A Pillow of Grass

Let us dine on barley grain
On a journey nowhere

(kusa makura)

come, together
let us eat barley grain
on a grass pillow

iza tomo ni/ homugi kurawan/ kusa makura


barley field, 麦畑

Summer 1685

On “a journey of a thousand leagues,” one that began in the autumn of 1684, a trip in which Basho would enter “into nothingness under the midnight moon,” and now, in the summer of 1685, was near its end, a chance meeting took place. It was a meeting that meant everything and nothing, remarkable enough to inspire a haiku, to remember, but nothing else.

The poet from Edo and the priest from Hirugakojima met somewhere near Nagoya in Owari province. Let us imagine the introduction:

“Come let us go together. As you see, you and I have no place to be. Asking for very little, eating a simple fare of barley grain, ‘neath the stars at night, sleeping on a pillow of grass until we say our goodbyes.”

We learn little of the priest other than the fact that he hails from the island of Hirugakojima (蛭が小嶋) in Izu. The significance becoming apparent only when we realize that the shrine and the temple on the island was built by Yoritomo Minamoto (1147-1199), who established the Kamakura shogunate, a play on words with kusamakura (草枕), the grass pillow.

In 1689, pursuant to his last wishes, Basho would be buried next to Minamoto no Yoshinaka, a member of the Minamoto samurai clan.

Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field

It was the first of Matsuo Basho’s major wanderings, a trip that took him from Edo to Mount Fuji, then on to Ueno, Nara, Kyoto, and Nagoya, a trip begun in uncertainty for Basho made trip alone without provisions. Basho was 41, old enough to have achieved fame as poet and teacher, still uncertain about where life was leading him.

We need not tarry too long on this journey. David Landis Barnhill has given us a translation online of the Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field, (Nozarashi kiko).

Dewa Province Mogami River


David Landis Barnhill gives us a chronological translation online of the Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field, (Nozarashi kiko) .

WKD – Matsuo Basho Archives, Gabi Greve, Iza, let’s go

The Route, Nozarashi Kiko (野ざらし紀行), Several sources indicate that Basho was accompanied on the journey by his disciple Chiri. Chiri (塵) is an interesting moniker for it means dust. Dust was on occasion a subject of Basho’s haiku.

blossoms falling, birds startled by the harp’s dust
chiru hana ya / tori mo odoroku / koto no chiri

Wintry Wind, Kogarashi

The wintry wind,
Swelling cheeks and throbbing pain on
Peoples’ faces

Kogarashi ya/ Hoobare itamu/ Hito no kao

こがらしや 頬腫痛む 人の顔

Though we don’t know, let us imagine that the year is 1672, Basho at age 28, has moved to Edo (now Tokyo), the seat of the newly established Tokugawa shoguns. He is there to make his career as a professional haiku poet. Picture a street in Edo, it is winter, the trees have been striped of their leaves by a strong wind blowing out of the North. Men and women, old and young, pull up their collars and tighten their scarves and scurry down the street trying to avoid the bitter wind that bites their cheeks.

In the words of Lao Tzu, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” And those who feel know how truly cold it is. Normally, a face reveals nothing, but a bitterly cold wind reveals the pain one feels on a winter’s day.

Kogarashi is a marker for the start of the winter season. According to the Japan Meteorological Agency, the wind must blow from the north at a speed of 28.8 kph (18 mph) and be capable of stripping leaves from the tree.

Wintry Scene in Edo, Utagawa Hiroshige

A world turned upside down

withered and bowed
a world upside down,
as bamboo to snow

shiore fusu ya yo wa sakasama no yuki no take

萎れ伏 すや世はさかさまの 雪の竹


Bashō’s Early Haiku

In 1666, after the death of his samurai master, Matsuo Bashō, age 24, moved to Kyoto to study haiku. That winter Bashō visited the home of a young couple whose child had died. Bowing in respect, he entered, and saw the parents’ tear-streaked faces.

The scene reminded Basho of a Nōh play by Zeami Motokiyo (c. 1363 – c. 1443), Take no Yuki, Snow on Bamboo. In the play, a father rids himself of his wife for a “trifling” reason. He sends his daughter to live with he mother and keeps his son to be the heir to his fortune, and takes a new wife. When the father goes on a pilgrimage, the step-mother sends her step-son into a bamboo grove and the freezing snow. He dies, but the gods, moved by the grief of his father and real mother, bring him back to life.

