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

Like a cloud in the wind

like clouds in the wind
a wild goose and his friend
depart

or,

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

雲とへだつ友かや雁の生き別れ

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

病雁の夜寒に落ちて旅寝哉
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.

cropped-basho.jpg

Amid clouds of blossoms we walk – Matsuo Basho

Amid the clouds of blossoms
Is the bell’s chime Ueno
Or Asakusa?

花の雲 鐘は上野か 浅草か

Hana no kumo/ Kane ha Ueno ka Asakusa ka

peach-blossom

Trailing clouds of blossoms we walk

In Japan, it is spring and the cherry trees are in full bloom.

We cannot know, but perhaps Matsuo Basho and his students are in Kiyosumi Gardens, in the Fukagawa District where Basho lived.  A disciple begins the discussion by saying, “Is it not heavenly, Master Basho, to walk in the midst of so many cherry blossoms?”

Then a single blossom falls. To which Basho replies, “In the even the smallest flower that falls, I fear, lies a truth too deep for tears.”

At that moment the sound of the bell is heard.

Fukagawa, Ueno, Asakusa

Fukagawa, where Basho lives, is on the other side of the Sumida River from Ueno and Asakusa. These well known areas include Buddhist and Shinto temples, as well as shopping and residential areas. In Asakusa is the famous Buddhist Sensō-ji temple. In Ueno is the Shinto shrine Ueno Tōshō-gū. Ueno is known as a working class district, while Asakusa is home to the more prosperous citizens of ancient Edo.

Notes on translation

花 hana flower, blossom

雲 kumo cloud

鐘 kane bell, chime

上野 ueno, temples include the Shinto shrine Ueno Tōshō-gū; a working class area

浅草 Asakusa, an area along the Sumida River including the ancient Sensō-ji temple; it is an upscale area, a place for the rich and prosperous

清澄庭園 Kiyosumi Garden, today’s strolling garden was developed after Basho’s time on earth, but an earlier garden no doubt existed. The garden contains a stone monument to Basho and his most famous haiku, an ancient pond, frog and the sound of water.

senso-ji temple
senso-ji temple

 

Do butterflies dream? Matsuo Basho

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

or,

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

君や蝶我や荘子が夢心

kimi ya cho ware ya Sooji ga yumegokoro

butterfly-blue

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?

butterfly-drop

Winter’s Drizzle

Without hat
While winter drizzles
Well, well

笠もなきわれを時雨るるかこは何と

kasa mo naki ware o shigururu ka ko wa nanto

Hiroshige-Atake-detail

Winter’s drizzle

In northern Japan, the winter drizzle 時雨 that continuously falls in late autumn and winter is a familiar sight. Here in the Midwest, in March, the rain falls to a steady beat. The farmers bless the coming of the rain, a sign of a good year to come.

Like a drifting cloud, Basho has no preconceived notion of where he’s supposed to be or go, or what he is supposed to wear.

What prompted Basho’s haiku?

This haiku is from Matsuo Basho’s book Weather-Beaten Journey (1685). The book opens with Basho’s quote of a Buddhist priest, “Traveling a thousand li, I bring no provisions, under the midnight moon, I enter the land of nothingness.”

Hat, no hat, winter’s drizzle, where am I to go, what am I to do?

Notes on translation

笠 bamboo hat
雨 rain
時雨 winter drizzle
るる continuously
かこ the past, try not to dwell on the past
何と whatever, what, when

 

winter rain no hat Utagawa Kuniyoshi
heavy rain no hat Utagawa Kuniyoshi, wikiart

 

Rough Seas, Sado Island, and the Heavenly River

the rough sea / stretching towards Sado Island/ and the Heavenly River

荒海や佐渡によこたふ天河

araumi ya / Sado ni yokotau / amanogawa

the rough sea / stretching towards Sado Island/ and the Heavenly River

Sora’s Diary, July 6, 1689

According to the notes of Sora, Matsuo Basho’s younger companion on his journey to the north, the two arrive in Niigata after a grueling 9 days from Sakata, during which the humid weather afflicts the nerves and there is no writing. On the night of July 6, Master Basho stares out at the rough Japan Sea towards Sado Island and observes the sea, the island, and the Milky Way as one.

