In the Homes of My Masters A writer walks in Bashō’s Japan.

Illustration by Tim Foley

Abecedarian: “(noun) one learning the rudiments of something; (adjective) alphabetically arranged.” (Merriam-Webster).

My use of the form is inspired by glossaries in two of three books I found most enlightening for my trip to Japan in summer 2019: Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō, by Haruo Shirane; and Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary, by Makoto Ueda. (The third was The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa, edited and with translations by Robert Hass.)

 

Bashō. Matsuo Bashō (1644-94) is “perhaps the best known Japanese poet in both Japan and the West” (Shirane), especially as a haiku master (see “Haiku,” below).

Bashō, a pen name, refers to the Japanese plantain, which the poet loved “for its very uselessness.” He says its broad leaves rip in the wind like “the injured tail of the phoenix,” and he is “fond of it because it is so easily torn by wind and rain” (tr. Shively, qtd. in Hass).

Compare his statement: “In this mortal frame of mine, which is made of a hundred bones and nine orifices, there is something, and this something can be called, for lack of a better name, a windswept spirit, for it is much like thin drapery that is torn and swept away by the slightest stirring of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business” (tr. Yuasa, qtd. in Hass).

Japan’s culture of walking pilgrimages predates Bashō and still exists. I went to Japan to walk a segment of the Bashō Trail in Tōhoku. 

Bashō took several long walks in his life, which he wrote about with a form he invented called haibun—a mix of prose and haiku that records the walk, as well as “internal images that move through the traveler’s mind during the journey.” His most famous haibun is Narrow Road to the Interior, from his 1,500-mile walk in 1689, with his disciple Sora, through the mountains of northern Honshu, considered then a wild, unholy frontier. He went to see places where previous poets had written, to witness layers of history, to find “eternity in the transient world,” and to “renew his art.”

Japan’s culture of walking pilgrimages predates Bashō and still exists. I went to Japan to walk a segment of the Bashō Trail in Tōhoku.

 

Ch’i (in Japanese, ki): A mystic “vital energy” often equated to the breath (as in martial arts and tai chi). The bellows of our lungs, the metronome of the heart, the slap of our footfalls, are constant reminders of movement, and they echo in our words.

Compare: “Poetry is rooted in the wisdom of the body” (Stanley Kunitz).

 

Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old poets, seek what they sought,” Bashō says (tr. De Bary, qtd. in Hass). He meant “do not ape the past,” and himself chose to walk literally in the footsteps of Saigyō and Sōgi, and in the windswept tradition of Li Po and Tu Fu. “What they sought” is the real issue. (See “Influence.”)

 

Edo. Tokyo’s name in Bashō’s time. After 20 hours of flights and layovers I reached Tokyo and walked to the Bashō sites on the Sumida River, which empties into Tokyo Bay. This was the far edge of Edo when Bashō moved here for quiet and productivity. Now it is central to the world’s most populous metropolitan area.

While much of what Americans see about Japan focuses on technology, Tōhoku is a region of green valleys planted in rice and Japanese apricots; mountains covered with ancient conifers and wild tangles of grasses; and often-drab villages with electrical wires in disarray. There are no Robot Restaurants. 

After two days of museums and temples, I rode the Shinkansen to the city of Sendai, to start my self-guided walk. In Bashō’s day Sendai was a fortified-castle town of 57,000; now it is home to a million. The gleaming neon bullet train punched through waves of mountains and arrived in 90 minutes. It took Bashō five weeks.

While much of what Americans see about Japan focuses on technology, Tōhoku is a region of green valleys planted in rice and Japanese apricots; mountains covered with ancient conifers and wild tangles of grasses; and often-drab villages with electrical wires in disarray. There are no Robot Restaurants. It is easy to slide in time to the Edo period.

 

Fūkyō: “The behavior and thought of a poetic persona so devoted to the pursuit of poetic beauty and ideals that he or she appears mad to the outside world” (Shirane). Bashō’s enthusiasm for a long walk in the mountains—said to be filled with thieves, rogues, and beasts, and in the heat, cold, bugs, rain, mud, and dangerous terrain, with no hope for medical or other help—qualifies.

