On New Year’s Day

Basho visited Sarashina (Nagano prefecture) and its terraced rice paddies (tagato) the autumn before he made this haiku.

元日に田毎の日こそ恋しけれ
ganjitsu wa/ tagoto no hi koso/ koishikere

On New Year’s Day
I long to see
The sun over the rice paddies!

Matsuo Basho, New Year’s Day, Ueno, January 1, 1689, age 46.
Moon over the Rice Paddies at Sarashina, Utagawa Hiroshige, c. 1837, The Met

1689

It is said that this haiku was written on New Year’s Day of 1689 when Basho was at his birthplace in Ueno in Mie Province. He was 46 years old. He had completed the long difficult trip to the Northern Interior of Japan that he and Sora had begun in May of that year.

Before returning to Edo, he made a trip to the place of his birth. Whether he was visiting his brother who ran the family farm is not said. Basho rarely spoke of his family, and by this time, both his father and mother were dead.

It is explained that in the autumn of 1688, Basho had made a journey to Mt. Obasute (Nagano Prefecture) where there are thousands of small rice paddies, tagoto in Japanese. The autumn moon reflecting off those paddies is a famous sight. On a bitterly cold winter’s day, the sight of the sun reflecting off the rice paddies would have been a much better to see than the cold moon.

For Basho, the reference to the moon over Sarashina also recalled memories of his mother. He had written, “I see her now / an old woman crying alone / the moon is her friend.”

Source.

1683

In 1683, Matsuo Basho’s mother died and his hut burned down. Not surprising, that on New Year’s Day, he recalled the warmth of the autumn days.

元日や/ 思へば淋し/ 秋の暮
ganjitsu ya / omoeba sabishi / aki no kure

On New Year’s Day
thinking I’m lonely
on an autumn day

Matsuo Basho, 1683 天和3年, age 40.

Chili Peppers

To the non-foodies: shichimi togarashi is a spicy blend of seven spices that goes well with everything.

青くても/ 有べきものを /唐辛子
aoku te mo / arubeki mono o / tōgarashi

It should have stayed in
Its green attire
– A chili pepper

Matsuo Basho, September, 5th year of Genroku. 1692

Not So Spicy

Autumn 1692, Matsuo Basho is back in Edo (Tokyo), living in his third Basho-an, the cottage by a banana tree, from which he took his name. Tired of traveling, tired of guests, he lives for the most part in seclusion with a nephew and a woman named Jutei, possible his nephew’s wife. She perhaps tended the garden. She maybe cooked the dinner using the popular tōgarashi (唐辛子), red chili peppers. Basho, who lived with a stomach ailment for most of his life, would have preferred something not so spicy.

The red chili pepper did the trick.

I liked this haiku because I planted some chili peppers in my garden this spring and watched the green pepper turn red in late fall. Basho, I suspect thought the chili pepper none too spicy, and therefore, it should have kept its green attire.

Notes on Translation

The subtleties of the Japanese language often befuddle me. What should be so simple gets complex the more I try to delve into the meaning of things. For instance, ても, te mo should mean “even though”, but that doesn’t work. And tōgarashi, 唐辛子, the red chili is red because we know it ripens to that color. It is a popular ingredient in Shichimi, where a little bit goes a long way.

I have of course clothed the chili pepper in green “attire” like the Jolly Green Giant. Others have too.

Chili pepper and tomatoes

Chrysanthemum Tea

朝茶飲む 僧静かなり 菊の花

Asa cha nomu / sō shizukanari / kiku no hana

Matsuo Basho

Three variations on Matsuo Basho’s Morning Tea:

One cup of morning tea
Calms a monk
Chrysanthemums are blooming

A monk sipping his morning tea,
Calmly
— Chrysanthemums are flowering

Drinking morning tea
Calms a monk
– Chrysanthemum

Chrysanthemum Tea, three times a day, Long life

Chrysanthemum tea
Three time a day
Long life

Chrysanthemum tea
My friends and I
Happy life

Bashō no yono

Chrysanthemum Tea

Chrysanthemum tea (菊茶, kiku-cha) is considered an elixir of life in Japan and much of Asia, enjoyed for the beauty of the flower’s blossoms, their earthy smell, and the taste of the tea. Each mum variety having its own special flavor. The recipe is simple, steep the flower petals (the leaves are too bitter) in hot water. Drink as a morning tea (朝茶, asa cha). Drink while hot. Morning tea and Green tea in general are soothing. Chrysanthemum tea, in particular, is used to calm chest pain, reduce high blood pressure, soften headaches, eliminate dizziness, and treat a host of other conditions.

