Looking for the Lost

This second full-length travel book from Alan Booth was published after the author’s death in 1993. Unlike The Roads to Sata, which is the account of a single, very long journey, Looking for the Lost consists of three self-contained sections: Tsugaru. which traces the journey of the novelist Dazai Osamu around his home region in Aomori Prefecture, Saigo’s Last March, following the route that Saigō Takamori took through Kyushu to escape goverment troops during his ill-fated rebellion, and Looking for the Lost, a walk northwards from Nagoya to one of the many places to which members of the defeated Heike clan are purported to have retreated after their defeat at the battle of Dannoura.

The premise of this book is less constraining than that of The Roads to Sata, in which Booth undertook to walk the length of Japan; this necessarily entailed walking through some parts that were less interesting and appealing than others. In Looking for the Lost, Booth concentrates less on the process of walking the routes and expands more on cultural and historical themes, making for a more interesting and entertaining book in my opinion, and letting more of the author’s personality shine through. In addition, despite the melancholy title and Booth’s mention, on the penultimate page, of the cancer that would later kill him, the overall mood of Looking for the Lost seemed to be a good deal more cheerful than that of The Roads to Sata. Several years had passed since the previous journey, and the attitude of many owners of ryokans and minshukus to foreigners seemed to have become more welcoming in the intervening period; there is only one incident that I can recall in the later book in which an inn owner is clearly reluctant to allow Booth to stay because of his foreignness.


Whether by deliberate design or by chance, the three sections are organised in a sequence reaching back in time. Dazai’s journey, retraced in the first section, took place in 1944, Saigō’s in 1877 and the Heike’s, if it took place at all, in 1185. The first section, Tsugaru, is based on Dazai’s Return to Tsugaru (subtitled Travels of a Purple Tramp in reference to Dazai’s idiosyncratic style of travelling clothes). Booth mentions that he “did not much care for Dazai, as a man or as a writer” and comments disapprovingly more than once about Dazai’s tendency to spend hours on end getting drunk on other people’s wartime supplies of sake. For Booth, Dazai’s journey provides the structure for an exploration of a region of northern Japan that he finds interesting for other reasons unrelated to Dazai. One of the most interesting sections is on folk music. It was clear from The Roads to Sata that Booth loved singing and took a great interest in Japanese folk-songs, and he expands on this in Looking for the Lost with a discussion of the Tsugaru shamisen which, like many things in Japan, was the subject of a brief ‘boom’. The Tsugaru shamisen is a stringed instrument. I was not familiar with it at all but have found some videos on YouTube where you can see how it is played and listen to the sound.

Video 1

Video 2

The following video is an extract from an anime featuring a shamisen player:

Video 3

In “Saigo’s Last March” Booth followed the route taken by Saigō Takamori and his rebels from Enodake, in today’s Oita Prefecture, to his home in Kagoshima. Saigō had been one of the main players in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, in which the shogun was deposed and the emperor ‘restored’ to power (having been little more than a figurehead during the centuries of dominance by the Tokugawa and earlier shoguns). With other samurai from the Satsuma and Chōshū domains (modern-day Kagoshima and Yamaguchi Prefectures), he took a post in the new Meiji government. However, he later became disenchanted with government and returned to Satsuma and founded military schools for boys from the samurai class. After some years, the government became increasingly suspicious of the militarisation in Satsuma, beginning with espionage and later sending a warship to Kagoshima, eventually provoking the uprising known as the Satsuma Rebellion. During the last stages of this rebellion, the all-but-defeated rebels were surrounded on Enodake. Many of the rebels were killed or committed seppuku, but Saigō and a small band of 500 men managed to slip away under cover of darkness and make their way to Kagoshima, where they would later take their last stand.

Parts of the route taken by Saigō and his men have since become overgrown and difficult or impossible to follow; anyone who has been to Kyushu will know that much of the central, mountainous region looks like a thick jungle and that plants grow fast and vigorously in the warm and humid climate. During the journey, Booth meditates on the nature of heroism in Japanese and Western culture. While a hero in Western culture is held out as someone to emulate, he says, in Japan a hero is far removed from the everyday that he cannot be emulated, simply admired. The portrayal of Saigō, even before his death, as having undergone some kind of apotheosis that enabled him to look down upon the world from the planet Mars, is cited as evidence for this concept of heroism.