To Bashō, fūkyō came from ecstatic appreciation for nature and the world, both beautiful and grim. Shirane says it “emerges not only in the poet’s child-like purity of spirit but also in the manner in which the poet treats material objects as poetic signs.” Compare the Beats, as in On the Road: “Everything belongs to me because I am poor.” “[T]he road is life.”

My own interest in walking abroad, to learn more about poetry, history, and a different culture, might seem a little fūkyō at this time in US history. (See “Grant.”) Actually I was embarrassed to be hiking with the aid of a pocket router; 5G service; a smart phone; laptop; good boots; raingear; nights in traditional inns or hotels; and connecting rides on public transport. Still, often alone in the countryside, and with little common language, I was a ghost among the Japanese. (See “Loneliness.”)

My route would be a quadrilateral, from Sendai east to Shiogama, north to Hiraizumi, southwest to Akakura Onsen and Hijiori Onsen, and southeast to Yamadera.

At the start the path was more solitary volksmarch than pilgrimage and led past homes, gardens, greenhouses, and fields of irises. (Basho arrived at their blooming in 1689, which the town marks with a festival.) Just over a hill was the six-foot high Tsubo-no-Ishibumi stone engraved in the eighth century to the administrative fortress of Taga. Nearby Taga had walls a kilometer on every side and was meant to bring security and peace to the region. It was finished as a power by the 12th century, and now is a mere outline on the ground. Bashō saw and loved the stone for its timelessness amid impermanence.

I was embarrassed to be hiking with the aid of a pocket router; 5G service; a smart phone; laptop; good boots; raingear; nights in traditional inns or hotels; and connecting rides on public transport. Still, often alone in the countryside, and with little common language, I was a ghost among the Japanese.

I walked on through wet woods and up lanes slick as creek-stone, to Mutsu-shoshanmoiya Shrine, to Shiogama Shrine, founded 1,200 years ago, and on to Shiogama Port, where I caught a boat through the islands to Matsushima.

This is the tsunami coast. The Great Tōhoku Quake of 2011 and tsunami killed nearly 16,000 in Japan and left 500,000 homeless. It was the costliest natural disaster in history and damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant. We think of it as a modern disaster, but archaeologists found that a tsunami did extensive damage to Taga Castle, several kilometers inland, in 869.

 

Grant [boon]. I went to Japan on a Newman Exploration Travel Fund Grant, from the Newman Exploration Center at Washington University. The Eric P. & Evelyn Newman Charitable Foundation has donated generously to the university over the years, and the grant offers up to $10,000 to go anywhere in the world to do a defined project.

Reactions to my choice, especially on social media, ranged from mild interest to envy to disappointed silence. Some would have liked if I took Travel and Leisure’s advice instead, to “Travel from Venice to London Gatsby-style in this 1920’s-themed Luxury Train.”

But the Grant has criteria for “Intellectual, cultural, and/or scholarly development; Personal growth and expanded awareness; Conducting research toward academic or personal learning goals; and Service or contribution to the greater good.”

I could claim the first three, maybe even the fourth, depending on the committee’s beliefs about finding connections among cultures through the arts.

 

Haiku/Hokku/Haikai. Haiku comes from hokku, the first three lines of a longer and more ancient collaborative poetic form called renga. One development of renga, just before Bashō’s time, was the comic, even vulgar, haikai no renga that played off aristocratic forms and used the language of common speech. Haiku (and Bashō’s haibun) embody the “haikai spirit.”

Haiku in English are often thought to be nonrhyming poems with three lines of 5/7/5 syllables, a nature word, and a perceived image. In reality many do not conform to these conventions, let alone the more rigorous ones in Japanese.

The image in a haiku “suggests emotion without stating it,” Shirane says, which echoes TS Eliot’s “objective correlative”: “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events [in writing] which shall be the formula of that particular emotion….”

Haiku in English are often thought to be nonrhyming poems with three lines of 5/7/5 syllables, a nature word, and a perceived image. In reality many do not conform to these conventions, let alone the more rigorous ones in Japanese.

Ezra Pound called an image “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” and “a form of superposition…one idea set on top of another.” His “In a Station of the Metro” is often used as an early example of Western haiku:

 

“The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.”

