Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Roads of Oku)
Utamakura: Storied Places
(Updated: March 2013)
Beckoned by the cloud-scattering winds and Dōsojin, the male-female guardian god of the road, longing to see the moon rising over Matsushima, Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) left Edo for Oku at the end of spring in the second year of Genroku (1689).
Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Roads of Oku), his prose-poetry account of the five-month long journey with his travel mate Sora is his most famous and beloved work.
"Oku" has a specific reference in the narrative: on the way from Sendai to Shiogama, Bashō describes a path along the skirt of a mountain as “oku no hosomichi.” But the title suggests more than just this stretch of road. “Oku” has been translated as “Far Towns,” “Far Province,” “Deep North,” and “Interior.”
Geographically, Oku was the provinces of northern Honshū – Mutsu (Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate and Aomori) and Dewa (Yamagata and Akita). But “Oku” also means “far,” “deep,” and “remote” as well as paradoxically, “inside,” “heart,” or “inner sanctuary or room.” “Oku-san” (“wife”) is, or was traditionally, the person who stayed in the interior of the house, in charge of the physical and spiritual welfare of the household. “Oku” is also used as a prefix in combination with place names to suggest both “far away” and “deep within,” as in Oku-Noto, “Remote Noto,” or Oku-Iya, “Deep within Iya.”
Google Map of Bashō's Journey (Click on the Map for an Active Version)
“Interior” may be close in meaning, but when it’s used geographically in American English, we imagine wilderness inhabited by wild animals and, before the genocidal wars of the ninetenth century, native American tribes. But while the area called Oku (northern Honshū) was once inhabited by pre-Yamato settlers, called Ezo or Emishi (with the connotaton of “barbarians”), long before Bashō's time, it had been pacified by armies sent from the capital in Kyotō and settled for centuries, with towns and rice fields along the river valleys and coasts.
The kanji for “oku” includes the kanji for “rice” above the kanji for “big,” suggesting a place where rice is plentiful, in fields or warehouses full of grain. Wetland rice, introduced from China via the Korean peninsula around 300 BC, was the miracle grain that fed the growth of Yamato and the political, socioeconomic and cultural transformation of the archipelago.
So while Oku was a rustic backwater in contrast to the capital cities of Kyotō and Edo, it was also heartland, where Bashō could feel the presence of the people of old, where memories of ancient battles and agricultural and folk traditions endured.
The photographs of the poetic places of Bashō's journey below were taken on various journeys I made to Japan, from 2005 to 2011, with my travel-mate Karen, who eventually did most of the driving while I navigated with the cars GPS. Utamakura, literally "poetic headrests," are allusions to places invoking the distant past. The places were famous in Bashō time, and are even more famous today because of his travel and writings work.
A few are out of the way and hard to find. I had help from a website from a detailed account of a twenty-first century walking journey along the route, with Japanese and English narrative, photos, and maps: “Walking on ‘The Narrow Road to The Deep North,’” in “Leisurely Walkings-Tours in Retirement,” at the website Small Occurences at My Home. The author (an anonymous retiree of a construction company) and his walking companion, Mr. SSK, covered Bashō’s route in nine trips between Summer 06 and Spring 09.
Not a fan of urban Japan, I have yet to visit the sites in and just outside Tōkyō from the first three days of Bashō’s journey (May 16 to 19, 1689). I started my research with his stop in Nikkō.
The excerpts from “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” (indented and italicized below) are from the translation posted at Tim Chilcott: Literary Translations. Chilcott graciously allows "material on the site to be copied, on condition only that the customary appropriate acknowledgements are made, and that the copying is not undertaken for profit." The translations of the haiku with the Japanese underneath the English are my own.
Note on Days of the Lunar Calendar: Oku no Hosomichi was composed in the context of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, which was adopted in Japan during the Nara Period. The lunar year begins on the first day of the first moon of spring, which is the second lunar cycle after the lunar cycle that contains winter solstice.
The months – 29.5-day moon cycles – begin at 12 midnight of the new moon and end on the night of the last crescent. The first three moon cycles of the year constitute spring; the next three summer; the next three autumn; and the final three winter.
Dates in the lunar calendar are given by two numbers, the moon number and the moon phase number. New Year’s Day is 1.1. Girls’ Day, 3.3, is not March 3, but the three-day old moon of third moon. (In 1689, 3.3, was April 22.)
