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Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi

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Summer 2013: Far Roads: Finishing Touches / Google Map
Summer 2012: Travels in the Fifth Moon / Google Map
Spring 2011: On the Far Side of Disaster / Google Map
Summer 2010: Legends of the Land / Google Map
Fall 2009: North Country Colors / Google Map
Summer 2009: Fireflies & Sweet Fish / Google Map
Spring 2008: Full Bloom & Festivals / Google Map
Winter 2008: Snow Country / Google Map
Summer 2007: Hōkūle‘a in Yokohama / Map
Fall 2006: Where Gods Alight / Google Map
Summer 2005: Roads of Oku / Google Map
Spring 2004: On the Road in Kansai / Google Map

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Roads / Seacoasts & Coastal Roads / Bridges / Walks & Hikes / Mountains / Ropeways / Rivers / Waterfalls / Lakes / Trees / Rocks / Caves / Hot Springs / Sakura / Fall Colors / Archaeology and History / Castles / Shrines / Temples / Gardens / Festivals / Food / Drinks

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On Driving in Japan

Roads of Oku: Journeys in the Heartland

A collection of essays on Japanese culture, history and literature. Forthcoming from Far Roads Press.

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.

Basho and Sora

"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.”

Map of Journey

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

On the last night of the third month, we found lodgings at the foot of Mount Nikkō. The innkeeper introduced himself as Gozaemon the Buddha. ‘I’m known as that because I put honesty first and foremost in everything I do. You can sleep here safe tonight with your minds at ease.’ We wondered what kind of Buddha it was that had taken on human form in this troubled, filthy world to help two beggar pilgrims. I observed him carefully, and saw that, however ignorant or clumsy he might have seemed, he was indeed a man of stubborn honesty. He was a man close to the Confucian ideal of Perfection: strong, simple, straightforward. I found his purity of heart most admirable.

Nikkō / 4.1 (May 20). First day of summer

On the first day of the fourth month, we went to worship at the mountain shrine. In ancient times, the name of the mountain was written Ni-kō [̄Mountain of Two Storms]; but when the great teacher Kū̄kai built a temple here, he changed the name to Nik-ko [Sunlight]. He must have had the power to see a thousand years beyond, for the radiance of the shrine now shines throughout the heavens. Its blessings flow over the land to the farthest corners, and all the people live in security and peace. I was awestruck, barely able to tell it in words:

glorious! green leaves, young leaves in sunlight
ara toto / aoba wakaba no / hi no hikari (Nikkō)

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.

AzaleasKirifuri

Azaleas in bloom, Kirifuri Waterfall, May 2005

Mt. Kurokami [Mt. Nantai]

Mount Kurokami ["Mount Black Hair"], though veiled in mist, was still white with snow.

Mt. Nantai, with Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzenji on the left, May 2005

About the mountain Sora wrote:

cut my hair and cast it away / at Mt. Kurokami / changing clothes
sori sutete / kurokamiyama ni / koromogae

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.

Nikko Futarasan toriiNikko Futarasan

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 ShrineChuzenji_Futarasan Shrine

Chuzenji Futarasan Shrine, Fall 2009

Urami-no-Taki (See-From-Behind Falls)

A mile or so up the mountain was a waterfall. The water leaps forth from a hollow in the ridge and tumbles down a hundred feet into a dark green pool strewn with a thousand stones. You can squeeze between the rocks and the cascade, and see the waterfall from behind. Hence its name Urami-no-taki [Rear View Falls].

for a while / confined behind the waterfall / summer’s start
shibaraku wa / taki ni komoru ya / ge no hajime

Summer 2005

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)

I had an acquaintance who lived in Kurobane in Nasu, so we decided to take the shortest route, straight across the plain. We took a bearing from a village in the distance, but as we walked, the rain began to fall and the darkness closed in. We took lodgings for the night at a farmhouse, and next morning started off again across the plain.

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.

basho and sora statue


Unganji / 4.5 (May 24)

Behind Unganji temple in this province [Nasu], up in the mountains, was a hermitage where the priest Butchō used to live.

Ungan Temple, six miles east of Nasu town, Fall 2009.

Butchō once told me that he had inscribed the following poem on a rock, in charcoal made from pine:

Oh how much I loathe building a shelter at all,
even a grass-thatched hut not five feet long or wide – if only it never rained ...

