Ishi no maki

June 29, 1689

After dreamy Matsushima, Matsuo Basho and Sora are off to Hiyoriyama, home to the lost glory of the Fujiwara clan.

But before that it is Ishinomaki. By some accounts, station 22 on the Oku no Hosomichi, Matsuo Basho’s best known travelogue, in English, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Journalists and historians write what they remember, poets dream.

Basho recalls that he and Sora had taken a path used only by woodcutters and hunters and had gotten lost on their way to Hiraizumi. The path was difficult and somehow they got ost. Then on a hilltop at Hiyoriyama, in the midst of colorfully blooming azaleas, they were able to see a bird’s eye view of the port city of Ishinomaki.

Sora says in his journal that they were never lost.

Basho says it was the 12th day (十二日) of the fifth lunar month, June 29 by today’s reckoning.

From Oku No Hosomichi:

石の巻

十二日、平和泉と心ざし、あねはの松緒だえの橋など聞傳て、人跡稀に雉兎蒭ぜうの往かふ道、そこともわかず、終に路ふみたがえて石の巻といふ湊に出。こがね花咲とよみて奉たる金花山海上に見わたし、数百の廻船入江につどひ、人家地をあらそひて、竃の煙立つゞけたり。思ひがけず斯る所にも来れる哉と、宿からんとすれど、更に宿かす人なし。漸まどしき小家に一夜をあかして、明れば又しらぬ道まよひ行。袖のわたり尾ぶちの牧まのゝ萱はらなどよそめにみて、遥なる堤を行。心細き長沼にそふて、戸伊摩と云所に一宿して、平泉に到る。其間廿余里ほどゝおぼゆ

Ishinomaki

From the hilltop at Hiyoriyama, Basho saw “hundreds of ships, large and small, entering the harbor, and the smoke rising from countless homes that thronged the shore.”

Chance brought him to this village. Tired from his arduous trip, longing for a comfortable place to stay, but no one offered him any hospitality. A search produced a miserable house and an uneasy night.

Hoping never to see Ishinomaki again, Basho and Sora set off the next morning on a difficult two day journey to their destination, the small village of Hiraizumi.

Hiraizumi, 平和泉, its very name means the village of Peace and Harmony, a place of gardens and Buddhist temples centered on the idea of Peace in a Perfect World. That it was not easy to find, would call to mind the following story.

Peach Blossom Spring

Peach Blossom Spring, Tao Yuanming (陶淵明), written in 421.

It is the story of a chance discovery of an imaginary place where, for centuries, villagers have live in harmony, unaware of the outside world. In Tao Yuanming’s story, a fisherman sails on a stream in a forest of blossoming peach trees, where even the ground is covered by peach petals. At the source of the stream is a grotto. Though narrow, he can squeeze through and this passage leads to an undiscovered village.

The villagers are surprised to see an outsider, but they are friendly and kind. They set out wine and chicken for a feast and explain that their ancestors came here to escape the war and unrest during the troubles in the age of Ch’in (2nd c. BC), living in peace ever since. The fisherman stays for a week.

Leaving, he marks his route, but can never discover the village again.

The 21st Century Wanderer

Who has not dreamed of a place somewhere over the rainbow where blue birds sing, of a Brigadoon or Shangri-la, a lost Atlantis? Reality, sadly, often shows us life can be, a frightening Brave New World. And if not frightening, then mundane, until we are once again surprised.

Utopias are the dreams of novelists, philosophers and poets. And it is okay to dream.

Prospero:

Our revels now are ended.
These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air: And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
We are such stuff As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158
Cherry blossoms on a branch

Basho departs

Bashō’s parting haiku is playful in which even the wildlife in the local market is moved by the sadness of separation.

行く春や鳥啼き魚の目は涙
yuku haru ya tori naki uo no me wa namida
spring is passing –birds are crying and the eyes of fish are filling with tears

Matsuo Basho, May 1689

Spring is Passing

Yaku Haru, 行く春, spring is passing, や, ya is added for emphasis to express sorrow.

