a charming wild violet

coming along a mountain path, somehow so charming – a wild violet

山路来て 何やらゆかし すみれ草

yamaji kite naniyara yukashi sumiregusa

wild-violet

Matsuo Basho wrote this haiku in his Journal of 1684, a travelogue of  his journey from Edo (Tokyo) to visit his birthplace in Iga Province after hearing of his mother’s death. The journey was on horseback and on foot, often over mountainous roads.

This haiku was written crossing the mountains near Lake Biwa on the way to Otsu. Basho observing a tiny wild violet in the grass was inspired.

Basho’s Journal of 1684, translated by Donald Keene (page 142)

Notes on translation

山路 yamaji, mountain path
来て kite, to come
何やら naniyari, somehow, for some reason
ゆかし yukashi, charming, admirable, enchanting
すみれ草 sumi regusa, wild violet; literally a violet in the grass

Further note

Enya wrote a song Sumiregusa about the wild violet, and performed it in Japanese – Sumiregusa: wild violet monono aware: attune to the pathos of things haruno hana to fuyu mo yuki: spring flowers and winter snow hara hara: the sound of falling snow.

Oh dear, green leaves, bright sun

Oh dear! green leaves, young leaves, sparkling sun

あらたふ と青葉若葉の 日の光
ara touto aoba wakaba no hi no hikari

Nikko

Basho and his traveling companion Sora arrived at Mount Nikko (日光 nikki, the sun’s brilliance) on March the 30th and lodged at an inn at the foot of the mountain.

Basho writes:

“The inn’s host introduced himself as ‘Honest’ Gozaemon (五左衛門) and told me to sleep in perfect peace on his grass pillow, that his sole ambition was to be worthy of his name ( to protect). I watched him carefully, and found him stubbornly honest, utterly devoid of worldly cleverness. It was as if the good Buddha himself had taken the shape of a man to help me in my wanderings. Indeed, such holy honesty and purity like his must not be scorned, for it verges on the perfection Confucius preaches.”

Basho continues:

“On the first day of the fourth month, I climbed Mount Nikko, which means the bright beams of the sun… A thousand years ago, the sainted Kobo Diashi (Kukai) built a temple upon it. He must have had the power to see into the future, for the mountain is now the seat of the most sacred of shrines and its benevolent power protects the land, embracing the people like the bright beams of the sun. To say more about the shrine would violate its holiness.”

How awe inspiring, to stand in solitude amidst the newly budded maple trees and towering cedars ( Sugi), with the blue morning sky a background, and the brilliant yellow sun sparkling through the pale green leaves. Surely, sainted Kobo Diashi had experienced this moment too.

Gentle reader, who has not seen the sun sparkling through the new pale green leaves of spring and summer and not been inspired?

Notes

あら ara, Oh!
若葉 wakaba, young pale green leaves
青葉若葉 aoba wakaba, the young leaves of early summer
日の光 no hi no hikari, sunlight
光 hikari, gleaming, sparkling light
日光 nikki, bright sunlight
morning

Butterfly Weaving

Back and forth
Through the rows of wheat
A butterfly weaving!

繰り返し麦の畝縫ふ 胡蝶哉
Kurikaeshi mugi no une Nu kochō Kana

Kawai Sora speaks

Matsuo Bashō was not the only one to give us his thoughts on the Journey North (Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道). Bashō’s disciple and traveling companion, Kawai Sora, also recorded his thoughts in a diary that was not discovered until 1943. Sora Tabi Nikki (曾良旅日記, “Travel Diary of Sora”) gives us insight into Bashō’s observations and Sora’s own insights.

Sora’s haiku above literally translates as “Weaving back and forth through the rows of wheat, a butterfly!” Sora’s final Japanese character is 哉 kana, which translates as surprise. I have therefore transposed to the end of the haiku Sora’s surprise and delight in associating the butterfly’s movement with weaving and stitching.

It reads well either way, don’t you think?

Notes

繰り返し kurikaeshi, repeating, back and forth, as in a stitching motion
麦 mugi, wheat or barley
胡蝶 kochō, butterfly
哉 kana, What!

butterflies

a village without bells

a village where no bells ring: what, no way to tell it is dusk in spring

or,

in a village without bells, how do they mark the end of spring?

鐘撞かぬ里は何をか春の暮
kane tsukanu sato wa nani o ka haru no kure

I hope to come back to this haiku, yet, as Robert Frost said, ‘knowing how way leads on to way, I doubt I ever could.’ What, a village without bells, no way in ‘hell’ to find my way back again.

Notes

haru, spring, but also vitality; liveliness; energy; life
lust; lustfulness; passion; sexual desire
kure, this character has several meanings including: evening; dusk; late sunset; closing of the day.

In old Japanese haru no kure  may mean the end of spring

evening-milky-way

 

Oku no Hosomichi – The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Put aside the haiku.

Let us pause on our journey with the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō. Let us try to understand why one leaves home to make a perilous journey on a route one knows to be infested robbers and cut-throats. It is a journey to the north of Japan, taken in the late spring of 1689 with his traveling companion Kawai Sora and a donkey for provisions. The journey on foot would take approximately 5 months, 156 days to be exact, covering some 1,500 miles.

Basho’s home was not much. A small cottage underneath a banana tree in the Fukagawa neighborhood across the Sumida River from Japan’s capital city, Edo. That alone might be the cause of his curiosity. For the world is large, and it has many lessons to teach.

But let our peripatetic poet speak for himself.

