The Japanese poet Matsuo Basho (1644–94) is renowned in the West as a master of haiku, but less well known is the fact that he was also a superb travel writer. He wrote five travel diaries, of which the last, Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1702), is considered his masterpiece.
There have been many English translations of this work. Indeed, the problem with recommending Basho to an English readership is in recommending a translation. I first encountered Basho’s journal in Dorothy Britton’s translation when I was a teenager. I stumbled upon it in my local public library, and it quickly became one of my favour-ite books, one I would borrow again and again. If I now find Britton’s work a little stiff (Britton, for example, insisted on writing the haiku in rhyme, as she felt this helped ‘to suggest the formal elegance achieved in the original’), that is perhaps more a reflection of how my tastes have changed over the years than any slight on the excellence of her translation. Donald Keene’s translation is also very good, as is Sam Hammill’s (he does a fine job translating the poetry), but perhaps the easiest to find is the translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa in the Penguin Classics series, so that is the one I will use here. This is how Yuasa translates the opening passage:
Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over t
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The Japanese poet Matsuo Basho (1644–94) is renowned in the West as a master of haiku, but less well known is the fact that he was also a superb travel writer. He wrote five travel diaries, of which the last, Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1702), is considered his masterpiece.There have been many English translations of this work. Indeed, the problem with recommending Basho to an English readership is in recommending a translation. I first encountered Basho’s journal in Dorothy Britton’s translation when I was a teenager. I stumbled upon it in my local public library, and it quickly became one of my favour-ite books, one I would borrow again and again. If I now find Britton’s work a little stiff (Britton, for example, insisted on writing the haiku in rhyme, as she felt this helped ‘to suggest the formal elegance achieved in the original’), that is perhaps more a reflection of how my tastes have changed over the years than any slight on the excellence of her translation. Donald Keene’s translation is also very good, as is Sam Hammill’s (he does a fine job translating the poetry), but perhaps the easiest to find is the translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa in the Penguin Classics series, so that is the one I will use here. This is how Yuasa translates the opening passage:
Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives travelling. There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road. I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind – filled with a strong desire to wander. It was only towards the end of last autumn that I returned from rambling along the coast. I barely had time to sweep the cobwebs from my broken house on the River Sumida before the New Year, but no sooner had the spring mist begun to rise over the field than I wanted to be on the road again to cross the barrier-gate of Shirakawa in due time. The gods seem to have possessed my soul and turned it inside out, and roadside images seemed to invite me from every corner, so that it was impossible for me to stay idle at home. Even while I was getting ready, mending my torn trousers, tying a new strap to my hat, and applying moxa to my legs to strengthen them, I was already dreaming of the full moon rising over the islands of Matsushima. Finally, I sold my house, moving to the cottage of Sampū for a temporary stay. Upon the threshold of my old home, however, I wrote a linked verse of eight pieces and hung it on a wooden pillar. The starting piece was: Behind this door Now buried in deep grass, A different generation will celebrate The Festival of Dolls.Basho explains that he is motivated to make this difficult journey by his desire to see the places, like Matsushima, celebrated by earlier poets, much as we might aspire to visit the Lake District to see the landscape made famous by Wordsworth. But there is clearly more at stake here. This is not a holiday. To begin with, the journey Basho proposes will not be an easy one. The districts he wishes to visit were, in his day, considered remote and difficult to reach. Travelling by foot and occasionally on horseback, his journey will take him six months. He sells his house and its contents, shaves his head, dresses like an itinerant Buddhist priest, and carries all of his worldly possessions on his back. He does not intend to return. This journey has an air of finality to it, even desperation. At several points in the narrative, he despairs of surviving the journey, writing that if he were to die on his way to the far north, ‘it would only be the fulfilment of providence’. What is his motivation then? Part of the answer might lie in the title. Hosomichi means ‘narrow road’, but Oku has several meanings. In general, it refers to the northern part of Honshu, the largest of Japan’s islands, but it can also mean ‘interior’ or ‘interior region’. Perhaps Basho is telling us that he is making two journeys: an outer journey to this remote region of Japan and an inner journey of self-abnegation towards poetic clarity. Basho, a follower of Zen Buddhism, must try to see and describe the landscape as it truly is. There can