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Travels in Basho country
Following in the footsteps of Japan's greatest haiku poet.

October 2004

The water at the dock is dirty. Pools of oil float like flat jellyfish across the surface, sparkling rainbow-bright in the fading sunlight. The oil has leaked from the engines of the tourist boats bobbing in Matsushima bay nearby. The air reeks of gasoline. The tourists — mostly in groups — board the little ships with great boisterousness, shuffling up the gangplanks and laughing and chattering all the while in Japanese country dialects.

I board, too, but I am alone.

Slowly, the boat pulls away from its mooring, beeping to alert nearby crafts. And slowly, the pine tree-topped islands, once distant, come into sharper view. There are scores of them. Green branches jut out from craggy rocks as they have for centuries. The islands are large and small. One, the tape recording coming over the loudspeaker says, was broken in two by an earthquake. The tape asks passengers to direct their attention to the left of the boat. And as we do, for a moment, I hear nothing and only see.

The water is free of its former petroleum sheen. I look up at an island. It sits silently but speaks of a thousand ages. The waves ripple softly into it and ashore there is only rock and tree, and that is enough.

I drink in the silence and forget the tour boat on which I am sitting. This is why I have come.

I was following a ghost. Three hundred and fifteen years ago, Japan's greatest haiku poet, Matsuo Basho, undertook a five month journey that took him north from his home in present-day Tokyo toward Sendai, then west to the three sacred mountains of Dewa. From there he made for the east coast and headed south along the lonely Sea of Japan toward the small town of Ogaki. He walked the whole way.

The book he produced after his journey to the north is called, in Japanese, Oku no Hosomichi. There are various ways to translate the title, but I shall use The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the title of the book as I've known it since I was in high school. The Narrow Road is a classic of Japanese literature and takes as its themes nature, traveling and the Buddhist concept of eternity. Mixing prose and haiku poetry to form haibun, the book is famous throughout Japan, studied in schools and as instantly recognizable as, say, Whitman's Leaves of Grass might be to American students. It is a timeless, ever-popular classic, as vital now as when it was written.

Basho's book has had an immense appeal to me since I was about 17, when I first became seriously interested in Japan and other Asian countries. There was something about the quiet rusticity of the book, the spareness of the prose and the profound brevity of the poems that seized me. I loved, sitting at my father's desk, reading by lamplight, to imagine the wizened old poet and his traveling companion, Sora, tromping through Japanese backwaters and hunkering down for the night at a borrowed room. Basho's book, to me, seemed like the literary manifestation of freedom. He went where he wanted to go, did what he wanted to do.

And the book has appealed to me since, perhaps for deeper reasons. I couldn't have known as a teenager the pressures of adult life; the modern anomie in which so many of us live, driving back and forth to our jobs, getting worn into ruts and wishing our days away. Basho appealed to me even into my twenties and now my thirties: the poet is for me soul food, a comfort and antidote to boredom and existential blahs.

So for a bit, I wanted to see what the traveling life was like. My idea was to fly to Tokyo, take the train to Sendai, where I'd studied as a college student, and wend my way north to the ancient city of Hiraizumi by way of Shiogama, Matsushima and points in between. I'd do a fraction of the poet's route; as much as time would allow. I'd see what the poet saw and stop where he stopped. I was hoping, I suppose, to catch a bit of Basho's spirit.

What I didn't know was that I'd find much more than that.


"Haiku is a special world," the young priest, called Shibata, was telling me.

We were avoiding the rain, he and I, as we stood under the temple awning. Behind us, incense hung heavy in the air and I could smell the musty tang of the tatami mats mixing with the smoke. Shibata-san, smooth-headed and dressed in his brown clerical garb, told me he was no judge when it came to literature, but that he enjoyed reading the Sendai sections of The Narrow Road. Falling silent, we ducked into the temple and gazed together at the gilt altar, festooned with offerings.

I'd come here on the shinkansen (the "bullet train") from Tokyo earlier that morning, covering in two hours what had taken Basho many weeks. After leaving my bag at my small hotel, I set off with my Japanese and English copies of The Narrow Road for the plain of Miyaginohara, where a painter named Kaemon took Basho to see the local bush clover and rhododendron.

