East West 東西 higashi nishi

East or west
Just one melancholy thing –
Autumn wind.

東西 あはれさひとつ 秋の風
higashi nishi / aware sa hitotsu / aki no kaze

japanese-couple

Explanation of Basho’s haiku

East and west, it is all the same sorrow when one so young dies so soon.

Basho lived in Fukagawa, Edo (the East Capital), and his disciple Mukai Kyorai 向井去来 in Kyoto (the West Capital). In the summer of 1686, Kyorai and his younger sister Chine went on a journey to the Ise shrine.

They kept a journal, the Ise Journal* that begins:

“The sun hot yet wind cool on our heads,
I take my younger sister on a pilgrimage to Ise.”

Chine replied:

“Until Ise
such good companions,
morning geese.”

Chine died two years later at the young age of 25 on the 15th day of the 5th lunar month.

She wrote a final haiku:

Easily glows and easily goes a firefly
もえやすく又消やすき蛍哉
moe yasuku mata kie yasuki hotaru kana

In tribute, Basho wrote his haiku in the eighth lunar month.

Notes on translation

あはれさひとつ aware sa hitotsu could also be translated as “our sorrow is the same”

East or west / our sorrow’s the same / an autumn wind

An autumn wind (秋の風 aki no kaze) is understandably melancholy, summer is over and winter near. In another haiku, Basho references the Autumn Wind – Shake even the grave, My wailing is the autumn wind, 塚も動け我が泣聲は 秋の風, tsuka mo ugoke waga naku koe wa aki no kaze.

Americans and Japanese of the World War II generation are, no doubt familiar with the term Kamikaze, 神風, “divine wind” or “spirit wind”. The historically ancient term Kamikase refers to the 13th century wind that saved Japan from a Mongol invasion.

*Kyorai’s Ise Journal, Ise Kiko. See also the well-written post The Life and Death of Chine, by Writers in Kyoto .

Ame oriori, 雨折々

bridge crossing Sumida River from Edo to Fukagawa

Hiroshige-Atake-detail-2

At Taisui’s house

Basho attends an all night party at Taisui’s house, nearby in Fukagawa. It rained 折々 oriori, off and on (intermittently, or occasionally). Awaiting dawn.

Taisui’s courtesy name 苔水 / 岱水 translates as spring rain.

Taisui writes:

“Rain, but not enough to come through the jacket.”
Uwabari wo / tusanu hodo no / ame huri te

Bashō ponders this.

Perhaps, like the farmer, Basho wishes it would rain. The farmer gets a day off, the rice sprouts, and Basho delays his departure.

Occasional rain / no worry / rice seedlings sprout
雨折々思ふ事なき早苗哉
ame ori ori / omou koto naki / sanae kana

Notes on translation

May 皐月 satsuki is the month to plant rice seedlings nae.

Rain inspires us in all its forms. Like English, Japanese has many expressions for rain, the most general being 雨 ame. Compare 五月雨 samidare, a heavy rain that occurs in May. Also 降雨 jiàngyǔ, rainfall; 雨量 yǔliàng, rainfall.

As used by Basho, 雨折々 ame ori ori, is an occasional rain.

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

a charming wild violet

coming along a mountain path, somehow so charming – a wild violet

山路来て 何やらゆかし すみれ草

yamaji kite naniyara yukashi sumiregusa

wild-violet

Matsuo Basho wrote this haiku in his Journal of 1684, a travelogue of  his journey from Edo (Tokyo) to visit his birthplace in Iga Province after hearing of his mother’s death. The journey was on horseback and on foot, often over mountainous roads.

This haiku was written crossing the mountains near Lake Biwa on the way to Otsu. Basho observing a tiny wild violet in the grass was inspired.

Basho’s Journal of 1684, translated by Donald Keene (page 142)

Notes on translation

山路 yamaji, mountain path
来て kite, to come
何やら naniyari, somehow, for some reason
ゆかし yukashi, charming, admirable, enchanting
すみれ草 sumi regusa, wild violet; literally a violet in the grass

Further note

Enya wrote a song Sumiregusa about the wild violet, and performed it in Japanese – Sumiregusa: wild violet monono aware: attune to the pathos of things haruno hana to fuyu mo yuki: spring flowers and winter snow hara hara: the sound of falling snow.

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

Nikko

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?

Notes

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
morning

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