Inochi — Life

Inochi, , life or fate, the meaning depends on the context and one’s age.

In the Spring of 1672, our poet, Tosei, (meaning unripe peach, he was not yet named Basho) moved to Edo to further study haiku.

inochi koso / imo dane yo mata / kyō no tsuki

Life is like
sweet potatoes
under a harvest moon

Matsuo Basho, Autumn 1672

Existence, both from the point of view of Zen Buddhism and the Tao, is being aware of your place in Nature. By the summer of 1675, Matsuo has gained a following, publishing his own haiku under different names, including Tosei, or “Green Peach,” in deference to the Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty, Li Bai, “White Plum.”

inochi nari / wazuka no kasa no / shita suzumi

to be alive
under the shade of my hat
enjoying the coolness

Matsuo Basho, Summer 1675

In the beauty of Spring, Tosei wrote this giddy haiku based on a Japanese proverb that eating a “first thing,” like a bonito or an eggplant, will extend your life 75 “days” (hi day; hodo , year):

hatsu hana ni / inochi shichi jū / go nen hodo

first blossoms
extending life
seventy-five years

Matsuo Basho, Spring 1678

A decade has passed. Our green peach has ripened into Matsuo Basho. Looking back:

inochi futatsu no / naka ni ikitaru / sakura kana

brings two lives together
the cherry blossoms!

Matsuo Basho, Spring 1685

Note. I suppose one could also chose to say, “two lives brought together by cherry blossoms.” The occasion was Basho’s chance meeting, with an old friend, Hattori Dohō (服部土芳), twenty years having passed.

Ah, the hanging bridge at Kiso
where life is entwined
with ivy vines

kakehashi ya / inochi o / tsuta kazura

Matsuo Basho, Sarashina kikō, Autumn, 1688
inochi futatsu no naka ni ikitaru sakura kana

Basho’s New Year Haiku

monkey on motorcycle in front of nuclear plant

William Shakespeare, Basho’s near contemporary, thought of theater as life, and life as theater: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” (As You Like It, 1603). Matsuo Basho too, was fond of theater, in particular Noh theater in which the main players wore masks to represent emotions. For Basho, the year 1694, the play comes to an end.

年々や     猿に着せたる      猿の面

Toshi doshi ya/ saru ni kisetaru/ saru no men

Year after year, it’s a monkey in a monkey’s mask
— Matsuo Basho, December 1693

monkey on motorcycle in front of nuclear plant

1693 – 23 months to go

[Revised January 2020, revised December 2020]

1693 has ended, 1694 has arrived. In Buddhism, there is no self in any being, nor any essence in any thing. Still a monkey still wears a monkey face.

Toshi doshi, year after year. If we count by the Gregorian calendar, Matsuo Basho had 23 months to live when he wrote this haiku. If we count by the lunar calendar which Basho followed, then it was less. Remember, in 17th century Japan, New Year was based on a lunar calendar. It was the first day of spring, and the rebirth of life after winter’s slumber.

The end of 1693, we find Matsuo Basho, age 49, back in his familiar Banana Hut (bashoan), in the Fukagawa District across the Sumida River from Edo. In August he takes no visitors. The year 1694 arrives and he finds “no peace of mind”.

Of this haiku Basho remarked:

“I jotted down this haiku because I was sad to see people stuck, struggling in the same way, year in and year out.”

Notes on Translation

Toshi doshi, 年々や, year after year. Basho would repeat this sentiment in another haiku.

Toshi doshi ya / sakura o koyasu / hana no chiri.
Year after year, falling blossoms nourish the cherry tree.
Spring, 1691.

Saru no men, 猿の面, could easily be translated as monkey face or mask. The phrase is phonetically similar to the idiomatic saru mane, 猿真似, “monkey imitation,” “monkey see monkey do”.

Noh Theater and Sarugaku

In Noh Theater masks expressed human emotions and a monkey mask represented someone acting foolishly. Sarugaku, 猿楽, “monkey music” was also a popular form of entertainment consisting of acrobatics, juggling, and pantomime, sometimes combined with drum dancing, later including word play reminiscent of Basho’s own haiku.


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!


Matsuo Bashō’s Death Haiku

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

sick on my journey,
my dreams go wandering
on this withered field

Matsuo Basho, Death Haiku, 1694

The Death of Matsuo Bashō

The end came abruptly in November of 1694.

Bashō had left Edo (Tokyo) for the last time in the summer of 1694, spending time in Ueno, his birthplace, and Kyoto, where he studied as a youth, then arriving in Osaka, where he had many friends and disciples when an old familiar stomach illness came back.

It is said that Basho delivered this haiku on his deathbed to 60 of his disciples who had gathered to say a final goodbye. Four days later, he died, age 50.

Fittingly, this was to be his final haiku.