The final section of the book, Looking for the Lost, follows a route that may have been taken by defeated Heike warriors, starting from Nagoya and ending in a village named Taira (平), the alternative name for the Heike (平家) clan (Heike = house of Taira). Although the name of the village may appear to be clear evidence of a connection, Taira simply means ‘flat’ or ‘plain’ so it could have been a place-name derived from a geographical feature. The first chapter of this section features an exhibition of high-tech products and designs for the future in Nagoya, in which the theme of almost every exhibit is some kind of ‘dream’. (In the 2000s, ‘dream’ was still often in evidence in advertising copywriting, along with variations on ‘We support your comfortable life’.) The next chapter takes up the journey and links to the theme of ‘dream’ which occurs at the beginning of the 平家物語(へいけものがたり, Tale of the Heike):

The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind. (trans. Helen Craig McCullough)

The author goes back in time to the days of traditional gassho-zukuri houses (“praying hands” houses, referring to the steeply pitched roofs developed for snowy winters) in Shirakawa-go* and cormorant fishing before arriving in Taira. Did the Heike arrive there too? They could have done, but there was no concrete evidence for or against, and this conclusion is in any case overshadowed by the grim news, on the final page, of the author’s cancer. How much of the book was written, or edited, when the author was aware of his illness is not clear. He avoids an obvious sense of foreboding until the end, but it is clear from the front matter and blurb, as well as numerous online reviews, that he was already dead by the time of publication, so it is impossible to read it without this in mind.

Japan has changed since Booth pounded its pavements and roads, and Japanese fashions have become more popular in the West, reducing the distance and strangeness that both sides must have felt, particularly in the days of The Roads to Sata. It is a pity that we do not have Booth here to give us his take on Japan of the 2000s and 2010s.

* The English version of the (otherwise excellent) website for Shirakawa-go advertises a “Gassho style village map”. My immediate reaction was “Oh, how clever – they have made the map in gassho style”. My second reaction, “Well, don’t all folding maps somehow resemble pointed roofs when they are being unfolded?”. Finally, I realised that the expression “gassho-style” modified “village” rather than “map”. Anyone who is reading this and teaching English, perhaps you could encourage your students to make more liberal use of the word “of”. I have noticed that non-native speakers of English from many backgrounds seem somehow reluctant to use this word. Perhaps textbooks are to blame?

The Roads to Sata

Long walks through Japan have become something of a tradition. Alan Booth (1946-1993) made a journey, entirely on foot, over the approximately 2000 miles or 3000 km between the northernmost tip of Japan, Cape Soya in Hokkaido, and its southernmost point, Cape Sata in Kyushu, and this book, The Roads to Sata, was the result.

Views from Cape Sata

Booth had been living in Tokyo for several years but had begun to suspect that Tokyo was not the ‘real Japan’ and therefore decided to embark on his journey, choosing to walk, mainly along roads rather than across country, so as to have chance to meet and talk to people along the way. He explains his motivation in an interview with a journalist after completing his trip:

“Why did you decide to do it in the first place?”

“Because I’d lived in Japan for a quarter of my life and still didn’t know whether I was wasting my time. I hoped that by taking four months off to do nothing but scrutinize the country I might come to grips with the business of living here, and get a clearer picture, for better or worse”.

but admits that he was not successful in his mission:

“Have you managed to do that?”


The trip avoids many of the typical cities and tourist sights, leaving out Tokyo (mentioned only in passing at the beginning), Osaka and Kyoto, and instead concentrates on the ordinary, everyday towns and cities along the way. Booth also eschews the usual clichés found in writing by Westerners about Japan – geishas, mono no aware, wabi-sabi, the homogeneity and consensus culture of ‘the Japanese’ and so on – presumably because Booth had been in Japan for long enough to get such things out of his system if he ever had them in his system to start with. His introduction specifically points out that he has:

“tried to avoid generalizations, particularly ‘the Japanese’. ‘The Japanese are 120,000,000 people, ranging in age from 0 to 119, in geographical location across 21 degrees of latitude and 23 of longitude, and in profession from emperor to urban guerilla.”

However, in the course of his travels, Booth finds that he cannot avoid clichés and preconceptions – not his own about ‘the Japanese’, but those of the people he meets about Westerners. Despite speaking fluent Japanese, he often has to convince the owners of the ryokans where he wishes to stay that he can indeed eat raw fish, use chopsticks and sleep on a futon, and that he in fact does all these things regularly with his Japanese wife in Tokyo. At one ryokan, the owners finally say “but we can’t speak English!” despite the fact that for the previous few minutes, they had been speaking in Japanese. Booth is also frequently accosted by schoolboys asking “Amerika?” (i.e. “Are you from America?”) and saying “Ziss is a PEN” – the first sentence in the English language textbook used in Japanese schools – and “Hey YOOO!” (I can’t imagine what sort of textbook would teach this as an appropriate way to greet, well, anyone, so I’m somewhat bemused as to where it may have come from.) The schoolgirls, on the other hand, politely asked him for his autograph, and a policeman is surprised that the money in his wallet is Japanese money.

