Your English teacher told you, your mother told you, no doubt, you’ve heard it a thousand times, a thousand ways,
“Be yourself and nobody else.”
Be yourself everyone else is already taken
Oscar Wilde, 19th c. Irish playwright and poet
The five month long journey into Japan’s northern interior, a trip that one day will become Oku no Hosomichi is over. Matsuo Basho will now spend his time editing his notes and haiku. A restful trip to Lake Biwa and the Ishiyama temple breaks up the monotony. Students still seek his advice.
don’t copy me, like the second half of a split melon!
我に似るなふたつに割れし真桑瓜 ware ni niru na futatsu ni wareshi makuwauri
Matsuo Basho, Summer, 1690
makuwa uri 真桑瓜, a sweet melon like a musk melon or cantaloupe.
Ecclesiastics says, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” And English teachers say, “It has all been said, it is how you say it that makes the difference.”
Isn’t it ironic, a translator saying, “don’t copy me.”
The candy’s gone. A little sadness, some melancholy, descends on one the day after Halloween night. A beautiful moonlit evening, houses decorated gaily, neighbors wondering if they have enough candy, kids in costumes, smiling, politely asking for candy.
“Trick or treat.”
But night turns into day
The parents safely tucked the younger children in bed by eight. The older children walked the streets til late. Now, they are back in school, or they slept in, suffering from a tummy ache.
The falling leaves, a moonlit night, costumed kids, all so polite, “trick or treat” its so much fun, until the candy’s gone — Halloween
Bashō no yōna, 2022
The 12th century poet Saigyō Hōshi (西行法師) wrote this short poem after a fruitless day of cherry blossom viewing and hazy night and moon watching. In the best Buddhist tradition, turning a negative thought into one that is positive. Teaching us that on the morning after Halloween, sadness can be sweet.
花散らで月は曇らぬ世なりせば物を思はぬわが身ならまし hana chirade / tsuki wa kumoran / yo nariseba / mono o omowan / waga mi naramashi
Were it not for falling blossoms and a cloudy moon, in such a world I could not feel this sadness
Eine Welt ohne Zerstreuen von Blüten und ohne Bewölken des Mondes, würde mich meiner Melancholie berauben
le monde sans fleurs qui tombent et une lune assombrie vole moi ma mélancolie
Late in the day, much too late, the wife and I were hiking a short trail outside Crested Butte, past the ghost town of Gothic. The trail marker said half mile to Judd Falls. A Japanese couple returning from the hike to Judd Falls said hello. And in that strange language that people from different cultures try to talk, told us it was getting dark and too far. As we would learn, they were right, the sign was wrong. Judd Falls was much further and darkness fell as we walked.
The hike, the mountain, the golden Aspen, the falls, the friendly Japanese couple, all reminded me of Basho’s many walks.
A morning walk beside the creek A heavenly breeze, the rising sun Here comes the heat!
Bashō no yōna, August 2022
On the Today show, Al Roker points to a map covered in RED on the weather map. Record Heat. The days and weeks are full of sun, it’s been months since it was cool. An early morning walk with the dogs inspires Bashō no yōna’s poor attempt at haiku.
Now, two haiku by Matsuo Basho written in early 1694. The subject, the early blooming Plum Blossom. A literary respite from the summer heat.
Fragrant plumfills the air And the rising sun on A mountain path!
梅が香にのつと日の出る山路かな ume ga ka ni notto hi no deru yamaji kana
Plum Blossom Scent, (Ume ga Ka, 梅が香), Spring 1694
Was the snow still falling? Was it bitterly cold? Did the birds sing when the sun rose?
Note. In the early spring of Matsuo Basho’s last year, he and Shida Yaba 志太野坡 composed a haiku sequence (renga) that came to be called Ume ga Ka (Plum Blossom Scent). Ume, 梅 (plum), the five petals symbolize the Five Blessings: old age, wealth, health, virtue, and a peaceful death.
梅が香に昔の一字あはれなり ume ga ka ni mukashi no ichiji aware nari
The fragrant plum, The days of old, That nothing last — ’tis a pity.
Matsuo Basho, February 1694
Note. This second haiku addressed to his student Baigan 梅丸 who had recently lost his son. Ume ga ka, the fragrant plum. Ni, a participle indicating movement or direction. Mukashi, the days of old, the past. No, acts as an indicator of possession. Ichiji. a reference to life’s impermanence. Aware, a pity, something that’s sad. Nari indicates that the emotion follows quickly.
A plum blossom fades all too soon, and so does life. Matsuo Basho died later that year.
Ladybug, Ladybug A bug with a house and wings to boot — so cute
Bashō no yōna, August 2022
Note. In Japanese, ladybug is tentou-mushi, テントウムシ. That seems a mouthful, but not when you learn it literally means “a bug with a house.”
