October 1, 1691

Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō

Such things as cherished tears
color
the scattered red leaves

尊がる涙や 染めて 散る紅葉
tootogaru namida ya somete chiru momiji

Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō
Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō, near Kyoto

The Autumn Years

It is near the beginning of the end.

Beginning in 1690, Bashō was gone from Edo, living in quiet retirement at the Genju-an (the Phantom Dwelling), what had been an abandoned hut with a rush door, near Lake Biwa. He spent his days working on the book that would make him famous, Narrow Road to the Deep North and making short trips to visit friends and former students. On the first day of October he called on the Priest Ryu, at the Myosho-ji Temple in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture.

This visit inspired the above haiku.

After calling on his friend, Bashō returned to Edo to a new house near the old one in Fukagawa, complete with five banana plants. For the next three years, he would work on another anthology of poetry before setting out once more in the spring of 1694 for his birthplace.

On the way, at Osaka, he took ill and died, age 50.

Notes on translation

Momijigari, 紅葉狩り –  Maple viewing, a Japanese autumn tradition of visiting where the maple leaves have turned red. From momiji (紅葉) meaning the “maple tree” as well as “red leaves” and  “color changing”; and kari (狩り) “hunting”.

seken no aki o sakaichō

A rainy day
This autumn world
Sakai town

雨の日や世間の秋を堺町

Ame no hi ya seken no aki o sakaichō

Utagawa Hiroshige, White Rain on the Nihon Bridge

[Utagawa Hiroshige, White Rain on the Nihon Bridge, 1838, credit, Yale Art Museum]

A Rainy Day in Autumn, 1678

“…seken no aki o sakaichō”

It sounds good to the ear even when you don’t know Japanese.

It is 1678, Matsuo Bashō, age 35, is living in Edo (Tokyo) in Nihonbashi, Edo’s city center . He is part of the Japanese literary society composing haikai no renga, comical linked verse (now shortened to haiku).

Two years from now, Bashō will move across the Sumida River to the then rural and unconnected by a bridge  Fukagawa District. The bridge would come soon and Bashō would write a haiku about its construction. It would be nine more years until Matsuo Bashō and his traveling companion, Kawai Sora, would make their celebrated journey Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道), Journey to the Narrow North.

For now, Bashō is taking in all that Edo has to offer.

By the 17th century, the population in Edo (Tokyo) numbers in the neighborhood of 150,000 people. Along the western edge of the Sumida River, Edo’s theaters and playhouses are being built, mingling with houses of prostitution, with a mixture of tea-houses and Geisha-houses, where conversations with poets and actors are the main attraction.

Of course, they serve sushi and sake in Sakaichō.

It must have been a sensational sight, walking shoulder to shoulder, even in the soaking rain.

Ame no hi ya, seken no aki o sakaichō.

sakai-cho-color

[Kabuki Theaters at Sakai-cho, Opening Day of the New Season (Sakai-cho Shibai no Zu), artist Utagawa Hiroshige, 1838, credit, Metropolitan Museum of Art.]

Notes on Japanese translation

雨の日, ame no hi, rainy days
世間 seken, world, society
aki, autumn

Closure, the final haiku

Meoto Iwa Married Couple Rocks
Meoto Iwa Married Couple Rocks
Meoto Iwa, Married Couple Rocks

As firmly cemented clam shells
Fall apart in Autumn
So too, I take to the road again

Farewell my friends

蛤の
ふたみにわかれ
行秋ぞ

hamaguri no / futami ni wakare / yuku aki zo

September haiku

It is September 1689. The leaves begin to change colors. Though it may still be hot, the weather can be unpredictable. The typhoons that come in August may still appear.

Matsuo Basho has made his way from Tsuruga, north of Lake Biwa, and proceeded on horseback to the relaxing city of Ogaki in Mino Province. This was coincidentally (or not) near the site of the Battle of Sekigahara, which brought relative peace to Japan and the beginning of the Tokugawa period. In Ogaki, Sora (Basho’s companion on much of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Oku no Hosomichi, 奥の細道) and another friend Etsujin join Basho at the house of Joko. Other friends, including Zensen and Keiko and his sons, came to see Basho, as if he had returned from the dead.

Closure

It is only fitting that Matsuo Bashō end his journey in Mie Prefecture, the province of his birth near the city of Ueno, and the location of Iga Ueno Castle where he had served as a young boy and man.

On September the 6th, though fatigued from his long journey, Basho went to see the dedication of a Shinto Shrine. Stepping into a boat, Basho makes the journey down the Suimon River to the eastern coast. If he stopped along the way to visit his birthplace or the Iga Ueno Castle, that fact was not recorded. His destination, the Okitama Shrine in Futami (or the more famous Grand Ise Shrine, I am not sure which). There Basho watched the waves crashing against the well-known Meoto Iwa (夫婦岩, Married Couple Rocks) that separate at high tide.

Observing the water come and go, Basho looks to find closure to his journey. So, he included this final haiku in his book The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Literally

A literal translation is:

Hamaguri clams of Futami break apart in Autumn.

Or,

Hamaguri clams of Futami part in Autumn.

