Matsushima to Hiraizumi

At dawn the fishing boats of Matsushima swung on their anchors with the tide. A flock of cormorants, fishing a few yards from shore, panicked as a group, plashed across the water, and took flight. The port smelled of seawater and diesel.

I was headed out for another day on the Basho trail, with more elevation, five temples, three trains, a long walk through bear country, and a futon in a traditional inn with an onsen hot-spring bath.

Godaido Temple-hall, on a tiny island near the pier, was founded in 807 and restored in 1604. A Westerner has to remind himself of what he’s looking at, many times, in Japan. It is not unusual to see 12th-century Heian period artifacts in museums. My ancestors in Solihull were just pulling themselves together in the 12th century, and did not get far with the project until well into the 19th. Though in the case of Godaido, surrounded by sea and wind, I thought of the old philosophical game of the ship of Theseus: with enough maintenance and replacement of wooden parts, when is a temple no longer itself? The same might be said of ourselves.

The much larger Zuiganji Temple, less than a kilometer away, was founded in 828. Even Basho could say it was founded “32 generations ago.” There are two apricot trees there he would have walked past and perhaps eaten their fruit; now they are misshapen and supported by trusses.

Zuiganji, like most of the large temples, contains priceless art, but one thing that struck me was a homely palanquin, made of woven bamboo painted with lacquer, with four carrying handles. It is said four men could carry the functionary sitting in the box 32 kilometers, from Matsushima to Sendai, in four hours. Basho, on his visits anywhere on the narrow road, was the lesser figure to great lords and their lackeys, and often likely got no audience. But through his work he has lived and his influence spread in ways the lords never dreamed.

Basho loved signs of impermanence, and contemplating the history of rise and fall at Hiraizumi, the town at the end of my day’s walk, which in the Heian period rivaled Kyoto, the national capital, for power, Basho wrote:


Summer’s grass
All that’s left
Of ancient warrior’s dreams.


One of the pleasures this day was waiting at a train station, under a shed roof, surrounded by thickets of vines and weeds. The ding-dong of the station chime and the cawing of crows induced summer stupor, until I was shocked back to awareness by a freight barreling through at high speed. An old man with a cane sat next to me, quietly working something out on a scrap of paper. For all I knew, he could be the Basho of our time, one of the great consciousnesses of human history, and I unaware of his greatness. Or he could have been some jingoistic peckerwood. The mystery of persons is another way travel mirrors life.

I was surprised, at one point during my walk, to learn the Asiatic Black Bear is so common in Japan. Sightings are increasing (perhaps due to food shortage and habitat loss), and people are sometimes killed or injured. After winding through towns, over bridges, and along a major highway, my path turned abruptly into the hills and bear country. A sign of an enraged cartoon bear hung on a post, along with a plank and a mallet. Hikers were to hit the plank with the mallet and yell, then sing and clap their hands as they walked, to warn bears they were coming. The conifer woods were very dark, just as Basho said, and in five days of walking I never saw another person in these forest sections. I realized if I turned an ankle, no one in the world would know to come and get me. For some reason, I felt closer to Basho in these places than anywhere else, including the famous temples he visited.

After a long hot day I got to my inn, showered, and had a quick soak in scalding water. I put on the hotel’s summer-weight kimono and was served a feast of fish, rice, and pickled vegetables. I wanted to buy a beer for my room, which caused much confusion and worry for the waitress, who was older. One got the feeling such things were not done.

But that was not a tradition I was interested in this night, and I was getting better at Google Translate. The trick, I found, was to say things very simply, like a pre-translator, or a poet in a certain tradition. The verbal function worked more than half the time now, unlike their augmented-reality reader. It still choked on things with multiple meanings or built-in metaphors. It read into “May I” in ways it did not for “Can I.”

The waitress and I got it straightened out. She was relieved I would not be a further problem to solve, and I was relieved to have a cold beer. Using her own pocket translator, she said, “You can also have it in your room. I can also help write constipation.” It sounded suspiciously like she knew I was a writer, and that she was experienced in dealing with them.

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.