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.”

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

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?

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