May 4th, 1689
After crossing the barrier-gate of Shirakawa on their journey north, Basho and Sora entered the Tōhoku region (東北地方) of northern Japan. They were headed to the scenic pine covered Matsushima islands. But first they would arrive in Tōhoku’s largest city, Sendai. They reached Sendai on May the fourth. This was seasonally significant as May the fifth marked the first day of summer on the Japanese lunar calendar.
Basho had so far covered over 200 miles by foot and his sandals were well worn.
In Sendai, Basho attempted to make the acquaintance of a fellow poet, Michikaze Oyodo, who like Basho traveled a lot and was, at the time living in Sendai. Michikaze was gone. Fortune smiled and Basho was taken on a sightseeing tour of the area by a wood block artist Basho identifies as Kaemon.
“Crossing the Natori River, I entered Sendai on May the fourth, the day when the Japanese customarily throw iris leaves on the roof and pray for good health. Finding an inn, I decided to stay in Sendai for several days. In this city there was a painter by the name of Kaemon, and I made special efforts to meet him for he was reputed to be truly artistic. He took me to various places which I might have missed but for his help. First we went to the plain of Miyagino, where new fields of bush-clover would blossom in autumn. The hills of Tamada, Yokono, and Tsutsuji-ga-oka were covered in blooming white rhododendrons. Then we went into the dark pine woods called Konoshita where sunbeams could not penetrate. This, the darkest spot on the earth, has been the subject of many poems because of its dewiness – for example, one poet says that his lord when entering needs an umbrella to protect him from dew drops.”
We also stopped at the shrines of Yakushido and Tenjin on our way home.
Eventually, the time came for us to say good-bye. And Kaemon gave me his own drawings of Matsushima and Shiogama, as well as two pairs of straw sandals with laces dyed the deep blue of the iris. This last gift clearly testifies to the true artistic nature of this man.
Ah, are they Iris that blossom
On my feet, or —
Sandals laced in blue.
ayamegusa ashi ni musuban waraji no o
あやめ 艸足に結ん 草鞋の緒
Ah, the glorious iris —
Now withered and brown,
The lunar calendar of 1689 does not match today’s Gregorian calendar of 2021, but it does not seem to be off by much. The iris flowers that graced my yard in early May has fallen, reclaimed by the compost pile.
Ah, the cycle of life. 生命の循環, Seimei no junkan.
Notes on Translation
This is a second look at Basho’s iris haiku, previously posted June 2, 2020.
An in depth look at Basho’s haiku can be found at WKD.
Basho begins his haiku with the Japanese character あ, A which means Hey! or Ah! (getting someone’s attention or expressing surprise.) But the surprise is that あやめ, Ayame becomes the Iris. Again Basho uses another interjection, ん, (“nn” sound) before the final question, which is too convey the English idea of “hmmm”.
Kaemon’s identity is revealed in Sora’s Diary. English theories about Kaemon’s name and profession are inconsistent. Terebess, Notes on station 18. Reliable Japanese authorities identify him as Kitanoya Kaemon, a wood block printer and owner of a bookstore. He was a student of the haiku poet Michikaze Oyodo who was then living in Sendai. 仙台, Japanese source. Oyodo Michikaze (大淀 三千風), like Basho, was a prolific haiku writer. In 1682, he published a book called, Matsushima Viewbook, extolling the beauty of the islands.