Nikkō / 3.30 (May 19). Last day of spring
Nikkō / 4.1 (May 20). First day of summer
Nikkō Mountains, May 16, 2005
We arrived in mid-May, like Basho, but 316 years later. Nikkō is still bright green-gold at the beginning of summer, with new leaves and rice shoots sprouting in mirror-like ponds.
Over breakfast at dawn, the innkeeper praised his hometown for its clean air and abundant water. When I told him we planned to see Urami Falls and Kegon Falls, he told us about a third waterfall, Kirifuri ("Falling Mist"), a 5-minute drive from the inn. A walk through a forest with blossoming azaleas took us to a lookout below which Kirifuri tumbled down a sun-lit mountainside. The innkeeper was a fan of Bashō.
Azaleas in bloom, Kirifuri Waterfall, May 2005
Mt. Kurokami [Mt. Nantai]
Mt. Nantai, with Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzenji on the left, May 2005
Sora, a neighbor in Edo, joined Bashō to see Matsushima and Kisagata, and " to keep me company and share the hardships of the road." His poem is about his shaving his head and donning the garb of a pilgrim', and also the mountain's transition from spring to summer. It was traditional to change to summer apparel on the first day of summer.
There are two mountain shrines named Futarasan, where Bashō said he went to worship. The main one is near Tōshōgū, the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Nikkō Futarasan Shrine, Fall 2009
The other Futarasan is at the base of Mount Nantai, on the shore of lake Chuzenji (Fall 2009).
Chuzenji Futarasan Shrine, Fall 2009
Urami-no-Taki (See-From-Behind Falls)
In his haiku on the falls, Bashō's reference to confinement alllude to the Buddhist practice of three months of seclusion, beginning 4.16, for meditating and copying sutras The waterfall imagery also foreshadows the fifth-moon rains, associated with mid-summer.
The falls is easily reached by a well-maintained walking path off the road that goes from Nikkō town up to Lake Chuzenji.
Kurobane, Nasu / 4.4-4.19 (May 23-June 7)
Bashō descended to Kurobane from the mountains of Nikkō. The travelers stayed for two weeks. Today the town hosts a Bashō museum, with a statue of the poet and his travel-mate Sora in front of it.
Unganji / 4.5 (May 24)
Butchō (1642-1715), Bashō's Zen teacher, once served as a priest at Unganji. “Woodpecker” alludes to the angry spirit of Mononobe no Moriya (d. 587), who opposed the spread of Buddhism after it was introduced to Japan.
The new religion was a gift from an envoy of the kingdom of Paekche on the Korean peninsula, which was seeking the help of the Japanese emperor in its fight against the kingdom of Silla.
Despite this opposition, however, Buddhism established itself, supported by Emperor Yōmei (585-587), the thirty-first head of the Imperial family, and his son Prince Shōtoku, who encouraged people to adopt the new religion after his seriously ill father recovered his health following prayers to Buddha. Allied with the powerful Soga clan, Prince Shōtoku defeated the anti-Buddhist forces in a battle during which Mononobe no Moriya was killed. After his death, Mononobe’s spirit is said to have become a woodpecker in order to destroy Buddhist temples.
Despite the early opposition, Buddhism was adopted as a state religion in the Nara period (710–794), and temples were established in all the provinces to conduct ceremonies to prevent epidemics, earthquakes, and floods and to ensure an abundant harvest.
Sesshōseki, Killing Stone / 4.12 (May 31)
The killing stone isin a sulphurous gulch below Mt. Chausudake, on the opposite side of the Abukuma river valley, 18 miles north of Kurobane.
The rock was said to be the congealed spirit of an evil fox spirit.
The fox spirit first possessed Tamamo-no-mae, a beautiful concubine of emperor Toba, the seventy-fourth head of the Imperial family, who reigned from 1107-1123. (Before arriving in Japan, the fox spirit was said to have seduced the king of India and the emperor of China.)
After the emperor fell ill, an astrologer recognized the fox spirit as the cause of the illness and performed an exorcism. The fox spirit fled to Nasu, where it was hunted down by warriors on horseback armed with bows and arrows. Its negative karma congealed into the poisonous stone that became known as Sesshōseki. The stone killed any living being that came near it.
Later, a Zen priest traveling through Nasu heard about the killing stone and performed an exorcism to release the fox spirit. The stone broke apart, and the spirit emerged and asked to be enlightened to the Buddhist Law. After being saved, the spirit promised to do no more evil and vanished.
