October 1, 1691

Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō

Such things as cherished tears
color
the scattered red leaves

尊がる涙や 染めて 散る紅葉
tootogaru namida ya somete chiru momiji

Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō
Maple Leaves at Tsūtenkyō, near Kyoto

The Autumn Years

It is near the beginning of the end.

Beginning in 1690, Bashō was gone from Edo, living in quiet retirement at the Genju-an (the Phantom Dwelling), what had been an abandoned hut with a rush door, near Lake Biwa. He spent his days working on the book that would make him famous, Narrow Road to the Deep North and making short trips to visit friends and former students. On the first day of October he called on the Priest Ryu, at the Myosho-ji Temple in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture.

This visit inspired the above haiku.

After calling on his friend, Bashō returned to Edo to a new house near the old one in Fukagawa, complete with five banana plants. For the next three years, he would work on another anthology of poetry before setting out once more in the spring of 1694 for his birthplace.

On the way, at Osaka, he took ill and died, age 50.

Notes on translation

Momijigari, 紅葉狩り –  Maple viewing, a Japanese autumn tradition of visiting where the maple leaves have turned red. From momiji (紅葉) meaning the “maple tree” as well as “red leaves” and  “color changing”; and kari (狩り) “hunting”.

Bashō, Spring 1678

The Captain-General too
Kneels before
His Imperial Majesty in Spring

Kabitan mo/  tsukubawakeri/   kimi ga haru

甲比丹もつ  くばはせけり   君が春

Dutch_tribute_embassy_to_Edo 

Tsukubawakeri

According to Japanese legend, thousands of years ago a deity descended from the heavens and asked both Mount Fuji and Mount Tsukuba to offer themselves as a place to spend the night. Proud and arrogant Mount Fuji said that it was already at a peak of perfection and didn’t require any other blessings. Thus, it refused.

Mount Tsukuba, on the other hand, thought of nothing but being a good host. So, it offered itself as a place of rest, giving the deity its trees as cover, its nuts and fruit as food, and streams as water. This is why, as the story goes, Mt. Fuji is cold and stark while Mount Tsukuba is always covered in beautiful foliage.

Spring 1678

Matsuo Basho’s poetry was an extension of the art form of haikai-no-renga. This is a group activity in which each participant displays wit by spontaneously composing a verse in response to the verse that came before; the simpler the two verses, the more interesting the images, the more impressive the poet’s ability.

As a young man, Matsuo served the family of Todo Shinshichiro, a samurai general in charge of the Iga region where Basho was born. He attended the young Todo Yoshitada, who wrote verse in the renga style. Yoshitada died at the young age of 28 and Basho, now freed of his obligation, moved on, continuing his interest in poetry. Matsuo Bashō studied under the likes of Kigin Kitamura in Kyoto before moving to Edo in 1672. By the spring of 1678, he had moved up through literary circles, receiving instruction from Nishiyama Sōin, who founded the Danrin school (談林派, literally talkative forest).

Bashō became the tree that towered over the forest.

Kabitan mo/  tsukubawakeri/   kimi ga haru

This haiku, that uses the Dutch Captain General as a subject, is perhaps a tongue in cheek reference to himself, Bashō paying due to those that came before him and taught him the art of haiku.

Two years later in 1680, Bashō would complete the break and move to Fukagawa on the forlorn eastern bank of the Sumida River. There he took on his well-known haigō, “Bashō” taken from the banana tree given to him by a student.

Notes on Japanese translation

甲比丹 kapitan, captain general, likely derived from the original Portuguese and later Dutch term for the head the head of a trading company in Japan
mo, also
kanji lord, ruler
haru, spring, springtime

君が春
kimi ga haru, I am not sure I am happy with my translation of “His Imperial Majesty in Spring”. There is some semblance with the Japanese word Kimigayo, which is usually translated as “His Imperial Majesty’s Reign”. This is the former Japanese National Anthem based on a poem from the Heian Period (794–1185). The first lines of the poem (Kimigayo wa, Chiyo ni yachiyo ni) are roughly translated as “Thousands of years of happy reign be thine.”

seken no aki o sakaichō

A rainy day
This autumn world
Sakai town

雨の日や世間の秋を堺町

Ame no hi ya seken no aki o sakaichō

Utagawa Hiroshige, White Rain on the Nihon Bridge

[Utagawa Hiroshige, White Rain on the Nihon Bridge, 1838, credit, Yale Art Museum]

A Rainy Day in Autumn, 1678

“…seken no aki o sakaichō”

It sounds good to the ear even when you don’t know Japanese.

