Obanazawa, #25

Summer, 1689. The Mogami River tumbles into a mountain valley in northern Yamagata Prefecture. There one finds peaceful Obanazawa, 尾花沢, meaning Marsh of Irises. Matsuo Basho, and his companion Sora, are staying with Seifu, a well-to-do safflower merchant and haiku poet.

suzushisa o waga yado ni shite nemaru nari

making coolness
my lodging
for a while, I may rest

Haideyo kaiya ga shita no hiki no koe

Crawl and creep
From under this shed
You loud mouth frog

Note. Hai, the first character in this haiku has several meanings. Creep and crawl is the intended meaning, but as homophone, it means to bow reverentially. Another meaning is “to give up.” Kaiya, the shed where the silkworms are kept. Kiki. A Bullfrog. Frogs and toads eat caterpillars. Kaiya, also a Japanese feminine name meaning “Forgiveness.”

mayuhaki o omokage ni shite beni no hana

recalling to mind
an eyebrow brush
benihana (Safflower blossoms)

Oku no Hosomichi, Obanazawa, Summer 1684, Matsuo Basho

Note. Mayu, まゆ the first two characters, means eyebrow. Its homophone, 繭 a silkworm cocoon. Beni no hana, 紅粉の花, literally red powder flower. Safflowers produce yellow and red dyes which range from light yellow through pink, rose and crimson. For this reason, they are popular in cosmetics.

Basho’s annotation from the travelogue, Oku no Hosomichi:

“I visited Seifu in Obanazawa. He is a rich merchant of a truly poetic turn of mind. He has a deep understanding of the hardships of being on the road, for he himself had often traveled to the capital city. He invited me to stay at his place as long as I wished, trying to make me comfortable in every way he could.”


Basho added this haiku by Sora:

kogai suru hito wa kodai no sugata kana

those tending silkworms keep their ancient appearances


Note. Kogai, 蠶飼. Silkworms are the larval form of the silk moth. The caterpillar spins a cocoon out of silk fibers for its metamorphosis into a moth. Silkworms have been domesticated since at least 3500 BC.

benihana, Safflower blossom

The Heart of a Traveler

Summer of 1693

The hearts of two wayfarers,
too soon comes the hour, we are saddened by parting,
and death’s flower.

Resembling the heart of a wayfarer, a Chinquapin flower
A wayfarer’s heart resembles, a Shinohana
旅人の 心にも似よ 椎の花
Tabibito no Kokoro nimo niyo Shinohana

NoteShi, 死 the Japanese word for death. Shinohana, a homophone, death’s flower.

A sorrowful person will learn from the trip, taught by the flies of Kiso
uki hito no tabi ni mo narae Kiso no hae .

Matsuo Basho, Summer 1693, Kiso Valley

For Matsuo Basho, the end is near. It is the summer of 1693. His nephew Koin, who was staying with him in his Fukagawa hut, had died. Basho is on the Nakasendo Road to his home. Perhaps to deliver the news. Perhaps, Kyoriku, an artist friend accompanied him, part way, or the two met along the way. Then parted, wayfarers on life’s short journey.

Horse Chestnut flowers fallen on the ground

Much like the Horse Chestnut (Ozark chinquapin) that blooms in my backyard, in June, the Castanopsis flowers, or Chinquapin, too, are blooming in Japan’s Kiso mountains. The long cattail-like flowers falling and littering the ground.

The wabi-sabi, 侘び 寂び of the moment moves Matsuo Basho. On the one hand, the flower falling to the ground comforts him with its fleeting beauty.

On the other hand, the flies give him no peace.

Found on the Internet

Letter to Kyoroku, late April, 1693.

For five or six days now, his misery has been intense,
Toin appears close to death. Last evening, Torin came over to nurse him all night long.
But this is tuberculosis, there is no quick end. The beauty of cherry blossoms dwell in my heart,
and as this was Toin’s last season, I took him to see the blossoms, and he was happy.

Note. Taihakudo Torin (d. 1719), Basho’s friend and disciple, who retraced Basho’s 1689 journey three years after his death, preparing the way for the publication of Oku no Hosomichi.

Source. Basho4humanity

Nakasendo Way, Hiroshige

Twice Awake

Hiroshige, Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, 1857

Two haiku, both probably written in the winter of 1686. Matsuo Basho was back in Edo for the spring and summer of 1686, staying in his retreat called Basho’an (banana hut). As the two haiku imply, he is into Zen Buddhism. Earlier in the year he wrote his most famous haiku about the frog, the pond, and the sound of water — “splash”.

瓶割るる/ 夜の氷の寝覚め哉
kame waruru/ yoru no koori no/ nezame kana

The bottle cracks
awakened at night
by the ice

Matsuo Basho, Basho-an, Edo, 貞亨3年冬, December, 1686

Note. As usual, Matsuo Basho kept a glass bottle of water by his bedside at night. Basho explains, “The night was cold and I woke to the cracking sound of a bottle. Koori means ice in both haiku. The ice probably broke the bottle.” Nezame means awakening. Yoru no Nezame (夜の寝覚) refers to a 11th century Japanese romance, and it is generally translated as “Wakefulness at Night”. If we take Basho at his word, “wakeful”, then he is not only feeling the cold, but hearing it as well.

abura koori/ tomoshibi hosoki/ nezame kana

oil is freezing
the light is dimming
awakening at night

Matsuo Basho, Basho-an, Winter, ca. 1686

Note. The two haiku could possibly be the same cold winter. Tomoshibi is an oil lamp. Rapeseed oil was the likely fuel source.

