Vestiges of dreams (Narrow Road part 3)

When we read Bashō’s account of his travels, it is clear that what was important to him was to visit places that were famous from history or poetry (歌枕, utamakura), but unless we are scholars of Japanese literature and history then many, if not all, of these references are lost on us unless we have the assistance of notes. Keene, in the Kodansha bilingual edition (ISBN 4770020287) provides some notes, and there is also a comprehensive annotated translation by Prof. Dennis Kawaharada of Kapi‘olani Community College, Hawaii here (discovered since the previous post!): Summer Grasses, Autumn Wind: A Translation of Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi

Interspersed with passages that talk about the pleasures of travelling (enjoyable time spent with fellow poets) and its inconveniences (illness, tiredness and sharing sleeping quarters with lice, fleas and a urinating horse!) are sections that speak of the pathos of war and the way in which time erases the traces of past glories:


natsukusa ya tsuwamonodomo ga yume no ato

summer grasses: all that’s left of warriors’ dreams (trans.: Dennis Kawaharada)

summer grass –
that’s all that remains
of brave warriors’ dreams (trans.: Gabi Greve)

The summer grasses –
Of brave soldiers’ dreams
The aftermath (trans.: Donald Keene)


muzan ya na kabuto no shita no kirigirisu

heartless: beneath the helmet, a cricket (Trans: Dennis Kawaharada)

how tragic and pitiful …
a grashopper under
his helmet (Trans: Gabi Greve)

Alas for mortality!
Underneath the helmet
A grasshopper. (Trans: Donald Keene)

The former of these two poems was written at Hiraizumi (平泉) which was once the northern capital of the aristocratic Fujiwara family and a town with golden temples to rival those of Kyoto, but fell into disrepair and obscurity after the fourth lord, Fujiwara no Yasuhira, was attacked and defeated by the shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo for sheltering Yoritomo’s outlaw half-brother Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune had previously distinguished himself in battle fighting alongside Yoritomo during the war between the rival Minamoto and Taira clans (the Genpei war) but relations between the two brothers later deteriorated to the extent that Yoshitsune fled and took refuge in Hiraizumi with his faithful, and giant, companion Benkei (a Japanese analogue to Little John).


“Yoshitsune and Benkei Viewing Cherry Blossoms” by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi – note that in samurai culture, manliness and love of flowers were certainly not considered to be mutually exclusive!

Hiraizumi can still be visited today, although only a few of the temples remain. The golden hall (金色堂 Konjikidō) of Chūson-ji (中尊寺), which today is protected by glass and concrete, is thought to be one of the ‘palaces’ made of gold that Marco Polo describes (Excursion in Zipangu, the Land of Gold) and that later prompted explorers such as Columbus to go off in search of golden lands in the Orient.


Lotus flowers at Hiraizumi – photo by author

A compilation of “Oku no hosomichi” links:

Summer Grasses, Autumn Wind: A Translation of Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi

Accompanying map by Dennis Kawaharada

Narrow Road cycle trip by a modern-day Sora

World Kigo Database Matsuo Basho archive

Narrow Road (Part 2): 旅は道連れ

One of my first impressions on reading Bashō’s text was its conciseness. As the haiku form distils a thought or impression into seventeen syllables, so the poet’s account of his journey is often condensed into only a few lines of text for each staging-post of his journey; this is not an author who likes to indulge in pages of purple prose! Sometimes the text is so compressed and contains so many layers of allusions that it is difficult for us, separated as we are by language, culture and over three hundred years, to understand its meaning. A typical example of this is the very first haiku of the book, written by Bashō to mark the selling of his house as he sets off on his journey (this example is discussed by Keene in the introduction to his translation):


kusa no to mo
sumikawaru yo zo
hina no ie

A literal translation would be something like:

Grass door, too
change/take over dwelling
dolls’ house

which would leave the average Western reader bemused and, if they are susceptible to the power of stereotypes, muttering something to themselves about the ‘inscrutable Japanese’! The first character represents grass or any of a number of other plants (c.f. “the grass of the field”, Matt 6:30) and the third character, in addition to meaning ‘door’, is used to represent ‘house’ (“next door”), so in this line Bashō is talking about his simple home. One of the difficulties in translating from Japanese to English is that in Japanese, any parts of a sentence that are not necessary for understanding the meaning because they can be inferred by context – including the subject of the sentence – can be omitted. The second line in the poem above does not specify who is changing his dwelling, but this does not matter; most changes of dwelling involve one person or family moving out and another moving in, and the line allows us to see this from both perspectives simultaneously. The final line implies that, unlike the bachelor Bashō, the new owner has at least one daughter, who is celebrated by putting out dolls on Hinamatsuri/Girls’ Day (celebrated on 3rd March in the modern calendar).

『せき口上水端はせを庵椿やま』 (Basho’s Hermitage and Camellia Hill on the Kanda Aqueduct at Sekiguchi) by Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重) (1797–1858)

A second impression is that Bashō’s lack of flowery descriptions is not the result of a lack of emotion or an attempt at a ‘stiff upper lip’. He describes his desire to travel in emotional and romantic terms:

… I too for years have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming. (trans.: Keene)

but when he does set off on his journey, he is overcome with emotion at the thought of leaving his friends:

I stood at the crossways of parting in this dreamlike existence and wept tears of farewell. (trans.: Keene)

Throughout his account, Bashō describes the legends associated with the places he visits and quotes old poems; he appears to have a romantic, nostalgic attraction to the journey, even, at one point, talking of ‘men of old [who] died on the road’ as if this were a romantic and desirable thing. He is constantly aware of his frailty and appears not to be a particularly physically strong man, talking of his ‘scrawny shoulders’ and sometimes describing how he suffered on the road. The purpose of his journey does not seem to have been to demonstrate is capability of performing the physical feat, but instead seems to have been romantic or spiritual. He clearly believed, however, that there was something to be gained by physically being in a place, rather than simply reading about it from the comfort of his grass-roofed house.

