The Dutch make a Pilgrimage

The Captain-General too
Makes a pilgrimage to
His Majesty in Spring

Kabitan mo  tsukuba wakeri    kimi ga haru

甲比丹もつ  くばはせけり   君が春

View of Mt. Tsukuba from the Sumida River, Keisai Eisen (渓斎 英泉, 1790–1848)

Edo, Japan 1678

In Europe, the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 had brought about an end to the 80-year war between Spain and the Dutch who sought independence from King Charles. Protestants from France and Jews from Spain fueled a Dutch Golden Age. Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes philosophized, John Milton wrote, Kepler and Galileo looked to the heavens. Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉, 1644 –1694) would know little about these events for the Tokugawa shogunate had made Japan Sakoku (鎖国, “a closed country” beginning in 1633 and completing the process by 1639. Under the terms of various edicts, Japanese were forbidden to leave Japan, and only the Dutch were allowed to trade at Nagasaki, and then only if the Dutch traders remained on a small enclave in the harbor.

Matsuo Basho did not seem to concern himself much with world events. And there is but one haiku written about the Dutch. In one of his earlier haiku, while he still lived in Edo, working at a government job, before taking on the pseudonym Basho he wrote the above haiku.

Should we attempt to match Matsuo Basho up with one of his European counterparts, the likelihood is Christiaan Huygens, who in the vein of Descartes and Spinoza wrote:

“…nous n’atteignons pas le certain mais feulement le vraifemblable.”

“Nothing, we know certainly, but howl the likelihood.” Oeuvres complètes de Christiaan Huygens

The Legend of Mt. Tsukuba

Tsukuba has a well-known history in Japan.

Each year the Japanese make a pilgrimage to Mt. Tsukuba and its centuries-old Shinto shrine which represents a source of blessing for the Japanese people. There is also a legend that accompanies the mountain. Thousands of years ago, a deity descended from the heavens and asked Mt. Fuji for a place to spend the night. Mt. Fuji refused, believing it did not need the deity’s blessings. The deity turned then to Mt. Tsukuba, which, humbly welcomed its guest, offering food and water. Today, Mt. Fuji though beautiful, it is cold and lonely. Mt. Tsukuba, covered in vegetation, changes colors with the seasons.

Another legend has it that the Japanese people descend from ancient deities who lived here.

Other Notes on Translation

Only Dutch merchants as foreigners were allowed to trade in Japan and only if they remained on an islet named Dejima in Nagasaki. Once each year they were obliged to make a voyage from Nagasaki to Edo to call on Shogun to pay respect.

Kimi ga haru. The master in Spring. Kimi can mean “you,” but also “master,” the Shogun, in this sense.

love and hate in the garden

A new house, a house warming gift, a banana pup competes with sprouts of silvergrass, … becoming Basho, ばし.

bashō uete/ mazu nikumu/   ogi no futaba kana

I plant the bashō
now I hate

Matsuo Basho, Fukagawa, Spring 1681

Note. Bashō, ばしょう (芭蕉) means banana plant. Nikumu, 憎む to hate or detest. Ogi, 荻 a Japanese plume grass that grows in marshy areas.

Spring 1681

In late 1680, the 36 year old Matsuo Basho left Edo. He crossed the Sumida River, for a simpler life in the isolated Fukagawa District. His home, a simple hut. A disciple (Rika, 李下) gave him a banana pup, which he planted beside the hut. (We may assume, replacing the tall silver grass.) In time, the hut became Bashō-an (“Cottage of the Banana Plant”), and the poet Matsuo Basho (まつお ばしょう).

The academician and the graduate student are all too inclined to make too much of Basho’s brief dissertation on the banana plant. Is he comparing his solitary lifestyle with that of busy Edo, the banana pup and the crowded clump of grass? Is this a yinyang tit-for-tat where love and hate must cancel each other, and balance achieved?

Or is Basho, like any new gardener, worried that grass will deprive his darling plant of sustenance?

Bashō no yōna replies, “me think one hath parsed the plant too much.”

A Crow Renku

Gentler readers, unencumbered, we shall fly about, but not like crows, coming and going, from tree to tree, but as travelers from time and place, from poet to poet. Such is the mystery and beauty of poetry.