Basho’s Road, by Scott Watson, No. 39

Basho and Sora arrival on July 7th coincides with the celebration of Tanabata or Star Festival. It celebrates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (“star crossed lovers” Vega and Altair), who it is said are separated by the Heavenly River and allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.

Basho did not make the trip to Sado Island, which is about 40 miles off the western coast of Japan. The isolated island was well known as place where noblemen, warriors, artists and high priests were exiled for political crimes. It is home to several temples and shrines.

Notes on translation

荒海 rough seas
に into
佐渡 Sado Island
天河 Milky Way, literally Heavenly River

evening-milky-way

Gabi Greve provides a good narrative explaining Basho’s haiku and several alternate translatins.

First Snow on Shin Ohashi Bridge

初雪や
懸けかかりたる橋
の上に

Hatsu-yuki ya
kake-kakari-taru hashi
no ue ni

First Snow
falling on the unfinished bridge,
Oh, if only on top

わからない, Wakaranai, I don’t understand

“Master Basho,” the disciple says after reading this haiku, “Wakaranai, わからない, I don’t understand.”

After a momentary pause, Master Basho replies, “Those who speak, do not know. Those who know, need not speak.”

The disciple bows his head, the fingers of his two hands interlaced in his lap, and exhaling a deep breath before repeats, almost as if in prayer, “Wakaranai.”

The old master removes his cap and runs his hands through his graying hair. Then he strokes the beard of his chin as if it were the fur of a cat and says, “We are all looking for answers. But some things in life are mysteries. There are no answers my son. Perhaps, a haiku, a word picture may suffice.”

After a moment, the disciple nods.

Unexplainable, unknowable, ineffable

Even the most gifted writers know than not all experiences can be rendered into language. A common example, the first light of the morning sun parting the darkness greeting the new day. “You had to be there,” one usually says when trying to describe the unexplainable, the unknowable, the ineffable.

Matsuo Basho’s haiku is inspired by the building of the lofty Shin Ohashi (New Great Bridge). Constructed in the fall of 1693, it spanned the Sumida River, and for the first time linked the bustling city center of Edo (old name for Tokyo) and rustic Fukagawa, where Basho lived in a hut provide to him by his disciples. One source reports that the construction was begun “in July and finished in five months on Dec. 7 1693.” (See the online essay, The Spaces of Robert Hass, March 10, 2015, James Karkoski). If so, it still allows time for the a first winter’s snow before the bridge’s completion, a moment for Matsuo Basho to stand below the unfinished bridge.

Although it depicts rain and a completed bridge, this later day painting by Japanese artist Hiroshige, 1857, conveys a sense of being exposed to the Nature’s elements.

Hiroshige Atake Shin Ohashi  bridge Shizuoka city Tokaido Hiroshige Museum of Art
Hiroshige Atake, Shin Ohashi bridge, Shizuoka city Tokaido Hiroshige Museum of Art

Lost in translation

Translators rarely agree about wording and Matsuo Basho’s poem is no exception.

The most Spartan example by David Landis Barnhill:
first-snow ! / make / bridge ’s top

Robert Hass:
first snow
falling
on the half finished bridge

This last example seems to eliminate the last line of Basho’s poem, の上に, no ue ni, which I render as “If only on top” and adding the gratuitous exclamation “Oh”.

One might add a little more context to the haiku by explaining that Basho moved from Edo to Fukagawa in 1680. The river Sumida separated the two and there were no bridges. I suspect that not all of the residents would look forward to becoming a part of metropolitan Edo (Tokyo).

Understanding and knowing

One has to wonder if there is a difference in Japanese between understanding and knowing. My answer is: わかりませんです, Wakarimasendesu.