The practical details of travel in the Japan of three hundred years ago are also interesting. Bashō describes his preparations for the journey, which involve patching his trousers, putting a new cord onto his hat and having Moxibustion performed on his legs to strengthen them. The contents of his pack consisted of his raincoat, pen and ink, yukata and ‘a set of paper clothes to protect me from the cold of night’. In common with everyone else who has travelled around Japan, he was in addition given parting gifts. He comments that ‘… I could not very well refuse or throw [them] away. They were a bother on the journey, but there was nothing I could do about them.’ (trans.: Keene)

There is a Japanese saying, now well known from having been quoted in Murakami Haruki’s “Kafka on the Shore”:

旅は道連れ世は情け(たびはみちづれよはなさけ) (tabi wa michizure yo wa nasake, on a journey, a travelling companion, in life, compassion)

Bashō, who seems to have cultivated compassion in his life, took as his travelling companion Kawai Sora, who lived nearby and helped him ‘with firewood and water for my kitchen’. There are many useful companions for any modern-day person wishing to retrace Bashō’s steps, either physically or on the page. Those that I have found I have included below.

National Geographic article on Bashō

Support material for Oku no hosomichi (multimedia, commentary, maps)

Blog entry on Oku no Hosomichi

Haiku on Matsushima

Another article on haiku on Matsushima

Wikitravel article on Bashō’s route

Another useful ‘companion’ is Lesley Downer’s travel book “On the Narrow Road to the Deep North: Journey into a Lost Japan” (ISBN 0-224-02473-6). Downer traces Bashō’s route and includes a map and useful background information on Bashō and the places he visits. Reading her book in conjunction with Bashō’s is highly recommended!


Narrow Road (Part 1)

Where to start in the whole of Japanese literature? Where better than with a book whose title is a matter of dispute, and which is the work of a haiku master?

奥のほそ道(おくのほそみち) (Oku no Hosomichi) by 松尾芭蕉(まつおばしょう) (Matsuo Bashō) is in the form of a travelogue interspersed with poems written at each place where Bashō and his travelling companion Sora stayed. It starts with the wonderful sentence:


which Donald Keene translates as:

The months and days are the travellers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers.

When I first came across this, I was only beginning to learn Japanese, but I was struck by what an evocative sentence this was, even though it was made up at least partly from simple kanji that even I, as a beginner, could already read – 月 (moon/month), 日 (sun/day), 百 (hundred), 行 (go), 年 (year) and 人 (person) are among the first characters to be taught in most textbooks (with the exception of Heisig – of whom more on another occasion – who starts off with the sun and goes onto crystals and choirs!). Of course, being able to recognise a few kanji and being able to read a text in seventeenth-century Japanese are two quite different things, and a good translation is definitely needed to be able to enjoy it. The version I have is the Kodansha International bilingual edition with English translation by Donald Keene and illustrations by Miyata Masayuki (ISBN 4770020284). For those who are able to read it, there is an online version of the text provided by the University of Virginia here.


So how to translate the title into English? The variants I have come across so far are “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” (probably the best known), “The Narrow Road to Oku” (the Keene translation), “Narrow Road to the Interior”, “The Narrow Road Through the Provinces” and “Back Roads to Far Towns”. The “narrow road” part appears relatively uncontroversial – 細い(ほそい) (hosoi) means ‘narrow’ and 道(みち) (michi) is a road or path – but 奥(おく) (oku) has a range of meanings and nuances that are not easily covered by a single English word. It is translated as ‘interior’ or ‘heart’ (in the sense of the centre of something, rather than the organ) or ‘inner recesses’ (Keene) but the character was also part of the name of the former province of Japan, variously known as 陸奥国(むつのくに) (Mutsu no kuni), 奥州(おうしゅう) (Ōshū) or Michinoku 陸奥(みちのく) or 道奥(みちのく), to which Bashō travelled, and which corresponds to the modern Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate and Aomori Prefectures and part of Akita Prefecture. This is the part of Japan where I first made my home in 2006 and the part that was, more recently, devastated by the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Apart from large cities such as Sendai, the area is still a somewhat rural part of Japan, and certainly far from the image that many people have of a high-tech world of robots and anime characters. Many of the towns that Bashō visited have a monument to the fact, such as a stone inscribed with one of his haiku, and some have created an entire tourist industry around his visit – notably Matsushima, which is more famous for a poem that Bashō may or may not have composed

matsushima ya
aa matsushima ya
matsushima ya

Ah, Matsushima!

than for the one that Sora actually did compose:

matsushima ya
tsuru ni mi o kare

Borrow your plumes from the crane
O nightingales (trans: Keene)

possibly because it is difficult to understand at this distance in time what the significance of the cranes and nightingales in Sora’s poem are. (Any haiku experts who can shed some light on this, please do leave a comment!)


After visiting Matsushima and other coastal towns, Bashō went deep into the interior  (奥)  mountain country, the realm of the ascetic Shugendō sect of Shintō . Those who have lived in Japan will know that the majority of towns and cities are along coastal plains and there are large mountainous areas in the interior part of the country that are very sparsely populated, if anyone lives there at all – some indication of this can be seen on the ‘population’ map on this page. The ‘interior’ is therefore not just the ‘back of beyond’ or ‘inland regions’ but a mysterious place, far from the bustling, worldly life of Edo (modern Tokyo). Perhaps there is even a sense that Bashō is journeying into his own interior.