Oku no Hosomichi – The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Put aside the haiku.

Let us pause on our journey with the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō. Let us try to understand why one leaves home to make a perilous journey on a route one knows to be infested robbers and cut-throats. It is a journey to the north of Japan, taken in the late spring of 1689 with his traveling companion Kawai Sora and a donkey for provisions. The journey on foot would take approximately 5 months, 156 days to be exact, covering some 1,500 miles.

Basho’s home was not much. A small cottage underneath a banana tree in the Fukagawa neighborhood across the Sumida River from Japan’s capital city, Edo. That alone might be the cause of his curiosity. For the world is large, and it has many lessons to teach.

But let our peripatetic poet speak for himself.

The days and months are travelers of a hundred generations, like the years that come and go. Some pass their lives afloat on boats, or face old age closely leading horses by the bridle.  Their journey is life, journeying is home. And many are the old men who meet their end upon the road.

How long ago, I wonder, did I see a drifting cloud borne away upon the wind, that ceaseless dreams of wanderlust aroused? Only last year, I had been wandering along the coasts and bays; and in the autumn, I swept away the cobwebs from my tumbledown hut on the banks of the Sumida and soon afterwards saw the old year out.

But when the spring mists rose up into the sky, the gods of desire possessed me, and burned my mind with longing to go beyond the barrier at Shirakawa. The spirits of the road beckoned. I could not concentrate.

So, I patched up my trousers, put new cords in my straw hat, and strengthened my knees with moxa. A vision of the moon at Matsushima was already in my mind. I sold my hut and wrote this just before moving to a cottage owned by Sampū:

“Even this grass hut could for the new owner be a festive house of dolls!”

This was the first of an eight verse sequence, which I left hanging on a post inside the hut.

Original Japanese

月日は百代の過客にして行かふ年も又旅人也。舟の上に生涯をうかべ、馬の口とらえて老をむかふる物は日々旅にして旅を栖とす。古人も多く旅に死せるあり。予もいづれの年よりか片雲の風にさそはれて、漂白の思ひやまず、海濱にさすらへ、去年の秋江上の破屋に蜘の古巣をはらひてやゝ年も暮、春立る霞の空に白川の関こえんと、そゞろ神の物につきて心をくるはせ、道祖神のまねきにあひて、取もの手につかず。もゝ引の破をつゞり、笠の緒付かえて、三里に灸すゆるより、松嶋の月先心にかゝりて、住る方は人に譲り、杉風が別墅に移るに、草の戸も住替る代ぞひなの家面八句を庵の柱に懸置。

Japanese caligraphy

Summer Grass 夏草 natsuka

summer grass
all that remains
of a Samurai’s dream

夏草や 兵どもが 夢の跡

Natsukusa ya/ Tsuwamonodomo ga/ Yume no ato

battle

June 29, 1689

Having left Edo in late spring of 1689, Matsuo Basho and Sora travel north, arriving at Hiraizumi on June 29th.  Once the seat of the Northern branch of the Fujiwara family, it was destroyed in 1189. As the poet gazes down at the old battlefield, he hears in his head the words of the ancient Chinese poet Du Fu and explains:

“In the space of a dream, three glorious generations of Fujiwara vanished; two miles in the distance are the remains of the Great Gate. Hidehira’s headquarters have turned into rice paddies and wild fields. Only Kinkeizan, the Golden Fowl Hill, remains as it once was.

First, we climbed Takadachi, Castle-on-the-Heights, from where we could see the Kitakami, a broad river that flows from the south. Nearby, Koromo River rounds Izumi Castle and at a point beneath Castle-on-the-Heights, it drops into Kitakami. The ancient ruins of Yasuhira and others, lying behind Koromo Barrier, appear to close off the southern entrance and guard against the Ainu barbarians.

With his most loyal retainers, Yoshitsune fortified himself in the castle, but his dreams of glory quickly turned to grass.

“The state is destroyed, / rivers and hills remain. / The city walls return to spring, / grasses and trees are green. “

With Du Fu’s lines in my head, I lay down my bamboo hat and let time and tears flow.”

Notes on translation

夏草 natsuka, summer grass

兵 tsuwamono, warrior, soldier, more specifically a brave and strong soldier, a Samurai 侍 which Basho once was. Basho’s use of the older term 兵 tsuwamono, is suggestive of a lowly soldier or pawn, someone utilized by others

夢の跡 yume no ato, the trace, mark of a dream. Compare Basho’s idea with William Shakespeare’s “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on.” (The Tempest, 1610/1611)

More thoughts on Basho’s Summer Grass

The grass of summer
And warriors’ dreams
Are all that’s left.

The grass of summer, the only trace of a Samurai’s dreams

Summer grass! All that left of a Samurai’s dream.

samurai helmet

In the morning calm

In the morning calm
Only the sound of the rock
And the voice of the cicada

閑けさや 岩にしみいる 蝉の声

shizukasa ya / iwa ni shimiiru / semi no koe

china-hungshan

Journey to the Deep North, Summer of 1689

The clouds were drifting along, and the wind stirred a wanderlust.

Thus it was that Matsuo Bashō decided in the spring of 1689 to journey to Japan’s north. By summer, Matsuo Bashō arrived at the Ryushakuji Buddhist temple on Yamadera (山寺 literally, Mountain Temple), northeast of Yamagata in Japan’s far north.

In his travel diary, Basho explains:

“In Yamagata province, there is a temple called Ryushakuji, founded by the great priest Jikaku. This temple is known for the absolute tranquility of its holy grounds…. The rocks on which the temple is built bear the color of eternity. They are covered with tender moss. The shrine doors are firmly barred and not a sound can be heard. As I move on hands and feet from rock to rock, bowing at each shrine, the purifying power of this sanctuary pervades my being.”

Sibilance

One guesses, I suppose, that Matsuo Basho tries to imitate the cicada’s shrill sound through the technique of sibilance,  shizukasaya / iwa nishimiiru / semi no koe.

I will also propose paraphrased variations inspired by other translators (one example and another one). So, you can decide what works best for you. All of which proves to me, if not to you, that the no haiku is perfect.

In the utter silence
Of the temple grounds,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks

In the quiet
The shrill sound of cicadas
Seeps into the rocks

tree moss

Notes on translation

閑 kan, peace, calm
けさ kesa, this morning
や ya, and

岩 iwa, rock
み mi, only

蝉 semi, cicada
の no, of
声 koe, voice

yamadura mountain temple