Bashō started walking 333 years ago today (May 16), leaving from Senju (now Kita-Senju) on a journey that would become the basis of his famous travelogue, Oku no hosomichi, Travel to the Northern Interior. After leaving his home and traveling with friends by boat up the Sumida River, it was time to say farewell to friends.

Note. Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道), translated as The Narrow Road to the Deep North or the Northern Interior. Hosomichi is literally narrow path, what we might call the back roads in America. Oku is literally the interior, although Basho spent much of his route on both the eastern and western shores of Japan. The book was published in 1702 after Basho’s death.

Haru – Spring

Haru, is the Japanese word for Spring.

It is everyone’s favorite season. The willow trees are turning green, the cherry trees blossom, and the birds sing their joyful songs. Let us compare several Spring haiku written decades apart.

Spring budding, 春のつぼみ, harunotsubomi

Haru kaze, 春風

First, 1668, the poet, simply known as Matsuo Munefusa, age 24.

春風に吹き出し笑ふ花もがな
haru kaze ni / fukidashi warau / hana mogana
A Spring breeze is blowing
I’m bursting with laughter
— wishing for flowers

Matsuo Basho, Spring, 1668

Next, Matsuo Basho, now three decades old, has changed from a joyous expectation to a mournful recognition of the passing seasons. Names must have been on his mind. In 1680, he was known as Tosei, the unripe peach. By now, 1684, he had gained a following in Edo. He had moved from the city-center to the more rural Fukagawa District, taken up residence in a simple cottage. A banana plant (Basho) was given to him as a housewarming gift, and this was the inspiration for his new name Matsuo Basho.

春なれや名もなき山の薄霞
haru nare ya / na mo naki yama no / usugasumi
Is it already Spring?
In these nameless mountains
And misty haze

Matsuo Basho, Nozarashi kikō, Spring, 1685

I have included the following (undated) haiku because it speaks of sakura, cherry blossoms, the one true sign of Spring. In Edo (Tokyo), Basho often went to the temple grounds of both Ueno and Asakusa to enjoy the cherry blossoms. Likewise, around Japan and on Lake Biwa there are spectacular displays of the popular spring blossom.

春の夜は桜に明けてしまひけり
haru no yo wa / sakura ni akete / shimai keri
This Spring Night
Ending with dawn
And cherry blossoms

Matsuo Basho, Spring, date unknown

Harusame, 春雨

The following haiku reminds one of Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s “Into each life some rain must fall.”

Spring 1694, Matsuo Basho, now 51 years old, has returned to his cottage in the Fukagawa District in Edo. Basho wonders what he has to look forward to. Little does he know, it is his last spring. Matsuo Basho will die in November of 1694.

春雨や蜂の巣つたふ屋根の漏り
harusame ya / hachi no su tsutau / yane no mori
Spring rain
Dripping from a wasp nest
And a leaky roof

Matsuo Basho, Spring, 1694

Ukuraina ni heiwa o

The world over one experiences Spring with reverence, with hope for new beginnings, for peace the world over.

For Peace in Ukraine.

ウクライナに平和を.

Birds, busily singing
When, the sun, gloriously rising,
Ah, then, suddenly silent

Bashō no yōna, March, 2022
Bird and Cherry Blossom, III, Hiroshige, 八重桜に鳥, 広重

Baby Sparrow

Sparrow child, Suzume noko

Kobayashi Issa, 小林一茶, (1763 -1828) followed in the footsteps of Matsuo Basho.

雀の子 そこのけそこのけ お馬が通る
Suzume noko/ Sokonoke sokonoke/ Ouma ga tooru

Baby sparrow,
Step aside,
My horse is passing by

The Spring of My Life, Kobayashi Issa, 1819

Version two

Sparrow’s child
Retreat, retreat
Here comes a horse

The Spring of My Life, Kobayashi Issa, 1819

Issa’s Meaning

Step aside.

The internal rhyme alliteration and repetition, Suzume noko, Sokonoke sokonoke, “child, retreat, retreat,” appeal to child and adult alike. That retreat sounds like “tweet” is a bonus for English readers. Issa’s tender haiku advises one to care for the very, very weak.

