I love the plum blossom – Ume koite

Spring 1685

In Shiga province, Basho met up with a priest from Hiru in Izu who traveled with him all the way to Owari province. Along the way, the priest told Basho of the death of Abbot Daiten of Enkaku Temple at Kamakura.

I love the plum blossom
But the deutzia flower
Brings me to tears

Longing for plum blossoms,
Bowing before the deutzia –
Eyes full of tears

One loves the plum
But worships the deutzia –
With tears

ume koite / unohana ogamu / namida kana

梅恋 ひて卯の花拝む 涙哉

plum tree flowers
plum tree flowers

Enkaku Temple at Kamakura

Enkaku, Engaku-ji (円覚寺), a Zen Buddhist temple in Kanagawa prefecture south of Edo (Tokyo). The name translates to “perfect enlightenment”. Daiten, Daitō, meaning long sword, appears to be the honorary title given to the abbot, possibly to the chief monk of temples practicing Zen Buddhism.

Notes on translation

There are multiple translation of Basho’s homage to Abbot Daiten of Enkaku Temple. The blog, WKD, Matsuo Basho Archives provides several. Like the hydrangeas one sees blooming along the northwestern coast of the United States, the deutzia is a bushy plant with multiple flowering heads. When the deutzia blossoms in Japan, generally, after the plum and cherry trees blossoms, the skies turn gray, not really rain, but not sunny and bright.

Misty days are abundant.

Unohana – the white snowbell-like flower of the Deutzia, part of the hydrangea family

Ogamu – to worship, to assume the posture of praying, to press the palms and fingers of both hands together, to do reverence.

hydrangea

Our two lives – inochi ni

Cherry blossoms on a branch

Lake Biwa, Shiga Province, Spring 1685

For millions of Japanese, the annual cherry blossom viewing is a time of surprise and delight. After an absence of 20 years, Matsuo Basho came across his friend and disciple, Hattori Dohō (服部土芳), and composed this haiku.

Our two lives coming together at Cherry Blossom time!

Inochi Futatsu no Naka ni Ikitaru Sakura kana

命二つの中に生きたる桜かな

Hattori Dohō

Hattori Dohō (服部土芳) was younger than Basho by a dozen years. After Basho’s death, Dohō composed Sanzōshi, Three Books, ca. 1702, a poetic treatise on Bashō’s haikai. Haikai meaning the linked verse, commentary, and poetry that Basho popularized.

Haiku came to mean standalone poems. Haibun came to mean multiple verses.

In one of his haibun, Bashō states, “Only when one identifies with the feelings of the things in nature and can express them in words, only then is he a master of poetry.”

Our two lives, inochi ni, is a wistful recollection of a friend.

In this haiku, Basho combines the two lives, his and Dohō’s, from inochi 命 life, to be alive, plus futatsu 二 two. These lives separated by time and place come together at Lake Biwa during sakura cherry blossom festival . Basho adds the kireji, the cutting word in the double kana, かな, expressing the joy of meeting such a friend.

 

On the subject of separate lives

Our two separate lives, as Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin put it bluntly in a song from 1985, is a sadder version about the separation of former lovers. Cher gave us a similar sentiment in 1988, “… sooner or later we all sleep alone.”

Until then, enjoy the cherry blossoms. Sakura kana! 

Cherry blossoms on a branch

Read about the entire journey in Donald Keene’s translation of Journey of 1684.

An azalea, dried cod and a woman

On Lake Biwa, sitting down at an inn for lunch:

Azaleas arranged in a pot,
Chopping cod in the shade –
A woman

tsutsuji ikete sono kage ni hidara saku onna

躑躅 生けてその陰に干 鱈 割く女

azalea-pink

Thusness

Was she young, was she pretty, or dried up and old? Did she blossom like a flower? Or merely exist?

One should be careful of reading too much into a haiku.

Matsuo Basho himself observed that a haiku may be neither objective or subjective. It merely is what it is. This quality of “thusness” or “suchness” is a principle of Buddhism called Tathātā. It represents the base reality. Thus, there in the corner of the inn, Basho spies an azalea, and a woman tearing up dried cod.

Imagery, Kigo, Kireji, and a Twist

The essence of a haiku is its imagery. The image conveys a message, the characters and words are merely the conveyance of the image.

