Rough Seas, Sado Island, and the Heavenly River

the rough sea / stretching towards Sado Island/ and the Heavenly River


araumi ya / Sado ni yokotau / amanogawa

the rough sea / stretching towards Sado Island/ and the Heavenly River

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’s Road, by Scott Watson, No. 39

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
に into
佐渡 Sado Island
天河 Milky Way, literally Heavenly River


Gabi Greve provides a good narrative explaining Basho’s haiku and several alternate translatins.

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