Do cherry blossoms wonder

Cherry blossoms on a branch

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


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.


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


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


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.”


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

Like a cloud in the wind

like clouds in the wind
a wild goose and his friend


like a cloud in the wind
like a wildgoose and his friend
life departs


kumo to hedatsu tomo ka ya kari no ikiwakare

Descending Geese at Katata, Eight Views of Ömi Province, 1957, Utagawa Hiroshige
Geese descending at Katata on Lake Biwa by Utagawa Hiroshige, 18th c.

Master Basho explains

A summer’s day near Lake Biwa, the clouds drift by and at sunset the wildgeese descend to the lake. Master Basho and his friend watch the setting sun. “Look at the cloud in the wind, like a wild-goose from the flock, my friend we all too soon depart.”

Lake Biwa

Matsuo Bashō had several connections with Lake Biwa and the surrounding area. He was born in nearby, in Iga Province, and may have studied in nearby Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital. Basho is know to have visited Lake Biwa in 1684 and again during the summer of 1690, enjoying the scenic views, the wild life, and nearby temples.

Basho departed this world in November of 1690.

Notes on translation

雲 kumo, cloud
雁 kari, wildgoose
や ya, kana word used to connect wildgoose and friend
友 tomo, friend, companion
生 yǒu, life
別れ wakare, farewell, depart

lake biwa, japan

Sleeping away from home

lake biwa, japan

like a sick goose
on a cold night I fell ill and went to bed
sleeping away from home, alas

Yamukari (byōgan) no yosamu ni ochite tabine Kana


lake biwa, japan

Matsuo Basho (芭蕉) explains

I had gone to see Lake Biwa and then to travel to the island of Awaji to visit friends. It was late on an autumn night.

I get sick and go to bed. Above me, I hear the honking and flapping of a flock of wild geese heading south. One among them drops out and falls to the lake. He must have gotten sick and found flying unbearable. For me, the trip is likewise unbearable. Sleeping impossible. Getting sick is bad enough.

Alas, being away from home, it’s worse.

Descending Geese at Katata, Eight Views of Ömi Province, 1957, Utagawa Hiroshige
Descending Geese at Katata, Utagawa Hiroshige, 1857


Notes on translation

病雁, Yamukari, sick goose
夜寒 yosamu, cold night
旅寝 Tabine, trip sleeping, sleeping away from home
哉 kana, alas

The translator Gabi Greve dates this haiku to 1689, explaining that “Basho was visiting friends at the temple 本福寺 Honpuku-Ji [near Awaji] in Katata (Katada)  and fell ill himself. His disciple Mikami Senna 三上千那 cared for him.” From Sarumino (猿蓑 Monkey’s Raincoat), a 1691 anthology, the date is given as 1670, which is quite a discrepancy.


Do butterflies dream? Matsuo Basho

You are the butterfly while
I pursue the dreams
of Chuang-tzu


You are the butterfly and
I the dreaming heart
Of Chuang-tzu


kimi ya cho ware ya Sooji ga yumegokoro


Seeing a butterfly flutter from flower to flower, the young disciple asks, “Does the butterfly worry? Does he dream of tomorrow?”

Master Basho replies, “You are the butterfly while I pursue the dreams of Chuang-tzu.”

君 you
や ya, cutting word
蝶 kimi, butterfly
君 や 蝶, kimi ya chō, you and the butterfly
莊子 Zhuāngzi, Chung-tzu
夢心 yumeshin, dreaming heart, mind


Basho’s haiku is based on an episode from the life of Chinese philosopher Chuang-tzu (c.369BC – c.286BC):

“Am I a Man?” he thought,
“dreaming I am a butterfly?
Or a butterfly, dreaming I am a man?


First Snow, Great Buddha

First snow and
there stands the great Buddha
a pillar of strength


Hatsu yuki to
Itsu daibutsu
No hashiradate


The Great Plains in March

It snowed last night in early March. Not an entirely unusual occurrence on the Great Plains, but unwanted to those who long for spring. The morning was gray and bitter cold. Even the dog would not go out willingly or for long. My calico cat stood at the door, looking about, then turned and ran away.

Todai-ji Temple

When Master Basho visited the Todai-ji Temple in Nara, he found the monastery in disrepair. There in an uncovered courtyard, he found the statue of the Great Buddha exposed to the wind and the snow, standing upright.

The meaning of Basho’s haiku is, seemingly elusive. It snows and there silent and stoic stands the Great Buddha in the midst of the snow and cold.

Why not go inside?

Matsuo Basho describes Buddha as “Pillar-like” (の 柱立, standing like a pillar, 柱). Society is supported by principles in the same way that a building is supported by upright pillars and columns.


We can not fathom the Way, just as we can not fathom the mysteries of Nature. The master of the Way fights neither his own body, nor Nature. The forces of Nature are greater than one person. We must adapt to survive.

Master Basho instructs us by example. The Great Buddha does not complain when it snows, nor should we. The virtuous are upstanding.


Tōdai-ji (東大寺, Eastern Great Temple), located in the city of Nara, contains the Great Buddha Hall which houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha. At the time of Basho’s visit (1689-1670), the Buddha was still without its head and cover.

Lessons from the Dao

― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 37


The Tao never does anything,

yet through it all things are done.


If powerful men and women

could center themselves in it,

the whole world would transform

into its natural rhythms.

People would be content

with their simple, everyday lives,

in harmony, and free of desire.

The Journey Begins

“The journey itself is my home.”
Matsuo Basho


Hello World

Thanks for joining me on a journey to who knows where!

Let me begin by introducing our guide and companion, Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉, 1644–1694), Japan’s most famous poet of the Edo period. Bashō aspired to reflect his surroundings and emotions in his haiku of three parts – typically, a subject, an action, an explanation that incorporates surprise, all of this usually rendered in 17 syllables.

To better see the world, Basho and his friend Sora took to Japan’s dangerous back roads with little more than writing supplies writing his most famous haiku.

Beware, the journey is not always pretty, not always fun, but hopefully witty, and full of surprise.

Fleas and lice biting;
awake all night
a horse pissing close to my ear