 

Compare this with a haiku by the poet Issa, who lived 70 years after Bashō and reached “back past Bashō to get to Bashō,” as Robert Hass says:

 

“Blossoms at night, / and the faces of people / moved by music.” (tr. Hass)

 

For me, the most profound haiku show the mind moving, as in this one by Buson, a near-contemporary of Bashō:

 

“A field of mustard, / no whale in sight, / the sea darkening.” (tr. Hass)

 

In my early (mis)reading of it, we are standing in yellow flowers, definitely not thinking of whales, when suddenly we remember a deep-darkening place containing multitudes.

 

Influence: A spirit that haunts. Bashō’s is his way of looking and expressing, which leans to earthiness, good humor (mostly), oddness, distillation, and precision.

This aesthetic came into Western culture at the start of Modernism through European translators, American Ernest Fenollosa, and the Imagists—Hulme, Flint, Pound, Amy Lowell, et al. Aspects of it can be found in many Western poets and writers since, including cummings, Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Frost, Snyder, and Mary Oliver. Hemingway, who was tutored by Pound, brought (with Chekhov) the same qualities in prose to Ray Carver, Alice Munro, Lucia Berlin, and Denis Johnson.

Influences are cyclical, however, and I have heard MFA students dismiss this guild as “boring”; some students say writers should never read anything, so their daemons are pure.

Compare: “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person, / for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, / and invisible guests come in and out at will” (Czeslaw Miłosz)

 

Japan. “Deep, deep waters. The first time I came here, it was a transformative experience. It was a powerful and violent experience. It was just like taking acid for the first time—meaning, What do I do now? I see the whole world in a different way” (Anthony Bourdain).

An American has to remind himself of what he is looking at, many times, in Japan.

I went to Japan also because I could not think of another place so modern, so rooted in unique history, and so different from anything I have known.

An American has to remind himself of what he is looking at, many times, in Japan. It is not unusual to see 12th-century Heian artifacts in museums. In Matsushima I visited Godaido Temple-hall, founded in 807 and restored in 1604, then the much larger Zuiganji Temple, which even Bashō could say was founded “32 generations ago.” There are two apricot trees in the entry that he walked past and perhaps ate their fruit; they are misshapen and supported by trusses, but alive. (See “Sabi.”)

 

Keijō: “Scene (keiki [focusing on nature ‘as it is’]) and emotion (). The fusion of the two was regarded as one of the ideals of Genroku [1688-1704] haikai.” (Shirane)

The chief example, for which there have been hundreds of translations in English alone, is Bashō’s 1686 haiku, “the old pond— / a frog jumps in, / water’s sound” (tr. Ueda). The fat plop breaks a lonely silence; the emotion comes from the image, not explanation.

Nature “as it is” in conifer forests of Tōhoku must be close to what it was in the 17th century, so I felt I might feel authentic emotions. Outside the village of Naruko Onsen, a bridge crossed the Naruko Gorge and met the Dewa-Sendai Highway, which followed Bashō’s path. A mile on, the path swerved into thick woods and led to the remaining stones of the Shitomae-no-Seki Barrier Station, an administrative checkpoint Basho and Sora passed with difficulty, due to a “suspicious” guard.

Three of the 360 joints in my mortal frame failed, and I realized no one in the world knew exactly where I was. At the end of the nine-mile day and 2,100 feet of elevation change, wearing an overloaded pack, I had sweat dripping from the cuffs of my plastic jacket and felt sure I understood keijō.

I began to climb the Yakushi-zaka Slope as the rain began again. By the time I reached the (first) top, I remembered how, stationed in Panama in the army, you had to make the decision to be soaked by cold rain or to put on raingear and get slimy with sweat.

The gorge, slopes, and ridgelines would have been treacherous for Bashō. My trail was all mud, loose rocks, and fallen leaves and branches. Most of the day was in bear country; I found scat past the trailhead. Three of the 360 joints in my mortal frame failed, and I realized no one in the world knew exactly where I was. At the end of the nine-mile day and 2,100 feet of elevation change, wearing an overloaded pack, I had sweat dripping from the cuffs of my plastic jacket and felt sure I understood keijō.