Last night my wife and I watched Bullet Train starring Brad Pitt and Hiroyuki Sanada among others. Brad Pitt stars as Ladybug, an unlucky snatch and grab artist, and Hiroyuki Sanada as the Elder, an aging Japanese martial artist/mobster who is trying to protect his grandson and simultaneously seek revenge against the nefarious White Death, who has brought together a cast of bad characters on a Japanese Bullet Train.
In the penultimate scene, Elder (Sanada) explains “Ladybug” to Pitt, saying the bug is not unlucky. It captures all the bad luck in the world under its shell to protect the rest of the world.
Ladybug, Ladybug Bring me some luck Fly, faraway home
Bashō no yōna, August 2022
Basho on Bugs
Matsuo Basho has no ladybug haiku. Ain’t that’s a shame.
But he did write about cicadas, butterfly, dragonflies, silkworms, lightening bugs, grasshoppers and crickets.
Trivia. In Bullet Train the train is going from Tokyo to Kyoto. The route is known as the Tōkaidō Road, formerly a walking path Basho took many times. The Bullet Train takes about 140 minutes to go from place to place. The move ran 126 minutes.
It snowed last night, several inches, which is unusual in southern Kansas. Snow, snow, snow, let it snow, we used to say as kids, hoping that school would be cancelled, which is what happened today, February, o2, 2022.
Or 2/2/22, a palindrome date.
Looky, looky, looky Yuki, yuki, yuki We’re playing hooky
Bashō no yōna, February 2, 2022
Note. Hooky, skipping school without permission. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn often played hooky.
Basho on Snow and Winter
From the book Oi no kobumi, Winter 1687-8:
いざ行かむ 雪見にころぶ 所まで Iza yukan / yukimi ni korobu / tokoro made
Let’s go out And see the snow Until we slip and fall.
Matsuo Basho, Oi no kobumi, Winter 1687-8
A child grow up and the snow is not his friend. Still, snow on Mt. Fuji is a thing of beauty.
冬の日や馬上に氷る影法師 fuyu no hi ya / bashō ni kōru / kagebōshi
A winter’s day me and my shadow frozen on horseback
一尾根はしぐるる雲か 富士の雪 hito one wa / shigururu kumo ka / Fuji no yuki
over the ridge Winter showers is there’s snow on Mount Fuji?
Matsuo Basho, Oi no kobumi, early Winter 1687-8
Oi no kobumi
In English, Notes from my Knapsack, or BackpackNotes, 笈の小文, October 25, 1687 to June 1688. Matsuo Basho was 44 when he began this round-Robin trip, reciting verse, from Edo to Iga, then Nagoya, to the grand Ise shrine, and from Nara to Otsu, and home again. Like a child going to school he carried a knapsack, oi 笈, usually made of bamboo.
Snow on Mt. Fuji
There are many translations of Matsuo Basho’s haiku. Not surprisingly they do not all agree. Many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, said Robert Burns. In our case, between pen, the word, and the ear.
In the last haiku, being away form Edo, I suspect Matsuo was wondering if the snow had yet appeared at Mt. Fuji. In late fall, snow flurries make their first appearance at Mount Fuji. And, typically, Fuji is snow-capped five months out of the year. Traveling by horse over the hills in a winter storm, wondering is there snow on Mt. Fuji. This question arises because the character か, ka appears prior to snow on Mt. Fuji (shigururu kumo ka / Fuji no yuki).
At this moment, in the Winter of 2022, a snow storm is crossing much of the eastern United States from Boston to Norfolk. Here in the Midwest, the sky is spectacularly clear, China blue, but bitterly cold. While chattering birds look down from the trees above, scampering squirrels hunt for food in my garden.
Matsuo would ask, do birds and squirrels feel the cold, I wonder?
一時雨礫や降つて小石川 hito shigure/ tsubute ya futte/ Koishikawa
at this moment, it is sleeting and hailstones are falling all about, at Koishikawa
Matsuo Basho, 延宝5年, the 5th year of the Enpo era, Edo, 1678-9
To which, Bashō no yōna says:
All about me, it’s sleeting I’m freezing, only thinking Fame is fleeting
Bashō no yōna, Wichita, January 2022
To which Matsuo replies:
So is life
Edo, Winter, 1678-9
Matsuo had arrived in Edo, in 1675, seeking fame and fortune as a haiku master. He resided near Edo’s glitzy Nihonbashi District, a country boy in the big city which Edo was becoming. And he was variously employed, making ends meet, while honing his poetic skills. By the winter of 1678-9, he had achieved some recognition.
An admirer of Buddhism, Matsuo would be thinking, fame does not come to all, to those who are lucky, fame is fleeting, for we are only here for a short while — yi shi, 一時.
Fame was in the Future
Matsuo had not, however, taken on the pen-name Matsuo Basho. This would occur after 1680, when he moved to the Fukagawa District of Edo and lived in a simple cottage beside a banana tree given to him by a student. Not had Matsuo taken his journey to the northern interior, which would give him lasting fame in the posthumous publication of Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道).
For was, now, simply living in the moment, yi shi, 一時.