In the play, Tsukiwaka, the young boy, is given these lines just before he dies:

The wind stabbed him, and the night wore on,
The snow grew hard with ice, he could not brush away.
“I will go back,” he thought, and pushed at the barred gate.
“Open!” he cried, and pounded with his frozen hands.
No one heard him, his blows made no sound.
“Oh the cold, the cold! I cannot bear.
Help, help Tsukiwaka!”
Never did the wind blow more wildly!

Notes on Translation

Shiore fusu, 萎れ伏 , withered and bent down.  , fusu, bowing down, a mark of respect Bashō gave the grieving couple on entering their home.

Sakasama, 逆さま, literally upside down, inverted; yo wa, 世は, the world, but a word play on being unsteady or tipsy.

Yuki no Take, 雪の竹, snow to bamboo

Black Crow on a Snowy Morning

A black crow is detestable –
But on a snowy morning?

higoro nikuki karasu mo yuki no ashita kana

ひごろ    にくき烏も   雪の朝哉

Koishikawa yuki no ashita, Snowy morning at Koishikawa

A haiku about nothing

Before there was Jerry Seinfeld, there was Matsuo Basho. Jerry Seinfeld was an American comedian who made observational humor. He had a long-running television show, whose moniker was, ” a show about nothing”, where the nothings consisted of the daily doings of Jerry and his friends. These events somehow became funny.

Like Seinfeld, Basho’s haiku often concerned everyday events that in one way or another took on meaning.

This poem was written in 1691, at Gichu-ji, a Tendai temple in Otsu on Lake Biwa, where Basho often stayed in a cottage called Mumyo-an, “Nameless Hut”. Basho was there with Mizuta Masahide, and with little to do replied to a friend who had written him a letter.

“Yesterday, it snowed and was terribly cold. I was in my hut and so, did not go anywhere. Then I had this thought. ‘Normally, a black crow is a detestable thing, but what about on a snowy morning?'”


Translating the Haiku

Higoro, ひごろ, normally, daily.

Karusu, 烏, crow or raven. These big black hungry birds in flocks of hundreds often make an early morning noisy nuisance.

Yuki no ashita, 雪の朝, a snowy morning.


About the Image

“Snowy Morning from Koishikawa” (Koishikawa yuki no ashita), circa 1830, by Katsushika Hokusai, 葛飾 北斎, from the series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjurokkei)”. This image may be found at the Art Institute of Chicago and elsewhere.

Sonome – White Chrysanthemum

白菊の   目に立てゝ見る    塵もなし

shiragiku no / me ni tatete miru / chiri mo nashi

in the eye of a white chrysanthemum
there is not a speck of dust

gazing intently
at a white chrysanthemum
— and not a speck of dust 

Matsuo Basho’s homage to the female poet, Shiba Sonome (斯波 園女).


November 1694

In 1694, Bashō left Edo (Tokyo) for one last trip south to his place of birth and to the Ise Shrine. Arriving in Osaka, where he had studied as a youth, he visited the poetess, Shiba Sonome, who was born in Ise, the daughter of a priest from the Ise Shrine, and later the wife of a doctor. Both Sonome and her husband had been students of Bashō. Later, after the death of her husband, she became well known for her poetry, her care for others, and her beauty.

Dust on Chrysanthemums, Kiku no Chiri, 菊の塵 was one of her published works.

Bashō did not live to make it to the Ise Shrine. Within a month, as the chrysanthemum flower began to fade, he died. The date, November 28, 1694.

Notes on translation

This haiku is often translated from the point of view of the poet gazing at the chrysanthemum. I prefer a more objective view. The eye of the white chrysanthemum exists without dust.

白菊, shiragiku, the first two characters of the haiku, translate as white chrysanthemum. , literally, to live, to exist, suggests, at least to me, the Zen idea that no dust exists in the eye of the chrysanthemum.

Matsuo Basho by Hokusai
Matsuo Basho by Katsushika Hokusai

Has Spring come? 春や来

春や来     し年や行きけん     小晦日

haru ka koshi     toshi ya yukiken      kotsugomori

Has Spring come,
Is the Old Year gone,
This New Year’s Eve?