 

Loneliness: Essential quality of both Japanese literature since the medieval era and Western Modernism. The difference, it seems, is in how we take it. To the West, it is crisis born of alienation. In haikai it connotes beauty and depth.

Angya, the “journey of a renga or haikai master through the provinces” (Shirane), seems to be driven in part by loneliness and to result in more, in the form of mono no awaré, “sadness or melancholy arising from a deep, empathetic appreciation of the ephemeral beauty manifested in nature, human life, or a work of art” (Ueda). But pilgrims also find like-minds (historical or living), novelty, challenges, and another chance to look into the darling abyss.

It was gorgeous, cool and sunny, the morning I crossed the Natagiri Pass, a route Bashō feared, writing that “today was the day we would surely meet with peril.” The trail was overgrown but as still and quiet under the cedars and hemlock as I have experienced in years. It felt strange not to see other mammals. At the top was a Bashō stone with his words about crossing and a Jizo shrine to the bodhisattva of lost children. Trees and undergrowth were so lush the view was minimal, but I stood a long while at the climax of Bashō’s journey.

Then I was walking on tiny roads between chartreuse paddies. Crows flew and wheeled, angry I had interrupted something. The mountains rose all around. Fed, happy, and feeling strong, I felt this would make an excellent eternity. Long hours passed without thought; I felt I had never known anything about Bashō or his work. There was joy in direct experience.

After several hours I met a waiting taxi driven by a young man who said he could not make it on his income as a Shinto priest. We spoke through Google Translate. He had two sons, four months and seven years old. He wanted to know what Illinois was famous for, and I said Chicago, and he was happy to know it. I said Abraham Lincoln, and he said the name back to me in recognition and respect, the way I said Bashō.

Trees and undergrowth were so lush the view was minimal, but I stood a long while at the climax of Bashō’s journey. Then I was walking on tiny roads between chartreuse paddies. Crows flew and wheeled, angry I had interrupted something. The mountains rose all around. Fed, happy, and feeling strong, I felt this would make an excellent eternity.

We drove on mountain roads to Hijiori Onsen, a village with steaming, sulfurous vents. Mount Gassan, a holy mountain in Shinto, had snow on its peak in the distance. The priest and I shared a meal then stood and watched the Dozan River and one of its tributaries merge in the center of the village. We spoke of our sons. He dropped me at my ryokan, which was very old and very nice. Still, I was sorry to see him go.

 

Masters. I have visited the former homes and graves of many literary figures, including Chekhov, Akhmatova, Nabokov, Hemingway, Twain, Swift, Stein, Miłosz, and Bulgakov. It is an odd compulsion, since the work, not the person who made it, is what I have known. The miracle lies in the word surviving the flesh.

Still, there is honor in respecting how masters of a guild transmuted base things into gold. In Yamadera I walked up to the Bashō Memorial Hall, a small museum of textual artifacts, some in Bashō’s hand. I asked two women at the desk how many foreign visitors came. I wrote numbers on a piece of paper: 10,000 per year? Oh, no. 5,000? Oh, no. 1,000? They thought maybe, but were not certain.

I asked by Translate: If I went up to people in Tokyo, could they tell me about Bashō’s life and work? They thought and said yes. I doubted a person on the streets of St. Louis could tell me about Eliot. Maybe the fairer comparison was asking a Londoner about Shakespeare.

Afterward there were 1,000 steps to Risshaku-ji, a mountain temple founded in 860. If you reach the top you are said to be in heaven. Halfway up is a rock at the base of a cliff, where Bashō may have rested and written his famous cicada poem: “the stillness— / seeping into the rocks / cicadas’ screech” (tr. Ueda). The cicadas were still loud enough to soak the rock. Heading back down after reaching heaven I realized I felt closer to Bashō in transient-eternal nature than on the literal steps he walked at famous temples.

 

Narrow Road to the Interior. Bashō’s book, published in 1702, is called Oku no Hosomichi in Japanese. It is also translated as Narrow Road to the Deep [or Far] North. Donald Keene, the “dean of Japanese literature scholars,” who died this year, says, “More people know this work than any other in Japanese literature. I don’t think you can find a Japanese who has not at least had some exposure to it because of its peculiar attraction….”

