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.
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.
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
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.
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
Sparrow’s child Retreat, retreat Here comes a horse
The Spring of My Life, Kobayashi Issa, 1819
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
[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.
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.
“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 theyIris 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
Ah, the glorious iris —
Now withered and brown,
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.
An in depth look at Basho’s haiku can be found at WKD.
Basho begins his haiku with the Japanese character あ, 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, ん, (“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.
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.
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,
And yet, it begins anew
Bashō no yōna
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.
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 ofparting‘.
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 奥 , 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
The Captain-General too Makes a pilgrimage to His Majesty in Spring
Kabitan mo tsukuba wakeri kimi ga haru
甲比丹もつ くばはせけり 君が春
Edo, Japan 1678
In Europe, the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 had brought about an end to the 80-year war between Spain and the Dutch who sought independence from King Charles. Protestants from France and Jews from Spain fueled a Dutch Golden Age. Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes philosophized, John Milton wrote, Kepler and Galileo looked to the heavens. Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉, 1644 –1694) would know little about these events for the Tokugawa shogunate had made Japan Sakoku (鎖国, “a closed country” beginning in 1633 and completing the process by 1639. Under the terms of various edicts, Japanese were forbidden to leave Japan, and only the Dutch were allowed to trade at Nagasaki, and then only if the Dutch traders remained on a small enclave in the harbor.
Matsuo Basho did not seem to concern himself much with world events. And there is but one haiku written about the Dutch. In one of his earlier haiku, while he still lived in Edo, working at a government job, before taking on the pseudonym Basho he wrote the above haiku.
Should we attempt to match Matsuo Basho up with one of his European counterparts, the likelihood is Christiaan Huygens, who in the vein of Descartes and Spinoza wrote:
“…nous n’atteignons pas le certain mais feulement le vraifemblable.”
“Nothing, we know certainly, but howl the likelihood.” Oeuvres complètes de Christiaan Huygens
The Legend of Mt. Tsukuba
Tsukuba has a well-known history in Japan.
Each year the Japanese make a pilgrimage to Mt. Tsukuba and its centuries-old Shinto shrine which represents a source of blessing for the Japanese people. There is also a legend that accompanies the mountain. Thousands of years ago, a deity descended from the heavens and asked Mt. Fuji for a place to spend the night. Mt. Fuji refused, believing it did not need the deity’s blessings. The deity turned then to Mt. Tsukuba, which, humbly welcomed its guest, offering food and water. Today, Mt. Fuji though beautiful, it is cold and lonely. Mt. Tsukuba, covered in vegetation, changes colors with the seasons.
Another legend has it that the Japanese people descend from ancient deities who lived here.
Other Notes on Translation
Only Dutch merchants as foreigners were allowed to trade in Japan and only if they remained on an islet named Dejima in Nagasaki. Once each year they were obliged to make a voyage from Nagasaki to Edo to call on Shogun to pay respect.
Kimi ga haru. The master in Spring. Kimi can mean “you,” but also “master,” the Shogun, in this sense.