Bashō, Spring 1678

The Captain-General too
Kneels before
His Imperial Majesty in Spring

Kabitan mo/  tsukubawakeri/   kimi ga haru

甲比丹もつ  くばはせけり   君が春

Dutch_tribute_embassy_to_Edo 

Tsukubawakeri

According to Japanese legend, thousands of years ago a deity descended from the heavens and asked both Mount Fuji and Mount Tsukuba to offer themselves as a place to spend the night. Proud and arrogant Mount Fuji said that it was already at a peak of perfection and didn’t require any other blessings. Thus, it refused.

Mount Tsukuba, on the other hand, thought of nothing but being a good host. So, it offered itself as a place of rest, giving the deity its trees as cover, its nuts and fruit as food, and streams as water. This is why, as the story goes, Mt. Fuji is cold and stark while Mount Tsukuba is always covered in beautiful foliage.

Spring 1678

Matsuo Basho’s poetry was an extension of the art form of haikai-no-renga. This is a group activity in which each participant displays wit by spontaneously composing a verse in response to the verse that came before; the simpler the two verses, the more interesting the images, the more impressive the poet’s ability.

As a young man, Matsuo served the family of Todo Shinshichiro, a samurai general in charge of the Iga region where Basho was born. He attended the young Todo Yoshitada, who wrote verse in the renga style. Yoshitada died at the young age of 28 and Basho, now freed of his obligation, moved on, continuing his interest in poetry. Matsuo Bashō studied under the likes of Kigin Kitamura in Kyoto before moving to Edo in 1672. By the spring of 1678, he had moved up through literary circles, receiving instruction from Nishiyama Sōin, who founded the Danrin school (談林派, literally talkative forest).

Bashō became the tree that towered over the forest.

Kabitan mo/  tsukubawakeri/   kimi ga haru

This haiku, that uses the Dutch Captain General as a subject, is perhaps a tongue in cheek reference to himself, Bashō paying due to those that came before him and taught him the art of haiku.

Two years later in 1680, Bashō would complete the break and move to Fukagawa on the forlorn eastern bank of the Sumida River. There he took on his well-known haigō, “Bashō” taken from the banana tree given to him by a student.

Notes on Japanese translation

甲比丹 kapitan, captain general, likely derived from the original Portuguese and later Dutch term for the head the head of a trading company in Japan
mo, also
kanji lord, ruler
haru, spring, springtime

君が春
kimi ga haru, I am not sure I am happy with my translation of “His Imperial Majesty in Spring”. There is some semblance with the Japanese word Kimigayo, which is usually translated as “His Imperial Majesty’s Reign”. This is the former Japanese National Anthem based on a poem from the Heian Period (794–1185). The first lines of the poem (Kimigayo wa, Chiyo ni yachiyo ni) are roughly translated as “Thousands of years of happy reign be thine.”

Saddle my horse, uma ni kura

The Dutch too are coming,
To see the flowers blossom,
Saddle my horse

阿蘭陀も 花に来にけり 馬に鞍

Oranda mo/ hana ni ki ni keri/ uma ni kura

A Close Encounter of a Dutch Kind

In a closed society (sakoku, 鎖国), as Japan was, strangers would elicit a curious look.

The Dutch with their bearded faces and yellow hair would have been doubly strange to the Japanese. Not quite a close encounter of a third kind, but alien no less.

Since 1633, the Shogun in Edo had banned foreigners from entering Japan and Japanese from traveling abroad. Only the Dutch were permitted a trading post in Nagasaki harbor on the small island of Deshima (Dejima). The island was ” 82 ordinary steps in width and 236 in length through the middle,” according to Engelbert Kaempfer who spent two years there with the Dutch East India Company.  The Japanese were still curious about western ways and each spring, the Dutch brought tribute to the Shōgun in Edo, bringing news of the world and bearing gifts: weapons, clocks, telescopes, medicines and rare animals.

It must have been quite a spectacle.

Dutch_tribute_embassy_to_Edo

[From Engelbert Kaempfer: The History of Japan (1727), based on observations made between 1690 and 1692 with the Dutch East India Company. Image Wikipedia.]