Haruo Shirane says, “In Narrow Road to the Deep North, the journey becomes the great metaphor. Travel is life. Life is travel. There’s no end to travel; you die on the road, you’re born on the road. And the road takes on several kinds of meanings. But it’s a difficult journey, that’s the narrow road.”

 

Old [getting]. Bashō was 45 when he walked his Narrow Road—an old man, since he would live to only 49. Compare Issa: “Fiftieth birthday: / From now on, / it’s all clear profit, / every sky” (tr. Hass).

I myself am in my age of clear profit. I find that others want you to get old. “Be careful, you’re of a certain age,” they say. “You’re not as young as you used to be.”

One of Bashō’s last poems: “A wanderer’s thought / this autumn / why am I aging so? / to the clouds, a bird” (tr. Ueda). Critics have said it shows his weariness and loneliness. I get a whiff of indomitable.

My counter? Fūkyō, friend. Let’s burn this something down to the stub.

One of Bashō’s last poems: “A wanderer’s thought / this autumn / why am I aging so? / to the clouds, a bird” (tr. Ueda). Critics have said it shows his weariness and loneliness. I get a whiff of indomitable.

 

Ponkles, Peanuts. My affectionate nicknames for my sons, when they were younger. My life journey with them has given me the chance to become Real, as the Skin Horse said, “because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” I missed them in Japan but told the bears everything. (See “Ursus.”)

 

Quixotic. Isn’t the difference between literary “madnesses” in East and West interesting? The better equivalence to fūkyō might be vatic—“prophetic, oracular”—with its etymology of poetry and madness.

 

Ramble: To walk for pleasure; to lose one’s way in words or the world. I am 18 letters into the alphabet but have not told my trip. See the end note if you would like to read more.

 

Sabi. “Lonely beauty cherished in the Bashō school of haikai. Elements of sadness, old age, resignation, tranquility, and even happiness can also be found in it. Underlying this aesthetic is a cosmic view typical of medieval Buddhists, who recognized man’s existential loneliness and tried to accept it with calm resignation” (Ueda).

Sabi is often comic, too. Bashō says, “Sabi is the color of the poem. It does not necessarily refer to the poem that describes a lonely scene. If a man goes to war wearing stout armor or to a party dressed up in gay clothes, and if this man happens to be an old man, there is something lonely about him. Sabi is something like that” (tr. Yuasa, qtd. In Hass).

 

Travel: Movement through the body of the world.

“[T]he haikai poet had to discover new viewpoints…of all modes of existence, it was travel, with its constant motion and release from fixed perspectives, that encouraged and stimulated such ‘newness.’” Yet the traveler on a “journey into the dark Other” was “reliv[ing] the experience of his or her literary predecessors…and became a link in a chain of poetic and literary transmission” (Shirane).

Compare: “They say that travel broadens the mind, ’til you can’t get your head out of doors” (Elvis Costello).

 

Ursus thibetanus japonicus: the Asian Black Bear native to Japan. Herbivorous, occasionally carnivorous, they increase the health of forests by dispersing seeds in their scat. A study says there is a “very high probability” they will be extinct in Japan within 100 years. That was 20 years ago. Still, sightings are increasing (perhaps due to food shortage and habitat loss), and the bears sometimes kill or injure people, including hikers.

Several days of my brief walk were in bear country. Strategic posts with signs of enraged cartoon bears had mallets and planks or iron skillets hanging on them, to warn the near-sighted bears. Hikers were told to yell, sing, and clap their hands. The conifer woods were very dark, just as Bashō said, and I never saw another person in these sections. I was tired and in pain at times, so I sang and performed long monologues and called out, Are you out there, Bear? Are you with me? I conflated bear and Bashō, so when I spoke to one I was speaking to the other, as well as to something in me. (Compare: “The bear went over the mountain / to see what he could see.”)

The chance to speak without judgement, disapproval, or hesitation was a gift. I am proud I spoke mostly of gratitude—for my sons and family, for my friends, for you, and for experience and work. The bear, I assumed, just lived its life as a bear, the greatest thanks of all.

