Another Rainy Day

Edo, Autumn, 1678, Matsuo Basho, then called Tosei, age 35.


雨の日 や世間の秋を 堺町

ame no hi / ya seken no aki o / sakai-chō

A rainy day, in Autumn the world awakens in Sakai-cho

Sakai-cho, Edo’s Kabuki Theater District, Utagawa Hiroshige

Leaving Edo

He has not yet become Bashō, 芭蕉, the poet who compares himself to the fragile and useless Banana plant. That is yet to come when, two autumns later, Matsuo Basho would take the somewhat surprising step of leaving Edo and crossing the Sumida River to Fukagawa to live in a cottage beside a Banana plant, 芭蕉.

For now, Basho enjoys Kabuki Theater. Rain doesn’t matter. Perhaps it heightens the surreal quality of the plays.

Kechi, Kansas, Autumn, 2021

More than three centuries have gone by since Matsuo Basho wrote his haiku.

Today, in 2021, pubs and micro-breweries have become the gathering place for friends and couples who want to talk about the day’s events, about the World.

It is another rainy day in Middle America. It is early September; the summer’s heat has given way to cooler days and nights. The author of this blog takes a trip to Kechi, a small Kansas town outside Wichita. He is accompanied by his wife and dog, Lucy, a small dog, a mix, mostly Blue Heeler. The three of us sit on the patio under trees strung with lights, sample the beers, listen to music, and forget our worrries.

Suddenly, it starts to storm. Lucy runs inside and shakes off the rain. Bashō no yōna, the author of this blog, and modern day Basho disciple, says this:

A dog knows
To Stay out of the Rain
And Sakai-cho

Beer stops Pouring
When it starts Raining

At the Old School House in Kechi

Notes on Translation

Before becoming Basho, Matsuo Basho took the pen name Tosei, 桃青, meaning “green peach” inferring that he was not quite ripe.

世間, Seken, literally the World, Society, as opposed to the individual. According to the Buddha, there are two worlds, the internal world and external world. Through meditation, one understands one’s thoughts and feelings, and finds one’s ‘inner world’.

境町, Sakai-chō, literally border town. It is somewhat unclear whether 境町, Sakai-chō is a place within Tokyo’s Nihonbashi District, or it merely borders it, a special district where Kabuki Theaters were allowed. Often these theaters began in Tokyo where prostitutes plied their trade. Other worldly in this sense takes on a sexual connotation. Though frowned upon by the ruling authorities, such districts were allowed. William Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men similarly had to obtain a royal license to perform.

Gabi Greve has given us a thorough discussion of Nihonbashi in her thoroughly wonderfully blog.

Previously translated as Rainy Day and Seken no Aki.

Historical Context

England 1678, John Bunyan published The Pilgrim’s Progress, an other worldly allegory of man’s journey through life. Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and culturally isolated from Western societies.

The Sound of Cicada

cicada clinging to a tree

One can travel by train today from Tokyo to Yamadera in less than five hours.

In 1689, Matsuo Basho made the journey by foot in four or five months, give or take a day or a week. Basho left behind the comforts of his thatched cottage in Fukagawa, his friends, and his students for an uncertain journey with his companion Sora. They arrived in Yamadera in late August. There, Basho and Sora climb the rocky steps to the mountain temple called Yamadera (山寺, lit. “Mountain Temple”), shedding each step of the way their human worries and cares, until even the wind had ceased and all was silent.

Beholding the beauty of the scene, all Basho heard was the sound of the cicada.

ah, the silence
sinking into the rocks
the voice of the cicada

閑かさや
岩にしみ入る
蝉の声

shizukasa ya
iwa ni shimi-iru
semi no koe

Basho’s haiku is inspired by my own experience with cicadas in Kansas and elsewhere. It is a common experience shared by anyone who has heard the incessant high pitched cry. What they are saying and to whom is a mystery. Perhaps, spending 16 out of 17 years underground, they are happy to be set free, learning too soon that it is time to die.

