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.

 

 

 

Smoke! kemuri kana

At the festival of the spirits
And even at the crematory
Smoke!

Tama matsuri/ kyō mo yakiba no/ kemuri kana

玉祭り    今日も焼場の    煙哉

fire

I am writing this post on Halloween, an American festival celebrated with costumes, masks, and candy for the trick or treaters. It has become popular in Japan, but it has no true Japanese equivalent, since its roots are in Christianity. Halloween being a corruption of Allhalloween or All Hallows’ Eve, the day before All Saints Day.

Obun festival

A Japanese counter part could be Okuribi (送り火).

It is the culmination of the Obon festival (matsuri) on August 16. In Kyoto, five giant bonfires are lit on mountains surrounding the city giving off both light and smoke. The fires signify the moment when the spirits of deceased family members, who visit the real world during O-Bon, return to the spirit world—thus the name Okuribi, roughly meaning  “send-off fire”.

In some parts of Japan, smaller okuribi fires are lit before the home to send off the ancestors’ spirits. Smoke fills the air. Incense called senko is added to the mix of smoke and fire. Sky lanterns are also sent into the night sky.

Probably, not Matsuo Basho’s best work, but a nod to the crematories who do their work daily sending souls to the spirit world.

Notes on translation

Tama matsuri  (玉祭りTama (玉) Spirit. Soul. Particularly, a pure, lofty soul. Tama matsuri is a festival held to pray to, give thanks to, and appease the souls of the dead. Matsuru is the verb form meaning to celebrate.

 

chinese-lanterns

Sado Island

a stormy sea stretches out to Sado Island / the Milky Way

荒海や佐渡によこたふ天河
araumi ya / Sado ni yokotau / amanogawa

[July 1689]

Sea of Japan, island of Sado, Milky Way, Tanabata festival
Sea of Japan, island of Sado, Milky Way, Tanabata festival

Basho writes

Station 33 – Echigo 越後路

After lingering in Sakata for several days, I traveled [south] a stretch of a hundred and thirty miles to the capital of the province of Kaga. As I looked up at the clouds gathering around the mountains alongside the Hokuriku road, the thought of the distance before me almost overwhelmed my heart. Driving myself all the while, however, I entered the province of Echigo through the barrier-gate of Nezu, and arrived at the barrier-gate of Ichiburi in the province of Ecchu. Nine days I needed for this trip, during which I could not write much, what with the heat and moisture, and my old complaint that pestered me immeasurably.

Already, the night looks different
For tomorrow, on July the sixth,
Once a year
The weaver meets her lover.

The immense Heavenly River*
Spanning a single arch
On the white-capped sea,
Falling beyond on Sado island.

*Milky Way

Explanation, if you please

It is now July, several months into Matuso Basho’s account of his famous Journey to the North. Basho is traveling south in the region of Esshū (越州), along Japan’s western coast and the Sea of Japan. The mountains are an obstacle, the heat and the summer rains have made the journey difficult, causing his “old complaints” of rheumatism and arthritis to scream with discomfort.

Basho arrives to a view of the distant island of Sado. It is night and the stars of the Heavenly River (Milky Way) shimmer on the rough sea.

Tomorrow is the Japanese festival of Tanabata (meaning “Evening of the seventh”; the Star Festival) would begin. The festival celebrates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (the Japanese names for the stars Vega and Altair respectively). According to legend, the Milky Way separates these two lovers, and they are allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the lunisolar calendar.

evening-milky-way

Source: Matsuo Basho Archives, Gabi Greve, 2012

Sora Speaks

This child Kasane, if she were a flower, would be a pink carnation

かさねとは八重撫子の名なるべし
Kasane towa yae-nadeshiko no nanarubeshi

 

Sora Tabi Nikki (曾良旅日記, “Travel Diary of Sora”) was Kawai Sora’s (曾良) memories of the journey 1689 and 1691 that he and Matsuo Bashō took to the north. The diary was lost and rediscovered in 1943.

pink carnation

Basho explains the setting:

“I have an acquaintance in a place called Kurobane in Nasu, and I decided to take a short cut from Nikko straight across the broad plain. The rain began to fall, the sun was setting and in the distance we happened to notice a village. Lodging for a night at a farmer’s house, at daybreak we headed off again over the plain. We came across a horse grazing in a field. We sought assistance from a man cutting grass and though he was a peasant, he was not without compassion.

‘Hmm, let’s see. The plain is criss-crossed with trails and someone unfamiliar with the way is bound to get lost — that’s a real problem — say, why don’t you take this horse as far as he’ll go and just send him back,” and he lent us the horse.’