Near the site of a teahouse for weary travelers in Bashō’s time, now wilderness, something big crashed around in the brambles and vines on a slope, under which I could hear a stream burbling. Then there was birdsong and a light-filled clearing. I did not want to spend the night with my audience.

The conifer woods were very dark, just as Bashō said, and I never saw another person in these sections. I was tired and in pain at times, so I sang and performed long monologues and called out, Are you out there, Bear? Are you with me? I conflated bear and Bashō, so when I spoke to one I was speaking to the other, as well as to something in me.

I knew my gratitude, awareness, and calm would not always hold. But I can report I got the Newmans’ money’s worth, and that I caught a glimpse of what the old poets sought.

Compare: “I sometimes think that writing … is a matter of joining seasons and following their movements. For they don’t move through time only. They move, as we move, from place to place. As we move, we carry them, and they carry us—I think of that odd and very beautiful word ‘bear’—the seasons bear us from one place to another. And how many seeds of how many plants we have inside us.” (From A Wild Perfection, The Selected Letters of James Wright)

 

Verdure: lush greenness, as of rice paddies, or the vegetation itself; health, vitality. The Japanese make this connection in “forest bathing,” shinrin-yoku, which appears to have verifiable health benefits. The main idea is to heighten the senses, relax, and be present.

Compare: “Going to the woods is going home …” (John Muir).

 

Wabi. “An aesthetic and spiritual ideal…advocated by Bashō. Rejects external, sensory beauty and finds spiritual and poetic depth in material poverty, in modest, simple, unadorned objects in an ascetic lifestyle” (Shirane).

I was not surprised to find that, after hiking the Bashō Trail and traveling through Japan for a month, I began to feel the true ascetic choice was to head home. (See “Ponkles.”)

But when have you learned what you went to learn? Where does the spirit of a master reside, other than their work? In a house they slept in, a golden building they viewed? In the mountain forests where they thought they risked death? At their grave near Lake Biwa? (I went all those places.) Would I be satisfied if someone trotted out bones in reliquaries, like those other saints?

I was not surprised to find that, after hiking the Bashō Trail and traveling through Japan for a month, I began to feel the true ascetic choice was to head home.

We try to get closer—to people we love, to artists whose work we admire, to our own histories. I have spent significant portions of my life investigating, but the deepest questions remain mysteries.

 

Xenophilious/xenophobic: Attitudes to the strange and foreign, perhaps based in the amount of confidence one has in oneself or one’s own culture. (See “Fūkyō.”)

 

year after year / on the monkey’s face / a monkey’s mask” (tr. Ueda).

Bashō wrote this haiku the year before he died. Ueda quotes Kōda Rohan (1867-1947), “an eminent novelist and scholar who devoted much of his later life to studying the Bashō school of haikai”:

 

“A person does not change as visibly as a caterpillar changes into a butterfly. This poem expresses the feelings of a man who believes he is growing old without making any visible progress.”

 

Za. “The term za, which originally meant to sit together in one place,” was applied to the place, participants, and process of collaborative haikai. “In a broader sense, za implied a sense of group cohesion, a sense of bonding among individuals of different social backgrounds, unrelated by blood or family. [This might] include the sense of cohesion among writers and readers not present at the original place or site… a sense not only of a larger community but of an imagined, shared past with which they could identify” (Shirane).

Compare: “In Basho’s footsteps / I don’t see the fall, only / butterflies on bones” (Griswold).

 

 

• • •

 

This Abcedarian contains passages in different form from my travel dispatches from Japan for The Common Reader. To read more, please follow these links:

 

On the Narrow Road to the Interior

Tokyo to Sendai

Sendai to Matsushima

Matsushima to Hiraizumi

Hiraizumi to Akakura Onsen

Akakura Onsen to Hijiori Onsen

Hijiori Onsen to Sendai

Yokota, USA

Daio Wasabi Farm

How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down?

Kyoto

Hiroshima

‘Yamato’ Means ‘Great Harmony’

All That We See or Seem

Travel’s Mixed Bag

Foods of Japan 

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