Iga region, 1663


New Year’s Eve, 1662

In the second year of Kanbun, the Shogun is Tokugawa Ietsuna. Matsuo Kinsaku is a servant to the samurai Tōdō Yoshitada (藤堂 良忠). He is not yet 20, and not yet the accomplished poet the world knows as Matsuo Basho.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

New Year’s Eve is a good time to look both ways.

Perhaps, young Matsuo and a few friends are having a traditional fare, eating a steaming hot bowl of noodles called Toshi koshi soba (年越し蕎麦), literally, the New Year’s Eve noodle. A traditional fare usually accompanied by generous helpings of Saki.

Because Spring in 1663 started on the 29th of the new year, and not the 30th or the 1st day, Basho wrote this amusing conundrum. Amusing to the diners. For buried within the haiku are the rhyming words “koshi toshi,” a play on the name of the dish, Toshi koshi soba.

Noodles — because last year’s hardships are easily broken up, and worries are swallowed and washed away with Saki.

Matsuo Kinsaku inspired

All poets copy, the great ones are inspired.

This  is thought to be Matsuo Basho’s earliest dated haiku, referring to 1662-1663, the 29th day of the lunar month before the Lunar New Year.

The inspiration and wording is based on an earlier poem by Ariwara Motokawa (888–953).

if during the old year
spring has come and
one day is left;
should we call it
last year or this year?


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

Withering Winter

The withering Winter and
The World is white –
The Sound of Wind

In the bleak Winter
When the World is one color
Is the Sound of Wind

Winter’s Solitude
And the World is one color –
The Sound of Wind

fuyugare ya    yo wa isshoku ni    kaze no oto

冬枯れ や 世は一色に    風の音

Night Snow, Utagawa Hiroshige, circa 1833, The Met

Bashō‘s meaning

It is bitter cold, one can see nothing but white, and hear nothing but the sound of wind.

One could imagine Antarctica in the winter, or a Siberian scene in Dr. Zhivago. For me it was a “white-out” in eastern Colorado, early January of 2020.

I was driving my son’s ancient Camry from Ft. Collins, Colorado to Wichita. Being an intrepid soul, I avoided the quicker Interstate 25, and instead headed east early in the morning, driving through Windsor, Colorado, on to Highway 34, then picking up Interstate 76 to Fort Morgan, before switching back to US Highway 34, then south on lonely Colorado Highway 59, and finally, at Seibert, on to Interstate 70 for the majority of the trip.

Interstate 76 and 70 in the winter are both windy, but one has the company of other trucks and cars being buffeted about. If the snow and wind are too great, then the interstate is shut down and one stays in a hotel room if one can be found.

Out on the two lane Highway 34 and the side roads like Colorado 59, the experience is quite different. There are few trees, few towns, and few houses. In places where the land has been plowed for hay, or corn, or wheat, the winter brings on vast fields of snow that when the wind blows, makes the world one solid color of white. It is frightening to drive in such conditions.

Slowing down or stopping, one hears the sound of wind, a high pitched whistle, that along with the bitter cold cuts to the bone.

Notes on translation

fuyugare, 冬枯れ, is literally the withering winter. One can infer from this that Bashō was referring to the bleakness of winter or winter’s desolation or isolation. One could also use the cliche “dead of winter,” but cliche’s should be avoided. Some translators speak of winter’s solitude, and that works too. Solitude, however, may suggest serenity, and that is not what I choose to take away from my experience in eastern Colorado.

Ah, is not the beauty of poetry that it expresses something unique to each of us? Or does it depend on the moment? Dr. Zhivago is shivering away trudging through the snow, but quite happy in his frozen palace.

ya, や, is similar to “and” in English

wa isshoku ni, 世は一色に, is literally a world of one color, which, in this case, is white.

kaze no oto, 風の音, the sound of wind, or the voice of wind, if one wishes to hear the wind speak.

Evening snow on Hira mountains, Utagawa Hiroshige, Fitzwilliam Museum


The Guest’s Shadow is like Kageboushi

The banked fire
The guest’s shadow on the wall –
A silhouette.

