams of Chuang-tzu
You are the butterfly and I the dreaming heart Of Chuang-tzu
kimi ya cho ware ya Sooji ga yumegokoro
Seeing a butterfly flutter from flower to flower, the young disciple asks, “Does the butterfly worry? Does he dream of tomorrow?”
Master Basho replies, “You are the butterfly while I pursue the dreams of Chuang-tzu.”
や ya, cutting word
蝶 kimi, butterfly
君 や 蝶, kimi ya chō, you and the butterfly
莊子 Zhuāngzi, Chung-tzu
夢心 yumegokoro, dream-like state
In northern Japan, the winter drizzle 時雨 that continuously falls in late autumn and winter is a familiar sight. Here in the Midwest, in March, the rain falls to a steady beat. The farmers bless the coming of the rain, a sign of a good year to come.
Like a drifting cloud, Basho has no preconceived notion of where he’s supposed to be or go, or what he is supposed to wear.
What prompted Basho’s haiku?
This haiku is from Matsuo Basho’s book Weather-Beaten Journey (1685). The book opens with Basho’s quote of a Buddhist priest, “Traveling a thousand li, I bring no provisions, under the midnight moon, I enter the land of nothingness.”
Hat, no hat, winter’s drizzle, where am I to go, what am I to do?
Notes on translation
笠 bamboo hat
時雨 winter drizzle
かこ the past, try not to dwell on the past
何と whatever, what, when
the rough sea / stretching towards Sado Island/ and the Heavenly River
araumi ya / Sado ni yokotau / amanogawa
Sora’s Diary, July 6, 1689
According to the notes of Sora, Matsuo Basho’s younger companion on his journey to the north, the two arrive in Niigata after a grueling 9 days from Sakata, during which the humid weather afflicts the nerves and there is no writing. On the night of July 6, Master Basho stares out at the rough Japan Sea towards Sado Island and observes the sea, the island, and the Milky Way as one.
Basho and Sora arrival on July 7th coincides with the celebration of Tanabata or Star Festival. It celebrates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (“star crossed lovers” Vega and Altair), who it is said are separated by the Heavenly River and allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.
Basho did not make the trip to Sado Island, which is about 40 miles off the western coast of Japan. The isolated island was well known as place where noblemen, warriors, artists and high priests were exiled for political crimes. It is home to several temples and shrines.
Notes on translation
荒海 rough seas
佐渡 Sado Island
天河 Milky Way, literally Heavenly River
First Snow falling on the unfinished bridge, Oh, if only on top
わからない, Wakaranai, I don’t understand
“Master Basho,” the disciple says after reading this haiku, “Wakaranai, わからない, I don’t understand.”
After a momentary pause, Master Basho replies, “Those who speak, do not know. Those who know, need not speak.”
The disciple bows his head, the fingers of his two hands interlaced in his lap, and exhaling a deep breath before repeats, almost as if in prayer, “Wakaranai.”
The old master removes his cap and runs his hands through his graying hair. Then he strokes the beard of his chin as if it were the fur of a cat and says, “We are all looking for answers. But some things in life are mysteries. There are no answers my son. Perhaps, a haiku, a word picture may suffice.”
After a moment, the disciple nods.
Unexplainable, unknowable, ineffable
Even the most gifted writers know than not all experiences can be rendered into language. A common example, the first light of the morning sun parting the darkness greeting the new day. “You had to be there,” one usually says when trying to describe the unexplainable, the unknowable, the ineffable.
Matsuo Basho’s haiku is inspired by the building of the lofty Shin Ohashi (New Great Bridge). Constructed in the fall of 1693, it spanned the Sumida River, and for the first time linked the bustling city center of Edo (old name for Tokyo) and rustic Fukagawa, where Basho lived in a hut provide to him by his disciples. One source reports that the construction was begun “in July and finished in five months on Dec. 7 1693.” (See the online essay, The Spaces of Robert Hass, March 10, 2015, James Karkoski). If so, it still allows time for the a first winter’s snow before the bridge’s completion, a moment for Matsuo Basho to stand below the unfinished bridge.
Although it depicts rain and a completed bridge, this later day painting by Japanese artist Hiroshige, 1857, conveys a sense of being exposed to the Nature’s elements.
Lost in translation
Translators rarely agree about wording and Matsuo Basho’s poem is no exception.
The most Spartan example by David Landis Barnhill:
first-snow ! / make / bridge ’s top
on the half finished bridge
This last example seems to eliminate the last line of Basho’s poem, の上に, no ue ni, which I render as “If only on top” and adding the gratuitous exclamation “Oh”.
One might add a little more context to the haiku by explaining that Basho moved from Edo to Fukagawa in 1680. The river Sumida separated the two and there were no bridges. I suspect that not all of the residents would look forward to becoming a part of metropolitan Edo (Tokyo).
Understanding and knowing
One has to wonder if there is a difference in Japanese between understanding and knowing. My answer is: わかりませんです, Wakarimasendesu.