Books: ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Matsuo Basho

It was with awe
That I beheld
Fresh leaves, green leaves,
Bright in the sun

Haiku master and writer, Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), the legendary Japanese haiku master of the 17th century, also wrote haibun, a literary form combining prose and haiku. His most well-known haibun, Oku no Hosomichi, or The Narrow Road to the Deep North, recounts the last long walk he completed with his disciple Sora—1,200 miles covered over five months beginning in May 1689. While their days were spent walking, in the evenings they often socialized and wrote with students and friends who lived along their route. The route was also planned to include views that had previously been described by other poets; Basho alludes to these earlier poems in his own descriptions, weaving fragments of literary and historical conversation into his solitary journey. His book was first published in 1702, and hundreds of editions have since appeared in several languages.

Extracts from The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Basho

The book opens with this simple description for Basho’s wanting to start the journey of a thousand miles:

Following the example of the ancient priest who is said to have travelled thousands of miles caring naught his provisions and attaining the state of sheer ecstasy under the pure beams of the moon, I left my broken house on the River Sumida in the first year of Jyokyo among the wails of the autumn wind.

The poetic tone of his travelogue continues to delight the reader throughout the book. Here is an example of the haibun form that combines prose with poem:

I crossed the barrier gate of Hakone on a rainy day. All the mountains were deeply buried behind the clouds.

In a way
It was fun
Not to see Mount Fuji
In foggy rain.

And this:

Towards the end of the day I stopped at a small tea house, where a young woman named Butterfly handed me a small piece of white silk and asked me to write a poem choosing her name as the subject.

A Butterfly
Poised on a tender orchid,
How sweetly the incense
Burns on its wings.

His travels brought Basho to many temples, some of which he stopped to rest and to write a poem:

I went behind the temple to see the remains of the Priest Buccho’s hermitage. It was a tiny hut, propped against the base of a huge rock. I felt as if I were in the presence of the Priest Genmyo’s cell or the Priest Houn’s retreat. I hung on a wooden pillar of the cottage and wrote the following poem impromptu.

Even the woodpeckers
Have left it untouched,
This tiny cottage
In a summer grove.

Notable sites which Basho passed through included ruined forts and castles, the scene of many a bloody conflict, prompting Basho to reflect on the transience of life and to write passages such as this.

The ruins of the main gate greeted my eyes a mile before I cam upon Lord Hidehara’s mansion, which had been reduced to rice-paddies … The ruined house of Lord Yasuhira was located to the north of the barrier gate of Koromo-ga-seki … Many a feat of chivalrous valour was repeated here during the short span of three generations, but both the actors and the deeds have long been dead and passed into oblivion. When a country is defeated, there remain only mountains and rivers, and on a ruined castle in spring, only grasses thrive. I sat down on my hat and wept bitterly till I almost forgot time.

A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors.

On completion of his trek around the north of Japan, Basho took a river boat from Ogaki in central Japan south to Kuwana and then on to his birthplace, the ninja stronghold of Iga. He recorded this final leg of his of journey by writing the following passage.

On September the sixth, I left for the Ise Shrine though the fatigue of the long journey was still with me, for I wanted to see the dedication of a new shrine there. As I stepped into a boat, I wrote:

As firmly cemented clam-shells
Fall apart in autumn,
So I must take to the road again,
Farewell, my friends.

Matsuo Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, translated by Nabuyuki Yuasa, 2016.

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