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

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