I wanted to see what remained of the hut, and so, walking-staff in hand, I set out. A group of young people accompanied me on the way, chattering away happily, and before I knew it we had reached the foot of the mountain. It seemed so deep. A valley path stretched far into the distance, lined by darkly clustering pines and cedars. Dew dripped from the moss, and even though it was the Fourth Moon [early summer], the air still felt cold. When we had passed all the Ten Sights, we crossed a bridge and the temple gate.

Eager to discover the site of the hermitage, I scrambled up the hill behind the temple to a tiny hut built upon a rock, leaning against a cave. It was like coming upon the Death Gate of the monk Miao, or the stone chamber of the monk Fayun. I left an impromptu verse on a post in the hut:

even a woodpecker / can’t destroy this hut / summer’s grove
kitsutsuki mo / io wa yaburazu / natsu kodachi

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.
Shintō priests opposed the new religion, blaming it for an outbreak of smallpox, and threw the first bronze statue of Buddha into the Naniwa River in Ōsaka.

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)

From Kurobane, I headed towards the Killing Stone on a horse lent to us by Jō̄bō̄ji...

The Killing Stone stands in dark mountain shadow near a hot spring. The gases emanating from the rock were full of poison still. So many bees and butterflies and other insects lay dead in heaps around it, you couldn’t tell the colour of the sand.

The killing stone isin a sulphurous gulch below Mt. Chausudake, on the opposite side of the Abukuma river valley, 18 miles north of Kurobane.

Walkwaysesshoseki statues

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)

Day after day had passed in vague uneasiness; but now we approached the Barrier at Shirakawa, and, for the first time, I felt that our journey had truly begun. I could understand why the poet had felt at this spot that he wanted to send word to the people in the capital that he had crossed the Barrier.

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)

We turned off to the right at Nihonmatsu, paid a hasty visit to the cave at Kurozuka, and stopped for the night at Fukushima.

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 following morning, we set off to Shinobu in search of the Fern-print Rock. We found it half buried in the soil of a remote hamlet over-shadowed by a mountain. Some village children came up and told us that, in the old days, the stone had stood on top of the mountain. But the people who went up there to rub the cloth on the stone with ferns had torn off leaves of barley too. The farmers had become so annoyed, they had pushed the stone down into the valley – which was why it was now lying upside down. The story was not impossible:

hands planting seedlings were hands once rubbing patterns with ferns, long ago

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

We crossed the river by the ferry at Tsukinowa [Moon Halo] and arrived at a post-town called Senoue [Rapid’s Head]. The ruined mansion where Satō Shōji had once lived was about four miles away on the left, close to the mountains. We were told it was at Sabano, in the village of Iizuka. We asked directions as we went along, until we came to a place called Maruyama. This was where the warrior’s house had stood. They told us that the Great Gate had been down at the foot of the mountain, and my eyes glazed with tears.

Still standing at an old temple nearby were the tombstones of the family. The most moving were the memorials to the two young wives. Women though they were, they left behind them such a name for courage. My sleeve was wet with tears. You do not have to go so very far away to find a tombstone that makes you weep.

We went inside the temple to ask for tea, and saw that, among its treasures, were the sword of Yoshitsune and the satchel-basket that Benkei carried:

pannier and sword / display them in the fifth moon / with the paper streamers
oi mo tachi / mo satsuki ni kasare / kami-nobori

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)

We crossed the river Natori and went into Sendai. It was the day when people hang blue irises beneath the eaves. We found an inn where we stayed for four or five days.

In the town, there was a painter called Kaemon. I had heard he was a man of truly artistic taste, and I got to know him. He told me he had spent several years tracing places mentioned in poetry that had become hard to locate; and one day, he took us to see some of them. The fields of Miyagino were thick with bush clover, and I could imagine the sight in autumn. It was the season when the pieris flowered around Tamada, Yokono and Tsutsuji-ga-oka.

Today, Sendai, the largest city in northern Japan with over a million inhabitants, is noted for its shopping arcade streets:

Sendai Arcade

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 Tsubo stone monument at Tagajō in the village of Ichikawa. The stone is a little over six feet high and about three feet wide. Once the moss covering the stone had been scraped away, letters could be faintly seen beneath, recording the distances to all four corners of the country. There was an inscription also:

This castle was built in the first year of Jinki [724] by Ōno-no- Azumabito,Inspector and Governor General. It was repaired in the sixth year of Tempyō-hōji [762] by Emi-no-asomi-Asakari, Councillor, Governor of the Eastern Sea and Eastern Mountain districts, and Governor General. First day of the twelfth month

So the founding took place during the reign of the Emperor Shōmu. Of all the many places celebrated in poetry since ancient times, most have vanished. Mountains have crumbled, rivers taken new courses, and roads new routes. Stones have been buried and hidden in the earth, and old trees have given way to saplings. Time passes and the world changes. But here, before my eyes, was a monument that had endured a thousand years. I felt that I could understand the feelings of the people of the past. ‘This,’ I thought, ‘is the traveller’s reward. This is the joy of having lived so long.’ I forgot the hardships of the road, and was moved to tears.