Shirakawa Barrier / 4.20 (June 8)
East of Nasu is the site of the Shirakawa Barrier, the symbolic gateway to the north country. The barrier, at the border of Shimotsuke (Tochigi) and Mutsu (Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate and Aomori). It was one of the three noted barriers to the north, the other two being the Nezu Barrier in Dewa (on the Japan Sea Coast, between Yamagata and Niigata prefectures) and the Nakoso barrier in Hitachi (along the Pacific Coast, in Ibaraki).
During Bashō's time, the stockade at Shirakawa that defended the Kantō plains against Ezo attacks was a distant memory surviving in poetic allusion.
Today, the site is indicated on a marker along a country road, at the foot of a hill in a valley off the main highway
On top of the hill is a shrine to the mountain god Ōyama:
Kurozuka ("Black Burial Mound"), Nihonmatsu / 5.1 (June 18)
In Adachigahara, near Nihonmatsu is a rocky shelter where an oni-baba, or old demon woman, is said to have lived, ambushing and eating travelers until a priest discovered her secret and drove her evil spirit away with prayer (Fall 2009). The rocky shelter is in the compound of Kanze-ji (Adachigahara Temple). A short walk from the temple is Kurozuka ("Black Mound"), where Onibaba is said to be buried, under a lone cypress tree. (See "In Search of the fearsome Onibaba," The Japan Times, Oct. 21, 2012).
Stone image of the oni-baba at Kanze-ji:
The onibaba's rocky shelter:
The oni-baba story is told in the nō drama Adachigahara: Yūkei is a yamabushi (a mountain ascetic) from Nachi, traveling with a group of followers. They stop on a cold autumn night at an isolated, run-down cottage on the plains of Adachi and ask the old woman inside for lodging. She welcomes them and demonstrates a spinning wheel for making hemp-thread while lamenting her bitter karma and the transiency of life. After she leaves to gather more firewood, the travelers discover a room full of foul-smelling bones and human corpses. As the priest and his entourage flee, the oni-baba pursues them, enraged that her shame has been revealed. They rub their rosaries and pray to Buddha, driving her off, and she disappears with the night storm.
Shinobu Mojizuri Stone, Fukushima / 5.2 (June 19)
The stone is located in a garden park near the Abukuma River, in Fukushima.
The Ruin of Satō Shōji's Mansion and the Temple of Ioji
In his haiku for Boys’ Day (5.5), Bashō alludes to two famous warriors: Benkei, a warrior-priest and his master Yoshitsune no Minamoto (1159-1189), who led the Minamoto family to victory over the ruling Taira family in the twelfth-century Gempei Wars.
Benkei's pannier and Yoshitsune’s sword were two treasures housed at Ioji, the temple where the Satō family tombs are located. Kami-nobori, or paper streamers, with the names of kami or prayers for children written on them, were raised on bamboo poles on Boys’ Day to encourage boys to become strong and brave, like warriors.
On 5.2 (June 19), three days before Boys’ Day, the travelers visited the ruins of Sato Shoji’s Otori Castle, on a hilltop (Maruyama) overlooking Iizaka, a hot springs town near Fukushima. At a hilltop park today, there are traces of the castle and a monument stone.
Below the castle site is Ioji temple. Sato’s two sons served and died in the service of Yoshitsune.
Bashō wept at the graves of the wives of the two sons. The story goes that the wives dressed in the armor of their deceased husbands in order to console their mother-in-law, Otowa. The blossoms of a tsubaki (camellia) tree at the back end of the temple, in the cemetary, are said to fall before they open; hence the tree is called Otowa Tsubaki.
Sendai / 5.4 (June 21)
Today, Sendai, the largest city in northern Japan with over a million inhabitants, is noted for its shopping arcade streets:
Miyagino and Tsutsuji-ga-oka are two areas near Sendai station.
Taga Castle and the Tsubo Stone Monument / 5.8 (June 25)
We found the site of Taga Castle, with an excellent archaeological and historical museum nearby. The castle, actually an administrative outpost, was built during the Nara period (710 to 794) to bring the northern frontier peoples called Emishi under the control of the imperial court. Today the site is a park for morning exercise and walking.
Tsubo no Ishibumi, the stone monument whose ancient inscription brought "joyous tears" to Basho's eyes, was harder to find. It wasn't at the site of the castle. We were going to leave without seeing it, but noticed a photo of it on an overhead sign and asked an elderly man on his morning walk where it was. He said he would take us there, jumped into the back seat, and directed us to a park a few hundred yards and several turns away. The stone was housed in a small wooden building.
