When rats drink water

Enough of the milling crowds who run about like rats, enough of the constant noise.

kōri nigaku / enso ga nodo o / uruoseri

this ice tastes bitter –
enough for a rat
to wet his throat

Tosei, who would become one day Matsuo Basho, Fukagawa, Winter 1680

Winter 1680

By the winter of 1680, the poet who would become known as Matsuo Basho (松尾 芭蕉) had had enough of Edo’s city life. Nine years is enough. Enough of Nihonbashi’s theater, its music and colorful sights, enough of rich food and fine drink, enough of comfort.


Who was this poet?

He was not yet known as Basho, meaning banana, named for the frail wind-blown banana tree that would grow up outside his cottage. After the death of his early patron Tōdō Yoshitada, known as Tōdō Sengin, Basho called himself JInshichiro and Jinshiro. By the time he reached Edo, he had taken the name of Tosei, meaning Green Peach, after the Chinese Tang poet Li Bai, whose name meant White Plum.

Moving On

So, he took his meager belongings and moved from Edo to Fukagawa, 深川 just across the Sumida River. His new cottage was simple — a brushwood gate, a room or two with wooden floors covered by straw mats, a small stove for warmth and cooking. Basho, the banana plant was given to him as a housewarming gift.

In Fukagawa, he escaped the crowds, but everything was in short supply, including water.

On a winter’s day he was thirsty and stopped at a reservoir to drink, but the ice was thick. Breaking off a piece of ice, he found it brackish and bitter.

Enough to inspire the haiku above.

If Basho had in mind the ancient sayings of Zhuangzi he did not say, or did he?

River Ice


Zhuangzi , 莊子 (late 4th century BC), Daoist philosopher. Post Lao Tzu and Confucius, contemporary of Mencius, author of the work, Zhuangzi. Compare him to a modern day Walt Whitman or Henry David Thoreau, one who finds beauty and happiness in Nature. One who experiences life.

A rat drinks water at the river, but no more than it needs.

Zhuangzi (莊子, 4th century BC)

Everything in moderation including bitterness. For a little bit of bitterness may inspire a man to write a haiku.

Did not Zhuangzi also say this:

This is what [the world] finds bitter: a life without comfort,
a mouth without rich food, a body without fine clothes,
eyes without beautiful sights, and ears without sweet sounds.
People who can’t get these things fret a great deal and are afraid—
this is a stupid way to treat the body.

Zhuangzi, Chapter 18


Severe truth is expressed with some bitterness.

Henry David Thoreau

O BITTER sprig! Confession sprig!
In the bouquet I give you place also—I bind you in, …

Walt Whitman

Both the bitter and the sweet
come from outside,
the hard from within.

Albert Einstein

Walking in the woods one day, I come upon a bright green Juniper tree full of berries. Thirsty, I eat just one. Just enough to moisten the tongue.

the Juniper berry —
dry, bitter and very small,
it’s sweet to eat just one

Bashō no yōna, December 2021

And along the lake I see a mole swimming.

A mole who drinks water
is thirsty, taking in
the sweet and the bitter

Bashō no yōna, December 2021
Juniper berries, bitter and sweet, best I eat just one

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