How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down?

I was caught off-guard, in Matsumoto and then Yamanaka Onsen—the middle of Honshu—to find Bashō again. That was only because I had personalized his journey through northern Japan by walking a small part of it myself. But I knew he returned home by walking down the western coast and across the width of Japan again. The famous trip he wrote about in Oku no Hosomichi was not even his only long wander.

I was starting to see that it would be odd if there were not connections to Bashō through much of Japan, given his restless nature. And until my visit I had not understood how ubiquitously mountainous this island nation is, and how civilization was channeled into valleys, onto paths between them, and along the coasts. Space is limited and history compressed, so Basho is often still present.

Yamanaka Onsen, one of four hot-spring towns in the region of Kaga Onsen, sells itself in part by being the place where Basho spent eight nights and nine days near the end of his journey to the interior. He praised its thermal springs, gorge, and bridge, and in return they call him one of their “four saints.”

Frenchy and I spent a night there. The town is trapped along a little road between a ridge and the river. Our ryokan’s view of the wild little river was reserved for its communal baths; our room looked out on tar-and-gravel rooftops. After a night on a thin futon, Frenchy said he missed being able to swing his feet down to the floor; the futon made you roll over and get slowly onto all fours, he said, then on your knees, like a second defeat. Only then could you stand up and hobble away.

At dawn I went out to have another look at the town, the hot spring, and the closed lacquerware shops in the fog. I stared into the gorge. Due to timing, I missed the small museum and another hut dedicated to Bashō. The ancient bridge was closed for repairs. I was getting tired, I had to admit. When have you learned what you went to learn?

That is, where does the spirit of Bashō reside, beyond his work? In things—a house he slept in, stone steps he walked, a golden building he viewed? In the natural landscape where he believed he risked death? At his grave near Lake Biwa? (I went all those places.) Would I be more satisfied if someone trotted out his bones in reliquaries, like those other saints?

We try to get closer—to people we love, to writers and artists whose work we admire, to our own histories. But what does it take to understand another’s inspiration, a partner’s original pain, an absent parent? The far-flung city of one’s birth? I have spent significant portions of my life revisiting or investigating, but in the end, the deepest parts remain mysteries.

On his trip, Bashō wanted to see the grave of a famed 10th-century poet, which the poet Saigyō wrote about in the 12th century. It was rainy season, and Bashō could only look in its direction, down an impassable muddy road, as he passed by:


whereabouts is
Kasashima? this rainy month,
this muddy road


Professor of Japanese Ebara Taizō at Kyoto University says, “This was a spontaneous poem, which Bashō wrote in an effort to soothe his disappointment at not being able to visit the place. It is amusing to imagine a visibly despondent Bashō speaking to Sora [his traveling companion] in this way.” (Translation of the hokku and commentary are by Makoto Ueda, from his excellent Bashō and His Interpreters.)

It may be wisdom to view such predicaments as amusing.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.