By Night or Day

Haikus are a different way of seeing things, a microcosm of a larger idea, of an emotion or feeling, a postage stamp or a postcard that takes us on a journey by night or day.

We are not leaving Matsuo Basho for good, we are merely taking a sojourn to a hillside in England where the poet William Wordsworth wandered over the hills of Grasmere with his fellow poet, Samuel Coleridge. I have restructured Wordsworth’s famous poem in set of three lines similar to a haiku renga.

From Odes on Intimations of Immortality:

By night or day,
The things which I have seen
I now can see no more…

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us,
our life’s Star, …

Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Not in entire forgetfulness,
          And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come …

Shades of the prison-house
begin to close
    Upon the growing Boy,

But he beholds the light,
and whence it flows,
  He sees it in his joy …

William Wordsworth, Odes on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, 1804

It was a customary practice of Japanese monks, Samurai, and poets to write a poem at the moment of their death. In late fall of 1694, Basho suffered his final illness. Although he did not use the word “dying,” I have included it as this is considered his death poem. Tabi ni yume wa, literally, on a trip, and falling ill. A dream, an incorporeal body, wandering a withered field is a reference to the Noh plays popular in Edo when Basho arrived there as a young man.

旅に病んで 夢は枯野を かけ廻る
tabi ni yande yume wa kareno wo kakemeguru

Sick and dying on my journey
my dreams ever wandering
on this withered field

Matsuo Basho, Death Haiku, 1694

Spirit World

Here’s a foolish notion —
The spirit world is like
An autumn evening

guanzuru ni meido mo kaku ya aki no kure

Matsuo Tōsei (Basho), Autumn 1680

Edo, 1680

By 1680, Matsuo Basho was teaching twenty disciples, living in Edo, but contemplating a move out of the city. He was not yet Basho, but Tōsei, a peach that has yet to ripen.

Translating, as usual, is not so easy.

Guanzuru ni, 愚案 may be both a foolish notion and a humble opinion. On a cool autumn evening listening to the birds, feeling the breeze, watching the setting sun, perhaps with a glass of wine, Matsuo Basho comes up with the notion that the netherworld, that of the spirits where the dead go (meido, 冥土), can be described as (kaku, かく) something like this.

Not to be feared, shadowy for sure, but on the whole, quite nice.

meido mo kaku ya

Wish You Were Here

two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl
year after year
how I wish you were here

Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here

On the occasion of the final illness and imminent death of Toin, Matsuo Basho’s nephew, Basho wrote a letter to his friend and disciple Torin. It was spring, Toin was slowly dying of tuberculosis. But the cherry trees were in full blossom.

Basho took Toin to see cherry blossoms one last time. He was happy at the sight of the fleeting beauty.

Torin came to Basho’s Fukagawa hut and sat up with Toin as he lay dying. After Toin’s death, Basho and Kyosho, another friend, made the trip to Basho’s home to deliver the news. Kyoriku made the journey as far as the Kiso Valley, leaving Basho alone.

Basho wrote two haiku on the occasion of the trip with Kyoriku — two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl.

The Heart of a Traveler

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


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?


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.


  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.

Autumn, How Will it End?

1694, Genroku 7, on the 21st day of the ninth lunar month

An Autumn evening (sigh)
Breaking down
How will it end – (an angry) talk?

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Translators, like Nick Carraway’s character in The Great Gatsby, never totally agreeing, trying to make sense of Matsuo Basho’s haiku. This however provides hours of fun and never-ending chatter, for when it comes to the sense of a poem, in Zen, there is no right or wrong.

How will it end – In pleasant chat or angry talk?

Three alternative translations

In the autumn night,
Breaking into
A pleasant chat

Matsuo Basho’s Autumn haiku poems

this autumn night
brought to naught
by our storytelling

WKD Haiku Topics

Autumn’s night
Struck and shattered
By a genial conversation

Basho’s Haiku by Jeroen van Zanten

How Will it End

Context provides clarity.