But, it also serves as a warning — when the big one speaks, little ones should scatter and not be seen. A horse, of course, the all-powerful Shogun.

Baby birds

The Gift

A gift becomes his name — 松尾 芭蕉, Matsuo Basho.

ばしょう植ゑてまづ憎む荻の二葉哉
bashō uete / mazu nikumu/ ogi no futaba kana

Planting this banana,
Now I hate
Sprouting Silvergrass

Matsuo Basho, Fukagawa, Basho-an, Spring 1681
Silvergrass, Ogi, Miscanthus

[Previously translated]

A Simple Gift

No gift had a greater impact on Matsuo Basho than the giving of a banana plant by his disciple Rika. Indeed, when he was given this gift in the spring of 1681, Matsuo was not yet Basho, a word that means banana plant in English. The occasion of the gift giving was Matsuo’s move from central Edo south across the Sumida River to the rural Fukagawa District.

The basho plant (芭蕉) was a housewarming gift.

The ogi, 荻 which once grew profusely near Matsuo’s cottage, dwarfing his tiny banana tree, had now become a threat to his new banana plant. The Latin name of the ogi is Miscanthus sacchariflorus, better known in a nursery as Amur silvergrass, that flowers in the fall and keeps its silvery silhouette throughout the winter.

As the banana plant thrived, Basho’s cottage would become known as Basho’an.

Becoming Basho

I can think of three reasons why Matsuo would choose Basho as his pen name. First, he was then writing under the name Tosei, meaning an unripe peach. Matsuo had by this time mastered much of what there was to learn about haiku, so it was time to become something more substantial.

A banana plant is anything but substantial, and that is probably what Matsuo liked most about this plant. Its broad leaves blew in the wind, and in a storm, they were often torn. Moreover, this particular banana did not produce fruit. It was decorative.

An artist’s view of himself or herself in society.

Finally, I will add this — the banana originated in China, in Sichuan to be more precise. And Matsuo owed a debt to his Chinese counterparts, the poets of the Tang dynasty like Li Bai and Bai Juyi.

The Basho plant, ばしょう

As Years Go By

Years later when the first Basho-an burned down, a second one was built. Basho brought to this new location a sprout from the original banana plant, then reflected:

What year did I come to nest here, planting a single Bashō
tree?
The climate must be good — around the first one new trunks have
grown up, their leaves so thick they crowd out my
garden and shade my house. People named my hut after this
plant. Every year, old friends and students who like my tree
take cuttings or divide the roots and carry them off to this place and that.

Matsuo Basho, Basho-an, 1683-84

Later that year Matsuo Basho left Basho-an on the first of four major wanderings.

Simple Gifts

The simplest gifts are the best gifts. The gifts that mean the most is the gift of family and friends.

Tis the gift to be simple,
’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be

Simple Gifts, Shaker song, Elder Joseph Brackett, 1848

Of Jim and Della, it is said they were not wise. Each sold the most valuable thing he and she owned in order to buy a gift for the other. And discover the greatest gift is each other.

Being in Love,
their gifts were Wise ones
— the Gift of Each Other

O’Henry, The Gift of the Magi, 1905

Note. This post was written December 26, 2021, after all the gift giving has been done.

poinsettia

Are those tea leaves scratching at your door?

柴の戸に茶の木の葉掻く嵐かな
shibanoto ni cha no konoha kaku arashi kana

Are those tea leaves
Scratching at my brushwood door
In this storm?

Matsuo Basho, Fukagawa, 1680

Notes. Shibanato, 柴の戸 a brushwood gate. Arashi, 嵐 a storm or tempest. Tea leaves were used as a means of foretelling the future. Cha no ki, 茶の木, literally a tea tree, but I have chose to use the more familiar tea leaves.

tea ceremony, reading tea leaves in cup

Becoming Basho

Late in 1680, the poet who would become Matsuo Basho left behind the bustle and noise of Nihonbashi, the Edo’s theater district, where he had lived for nine years. His future was uncertain, for he was not yet named for the Banana tree (Basho) that would grow outside his new cottage. Seeking quiet, he moved to Fukagawa, a sparsely populated piece of reclaimed land beyond Edo, south of the Sumida River. The gift of a banana plant by a disciple would grow into a tree.

