The Karasaki pine tree is mistier than the cherry blossoms
Karasaki no matsu/ wa hana yori/ oboro nite
Karasaki Pine Tree
“The Karasaki Pine Tree (Karasaki no matsu) stands on a walled esplanade in Karasaki village, 5 MN of Otsu near the steamer landing. Its 300 or more immense horizontal boughs, upheld by wood crutches or stone pillars, curve awkwardly, and at the top – 25 ft or more from the ground – tin and wood copings have been placed as a protection against the weather. These arms, some of which measure 200 odd ft. from point to point, reach out like those of a gigantic and repulsive spider, and are almost bare of foliage.”
– Terry’s Japanese Empire, T. Philip Terry, 1914
In the eighth moon of 1684, Matsuo Basho left Edo to visit his birthplace in Ueno. The occasion was the death of his mother in 1683. As journeys go, this one involved many stops and visits along the way. Previously, we left Basho on the path from Kyoto to Otsu, on Lake Biwa. On the mountain path, Basho discovered a violet growing in the grass, and took the occasion to write a haiku.
Now he was nearing Lake Biwa.
Descending from his mountain path to the lake, he views Otsu and its well-known pine tree in the distant mist. The ancient horizontal limbs are supported by pillars. Otsu also offers many sublime cherry blossom trees for viewing. For practical reasons, Basho found the pine tree more to his liking. Or maybe he just found it a bit hazier or mistier, oboro 朧, if he arrived in the early foggy April morning.
Meaning of the poem
The meaning of the haiku is itself obscure on its face.
Likely, Basho is making a reference to the poem by Prince Konoe Masaie (1444-1505).
In the night rain its green fades
Serene in the evening breeze
Stands the pine tree
— Prince Konoe Masaie (1444-1505)
That however does not explain the mention of the cherry blossoms.
There is a well-known idiom, hana yori dango, which translates as preferring dumplings over flowers. This also means to prefer the practical over the beautiful. A secondary meaning is that viewers of the cherry blossoms prefer the wine and food over the blossoms themselves. A pine tree, it seems to me is more practical than a cherry blossom. It provides protection from the elements and material for building.
Like California’s Sequoia’s the Karasaki pine tree is ancient. Even in Basho’s day, it was believed to be one thousand years old. A new pine tree has since been planted from a cutting of the old Karasaki pine tree.
For reference, see: Basho’s Journal of 1684, translated by Donald Keene (page 143)