Lake Biwa, Otsu on the western shore, artist Hiroshige, ca. 1835, The Met

Burial in Otsu

Pursuant to his last wishes, his disciples took his body to Otsu, next to beautiful Lake Biwa. And he was buried at the Buddhist temple of Gichū-ji. This temple was dedicated to Minamoto no Yoshinaka, a general of the Minamoto clan. Yoshinka was killed by his cousins at the Battle of Awazu in 1184. According to a play in the Theater of (Noh), his spirit wanders about.

If Basho’s spirit wanders about Lake Biwa, it is fitting for he often visited this area.

Notes on translation

Tabi ni yande 旅に病んで,  sick on my journey; tabi 旅, meaning trip, travel, or journey

Yume wa kareno wo 夢は枯野を,  “like dreams on a withered field”. A second interpretation – the dream withers or dies on this field. Basho juxtaposes differing interpretations of death. In one scenario. life is extinguished and the dream dies. In the second, as in the Theater of , the spirit of the deceased wanders about.

Basho had the second idea in mind as he had discussed with his friends his wish to be buried near Yoshinaka, who was killed in battle, and was himself the subject of a play in the Theater of Nō where his spirit wandered about.

Kakemeguru かけ廻る, to run or rush about.

East West 東西 higashi nishi

East or west
Just one melancholy thing –
Autumn wind.

東西 あはれさひとつ 秋の風
higashi nishi / aware sa hitotsu / aki no kaze


Explanation of Basho’s haiku

East and west, it is all the same sorrow when one so young dies so soon.

Basho lived in Fukagawa, Edo (the East Capital), and his disciple Mukai Kyorai 向井去来 in Kyoto (the West Capital). In the summer of 1686, Kyorai and his younger sister Chine went on a journey to the Ise shrine.

They kept a journal, the Ise Journal* that begins:

“The sun hot yet wind cool on our heads,
I take my younger sister on a pilgrimage to Ise.”

Chine replied:

“Until Ise
such good companions,
morning geese.”

Chine died two years later at the young age of 25 on the 15th day of the 5th lunar month.

She wrote a final haiku:

Easily glows and easily goes a firefly
moe yasuku mata kie yasuki hotaru kana

In tribute, Basho wrote his haiku in the eighth lunar month.

Notes on translation

あはれさひとつ aware sa hitotsu could also be translated as “our sorrow is the same”

East or west / our sorrow’s the same / an autumn wind

An autumn wind (秋の風 aki no kaze) is understandably melancholy, summer is over and winter near. In another haiku, Basho references the Autumn Wind – Shake even the grave, My wailing is the autumn wind, 塚も動け我が泣聲は 秋の風, tsuka mo ugoke waga naku koe wa aki no kaze.

Americans and Japanese of the World War II generation are, no doubt familiar with the term Kamikaze, 神風, “divine wind” or “spirit wind”. The historically ancient term Kamikase refers to the 13th century wind that saved Japan from a Mongol invasion.

*Kyorai’s Ise Journal, Ise Kiko. See also the well-written post The Life and Death of Chine, by Writers in Kyoto .

a village without bells

a village where no bells ring: what, no way to tell it is dusk in spring


in a village without bells, how do they mark the end of spring?

kane tsukanu sato wa nani o ka haru no kure

I hope to come back to this haiku, yet, as Robert Frost said, ‘knowing how way leads on to way, I doubt I ever could.’ What, a village without bells, no way in ‘hell’ to find my way back again.


haru, spring, but also vitality; liveliness; energy; life
lust; lustfulness; passion; sexual desire
kure, this character has several meanings including: evening; dusk; late sunset; closing of the day.

In old Japanese haru no kure  may mean the end of spring



Like a cloud in the wind

like clouds in the wind
a wild goose and his friend


like a cloud in the wind
like a wildgoose and his friend
life departs


kumo to hedatsu tomo ka ya kari no ikiwakare

Descending Geese at Katata, Eight Views of Ömi Province, 1957, Utagawa Hiroshige
Geese descending at Katata on Lake Biwa by Utagawa Hiroshige, 18th c.

Master Basho explains

A summer’s day near Lake Biwa, the clouds drift by and at sunset the wildgeese descend to the lake. Master Basho and his friend watch the setting sun. “Look at the cloud in the wind, like a wild-goose from the flock, my friend we all too soon depart.”

Lake Biwa

Matsuo Bashō had several connections with Lake Biwa and the surrounding area. He was born in nearby, in Iga Province, and may have studied in nearby Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital. Basho is know to have visited Lake Biwa in 1684 and again during the summer of 1690, enjoying the scenic views, the wild life, and nearby temples.

Basho departed this world in November of 1690.

Notes on translation

雲 kumo, cloud
雁 kari, wildgoose
や ya, kana word used to connect wildgoose and friend
友 tomo, friend, companion
生 yǒu, life
別れ wakare, farewell, depart

lake biwa, japan