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


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


kakitsubata – an iris
brings to mind
a hokku

kakitsubata ware ni hokku no omoi ari


Japan's most renowned iris painting is Kakitsubata-zu by Ogata Korin (1658-1716), in the Nezu Museum in Tokyo.


It is the fall and the iris blossoms though long gone, still bring to mind the memory of my grandmother, for it too was her favorite flower. For Matsuo Basho, flowers were an inspiration and he wrote of the kakitsubata, the blue water iris, at least three times. This one in 1685, following the death of his mother in 1683.

Basho’s haiku is based on the eighth century hokku and Noh play of Ariwara no Narihira.

In the play, a traveling monk seeing iris blossoms on the bank of a stream approaches to admire their beauty. It is strange to him how the flowers are incapable of knowing their own beauty. A young woman watching him studying the flowers approaches him. This place is called Yatsuhashi, she says, and it is famous for its irises. When he asks if they have been the subject of a poem, she tells him of the poet Ariwara no Narihira of the Heien Period who composed the poem, “Just as a karakoromo robe comfortably fits my body after wearing it a long time, I comfortably fit my wife. Alas, I came east, leaving her behind in Kyoto. It is heartbreaking to be so far apart.”

By 1685, Basho has become a tabi no kokoro 旅の心 literally “traveling heart”. His mother died in 1683 and the following year he left Edo on one of his first wanderings. In 1685, the year of this haiku, he presumably visited the famous Yatsuhashi Kakitsubata Gardens, which reminded him of the poet Ariwara no Narihira, who wrote a hokku (an introductory poem) and a Noh play based on the flower. The play is set in early summer, near Yatsuhashi (Eight bridges) in Mikawa Province, present Aichi Prefecture.

Kakitsubata, the hokku

Kakitsubata is a hidden word (the first two characters in the five lines) in the acrostic hokku (poem) by Ariwara no Narihira from Tales of Ise.


kit-sutsu narenishi
tsu-ma shi areba
ha (ba)-rubaru kinuru
ta-bi o shi zo omou

Notes on translation

Kakitsubata (Chinese, 杜若, Japanese, かきつばた) – one of three Japanese species of iris, is found along waterways and is usually purple or blue in color. In English it is sometimes translated as “rabbit-eared iris”. The kakitsubata is cultivate in the Yatsuhashi Kakitsubata Garden (八橋かきつばた園) at the Muryojuji Temple. It is also the place where Japanese poet Ariwara no Narihira was inspired to write his verse.

Hokku, 発句 – the opening stanza of a series of collaborative linked poems, renga.

Wind in the Pine

The wind in the pines
The falling leaves
Cool is the water’s sound

Like the wind that sighs in the pines
Like the leaves that rustle and fall
Refreshing is the water’s sound

matsukaze no ochiba ka mizu no oto suzushi

松風の   落葉か水の音   涼し

Autumn 1684

His mother died the year before. Then, in the autumn of 1684, Matsuo Basho took up the first of his major wanderings that would become the basis of his travelogues, a collection of haiku and commentaries about his journey. The trip took him from Edo to Mount Fuji, to Kyoto, where he had studied as a young man, and finally to Ueno, his mother’s grave and home.

With a simple walking stick and a backpack containing pen and paper, he set off, traveling on average 20 miles a day, resting underneath a shady willow beside a stream when he wanted, sleeping amid the flowers when alone, lingering awhile when he encountered friends.

Passing Osaka and Kobe, Basho descends from the hills that surround Suma Bay. A cool wind stirs in the pine trees, the white sandy beach stretch out before him. It is fall and so the red and yellow leaves of the deciduous trees rustle and begin to fall. All along Osaka Bay, the waves gently lap the shore. Even after his day’s journey, Basho feels refreshed.

One word describes the scene – Suzushi, 涼し. It is cool and refreshing, the feeling is unconcerned, at peace. No doubt the scene brings to mind a a scene from a Noh play  – Matsukaze, the brine woman who pines for her lover.

In the year 1684, his fame as a haiku poet established, Matsuo Basho, now in his fourth decade, left Edo on a trip that would take him to to Mount Fuji, Nagoya, Ueno (his home), Kyoto (where he was a student), and Osaka, and Kobe. One assumes from the above haiku, to nearby Suma Beach, which is associated with the Noh play, Matsukaze.


Matsukaze (Pining Wind, Wind in the Pines) is a well-known Noh play by by Kan’ami, revised by Zeami Motokiyo. Matsukaze and Murasame (Autumn Rain) are two sisters who ladled brine to make salt by the sandy shore of Suma. The story is about long lost love and heartbreak. Love grown cold.

Notes on Translation

I find sonorous, the sounds matsu and mizu; no ochiba and no oto. Suzushi is an example of onomatopoeia, it sounds like it means.

松風, Matsukaze is a combination of , matsu, pine, and , kaze, wind. Pine may be the noun as in pine tree, or the verb, as in to pine for a long lost lover. Kaze, wind, is probably familiar to those who have heard of kamikaze, divine wind.

落葉, Ochiba, falling leaves place the haiku in autumn, the seasonal word.

水, Mizu, is water; 涼し, suzushi, cool, refreshing.


Basho’s New Year Haiku

monkey on motorcycle in front of nuclear plant

Year after year, the monkey wears a monkey’s mask

Year after year, a monkey dons a monkey face

Toshi doshi ya
saru ni kisetaru
saru no men

年々や     猿に着せたる      猿の面

monkey on motorcycle in front of nuclear plant

1693 – 23 months to go

[Revised January 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.