Autumn Gales

Banana tree in a fierce autumn gale
I wonder if I can hear
Rain in the tub, tonight!

Bashō nowaki shite
Tarai ni ame o
Kiku yo kana

芭蕉  野分   して盥に雨を聞く夜哉

Autumn 1681

In the winter of 1680 Bashō moved  from central Edo across the Sumida River to the rural Fukagawa district. His patrons and disciples had prepared a cottage with a thatched roof for him in the midst of a grove of banana trees. In the spring of 1681, one disciple gave him a house warming gift, a new banana plant (Bashō, hence the name Bashō-an).

Away from the distractions of Edo, Bashō had more time to collect his thoughts and compose haiku.

Summer came, and then fall, and with fall the fierce storms and typhoons that strike Japan every year.

Bashō’s Explanation

A sleepless Basho composed the above haiku. Alone, he was wondering if he could withstand the night. Bashō’s explanatory notes provide some insight:

Sleeping alone in a thatched hut

The elder Du (Fu) wrote a poem about a thatched hut blowing (tearing) in the wind. Then the old man Su Shi wrote verse about a leaking cottage. Now I listen to their rain pounding my banana leaves, lying alone in my thatched cottage.

Du Fu is a poet of the Tang dynasty, much admired by Basho. The poem he refers to is Song of My Cottage Unroofed By an Autumn Gale. Du Fu’s poem is much longer, and more involved, but it begins much like Basho’s haiku:

“In the eighth month, autumn’s fierce winds angrily howl,
And sweep three layers of thatch from off my home.
The straw flies over the river, and scatters,
Some hangs high up in the tree,
Some floats down and sinks in the ditch…”

Some three centuries later, Su Shi of the Song dynasty composed a poem with a similar thought, “My thatched roof torn by the autumn wind…”

banana-trees

 

seken no aki o sakaichō

A rainy day
This autumn world
Sakai town

雨の日や世間の秋を堺町

Ame no hi ya seken no aki o sakaichō

Utagawa Hiroshige, White Rain on the Nihon Bridge

[Utagawa Hiroshige, White Rain on the Nihon Bridge, 1838, credit, Yale Art Museum]

A Rainy Day in Autumn, 1678

“…seken no aki o sakaichō”

It sounds good to the ear even when you don’t know Japanese.

It is 1678, Matsuo Bashō, age 35, is living in Edo (Tokyo) in Nihonbashi, Edo’s city center . He is part of the Japanese literary society composing haikai no renga, comical linked verse (now shortened to haiku).

Two years from now, Bashō will move across the Sumida River to the then rural and unconnected by a bridge  Fukagawa District. The bridge would come soon and Bashō would write a haiku about its construction. It would be nine more years until Matsuo Bashō and his traveling companion, Kawai Sora, would make their celebrated journey Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道), Journey to the Narrow North.

For now, Bashō is taking in all that Edo has to offer.

By the 17th century, the population in Edo (Tokyo) numbers in the neighborhood of 150,000 people. Along the western edge of the Sumida River, Edo’s theaters and playhouses are being built, mingling with houses of prostitution, with a mixture of tea-houses and Geisha-houses, where conversations with poets and actors are the main attraction.

Of course, they serve sushi and sake in Sakaichō.

It must have been a sensational sight, walking shoulder to shoulder, even in the soaking rain.

Ame no hi ya, seken no aki o sakaichō.

sakai-cho-color

[Kabuki Theaters at Sakai-cho, Opening Day of the New Season (Sakai-cho Shibai no Zu), artist Utagawa Hiroshige, 1838, credit, Metropolitan Museum of Art.]

Notes on Japanese translation

雨の日, ame no hi, rainy days
世間 seken, world, society
aki, autumn

Station 24 – Dewagoe

Fleas and lice,
A horse pissing
Close to my pillow.

蚤虱  馬の尿する  枕もと

nomi shirami/ uma no shito suru/ makura moto  

It is now 330 years since Matuso Basho and his companion Saro left on their journey north. They departed on May 16, 1689 and the two now find themselves close to the northernmost end of their journey, having just left Hiraizumi.

From Iwate to Shitomae

Leaving Hiraizumi and the Fujiwara clan behind, Basho and Saro proceeded some 50 miles north to Iwate, then west to Shitomae (尿前) where they stayed for three days.