Hanami

The Dutch trip to Edo occurred in April when Japan was in the midst of its Hanami festival  (花見, flower viewing festival). We associate this festival with the well-known cherry  blossoms (桜 sakura), but they would have also included flowering plum.

Notes on translation

阿蘭陀 Oranda, Holland, The Dutch
mo, too, also
hana, flower
馬に鞍, uma ni kura, saddle my horse, literally put the saddle on my horse

Important Sources

Matsuo Basho – WKD Archives
Cherry Blossom Epiphany, page 145
Dutch Encounters, excerpt from Kaempfer’s observations

 

The Narrow Road to the North Prologue

matsuo basho

matsuo basho

Station 1 – Prologue

Days and months are eternity’s travelers. As are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the land, finally succumbing to the weight of years, spend each minute of their lives traveling. There are also a great number of the ancients who died on the road (including Chinese Tang poets Li Bai and Du Fu and Japanese poets Saigyo and Sogi). For a long time, tempted by  cloud-moving winds, I myself  have felt a strong desire to wander.

It was only toward the end of last autumn that I returned from rambling trip along the coast. I barely had time to sweep the cobwebs from my humble house on the River Sumida before the New Year, but no sooner than the spring mist had begun to rise over fields that I wanted to be on the road again, in due time to cross the barrier-gate of Shirakawa . The gods seemingly possessed my soul turning it inside out and from every corner the roadside images seemed to entice me, so that it was impossible for me to stay idle at home.

Even as I was getting ready, mending my torn trousers, tying a new strap to my hat and applying moxa to my legs to strengthen them, I was dreaming of the full moon rising over the islands of Matsushima. Finally, I sold my house and temporarily moved to Sampu’s cottage. Upon the threshold of my old home, I wrote a linked verse of eight lines and hung it on a wooden pillar.

The starting piece:
Behind this door
Now buried in deep grass
A different generation will celebrate
The Festival of Dolls.

The Narrow Road to the North

Joined by his traveling companion Kawai Sora (河合曾良), Matsuo Bashō left his home in Edo (Tokyo) in the spring of 1689 for a journey to the north and west coast of Japan. The journey took approximately five months, with Bashō and Sora traveling on foot about ten miles a day.

There were some 40 stations and stops on his journey including: the Tokugawa shrine at Nikkō, Kurobane in the province of Nasu, a Zen temple called Unganji, the Shirakawa barrier, on towards Sukagawa crossing the River Abukuma, through the famous hills of Asaka, through the castle towns of Abumizuri and Shiroishi, arriving at the province of Kasajima, crossing the River Natori and entering the city of Sendai, stopping at the River Noda no Tamagawa and the so-called Rock in the Offing, at the pine woods called Sue no Matsuyama, then to the islands of Matsushima, to Hiraizumi where the glory of three generations of the Fujiwara family passed away like a snatch of empty dream, then down the west coast of Japan to Sakata, Kisakata, and Etchū.

He and Sora parted ways at Yamanaka, but at Ōgaki he met a few of his other disciples before departing alone to the Grand Shrine of Ise near Kyoto, where the account ends.

After his journey end, Bashō spent five years editing the work before publishing it.

The Work in Full

View the Matsuo Basho Archives

 

Ame oriori, 雨折々

bridge crossing Sumida River from Edo to Fukagawa

Hiroshige-Atake-detail-2

At Taisui’s house

Basho attends an all night party at Taisui’s house, nearby in Fukagawa. It rained 折々 oriori, off and on (intermittently, or occasionally). Awaiting dawn.

Taisui’s courtesy name 苔水 / 岱水 translates as spring rain.

Taisui writes:

“Rain, but not enough to come through the jacket.”
Uwabari wo / tusanu hodo no / ame huri te

Bashō ponders this.

Perhaps, like the farmer, Basho wishes it would rain. The farmer gets a day off, the rice sprouts, and Basho delays his departure.

Occasional rain / no worry / rice seedlings sprout
雨折々思ふ事なき早苗哉
ame ori ori / omou koto naki / sanae kana

Notes on translation

May 皐月 satsuki is the month to plant rice seedlings nae.