Notes on Translation
Hito, 一時, Chinese, yi shi, meaning at this time, for the moment, not necessarily a concrete moment, a spiritual one; also a Buddhist term for a period in which one chants a sūtra.
Shigure, 雨, a freezing rain, drizzle, sleet, referring to the rainy season in late fall and early winter.
Futte, 降つて, falling about. Matsuo is also implying that he is about to experience a change of fortunes, either for good or bad.
Koishikawa, a place in Edo (Tokyo), a well known garden constructed in the early Edo period, possessing a view of Mt. Fuji. Koishikawa, meaning small river pebble. Basho’s haiku is a play on words with hail as the small pebble. It is also a Buddhist observation of the insignificance of one moment and one man in the eternity of time and space. Matsuo, at this time was engaged in work on an aqueduct, which may explain the connection with the construction of the garden.
Bashō no yōna admires Matsuo Basho’s haiku, but can’t seem to find any haiku on the subject of squirrels or robins. That is a pity as I have an old oak tree in my backyard that has been home to a family of squirrels for as long as I have lived here. And I suppose for many generations before since the tree is well over one hundred years old.
From the tall oak, coppery leaves hang and acorns fall, gathered by squirrels for cold days ahead
Bashō no yōna, Winter, January 2022
Often we can go a week or so without rain in Kansas. So, dozens of chattering robins gathered in my yard after I watered the lawn and filled the birdbath. Perched on the side of the birdbath, each robin, 駒鳥 politely dips its beak into the water and raises its head. I am reminded of the Japanese custom of bowing in respect and emotion, ojigi, お辞儀.
Robins at a birdbath Bobbing heads and drinking, Saying: Arigato
Oz, the author of this blog, is on I-35, driving north to Kansas City. Although it is December, there is a strong southerly wind. (Appropriately so, for Kansas is a Native American word meaning People of the South Wind.) Taking advantage of the wind, cars and trucks speed along on the turnpike like prairie schooners pushed west by the wind.
Strong winds are not unusual in Kansas. A south wind in December is.
the shaggy grass like a buffalo herd galloping along
Bashō no yōna, The Flint Hills, December 2021, the hills were once covered in buffalo
The Flint Hills cover north central Oklahoma and central Kansas. They are part of the prairie region of the United States that stretch from Texas to Canada. Because of the rocky soil and limited rainfall on the Flint Hills the prairie grass is shorter except along the rivers and creeks and the lowlands where the tall grass takes over. This area was once the favorite feeding grounds of the American Bison, which we call buffalo. From Spring to Winter, the buffalo roamed the plains, feeding on the massive herds which covered the hills for miles, and numbered in the tens of millions. The Native American Indians who survived on the buffalo, the Osage, the Kansas, the Sioux, the Cheyenne, the Kiowa and others, hunted the beast by horse back and on foot, and could not lessen the numbers of buffalo. Only the arrival of the White Man and the rifle and the railroad, and the farmer who claimed the grass destroyed the millions of buffalo that once roamed the Flint Hills.
The turnpike heads northeast where the deer and the antelope once played. The wolves that fed on the buffalo are gone. The antelope too. The deer remain in the woodlands.
Following a grey car on a gray windy day, flying along like an antelope
Bashō no yōna, The Flint Hills, December 2021
It is difficult if not impossible to capture the image grass waving in the wind, of the different grasses — Big bluestem, Indiangrass, Little bluestem, and Switchgrass, all of which grow on the Flint Hills. In December, the green chlorophyll has all faded away. What remains are a golden yellow and red. The hills are mostly treeless except along the creek beds. There the dark brown trees now shorn of leaves seem naked against the steel gray sky.
Shiwasu, 師走 is the Japanese word for the 12th lunar month.
The waving Indiangrass was golden red — Shiwasu
Bashō no yōna,
Listen to the wind — Nature’s voice
Bashō no yōna, December 2021, remembering Rachel Carson
In the Cretaceous era (145 to 66 million years ago), the central part of the United States was an inland sea.
The vast Flint Hills an inland sea of waving grass
Bashō no yōna, December 2021
Willa Cather gave the best descriptions of the Flint Hills in My Antonia.
The red prairie grass Like wine-stains On a golden cloth
Willa Cather, My Antonia
Years pass on the Flint Hills and not much changes. This past autumn, I drove through Red Cloud, Nebraska where Willa Cather grew up. It is a farming community and not much has changed since Willa lived there.
“The windy springs and the blazing summers, one after another”
Willa Cather, My Antonia
Cather’s full text:
“The windy springs and the blazing summers, one after another, had enriched and mellowed that flat tableland; all the human effort that had gone into it was coming back in long, sweeping lines of fertility. The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea. I recognized every tree and sandbank and rugged draw. I found that I remembered the conformation of the land as one remembers the modelling of human faces.”
But I am not sure that all the changes are in harmony with Nature.
In his famous travelogue, Oku no Hosomichi, Matsuo Basho spoke of the passing of time:
The months and days are the travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.
Oku no Hosomichi, Matsuo Basho, introduction, 1689