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

Two Frogs -大坂のかわず京のかわず

Old pond – frogs jumps in – sound of water

Having heard Basho’s famous frog haiku, I became curious about other ancient Japanese frog stories. Here is an old folk story, which I have embellished, as all frogs do in telling stories.

Two Frogs

大坂のかわず京のかわず
Ōsaka no kawazu Kyō no kawazu
Osaka frog, Kyoto frog

Once upon a time there lived two frogs, one of whom made his home in a pond on the grounds of the Katsuo-ji Temple in Osaka, while the other dwelt in the Kyoko-chi pond of Kyoto. At such a great distance, they had never even heard of each other; but, funny enough, the idea simultaneously came into their heads that they should see a little of the world. Thus, the frog who lived at Kyoto wanted to visit Osaka, to visit Katsuo-ji’s many ponds and beautiful garden, and the frog who lived at Osaka wished to go to Kyoto, to visit the temple of Kinkaku-ji and its ponds, which likewise were deemed just as glorious.

On the first day of spring, as the sun rose over the tree tops, they both set out along the Nakasendo Way that led from Kyoto to Osaka, each from the opposite end. Since they were frogs, the journey was long, made up of quick hops and sudden stops. Their arms being much shorter and weaker than their long powerful legs, they found that it was the stomach and head that brought them to a stop. At Nakatsugawa, halfway on their journey, there was a tall a mountain which had to be climbed and crossed. It took a long time and a great many hops to reach the summit, but there they were at last, surprised to see another frog so far from water!

Surprise begets silence, but surprise soon becomes delight, and they fell into a merry conversation about the wonders or their cities – and, after a time, as they were tired and in no hurry to resume the journey, they retired to a cool, damp place, underneath a tall cedar tree, and agreed that they would have a good rest before they parted to go about their ways.

When morning came, each frog rose stretching their sore legs and scratching their bruised stomachs in preparation of continuing their journey. “What a pity we are not bigger,” said the Osaka frog; “for then we could see both towns from here and know if it is worth our while to go on.”

“Oh, that is easily managed,” replied the Kyoto frog. “We have only to stand up on our hind legs and hold onto each other, then we can each look at the town he is traveling to.”

This idea pleased the Osaka frog so much that he at once jumped up and put his front paws on the shoulder of his friend, who had also risen. There they both stood, stretching themselves as high as they could on their tiny toes and holding each other tightly so that they would not topple over. The Kyoto frog towards Osaka, and the Osaka frog to Kyoto; but the foolish creatures forgot that when they stood up on their toes with their heads held high, their large bulbous eyes stared behind. So it was that though their noses might point to the places they wanted to go, their eyes beheld the place from which they had come.

“Dear me!” cried the Osaka frog, “Kyoto is exactly like Osaka and certainly not worth a long journey. I shall go home!”

“If I had had any idea that Osaka was only a copy of Kyoto I should never have left home at all,” exclaimed the frog from Kyoto, and as he spoke he took his hands from his friend’s shoulders, and they both plopped down on the grass. With a polite farewell the two silly frogs set off for home again, none the wiser.

And to the end of their lives they believed that Osaka and Kyoto, which are as different to look at as two towns can be, were as alike as two peas in a pod.

Notes on translation

かわ kawa, river
ず zu, not knowing (anything)
かわず kawazu, ancient term for frog, because the frog, who prefers the pond, does not know the river

waters-frog

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

 

Oku no Hosomichi – The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Put aside the haiku.

Let us pause on our journey with the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō. Let us try to understand why one leaves home to make a perilous journey on a route one knows to be infested robbers and cut-throats. It is a journey to the north of Japan, taken in the late spring of 1689 with his traveling companion Kawai Sora and a donkey for provisions. The journey on foot would take approximately 5 months, 156 days to be exact, covering some 1,500 miles.

Basho’s home was not much. A small cottage underneath a banana tree in the Fukagawa neighborhood across the Sumida River from Japan’s capital city, Edo. That alone might be the cause of his curiosity. For the world is large, and it has many lessons to teach.

But let our peripatetic poet speak for himself.

The days and months are travelers of a hundred generations, like the years that come and go. Some pass their lives afloat on boats, or face old age closely leading horses by the bridle.  Their journey is life, journeying is home. And many are the old men who meet their end upon the road.

How long ago, I wonder, did I see a drifting cloud borne away upon the wind, that ceaseless dreams of wanderlust aroused? Only last year, I had been wandering along the coasts and bays; and in the autumn, I swept away the cobwebs from my tumbledown hut on the banks of the Sumida and soon afterwards saw the old year out.