Rain inspires us in all its forms. Like English, Japanese has many expressions for rain, the most general being 雨 ame. Compare 五月雨 samidare, a heavy rain that occurs in May. Also 降雨 jiàngyǔ, rainfall; 雨量 yǔliàng, rainfall.

As used by Basho, 雨折々 ame ori ori, is an occasional rain.

a charming wild violet

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 naniyara yukashi sumiregusa

wild-violet

Matsuo Basho wrote this haiku in his Journal of 1684, a travelogue of  his journey from Edo (Tokyo) to visit his birthplace in Iga Province after hearing of his mother’s death. The journey was on horseback and on foot, often over mountainous roads.

This haiku was written crossing the mountains near Lake Biwa on the way to Otsu. Basho observing a tiny wild violet in the grass was inspired.

Basho’s Journal of 1684, translated by Donald Keene (page 142)

Notes on translation

山路 yamaji, mountain path
来て kite, to come
何やら naniyari, somehow, for some reason
ゆかし yukashi, charming, admirable, enchanting
すみれ草 sumi regusa, wild violet; literally a violet in the grass

Further note

Enya wrote a song Sumiregusa about the wild violet, and performed it in Japanese – Sumiregusa: wild violet monono aware: attune to the pathos of things haruno hana to fuyu mo yuki: spring flowers and winter snow hara hara: the sound of falling snow.

Oh dear, green leaves, bright sun

Oh dear! green leaves, young leaves, sparkling sun

あらたふ と青葉若葉の 日の光
ara touto aoba wakaba no hi no hikari

Nikko

Basho and his traveling companion Sora arrived at Mount Nikko (日光 nikki, the sun’s brilliance) on March the 30th and lodged at an inn at the foot of the mountain.

Basho writes:

“The inn’s host introduced himself as ‘Honest’ Gozaemon (五左衛門) and told me to sleep in perfect peace on his grass pillow, that his sole ambition was to be worthy of his name ( to protect). I watched him carefully, and found him stubbornly honest, utterly devoid of worldly cleverness. It was as if the good Buddha himself had taken the shape of a man to help me in my wanderings. Indeed, such holy honesty and purity like his must not be scorned, for it verges on the perfection Confucius preaches.”

Basho continues:

“On the first day of the fourth month, I climbed Mount Nikko, which means the bright beams of the sun… A thousand years ago, the sainted Kobo Diashi (Kukai) built a temple upon it. He must have had the power to see into the future, for the mountain is now the seat of the most sacred of shrines and its benevolent power protects the land, embracing the people like the bright beams of the sun. To say more about the shrine would violate its holiness.”

How awe inspiring, to stand in solitude amidst the newly budded maple trees and towering cedars ( Sugi), with the blue morning sky a background, and the brilliant yellow sun sparkling through the pale green leaves. Surely, sainted Kobo Diashi had experienced this moment too.

Gentle reader, who has not seen the sun sparkling through the new pale green leaves of spring and summer and not been inspired?

Notes

あら ara, Oh!
若葉 wakaba, young pale green leaves
青葉若葉 aoba wakaba, the young leaves of early summer
日の光 no hi no hikari, sunlight
光 hikari, gleaming, sparkling light
日光 nikki, bright sunlight
morning

Butterfly Weaving

Back and forth
Through the rows of wheat
A butterfly weaving!

繰り返し麦の畝縫ふ 胡蝶哉
Kurikaeshi mugi no une Nu kochō Kana

Kawai Sora speaks

Matsuo Bashō was not the only one to give us his thoughts on the Journey North (Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道). Bashō’s disciple and traveling companion, Kawai Sora, also recorded his thoughts in a diary that was not discovered until 1943. Sora Tabi Nikki (曾良旅日記, “Travel Diary of Sora”) gives us insight into Bashō’s observations and Sora’s own insights.

Sora’s haiku above literally translates as “Weaving back and forth through the rows of wheat, a butterfly!” Sora’s final Japanese character is 哉 kana, which translates as surprise. I have therefore transposed to the end of the haiku Sora’s surprise and delight in associating the butterfly’s movement with weaving and stitching.

It reads well either way, don’t you think?