It is 1678, Matsuo Bashō, age 35, is living in Edo (Tokyo) in Nihonbashi, Edo’s city center . He is part of the Japanese literary society composing haikai no renga, comical linked verse (now shortened to haiku).

Two years from now, Bashō will move across the Sumida River to the then rural and unconnected by a bridge  Fukagawa District. The bridge would come soon and Bashō would write a haiku about its construction. It would be nine more years until Matsuo Bashō and his traveling companion, Kawai Sora, would make their celebrated journey Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道), Journey to the Narrow North.

For now, Bashō is taking in all that Edo has to offer.

By the 17th century, the population in Edo (Tokyo) numbers in the neighborhood of 150,000 people. Along the western edge of the Sumida River, Edo’s theaters and playhouses are being built, mingling with houses of prostitution, with a mixture of tea-houses and Geisha-houses, where conversations with poets and actors are the main attraction.

Of course, they serve sushi and sake in Sakaichō.

It must have been a sensational sight, walking shoulder to shoulder, even in the soaking rain.

Ame no hi ya, seken no aki o sakaichō.

sakai-cho-color

[Kabuki Theaters at Sakai-cho, Opening Day of the New Season (Sakai-cho Shibai no Zu), artist Utagawa Hiroshige, 1838, credit, Metropolitan Museum of Art.]

Notes on Japanese translation

雨の日, ame no hi, rainy days
世間 seken, world, society
aki, autumn

Closure, the final haiku

Meoto Iwa Married Couple Rocks
Meoto Iwa Married Couple Rocks
Meoto Iwa, Married Couple Rocks

As firmly cemented clam shells
Fall apart in Autumn
So too, I take to the road again

Farewell my friends

蛤の
ふたみにわかれ
行秋ぞ

hamaguri no / futami ni wakare / yuku aki zo

September haiku

It is September 1689. The leaves begin to change colors. Though it may still be hot, the weather can be unpredictable. The typhoons that come in August may still appear.

Matsuo Basho has made his way from Tsuruga, north of Lake Biwa, and proceeded on horseback to the relaxing city of Ogaki in Mino Province. This was coincidentally (or not) near the site of the Battle of Sekigahara, which brought relative peace to Japan and the beginning of the Tokugawa period. In Ogaki, Sora (Basho’s companion on much of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Oku no Hosomichi, 奥の細道) and another friend Etsujin join Basho at the house of Joko. Other friends, including Zensen and Keiko and his sons, came to see Basho, as if he had returned from the dead.

Closure

It is only fitting that Matsuo Bashō end his journey in Mie Prefecture, the province of his birth near the city of Ueno, and the location of Iga Ueno Castle where he had served as a young boy and man.

On September the 6th, though fatigued from his long journey, Basho went to see the dedication of a Shinto Shrine. Stepping into a boat, Basho makes the journey down the Suimon River to the eastern coast. If he stopped along the way to visit his birthplace or the Iga Ueno Castle, that fact was not recorded. His destination, the Okitama Shrine in Futami (or the more famous Grand Ise Shrine, I am not sure which). There Basho watched the waves crashing against the well-known Meoto Iwa (夫婦岩, Married Couple Rocks) that separate at high tide.

Observing the water come and go, Basho looks to find closure to his journey. So, he included this final haiku in his book The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Literally

A literal translation is:

Hamaguri clams of Futami break apart in Autumn.

Or,

Hamaguri clams of Futami part in Autumn.

Futami is a pun on the words body and lid, two bodies, thus the stretch by translators to “Clams firmly cemented”. The second line is also a pun on the idea of parting for Futami and breaking apart. Futami suggests another image, that of Married Couples Rock. Married couples, whose love blossoms in spring and heats up in summer, now by autumn, find their love has cooled and faded.

There is a final coincidental reference – the Hamaguri clam’s hard shell is used to make stones in the Chinese game of Go.

man-womqan-hands

Original Image of Married Rocks from Wikipedia.