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.

Taga castle siteTaga castle site

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:

As rustic as he was, he wasn’t without sympathy. “Let’s see,” he said, “What’s the best way? The roads around here branch off in every direction. I’m worried travelers new to the area may get lost. Here, I’ll loan you this horse. When he stops, let him find his way back.” ... Before long we reached a village and let the horse return, with payment tied to the saddle.


Shiogama Shrine / 5.9 (June 26)

Early the next morning, we visited the Shrine at Shiogama, which had been restored by the governor of the province. Its pillars stood huge and majestic, brightly painted rafters sparkled, and stone steps rose up flight after flight. The crimson fencing was dazzling in the morning sunlight. How wonderful it was, I thought, that in this land of ours, the divine powers of the gods should show themselves even in so remote a place as this.

In front of the sanctuary, there was an old lantern with an inscription on its iron door, ‘Presented by Izumi-no-Saburō in the third year of Bunji [1187]’. It was strange how these words brought back things unchanged for over five hundred years. Izumi-no-Saburō had been a brave and honourable soldier, a loyal and loving son. His fame has lasted to the present day, and there is no one now who does not honour him. How true it is that, if men strive to walk in the way of truth and uphold righteousness, fame will follow of itself.

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)

No matter how often it has been said, Matsushima is the most beautiful place in all Japan, and can easily hold its own against T’ung-t’ing or the Western Lake in China. The sea surges in from the southeast into a bay seven miles across, its waters brimming full like the Zhejiang River in China. There are more islands than anyone could count. Some rise up steeply, as through thrusting towards the skies; some are flat, and seem to crawl on their stomachs into the waves. Some seem piled double, or even three layers high. To the left, they appear separate; to the right, joined together. Some look as if they carried others on their backs, and some as if they held them in their arms, like a parent caring for a little child or grandchild. The pines are of the deepest green, and their branches, constantly buffeted by the winds from the sea, seem to have acquired a twisted shape quite naturally. The scene suggests the serene charm of a lovely woman’s face. Matsushima truly might have been created by Ōyamazumi [God of the Mountains] in the Great Age of the Gods. What painter or what writer could ever capture fully the wonder of this masterpiece of nature?

Matsushima BayIsland

Matsushima, Fall 2009

SeacoastViewpoint

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

Ojima [Male Island] juts out from the mainland into the sea. Here are the remains of the priest Ungo’s retreat, and the rock on which he used to meditate. I glimpsed a few other recluses among the pines as well. We saw smoke rising from a fire of twigs and pine cones at one quiet, thatched hut. We did not know what kind of man the occupant might be, and yet we felt drawn towards the spot. As we approached, the moon shone down upon the water, transforming the scene from how it had appeared by day.

Oshima bridgeIsland viewMatsushimaCaves

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.

Zuigan-ji, Matsushima

On the eleventh, we visited the temple at Zuigan. Long, long ago – thirty- two generations before the present – Makabe no Heishirō had entered Buddhist orders, gone to China to study, and then returned to found the temple. Later, under the goodly influence of the monk Ungo, its seven halls had been rebuilt. Now the temple was a great centre of worship, with dazzling golden walls – a true paradise on earth. Yet still I wondered where the holy man Kenbutsu’s temple might have been.

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.

Zuigan Temple:


Hiraizumi / 5.13 (June 30)

The glory of three generations of the Fujiwara passed as if in a dream. Their Great Gate lies in ruins, two miles this side of the castle. The land where Hidehira’s mansion stood has now returned to paddy fields. Only Mount Kinkeizan [Gold Cockrel Mountain] looks the same as in the past. We climbed up Takadachi [Palace on the Heights] first. From there, we could see the Kitakami, a mighty river that flows down from Nanbu, and also the Koromo, a river that circles round Izumi Castle before it empties into the big river below Takadachi. Yasuhira’s castle stands beyond the Koromo Barrier, seemingly to protect the Nanbu gateway from invasion by the Emishi. There at Takadachi, Yoshitsune and a chosen band of loyal men tried to entrench themselves – but their heroic actions turned in the twinkling of an eye to nothing more than clumps of grass: "The country is destroyed; yet mountains and rivers remain. Spring comes to the castle; the grass is green again" [by the Chinese poet Tu Fu].