Uzumi-bi ya/ Kabe niha kyaku no/ Kageboushi

埋火や 壁には客の 影法師


Meaning of Matuso Basho’s haiku

A banked fire is like the guest’s shadow, is like a silhouette. A silhouette, the essence of a human being reduced to its most basic form. A shadow without substance.

A banked fire, 埋火, literally, a buried ember. The banked fire is built around rocks or stones and protected from the wind. Thus, we find Matsuo Basho and his disciples on a cold winter’s night sitting around a fire with their backs facing the wall of the inn or the home, their face and hands warmed by the fire’s heat, until the flames die down and it is time to go to bed.

If the coals from the fire are protected, there will usually be enough heat in the embers to start a fresh fire the next day. The first character 埋 also implies the quality of being buried or hidden, a fire that lies within the embers.

Kageboushi, 影法師, literally “shadowman,” refers to a silhouette, and to Shadow Theater, and indirectly to Puppet theater which became popular during the Edo Period.



Hiroshige, Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, 1857

On everyone
It sleets, you know, even the inn
Becomes cold

On everyone
It sleets, you know, even the inn
Is freezing

Hitobito wo
Shigureyo yado wa
Samuku tomo

人々を しぐれよ宿は 寒くとも

Hiroshige, Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, 1857
Hiroshige (1797–1858), Meguro Drum Bridge, 1857

Winter of 1689

If this was (as I suppose it was) written in the winter of 1689 at a poetry gathering with Bashō’s disciples and friends in Ueno, Bashō’s hometown, then I suppose the general feeling was both warm and chilly as the winter sleet made even the inn where they had gathered cold. The timing of the gathering was the culmination of Basho’s celebrated Journey to the North. It was not a journey that Matsuo Bashō believed that he would survive, and no doubt the friends at the gathering were eager to hear the details.

So  much so that the sleet and the cold sharpened the tales that Bashō told.

Thoughts on English translation

Shigure 時雨 (しぐれ) may mean a driving rain, sleet. There is a thorough discussion on the World Kigo Database. The addition of the suffix yo is a nuanced “I say” or “you know”. The sleet, as you know, is so cold even the inns and houses feel it too.

Samuku tomo 寒くとも becomes cold, is freezing.

One is tempted to interpolate at this point. Shigure might also mean to figuratively shed tears at the coming together of the friends at the inn after Basho’s long journey to the north. One is also tempted to think of the symbolism of the quick winter rains as a metaphor for Thomas Hobbes’ (1588 – 1679) expression that life is “nasty, brutish, and short”.

Shiwasu – 師走の

Snow and more snow,
On this December night
Is there a beautiful bright moon?

This winter’s night
So much for the full moon

Yuki to yuki/  Koyoi shiwasu no/  Meigetsu ya

雪と雪 今宵師走の 名月か

Hiroshige, Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, 1857
Hiroshige (1797–1858), Meguro Drum Bridge

Winter’s Night, 1684

In the Japanese calendar, the Japanese refer to the 12th lunar month as shiwasu. At a renga party where poets compete to form haiku with complementing verses, not everyone has arrived. Meanwhile, the conversation centers on the snowy weather and who is late.

Should they start reciting haiku? After all, there is a lot to do before the Lunar New Year arrives.

Matsuo Bashō begins:

I run, you run, the days are brief, so we all run, shiwasu, even the priests run to complete their tasks.

Snow and more snow,
On this December night
Is there a beautiful bright moon?

Notes on English translation

Yuki to yuki (雪と雪) snow and more snow, snow upon snow, something approaching a blizzard.

Koyoi (今宵) tonight, this evening

Shiwasu (師走の), the 12th lunar month, December. Literally, it means “priests run”, implying that even Buddhist monks and Shinto priests also have to run around, as they are very busy for the yearend.  Shiwa (師走) may also refer to a teacher or master, meaning that Bashō is also running at this time of year.

Meigetsu (名月) often refers here to a bright moon or to a full moon, which according to the old Japanese lunar calendar, appeared on the fifteenth night of each month. This is similar to the Roman “ides”, marking the first appearance of the full moon.


As always, there are many good translations of Basho’s haiku, but one of the best is: Basho’s Haiku, Selected Poems by Matsuo Basho, no. 147.

evening snow at kanbara
Evening Snow at Kanbara