My wife and I were driving from Wichita to Dallas for a Mother’s Day Weekend with our daughter. A little more than half way, past Davis, where one enters the Arbuckle Mountains, we stopped to let the dog stretch her legs beside the clear creek. Then, as we were about to leave my wife spotted the sign saying Fried Mountain Pies at a rustic drive up cafe. A half dozen cars and a couple of men carrying brown paper bags told us all that we needed to know.
One was enough for two she said. Sharing is caring I thought.
There is not much to this poem. There need not be. Or is there?
‘Parting is such sweet sorrow‘ Juliet said. Or as the Buddha says, ‘Au wa wakare no hajimari.’ ‘Meeting is the beginning ofparting‘.
A parting begins a journey
Inspired by a warm breeze and a passing cloud, in the late spring of 1689, Matsuo Basho sold his few possession, closed the door to his cottage, and, along with Sora his traveling companion, headed north on what would become a journey of nine months. This trip would eventually become a book that would make Basho famous, Oku no Hosomichi, 奥の細道, meaning “Narrow road to the interior” or “Pathways to the Interior” or something similar. But since 奥 , Oku can also imply one’s heart, it implies an inner search for meaning, a spiritual quest to find one’s true feelings. But that lay ahead.
Basho was dressed in a peasant’s bamboo hat, as protection from the sun and rain. He wore white breeches that came to mid-calf, a blue tunic, and leather sandals, that he would later decorate with spring flowers. Basho, it is said, rode on a small horse, for he is pictured as such, but it is more likely he walked. The horse was a pack horse or a donkey, the kind we associate with prospectors. It carried Basho’s few provisions, a raincoat, a sleeping bag, some money, although, Basho hoped to live off the kindness of those he met along the way for his fame was now well known throughout Japan. Sora walked beside him.
Their trip began with farewells and the chatter of neighborhood children who were no doubt envious of the adventurous travelers. Perhaps, Basho was thinking partings are beginnings, new meetings, new friends.
Of sweet fish and salty fish
For this haiku, Basho chose the Ayu, 鮎 for the children. The Ayu, the small Sweetfish, we might liken to Silverfish, who swim about in schools when the sun appears or large predator fish chase them. Basho and Sora are the old fish, Sakana, 魚, or white fish, quite common. Basho, having had some reservations about the dangers of the trip, perhaps alluded to his becoming bait for bandits.
Sakana is a generic Japanese word for fish, usually salted and served with sake.
As I said, there is not much to this haiku, or is there? “A parting is not an ending but a beginning,” says Bashō no yōna, to those who look forward and not backwards.
別れは終わりではなく始まりです Wakare wa owaride wanaku hajimaridesu
What do we make of this strange haiku where a cuckoo stains a fish? Was Basho in Osaka eating ahi tuna when he had an insight?
The cuckoo is a popular subject in Japanese literature. Matsuo Basho begins no less than eleven haikus with the word hototogisu, 時鳥. Terebess, page 45.
the cuckoo is paired with katsuo, the skipjack tuna or bonito. We might think of it as ahi tuna, served fresh and raw, but ahi is a larger species than the skipjack. Can it be, the far ranging cuckoo with its bright red mouth has stained the tuna bright red?
Perhaps, but there is another story.
It is a Japanese short poem, known to Basho, that illustrates the virtues of patience. One day three Samurai, Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu, got together and saw a cuckoo in a tree that wouldn’t sing. Nobunaga said, “If it doesn’t sing I’ll kill it.” But Hideyoshi said, “No; I’ll convince it to sing”; finally, Ieyasu said, “I’ll wait until it sings”.
Nobunga was regarded as the first “Great Unifier” of Japan. Hideyoshi succeeded him. Hideyoshi, it seems, had a passion for gold, and covered Osaka Castle with gold leaf and roof ornaments in the form of a mythical ocean fish. Ieyasu, biding his time, defeated Hideyoshi and became the first shōgun of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Katsuo can also be read to mean “man who wins.” Hototogisu katsuo, means “the cuckoo wins.” Thus, the patient Ieyasu killed the “fish”.
I am one
Who eats his breakfast
Gazing at morning glories
朝顔に 我は飯食ふ 男かな
asagao ni / ware wa meshi kû / otoko kana
Being Matsuo Bashō
Takarai Kikaku (宝井其角, 1661–1707) was one among the most accomplished disciples of Matsuo Bashō. One day, Kikaku composed a haiku, “by the grassy gate, a firefly eats nettles – that is what I am”.
A firefly lights up the night. Basho thought about this and concluded. I am a serious kind, like the asagao (morning glories), I open by day and wither at night. Each to his own. Thus, he composed this intentionally plain haiku.
Both haikus are clever reworkings of the Japanese proverb – “Some worms eat nettles”: Tade kuu mushi, or “every worm to his taste, some eat nettles”. Figuratively, each to his own, or there is no accounting for taste.
蓼食う虫も好き好き tade kuu mushi sukizuki
Notes on translation
Basho’s play on words, meshi kû, and the proverb’s, kuu mushi. The Japanese character 虫 mushi is broadly speaking a bug or insect. My guess is that the proverb refers to nettle eating caterpillars.
In line with Kikaku’s haiku, one could and possibly should translate as,
Watching morning glories, eating rice cakes – that is who I am
朝顔に asago ni, “gazing” at morning glories is a poetic choice, Basho could also have been “sitting”, “watching” or simply being “surrounded by” the flower. It is a Zen thing – to be or do.