Perhaps, I wonder is it the heat?

ah, in the heat of August,
from each and every tree
comes the cry the cicada

Notes on Translation

Shizukasa could also be “such silence”, the feeling of awe that comes across the traveler when the wind dies completely and one is left alone with the beauty of Nature.

Shimi-iru is literally “penetrating,” giving one the sense the cicadas have burrowed into the rocks to escape the heat. “Sinking” is more sublime, and suggestive of a Buddhist stage of meditation.

Semi no koe, at its simplest, is the voice of the cicada, but that doesn’t stop translators from adding a little spice with verbs like “shrill of the cicada” or “cry of the cicada”.

Climbing Long’s Peak

Once on a trip to Estes Park, a friend and I camped below Longs Peak (a “fourteener” located in the Rocky Mountain National Park), having decided on the spur of the moment to make the long climb to the top. It was summer, the evening was cool. It is hard to ignore, he snores. He slept in a one man tent, I crosswise and bent in the car. The stars filled the night sky, and the Milky Way rose behind the peak we hoped to climb the next day.

Unprepared, ill-equipped, we didn’t make it all the way, but had a great time. P.S. a better climber started us out, illuminating the pathway with a headlamp that he wisely brought.

a mountain path

Some thoughts:

Nightfall
Too Dark to Read,
To Bed

A fool
Climbs Mt. Long
Not at all

In Darkness,
With trust in the Buddha,
I start, I stumble, I fall

One can ride horses along the trails on the mountainside. When the sun rose, we saw a few horses roaming freely on the range. One horse had only three legs.

A three legged horse
On the mountainside

Climbs better than most

In the Summer Sun
Snow melts, water gathers
A cold stream

There is still snow at the highest elevations, even in July. The summer sun melts the snow forming narrow streams. One often stops to wash the face and hands with the cold water. Then one moves on, admiring a wildflower that grows nearby.

mountain crocus

1685 (year of Jōkyō, 貞享)

The following haiku is from Basho’s Journal of Bleached Bones (Nozarashi Kiko, 野ざらし紀行). This travelogue covered a trip that began in the fall of 1684 and ended the next spring. Basho traveled from Edo to Iga Ueno, his birthplace. After paying respects to his mother who had died the year before, he traveled to Kamigata (an are encompassing Kyoto, Kobe, and Osaka). Coming along a mountain path, Matsuo Basho spied a mountain violet (sumiregusa). This dainty purple flower with its heart shaped leaves has no smell, but it is charming nevertheless, being one of the earliest flowers to blossom in spring.

coming along a mountain path,
somehow so charming
– a wild violet

山路来て    何やらゆかし   すみれ草
yamaji kite/  namiyara yukashi/   sumiregusa

[ゆかし, yukashi meaning charming, endearing, or moving. This haiku inspired Enya to compose a charming song in Japanese called Sumiregusa.]

My thoughts is this:

A tiny mountain flower
Don’t pick this jewel
Just admire

Having reached the peak of Mt. Long, many climbers quickly descend, either because the peak has become crowded with other climbers, or the time of day is late and the weather uncertain. I think Basho would agree, there is joy in the summit, but the greater joy is in the journey.

It is not the summit
But the Path
I seek

Stage 25, July 1689

By July, 1689, Matsuo Basho and Sora had reached Obanazawa, three months into their Journey to the Northern Interior, and ready to rest.

[By Matsuo Basho’s reckoning, according to the Japanese lunar calendar, it was the 5th lunar month (五日, itsuka), from the 17th to the 27th, 1689.]

Basho writes:

In Obanazawa, I met a man called Seifu (清風, a Chinese phrase meaning cool breeze).”


“He is wealthy, yet a man of a samurai mind. He has a deep understanding of the hardships of the wandering journey, for he himself had traveled often to the capital city. He invited me to stay at his place as long as I wished and made me comfortable in every way he could.”