With my hat as a seat, and these lines running through my head, I stayed there weeping till time seemed no more.

summer grasses: all that’s left of warriors’ dreams
natsukusa ya / tsuwamonodomo ga / yume no at
o

The two halls we had heard so much about were both open. In the Sutra Hall stood the statues of the three generals of Hiraisumi; in the Golden Hall, their coffins and three sacred images. The Golden Hall’s seven precious things had been scattered and lost, the gem-studded doors ravaged by the winds, the gold-fretted pillars rotted by the frosts and snow. The temple would certainly have collapsed and turned to nothing more than grass, had not new walls been built around, and a tiled roof put on against the wind and rain. A memorial of a thousand years has, for a little time, been preserved.

fifth-moon rains / have left untouched / the Hikaridō
samidare no / furinokoshite ya / hikaridō

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 GardenHeian festival

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.

ChusonjiBasho statue

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)

The road to Nanbu stretched far away towards the north, so we turned back and spent the night at the village of Iwate. From there, we passed by Ogurazaki and Mizu-no-ojima, and from the hot springs at Narugo, headed for the Barrier at Shitomae, intending to cross into Dewa Province. The road was so little used by travellers that the guards at the checkpoint examined us suspiciously, and we barely managed to get through. As we toiled upwards on the mountain, the darkness began to fall, so when we saw a house belonging to a border guard, we asked for shelter. For three whole days, the wildest storm raged on, and trapped us there, among the dreary mountains:

fleas, lice / horse pissing on / head-rest
nomi shirami / uma no bari suru / makura moto

Narugo, looking back toward Iwate, Fall 2009

Narugo Gorge is famous for its autumn foliage.

Narugo gorgeView of Narugo

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.

Shitomae BarrierShitomae Soba Shop


Mogami / 5.17 (July 4)

Our host told us that the road into Dewa was an ill-marked trail through high mountains; we would be wise to hire a guide to show us the way. We agreed, and hired a strapping young man, who strode ahead with a scimitar at his side and an oak staff in his hand. As we followed him, we worried that this would be the day we were sure to run into danger. Just as our host had said, the mountains were high and densely wooded. Not a single bird-cry could be heard. It was dark beneath the canopy of trees, so dark it was like walking in the night. Feeling as if ‘dust was raining from the edges of the clouds’ , we groped our way through thickets of bamboo, waded across streams, stumbled over rocks, all the while in a cold sweat of fear, until at last we reached the town of Mogami. In high spirits, our guide then told us that unpleasant things were always happening on the trail we’d followed. He’d been lucky to bring us through in safety. Even though the danger was now past, his words made our hearts still pound.

Narugo TrailMogami Onsen

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)

In the province of Yamagata, there is a mountain temple called Ryūshaku-ji. Founded by the Great Teacher Jikaku, it is a wonderfully serene and tranquil place. We had been urged to go there, and so had retraced our steps from Obanazawa, a distance of some seventeen miles. It was still daylight when we arrived. We reserved a lodging in the pilgrims’ hostel at the foot of the mountain, and then climbed up to the temple on the summit. The mountain was made up of boulder upon boulder, with ancient pines and cypresses upon its slopes. Moss lay like velvet upon the soil and stones. At the summit, the temple doors were closed, and not one single sound was to be heard. But we skirted round the cliffs and scrambled over the rocks, and reached the temple precincts. The quiet and lonely beauty of the place seemed to purify our hearts:

in the calm hush / permeating the rocks / a cicada’s voice
shizukesa ya / iwa ni shimiiru / semi no koe

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.

soon to die / but showing no sign / a cicada’s voice
yagate shinu / keshiki wa miezu /semi no koe

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.

