Friday, November 28, 2014

Bright in the sun

Matsuo Bashō, the great Japanese master of haiku poetry, died 320 years ago today. In his late 30s, having grown tired of fame, he started on a series of journeys, by foot, through his country. While travelling, he wrote about his experiences in poetical form, and then edited and published his writings. The most famous of his books - which is sometimes referred to as a travel diary or journal - is Oku no Hosomichi, or The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Bashō was born in Ueno, in Iga Province, near Kyoto, in 1644, the son of a low-ranking samurai. He worked for a local lord who, like him, was interested in poetry. By 1664, Bashō’s poems were being published. When his master died, he abandoned his status as a serving warrior and moved to Edo (now Tokyo) where he became recognised as a master of haiku, and attracted many followers. Bashō reacted to his fame, and turned to Zen meditation for solace. He is known to have lived much of his life in a series of huts, and to have made several long journeys on foot. He died on 28 November 1694 according some web sources. For a little further information in English see Wikipedia, National Geographic, or The Poetry Foundation.

While on his travels, Bashō kept a kind of diary, usually in poem form, about his experiences, and then, on returning to Edo, he edited and published these writings. The most famous of these books, sometimes called travel diaries, is Oku no Hosomichi, or The Narrow Road to the Deep North (or Interior), written near the end of his life following his 1689-1691 trip to the northerly interior region known as Oku. More details on this work can be found at Wikipedia, along with some extracts.
 It was translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa and published by Penguin Classics in 1966 as The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (see Googlebooks or Amazon). The Narrow Road to the Deep North can be accessed freely online at this website.

Here is an extract from the introduction, and two extracts from the work itself (the latter being the last in the book).

‘In the imagination of the people at least, the North was largely an unexplored territory, and it represented for Bashō all the mystery there was in the universe. In other words, the Narrow Road to the Deep North was life itself for Bashō, and he travelled through it as anyone would travel through the short span of his life here - seeking a vision of eternity in the things that are, by their own very nature, destined to perish.’

‘On the first day of April, I climbed Mount Nikko to do homage to the holiest of the shrines upon it. This mountain used to be called Nikko. When the high priest Kukai built a temple upon it, however, he changed the name to Nikko, which means the bright beams of the sun. Kukai must have had the power to see a thousand years into the future, for the mountain is now the seat of the most sacred of all shrines, and its benevolent power prevails throughout the land, embracing the entire people, like the bright beams of the sun. To say more about the shrine would be to violate its holiness.
It was with awe
That I beheld
Fresh leaves, green leaves,
Bright in the sun.
[. . .]
After climbing two hundred yards or so from the shrine, I came to a waterfall, which came pouring out of a hollow in the ridge and tumbled down into the dark green pool below in a huge leap of several hundred feet. The rocks of the waterfall were so carved out that we could see it from behind, though hidden ourselves in a craggy cave. Hence its nickname, See-from-behind.
Silent while in a cave
I watched a waterfall
For the first of
The summer observances.’

‘September the sixth, however, I left for the Ise Shrine, though the fatigue of the long journey was still with me, for I wanted to see the dedication of a new shrine there. As I stepped into a boat, I wrote:
As firmly cemented clam-shells
Fall apart in autumn
So I must take to the road again
Farewell, my friends.’

Finally, it is worth noting that for some of the time during his trip through Oku, Bashō was accompanied by his disciple, Kawai Sora, who kept a conventional journal. According to Wikipedia, the presence of the diary had been known about in the past, but was re-discovered and published by Yasusaburo Yamamoto in 1943; and then, in 1978, it was designated an Important Cultural Properties of Japan. Unlike Bashō’s diary, Sora Nikki (Sora Diary) does not include emotional language, but focuses on dates and places, thus providing an essential companion for those studying Bashō life and works.

The Diary Junction

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