Booth clearly wants nothing more than to blend in, be accepted and talk to people, and the constant reminders of his otherness cause great frustration. At one point in the journey, an elderly lady clearly becomes aware of his frustration and attempts an explanation:

“We don’t see many foreigners here” explained the old lady as she pedaled off. “That’s why the people stare at you. That’s why the children shout.”

but nonetheless, being treated in this way starts to get to him:

“I haven’t got any friends,” I snarled. “I’m a gaijin.”

Occasionally, the frustration boils over into what seems to be a somewhat exaggerated sense of injury. Some children are reported as saying, of the gaijin:

“Look at it!… What’s it eating? What’s it speaking?”

and later:

“See what it does when you say ‘hurro’ to it.”

although there is, to my knowledge, no way of unambiguously referring to something or someone as ‘it’ in Japanese; the only expressions I can think of that they may have used – which are admittedly not terribly polite – are:

あのもの ano mono, which could mean あの物 that thing or あの者 that person.

あの奴 (あのやつ) ano yatsu, which could mean ‘that guy’ or ‘that thing’

彼奴 (あいつ) aitsu, which means ‘he, she, that guy’ but is also used, at least in Kyushu dialect, to mean ‘that thing’, if I remember correctly.

However, it could be that I have missed an important expression here – please let me know in the comments if so!

Things have changed a great deal since the late 1970s, when Booth made his journey, and particularly in large towns and cities, people are used to seeing foreign faces and hearing non-Japanese people speak the language with varying degrees of fluency. Even by the time of Booth’s later book, Looking for the Lost (published after his death in 1993) he seems to have been accepted into ryokans without the long debates. The earlier, 1970s book gives many hints of a disappearing era; for example, older people cite distances in terms of ri – “the distance that a man with a burden would aim to cover in an hour on mountain roads” (aim to, presumably, because he may find his way impeded by bears, or be bewitched by foxes, or have some other unpleasant fate befall him). Some things remain the same, however: music and sirens blaring out at various times of day to indicate that children should go to school or go home, politicians’ vans blaring out messages “My name is Tanaka Kenji, vote for me”, tiny noodle shops run by elderly couples, a love of nature and of the restraining powers of concrete, good food, good beer and sometimes overwhelming friendliness and hospitality, adult manga in full public view (although I heard some time back that they were finally to be banished to top shelves) and the idea that Japan and the Japanese people are unique and uniquely difficult to understand. In Hokkaido, not long after the beginning of his trip Booth has a conversation with an old man and tells him that he, Booth, lives in Tokyo.

“Tokyo is not Japan,” he said. “You can’t understand Japan by living in Tokyo.”

Booth agrees and says that’s why he decided to look at the rest of Japan.

“You can’t understand Japan just by looking at it,” the old main said.

No, agrees Booth, he was also talking to the people he met. The old man tells him that you can’t understand Japan just by talking to people. How could he understand Japan, then, asks Booth.

“You can’t understand Japan,” he said.


The Roads to Sata gives an insight into a Japan that is far removed from the touristy stereotypes and is probably particularly fascinating for those who have never had a chance to visit. However, the premise of the journey – walking from one end of the country to the other – does not allow much detailed discussion of the individual places Booth travels through, and many themes come up repeatedly through the account – concrete, dead snakes, beer, pollution, to cite some examples. There are some parts of the journey that Booth himself appears to find rather tedious; certain parts of Japan are ‘away from the tourist trail’ for good reason. The Roads to Sata also, necessarily, reflects the Japan of its time, which has now partially passed away, and the state of mind of the author, who was still trying to “come to grips with the business of living [there]” and “didn’t know whether I was wasting my time”. In Looking for the Lost, we see a man who appears much more at ease with his life in Japan. Sadly, Alan Booth passed away from cancer when he was only in his 40s. An obituary can be found here and a short review of “The Roads to Sata” here.

Booth appears in this video, part of a BBC educational series.