Tour busesView


Mogami River / 6.3 (July 19)

We hoped to sail down the Mogami River, and waited for the weather to clear at a place called Ōishida. I was told that the seeds of the old haikai poetry had been scattered here, and that people still cherished the memory of those unforgotten flowers from the past. The rustic notes of simple reeds and horns could still bring music to their hearts. They had tried, they said, to grope their way towards the right path. But without a guide, they had found it difficult to choose between the old styles and the new. I could scarcely leave without composing with them a sequence of poems. The poetry-making of my journey had reached even here.
The Mogami River has its source deep in the northern mountains, and its upper reaches run through Yamagata. The Goten [Go-stones] and Hayabusa [Falcon] rapids are just two of the terrifying dangers on its course. It skirts Mount Itajiki on the north and finally enters the sea at Sakata. Our boat cascaded down through thick foliage, with mountains overhanging us on either side. It was probably the same kind of boat that the old poem described as ‘rice boats’, though those were laden with grain. Through breaks in the green leaves, we could see the Shiraito [White Thread] Falls. The Sennindō [Mountain Wizard] Hall stands there too, right at the water’s edge. The river was swollen, and our journey dangerous:

We were going to visit Yudono shrine, another Basho stop on the southside of Gassan, but after driving fifteen miles to get around Gassan, we hit a road closure sign; the road was closed for the winter. So we circled back around the north side of Gassan to Tsuruoka. The Mogami is very picturesque near the town of Oishida, where Basho boarded a boat for his ride downstream.

fifth-moon rains gathering swift Mogami River
samidare o / atsumete hayashi / mogamigawa

MogamigawaRusset colors

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)

On the third day of the sixth month [19 July], we climbed Mount Haguro. There we visited a man called Zushi Sakichi, who obtained for us an audience with the chief priest, Egaku. He put us up in the Minamidani [Southern Valley] temple, and treated us with the greatest kindness....

On the fifth day, we went to worship at Haguro shrine. It was founded by the Great Teacher Nōjo, though nobody now knows at what period he lived....

Cedar trees2446 stepsEntryBell

Haguro, together with Gassan and Yudono mountains, make up the Three Mountains of Dewa....

On the eighth day, we climbed Gassan [Moon Mountain]. Wearing paper necklaces, with white turbans round our heads, we toiled upwards for twenty miles, led by a sturdy mountain guide, through clouds and mists, over ice and snow. We wondered if we would not soon share the paths followed by the sun and moon. Breathless and numb with cold, we finally reached the summit, just as the sun was setting and the moon rising. Spreading out a bed of bamboo-grass, with bamboo leaves as pillows, we lay down and waited for the dawn.

Gassan mountainsGassan

Gassan ("Moon Mountain") Fall Morning 2009 / Evening in Early Summer (May) 2010

Shrine atop Gassan, Above the Clouds (photo from Internet)

As the sun rose and burned away the clouds, we started down towards Yudono.... It is a rule among ascetics not to reveal details about Mount Yudono to other people, so now I must lay down my brush and say no more.

Yudono mountainShrine complex

Mt. Yudono, Fall 2009 / Yudono Shrine, Early Summer 2010

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:

  • Haguro-yama: Kannon, goddess of mercy / Tamayorihime, “Divine Bride”
  • Gassan: Amida Buddha / Tsukiyomi, the moon kami
  • Yudono: Dainichi, the cosmic Buddha / Oyamatsumi ("Great mountain possessor")

Like other pilgrims, Basho climbed all three.

coolness / faint crescent moon / Haguro-yama
suzushisa ya / hono mikazuki no / haguro-yama

cloud peaks / countless, collapsing / Gassan
kumo no mine / ikutsu kuzurete / gassan

words prohibited / at Yudono wet / sleeves!
katararenu / yudono ni nurasu / tamoto kana

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)

After leaving Haguro, we went to the castle town of Tsurugaoka, where we were the guests of a samurai called Nagayama Shigeyuki. We composed a poetry sequence at his house. Sakichi came with us all the way. We boarded a river boat and went downstream to the port of Sakata. There, we stayed at the house of a physician named En’an Fugyoku:

scorching sun / entering the sea / Mogami River
atsuki hi o / umi ni iretari / mogamigawa

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)

We had already enjoyed so many splendid sights of rivers and mountains, sea and land; but now I could think of nothing but seeing Kisakata. We travelled northeast from the port of Sakata, climbing over hills, following the coastline, trudging through the sand – a journey of some twenty-five miles. Towards sunset, a wind from the sea began to whip up the sand, and a misty rain started to fall, blotting Mount Chōkai from view. Groping our way in the darkness, I was sure that, if the view was quite outstanding in the rain, it would prove even more beautiful when the weather had cleared. We squeezed into a fisherman’s thatched hut, and waited for the rain to stop.