be no laziness. He must not fall back on literary shortcuts or tricks. Everything must be seen with fresh eyes and described precisely. Only in this way will he discover the true nature of reality. The form Basho follows is called haibun, a mixture of poetry and prose. To write haibun well, the two forms must work together. The poetry should not feel tacked on to the prose, for it is through the poetry that Basho can attempt to express the inexpressible. Take the poem quoted above, for example. The Festival of Dolls, also known as Girls’ Day, is a day for Japanese families to pray for the welfare of their daughters. Mothers and daughters mark the occasion by decor-ating their houses with rows of dolls. These dolls are family heirlooms, passed from one generation of women to the next. On the surface, Basho is making a simple observation: the house has changed ownership. Basho, a bachelor, has sold his house to a man with daughters who will celebrate the Festival of Dolls. But looked at again we realize that this is a poem about transience. Basho is reminding us that nothing stays the same. We should not become too attached to things. Even the mention of grass in the yard reminds us that one day his thatched hut will decay and disappear. Basho encounters hardships on his journey. At one point, storm-stayed in a mountain pass, he is forced to spend three days in the rude hut of a gatekeeper:
Bitten by fleas and lice, I slept in a bed, A horse urinating all the time Close to my pillow.At times, he is hungry, weary and half-frozen, and twice he complains about the flare-up of an ‘old complaint’, about which he remains vague. But there are also moments of bright fellowship on the road, meetings with friends old and new, evenings of song and wine spent composing poetry. Basho records the kindnesses he is shown, like the farmer who takes pity on him and lends him his horse, telling him to turn the beast loose when he reaches the next village, for the animal will find its way home; or the painter Basho meets, who takes him in, shows him all the local sites – which Basho would otherwise have missed – and then, upon his departure, gives him a farewell gift of a hand-drawn map to guide him on his way and a new pair of sandals, with straps dyed blue, to match the irises for which the district is famed:
It looks as if Iris flowers had bloomed On my feet – Sandals laced in blue.There is also the innkeeper called Honest Gozaemon, whom Basho found ‘almost stubbornly honest, utterly devoid of worldly cleverness. It was as if the merciful Buddha himself had taken the shape of man to help me in my wandering pilgrimage.’ To offset the hardships of the journey, there are moments of rare beauty. Basho loves the natural world. He is frequently moved by what he sees, and sometimes a poem is the best way to capture this sense of the sublime, as in this moment, watching the sun set at the mouth of the Mogami River:
The River Mogami has drowned Far and deep Beneath its surging waves The flaming sun of summer.These moments of wonder are balanced by moments of pathos. Many of the historic sites Basho seeks lie in ruins, covered in grass and decay: a reminder, should the reader need one, of the vanity of human wishes. At one temple, he is shown the helmet of a famous warrior, who was killed in battle fighting his former masters. ‘The helmet was certainly an extraordinary one, with an arabesque of gold chrysanthemums covering the visor and the ear-plate, a fiery dragon resting proudly on the crest, and two curved horns pointing to the sky.’ As he contemplates the beautiful object and reflects on the career of the man who wore it, Basho notes:
I am awe-struck To hear a cricket singing Underneath the dark cavity Of an old helmet.His account is clean and simple, the prose and poetry precise and crisp. The writing gives the appearance of effortlessness, as if it was just jotted down as he walked along. But it wasn’t. We know this because Basho did not travel alone. For a good portion of his journey he was accompanied by a poetry student, his disciple Sora, who also kept a journal of their expedition. By comparing the journals, scholars have been able to see where Basho compresses incidents, and even changes the chronology slightly in order to give the composition balance. It will take Basho four years to complete this short narrative. Stricken with wanderlust, Basho never does settle down. In fact, his great masterpiece will be published posthumously; for having completed it, he sets out on the road once again, this time to visit Ueno, Kyoto and Osaka. Overcome on the way with a stomach ailment, possibly dysentery, he dies, homeless, but surrounded by his disciples. His final poem:
Seized with a disease Halfway on the road, My dreams keep revolving Round the withered moor.I will probably never travel to Japan – or learn Japanese for that matter – but something about this simple journal speaks to me across the span of three hundred years. In Basho, I sense a kindred spirit. I understand his restlessness and his love of the natural world. I admire the economy of his prose and the precision of his poetry. I love Basho because I can reread this short work over and over and never cease to find something new to admire.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 57 © Ken Haigh 2018
About the contributor
Ken Haigh is a librarian in southern Ontario, and, like Basho, he suffers from itchy feet. He dreams of some day taking a really long walk, the Appalachian Trail, the Camino de Santiago or perhaps a stroll from Canterbury to Jerusalem.