Notes

繰り返し kurikaeshi, repeating, back and forth, as in a stitching motion
麦 mugi, wheat or barley
胡蝶 kochō, butterfly
哉 kana, What!

butterflies

a village without bells

a village where no bells ring: what, no way to tell it is dusk in spring

or,

in a village without bells, how do they mark the end of spring?

鐘撞かぬ里は何をか春の暮
kane tsukanu sato wa nani o ka haru no kure

I hope to come back to this haiku, yet, as Robert Frost said, ‘knowing how way leads on to way, I doubt I ever could.’ What, a village without bells, no way in ‘hell’ to find my way back again.

Notes

haru, spring, but also vitality; liveliness; energy; life
lust; lustfulness; passion; sexual desire
kure, this character has several meanings including: evening; dusk; late sunset; closing of the day.

In old Japanese haru no kure  may mean the end of spring

evening-milky-way

 

Do cherry blossoms wonder

Cherry blossoms on a branch

I remember many, many things,
do cherry blossoms,
I wonder?

さまざまの事おもひ出す櫻かな

Samazama no  koto omoidasu  sakura kana

Cherry blossoms on a branch

Sakura matsuri

In Japan, in late March and early April, they celebrate the Sakura matsuri, or cherry blossom festival.

All eyes will be on the light pink florets as they fill the city sidewalks, public parks, and temple gardens with quivering bursts of color in the gentle breeze of early spring. Picnicking under the blossoms is an ancient tradition. Then, all too soon, the petals begin to fall, and the scene becomes a distant memory.

One explanation of Basho’s haiku is that he is recalling that he abandoned the way of samurai and decided to live the way of haiku. Or simply that cherry blossoms encourage random thoughts.

Memories

さまざまのこと思い出す桜かな
Samazama no koto omoidasu sakura ka na

The sibilant repetition of the “s” and “z” sounds (samazamaomoidasu, sakura). The repeated consonants of  “k” (koto, sakura, kana) produce a melodic sound to Basho’s phrase. “Do you remember many things?” is today’s colloquial understanding of the phrase. A more literal translation is, “Various things, they call to mind, ah, cherry blossoms!”

Notes on translation

さまざま  samazama, various, many, many
事 koto, thing, matter
櫻 sakura, cherry blossoms
かな kana, I wonder

peach-blossom

Amid clouds of blossoms we walk – Matsuo Basho

Amid the clouds of blossoms
Is the bell’s chime Ueno
Or Asakusa?

花の雲 鐘は上野か 浅草か

Hana no kumo/ Kane ha Ueno ka Asakusa ka

peach-blossom

Trailing clouds of blossoms we walk

In Japan, it is spring and the cherry trees are in full bloom.

We cannot know, but perhaps Matsuo Basho and his students are in Kiyosumi Gardens, in the Fukagawa District where Basho lived.  A disciple begins the discussion by saying, “Is it not heavenly, Master Basho, to walk in the midst of so many cherry blossoms?”

Then a single blossom falls. To which Basho replies, “In the even the smallest flower that falls, I fear, lies a truth too deep for tears.”

At that moment the sound of the bell is heard.

Fukagawa, Ueno, Asakusa

Fukagawa, where Basho lives, is on the other side of the Sumida River from Ueno and Asakusa. These well known areas include Buddhist and Shinto temples, as well as shopping and residential areas. In Asakusa is the famous Buddhist Sensō-ji temple. In Ueno is the Shinto shrine Ueno Tōshō-gū. Ueno is known as a working class district, while Asakusa is home to the more prosperous citizens of ancient Edo.

Notes on translation

花 hana flower, blossom

雲 kumo cloud

鐘 kane bell, chime

上野 ueno, temples include the Shinto shrine Ueno Tōshō-gū; a working class area

浅草 Asakusa, an area along the Sumida River including the ancient Sensō-ji temple; it is an upscale area, a place for the rich and prosperous

清澄庭園 Kiyosumi Garden, today’s strolling garden was developed after Basho’s time on earth, but an earlier garden no doubt existed. The garden contains a stone monument to Basho and his most famous haiku, an ancient pond, frog and the sound of water.

senso-ji temple
senso-ji temple