Futami is a pun on the words body and lid, two bodies, thus the stretch by translators to “Clams firmly cemented”. The second line is also a pun on the idea of parting for Futami and breaking apart. Futami suggests another image, that of Married Couples Rock. Married couples, whose love blossoms in spring and heats up in summer, now by autumn, find their love has cooled and faded.

There is a final coincidental reference – the Hamaguri clam’s hard shell is used to make stones in the Chinese game of Go.

man-womqan-hands

Original Image of Married Rocks from Wikipedia.

A crow on a withered branch

On a withered branch
A crow is perched
An autumn evening

枯朶に  烏のとまりけり  秋の暮

kare eda ni
karasu no tomarikeri
aki no kure

Kawanabe Kyōsa Crow on a snowy plum branch
Image by Kawanabe Kyōsa (1831 – 1889)

Bashō’s poetry

Written in the autumn of 1680. Matsuo Bashō was then living in Edo (Tokyo) and teaching poetry to a group of 20 disciples. In this wonderfully simple poem, a crow alights upon a withered branch, and Bashō is moved by the sight to write this haiku.

Painting by Morikawa Kyoriku
Painting by Morikawa Kyoriku

Kare eda ni

A withered branch, kare eda ni. Much is implied, little is said.

Karasu no tomarikeri

A crow, karasu, alighting on the branch, tomarikeri.

Beyond the obvious phonetic assonance of repeating “Ks” is the symbolism of a solitary crow. Normally we associate these noisy and annoysome birds with flocks.  In Japanese mythology the crow symbolizes the will of Heaven.

Gentle reader, I ask: Is Basho the crow, imposing his knowledge and will upon his disciples?

Aki no kure

The final line is aki no kure, autumn evening. This completes the harsh repetition of the K sound, and imitates the cacophonous call of the crow.

Timeline of the poem

Let us visit for a moment with Bashō in Edo. It is still autumn and the leaves are turning red and gold. Winter is about to come.

Perhaps we can imagine Matsuo Bashō sitting on a log in one of the many gardens of Edo surrounded by his student disciples. He is dressed in black, or they are. It is a cool autumn evening and the leaves are gathering at their feet. The students wait in anticipation of what the master is going to say.

Bashō’s poetry was developing its simple and natural style. The point of view in many of Bashō’s haiku is that life (the human condition) is best described as a metaphor. Bashō died at the early age of 50. Perhaps at the age of 36 when this haiku was written he was feeling both the effects of age and the anticipation of death.

Rhyme, rhythm, and assonance

For those who focus more on rhyme, we could translate as follows: “On a withered bough a crow is sitting now.” It is not a choice I like. Better yet, On a cracked and broken branch sits a crow. Some may think of Edgar Allen Poe’s the raven gently tapping… Others may call to mind Yeats line, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick…”.

What do my neighbors do?

Autumn deepens, next door, what does my neighbor do?

秋深き / 隣は何を / する人ぞ

aki fukaki / tonari wa nani wo / suru hito zo

Matsuo Basho on the 26th day of the Ninth Month, 1694

Basho was now 51 years old. In the summer of 1694, he left Edo (Tokyo), and after stops in Ueno, his place of birth, and Kyoto, he went to Osaka where he stayed at a country inn. Here he became ill. He was well enough earlier to visit the Sumiyoshi Shinto shrine (住吉大社), but by evening decided against attending a poetry gathering at a disciple’s house and sent this poem.

He died a few weeks later on the twelfth day of the tenth month.

Autumn deepens, the man next door, what does he do for a living?

Zen, which aims at the perfection of the person-hood, must acknowledge the impossibility of knowing someone else. Still, one is curious about others and what they do. Gentle reader, I am curious about you. Are you curious about me?

cropped-basho.jpg

Rainy Day 雨の日

Rainy day, falling into the world, Sakai town
雨の日  や世間の秋を  堺町
ame no hi / ya seken no aki o / sakai-chō

Matsuo Bashō, age 35, autumn 1678

By the autumn of 1678, Matsuo Basho had been living in central Edo (Tokyo) for six years and had published several haiku anthologies. He was, one imagines, having to deal with what fame brings.

Sakai-chô

It was a rainy day. Basho decided to go to the Kabuki Theater District in Sakai-chô. What strange sights greeted him, stranger sights still awaited him when he entered the theater.

Ya seken no aki o / sakai-chō

Seken (世間) refers to the ancient Sanskrit loka (secular world), first borrowed by the Chinese then Japanese. Falling in and falling out, one might say, between reality and fantasy, theater or life itself, who is to say which is more real?

Kabuki Theater

Kabuki 歌舞伎 comes from the verb kabuku, meaning “to slant or to sway.” The colorful costumes suggest a world out of the ordinary.

Okumura-Masanobu-1686–1764
Okumura-Masanobu, c. 1745, Kabuki Theater District in Sakai-chô and Fukiya-chô,
Boston Museum Fine Arts

Fukagawa

Bright lights and theater are not compatible with the life of a poet.

In 1780, Basho moved across the Sumida River to the Fukagawa District. There, a benefactor provided him with a simple house. The next year a disciple gives him a banana plant (basho-an).

He plants it and thereafter called himself Bashō, 芭蕉 .