I hadn't been here, in Sendai, for fourteen years. It was here that I got my first taste of Japan, as a student on a summer program with Franklin and Marshall College. So the scene that I saw when I stepped out of the suburban train station wasn't entirely unfamiliar to me: a quintessentially Japanese clean street, a large athletic field and a noodle shop into which I promptly ducked to get some lunch. It was noontime and the place was jammed with clock-watching salarymen out for a quick bite. The proprietress hustled between her demanding customers and the steamy kitchen. I reckoned she could help me find what I was looking for, so I told her that I was reading The Narrow Road — showing her the Japanese copy — and could she help me find Yakushido, the temple Basho visited?

She squinted at the book. "Uhhhh," she began. "I've heard of that book," she says. "But I've never read it."

Uh-oh. Here I am, in Basho-land, and the natives don't even read the book? Fretting, I pay up after drinking the last of my soba noodle broth and head out the door, following my map toward Kinoshita, where Basho found dark pine woods, so dark that "even the beams of the sun could not penetrate." Kinoshita, Basho wrote, was a subject of classical poetry because of its "dewiness." He cites one poet who says his lord needed an umbrella to protect him from the drops of dew when he entered it.

But when I got to Kinoshita ward I saw no trees. Instead, a distinctly 21st century scene greeted me: a barber shop with a red, white and blue pole, smallish houses with air-drying laundry and a bank advertising pension funds. An elderly granny pedaled past me on her black bicycle. This wasn't quite what I'd been looking for; there weren't even any of the "Oku no Hosomichi" markers that I'd see later on my trip.

Not until I got to Yakushido, that is, where I met the priest Shibata-san. Shibata-san, 37 years old and working alone at the temple office, explained the history of the temple, which Basho wandered past, and proffered his feelings about haiku. "Lots of people try to understand it," he said. But "it's a sensitive world" — meaning, I gather, open to interpretation. Nonetheless, the young priest marveled at the poet's journey. Then, after a pause, he offered up a theory I'd hear more than once on my trip:

"Some people think that Basho was a spy for the Tokugawa Shogunate," he said as his eyes and mouth laugh with mischief.

I'm sure that Uchiumi-san knew the theory, too. He was a hyper-talkative man strolling about the woods in Kinoshita (really just a swath of trees next to a suburban road) with a friend, temple-hopping. I judged him to be in his early to mid-seventies. He told me he'd visited 33 sites that appear in Oku no Hosomichi and almost immediately asked me if I was going next to Shiogama, the town where Basho had stayed after leaving Sendai. I said that I was. "You have to go to Ishinomaki, too!" he said. "He stayed there, too!"

Ishinomaki was Uchiumi-san's hometown.

Before parting ways, and after receiving from this chatty man a small doll ("gift for you," he'd said, pulling the package out of his trunk), I asked him what the appeal of Basho was to him. His friend, whose name I didn't catch, stayed stone-silent while Uchiumi-san rattled off the places his daughter had studied: America, Australia, England, New Zealand. This, of course, had nothing to do with my question. Until —

"I like the old things," he said by way of finally answering me.

Mr. Uchiumi — with his gifts and his chatter — had shown me one of the more pleasant aspects of traveling in Japan: grace. In Japan, one so often finds such thoughtfulness and help from those one meets on the road. The Japanese are polite to a fault. Their politesse is sometimes sincere, often not, but such distinctions can hardly matter to the itinerant traveler.

But it was politesse — the sincere kind — that led me to change my original plan to go to Shiogama and head instead for Yamadera. Mrs. Shoji wouldn't hear of my going to Shiogama. "A waste," she'd said. There was only a shrine there. I'd met her when asking directions to another shrine that Basho had visited in Sendai. Hearing my question, she'd hopped up off the park bench she'd been sitting upon, kicked up her bicycle stand, and proceeded to walk with me through the gathering dusk to the shrine. Schoolchildren were approaching the low structure, asking for the blessing of the god inside: it was exam season. "I recommend Yamadera," Mrs. Shoji said. "I recommend Yamadera," she repeated. "That's where Basho wrote the cicada haiku!" And she recited for me, unasked,

Shizukasa ya
Iwa ni shimiiru
Semi no koe

In the utter silence of a temple
A cicada's voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.