We offered to drive our guide back to where he got in, but he declined, bid us farewell and continued on his walk. It was the kind of civility Bashō and Sora encountered on their journey. On their way from Nikkō to Kurobane, in Nasu, they were unsure about the way and asked directions from a farmer cutting grass with a sickle:
Shiogama Shrine / 5.9 (June 26)
Shiogama Shrine is just north of Sendai. A long stone stairway leads up from the street to the front gate.
The main shrine building:
The iron lantern presented to the shrine by Izumi-no-Saburō:
Matsushima / 5.9-5.11 (June 26-28)
Matsushima, Fall 2009
Matsushima, circa 1890s. New York Public Library Archives
After a night in Sendai in fall 2009, we took the boat ride into Matsushima Bay to see up close the various islands we had seen from shore on our summer 2005 trip. Crowded and very touristy, the boat ride is the thing to do when visiting; and tourists are encouraged to feed the seabirds, which draws a swirl of birds around the boat. Although Bashō didn't include a haiku on Matsushima in Oku no Hosomichi, he wrote one on the bay:
islands on islands a thousand shattered pieces in a summer sea
In spite of the millions that have described and photographed it, Matsushima appeared fresh and beautiful to our eyes.
Ojima ("Male Island"), Matushima
Ungo (1582-1659), a Rinzai Zen master, was a teacher of Bashō’s teacher Butchō. In 1636, the daimyō Date Tadamune (1600-1658) had invited Ungo to come to Matsushima to revive Zuigan-ji, a Zen temple that Tadamune’s father, Masamune (1567-1636), had rebuilt in 1604.
The approach to the Zen temple of Zuigan, through a gate ...
.. and a pathway through towering tree with meditation caves and altars in a limestone hill to the right.
Hiraizumi / 5.13 (June 30)
From Matsushima and Ichinomaki, the travelers headed up the Kitakami River to Hiraizumi, fifty miles north of Matsushima. Hiraizumi was the cultural and economic center of northern Japan for a hundred years, under four generaton of the northern Fujiwara clan – Kiyohira (1056-1128), Motohira (nd), and Hidehara (1122-1187), and Yasuhira (1155–1189). The warrior Yoshitsune took refuge there from his brother Yorimoto, Japan's first shogun. When his brother's forces attacked the Fujiwara in 1189, Yoshitsune committed suicide rather than allow himself and his family to be captured or killed. Yorimoto destroyed the Fujiwara clan and their stronghold in order to consolidate his rule over Japan.
Five hundred years after this bloody war, when Bashō visited Hiraizumi, Yasuhira’s fort was gone and all that remained was the ruins of the outer gates of Hidehira’s manor house. The area is now the site of Motsuji Temple Garden. The day we were there, a Heian poetry festival was in progress.
Motsuji Temple Garden
What remains from Basho's time, a little north of the park, is Chūsonji, a Tendai temple complex established in 850. Inside a protective outer hall is the Konjikidō, or Golden Hall, a beautifully gilded mausoleum inlaid with mother of pearl and jewels, housing the mummified remains of three generations of Fujiwara rulers (Kiyohara, Motohira, and Hidehira). Nearby is a statue of Bashō.
The Konjikidō is also called Hikaridō, or “Hall of Light.” In Bashō's haiku, the fifth-moon rains represent time, change, and impermanency; the gilded hall is Amida Jōdo, the Pure Land of Amida, a place beyond time and change where the faithful go after death to be instructed by Amida in achieving Nirvana to escape the karmic cycles of rebirth.
No photos are allowed of the Golden Hall, but a photo of it (right) appeared in the online Japan Times (Kyodo/Cultural Affairs Agency, Yoshiaki Miura), when Hiraizumi was being considered for a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in June 2011.
Narugo / 5.14-5.16 (July 1-3)
Narugo, looking back toward Iwate, Fall 2009
Narugo Gorge is famous for its autumn foliage.
Near the gorge is the memorial to the Shitomae Barrier marking the border between the old provinces of Mutsu (Iwate) and Dewa (Yamagata). Next to the memorial a teahouse serving soba (buckwheat noodles) with mountain vegetables, steamed and tempura-style. The dishes were excellent. The waiter and cook, apparently husband and wife owners, might have stepped out of the Edo period.