For now, Basho explained his move:

For nine springs and autumns, I lived austerely in the city. Now, I have moved to the banks of the Fukagawa River. Someone once said:

長安は古来名利の地、空手にして金なきものは行路難し
“Chang’an, in ancient times, was a place to seek fame and fortune, so hard for a traveler empty-handed and penniless.”
Is it because I’m poor myself that I understand this feeling?

Matsuo Basho

Note. Chang’an was the capital of the Tang dynasty, China’s Golden Age. Its population exceeded one million souls.

Basho noted that his verse was close to a poem by the Tang poet Bai Juyi (白居易,772 – 846)

Author’s Note. I have not come across such a poem. But I did find this — Late Spring, Yuan Zhen to Bai Juyi.

Late Spring
Calm day outside my thin curtain, swallows quickly chattering
Upon my steps, fighting sparrows kicking up dust.
In the rising wind at dusk, a brushwood gate swings shut.
The last flower petal drops and no one notices.

Yuan Zhen, (元稹, 779 – 831), to Bai Juyi
  • Not yet Basho, for he took the name Basho for the banana tree, frail and useless, that was planted outside his cottage.
Cherry blossoms on a branch

Climbing Long’s Peak

Once on a trip to Estes Park, a friend and I camped below Longs Peak (a “fourteener” located in the Rocky Mountain National Park), having decided on the spur of the moment to make the long climb to the top. It was summer, the evening was cool. It is hard to ignore, he snores. He slept in a one man tent, I crosswise and bent in the car. The stars filled the night sky, and the Milky Way rose behind the peak we hoped to climb the next day.

Unprepared, ill-equipped, we didn’t make it all the way, but had a great time. P.S. a better climber started us out, illuminating the pathway with a headlamp that he wisely brought.

a mountain path

Some thoughts:

Nightfall
Too Dark to Read,
To Bed

A fool
Climbs Mt. Long
Not at all

In Darkness,
With trust in the Buddha,
I start, I stumble, I fall

One can ride horses along the trails on the mountainside. When the sun rose, we saw a few horses roaming freely on the range. One horse had only three legs.

A three legged horse
On the mountainside

Climbs better than most

In the Summer Sun
Snow melts, water gathers
A cold stream

There is still snow at the highest elevations, even in July. The summer sun melts the snow forming narrow streams. One often stops to wash the face and hands with the cold water. Then one moves on, admiring a wildflower that grows nearby.

mountain crocus

1685 (year of Jōkyō, 貞享)

The following haiku is from Basho’s Journal of Bleached Bones (Nozarashi Kiko, 野ざらし紀行). This travelogue covered a trip that began in the fall of 1684 and ended the next spring. Basho traveled from Edo to Iga Ueno, his birthplace. After paying respects to his mother who had died the year before, he traveled to Kamigata (an are encompassing Kyoto, Kobe, and Osaka). Coming along a mountain path, Matsuo Basho spied a mountain violet (sumiregusa). This dainty purple flower with its heart shaped leaves has no smell, but it is charming nevertheless, being one of the earliest flowers to blossom in spring.

coming along a mountain path,
somehow so charming
– a wild violet

山路来て    何やらゆかし   すみれ草
yamaji kite/  namiyara yukashi/   sumiregusa

[ゆかし, yukashi meaning charming, endearing, or moving. This haiku inspired Enya to compose a charming song in Japanese called Sumiregusa.]

My thoughts is this:

A tiny mountain flower
Don’t pick this jewel
Just admire

Having reached the peak of Mt. Long, many climbers quickly descend, either because the peak has become crowded with other climbers, or the time of day is late and the weather uncertain. I think Basho would agree, there is joy in the summit, but the greater joy is in the journey.

It is not the summit
But the Path
I seek

What’s on my feet?