Most haiku will contain a kigo word. This helps to set the season and so the setting of the poem. Kigo words do not need to be the actual season – spring, summer, fall or winter. Instead, as in this case, the azalea that blooms in spring becomes the kigo word.

Having created the image, the poet must carve his or her haiku up into a sequence of images to create the synthesis of images forming one idea. Kireji are called “cutting words” and act like punctuation, a comma, a dash, a question, and exclamation, and so forth. But kireji may also make their appearance in the verb form, for instance, in change the present to the past

In this haiku, the verb that appears after azalea is ikete, past tense of ikeru. By itself, the “Te Form” links the two thoughts of the azalea and the woman chopping cod together.

A good haiku should also try to create a twist in thought, where sound may suggest a shift in thought. Hidara saku, the cod is split by the woman, but shifting the phrase to saku onna, gives the listener impression of a woman blooming.

azalea-forest

 

The Karasaki pine tree – Karasaki no matsu

Lake Biwa, Pine tree of Karasaki

The Karasaki pine tree is mistier than the cherry blossoms

Karasaki no matsu/ wa hana yori/ oboro nite

辛崎の松 は花より朧にて

Karasaki Pine Tree

“The Karasaki Pine Tree (Karasaki no matsu) stands on a walled esplanade in Karasaki village, 5 MN of Otsu near the steamer landing. Its 300 or more immense horizontal boughs, upheld by wood crutches or stone pillars, curve awkwardly, and at the top – 25 ft or more from the ground – tin and wood copings have been placed as a protection against the weather. These arms, some of which measure 200 odd ft. from point to point, reach out like those of a gigantic and repulsive spider, and are almost bare of foliage.”
Terry’s Japanese Empire, T. Philip Terry, 1914

In the eighth moon of 1684, Matsuo Basho left Edo to visit his birthplace in Ueno. The occasion was the death of his mother in 1683. As journeys go, this one involved many stops and visits along the way. Previously, we left Basho on the path from Kyoto to Otsu, on Lake Biwa. On the mountain path, Basho discovered a violet growing in the grass, and took the occasion to write a haiku.

Now he was nearing Lake Biwa.

Lake Biwa, Pine tree of Karasaki
Lake Biwa, Pine tree of Karasaki

Descending from his mountain path to the lake, he views Otsu and its well-known pine tree in the distant mist. The ancient horizontal limbs are supported by pillars. Otsu also offers many sublime cherry blossom trees for viewing. For practical reasons, Basho found the pine tree more to his liking. Or maybe he just found it a bit hazier or mistier, oboro , if he arrived in the early foggy April morning.

Meaning of the poem

The meaning of the haiku is itself obscure on its face.

Likely, Basho is making a reference to the poem by Prince Konoe Masaie (1444-1505).

In the night rain its green fades
Serene in the evening breeze
Stands the pine tree
Of Karasaki.
— Prince Konoe Masaie (1444-1505)

That however does not explain the mention of the cherry blossoms.

There is a well-known idiom, hana yori dango, which translates as preferring dumplings over flowers. This also means to prefer the practical over the beautiful. A secondary meaning is that viewers of the cherry blossoms prefer the wine and food over the blossoms themselves. A pine tree, it seems to me is more practical than a cherry blossom. It provides protection from the elements and material for building.

 

Like California’s Sequoia’s the Karasaki pine tree is ancient. Even in Basho’s day, it was believed to be one thousand years old. A new pine tree has since been planted from a cutting of the old Karasaki pine tree.

For reference, see: Basho’s Journal of 1684, translated by Donald Keene (page 143)

old pine of karasaki
old pine of Karasaki

A cloud of cherry blossoms – Hana no kumo

A cloud of cherry blossoms
The chime of a temple bell
Is it Asakusa, is it Ueno?

Hana no kumo   Kane ha   Ueno ka Asakusa ka

花の雲    鐘は上野か   浅草か

Cherry blossoms on a branch

1680

In 1680, Basho moved from Edo across the Sumida River to Fukagawa to escape the noise of Nihonbashi, near the city center, where he had lived for nine years.

Hana no Kumo

Spring, cherry trees in full blossom, the sound of a temple bell, is it the Temple at Asakusa or Ueno? Hana means flowers in the general sense, but also the cherry blossom in this haiku. Kumo means cloud. Matsuo Basho has gone for a walk in Fukagawa in April, and in the midst of the blossoms of the cherry trees he experiences what it feel like to walk among the clouds. Perhaps a gentle breeze comes along and petals are scattered about, heightening the ethereal experience.