She repeated the poem again. And again. "Stay with me when you're in Sendai next," she said, neatly writing her name, address, and telephone number on my yellow note pad. And she disappeared.

"Wow," I remarked to the young man standing next to me. He was about my age, slightly taller and bespectacled. He'd fallen into our conversation upon hearing Mrs. Shoji and me discussing Basho. He, too, recited the cicada poem. "What a kind woman," I said. He agreed.

His name was Otomo-san, and he was a few years younger than me, at 30. We wound up spending most of the evening together, with him taking me to a tiny izakaya, or bar, in Sendai, run by a nearly toothless man and his Chinese helper. We talked about Basho, unemployment, the Chinese economy, and pilgrimages, like the one I was on.

Otomo-san had taken a pilgrimage of his own, he told me before we called it a night. With his mother, some years ago, he had visited Rome. But it wasn't a book that drew him there.

"We wanted to see the sights from Roman Holiday," he said, referring to the 1953 Audrey Hepburn film.


There are two Yamaderas. The real Yamadera is high atop Mt. Hoju, with temples, one after the other, nestled in trees and rock. The ancient buildings immediately called to mind the wispy, almost air-brushed black-ink scroll paintings that hang in every museum's Asian art collection. On the mountain roads, one expects to find a straw-sandaled sage walking by, chanting a sutra and begging for alms. "Yamadera" itself means "mountain temple," and pilgrims climb 1,500 steps to get to the top and gaze out at the town below.

That town is the other Yamadera, the miniscule, two-hotel burg into which I arrived by local train on an October Tuesday morning. It is a hamlet of souvenir shops and comfort food restaurants serving day-trippers from nearby Sendai or Yamagata City. After finding an inn at the foot of the mountain, I headed off toward a happy discovery: the Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum.

Like me, Basho hadn't intended to come here. "There was a temple called Ryushakuji in the province of Yamagata," the poet wrote. "Founded by the great priest Jikaku, this temple was known for the absolute tranquility of its holy compound. Since everybody advised me to see it, I changed my course at Obanazawa and went there, though it meant walking an extra seven miles or so."

The poet was pleased with his choice — here he wrote his famous cicada haiku — and so was I. As I tromped up the hill toward the museum, I mused that no one in the world knew where I was at that particular moment, and I felt a great liberation. I had no schedule. Nowhere to be.

The museum turned out to be a spacious building at the top of the hill, next to — of all things — a rather sophisticated European oil painting museum. It was filled mostly with scrolls, maps of Basho's Narrow Road route and books, including what appeared to be a contemporary copy of Oku no Hosomichi, at which I gazed down in incomprehension. The writing was too stylized for me; I couldn't read the cursive script.

"Even Japanese people can't read that," a 30-ish man standing next to me said as we both peered into the glass case. He smelled vaguely of alcohol. It turned out that he was from Gunma prefecture, not far from Tokyo. I told him about my project and we looked together at a map of Basho's route on the wall, as a schoolgirl stood beside us and copied an explanatory poster. "He walked a lot," the man said. "I admire him just for that."

The museum is equal parts classical Japanese aesthetics and modern Japanese technology, what with a LaserDisc mock-umentary of Basho and Sora's journey together. The poet is played by a hirsute actor who later pops up as the film's contemporary-clothed narrator. I steal away from the small theatre where the film is shown to head for the mountain, stopping on my way out to stamp my notebook with an ink seal of Basho's likeness.

As I leave, I notice the young girl whom I saw earlier, copying her lesson so diligently. She and her mother are watching a small-screen version of the same video I have just seen. The young girl displays the same concentration as she gazes at the TV.

But her mother is fast asleep in her chair.

Standing at the foot of Mt. Hoju, I remembered that I'd heard there were 1,500 steps to the top. The old poet found an ethereal quality to the mountain, writing that "the stony ground itself bore the color of eternity, paved with velvety moss... I felt the purifying power of this holy environment pervading my whole being."

