Sendai to Matsushima

Cyclists were lined up at rail crossings, holding clear umbrellas and wearing clear plastic ponchos, during morning rush hour, somewhere in Tōhoku. The train from Sendai pulled in to an open platform with no station sign, and I asked a boy across the aisle if this was Kokufu-Tagajo. He looked up, alarmed, and by instinct grabbed for his phone, but there was no time, and besides we did not speak each other’s languages. I stepped out—the right choice, this time. We put ourselves at the mercy of the world when we travel, which is part of the point.

Many things written for US readers about Japan have a focus on the ultra-modern, such as bullet trains, or the deeply stylized, such as anime or bonsai. Tōhoku, the northern part of Honshu, Japan’s largest island, is different: valleys planted in rice and Japanese apricots; mountains with ancient conifers and wild tangles of grasses and ivy; and sometimes-drab villages with tangles of electrical wires overhead, and dusty solar panels and snow guards on roofs. There are no Robot Restaurants here.

The rain was light but slanting on my first day of walking portions of the Basho Trail. I sat in my raingear outside the Tōhoku History Museum, near the station, waiting for it to open. I felt present and healthy; there was a familiar feeling of stillness after chaos. I wondered how anyone knew the difference between enlightenment and exhaustion. The museum had an excellent collection of artifacts, displays, and dioramas about the region, from prehistory to the present. An Edo-period farmhouse on the grounds was surrounded by hydrangea, weeping willows, and Japanese maples, and flowering water lilies. But I was eager to begin.

That day was more volksmarch than literary pilgrimage, and the path led past homes, gardens, and greenhouses, and through fields of Japanese Irises done blooming for the season. (They bloomed when Basho was here in early June 1689, which the town marks with a festival.) A worker was pulling up plants and bulbs and throwing them in the back of a tiny pickup truck.

Just over the hill was the Tsubo-no-Ishibumi stone, a six-foot high rock marker, engraved in the eighth century, to the administrative fortress of Taga. Taga Castle had walls a kilometer on every side and was meant to bring security and peace to the countryside. It was finished as a power by the 12th century, and now is a mere outline on the ground. Basho saw and loved the stone for its timelessness in the midst of impermanence.

“Many are the places that have been made famous in poetry of the past,” he wrote. “But mountains erode, rivers change their course, roads are improved, and famous stone monuments are buried and hidden under the soil. […] However, here I stand before a monument which without a doubt represents a thousand years. I feel a strong affinity with the people of ancient times. This emotion is the pilgrim’s reward. This is the reward life can bring. I forget the hardships of the road and am moved to tears.”

I walked on through rainy woods and up lanes slick as creek-stone, to Mutsu-shoshanmoiya Shrine, to pay my respects to its 600-year old cedar.

“Hello, Grandfather,” I said. “Felicitations.” I bowed and looked up into its boughs. A half cup of cold water splatted on my cheek. It was a good joke.

I walked on to Shiogama Shrine, 1,200 years old. Basho also passed under its torii gate, which was only 25 years old then. There is a long climb up more than 200 stone steps to the temples and museum at the top, with exhibits on whaling and salt production. (Shiogama means salt-furnace. Earthly trade seems often to have ensured shrines’ longevity.) Then I marched steeply downhill to the city of Shiogama and its port.

This is the tsunami coast. The great Tohoku quake of 2011 (a 9.0 on the Richter scale) and subsequent tsunami killed nearly 16,000 and left 500,000 homeless. Of course it also damaged the Fukushima nuclear plant, so we think of it as a modern disaster. Archaeologists know a tsunami did extensive damage to Taga Castle in 869, several kilometers inland. Signs through town show where to run if the tsunami siren goes off; not many places are high and sturdy enough.

I walked on to board the Basho cruise, a boat ride through hundreds of picturesque islands in Matsushima Bay. Basho and his former student and companion, Sora, paddled through these islands and found them so stunning Basho was unable to write a hokku to match his feelings. The boat’s recorded guide-patter kept saying “Matsuo Basho” in Japanese, but when it was the English version’s turn, said brief things like, “This is called Horse Island, because it looks like a horse.”

My hotel that night had flooded in the tsunami, but my room on the fourth floor was not damaged. It had two low beds, tatami mats, and a view of the bay. Its outdated pink bathroom reminded me of my Aunt Margie’s, where as a child I felt safe and pampered.

Despite my slight irritation that the route had not been hard enough for me to feel I had earned my way, something in my left ankle and right hip had gone wrong, and patches of plantar fasciitis were thick and tender on my soles. I sat in a deep tub a long time, appreciating water and elevation.

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.