Suddenly, he hears the chime (kane), the sound of a temple bell. It comes from across the Sumida River that separates Basho’s neighborhood of Fukagawa from Edo (Tokyo).

Is the sound Asakusa or Ueno, two well-known temples?

senso-ji temple
Senso-ji temple, Asakusa

Has Spring come? 春や来

Has Spring come?
Has the old Year gone?
On the Second-to-last day of the month

haru ya koshi toshi ya yukiken kotsugomori

春や来     し年や行きけん     小晦日

noodles

The meaning of Basho’s haiku

On the penultimate day of the year, Basho asks, “Has Spring come?”

Possibly, Basho and a few friends are having a conversation about the coming of the new year while eating a bowl of Toshikoshi soba, the year-crossing noodle traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve.

Because Spring started on the 29th of the new year, and not the 30th or the 1st day, Basho wrote this amusing conundrum. Penultimate, because it is the next to the last, and not the first or the last. Amusing because buried within the haiku are the rhyming words “koshi toshi“. This play on words, refers to Toshikoshi soba (年越し蕎麦), the year-crossing noodle dish, the traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve. Why noodles? Because last year’s hardships are easily broken up because soba noodles are easily cut.

Basho’s inspiration and sources

This haiku is thought to be Matsuo Basho’s earliest dated haiku. It dates to 1662-1663, the 29th of the lunar month of the New Lunar Year. At this time Basho served the family of Todo Shinshichiro, a samurai general in charge of the Iga region.

Basho’s haiku is loosely based on an earlier poem by Ariwara no Narihira (在原 業平, 825–880).

Did you come to me,
Or I go to you?
I have no idea
A dream or reality?
Was I asleep or awake?

kimi ya koshi
ware ya yukiken
omōezu
yume ka utsutsu ka
nete ka samete ka

君やこし
我やゆきけむ
思ほえず
夢かうつつか
ねてかさめてか

More so, the slightly later poem by Ariwara Motokawa (888–953).

During the old year
spring has come.
The day that is left:
should we call it
last year
or this year?

年のうちに
春は来にけり
一年を
去年とやいはむ
今年とやいはむ

toshi no uchi ni
haru wa ki ni keri
hitotose o
kozo to ya iwan
kotoshi to ya iwan

Who’s that knocking at my door?

great crested grebe

this lodging has a door
unknown
to the call of the kuina (water rail)

this lodging
is not even known
to the kuina’s knock

this hut
can the water rail find
its door

kono yado     wa kuina mo shiranu      toboso kana

この宿    は水鶏も知らぬ       扉かな

great crested grebe

Late Spring and early Summer, 1694

“Tyick, tyick, tyick,” who is that knocking at my door? Death would come knocking for Matsuo Bashō, but not until until November.

In the spring of 1694 Matsuo Bashō set out on his last journey to visit friends, making a trip home to his birthplace at Ueno, to Kyoto where he spent time as a student, and around beautiful Lake Biwa visiting shrines.

This haiku was supposedly written to Kosen (Fujimura Izu?), a Shinto priest who lived on the outskirts of Otsu, and, we may presume from the haiku, in a marshy area near Lake Biwa. The house was so remote it was unknown even to the marsh bird, known as kuina in Japanese, translated into English as a water rail.

The courtship cry of the kuina is a tyick-tyick-tyick, like the sound of one tapping (tataku) on a wooden door. The breeding season dates from late March into June.

Source, Matsuo Basho Archives

Notes on Japanese and Pinyin

Language can be an in-artful thing.

Arriving late and greeting his host, Kosen, Matsuo Bashō might have  apologized by composing this haiku, explaining that he heard the familiar tyick-tyick-tyick of the kuina bird, but couldn’t discover its secretive nest, i.e. his host’s lodgings somewhere along the shore of Lake Biwa.

The sound of “kono… kuina… kana” imitates the kuina’s call to its mate.

Shiranu 知らぬ , not knowing, as in the proverb, Shiranu ga hotoke (知らぬが仏), meaning ignorance is bliss, literally,  not knowing is Buddha.

 

 

 

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