Making coolness
My lodging,
I rest

Yes (Hai), crawl out!
Croaking toad
Under the silk moth hut

The mental image of
Mayahuki (an eye brush)
And Benihana (Safflower, red powder flower)

Safflower, 紅粉の花

Notes on Translation

Obanazawa (尾花沢), literally means the valley of the yellow iris (尾花). The city is located along the Mogami River in central Japan, halfway between Sendai and Sakata (Stages 18 and 31).

In Obanazawa, Matsuo Basho’s host was Seifu (清風), a wealthy merchant and poet of the Danrin school, founded by Nishiyama Sōin (1605 to 1682). Seifu had previously exchanged haiku with Basho and Sora in Edo. Seifu is the Haiku name of Michisuke Suzuki, a safflower wholesaler, thus the third haiku.


Who knows,

Seifu’s kaiku
Not me, not you

Seifu’s haiku
Faded
Like Safflower powder

Bashō no yōna

I have not been able to find any haiku by Michisuke Suzuki, or Seifu. But, there is a Seifu Museum in Obamazawa.

Safflower (紅粉の花, benibana or beni no hana), has been used in Japan as a source for red tint in cosmetics and dye for clothing. The yellow flower contains a concentrated tinge of red.

Watch a short Japanese film on Benihana.

With the July heating up, and the long walk, Basho and Sora were ready for a rest. The WKD Archive site indicates that Basho stayed at a nearby temple and not with Seifu. Perhaps, Seifu was not as “cool” as his name suggests.

From the second haiku, one infers that Basho’s host also maintained a nursery for Silkworm moths. Basho addresses a toad hidden in a Moth hut. It is hot and humid, Basho kindly commands him to crawl out, enjoy the cool, fresh air.

Mayahaki in the third haiku refers to the brush that sweeps the eye with red powder from the Safflower. It is the signature look of the Geisha.

Original Japanese

涼しさを我宿にしてねまる也

suzushisa o waga yado ni shite nemaru nari

這出よかひやが下のひきの声

hai ideyo kaiya ga shita no hiki no koe

まゆはきを俤にして紅粉の花

mayuhaki o omokage ni shite beni no hana

The Signs of Summer, 1678

Seeing fresh green leaves (青葉), hearing the Mountain Cuckoo (山時鳥), and tasting the season’s first Bonito (初鰹, Skipjack Tuna) — these are images that express the feeling of early summer in Edo, 1678, written down by Yamaguchi Sodo (山口素堂).

Picture a bustling, smelly, noisy fish market in Edo’s fashionable Nihonbashi district. Sanpu Sugiyama, the imperial purveyor of fish is there, supervising the sale of fish. Throngs of people have gathered to see the season’s first Bonito catch. The fish are taken from the boats and displayed on fresh green leaves. Cuckoo birds gather about making their distinctive sounds — ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-kow-kow.

Matsuo Basho and Yamaguchi Sodo, fellow poets and friends of Sanpu, are there as well.

Seeing Aoba
Hearing Hototogisu
Tasting
Hatsugatsuo

An eye for green leaves,
The Mountain Cuckoo
The First Bonito

me ni ha aoba / yama hototogisu / hatsu gatsuo

目には青葉山時鳥初鰹

Hiroshige Utagawa (1842-1894), Bonito Fishing

Yamaguchi Sodo

Yamaguchi Sodo (山口素堂, 1642-1716) was a contemporary of Matsuo Basho, who outlived him by almost 20 years. This simple haiku, which is Zen-like in its sparseness, was collected in “Edo Shindo” (New Road in Edo) in 1678.

In 1675, Sodo met Matsuo Basho for the first time in Edo. Sodo took up residence at Shinobazu-no-Ike Pond in Ueno Park, a former temple, near Basho.

This was Basho’s early period, before Basho moved from noisy Edo across the Sumida River to the quiet Fukagawa District. It was there that Basho took up residence in a simple cottage, planted a banana tree (芭蕉, Bashō) next to the cottage, and, in time, became Basho, and the cottage Basho-an.