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)

The next day dawned clear, and as the bright morning sun rose, we took a boat out on the lagoon of Kisakata. We went first to Nōinjima, to visit the spot where Nōin had lived for three years in seclusion. On the opposite shore, where we next landed the boat, we saw the old cherry tree that stood as a memorial to Saigyō, who had written of fishing boats ‘rowing above the cherry blossoms’. Near the water’s edge was a tomb that was said to be Empress Jingū’s, with a temple nearby called Kanmanju-ji [Ebb-and-Flow-Pearls Temple]. I had never heard before that she had come this way, and wondered if the story were true.

As we sat in a room at the front of the temple and rolled up the screens, the entire landscape unfolded before us. To the south, Mount Chōkai propped up the sky, its image reflected in the water.

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.

Kanmanju-jiRice 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:

Kisakata / in rain, Seishi / sleep-tree flower
kisakata ya / ame ni seishi ga / nebu no hana

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)

I was so loath to leave Sakata that we lingered there for several days. But then we set out towards the distant clouds on the Hokuriku [Northern Land] Road. The prospect of yet another long journey ahead filled me with dread. It was said to be well over three hundred miles to Kanazawa, the capital of Kaga Province. Once past the Barrier of Nezu, we continued our journey through Echigo Province as far as the Barrier of Ichiburi in Etchū. The heat and the rain during these nine days of travel wore me out completely, and I felt too ill to write anything.

rough seas / leaning above Sado / the River of Heaven

Bashō left a prose piece about Sado island, twenty or so miles off the Japan Sea Coast in Niigata:

From the place called Izumozaki in Echigo, Sado Island is eighteen li away on the sea. With cragginess of its valleys and peaks clearly visible, it lies on the side in the sea, thirty-odd li from east to west. Light mists of early fall not rising yet, and the waves not high, I feel as if I could touch it with my hand. ... from past to present, a place of exile for felons and traitors, [Sado Island] has become a distressing name. As the evening moon sets, the surface of the sea becomes quite dark. The shapes of the mountains are still visible through the clouds, and the sound of waves is saddening.

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.

HorizonNiigata coast

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.

Yahiko peakYahiko cloudsSadoYahiko echigo

South along the coast, at Izumozaki, Mount Yahiko appeared in the disance.

Coastline


Between Itoigawa and Ichiburi

Today we passed along the most dangerous stretches of road in the whole of the north country – places with names like ‘Children Forget Parents’ [Oyashirazu], ‘Parents Forget Children’, ‘Dogs Turn Back’, ‘Horse Sent Back’. I was so exhausted that, by nightfall, I pulled my pillow close to me and tried to sleep. But from one room beyond us at the front of the house, I could hear young women’s voices – two of them, it seemed – talking to an old man whose voice mingled with theirs.

Roadway

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:

Coastal rocksSea 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:

one house / prostitutes sleep here, too / bush clovers and moon
hitotsuya ni / yujo mo netari / hagi to tsuki

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)

After crossing Mount Unohana and Kurikara Valley, we reached Kanazawa on the fifteenth day of the seventh month.

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.

Kenroku-enKanazawa Castle

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)

In Komatsu, we went to worship at the Tada Shrine, where we saw Sanemori’s helmet and a piece of his brocade tunic. We were told that long ago, while he was serving the Monomoto clan, the helmet had been a gift from Lord Yoshitomo. Indeed, it was no ordinary warrior’s headgear. From visor to earflaps, it was engraved with a chrysanthemum arabesque design inlaid with gold, and the front was crowned with a dragon’s head and a pair of horns. The shrine chronicles vividly tell how Kiso no Yoshinaka, after killing Sanemori in battle, offered the helmet with a petition to the shrine, and how Higuchi no Jirō acted as messenger.

ruthless / under Sanemori’s helmet / a cricket
muzan ya / kabuto no shita no / kirigirisu


    Tada shrineWalkway

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)

As we walked towards the hot springs at Yamanaka, we could still see the peak of Shirane over our shoulders. A temple dedicated to Kannon stood to our left, at the foot of a mountain. We were told the temple had been founded by the retired Emperor Kazan. After he had completed a pilgrimage to the Thirty-Three Spiritual Places, he installed a statue here of the All-Compassionate, All-Merciful Kannon, and gave the place the name ‘Nata’, combining the ‘na’ of Nachi with the ‘ta’ of Tanigumi. There were many strangely shaped rocks, rows of ancient pines, and a small thatched temple atop a massive boulder. It was a place of marvellous beauty.

whiter than / Ishiyama’s stone / autumn wind
ishiyama no / ishi yori shiroshi / aki no kaze

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:

sea darkens / wild duck’s voice / faintly white

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.

SwanNatadera caveTempleNatadera cave

We returned to Natadera in the summer 2010.