1694 – Basho is traveling again for the last time, going from the house of one friend to another. In the year 1694 (Genroku 7, on the 21st day of the ninth lunar month), shortly before his death, he arrives at the home of Shioe Shayo in Osaka. Old friends gathering, reciting haiku, and talking of the olden days.

One month later, on the 12th day of the tenth lunar month, he peacefully passed away.

Notes on Translation

秋の夜を 打ち崩したる 咄かな
Aki no yo wo/ Uchikuzushitaru/ Hanashi kana

Line one. 秋の夜 を Akinoyo wo, An Autumn night. The final character imparts the idea of a sigh or emphasis.

Line two. 打ち崩したる Uchikuzushitaru, most translation agree that this conveys the meaning “breaking down into”. I imagine an evening that began as a Renga party where a group of poets each contributed a verse under the direction of a renga master, Matuso Basho. Each verse a haiku that contained three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. Eventually all games come to an end, breaking down into congenial chatter and sometimes anger.

Line three. 咄かな Hanashi kana. Basho leaves us with a bit of a mystery. After three centuries, Hanashi comes down to us as a talk, a story and a chat. But the character when repeated becomes a loud voice (onomatopoeia), especially in an angry way; like tut-tut or tsk-tsk. The final two characters かな kana express wonder.

If the evening ended in anger and disagreement, I imagine Basho sitting there, a bit groggy from the wine, shaking his head, sadly thinking, this is how it ends. Thankfully, I am in the minority on this point of view. A month later, on his death bed, Basho is pictured, at peace, surrounded by friends.

Saru o Kiku Hito

You who hears the monkey cry…



From “Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field” –  Matsuo Basho left Edo with man named Chiri as a companion and aide, on a trip in the eighth month of 1684. He had barely begun his journey, when, crossing the Fuji River, he heard the wail of a small child.

“I was walking along the Fuji River when I saw an abandoned child (捨子, sutego, foundling), barely two, pitifully weeping. Had his parents been unable to endure this floating world, wave-tossed as these rapids, and so left him here to wait out a life, brief as the dew? He seemed like a bush clover in autumn’s wind (秋の風, aki no kase, autumn wind)that might scatter in the evening or wither in the morning.

I tossed him some food from my sleeve and said in passing:

Hearing the monkey’s howl,
Or an abandoned child’s crying in the autumn wind
– Which is worse?

You, who listens to the monkey’s cry,
What of the abandoned child
Weeping in the Autumn Wind?

Basho consoles himself we these words:

Why did this happen? Were you hated by your father, neglected by your mother? Your father did not hate you, your mother did not neglect you. This simply is from heaven, and you can only grieve over your fate.

Not a flattering picture.

To me, Basho comes across as uncaring, but what is a poet to do? Especially one who follows the tenets of Buddhism. But then, did not Buddha say, “However many holy words you read or speak, what good do they do if you do not act on upon them?” (A paraphrase of verses 19 and 20 from the Dhammapada.)

Pinyin and Japanese

saru o kiku hito sutego ni aki no kaze ika ni

猿を聞く人 捨子に秋の風いかに


A world turned upside down

withered and bowed
a world upside down,
as bamboo to snow

shiore fusu ya yo wa sakasama no yuki no take

萎れ伏 すや世はさかさまの 雪の竹


Bashō’s Early Haiku

In 1666, after the death of his samurai master, Matsuo Bashō, age 24, moved to Kyoto to study haiku. That winter Bashō visited the home of a young couple whose child had died. Bowing in respect, he entered, and saw the parents’ tear-streaked faces.

The scene reminded Basho of a Nōh play by Zeami Motokiyo (c. 1363 – c. 1443), Take no Yuki, Snow on Bamboo. In the play, a father rids himself of his wife for a “trifling” reason. He sends his daughter to live with he mother and keeps his son to be the heir to his fortune, and takes a new wife. When the father goes on a pilgrimage, the step-mother sends her step-son into a bamboo grove and the freezing snow. He dies, but the gods, moved by the grief of his father and real mother, bring him back to life.