In a word, Chrysanthemum tea is calming.

Basho suffered from various ailments throughout his life, including stomach ailments. So, it is not hard to imagine that he drank quite a lot of tea. And, after a hard days journey on the Oku No Hosomichi, one pictures Sora, Basho’s traveling companion, brewing tea while Basho is busy writing in his journal. One can also picture their visit to a temple, where a Buddhist monk (僧, Sō) might welcome his guests with tea.

Post Script

Xin chào (“hello”) was the greeting we received in a friendly neighborhood cafe in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Corona Tea!” was the drink we got when we asked for a pot of green tea and two cups.

My wife and I were there visiting our son in Hanoi in early 2020, at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic. The fear of Coronavirus was only beginning. At that time, it was only a general concern for good health, green tea being a good start.

The cafe’s setting, beside a small lake, was quiet. Lofty apartment buildings, like tall mountains, surrounded the lake, separating us from the din of a thousand motorcycles on the main streets. This made this tiny spot feel like a personal Shangri-La. That and the woman, the owner of the cafe, who smiled as she served us a steaming pot of green tea.

The tea kept us healthy, I like to think.

Madame,
How do you say, Hello?
— Xin chào
, and green tea

Bashō no yono

I previously translated this haiku.

White Chrysanthemums


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”.

love and hate in the garden

A new house, a house warming gift, a banana pup competes with sprouts of silvergrass, … becoming Basho, ばし.

ばしょう植ゑてまづ憎む荻の二葉哉
bashō uete/ mazu nikumu/   ogi no futaba kana

I plant the bashō
now I hate
silvergrass

Matsuo Basho, Fukagawa, Spring 1681

Note. Bashō, ばしょう (芭蕉) means banana plant. Nikumu, 憎む to hate or detest. Ogi, 荻 a Japanese plume grass that grows in marshy areas.

Spring 1681

In late 1680, the 36 year old Matsuo Basho left Edo. He crossed the Sumida River, for a simpler life in the isolated Fukagawa District. His home, a simple hut. A disciple (Rika, 李下) gave him a banana pup, which he planted beside the hut. (We may assume, replacing the tall silver grass.) In time, the hut became Bashō-an (“Cottage of the Banana Plant”), and the poet Matsuo Basho (まつお ばしょう).

The academician and the graduate student are all too inclined to make too much of Basho’s brief dissertation on the banana plant. Is he comparing his solitary lifestyle with that of busy Edo, the banana pup and the crowded clump of grass? Is this a yinyang tit-for-tat where love and hate must cancel each other, and balance achieved?

Or is Basho, like any new gardener, worried that grass will deprive his darling plant of sustenance?

Bashō no yōna replies, “me think one hath parsed the plant too much.”

A Crow Upon a Withered Branch

Upon a withered branch
A crow has stopped this
Autumn evening

Kareeda ni/ Karasu no tomarikeri/ Aki no kure

枯枝に烏のとまりけり秋の暮

detail of image by Kawanabe Kyōsa (1831 – 1889)

Autumn 1680

Matsuo Bashō has by the autumn of 1680 now achieved fame. Moreover, he has just moved from Edo across the Sumida River to the Fukagawa neighborhood where he lives in a simple hut with a new banana tree, a gift from a student. A bridge had yet to be built across the river.

At the age of 36 Bashō was experiencing what we would call a Mid-Life crisis, he was cut off, dissatisfied, and lonely. In a couple of years he would begin his epic journey to the North. But for now, he took up the practice of Zen meditation, but it seems not to have calmed his mind.

This haiku has more than 30 published and hundreds of online translations. Why so many variations? Why so many attempts?

Zen

The answer, I suppose, lies in Zen’s ineffability. For Zen’s essence is to understand directly Life’s Meaning, without being misled by language. Life is what we view directly, no more, no less.