I, too, was moved by the atmosphere of the mountain; its towering trees providing a lovely green canopy over the brown dirt and grey, craggy rocks that punctuated the steep climb. After passing a ground-level temple and rubbing a Buddha statue's fat stomach for good luck, I made my way skyward.

It was too late for cicadas. Instead, I listened to the chatter of the mass of provincial tourists and the ka-click of digital cameras. Try as I did to ignore the hordes of people around me, they were always there, in their hats resembling upside-down flower pots and their tacky athletic wear. Those tourists were to be a permanent feature of my travels in Basho country; a feature that I largely wished would go away. But every now and then, a retiree from Chiba or Miyagi would squint at a stone tablet or a statue — like the one at the foot of the mountain — and say, "ah — Basho-san ne." ("Oh — it's Basho, isn't it.") Times like those, I remembered why I'd come.

Walking up Mt. Hoju is an arduous task, but worth the effort: at the top, I found a viewing pavilion and sat for many minutes, taking in the whole of Yamadera below and breathing the mountain air. I eavesdropped on conversations and watched a young woman paint a mountain scene and smiled at the teenagers taking photos of each other with their cell phones.

And on my way down, at last, I heard the shrill peep of a single cicada coming from behind a rock. It sounded lonely, and almost frightened.

After a time on Basho's route, I began to wonder just what it is that provokes such reverence among the Japanese for the haiku poet. So before leaving for the coast and Matsushima the next morning, I decided to trek back up the hill on the opposite side of town to the Basho museum and buttonhole the director, if I could find him.

I did. His name was Yoshida-san, and he was a medium-built man in his early fifties with a slight pompadour and a neat tie pin in the middle of his dress shirt. He kept his suit jacket on while we spoke and drank coffee in his office.

"Ohhh, you're doing an article on Basho," he said approvingly, setting aside his morning newspaper.

Yoshida-san answered my questions about Basho's place in the Japanese heart with a remark about "the Japanese spirit." What I gathered he meant was that Basho was part of the essence of Japanese-ness; a kind of uniquely Japanese man of letters who knew how to pluck the heartstrings of his countrymen past and present.

He asked me if I write haiku myself. I don't, and I told him so, but I wasn't surprised by his question. Takeda-san, the woman who runs the hotel in which I stayed, told me before dinner that a group of Americans had checked into the shabby place last year. They were interested in haiku, she said. And who, exactly, were they? I asked. The question itself seemed to puzzle her. "People who write haiku" was her answer.

"Looking at the poems," Yoshida-san continued, "the scenes have beauty." And indeed he was right. So many haiku poems — Basho's and others' — are about nature and the physical world: frogs and silkworms, mountains and cherry blossoms. There is a harmony with nature in the poems that is unparalleled in literature anywhere.

Not to mention a simplicity. Haiku are by design short, and that brevity begets popularity, a point Yoshida-san underscored to me with a quick wave of his hand and a comment. "People still like writing haiku these days," he said, pointing to the newspaper he'd abandoned after I walked in. Even now, it's still common for major dailies to print amateur haiku.

"I haven't been much help to you," he said with a shy smile as I collected my things and put my jacket back on.

"No, no," I told him. "You have been."


And so I board another Japan Railways train for Matsushima, via Sendai. Basho called the coastal area "the most beautiful spot in the whole country of Japan." I loved the way the poet described the myriad islands in Matsushima Bay: "Islands are piled above islands, and islands are joined to islands, so that they look exactly like parents caressing their children or walking with them arm in arm."

Popular legend and scholarly conjecture both have it that Basho couldn't write a poem in Matsushima (the name means "pine island") because he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the place. Otomo-san, the fellow I'd met in Sendai, waggishly suggested that the poet was so underwhelmed by what he saw that he just didn't feel like writing verse. Nonetheless, Basho wrote in the beginning pages of The Narrow Road that his longing to see the full moon over Matsushima partly inspired his trip to the north.