The nights proved fitful, much like the stay at Iizuka where the fleas and mosquitoes were relentless and sleep impossible. To this torture, add the stench of a urinating horse. Originally, Basho had intended to go further north to Nanbu (南部町) in Yamanashi Prefecture where the Nanbu clan (南部氏 Nanbu-shi) ruled most of northeastern Honshū for over 700 years. Rain and difficulties would change his mind.

The journey towards the west and Shitomae took them towards Dewa Province and the western coast of Japan. The route would be treacherous. On the road to Dewa, Basho and Sora had to cross Kofukazawa River by climbing down a steep gorge through hairpin turns. In summer, when Matsuo Basho and Sora crossed the river they had to negotiate six treacherous bends to climb down and up the rocky gorge.

Basho explains:

Station 24 – Dewagoe

“Turning away from the high road leading to Nambu (Nanbu) Province, I came to the village of Iwate, where I stopped overnight. The next day I looked at the Cape of Oguro and the tiny island of Mizu, both in a river, and arrived by way of Naruko hot springs at the barrier-gate of Shitomae (Shitomae no seki 尿前の関) which blocked the entrance to the province of Dewa. The gate-keepers were extremely suspicious, for very few travelers dared to pass this difficult road under normal circumstances. I was admitted after  a long wait, and darkness overtook me while I was climbing a huge hill. I put up at a gate-keeper’s house which I was very lucky to find in such a lonely place. A storm came upon us and I was held up for three days.

Bitten by fleas and lice,
I slept in a bed,
A horse constantly pissing
Close to my pillow.

According to the gate-keeper there was a huge body of mountains obstructing my way to the province of Dewa, and the road was terribly uncertain. So I decided to hire a guide. The gate-keeper was kind enough to find me a young man of tremendous physique, who walked in front of me with a curved sword strapped to his waist and a stick of oak gripped firmly in his hand. I myself followed him, afraid of what might happen on the way. What the gate-keeper had told me turned out to be true. The mountains were so thickly covered with foliage and the air underneath was so hushed that I felt as if I were groping my way in the dead of night. There was not even the cry of a single bird to be heard, and the wind seemed to breathe out black soot through every rift in the hanging clouds. I pushed my way through thick undergrowth of bamboo, crossing many streams and stumbling over many rocks, till at last I arrived at the village of Mogami after much shedding of cold sweat. My guide congratulated me by saying that I was indeed fortunate to have crossed the mountains in safety, for accidents of some sort had always happened on his past trips. I thanked him sincerely and parted from him. However, fear lingered in my mind some time after that.”

Written on the 17th day of the 5th lunar month at Shitomae, which literally means “before the urine” or vulgarly, “in front of pissing”. Matsuo Basho Archives, Gabi Greve, 15/11/2012.

The Road North

horse-urinating

Rainy Day 雨の日

Rainy day, falling into the world, Sakai town
雨の日  や世間の秋を  堺町
ame no hi / ya seken no aki o / sakai-chō

Matsuo Bashō, age 35, autumn 1678

By the autumn of 1678, Matsuo Basho had been living in central Edo (Tokyo) for six years and had published several haiku anthologies. He was, one imagines, having to deal with what fame brings.

Sakai-chô

It was a rainy day. Basho decided to go to the Kabuki Theater District in Sakai-chô. What strange sights greeted him, stranger sights still awaited him when he entered the theater.

Ya seken no aki o / sakai-chō

Seken (世間) refers to the ancient Sanskrit loka (secular world), first borrowed by the Chinese then Japanese. Falling in and falling out, one might say, between reality and fantasy, theater or life itself, who is to say which is more real?

Kabuki Theater

Kabuki 歌舞伎 comes from the verb kabuku, meaning “to slant or to sway.” The colorful costumes suggest a world out of the ordinary.

Okumura-Masanobu-1686–1764
Okumura-Masanobu, c. 1745, Kabuki Theater District in Sakai-chô and Fukiya-chô,
Boston Museum Fine Arts

Fukagawa

Bright lights and theater are not compatible with the life of a poet.

In 1780, Basho moved across the Sumida River to the Fukagawa District. There, a benefactor provided him with a simple house. The next year a disciple gives him a banana plant (basho-an).

He plants it and thereafter called himself Bashō, 芭蕉 .