But when the spring mists rose up into the sky, the gods of desire possessed me, and burned my mind with longing to go beyond the barrier at Shirakawa. The spirits of the road beckoned. I could not concentrate.

So, I patched up my trousers, put new cords in my straw hat, and strengthened my knees with moxa. A vision of the moon at Matsushima was already in my mind. I sold my hut and wrote this just before moving to a cottage owned by Sampū:

“Even this grass hut could for the new owner be a festive house of dolls!”

This was the first of an eight verse sequence, which I left hanging on a post inside the hut.

Original Japanese

月日は百代の過客にして行かふ年も又旅人也。舟の上に生涯をうかべ、馬の口とらえて老をむかふる物は日々旅にして旅を栖とす。古人も多く旅に死せるあり。予もいづれの年よりか片雲の風にさそはれて、漂白の思ひやまず、海濱にさすらへ、去年の秋江上の破屋に蜘の古巣をはらひてやゝ年も暮、春立る霞の空に白川の関こえんと、そゞろ神の物につきて心をくるはせ、道祖神のまねきにあひて、取もの手につかず。もゝ引の破をつゞり、笠の緒付かえて、三里に灸すゆるより、松嶋の月先心にかゝりて、住る方は人に譲り、杉風が別墅に移るに、草の戸も住替る代ぞひなの家面八句を庵の柱に懸置。

Japanese caligraphy

Gazing at morning glories eating breakfast – Basho

hiroshige, 1866 morning glories

I am one
Who eats his breakfast
Gazing at morning glories

朝顔に
我は飯食ふ
男かな

asagao ni / ware wa meshi kû / otoko kana

hiroshige, 1866 morning glories
hiroshige, 1866 detail

Being Matsuo Bashō

Takarai Kikaku (宝井其角, 1661–1707) was one among the most accomplished disciples of Matsuo Bashō. One day, Kikaku composed a haiku, “by the grassy gate, a firefly eats nettles – that is what I am”.

A firefly lights up the night. Basho thought about this and concluded. I am a serious kind, like the asagao (morning glories), I open by day and wither at night. Each to his own. Thus, he composed this intentionally plain haiku.

Both haikus are clever reworkings of the Japanese proverb – “Some worms eat nettles”: Tade kuu mushi, or “every worm to his taste, some eat nettles”. Figuratively, each to his own, or there is no accounting for taste.

蓼食う虫も好き好き
tade kuu mushi sukizuki

Notes on translation

Basho’s play on words, meshi kû, and the proverb’s, kuu mushi. The Japanese character mushi is broadly speaking a bug or insect. My guess is that the proverb refers to nettle eating caterpillars.

In line with Kikaku’s haiku, one could and possibly should translate as,

Watching morning glories, eating rice cakes – that is who I am

朝顔に asago ni, “gazing” at morning glories is a poetic choice, Basho could also have been “sitting”, “watching” or simply being “surrounded by” the flower. It is a Zen thing – to be or do.

Who are you?

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

Basho retells the Tale of Genji

Tying a rice cake / Held with one hand / Oh, the strands of my hair

粽結ふ 片手にはさむ 額髪

Chimakiyufu katate ni hasamu hitaigami

rice dumpling, chimaki
chimaki

The Tale of Genji

We have all played this game – summarize a complicated story in a few words. Perhaps, one of Matsuo Basho’s disciples issued the challenge for the 11th century masterpiece, The Tale of Genji.

Matsuo Basho’s word picture portrays a woman, no doubt she is lovely, wrapping and knotting () a chimaki ( a sweet and savory rice cake) with a bamboo leaf. With one hand she ties it with a string while with the other hand she brushes a strand of her hair behind her ear.

Thus, Basho explains the Tale of Genji, a work that recounts the love of the Emperor Kiritsubo for a low-ranking concubine, Kiritsubo no Koi (Consort), and the tale of their son, Hikaru Genji, “Shining Genji” who is demoted to the status of commoner.

Notes on translation

粽 Chimaki, or Zongzi, a rice dumpling wrapped in palm leaves. In Japan this is traditionally prepared on Children’s Day, thus, for Basho, it describes Kiritsubo Consort’s love for her son Hikaru Genji.
結 yui, tie, to fasten, hold, a knot
片手 katate, one hand
む mu, used for inflection
額髪  hitaigami, the hair on the forehead, bangs

Japanese girl at work

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

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