May 4th, 1689

After crossing the barrier-gate of Shirakawa on their journey north, Basho and Sora entered the Tōhoku region (東北地方) of northern Japan. They were headed to the scenic pine covered Matsushima islands. But first they would arrive in Tōhoku’s largest city, Sendai. They reached Sendai on May the fourth. This was seasonally significant as May the fifth marked the first day of summer on the Japanese lunar calendar.

Basho had so far covered over 200 miles by foot and his sandals were well worn.

In Sendai, Basho attempted to make the acquaintance of a fellow poet, Michikaze Oyodo, who like Basho traveled a lot and was, at the time living in Sendai. Michikaze was gone. Fortune smiled and Basho was taken on a sightseeing tour of the area by a wood block artist Basho identifies as Kaemon.

Basho explains:

“Crossing the Natori River, I entered Sendai on May the fourth, the day when the Japanese customarily throw iris leaves on the roof and pray for good health. Finding an inn, I decided to stay in Sendai for several days. In this city there was a painter by the name of Kaemon, and I made special efforts to meet him for he was reputed to be truly artistic. He took me to various places which I might have missed but for his help. First we went to the plain of Miyagino, where new fields of bush-clover would blossom in autumn. The hills of Tamada, Yokono, and Tsutsuji-ga-oka were covered in blooming white rhododendrons. Then we went into the dark pine woods called Konoshita where sunbeams could not penetrate. This, the darkest spot on the earth, has been the subject of many poems because of its dewiness – for example, one poet says that his lord when entering needs an umbrella to protect him from dew drops.”

We also stopped at the shrines of Yakushido and Tenjin on our way home.

Eventually, the time came for us to say good-bye. And Kaemon gave me his own drawings of Matsushima and Shiogama, as well as two pairs of straw sandals with laces dyed the deep blue of the iris. This last gift clearly testifies to the true artistic nature of this man.

Ah, are they Iris that blossom

On my feet, or —

Sandals laced in blue.

ayamegusa ashi ni musuban waraji no o

あやめ 艸足に結ん 草鞋の緒

Iris blossoms

May, 2021

Ah, the glorious iris —

Now withered and brown,

Nature reclaims

The lunar calendar of 1689 does not match today’s Gregorian calendar of 2021, but it does not seem to be off by much. The iris flowers that graced my yard in early May has fallen, reclaimed by the compost pile.

Ah, the cycle of life. 生命の循環, Seimei no junkan.

Notes on Translation

This is a second look at Basho’s iris haiku, previously posted June 2, 2020.

An in depth look at Basho’s haiku can be found at WKD.

Basho begins his haiku with the Japanese character , A which means Hey! or Ah! (getting someone’s attention or expressing surprise.) But the surprise is that あやめ, Ayame becomes the Iris. Again Basho uses another interjection, , (“nn” sound) before the final question, which is too convey the English idea of “hmmm”.

Kaemon’s identity is revealed in Sora’s Diary. English theories about Kaemon’s name and profession are inconsistent. Terebess, Notes on station 18. Reliable Japanese authorities identify him as Kitanoya Kaemon, a wood block printer and owner of a bookstore. He was a student of the haiku poet Michikaze Oyodo who was then living in Sendai. 仙台, Japanese source. Oyodo Michikaze (大淀 三千風), like Basho, was a prolific haiku writer. In 1682, he published a book called, Matsushima Viewbook, extolling the beauty of the islands.

New Beginnings

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Quoting Matsuo Basho in his Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no hosomichi, 奥の細道).

Station 2 – Departure

Early on the morning of March the twenty-seventh I took to the road. Darkness lingered in the sky. The moon was still visible, though gradually thinning away. Mount Fuji’s faint shadow and the cherry blossoms of Ueno and Yanaka bid me a last farewell. My friends had gathered the night before, coming with me on the boat to keep me company for the first few miles. When we got off the boat at Senju, however, the thought of a journey of three thousand miles suddenly seized my heart, and neither the houses of the town nor the faces of my friends could be seen except as a tearful vision in my eyes.

Spring is passing!
Birds are singing, fish weeping
With tearful eyes.

