The Season is Winter

Toki Wa Fuyu

時は冬.” Toki wa fuyu, the season is winter. How cold is it? On cold winter days, it is not just me, even my shadow is frozen.


fuyu no hi ya bajō ni kōru kagebōshi

these cold winter days
on horseback
— my shadow is frozen

Matsuo Basho, Oi no kobumi, Winter 1687

On the Tokaido

From Oi no kobumi, on the Tokaido, en route to Cape Irago, riding on a particularly long stretch between snow covered fields and the bitterly cold sea. Things on Basho’s mind include things from the past — Saigyo’s waka, Sogi’s renga, Sesshu’s landscape painting, and Rikyu’s Way of the Tea; those and the bitter cold.

One of the reasons for reading Basho’s haiku is that they give us “an alternative possibility of being.” (Jane Hirshfield, Seeing Through Words: Matsuo Bashō, interpreting Oi no kobumi)

Notes on Translation

Tokaido – the eastern coastal sea route from Edo to Kyoto. The 19th century artist Utagawa Hiroshige painted the 53 stations of the Tokaido.

Fuyu no hi – winter day, on cold winter days, fuyu no hi ya, where ya is added for emphasis.

Koru – frozen; Kageboshi – shadow

Hiroshige, Man on horseback in snow (original image Wikipedia)

Matsuo Basho at Kasajima

The First of May, 1689

Going to Kasajima –
How much of this fifth month
On this muddy road?

Kasajima wa izuko satsuki no nukari michi


In the footsteps of Matsuo Basho

For no particular reason other than, now in the year 2020, it is the fifth month, May (五月 satsuki). It has been raining steadily here. The park where I walk the dogs is full of muddy paths (ぬかり nukari). The going is difficult. Mud cakes my shoes, making the walk arduous and slow.

So, let us join Matsuo Basho on his Journey North.

Basho had hoped to visit the burial site of Lord Sanekata of the Fujiwara family in Medeshima-Shiote. From Okido, and its Barrier-gate, to Medeshima-Shiote was about 30 miles and one could reasonably cover that distance in a little more than ten hours. It was not to happen, for the rain made the path impossible, and he would only make it to Iwanuma, about 20 miles short of his goal.

In the words of Matsuo Basho:

“The first day of the fifth month passed. I stopped at Iizuka and took shelter at an inn, a filthy place with rough straw mats spread out on the earth. I could not get a wink of sleep for the storm that came upon us at midnight.
The next day I rode on horse back towards Kori, and arrived at the barrier-gate of Okido in Date

Passing through the castle towns of Abumizuri and Shiroishi, I arrived in Kasajima Province, where I asked the way to the mound of Lord Sanekata of the Fujiwara family. I was told that I must turn right in the direction of the villages of Minowa and Kasajima visible at the foot of the mountains in the distance, and that the mound was still there by the side of a shrine, buried in deep grass. I wanted to go that way, of course, but the muddy road after the early rain of the wet season and my own weakness stopped me. The names of the two villages were so befitting to the wet season with their echoes of raincoat and umbrella that I wrote:”



Cape Irago – Iragosaki

A solitary hawk
I am happy to find
Cape Irago

鷹一    つ見付てうれし   いらご崎

taka hitotsu / mitsukete ureshi / Iragosaki

Cape Irago Iragosaki, hawk flying


On the 25th day of the tenth moon, Matsuo Bashō, now 43 years old, is ready to set out on another journey. This time he would travel south and west, to the regions of Iga (his boyhood home), Ise, Aichi and Nagoya, Yoshina, Nara, and Suma.

The account, called Oi No Kobumi (Knapsack Journals), would not be published until 15 years after his death.

From Nagoya it is 70 miles or so to the Atami peninsula, and another 30 miles down the promontory to Cape Irago. Today, the peninsula is home to the Mikawa-Wan Quasi National Park, and some of Japan’s most beautiful sandy coastlines and spectacular Pacific Ocean views (above image Google Maps).

The meeting

Bashō was going to meet Tsuboi Tokoku (坪井杜国), who had been exiled for financial speculations, from Nagoya to the rocky promontory. Hobi (Hobicho) the tiny village where Tokoku lived was a mile or two from the end point on the cape. One can picture a tired Bashō standing at the very tip of the cape, spotting a hawk circling above, when happily Tokoku appears.

Tokoku would die three years later while Bashō was still compiling the memories of his journey.

The meaning

Poetry by its nature is ambiguous and capable of different interpretations. This is even more true of haiku, which often intends to surprise. Tokoku could have been the solitary hawk that Basho was in search of. Or, it could have been that Basho was the hawk, happy to find Tokoku. This seems to me the more likely interpretation. After the meeting, Tokoku would join Basho for part of Basho’s journey.

It is a stretch, not a long one, and perhaps just coincidence, but I wonder if the Iragosaki is a play on words with Irago and Sake, rice wine. Various sources allude to Tokoku’s financial speculations as a grain merchant. Perhaps it involved Sake.

Notes on translation

Taka hitotsu. A combination of taka , meaning hawk; and hitosu 一, meaning one or solitary.

Mitsukete ureshi  つ見付てうれし, a combination of the verb mitsuke, to find, and and adjective/adverb ureshi, happy, happily

Iragosaki いらご崎, Cape Irago,  Iragomisaki, 伊良湖岬. Saki translates to rough, or cape.


Many Sources including:

World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-modern Era, Volume 1, By Donald Keene, giving an account of Bashō’s relationship with Tsuboi Tokoku.

WKD – Matsuo Basho Archives, gives Tokuko’s age as 34 at the time of his death. It explains that he was a grain merchant in Nagoya, before his financial disgrace, moving to the tiny village of Hobi (Hobicho),  on the Akami peninsula.