Sado Island

a stormy sea stretches out to Sado Island / the Milky Way

荒海や佐渡によこたふ天河
araumi ya / Sado ni yokotau / amanogawa

[July 1689]

Sea of Japan, island of Sado, Milky Way, Tanabata festival
Sea of Japan, island of Sado, Milky Way, Tanabata festival

Basho writes

Station 33 – Echigo 越後路

After lingering in Sakata for several days, I traveled [south] a stretch of a hundred and thirty miles to the capital of the province of Kaga. As I looked up at the clouds gathering around the mountains alongside the Hokuriku road, the thought of the distance before me almost overwhelmed my heart. Driving myself all the while, however, I entered the province of Echigo through the barrier-gate of Nezu, and arrived at the barrier-gate of Ichiburi in the province of Ecchu. Nine days I needed for this trip, during which I could not write much, what with the heat and moisture, and my old complaint that pestered me immeasurably.

Already, the night looks different
For tomorrow, on July the sixth,
Once a year
The weaver meets her lover.

The immense Heavenly River*
Spanning a single arch
On the white-capped sea,
Falling beyond on Sado island.

*Milky Way

Explanation, if you please

It is now July, several months into Matuso Basho’s account of his famous Journey to the North. Basho is traveling south in the region of Esshū (越州), along Japan’s western coast and the Sea of Japan. The mountains are an obstacle, the heat and the summer rains have made the journey difficult, causing his “old complaints” of rheumatism and arthritis to scream with discomfort.

Basho arrives to a view of the distant island of Sado. It is night and the stars of the Heavenly River (Milky Way) shimmer on the rough sea.

Tomorrow is the Japanese festival of Tanabata (meaning “Evening of the seventh”; the Star Festival) would begin. The festival celebrates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (the Japanese names for the stars Vega and Altair respectively). According to legend, the Milky Way separates these two lovers, and they are allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the lunisolar calendar.

evening-milky-way

Source: Matsuo Basho Archives, Gabi Greve, 2012

What do my neighbors do?

Autumn deepens, next door, what does my neighbor do?

秋深き / 隣は何を / する人ぞ

aki fukaki / tonari wa nani wo / suru hito zo

Matsuo Basho on the 26th day of the Ninth Month, 1694

Basho was now 51 years old. In the summer of 1694, he left Edo (Tokyo), and after stops in Ueno, his place of birth, and Kyoto, he went to Osaka where he stayed at a country inn. Here he became ill. He was well enough earlier to visit the Sumiyoshi Shinto shrine (住吉大社), but by evening decided against attending a poetry gathering at a disciple’s house and sent this poem.

He died a few weeks later on the twelfth day of the tenth month.

Autumn deepens, the man next door, what does he do for a living?

Zen, which aims at the perfection of the person-hood, must acknowledge the impossibility of knowing someone else. Still, one is curious about others and what they do. Gentle reader, I am curious about you. Are you curious about me?

cropped-basho.jpg

Sora Speaks

This child Kasane, if she were a flower, would be a pink carnation

かさねとは八重撫子の名なるべし
Kasane towa yae-nadeshiko no nanarubeshi

 

Sora Tabi Nikki (曾良旅日記, “Travel Diary of Sora”) was Kawai Sora’s (曾良) memories of the journey 1689 and 1691 that he and Matsuo Bashō took to the north. The diary was lost and rediscovered in 1943.

pink carnation

Basho explains the setting:

“I have an acquaintance in a place called Kurobane in Nasu, and I decided to take a short cut from Nikko straight across the broad plain. The rain began to fall, the sun was setting and in the distance we happened to notice a village. Lodging for a night at a farmer’s house, at daybreak we headed off again over the plain. We came across a horse grazing in a field. We sought assistance from a man cutting grass and though he was a peasant, he was not without compassion.

‘Hmm, let’s see. The plain is criss-crossed with trails and someone unfamiliar with the way is bound to get lost — that’s a real problem — say, why don’t you take this horse as far as he’ll go and just send him back,” and he lent us the horse.’

Two children came running along behind the horse. One was a little girl named Kasane, a truly elegant name I’d never heard before.”

Notes

Nade-shi-ko meaning a frilly pink flower in Japanese is homophonous for “the child who is lovingly caressed / patted” and it is considered a charming name. The similar term Yamato nadeshiko (やまとなでしこ or 大和撫子) means the “personification of an idealized Japanese woman”, or “the epitome of pure, feminine beauty”.

Kasane means layered or double.

Station 24 – Dewagoe

Fleas and lice,
A horse pissing
Close to my pillow.