Poem or no poem, though, Matsushima, perhaps more than anywhere I went in eight days, was Basho's town. But in the worst way. Leave it to mass tourism to turn an otherwise lovely place into a kitsch-palace. Here was a silly Basho statue. Over there is the Basho tour boat. And were those Basho-brand bean-cakes for sale?

Matsushima basically shuts down at night, with only an overpriced sushi restaurant and one other eatery open to serve would-be diners. But Matsushima, for the self-styled literary traveler, is perhaps best at night. The tourists are snug in their hotels and the islands glimmer in the still moonlight. Basho, unable to sleep in his room, had found in his satchel poems about Matsushima by friends of his. He passed the night reading.

Looking out my own hotel window at the moonlit bay, I felt not excitement — as he had — but something even more valuable: peace.

I had one more stop before leaving Matsushima: Zuiganji temple, which Basho had visited. The temple holds a Basho festival every year, on the second Sunday in November.

Watanabe-san probably could have told me about the festival if she hadn't had to run off. Watanabe-san is what the Japanese fondly call an "oba-san." "Oba-san" technically means "aunt," though it's commonly used to refer to a middle-aged woman. Watanabe-san had close-cropped hair, sporty clothes and a row of near-perfect teeth that I suspected were prematurely gotten dentures. She was, it turned out, a tour guide.

"Hello," I said, approaching the large booth where she and a gaggle of like-clothed crones were waiting. "Are any of you particularly knowledgable about Basho?" I asked. "We all are!" exclaimed Watanabe-san, looking back wide-eyed at her guide-sisters.

I asked her the reason Basho didn't write a poem here. Was it true he was awestruck by the place? She allowed that that could've been the case.

But then she came close to me — unusually close for a Japanese — and said "he DID write a poem!" and whipped out a binder stuffed with laminated pages.

"Look," she said, and read,

Matsushima ya
Chiji ni kudakete
Natsu no umi

I couldn't find the word "chiji" in the dictionary (save for "governor,") and she said she didn't know when he wrote it. I had no way of knowing if she was pulling my leg or not. But the poem about the summer sea (natsu no umi) sounded appropriately Basho-esque and so I wrote it down. I was about to ask her another question when she abruptly donned a white sun visor and said "sorry, I have to go to work!"

And with that she punched me in the arm — a little too hard, I thought — and took off down the road to meet her brood of tourists.

I walked up the tree-bordered path to Zuiganji after that. It is a beautiful temple inside, with ornate altars and lovely gold sliding screens painted with red and blue pheasants, peacocks and pine trees. The brown floor is glass-smooth, the result of shoes never touching the wood. One after the other, rooms revealed themselves as outstanding, even lavish, examples of Japanese architecture. This particular temple was built in 1609 — not long before Basho's journey to the north. But here, too, though he visited it, the poet failed to pen a verse.

Just as I was getting cold in the October air (for the temple is not heated,) I suddenly heard from behind the gift-counter selling rosaries and picture books the deep-throated voices of monks chanting their prayers. And it was only then that I felt, somehow, how Basho must have felt here: connected with the past, with the ancients. Cultures like Japan's have a deep respect for continuity, for the old and sacred, and indeed even parts of Basho's trip were meant as pilgrimages to celebrated places. Matsushima was one.

I ventured out to Oshima, the island on which Basho landed, coming from Shiogama. Hearing the waves lap against the rocks and the wind go through the trees, I felt relaxed and slightly spent, having traveled and written for five days straight. It is located away from the rest of the town, set aside as if on purpose for contemplation. Basho described it as a peninsula, and as I walked back over the bridge to the mainland, I saw three people with easels sitting on a beach connected to the island. They brought to mind the gift given to Basho by Kaemon, the painter he met in Sendai: drawings of Matsushima and Shiogama. Perhaps one of those men on the beach was a descendant of the old painter, he of the "truly artistic mind."


A piece of tourist literature I picked up in Hiraizumi calls the town a "stage of Japanese history." They mean "stage" in the sense of something significant happening here. And so it did.

"It is here that the glory of the three generations of the Fujiwara family passed away like a snatch of empty dream," Basho wrote. The Fujiwara were a powerful family and built Hiraizumi into a splendorous city. But that sheen is long gone from today's small town in Iwate prefecture, now just another little Japanese country town notable only for its historical relics.