Mogami / 5.17 (July 4)
The Trail Near the Shitomae Barrier / A Ryokan in Mogami
In fall 2009, after our visit to Narugo and Shitomae, we stayed at an excellent ryokan in the small town of Mogami.
Ryūshaku-ji ("Standing Rock Temple”) / 5.27 (July 14)
Cicada is a summer kigo. This insect emerges from the ground in the warm summer weather to mate, lay eggs, then die in one or two weeks. Their brief appearance in summer, like that of fireflies, became a conventional symbol for the transiency of human life.
But cicadas also molt after they appear, shedding their old selves and becoming new beings (green before darkening), so they also represent, ambiguously, the spirit disengaging from the body at death, reborn into a new life, the goal of Buddhist meditation and pilgrimage.
Ryūshaku-ji, Fall 2009
We first visited Ryūshaku-ji in Summer 2005. At 3 pm, the temple was bustling; no cicadas, just the chirping of visitors (some of cell phones) going up and down the 1,100 stone steps leading up to the temple. But the tourist day was nearly over, and by the time we reached the top, the crowd had thinned, leaving a peaceful view from an observation platform.
Mogami River / 6.3 (July 19)
Mogami River, near Moyoaikai (14 miles NW of Ōishida) / Shiraito Waterfall, Fall 2009
In fall 2009, when we got to the boat terminal at Furukichi on the Mogami river, it was crowded, with more gaijin than we'd seen since we landed at Narita. The boat ride itself was touristy, with a guide monologuing with a continuous stream of facts about the river and singing Yamagata boat songs. The other passengers, a Japanese tour group, were more concerned with finishing their lunch and drinking beer than listening to the guide and looking at the river scenes.
The boatride goes downstream only, for twenty dollars. It makes a stop to allow for buying from food and souvenir vendors. After the boat dropped us off downriver, we caught a local bus back upriver to the car (bus ride back not included in the $20). It was a once in a lifetime experience the kind you feel was worthwhile because you know you won't do it again.
Dewa Sanzan: The Three Holy Mountains of Dewa / 6.4-6.9 (July 20-25)
In summer 2005, we spent two days in Tsuruoka, near Dewa Sanzan, the three holy mountains of Dewa: Haguro-yama (“Black-Feather Mountain,” 1,358 feet), Gassan (“Moon Mountain,” 6,509 feet) and Yudono-san (“Bath-Chamber Mountain” 4,934 feet). Sites of worship for shugendo (a Buddhist-Shinto sect practicing mountain ascetism), each mountain was identified with a Buddha and a Shinto kami:
Like other pilgrims, Basho climbed all three.
Pilgrims still climb the three mountains to go through a symbolic death and rebirth through ten successive realms – the six realms of suffering and the four realms of enlightenment – to become bodhisattavas ready to return to the everyday world to assist others along the path toward enlightenment. They visit sacred sites around Gassan, including praying before a rock pinnacle and crawling through a rock cave. Enlightenment is said to come from understanding the sounds of wind, birds, and insects as voices of the kami and buddhas.
The temple atop Hagurosan was founded in the seventh century by Nojo Taishi. He was led by a mystical three-legged crow into a small valley with a waterfall at its far end, where he performed his first ascetic training and discovered a statue of Kannon.Yudono is considered the holiest of the three. It is the end of the pilgrimage route that begins at Hagurosan, ascends Gassan, and descends to Yudono, a spur of Gassan.
We visited the Yudono in summer 2010. The shrine, closed from October to May, is reached by an uphill walk into the ravine beyond the torii at the parking lot. Photos are prohibited at the shrine. Whatever Bashō experienced there moved him to tears.
The object of worship is a triad of conic, ochre-colored rocks that mirror the three sacred mountains, with the tallest rock, twelve-feet high, flanked by two lower rocks, just as Gassan is flanked by the Haguro-san and Yudono-san. Water from a hot spring flows down from the side of the ravine over the three rocks and into a stream rushing by. The water’s mineral content (perhaps limonite, or hydrated iron oxide) has coated the three rocks, giving them their ochre coloring. As pilgrims walk over the rocks bare-footed, the warm water soothes their feet and cleanses them from the dust of the world.
It's one of the eeriest sites in Japan. Shugenja (mountain ascetics) are forbidden to speak about the rituals that take place here. Photos are prohibited at the shrine, but a search of the Japanese internet yielded the following image of the rocks, taken from above the shrine, on the trail up to Gassan:
Tsuruoka and Sakata / 6.11-6.14 (July 27-30)
The Mogami River, flows west through Sakata city into the Sea of Japan:
Mogami-gawa, Summer 2005
The Coastal Trail to Kisakata / 6.15 (July 31)
Between Sakata and Kisakata the coastal trail Basho had traversed runs through Misaki Park.
