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
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