In the play, Tsukiwaka, the young boy, is given these lines just before he dies:

The wind stabbed him, and the night wore on,
The snow grew hard with ice, he could not brush away.
“I will go back,” he thought, and pushed at the barred gate.
“Open!” he cried, and pounded with his frozen hands.
No one heard him, his blows made no sound.
“Oh the cold, the cold! I cannot bear.
Help, help Tsukiwaka!”
Never did the wind blow more wildly!

Notes on Translation

Shiore fusu, 萎れ伏 , withered and bent down.  , fusu, bowing down, a mark of respect Bashō gave the grieving couple on entering their home.

Sakasama, 逆さま, literally upside down, inverted; yo wa, 世は, the world, but a word play on being unsteady or tipsy.

Yuki no Take, 雪の竹, snow to bamboo

The 325th Anniversary of Matsuo Bashō’s Death

November 28, 2019

He was not old by Japanese standards of the 17th century. The Tokugawa shogunate had established peace and tranquility throughout the land. One could expect live to a Biblically allotted time span of 70 years.

But Matsuo Bashō died young, at the age of 50, perhaps worn out by his many travels, the journeys that made him famous.

In this early death, he resembled other famous writers including the Chinese Tang dynasty poet Du Fu, who died at 58; English playwright, William Shakespeare, who died at the age of 52;  or the American poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, who also died at the age of 58. She, explaining in a poem the nearness of death, wrote that:

My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends – it gives a lovely light!

Bashō’s Final Journey

Today, November 28, 1694, marks the 325th anniversary of the death of Japan’s greatest haiku poet, Matsuo Bashō. He must of anticipated his death for he made a final  journey home in the fall of 1694. Having spent time in Ueno, his birthplace, and Kyoto, where he spent time as a student,  he arrived in Osaka, where he took ill.

One final haiku:

Stricken on my journey
My dreams will wander about
On withered fields of grass

Tabi ni yande/ Yume wa kareno wo/ Kakemeguru
旅に病んで 夢は枯野を かけ廻る

Bashō’s Final Illness

The news of his illness had spread to friends and students. And they gathered around his bed as his spirit left to wander this world. The image was one that was familiar to Basho, for he had often attended the Noh (能) theaters in Edo and, no doubt, in Kyoto where he learned the art of haiku as a student. Noh theater is a peculiar Japanese art form, popularized by Zeami Motokiyo, that includes only male actors who wear masks to represent emotions and typecast figures. Noh drama includes music, physical expression, and dance. The stories often relate to dreams, supernatural worlds, ghosts and spirits.

Life is a lying dream, he only wakes who casts the world aside.
Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443).

Bashō’s Dream

In an earlier haiku (June 29, 1689), Bashō alluded to a well-known Samurai figure, Minamoto no Yoshitsune who was treacherously killed in battle by the last Fujiwara lord, and the subject of a Noh play,

summer grass
and a warrior’s dreams
are what remains
natsukusa ya/ tsuwamono domo ga/ yume no ato
夏草や   兵どもが   夢の跡


Bashō’s Burial

Matsuo Bashō wanted companionship on his wanderings in the spirit world; and in accordance with his last wishes, his body was taken to Gichuji Temple, near the banks of Lake Biwa, where he was buried next to the famed Samurai Minamoto no Yoshinaka.

Yasuraka ni nemuru

Rest in peace!


Autumn Wind – aki kaze

東西    あはれさひとつ      秋の風

higashi nishi  / aware sa hitotsu / aki  no kaze

From East to West
Oh, the Feeling is One
Autumn Wind

(Autumn wind – a cold, biting wind often indicating change)

Ejiri in Suruga Province, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, by Katsushika Hokusai, 1830-1832, Travelers are shown walkimg along a path on the Tōkaidō highway, the route between Edo and Kyoto, a route Basho often used going to Kyoto or traveling to his hometown in Ueno.
original image Metropolitan Art

Autumn 1688

[A repeat post.]