Misaki Park, Fall 2009
A fisherman was perched on some rocks below the stony cliffs.
Kisakata / 6.16-6.17 (August 1-2)
In 1804, an earthquake raised the floor of the lagoon so that what once were islands are now hummocks surrounded by low-lying rice fields.
Left: Gate at Kanmanju Temple. Right: Pine-Covered Hummock
In Basho's time, Kisakata ("shellfish lagoon"), like Matsushima, was filled with islands covered with pine trees. It was considered one of the most picturesque bays in Japan. He stayed at Kanmanju Temple. According to one tradition, the temple was so named because the empress Jingu, wife of Chuai, the legendary fourteenth head of the Imperial family, is said to have dedicated two jewels here, the kanju (ebb-jewel) and the manju (flow-jewel), which together control the tides.
Mt. Chōkai, Fall 2009
When Basho got to Kisakata, the weariness of his journey and the muggy, rainy summer began to darken his writing: "Whereas Matsushima seemed to smile, Kisakata droops in dejection. The lonely, melancholy scene suggests a troubled human spirit."
Bashō’s poem on Kisakata, alludes to the fifth-century Chinese beauty Xi Shi (Seishi). Earlier he had compared her beauty to Matsushima. A tragic figure, Seishi is remembered for having sacrificed herself for her homeland, the Kingdom of Yue, to help free it from the domination of Wu:
Nemu-no-ki (“sleep tree”) is a summer kigo. The flowers bloom in the summer, their pink stamens thin like silk threads, radiating out from a center, hence its name in the West, “silk tree” (Albizia julibrissin).
It’s called “sleep tree” in Japan because its bipinnate leaves close at night or in the rain. The closed-up tree in the rain suggests to Bashō Xi Shi’s tragic fate. The poem’s sadness also recalls Bashō’s tears at the graves of the two wives of the slain Satō brothers.
In summer 2005, when we stopped there, I was curious as to whether you could see Mt. Chōkai from the temple, as Basho describes it while sitting at the temple: "to the South, holding up the heavens, its shadow reflected in the bay." However, the mountain was hidden in clouds.
We visited the temple again in fall 2009 and saw the mountain from the cemetery at the back of the temple.
Mt. Chōkai from the Cemetery at Kanmanju-ji, Fall 2009
Mt. Chōkai is noted for casting its shadow at sunrise onto the Sea of Japan. Ōmonoimi (“Great Abstainer”), the kami of Mt. Chōkai, is the protector of farmers and fishermen of the region. The mountain was formerly a site of religious pilgrimages. Although these have been discontinued, mountain-worshipping rites are still performed in the towns around the mountain. For example, at the beginning of May, at a shrine in Fukura, a town on the Japan Sea, Ōmonoimi is celebrated in a flower-gathering ceremony in which men dance wearing hats decorated with flowers brought down from the mountain and thought to embody its kami’s spirit. After the dance, the townspeople gather the flowers and take them home.
The Long Way to Kanazawa / 6.25-7.14 (August 10-29)
Bashō left a prose piece about Sado island, twenty or so miles off the Japan Sea Coast in Niigata:
In his haiku, the tranquil River of Heaven overhead, as if sheltering this island of exile, suggests the compassion of Amida Buddha and Kannon, the goddess of mercy.
After passing the Nezu barrier between Tsuruoka and Niigata in early June, 2005, we drove along the coast looking for Sado island offshore. The weather was in the low 70s and warming. Stopping at sandy beaches lined with pine trees and rocky headlands overlooking coves, we searched the horizon but couldn't see an island in a haze between the calm ocean and the blue sky.
When we returned to Niigata in fall 2009, we drove the skyline road up to Mt. Yahiko.A lookout on the skyline road offered great views of the Echigo Coast; and in the distance, Sado! (The bottom photo on the left.) Maybe the air was clearer in the evening or Basho had seen Sado from the coast on an exceptionally clear day; or in his time the air was clearer than it is today.
South along the coast, at Izumozaki, Mount Yahiko appeared in the disance.
