Has Spring come? 春や来

春や来     し年や行きけん     小晦日

haru ka koshi     toshi ya yukiken      kotsugomori

Has Spring come,
Is the Old Year gone,
This New Year’s Eve?

Iga region, 1663


New Year’s Eve, 1662

In the second year of Kanbun, the Shogun is Tokugawa Ietsuna. Matsuo Kinsaku is a servant to the samurai Tōdō Yoshitada (藤堂 良忠). He is not yet 20, and not yet the accomplished poet the world knows as Matsuo Basho.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

New Year’s Eve is a good time to look both ways.

Perhaps, young Matsuo and a few friends are having a traditional fare, eating a steaming hot bowl of noodles called Toshi koshi soba (年越し蕎麦), literally, the New Year’s Eve noodle. A traditional fare usually accompanied by generous helpings of Saki.

Because Spring in 1663 started on the 29th of the new year, and not the 30th or the 1st day, Basho wrote this amusing conundrum. Amusing to the diners. For buried within the haiku are the rhyming words “koshi toshi,” a play on the name of the dish, Toshi koshi soba.

Noodles — because last year’s hardships are easily broken up, and worries are swallowed and washed away with Saki.

Matsuo Kinsaku inspired

All poets copy, the great ones are inspired.

This  is thought to be Matsuo Basho’s earliest dated haiku, referring to 1662-1663, the 29th day of the lunar month before the Lunar New Year.

The inspiration and wording is based on an earlier poem by Ariwara Motokawa (888–953).

if during the old year
spring has come and
one day is left;
should we call it
last year or this year?


toshi no uchi ni
haru wa ki ni keri
hitotose o
kozo to ya iwan
kotoshi to ya iwan

Withering Winter

冬枯れ や 世は一色に    風の音
Fuyugare ya /   yo wa isshoku ni /    kaze no oto

Winter’s withered plants
A World of One Color
The Sound of Wind

Bleak is the Winter
White is the Color
And the Sound of Wind

Winter’s Solitude
A World of one color —
The Sound of Wind

Night Snow, Utagawa Hiroshige, circa 1833, The Met

World of One Color

It is bitter cold, one can see nothing but white, and hear nothing but the sound of wind.

One could imagine Antarctica in the winter, or a Siberian scene in Dr. Zhivago. For me it was a “white-out” in eastern Colorado, early January of 2020.

I was driving my son’s ancient Camry from Ft. Collins, Colorado to Wichita. Being an intrepid soul, I avoided the quicker Interstate 25, and instead headed east early in the morning, driving through Windsor, Colorado, on to Highway 34, then picking up Interstate 76 to Fort Morgan, before switching back to US Highway 34, then south on lonely Colorado Highway 59, and finally, at Seibert, on to Interstate 70 for the majority of the trip.

Interstate 76 and 70 in the winter are both windy, but one has the company of other trucks and cars being buffeted about. If the snow and wind are too great, then the interstate is shut down and one stays in a hotel room if one can be found.

Out on the two lane Highway 34 and the side roads like Colorado 59, the experience is quite different. There are few trees, few towns, and few houses. In places where the land has been plowed for hay, or corn, or wheat, the winter brings on vast fields of snow that when the wind blows, makes the world one solid color of white. It is frightening to drive in such conditions.

Slowing down or stopping, one hears the sound of wind, a high pitched whistle, that along with the bitter cold cuts to the bone.

Notes on translation

fuyugare, 冬枯れ, is literally the withering winter. One can infer from this that Bashō was referring to the bleakness of winter or winter’s desolation or isolation. One could also use the cliche “dead of winter,” but cliches should be avoided. Some translators speak of winter’s solitude, and that works too. Solitude, however, may suggest serenity, and that is not what I choose to take away from my experience in eastern Colorado.

Ah, is not the beauty of poetry that it expresses something unique to each of us? Or does it depend on the moment? Dr. Zhivago is shivering away trudging through the snow, but quite happy in his frozen palace.

ya, や, is similar to “and” in English

wa isshoku ni, 世は一色に, is literally a world of one color, which, in this case, is white.

kaze no oto, 風の音, the sound of wind, or the voice of wind, if one wishes to hear the wind speak.

Evening snow on Hira mountains, Utagawa Hiroshige, Fitzwilliam Museum

The Guest’s Shadow is like Kageboushi

The banked fire
The guest’s shadow on the wall –
A silhouette.

Uzumi-bi ya/ Kabe niha kyaku no/ Kageboushi

埋火や 壁には客の 影法師


Meaning of Matuso Basho’s haiku

A banked fire is like the guest’s shadow, is like a silhouette. A silhouette, the essence of a human being reduced to its most basic form. A shadow without substance.

A banked fire, 埋火, literally, a buried ember. The banked fire is built around rocks or stones and protected from the wind. Thus, we find Matsuo Basho and his disciples on a cold winter’s night sitting around a fire with their backs facing the wall of the inn or the home, their face and hands warmed by the fire’s heat, until the flames die down and it is time to go to bed.

If the coals from the fire are protected, there will usually be enough heat in the embers to start a fresh fire the next day. The first character 埋 also implies the quality of being buried or hidden, a fire that lies within the embers.

Kageboushi, 影法師, literally “shadowman,” refers to a silhouette, and to Shadow Theater, and indirectly to Puppet theater which became popular during the Edo Period.