1688 – Genroku

England was experiencing its Glorious Revolution. Europe was beginning its Age of Enlightenment. Japan was at peace. It was the era of Genroku 元禄. The reigning emperor was Emperor Higashiyama (東山天皇), but true power lay in the hands of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (徳川 綱吉), the fifth shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty.

Basho’s study of Buddhism inspired the following haiku. Lightning (稲妻 inazuma) being both enlightening and ephemeral.

inazuma o / te ni toru yami no / shisoku kana

lightning —
a paper candle
in the darkness

Matsuo Basho, Summer 1687

Note. Paper candle, an ancient means of lighting, a torch.

By the mid-1680s, Basho’s fame was established. He had left Edo for Fukagama where he lived in a simple cottage. There he taught his students and received guests. A disciple gave him a banana plant (basho) as a housewarming gift. And it was this tree that grew beside his cottage that became the symbol of the poet — fragile and, one might say, useless.

ano kumo wa / inazuma o matsu / tayori kana

that cloud —
lightning is waiting
to visit

Matsuo Basho, Summer 1688

In late spring and summer of 1689, Matsuo Basho journeyed to Japan’s northern interior, following a route that took him along the eastern coast, crossing to the west coast, then traveling west and south to Osaka, returning to Edo and the Basho-an in late fall to work on what was to become his best known work (Oku no Hosomichi).

inazuma ni / satora nu hito no / tattosa yo

lightning —
to one who understands
life is precious!

Matsuo Basho, Winter 1690

Note. Tattosa 貴さ, noble and precious. Yo よ, adding emphasis.

In the summer of 1694, Matsuo Basho was 50 years old. He left Edo for the last time, spending time in Ueno, his birthplace, and then Kyoto, where he spent time as a student, before going to nearby Otsu by Lake Biwa.

inazuma ya / kao no tokoro ga / susuki no ho

lightning —
in place of faces
pampas grass
1694 — summer

Matsuo Basho, Summer 1694

Note. Miscanthus (susuki, commonly called pampas grass) — ever changing, from fresh green shoots in early spring to the long lasting shimmering seed-heads of autumn, a reminder of the fleeting nature of the seasons.

inazuma ya / yami no kata yuku / goi no koe

deep in the darkness
the sound of a heron

Matsuo Basho, Summer 1694

Note. The heron (crane) is a divine bird traveling between heaven and earth.

inazuma ni satoranu hito no tattosa yo, 稲妻にさとらぬ人の貴さよ

For Those Who Can’t Get Enough

Inazuma — etymology. 稲 ina, meaning “rice plant”, plus‎ tsuma, meaning “spouse”. Deriving from an ancient belief that lightning mated with (fertilized) rice plants.

Compare Basho’s haiku with the Diamond Sutra (a Sanskrit text translated into Chinese during the Tang dynasty):

So you should view this fleeting world:
As a drop of dew or a floating bubble in a river,
As lightning flashing in a summer cloud,
As a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.

Diamond Sutra, Chapter 32


morning after morning
you must practice to proceed
— a cricket

朝な朝な 手習ひすすむきりぎりす

asa na asa na / tenarai susumu / kirigirisu

Matsuo Basho, before 1680

Practice, practice, practice

The subject of this haiku, the almost insignificant cricket (kirigirisu, きりぎりす), and its need to practice to move on, suggests that it was written before 1680. Before 1680, Matsuo was an up and coming haiku poet with some disciples and still known as Tosei, the unripe peach, and not as Matsuo Basho. He acquired this name only after much practice and leaving central Edo for the Fukagawa District and his simple cottage with the banana tree.

Asa na asa na, morning after morning just keep at it. Eventually, it will come. But probably not for the short lived cricket.

For those who like conjecture, Buddhism suggests that Enlightenment must be earned, thus for the cricket to advance beyond being a lowly cricket it must practice (tenarai). Tenarai may refer to one of the chapters of the Tale of the Genji, a story of a commoner wanting to rise. Susumu meaning “to proceed” or “advance.” In the Tale of the Genji, the hero leaves the Imperial Court and goes to seek the advice of a recluse, which may have inspired Basho’s move from Edo to Fukagawa.

There is a similar thought expressed in the Latin phrase, Ars longa, vita brevis, or”skill takes time, life is short.” There is also the old joke that the tourist asks in New York — “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.”

tenarai susumu, 手習ひすすむ, practice to proceed

Morning Glories

Here we have the 39-year-old Matsuo Basho, living now in Fukagawa, in the 2nd year of Tenwa, 1682, with itchy feet who begins to wander away from Edo, the capital.

I am a fellow
who eats breakfast
gazing at morning glories

朝顔に / 我は飯食ふ / 男かな
asagao ni / ware wa meshi kû / otoko kana

Matsuo Basho, Summer, 1682

A Literary Wanderer

Asagao (朝顔, Morning Glory) is one of the fifty-four chapters of The Tale of Genji (a 12th century tale Basho was familiar with). In this tale, Gengi wants her, but Asagao, an imperial princess, shuts herself up in her residence, much like Basho distancing himself from Edo and his students for his simple cottage in Fukagawa.

So was Basho now a wandering Genji, love struck, gazing at some distant asagao?

The American poet, Walt Whitman possessed a similar sentiment when it came to knowing what he was seeing:

“A morning glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.

Metaphysics dealing with the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, of knowing.

asagao, 朝顔, morning glories


ara nan tomo na ya kinō wa sugite fukutojiru

oh well, nothing happened / yesterday has passed / eating pufferfish soup

Tosei (Matsuo Basho), Edo, 1678

Forget about it, Pufferfish

Written in the 5th year of Enpo, 1678, when Matsuo Basho was 34 years old. Then known as Tosei (Unripe Peach), young Matsuo was living in Edo’s Nihonbashi District, famous for the bridge of the same name, its Noh theaters, a famous fish market, and many cafes where aspiring haiku poets like Tosei sampled their wares.

Fuhgeddaboudit,” they sometimes say in north Jersey and New York. It means the thing is not worth one’s time or energy. Forget about it.

Fugu soup (河豚汁, fukutojiru) is made with pufferfish. Pufferfish, blowfish, it is all the same, unless you get the poisonous part. The popular fugu soup is typically prepared tableside, hot-pot style, with cabbage and leeks. Best to eat in winter. Symptoms of poisoning take a little time. So, if you wake up the next morning and feel the same as you felt the day before, you’ll be happy, thinking last night’s worries were ridiculous.

Forget about it.

Fugu Soup with Pufferfish, 河豚汁, fukutojiru