Autumn 1688. On hearing of the death of Mukai Chine, 向井千子, the younger sister of his disciple Mukai Kyorai, 向井去来, Matsuo Basho wrote this melancholy thought. Mukai Chine, who wrote under the name Chiyo, 千代 (meaning a long time, not to be confused with Fukuda Chiyo-ni), was also a poet. She died in her mid-twenties. 

Lost in Translation

Bashō’s introductory greeting, “higashi nishi,” alludes to the traditional greeting made to the audience in Kabuki theater, “Tozai, tozai,” meaning “Welcome everyone!“. The word tozai is a combination of “to” meaning east, and “zai” meaning west.

Higashi is Edo, the eastern capital where Basho likely heard the news. Nishi is Kyoto, the western capital, where Mukai Kyorai lived. Kyoto is home to two Buddhist temples, Nishi Hongan-ji  and Nishi Hongan-ji. It is also a possible reference to Nagasaki, where Kyorai and Mukai Chine were born and where Mukai Chine lived with her husband.

What is lost in translation is the unspeakable grief one feels at the death of a dear one.

Aware sa hitosu, meaning one feeling, that feeling being compassion, grief, solace, etc. Aware is a term that is untranslatable in any language. The sorrow we feel at the death of a close friend. Personally, for me, it recalls James Taylor’s song Fire and Rain, of cold winds that blow and turn your head around.

Aki no kaze, an autumn wind characterized by coldness and loneliness. In Western literature, this is similar to a reference to a North Wind, which also signifies change. Literary references abound including the the movie Chocolat (2000), about a woman and her daughter whom, accompanied by a cold North Wind, come to an uptight French town to open a sweet shop. Japanese readers are familiar with the term Kamikaze, a Divine Wind, which foiled a Mongol invasion of Japan in the late summer of 1281.

Autumn’s End – aki no kure

Like a crow landed
on a withered branch
autumn ends

a withered branch
a perched crow
autumn ends

kare eda ni
karasu no tomarikeri
aki no kure

枯朶に   烏 のとまりけり   秋の暮

crow on a withered branch basho

Autumn of 1680*

At least six of Matsuo Bashō’s haiku contain the phrase aki no kure. And of those that can be dated, they bear a date that falls within the last 10 days of the 9th lunar month (thus, the end of autumn). These haiku are thus a contemporaneous accounting of the poet’s feelings at that time of year.

This well-known haiku was written in the autumn of 1680. Bashō had left Edo and just moved to Fukagawa on the east bank of the Sumida River, to escape the city’s din and the bright lights of Nihonbashi, the theater district. Basho is now 36 years old and has 14 years of life before his death.

In Asian countries, there is a festival celebrated on the 9th day of the 9th lunar month. As the number nine in Japan is yang, this is double yang, thus, an inauspicious date. In Japan, the festival is known as Chōyō or as the Chrysanthemum Festival. The festival wishes for a long life and observed by drinking chrysanthemum sake.

Matsuo Bashō’s haiku adds a dose of reality to the frivolity.

Notes on translation

kare eda ni may mean both a withered branch or a leafless branch. The haiku’s imagery is similar to  William Butler Yeats’ “tattered coat upon a stick”.

Karasu no tomarikeri, Basho’s crow karasu has come to rest for the moment.

Aki no kure, a familiar kigo phrase signifying the end of autumn, and winter’s approach.


As this is one of Basho’s oft repeated haiku there are many sources and interpretations.

A Crow on a Bare Branch by Elin Sütiste, a scholarly comparison of translations.

A Crow on a Withered Branch, my own prior post on the same haiku.

*Another source dates the haiku to the spring of 1681.


Tang dynasty Chinese poet, Zhang Ji, Mooring at Night by Maple Bridge

The moon sets, crows weep, and frost fills the sky.
In the maple trees by the riverside, the lights of a fishing boat, a troubled sleep.
At Gusu city, Hanshan Temple

William Shakespeare’s description of Autumn in Sonnet 73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.