With this verse to commemorate my departure, I began my journey, but lingering thoughts made my steps heavy. Watching friends standing side by side, waving good-bye as long as they could see my back.

Yuku haruya

Spring is passing! Yuku haruya!

The wonderful thing about poetry in verse is that one can read and reread the same poem or the same verse. It is, in a sense a new beginning. It is a chance to start over, although it is on a familiar path, and even so, change directions. Maybe it is a journey into a better lifestyle, with daily exercise and healthier eating.

That new beginning always starts today.

Spring, in verse, in poem,

Perpetually Passing

And yet, it begins anew

Bashō no yōna

Senju

Basho began his journey in the late spring of 1689. His wanderlust lasting over five months — 156 days and nights, to be precise.

The first leg of the journey was by boat from the Fukagawa District where Basho was then living, along the Sumida River, to Senju, today’s Adachi fish market, in the northern part of Edo (Tokyo). From there it was a short walk to the Arakawa River and the bridge that lead north.

Surrounded by the fish mongers and the birds dancing around looking for scraps to eat, Basho began his journey with tearful eyes. He was not quite alone, for Kawai Sora, his neighbor in Fukagawa, would be his companion.

Original Japanese

行く春や 

鳥啼き魚の

目は泪

Yuku haruya

tori naki uo no me

wa namida

Acknowledgements

I do not claim to be original in my translations. Others have come before me. Their translations are equally good or better. Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa is a good source containing the entire journey and notes. The original Japanese is online. Read Yuasa’s translation in an ongoing single account. See also, Matsuo Basho – WKD Archives, @MatsuoBashoWkdArchives, a Facebook account that contains background information. 

Spring Farewells

of sweetfish / seeing off salty fish / farewell

ayu no ko no / shirauo okuru / wakare kana

鮎の子の 白魚送る 別れ哉

Ayu school, detail of image from Wikipedia

Wakare, Farewell

There is not much to this poem. There need not be. Or is there?

Parting is such sweet sorrow Juliet said. Or as the Buddha says, ‘Au wa wakare no hajimari.’ ‘Meeting is the beginning of parting‘.

A parting begins a journey

Inspired by a warm breeze and a passing cloud, in the late spring of 1689, Matsuo Basho sold his few possession, closed the door to his cottage, and, along with Sora his traveling companion, headed north on what would become a journey of nine months. This trip would eventually become a book that would make Basho famous, Oku no Hosomichi, 奥の細道, meaning “Narrow road to the interior” or “Pathways to the Interior” or something similar. But since , Oku can also imply one’s heart, it implies an inner search for meaning, a spiritual quest to find one’s true feelings. But that lay ahead.

Basho was dressed in a peasant’s bamboo hat, as protection from the sun and rain. He wore white breeches that came to mid-calf, a blue tunic, and leather sandals, that he would later decorate with spring flowers. Basho, it is said, rode on a small horse, for he is pictured as such, but it is more likely he walked. The horse was a pack horse or a donkey, the kind we associate with prospectors. It carried Basho’s few provisions, a raincoat, a sleeping bag, some money, although, Basho hoped to live off the kindness of those he met along the way for his fame was now well known throughout Japan. Sora walked beside him.

Their trip began with farewells and the chatter of neighborhood children who were no doubt envious of the adventurous travelers. Perhaps, Basho was thinking partings are beginnings, new meetings, new friends.

Of sweet fish and salty fish

For this haiku, Basho chose the Ayu, 鮎 for the children. The Ayu, the small Sweetfish, we might liken to Silverfish, who swim about in schools when the sun appears or large predator fish chase them. Basho and Sora are the old fish, Sakana, 魚, or white fish, quite common. Basho, having had some reservations about the dangers of the trip, perhaps alluded to his becoming bait for bandits.

Sakana is a generic Japanese word for fish, usually salted and served with sake.

As I said, there is not much to this haiku, or is there? “A parting is not an ending but a beginning,” says Bashō no yōna, to those who look forward and not backwards.

別れは終わりではなく始まりです
Wakare wa owaride wanaku hajimaridesu