The days and months are travelers of a hundred generations, like the years that come and go. Some pass their lives afloat on boats, or face old age closely leading horses by the bridle.  Their journey is life, journeying is home. And many are the old men who meet their end upon the road.

How long ago, I wonder, did I see a drifting cloud borne away upon the wind, that ceaseless dreams of wanderlust aroused? Only last year, I had been wandering along the coasts and bays; and in the autumn, I swept away the cobwebs from my tumbledown hut on the banks of the Sumida and soon afterwards saw the old year out.

But when the spring mists rose up into the sky, the gods of desire possessed me, and burned my mind with longing to go beyond the barrier at Shirakawa. The spirits of the road beckoned. I could not concentrate.

So, I patched up my trousers, put new cords in my straw hat, and strengthened my knees with moxa. A vision of the moon at Matsushima was already in my mind. I sold my hut and wrote this just before moving to a cottage owned by Sampū:

“Even this grass hut could for the new owner be a festive house of dolls!”

This was the first of an eight verse sequence, which I left hanging on a post inside the hut.

Original Japanese

月日は百代の過客にして行かふ年も又旅人也。舟の上に生涯をうかべ、馬の口とらえて老をむかふる物は日々旅にして旅を栖とす。古人も多く旅に死せるあり。予もいづれの年よりか片雲の風にさそはれて、漂白の思ひやまず、海濱にさすらへ、去年の秋江上の破屋に蜘の古巣をはらひてやゝ年も暮、春立る霞の空に白川の関こえんと、そゞろ神の物につきて心をくるはせ、道祖神のまねきにあひて、取もの手につかず。もゝ引の破をつゞり、笠の緒付かえて、三里に灸すゆるより、松嶋の月先心にかゝりて、住る方は人に譲り、杉風が別墅に移るに、草の戸も住替る代ぞひなの家面八句を庵の柱に懸置。

Japanese caligraphy

Gazing at morning glories eating breakfast – Basho

hiroshige, 1866 morning glories

I am one
Who eats his breakfast
Gazing at morning glories

朝顔に
我は飯食ふ
男かな

asagao ni / ware wa meshi kû / otoko kana

hiroshige, 1866 morning glories
hiroshige, 1866 detail

Being Matsuo Bashō

Takarai Kikaku (宝井其角, 1661–1707) was one among the most accomplished disciples of Matsuo Bashō. One day, Kikaku composed a haiku, “by the grassy gate, a firefly eats nettles – that is what I am”.

A firefly lights up the night. Basho thought about this and concluded. I am a serious kind, like the asagao (morning glories), I open by day and wither at night. Each to his own. Thus, he composed this intentionally plain haiku.

Both haikus are clever reworkings of the Japanese proverb – “Some worms eat nettles”: Tade kuu mushi, or “every worm to his taste, some eat nettles”. Figuratively, each to his own, or there is no accounting for taste.

蓼食う虫も好き好き
tade kuu mushi sukizuki

Notes on translation

Basho’s play on words, meshi kû, and the proverb’s, kuu mushi. The Japanese character mushi is broadly speaking a bug or insect. My guess is that the proverb refers to nettle eating caterpillars.

In line with Kikaku’s haiku, one could and possibly should translate as,

Watching morning glories, eating rice cakes – that is who I am

朝顔に asago ni, “gazing” at morning glories is a poetic choice, Basho could also have been “sitting”, “watching” or simply being “surrounded by” the flower. It is a Zen thing – to be or do.

Who are you?

Summer Grass 夏草 natsuka

summer grass
all that remains
of a Samurai’s dream

夏草や 兵どもが 夢の跡

Natsukusa ya/ Tsuwamonodomo ga/ Yume no ato

battle

June 29, 1689

Having left Edo in late spring of 1689, Matsuo Basho and Sora travel north, arriving at Hiraizumi on June 29th.  Once the seat of the Northern branch of the Fujiwara family, it was destroyed in 1189. As the poet gazes down at the old battlefield, he hears in his head the words of the ancient Chinese poet Du Fu and explains:

“In the space of a dream, three glorious generations of Fujiwara vanished; two miles in the distance are the remains of the Great Gate. Hidehira’s headquarters have turned into rice paddies and wild fields. Only Kinkeizan, the Golden Fowl Hill, remains as it once was.

First, we climbed Takadachi, Castle-on-the-Heights, from where we could see the Kitakami, a broad river that flows from the south. Nearby, Koromo River rounds Izumi Castle and at a point beneath Castle-on-the-Heights, it drops into Kitakami. The ancient ruins of Yasuhira and others, lying behind Koromo Barrier, appear to close off the southern entrance and guard against the Ainu barbarians.

With his most loyal retainers, Yoshitsune fortified himself in the castle, but his dreams of glory quickly turned to grass.

“The state is destroyed, / rivers and hills remain. / The city walls return to spring, / grasses and trees are green. “

With Du Fu’s lines in my head, I lay down my bamboo hat and let time and tears flow.”

Notes on translation

夏草 natsuka, summer grass

兵 tsuwamono, warrior, soldier, more specifically a brave and strong soldier, a Samurai 侍 which Basho once was. Basho’s use of the older term 兵 tsuwamono, is suggestive of a lowly soldier or pawn, someone utilized by others

夢の跡 yume no ato, the trace, mark of a dream. Compare Basho’s idea with William Shakespeare’s “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on.” (The Tempest, 1610/1611)

More thoughts on Basho’s Summer Grass

The grass of summer
And warriors’ dreams
Are all that’s left.

The grass of summer, the only trace of a Samurai’s dreams

Summer grass! All that left of a Samurai’s dream.

samurai helmet