The two became fast friends. Perhaps it is merely coincidental, but one cannot help but see and hear the similarity between Matsuo Basho‘s name and Hatsu Gatsuo, the last line of the haiku. The word choice is perhaps not entirely coincidental. The person who provided Basho Matsuo with financial help was his pupil, Sanpu Sugiyama, also known as Ichibei Koiya, Edo’s official fish procurer for the Shogunate.

In old Edo, there was a saying:

女房 を 質屋 に 入れて も 食いたい 初鰹

nyōbō wo shichi ni iretemo hatsu-gatsuo,

“I must taste the season’s first bonito, even if I must pawn my wife!”


Tuna Tataki-style

Hatsu-gatsuo is generally prepared tatakistyle, that is — seared on the outside, raw on the inside, then plunged in ice water, patted dry and showered with fresh green herbs, and finally pressed with cracked pepper and roasted garlic.

Nihonbashi district fish market, Hiroshige Utagawa (1842-1894)

Yamadera, Matsuo Basho

Matsuo Basho was well into his trip when he visited Yamadera, stage 26 of 43 recorded stops on his Journey North, Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道).

There he climbed over a thousand steps to the Buddhist temple of Risshaku-ji (立石寺). The temple was founded in 860 AD by the priest Ennin, later known as Jikaku Daishi (慈覺大師). Ennin had studied in China during the Tang Dynasty. This was a literary connection for Basho who had an affinity for the Tang poet Du Fu and all poems of the Tang Dynasty. At the temple, clinging to the steep, forested, rocky mountain side, he composed this haiku.

Ah, the Quiet, but piercing the Rocks — the Cry of the Cicada

閑けさや 岩にしみいる 蝉の声

Shizukesa ya/ Iwa ni shimiiru/ Semi no koe

For Matsuo Basho, I imagine the haiku means that poetry outlives the poet. It echoes down through generations, as solid as rock. This is similar to the Latin phrase Ars longa, vita brevis, which means either “Art lasts long, life is short” or “it takes a lifetime to learn a skill, life is short”.

Notes on Translation

Semi no koe, 蝉の声, the voice of the cicada. Whether the cicada cries or simply speaks, Gentle Reader, I leave to you.

Compare mizuno oto, 水の音, the sound of water. Unlike Matsuo Basho’s well known, old pond — frog jumps — splash, water’s sound, Basho here uses “voice” for “sound”.

Both haiku are good examples of Basho’s focus on wabi-sabi, 侘び 寂び. This Zen Buddhist concept can best be described as simple and quiet, but elegant, finding beauty in life’s imperfections. For example, a furry caterpillar crawls along a branch after having eaten part of a leaf.

Gentle Reader, how do you find beauty in this world?

Yamadera Temple figure

This haiku was previously translated.

Paddling Satchel Creek

Monday morning, mid-June, warm not hot. A kayak trip up Satchel Creek at Lake El Dorado in southeast Kansas. I am alone in the universe.

The regular rhythm of the paddle in the water inspired these thoughts.

Not haiku, but rules are made to be broken, otherwise how would we improve. Hopefully, the verse is Basho-like, Bashō no yōna. But first, a word from the Master:

With awe I beheld
Fresh leaves, green leaves,
Bright in the sunlight. 

— Matsuo Basho, Road to the Deep North

Let’s Start

Satchel Creek starts out wide as it empties into the lake. Then, as it meanders past rocky shoals, it narrows, until finally the kayak bottoms out on the rocks and one can go no further. But that is still a ways off. A Great Heron accompanies me for a while. Along the way are sunken logs and fallen trees. Spider webs catch their prey. Catfish and carp jump out of the water to catch a fly.

The silence of the water and woods,
The stillness of the air
Is everywhere.
Until one feels a gentle breeze,
And hears the flapping wings of a Great Heron
Leading the way

To who knows where

Paddling up Satchel Creek
In a sleek blue kayak
Past sunken logs and fallen trees
Suddenly, a carp
Grasps a floating bug
Slap goes the water

Matsuo Basho began one his famous journey north with this:

Paddling along, silently wondering, where are the turtles resting on logs in the morning sun? Birds call out sweet songs, unseen in the tall trees.