Bashō sees a crow perched upon a withered branch. It is autumn, more precisely, an autumn evening as the dusk settles in and darkness descends. The air is still or perhaps there is a gentle breeze. Then a crow stops upon a withered branch. Its crow and tree become one color against the ever deepening blue of the evening sky.

Bashō, like the crow, stops for a moment. And in that suspended moment this haiku is formed.

The Crow, , Karasu

Do I need to say that the crow is a bad omen? In Japan, there is a belief that if a crow settles on the roof of a house and begins cawing, a funeral will soon follow. Did the gloomy Bashō foresee his own death? Did Basho in his own unique way presage Yates who wrote, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick.” Is there not a little of Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven to be heard tapping at one’s door?

A melancholy thought, for which I have little to add other than that I love the repetition of the “k” throughout the haiku which must bring to mind the cawing that Bashō must have heard.

Notes

  1. I see that I watched this crow stopping on his withered branch before, September 19, 2019.
  2. For the semantically punctilious, much depends on the translation of とまりけり, tomarikeri. Perched, alighted, arrested are all possibilities. “Stopped” seems best to me.
  3. For an academic discussion of various English translations, see A CROW ON A BARE BRANCH: A COMPARISON OF MATSUO BASHŌ’S HAIKU “KARE-EDA-NI…” AND ITS ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS, by Elin Sütiste of Tartu University in Estonia.

I must take to the road again

Shall I call this an end or simply a repose.

It is now November. The sky is gray, the trees are bare, there is a cold wind that chills, leaves once red and gold, now yellow and brown, flutter in the air then gather for they know Winter is near.

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

September 1689, Ogaki

In September 1689, Matsuo Basho has completed his Journey to the North, ending in Ogaki on horseback. His friend Rotsu accompanied him, Sora, his companion on much of the journey, rejoined him. Basho continues, “we all went to the house of Joko, where I enjoyed a reunion with Zensen, Keiko and his sons, and many other old friends who came to see me by day or night.

On the 6th of September, it was time to part and take to the road again. Life moves on, and so, he left for the Ise Shrine, for he wanted to see the dedication of a new shrine (Futamiokitama Shrine). As he stepped into the boat that would take him across Ise Bay he wrote:

As clams
Divide into Two
(Separate in Futami)
In Autumn

蛤の
ふたみにわかれ
行秋ぞ

hamaguri no / futami ni wakare / yuku aki zo

So too, I take to the road again. Not a farewell my friends, a repose.

Previously posted September 26, 2019.

Matsuo Basho Halloween

Matsuo Basho (松尾 芭蕉) lived in the later half of the 17th century when Japan was isolated from Western culture and there was, of course, no Halloween, no Trick or Treat, no masked children laughing and singing, “Smell my feet, Give me something good to eat.” Masks were however used in the ceremonies of Shinto religion (Tengu, 天狗), the plays of Noh theater, and as part of the Samurai military costume.

Noh mask, 3 faces, Wikipedia

Basho’s Halloween Costume

Had he worn one, surely a banana , his self-given moniker, the very meaning of Basho (芭 蕉) and the plant which grew over his hut on the outskirts of Edo. Otherwise, a Noh mask, for Basho loved to attend the plays Lastly as an old and aged frog about to make a splash, for that was the poem that made him famous.

Old pond, frog jumping into water, sound

Furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto

ふるいけやかわずとびこむみずのおと

Why is Basho’s frog haiku famous

Water makes many sounds, it ripples on the rocks, splatters as rain falling upon the roof, as the roar of the ocean waves, even the gurgle of water in a drain. But the very best has to be surprise when a frog disturbs the stillness of a pond and we hear kerplop!

Shoda Koho, Frog on Lotus Leaf, detail stylized, source ukiyo-e.org

The Autumn Wind

“Ignore the faults of others and be ignorant of your own virtues.”

Should I to say a word
My lips turn cold
In the autumn wind.

mono   ieba / kuchibirusa   samushi  / aki  no  kaze

物いへば唇寒し龝の風

Autumn 1691

On his return to Edo in the autumn of 1691, Bashō took up the task of editing his journal that was to become The Narrow Road to the Interior (奥の細道, Oku no Hosomichi), which was published in 1694. He had a great many visitors and wrote to a friend, “I have no peace of mind.”

Silence is golden!