One such relic was seen by Basho, and he left a poem about it.

Even the long rain of May
Has left it untouched —
This Gold Chapel
Aglow in the sombre shade.

He was writing about the Konjiki-do, the main attraction in Hiraizumi and worthy of attention. The temple's gold-leaf exterior reminded me of the famous Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, another ancient capital. Inside sit numerous golden Buddhas, and, says a tape playing overhead, the structure was built to resemble the Buddhist ideal of paradise. The tape also says that the remains of four generations of the Fujiwara clan rest mummified inside.


I pulled out my copies of The Narrow Road and turned to the Hiraizumi sections, thinking something was amiss. Sure enough, Basho had a different number: three. So I went over and accosted a bespectacled priest who was trying his best to communicate with a noisy group of Chinese tourists.

"Yes, actually, there are four remains," the priest said, but one such remain is only — and here he brought his hand to his throat and made a sweeping upward motion — "a neck." So Basho got it wrong? I asked.

"I don't think Basho-san knew that," the priest said with a shrug.

Half of Basho's writing about Hiraizumi is a paean to the eternal. The poem about the Konjiki-do, for instance, is a monument against time. The old temple is "untouched." And indeed it remains so to this day, albeit now with a protective outer building surrounding it.

But the other half of Basho's Hiraizumi experience was about passings. It was here that he wrote one of his most famous haiku, a lament about faded grandeur and power. The small hill onto which I'd climbed shortly after arriving in Hiraizumi, called Takadachi, was the one that inspired Basho to write that very poem — a haiku that no fewer than four people had recited to me off the tops of their heads.

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

The warriors were the Fujiwara. Their interlocutors were the Ainu, Japan's indigenous people, now mostly gone, wiped away. The poem was therefore about conquest, and I didn't like it. But it was also about time and impermanence, and it had a Tennysonian quality to it — one thinks of the lines from "In Memoriam" about a landscape growing familiar to a stranger's child.

It was a fitting lament. For, looking down from the hill onto the field where the loyal retainer Benkei fought to save his master, Yoshitsune, one could see and hear a different scene. Trucks, large ones, moving earth and ripping up the fields. They clambered slowly and noisily over the ground, making, I was told, a new highway. Here was the stuff of recent Japanese scandal — or life-support, however one chose to look at it: "public works" have been the lifeblood of the nation's economy for years now, and critics have loudly complained that the bridges, tunnels and roads erected have done nothing but enrich construction moguls and scar the land.

The trucks and machinery clanged away below me. Later, I thought of Chiba-san, a young man I'd met at a Korean barbecue restaurant in Hiraizumi. It was his theory about Basho's popularity that made the most sense to me. "Time is money!" he said, stabbing his watch emphatically and pointing out — as if anyone needs reminding — the go-go ways of Japan today. The technology, the work ethic, the small houses in which people must live. The poet, he suggested, was an antidote to all that. He had his artistic life. Maybe it wasn't entirely real; as a scholar has written, in The Narrow Road, Basho created an ideal world where earthly matters like money and food and didn't exist, or at least weren't written about. Art was everything.

I began to see the true appeal of the poet for the Japanese. He was part of a wider package: the country excursion, the two-meal ryokan hotels, the leaf-viewing pamphlets and mountain vistas. Even in busy Akihabara, Tokyo's world-famous electronics district, one finds advertisements for trips to the north country. Basho was inextricably linked to the experience of an older, quieter Japan; a Japan that is gone. Or going fast, as is so much of the world.

There was no one with me on the hill that late afternoon. I was alone, again. I'd wanted to sit down and look out over the scene, over toward the mountain and the Koromogawa battlefield. But instead, I shouldered my backpack and watched as the trucks, one by one, ground more of the poet's Japan to dust.

I turned around. And then I walked down the hill, toward my hotel.

*Note: English translations of Basho's prose and poetry, unless my own, are from The Narrow Road to the Deep North and other Travel Sketches by Matsuo Basho. Penguin Classics, 1966. Translated and introduced by Nobuyuki Yuasa.

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