蚤虱  馬の尿する  枕もと

nomi shirami/ uma no shito suru/ makura moto  

It is now 330 years since Matuso Basho and his companion Saro left on their journey north. They departed on May 16, 1689 and the two now find themselves close to the northernmost end of their journey, having just left Hiraizumi.

From Iwate to Shitomae

Leaving Hiraizumi and the Fujiwara clan behind, Basho and Saro proceeded some 50 miles north to Iwate, then west to Shitomae (尿前) where they stayed for three days.

The nights proved fitful, much like the stay at Iizuka where the fleas and mosquitoes were relentless and sleep impossible. To this torture, add the stench of a urinating horse. Originally, Basho had intended to go further north to Nanbu (南部町) in Yamanashi Prefecture where the Nanbu clan (南部氏 Nanbu-shi) ruled most of northeastern Honshū for over 700 years. Rain and difficulties would change his mind.

The journey towards the west and Shitomae took them towards Dewa Province and the western coast of Japan. The route would be treacherous. On the road to Dewa, Basho and Sora had to cross Kofukazawa River by climbing down a steep gorge through hairpin turns. In summer, when Matsuo Basho and Sora crossed the river they had to negotiate six treacherous bends to climb down and up the rocky gorge.

Basho explains:

Station 24 – Dewagoe

“Turning away from the high road leading to Nambu (Nanbu) Province, I came to the village of Iwate, where I stopped overnight. The next day I looked at the Cape of Oguro and the tiny island of Mizu, both in a river, and arrived by way of Naruko hot springs at the barrier-gate of Shitomae (Shitomae no seki 尿前の関) which blocked the entrance to the province of Dewa. The gate-keepers were extremely suspicious, for very few travelers dared to pass this difficult road under normal circumstances. I was admitted after  a long wait, and darkness overtook me while I was climbing a huge hill. I put up at a gate-keeper’s house which I was very lucky to find in such a lonely place. A storm came upon us and I was held up for three days.

Bitten by fleas and lice,
I slept in a bed,
A horse constantly pissing
Close to my pillow.

According to the gate-keeper there was a huge body of mountains obstructing my way to the province of Dewa, and the road was terribly uncertain. So I decided to hire a guide. The gate-keeper was kind enough to find me a young man of tremendous physique, who walked in front of me with a curved sword strapped to his waist and a stick of oak gripped firmly in his hand. I myself followed him, afraid of what might happen on the way. What the gate-keeper had told me turned out to be true. The mountains were so thickly covered with foliage and the air underneath was so hushed that I felt as if I were groping my way in the dead of night. There was not even the cry of a single bird to be heard, and the wind seemed to breathe out black soot through every rift in the hanging clouds. I pushed my way through thick undergrowth of bamboo, crossing many streams and stumbling over many rocks, till at last I arrived at the village of Mogami after much shedding of cold sweat. My guide congratulated me by saying that I was indeed fortunate to have crossed the mountains in safety, for accidents of some sort had always happened on his past trips. I thanked him sincerely and parted from him. However, fear lingered in my mind some time after that.”

Written on the 17th day of the 5th lunar month at Shitomae, which literally means “before the urine” or vulgarly, “in front of pissing”. Matsuo Basho Archives, Gabi Greve, 15/11/2012.

The Road North

horse-urinating

The Chrysanthemum – 菊の花

mass of white chrysanthemums

Drinking his morning tea calms the monk – Chrysanthemum

朝茶飲む 僧静かなり 菊の花

Asa cha nomu / sō shizukanari / kiku no hana

mass of white chrysanthemums

The Chrysanthemum

Matsuo Bashō (松尾 金作), Japan’s most famous poet of the Edo period, made the chrysanthemum the subject of several haiku. In Japanese the flower is called Kiku-no-hana, literally blossom of the chrysanthemum, or Kiku for short.

As early as the 5th century, it was imported from China into Japan by Buddhist monks, originally as medicine then becoming an object of beauty and admiration. Japanese royalty came to love the flower because they believed it had the power to prolong life. In 1183, the sixteen petal chrysanthemum became the imperial symbol. In November Chrysanthemum Festivals across Japan celebrate the many varieties of the late blooming flower.

As medicine, chrysanthemums are used to treat chest pains and high blood pressure, as well as fevers, colds, headaches, and dizziness.

The delicate petals are brewed into tea, which in our case calms the nervous monk in the morning.

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?