Between Itoigawa and Ichiburi
The famous "Rough Seas" [Ariso Umi], Fall 2009
The coast of Echigo (Niigata) and Etchū (Toyama), facing the storm fronts that cross the Sea of Japan from Asia, is noted for its rough seas ("ariso umi"). Like the muddy roads of the fifth-moon rains, the swollen rivers, the clouds at Gassan, and the heat and humidity of August, the rough seas symbolize the transient, chaotic world of human suffering.
In fall 2009, we drove south along the steep cliffs between Itoigawa and Ichiburi.
Near Oyashirazu were an odd-shaped rock and a sea-turtle statue:
At Ichiburi, on the border of Echigo and Etchū, Bashō composed this haiku on the young woman at the ryokan where he stayed with Sora. They were prostitutes from Niigata, traveling to Ise:
The blooming hagi (bush clovers), like “the strand where waves crash,” stand for the fallen world, both pilgrims and prostitutes caught in its transient, illusory cycle of worldly desires; the moon, like the sun and the River of Heaven, represents the all-encompassing wisdom and compassion of Buddha.
The poem at Ichiburi recalls the more cheerful one composed at Nikkō, at the start of the journey, the splendid sunlight/light of the light of Nikkō and Mt. Nantai blessing the four classes of society; here in Hokuriku, in the blessed moonlight, Bashō includes the prostitutes, not recognized in the four social classes, living as they did at the margin of society.
In the Mahayana Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra, on which Tendai and Jōdo schools are based, teaches that Enlightenment involves both detachment and compassion. After achieving Enlightenment, Bodhisattvas refrain from entering Nirvana, so they can help beings in the five realms of suffering to free themselves from the illusions of desire and attain eternal bliss. The virtue of compassion is embodied in Amida Buddha, enshrined at Hiraizumi, and Kannon, enshrined at Natadera. (See below.)
Kanazawa / 7.15-7.23 (August 30-September 7)
We arrived in Kanazawa by train in the winter of 2008, a week after the New Year, when the twenty-year old women in elegant formal kimono and fur collars were out and about town celebrating Adulthood Day and their coming-of-age year. The twenty-year old men also celebrate this day, though in suits rather than traditional kimono.
Formerly one of the richest cities in Japan because of the huge rice harvest of the surrounding region, Kanazawa boasts one of the best gardens in Japan, Kenroku-en, across the moat from a gate of its former castle, which burned down in 1881.
The Maeda lords were patrons of the arts, and regional artisans continue to produce traditional works gold-leaf, lacquer ware, pottery, and painted silk displayed and for sale at numerous museums and shops. Geisha and samurai houses and a ninja temple with hidden doors and passageways have also been preserved in districts with narrow streets east and west of the castle grounds.
Tada Shrine, Komatsu / 7.25 (August 9)
Tada Shrine is a couple of blocks from Komatsu Station. t was early, no one was around, and the buildings were closed. I'm not sure if Sanemori’s helmet is still kept here.
Saito no Betto Sanemori (1111-1183) first served under Minamoto no Yoshitomo, head of the Genji, who gave him the helmet, but later switched sides, joining the Heike against the Genji in the Gempei War. A native of Echizen, Sanemori rode into battle when he was seventy-three, intent on dying a warrior’s death in his homeland. He dyed his white hair black so he wouldn’t suffer the humiliation of being dismissed as an over-the-hill warrior by a younger opponent. After he was slain and beheaded, one of Minamoto’s warriors recognized the head and cried out “Ana muzan ya” (“How pitiful!”), and the narrator comments, “How pitiful that his empty name alone should have survived, impervious to corporeal decay, while his mortal remains have become one with the northern soil!” (The Tale of the Heike).
The cricket sitting under the helmet represents the unfeeling Universe, for which a heroic warrior’s death evokes no more emotion than a rock tumbling down a hillside, an attitude that is “muzan”: cruel, merciless, horrible. The helmet that once protected the head of a legendary warrior now houses a cricket. Yet, the insect is, like the warrior himself, an ephermal being that will suffer the same fate. Muzan.
Natadera / 8.5 (September 18)
Six miles south of Komatsu is Natadera, a temple founded in 717 by the priest Taicho, in a small valley that features a rocky hillside with caves.
In Bashō's poem, the wind – both its sound and its coldness – evokes, through synesthesia, a color, white, which in Asian tradition is associated with death. In another haiku, the poet used synesthesia with the color white to express loneliness:
The autun wind, symbolic of time passing relentlessly, also becomes the world’s cry of sadness, and like “rough seas,” is a recurring image of the poet’s fall journey through Hokuriku.