Natsume Sōseki

Today’s guest poet is Natsume Sōseki (夏目 漱石, 1867 – 1916). His literary career did not begin until 1903 when he began to publish haiku and renku. He quickly went on to novels for which he is better known. That he was exploring the joy of haiku before 1906 comes from this haiku, written in 1896, probably while in Kumamoto, on the southern island of Kyushu .

a crow flies off
the winter tree shaking


Coming and Going

Surely, in composing his verse Soseki recalled to mind Matsuo Basho’s haiku, where a crow comes to perch. Soseki has the crow leaving, completing the renku.

on a bare branch
a crow has perched
in the autumn evening

kare eda ni karasu no tomarikeri aki no kure


Having listened to both haiku, Bashō no yōna, tries to keep the renku going, adding:

from countless karasu
upon a withered tree –
a caw-caw-phony

Notes on Translation

Renku, 連句, “linked verses,” a Japanese form of collaborative linked verse poetry. Basho would often attend such party gatherings. Renku can also be informal and spontaneous.

Basho uses for crow. Soseki uses からす, karasu, から (kara, “caw”, imitating the crow’s caw, plus su. “bird”). Both mean crow.

Does Your Roof Leak

Spring rain –
running down a wasp’s nest
from a roof that leaks

春雨や 蜂の巣つたふ 屋根の漏り

harusame ya     hachinosu tsutau      yane no mori

Wasp Nest, Kono Bairei, 1844-1895

More rain

Yesterday, it rained. Today, it rains again. Tomorrow, it is suppose to rain again. I should look around the house to see if the roof leaks. Is it not a fundamental principle of life, Basho asks, that a roof shall leak?

For Matsuo Basho the steady drip of the rain from a wasp’s nest became the subject of this haiku. Does this not remind you, Gentle Reader, of the premise of the television show Seinfeld — “a show about nothing” and everything. Observational comedy like haiku poetry are based on everyday phenomenon rarely noticed. Have you ever noticed? — a wasp nest shouldn’t leak.

Cosmic principles

To make the point, Basho ends this simple haiku with the Japanese character り, Ri, which in Confucian philosophy attempts to identify an underlying principle of the cosmos — a roof shouldn’t leak, but it sometimes does, but not in a wasp nest.

Notes on Translation

Harusame, 春雨 is Basho’s oft repeated Spring Rain. Hachinosu, 蜂の巣, a wasp nest or beehive. Also, a colloquialism for something full of holes, like Swiss cheese, a knit scarf, and Basho’s roof. Yane no mori, 屋根の漏り, a roof that leaks.

Spring Rain

Spring rain
If it is rains today
It is Spring rain

(Harusame – noodles)

春の雨 今日の雨なら 春雨じゃ

Spring Rain at Tsuchiyama, 1834–35, Utagawa Hiroshige, image The Met*

Yesterday and Today

Yesterday, I found myself sing along to Phil Collins’ I Wish It Would Rain. Today, it rains, rains, rains. In the Midwest, a spring rain (春の雨, haru no ame) is always welcome except when it rains too much, which is what it is now doing.

Even the worms do not like too much rain, for coming to the surface, Robins find them and feast. For farmers, when it rains too much, it floods, and the seeds of the spring wheat are washed away. That is why most wheat grown in Kansas and the Midwest is Winter wheat.

Sometimes, summer rains sometimes come not at all.

What do we make of Matsuo Basho’s little ditty? Is Basho saying “it is raining cats and dogs”? Is he saying rain is a gift from above? 春雨 being a figurative statement for a “gift from above,” an idea Kansas farmers fully understand. Is that gift from above, “harusame”? Hausame being noodles that look like worms.

Could it simply be, that today 今日, because it rains, Basho is served harusame?

Basho’s disciple, Bashō no yōna, is thinking along a different line of thought, of the birds, of the fishermen.

Spring rain
A gift from above, a gift from below
Earth worms

When it doesn’t rain enough

Because it doesn’t always rain, here’s one I like from Taniguchi Buson (1715-1783):

Harusame ya kawazu no hara no mada nurezu

Spring rain —
not enough yet to wet
a frog’s belly.


Spring Rain. It is explained to me that haru no ame, 春の雨) is the general category of rain that falls in spring (from late February to March) and thus it may be a cold rain that chills the bones and frightens the birds, while harusame, 春雨 is the light but steady rain portrayed by Utagawa Hiroshige above, a gentle rain, a drizzle, the kind one experiences in Seattle or Portland, and along Japan’s eastern coast in spring.

Tsuchiyama—a travelers’ station on the Tōkaidō route connecting Edo and Kyoto, in the mountains just before the road ends at Kyoto, known for its gentle rain, and familiar to Basho who traveled this route often.