The Karasaki pine tree – Karasaki no matsu

Lake Biwa, Pine tree of Karasaki

The Karasaki pine tree is mistier than the cherry blossoms

Karasaki no matsu/ wa hana yori/ oboro nite

辛崎の松 は花より朧にて

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.

Lake Biwa, Pine tree of Karasaki
Lake Biwa, Pine tree of Karasaki

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 , 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
Of Karasaki.
— 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)

old pine of karasaki
old pine of Karasaki

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