Two children came running along behind the horse. One was a little girl named Kasane, a truly elegant name I’d never heard before.”

Notes

Nade-shi-ko meaning a frilly pink flower in Japanese is homophonous for “the child who is lovingly caressed / patted” and it is considered a charming name. The similar term Yamato nadeshiko (やまとなでしこ or 大和撫子) means the “personification of an idealized Japanese woman”, or “the epitome of pure, feminine beauty”.

Kasane means layered or double.

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

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

 

Summer Grass 夏草 natsuka

summer grass
all that remains
of a Samurai’s dream

夏草や 兵どもが 夢の跡

Natsukusa ya/ Tsuwamonodomo ga/ Yume no ato

battle

June 29, 1689

Having left Edo in late spring of 1689, Matsuo Basho and Sora travel north, arriving at Hiraizumi on June 29th.  Once the seat of the Northern branch of the Fujiwara family, it was destroyed in 1189. As the poet gazes down at the old battlefield, he hears in his head the words of the ancient Chinese poet Du Fu and explains:

“In the space of a dream, three glorious generations of Fujiwara vanished; two miles in the distance are the remains of the Great Gate. Hidehira’s headquarters have turned into rice paddies and wild fields. Only Kinkeizan, the Golden Fowl Hill, remains as it once was.

First, we climbed Takadachi, Castle-on-the-Heights, from where we could see the Kitakami, a broad river that flows from the south. Nearby, Koromo River rounds Izumi Castle and at a point beneath Castle-on-the-Heights, it drops into Kitakami. The ancient ruins of Yasuhira and others, lying behind Koromo Barrier, appear to close off the southern entrance and guard against the Ainu barbarians.

With his most loyal retainers, Yoshitsune fortified himself in the castle, but his dreams of glory quickly turned to grass.

“The state is destroyed, / rivers and hills remain. / The city walls return to spring, / grasses and trees are green. “

With Du Fu’s lines in my head, I lay down my bamboo hat and let time and tears flow.”

Notes on translation

夏草 natsuka, summer grass

兵 tsuwamono, warrior, soldier, more specifically a brave and strong soldier, a Samurai 侍 which Basho once was. Basho’s use of the older term 兵 tsuwamono, is suggestive of a lowly soldier or pawn, someone utilized by others

夢の跡 yume no ato, the trace, mark of a dream. Compare Basho’s idea with William Shakespeare’s “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on.” (The Tempest, 1610/1611)

More thoughts on Basho’s Summer Grass

The grass of summer
And warriors’ dreams
Are all that’s left.

The grass of summer, the only trace of a Samurai’s dreams

Summer grass! All that left of a Samurai’s dream.

samurai helmet

In the morning calm

In the morning calm
Only the sound of the rock
And the voice of the cicada

閑けさや 岩にしみいる 蝉の声

shizukasa ya / iwa ni shimiiru / semi no koe

china-hungshan

Journey to the Deep North, Summer of 1689

The clouds were drifting along, and the wind stirred a wanderlust.

Thus it was that Matsuo Bashō decided in the spring of 1689 to journey to Japan’s north. By summer, Matsuo Bashō arrived at the Ryushakuji Buddhist temple on Yamadera (山寺 literally, Mountain Temple), northeast of Yamagata in Japan’s far north.

In his travel diary, Basho explains:

“In Yamagata province, there is a temple called Ryushakuji, founded by the great priest Jikaku. This temple is known for the absolute tranquility of its holy grounds…. The rocks on which the temple is built bear the color of eternity. They are covered with tender moss. The shrine doors are firmly barred and not a sound can be heard. As I move on hands and feet from rock to rock, bowing at each shrine, the purifying power of this sanctuary pervades my being.”

Sibilance

One guesses, I suppose, that Matsuo Basho tries to imitate the cicada’s shrill sound through the technique of sibilance,  shizukasaya / iwa nishimiiru / semi no koe.

I will also propose paraphrased variations inspired by other translators (one example and another one). So, you can decide what works best for you. All of which proves to me, if not to you, that the no haiku is perfect.

In the utter silence
Of the temple grounds,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks

In the quiet
The shrill sound of cicadas
Seeps into the rocks

tree moss

Notes on translation

閑 kan, peace, calm
けさ kesa, this morning
や ya, and

岩 iwa, rock
み mi, only

蝉 semi, cicada
の no, of
声 koe, voice

yamadura mountain temple