On the Narrow Road to the Interior

I will be writing from Japan over the next weeks, thanks to The Newman Exploration Center and a Newman Exploration Travel Fund Grant, funded by the Eric P. & Evelyn Newman Foundation, at Washington University in St. Louis.

My main activity will be to walk a segment of poet Matsuo Bashō’s journey along the “Narrow Road to the Deep North,” or “Narrow Road to the Interior,” as different translations call it, in northern Honshu.

In 1689, Bashō, a poet now known primarily as the master of the haiku/hokku form, walked nearly 1,500 miles in what was then Japan’s wilderness—to his own interior, as he says—with the goals of visiting places where previous poets had written, witnessing layers of time, and finding “eternity in the transient world.”

Donald Keene, the “dean of Japanese literature scholars,” who passed away just this year, calls Bashō’s book “the most popular work of Japanese classical literature. 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—the beauty of the poetry, the sensitivity to the different landscapes that he traveled across, and the atmosphere engendered by Bashō the man himself.”

Bashō has been important in my writing and reading life. He came into our culture through Modernists such as Ezra Pound and the Imagist poets, and aspects of his style and worldview can be found in the work of poets and writers such as William Carlos Williams and Ernest Hemingway. These qualities have in turn been channeled into dozens of contemporary writers, such as Lucia Berlin and Denis Johnson. Literary layering, which transcends chronology and nationality, is our legacy.

My self-guided walking tour goes from Sendai to Yamadera. Afterward I will visit Tokyo and Kyoto, the former seats of imperial power (and cities where Bashō lived), and Hiroshima. I am especially interested in recent layers of technology that Bashō’s time could not have imagined—bullet trains, the Toyota plant, nuclear energy and warfare—that overlay a landscape he might often still recognize. What I expect to find on this trip and in my reading is movement, from individual to culture, from specific to general, and back again. I expect to find relational meaning—metaphors.

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.”

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.