Are those tea leaves scratching at your door?

柴の戸に茶の木の葉掻く嵐かな
shibanoto ni cha no konoha kaku arashi kana

Are those tea leaves
Scratching at my brushwood door
In this storm?

Matsuo Basho, Fukagawa, 1680

Notes. Shibanato, 柴の戸 a brushwood gate. Arashi, 嵐 a storm or tempest. Tea leaves were used as a means of foretelling the future. Cha no ki, 茶の木, literally a tea tree, but I have chose to use the more familiar tea leaves.

tea ceremony, reading tea leaves in cup

Becoming Basho

Late in 1680, the poet who would become Matsuo Basho left behind the bustle and noise of Nihonbashi, the Edo’s theater district, where he had lived for nine years. His future was uncertain, for he was not yet named for the Banana tree (Basho) that would grow outside his new cottage. Seeking quiet, he moved to Fukagawa, a sparsely populated piece of reclaimed land beyond Edo, south of the Sumida River. The gift of a banana plant by a disciple would grow into a tree.

For now, Basho explained his move:

For nine springs and autumns, I lived austerely in the city. Now, I have moved to the banks of the Fukagawa River. Someone once said:

長安は古来名利の地、空手にして金なきものは行路難し
“Chang’an, in ancient times, was a place to seek fame and fortune, so hard for a traveler empty-handed and penniless.”
Is it because I’m poor myself that I understand this feeling?

Matsuo Basho

Note. Chang’an was the capital of the Tang dynasty, China’s Golden Age. Its population exceeded one million souls.

Basho noted that his verse was close to a poem by the Tang poet Bai Juyi (白居易,772 – 846)

Author’s Note. I have not come across such a poem. But I did find this — Late Spring, Yuan Zhen to Bai Juyi.

Late Spring
Calm day outside my thin curtain, swallows quickly chattering
Upon my steps, fighting sparrows kicking up dust.
In the rising wind at dusk, a brushwood gate swings shut.
The last flower petal drops and no one notices.

Yuan Zhen, (元稹, 779 – 831), to Bai Juyi
  • Not yet Basho, for he took the name Basho for the banana tree, frail and useless, that was planted outside his cottage.
Cherry blossoms on a branch

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