Among the Yamabushi (Narrow Road Part 4)


Back on the road with Bashō and his straw sandals…

One of the high points of his journey, figuratively as well as literally, was his pilgrimage to the 出羽三山(でわさんざん) Dewa Sanzan, three mountains of Dewa Province, which is a very sacred place in Shintō and Buddhism and in the 修験道(しゅげんどう) Shugendō mountain ascetic sect. This is a syncretic religion combining elements of Shintō and Buddhism, Taoism and other beliefs. Practitioners are known as 修験者(しゅげんじゃ) Shugenja or 山伏(やまぶし) Yamabushi (someone who prostrates himself in the mountains – the ‘bushi’ here is not the same as the word ‘bushi’ 武士(ぶし) meaning ‘warrior’). They go on foot through the mountains practising austerities, for example meditating while standing under ice-cold waterfalls – perhaps familiar to anyone who has read Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy? (Here is an interview with a Shugendō practitioner explaining some of the practices and the philosophy behind them.)

The three mountains of Dewa are 羽黒山(はぐろさん) Haguro-san, Black Wing Mountain, 月山(がっさん) Gassan, Moon Mountain and 湯殿山(ゆどのさん) Yudono-san, ‘hot-spring mountain’. As is customary, Bashō visited them in this order. On Haguro-san he and Sora stayed at a temple and took part in a haiku gathering in the abbot’s quarters. He includes the following poem


arigata ya
yuki wo kaorasu

Among the translations and explanations of this poem, the most beautiful I could find was the following from this Japanese-language site on Oku no Hosomichi


My approximate translation: “Ah, how precious and gratitude-inducing! In this southern valley, in this lower world, the south wind has made the lingering snow on this holy mountain give off a fragrance. The atmosphere is full to the brim with purity”.

For those who are unfamiliar with Japanese: such a translation, even of an explanation that is seeking to unpack and explain a haiku, can only be approximate because the structure of English forces one to give sentences a structure of ‘who did what to whom’ that is not necessary there in the original. For example, the expression 有り難い arigatai can, according to the dictionary, be translated ‘grateful’ or ‘evoking gratitude’ which implies that it can describe the subject or object of the gratitude, or both simultaneously, or perhaps the relationship between them at that moment. (I also love the fact that Japanese has a word for ‘lingering snow’ – bear in mind that it was July by the modern calendar when Bashō was visiting so snow lingering on the ground was something worth remarking on!)

On the way to Gassan, Bashō and Sora put on paper cords around their bodies and “sacred crowns” on their heads – pilgrim clothes, perhaps similar to what these two yamabushi are wearing. The man on the right is holding (and perhaps blowing into) a conch shell.

You can see more modern yamabushi photos in this gallery by Tony McNicol.

The way to Gassan went “through the clouds, mists, and mountain air, over snows that never melt” (Keene). Although he used the services of a porter, Bashō nonetheless clearly found the climb exhausting. On the following day, on the way to Yudono-san, he noticed a cherry tree – again, unusual for July – and was deeply moved by it. Visitors to Yudono-san were forbidden to describe what is within the shrine area, and Bashō therefore “lays down his pen”


Yudono ni nurasu
tamoto kana

I cannot speak of
Yudono, but see how wet
My sleeves are with tears (trans: Keene)

The ‘wet sleeves’ expression is an often-used metaphor in Japanese poetry and indicates ‘tears’ (see here on the University of Virginia’s Ogura Hyakunin Isshu page for examples of sleeve-wetting) but there appears to be an extra wordplay here because the word ‘Yudono’ has to do with bathing. The ban on describing the object of worship at the shrine has now been extended to a photography. Having never visited, I was of course intrigued as to what might be there… For anyone who wants to avoid ‘spoilers’ please note that the “Oku Annotated” site, which gives lots of detail on Bashō and Sora’s pilgrimage to the three mountains, does contain one!.

Lesley Downer, in “On the Narrow Road to the Deep North”, tells of her interest in finding out whether there are still yamabushi in the Three Mountains – some of her colleagues in Tokyo pooh-poohed the idea that there were any such thing – and her experiences when she finds them. Most of the people she meets in the mountains are from farms and villages and have been deputised to undertake the pilgrimage to pray for success, good harvests, the safety of their families, etc., together with a few people who have undertaken the rigorous ascetic training and act as guides for the pilgrims. As this Tofugu article also explains, many yamabushi these days are former salarymen who have turned to religion after retirement.

I tried my hand at a couple of yamabushi paintings to accompany this post – the first is after one of the photos in Tony McNicol’s gallery.

yamabushi2 yamabushi1



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.