Fried Pies

Deep in the Arbuckle Mountains

Sharing a Fried Coconut Pie

At Turner Falls

My wife and I were driving from Wichita to Dallas for a Mother’s Day Weekend with our daughter. A little more than half way, past Davis, where one enters the Arbuckle Mountains, we stopped to let the dog stretch her legs beside the clear creek. Then, as we were about to leave my wife spotted the sign saying Fried Mountain Pies at a rustic drive up cafe. A half dozen cars and a couple of men carrying brown paper bags told us all that we needed to know.

One was enough for two she said. Sharing is caring I thought.

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


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

kirigirisu, a cricket cries

How piteous!
Beneath the warrior’s helmet
A cricket cries.

むざんや   な甲の下の   きりぎりす
muzan ya na/ kabuto no shita no/ kirigirisu


Saito Sanemori

An everyday object comes alive when Basho hears a cricket chirp underneath a warrior’s helmet. Winter is approaching.

On the 8th of September, 1689, Matsuo Basho, and his companion Sora, visited Komatsu and the Shrine Tada Jinja 多太神社, the birthplace of the Genji-clan, in Ishikawa prefecture. The shrine was famous as it contained contained the 12th century helmet of the Samurai warrior Saito Sanemori 斉藤実盛 who sided with the losing Heike. The old warrior was brought back from retirement, when he died in battle in 1183. To conceal his age, Sanemori dyed his white hair black.

Basho explains:

We visited Tada shirine where Sanemori’s helmet and a piece of his brocade robe are stored. It is said they were given to the Sanemori by Lord Yoshitomo of Minaoto,when Sanemori served with the Genji clan.

It was no ordinary helmet. From the peak to the turned-back ear flanges, it was embellished with chrysanthemum arabesques in gold. The crest was a dragon’s head, and the helmet had proud and graceful fla, gilded “horns.”

When Sanemori was killed in battle, Kiso Yoshinaka sent Jiro of Higuchi to offer these relics to the shrine. All this is vividly recorded in the shrine’s chronicles.

The first line of Basho’s haiku comes from a play, Sanemori, by Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443), in which a traveling priest encounters Sanemori’s ghost, who narrates his own story and death at Shinowara. During the clash, Sanemori’s head is struck off, only to be found later by an enemy general, Higuchi Jiro. The severed head is washed in a pond and the white hair is revealed. Recognizing the familiar white hair, Higuchi Jiro cries out “Muzan ya na!” “How piteous!”. Awe-struck with grief, Higuchi Jiro is brought back to reality by the sound of a cricket.

Notes on translation

むざんや, Muzan ya na, clearly more than a simple interjection, muzan conveys the sense of grief and tragedy.

, Kabuto, a Japanese Samurai helmet

きりぎりす, Kirigirisu, literally a cricket or a grasshopper and nothing more; unspoken, but implied is the human emotion of crying. A cricket seems less significant to me than a grasshopper, though the two terms were indistinguishable to Basho. Moreover, in Japanese culture, the cricket is an autumn symbol, a sign of approaching winter and death, a kind of melancholy, nostalgic feeling.

samurai costume

Oh dear, green leaves, bright sun

Oh dear! green leaves, young leaves, sparkling sun

あらたふ と青葉若葉の 日の光
ara touto aoba wakaba no hi no hikari


Basho and his traveling companion Sora arrived at Mount Nikko (日光 nikki, the sun’s brilliance) on March the 30th and lodged at an inn at the foot of the mountain.

Basho writes:

“The inn’s host introduced himself as ‘Honest’ Gozaemon (五左衛門) and told me to sleep in perfect peace on his grass pillow, that his sole ambition was to be worthy of his name ( to protect). I watched him carefully, and found him stubbornly honest, utterly devoid of worldly cleverness. It was as if the good Buddha himself had taken the shape of a man to help me in my wanderings. Indeed, such holy honesty and purity like his must not be scorned, for it verges on the perfection Confucius preaches.”

Basho continues:

“On the first day of the fourth month, I climbed Mount Nikko, which means the bright beams of the sun… A thousand years ago, the sainted Kobo Diashi (Kukai) built a temple upon it. He must have had the power to see into the future, for the mountain is now the seat of the most sacred of shrines and its benevolent power protects the land, embracing the people like the bright beams of the sun. To say more about the shrine would violate its holiness.”

How awe inspiring, to stand in solitude amidst the newly budded maple trees and towering cedars ( Sugi), with the blue morning sky a background, and the brilliant yellow sun sparkling through the pale green leaves. Surely, sainted Kobo Diashi had experienced this moment too.

Gentle reader, who has not seen the sun sparkling through the new pale green leaves of spring and summer and not been inspired?


あら ara, Oh!
若葉 wakaba, young pale green leaves
青葉若葉 aoba wakaba, the young leaves of early summer
日の光 no hi no hikari, sunlight
光 hikari, gleaming, sparkling light
日光 nikki, bright sunlight