The Season is Winter

Toki Wa Fuyu

時は冬.” Toki wa fuyu, the season is winter. How cold is it? On cold winter days, it is not just me, even my shadow is frozen.


fuyu no hi ya bajō ni kōru kagebōshi

these cold winter days
on horseback
— my shadow is frozen

Matsuo Basho, Oi no kobumi, Winter 1687

On the Tokaido

From Oi no kobumi, on the Tokaido, en route to Cape Irago, riding on a particularly long stretch between snow covered fields and the bitterly cold sea. Things on Basho’s mind include things from the past — Saigyo’s waka, Sogi’s renga, Sesshu’s landscape painting, and Rikyu’s Way of the Tea; those and the bitter cold.

One of the reasons for reading Basho’s haiku is that they give us “an alternative possibility of being.” (Jane Hirshfield, Seeing Through Words: Matsuo Bashō, interpreting Oi no kobumi)

Notes on Translation

Tokaido – the eastern coastal sea route from Edo to Kyoto. The 19th century artist Utagawa Hiroshige painted the 53 stations of the Tokaido.

Fuyu no hi – winter day, on cold winter days, fuyu no hi ya, where ya is added for emphasis.

Koru – frozen; Kageboshi – shadow

Hiroshige, Man on horseback in snow (original image Wikipedia)

Nobody Going My Way

Where Matsuo Basho walks that lonesome road for the very last time.

kono michi ya / yuku hito nashi ni / aki no kure

This road!
No one is going my Way
This autumn evening

Matsuo Basho, Autumn 1694


Basho’s title for this poem is Shoshi, Thought. And one can expand on this thought. Was Basho going a different direction? Was he at the end of his road, so to speak?

The concept of man as a solitary individual in this world is a familiar one in literature and religion. Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), a Christian allegory by John Bunyan is a Western example. So to is the old spiritual You Got to Walk that Lonesome Valley.

Basho left little cottage in Edo’s Fukagawa District for the very last time in the summer of 1694. He died on November 28, 1694.

Notes on Translation

Kono, this; michi, road or way. The Way (, Tao or Dao) referring to Laozi’s Tao de Ching. Ya, for emphasis.

Yuku, to go; hito, a man; yuku-hito, a man who is going. Nashi ni, no one.

Aki no kure, Autumn evening, a frequent topic for Basho.

Becoming and Speaking

Matsuo Basho’s thoughts on writing poetry were simple:

Matsu no koto wa matsu ni narae, take no koto wa take ni narae

a pine trees as a thing, be a pine tree,
for bamboo as a thing,
be bamboo

At the same time, Basho warned his students:

ware ni niru na futatsu ni ware shi makuwauri

Don’t mirror me
like two halves
of a melon.

Basho’s student, Doho, gave us this Tao-like thought:

zoka ni shitagai, zoka ni kaere to nari!

to make a flower, submit and obey,
to make a flower
go back and become!

from Doho’s “San-Zoshi,” explaining Basho’s poetical teachings


This fits in nicely with advice I was once given on public speaking

When talking to an audience
Pause, then
Speak from the heart

This did not always work. For fear always lurks nearby. In case of panic, the advice is “curl your toes” this distracts and unfreezes your mind. It works.

Becoming Basho was a long process. He was for a long time, Tosei, an unripe peach. A move to Edo, a trip across the Sumida River to Fukagawa, a simple cottage, cold nights, loneliness, a gift of a banana plant, in time, a basho tree weathering the storms.

Notes on Translation

Matsu, a pine tree. There is a well known haiku, that goes Matsushima, Matsushima, Matsushima, Ah! This was, supposedly, Matsuo Basho’s exclamation on arriving at Matsushima, considered to be one of Japan’s most beautiful spots. (Basho visited here on the Oku no Hosomichi, the Journey to the Northern Interior.)

koto, thing.

zoka 造花, make a flower; shitagai, submit, obey.

kaere, go back, return; nari, to be, become: go back and become

ware, me; niru, resemble, look like, mirror

futatsu, two

makuwauri, oriental melon


hackberries falling,
fluttering wings of grey starlings,
a brisk morning wind


e no mi chiru
muku no haoto ya
asa arashi

Matsuo Basho, date unknown

While hackberries don’t make much of a splash, starlings can create a stunning spectacle, first with their loud morning chattering and then when they all rise at once.

Notes on Translation

e, enoki 榎, the (Asian) hackberry tree; chiru 散る, fall, scatter

muku , grey starling; haoto 羽音, the sound of wings, fluttering wings

asa arashi 朝嵐, literally morning storm, referring in this case to a windstorm


The hackberry tree is a native Kansas species, a tough cookie that can survive prairie fires, It has small tough berries that are a source of food for birds. Several websites including say “All “hackberry berries are edible and highly nutritious.” The taste, to me, is bland, and better left for the birds. Pioneers in Kansas ate them in a pinch. And hackberries were found in the tomb of Peking Man, dated to be 500,000 years old!

This haiku is like a hackberry, without much meat, unless I am missing something.

Stone Mountain


At the conclusion of his trip into Japan’s northern interior (Oku no hosomichi), Matsuo Basho rested for awhile in Ōtsu, on Lake Biwa. Places to visit include Ishiyama (Stone Mountain) whose temple, Ishiyamadera, is built on a massive formation of white stone called wollasonite. (Basho is buried in nearby Gichu-ji temple, also in Ōtsu.)

ishiyama no ishi yori shiroshi aki no kaze

whiter than stone of
— autumn wind

Matsuo Basho, Oku no hosomichi, Autumn 1689

Shiroshi, white. In Buddhism, the transience of human life was so associated with the dew carried by the autumn wind in the early morning is called white dew — Shiratsuyu. White is also associated with purity. Ishiyamadera, the temple, is where Murasaki Shikibu began writing The Tale of Genji on the night of the full moon, August 1004.

The following year, Basho returned and lived within the grounds of Chikatsuo Shrine (adjacent to Ishiyama) in what he called Genju-an (the Unreal Dwelling). Thinking of his own mortality and because hail (arare 霰) is white, he composed this haiku.

Ishiyama no / ishi ni tabashiru / arare kana

showering stones
on Ishiyama
— hailstones

Matsuo Basho, Winter 1690

Matsuo Basho had four more summers and three winters to live.

Ishiyama, 石山