Taicho was a legendary ascetic with powers to fly and to disappear and appear elsewhere. He climbed Hakusan (“White Mountain,” 8,865 feet) and at a crater lake near the peak, had a vision of its mountain goddess emerging from the waters and becoming the Buddhist goddess of mercy Kannon. He enshrined an image of the eleven-headed, thousand-armed goddess in one of the caves.Today, Natadera is dedicated to world peace and natural harmony. Visitors can enter one of the womb-like caves to light a candle in worship, wash away the impurities of life, and be symbolically reborn.
Natadera Gate / Cliffs with Caves, Winter 2008.
The garden with a swan pond is said to represent the Bodaraku mountain of the Pure Land of Kannon. There were very few people when we visited in winter 2008, and the spiritual aura of the valley was intense.
We returned to Natadera in the summer 2010.
Bashō compares Natadera’s stone and the autumn wind to Ishiyama-dera, a temple located on the west bank of the Seta river south of Lake Biwa:
Ishiyama is the thirteenth temple in the tour of the thirty-three Kannon temples in the Kinki region. It’s depiected in a Hiroshige wood-block print, “Autumn Moon over Ishiyama,” in Eight Views of Ōmi (1834)
Ishiyama has stones that remind one of Natadera, though the cliffs of Natadera are taller and more dramatic.
Yamanaka Hot Springs / 7.28-8.4 (September 12-17)
Five miles south of Natadera is Yamanaka, a hot spring town built along Kakusenkei Gorge.
Thewater of the onsen is "redolent," due to the sulphates in it.
When Basho was in Yamanaka, chrysanthemums were not in season yet (and thus, "unpicked"). The Kiku or Chrysanthemum Festival, the seasonal festival of the year, is held on 9.9 (ninth day of the ninth moon, October 22 that year). Traditionally, in China, celebrants climbed a mountain and drank rice wine infused with the fragrance of chrysanthemum petals to ward off evil and promote longevity. Tz’u-t’ung is said to have lived for seven hundred years by drinking only the dew of chrysanthemums.
Basho associates the chrysanthemum with Buddhist purity and enlightenment:
The gist of his humorous poem on Yamanaka is that in the absence of chrysanthemums (enlightenment), Basho and Sora must turn to the smelly sulphate waters of the onsen to soothe their ailments – aching muscles, fatigue and digestive problems, all of which the onsen claimed to cure.
While the redolent bath water is no substitute for enlightenment, it brings welcome relief from the cold autumn wind, and thus can be associated with the compassion of Kannon.
Inlet of Yoshizaki, Maruoka, and Eiheji / 8.10-8.12 (September 23-25)
We drove south from Kanazawa to Tsuruga in the Winter of 2008. At the mouth of the Daishōji River, which flows down from Yamanaka Onsen into the Sea of Japan, on the border between Kaga (Ishikawa) and Echizen (Fukui), is Yoshizaki inlet, which leads to a lake called Kitagata. From here Bashō went to see the pines at Shiogoshi, which are located on the beach of a Country Club southwest of the river mouth.
Headland at Yoshizaki Inlet, Summer 2012
Maruoka is a castle town eight miles south of Yamanaka. The castle is located at the end of a narrow alley, on a small hill off Highway 8. The castle dates from 1579 and lays claim to being the oldest castle still standing in Japan.
Farther south, tucked up in a mountain valley among cedars is Eiheiji, an active monastery, founded in 1244 by the famous Zen master Dogen, who studied Buddhism in China and returned to establish Soto Zen in Japan. The complex of seventy buildings is a mecca for pilgrims from all over the world who come to meditate. The road up to the valley wound through a snowy forest.
Snowy scenes at Eiheiji / A monk departs for meditation. Winter 2008
Kehi Jinja, Tsuruga / 8.14-8.15 (September 27-28)
Kehi Jinja, Winter 2008
Kehi Jingū was established in 702 and dedicated to Izasawake, the kami of Emperor Ōjin, the fifteenth head of the Imperial family, who reigned at the beginning of the Kofun period, from 270-310. The legendary emperor Chūai, referred to be Bashō's text, was the fourteenth head, reigning from 192-200. "Yugyō," in Bashō's first poem, may be taken as a proper noun, a reference to Ippen (1239-89), the founder of the Ji sect of Buddhism; and a common noun, meaning "pilgrimage" or "wandering."