“Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old poets, seek what they have sought,” Matsuo Bashō says, in the Hass translation. Too late: I am in Sendai, Japan, to begin walking a segment of Bashō’s Narrow Road.
Besides, Bashō was chasing the poet Saigyō and thinking of other poets’ lives and work, as he and his companion, Sora, journeyed through northern Honshu in 1689. Bashō insists on direct experience in life, but that does not preclude it paralleling someone else’s.
I started my trip this week at the Bashō sites on the Sumida River, which empties into Tokyo Bay. They include a bronze statue of the poet looking over the river, a site that may have been where his hut stood, a small museum devoted to him, and a larger one about Edo (old Tokyo). English translations were rare, and my translation app failed miserably, refusing to read inscriptions and banners, and making a mess of printed texts.
“Prick to the following of this place, Bald Truth,” one augmented reading of a sign at the base of the statue said. Then again, maybe it was working fine.
It took Bashō five weeks to get to Sendai from Edo. I rode the Shinkansen, the bullet train, a gleaming neon rocket that makes the trip from Tokyo in 90 minutes. About halfway there, mountains came up quick, and then waves of forested mountains, and the train punched through them, tunnel after tunnel. I saw instantly how difficult Bashō’s journey would have been, to what was considered a wild and unholy frontier. He did 1,500 miles in about 22 weeks.
Travel has always put us at the mercy of the world. Bashō saw it as inherently dangerous—not just physically, but also to what we think we know, including about ourselves. That is one of its chief advantages.
Back in his day, Sendai was a fortified-castle town, home to 57,000. Now it has a million residents. Searching for my own comparisons in bewildered jetlag, I thought the city looked like a Moscow exurb among Panamanian mountains. The train station is the size of an airport and also serves as mall, food market, and community center. The food is delicious and the people seem happy.
Much of the Bashō trail has been tamed, farmed, and developed, and the worst a literary pilgrim is liable to suffer walking some of it is a twisted ankle or a bad oyster in a good hotel. Still, there are reminders of how the world can have us if it wants: The vast distances of Pacific Ocean beneath the icon of an airplane crawling across a seatback screen; the “human-related activity” delays on the Tokyo subway; the earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear disaster of Tōhoku, the northern region of Honshu, where Sendai is located.
Outside my hotel right now a raven is giving rush-hour hell, car-by-car, from his perch on a highway sign. It is a good omen; Bashō loved the comic, the lonely, the homely, the awkward, the death-tinged. “If you describe a green willow in the spring rain,” he said, “it is good for renga [longer, collaborative poetry], but if you describe a crow picking mud snails in a rice field, it will serve haiku.”
It is dinnertime. Beef tongue, I am told, is the specialty of Sendai, and in my current mood that seems right too.