Turtles will sleep ‘til noon,
Oh, how they hate to get up in the morning.

Have you ever heard a Chickadee call,
High up in a tall tree?

Lake El Dorado was created by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1981. The waters flooded the old town of Chelsea, but its cemetery remains at the north end of the lake. Along the lakeside and up Satchel Creek, flooding left many old trees in the water. Their ghostly gray silhouettes a reminder of what was once woodlands. The first verse mimics Basho’s thoughts of a crow on a withered branch.

On a withered branch
A blue heron keeps watch
Wary of Summer’s strangers

Dead trees like skeletons
Standing in the water
Praying for what?

Water, water everywhere,
And not a drop to think.
A Mulberry tree along the bank,
Its fruit a gift for me…
Thank God

End

Thomas Wolfe famously said, “You can’t go back home again.” Heraclitus said, “You could not step twice into the same rivers.” Do they mean the same thing?

I am back in Wichita.
Why do they say,
You can’t go back home again.
Why does the river flows on and on?

Uncertainty was the reason for this trip. The uncertainty of tomorrow, the uncertainty that keeps eating away at me, that brings me down. And, as I alluded to in my last post, I felt that with travel I could escape the discontent that uncertainty brings. I was surprised to find it waiting there for me.

As Seneca advises, I need a change of soul.

“Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after a long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.” Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, 29.

Matsuo Basho, on the other hand, gives us his own version of the Serenity Prayer:

Every day’s a journey, the journey itself is home.

What’s on my feet?

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.

Basho explains:

“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

Iris blossoms

May, 2021

Ah, the glorious iris —

Now withered and brown,

Nature reclaims

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 , 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, , (“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.

Night Rain, Bai Juyi

Night Rain

The cricket cried, then stopped to rest

The waning light goes out, now it’s clear.

Outside my window, the night rain lets me know

The Banana leaf speaks first.

Banana Speak

Basho like in its subject matter and concise descriptions, but this poem was actually written by the Chinese Tang poet, Bai Juyi. In fact it mirrors the well known haiku by Basho about the ancient pond, the frog, and the sound of water. Well, as is often said, there is nothing new, just how we say it.

Bai Juyi was a poet of the Tang dynasty. His poems are influenced by his deeply held Buddhist beliefs. These beliefs hold that insight comes from meditation and intuitive thought. Thus, the pitter-patter of the night rain on a banana leaf becomes speech. Unintelligible speech to the untuned human ear, “Banana Speak” to those who know.

Original Pinyin and Chinese

Ye Yu

Zao qiong ti fu xie
Can deng mie you ming.

Ge chuang zhi ye yu
Ba jiao xian you sheng.

夜 雨
早 蛩 啼 复 歇
残 灯 灭 又 明。
隔 窗 知 夜 雨
芭 蕉 先 有 声。

Notes

For an explanation and good story on how Bai Juyi’s poem was falsely attributed to Matsuo Basho, see MISATTRIBUTED TO BASHŌ: BAI JUYI’S “EVENING RAIN”. Okay, so Dave calls it Evening Rain instead of Night Rain. He’s smart and I’m right, and once he looks at translations for the alliterative 雨, Yè yǔ he’ll agree. Indeed, is not only night but night long, as in something occurring during the night. Moreover, in line one, one might argue that our crying cricket has not simply rested, but also gone to bed, which is the literal meaning of 歇, xie. In line two, the sensorily sensitive Bai Juyi makes it clear that all light has gone, evening is done, night has begun. And now it is clear. Clear being the Chinese character 明, which may mean bright or brilliant, but in this case “clear”.

知道了, zhīdàole, Got it!

How Zen!

How Dào! which incidentally rhymes.

More Bai Juyi

For more reading, compare Bai Juyi’s Night Rain with Night Snow by the same poet. Nature speaks!