NataderaCave entranceAltarMonkBaisho's haiku

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:

whiter than Ishiyama’s stones: autumn wind

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)

We bathed in the hot springs, which were said to be second only to Ariake in effectiveness:

Yamanaka! / chrysanthemums unpicked / redolent waters
yamanaka ya / kiku wa taoranu / yu no nioi

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:

white chrysanthemum / holding it up to the eye / not a mote of dust
shiragiku no / me ni tatte miru / chiri mo nashi!

chrysanthemum’s fragrance /in Nara, ancient / buddhas
kiku no ka ya / Nara ni wa furuki / hotoke-tachi

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)

I crossed Lake Yoshizaki by boat, the border of Echizen province, and went to visit the Shiogoshi [Tide-Crossing] Pines.

all night / stormy waves / driven / moon dripping / Shiogoshi’s pines
yomosugara / arashi ni nami o / hakobasete / tsuki o taretaru / shiogoshi no matsu

In this single poem, Saigyō crystallises the essence of the scene at Shiozaki. To add even a single word would be like adding an extra useless finger to a hand.

At Maruoka, I called upon an old friend, the abbot of the Tenryū Temple. A man called Hokushi, from Kanazawa, had intended to accompany me for a short distance, but he had finally come all the way to Maruoka, unable to say goodbye. No sight on the journey had escaped his notice, and he wrote some moving poems. Now that we were parting, I wrote:

I’ve scribbled words, but how to tear the fan apart – goodbyes are so hard.

I went three or four miles into the mountains to worship at Eiheiji, the temple of the Zen Master Dōgen. I understand that he had some profound reason for avoiding the vicinity of the capital and for building his temple in such remote mountains as these.

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.

Yoshizaki Inletshioya pines

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.

Maruoka Castle

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.

Eiheiji streamParting for meditation

Snowy scenes at Eiheiji / A monk departs for meditation. Winter 2008

Kehi Jinja, Tsuruga / 8.14-8.15 (September 27-28)

Towards twilight on the fourteenth day, I found lodgings at the port of Tsuruga. That night, the moon was particularly clear and bright. ‘Will it be fine tomorrow night for the full moon?’ I asked the innkeeper. ‘In these northern lands,’ he replied, offering me some wine, ‘who knows from one night to the next whether it’ll be cloudy or fine?’
That night, we went to the Shrine at Kehi, the place where the Emperor Chūai is worshipped. A sense of holiness pervaded everything. In the moonlight that filtered in between the pine trees, the white sand in front of the sanctuary glistened as if covered with frost. The innkeeper told me, ‘Once, long ago, the second Pilgrim-Priest made a great vow. He himself cut grass and carried earth and rock to dry up the surrounding marsh, so that it would be easier for worshippers to come and go.’ The practice is still observed.

Every priest still carries sand to sprinkle before the shrine – a custom called the ‘sand-carrying of the Pilgrim-Priest’.

pure moonlight on the sand brought by Yugyō
tsuki kiyoshi /yugyō no moteru / suna no ue

On the fifteenth, just as the innkeeper had said it might, it rained.

full-moon / north country weather / unpredictable
meigetsu ya / hokkoku biyori / sadame naki

Kehi Torii

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."

Nearby is Kehi-no-Matsubara, a park with 17,000 red and black pine trees, along the sandy shores of Tsuruga Bay.

Tsuruga BeachTsuruga Pine Forest


Ironohama, Tsuruga Bay / 8.16 (September 29)

On the sixteenth, the skies cleared, and so we went by boat to Iro-no-hama to gather some little clam shells. It was about seventeen miles across the water. A man called Ten’ya had prepared all kinds of refreshments for us – lunch baskets and bamboo flasks of sake – and had ordered several of his servants to go with us in the boat. In no time at all, a tail wind blew us to the shore.

more desolate / than Suma / this autumn beach
sabishisa ya /Suma ni kachitaru / hama no aki

between wave and wave / mingling small shells / hagi dust
nami no ma ya / kogai ni majiru / hagi no chiri

Looking out from the beach at the southern end of Tsuruga Bay, Ironohama (“Colored Beach”) is on the headland to the left, about five miles away:

Tsuruga Bay, Winter 2008

A beach at Ironohama:

Beach at Ironohama, Summer 2012

Suma is an allusion to a beach, between Kobe City and the Akashi Strait Bridge, where Prince Genji went into exile:

Genji at last made up his mind to undergo a voluntary exile, before the opinion of the Imperial Court should be publicly announced against him. He heard that the beautiful sea-coast along Suma was a most suitable place for retirement, and that, though formerly populous, there were now only a few fishermen's dwellings scattered here and there. To Suma he finally determined to go into voluntary exile. (Genji Monogatari, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu, tr. Suematsu Kencho, [1900], at sacred-texts.com)


On the Way to Ise / 9.6 (October 19)

Despite my travel weariness, I set out on the sixth day of the ninth month to witness the rebuilding of the Great Shrine at Ise. As I stepped again into a boat, I wrote:

clam’s shell and body separating: autumn passing
hamaguri no / futami ni wakare / yuku aki zo

In a hinoki forest in the southern hills of Ise Bay is Ise Shrine dedicated to the sun kami Amaterasu (“Heavenly Shining”), ancestress of the imperial family. Amaterasu is said to have chosen the site for her shrine two thousand years ago, during the reign of the eleventh head of the imperial family, Emperor Suinin. The area around the shrine provides everything the kami needs to be happy: forests, rice lands, and fresh water (the Isuzu River, known for its clarity); it is also near the sea, which provides fish and salt. The shrine is rebuilt every twenty years to keep it freshly built. The next rebuilding is scheduled for 2013.

Shrine

Ise Shrine, © 1910. New York Public Library

Bashō’s poem puns on “Futami” (a cove near Ise, known for its clams) and “futa” and “mi,” “lid” and “body.” Yuku aki, “autumn passing,” recalls yuku haru, “spring passing,” at his departure at Senju. Bashō was again leaving the shelter of friends (clam shell) for naked life on the road. In “The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling,” he describes his wandering spirit with similar metaphors : “... I’m like a bagworm that’s lost its bag, a snail without its shell.”

Boats are a recurring image, representing travel: the poet disembarked from one at Senju at the beginning of his journey; and he rode boats from Shiogama to Matsushima, down the Mogami River, and at Kisakata, Yoshizaki, and Tsuruga.

Ise Shrine, Spring 2004

RiverGravel pathShrineFence


Gichū-ji, Otsu, Shiga

In 1691, Bashō’s disciples built a hut for him called Mumyō-an, “Hut of the Nameless,” on the grounds of Gichū-ji, a temple on the shore of Lake Biwa. Three years later, in 1694, on a journey from Edo back to his hometown of Iga-Ueno, the poet fell ill from dysentery in Ōsaka. Takarai Kikaku, a disciple, recounts that the dying poet requested to be buried at Mumyō-an: “Genjū-an, where I found my first prop in a pasania tree, is too far from any human abode. I would rather have my grave by the side of Lord Kiso.” (Genjū-an ["Hut of Illusory Living"] is a hermitage in the woods on a hill about mlle west of Ishiyama-dera, in Ōtsu.)

After Bashō’s death in Ōsaka, his disciples carried his remains to Gichūji and buried him next to Lord Kiso, near a willow tree. They planted a bashō (banana plant) at the grave. Kikaku notes the appropriateness of the place, given Bashō’s special affection for beautiful landscapes:

Our master had a particular love for scenic places. His grave is graced by Mount Nagara [to the west, near Miidera] and Mount Tanokami [to the southeast] and the waves of Lake Biwa that come right up to the temple gate. The boats going out leave their traces on the water, reminding us of the short span of our life. Deer on the woodcutters’ paths, wild geese flying over farm houses, the moon shining over the lake – all these add beauty to his grave. (Takarai)

If all that was beautiful in nature was fleeting, the poet’s consolation was to be buried in a landscape that was beautiful in every season.

Gichūji was built during the Muromachi period (1336-1573) to honor the spirit of the warlord Minamoto no Yoshinaka (1154-1184), known as Gichū (an alternative reading of the two kanji for Yoshi-naka). As an infant, after his father was killed by a cousin, Yoshinaka was taken from his family’s home province of Musashi to the Kiso Valley in Shinano (Nagano), where he was raised. Later he changed his name from Minamoto to Kiso and was known as Lord Kiso. Yoshinaka was a rival for supremacy of Japan against his cousin Minamoto no Yoritomo. After Yoshinaka attacked Kyotō, forcing the ruling Taira family to flee, Yoritomo, who was in exile in Izu, sent his brother Yoshitsune to attack Yoshinaka’s army and take control of Kyotō. Yoshinaka was killed at the battle of Awazu, south of Lake Biwa.

Photos Below: Gichū Temple. Bashō haka, or grave site.