‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Matsuo Bashō (Review)

If asked what I knew about Matsuo Bashō, I’m sure (like many of you) I would have mumbled something about haikus and frogs splashing into ponds, but while the famous Japanese poet, is of course, mainly known as a master of short verse, he does have another string to his bow.  You see, he was also a man who liked to travel, and today’s January in Japan selection has us tagging along on several trips around Japan.  Sounds fun, no?  There is one catch, though – we’re walking all the way 😦

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, published by Penguin Classics) is a short book collecting several accounts of journeys Bashō took towards the end of his life.  Having achieved fame as a poet, he grew tired of human company and decided to live in a little house on the outskirts of Edo (Tokyo), but when even that failed to satisfy him, he decided it was time to hit the road.  Taking only what he needed (a few necessities and his poetic abilities), he set off to places he’d always wanted to see, visiting acquaintances and checking out the most beautiful spots in the region.  Oh, and dashing off a haiku or twenty, of course 😉

It’s these journeys that are described in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, with the book comprising five accounts of the poet’s travels.  The first few (shorter) pieces take us to the Kansai (western) region of Japan, with Bashō setting off after ten years in the new capital to see the sights around the old one.  As you can imagine, the beauty and history of the places he visits provide great inspiration for his pen, such as the thousand-year-old tree featured in this verse :

How many priests
How many morning glories
Have perished under the pine
Eternal as Law?
‘The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton’, p.56 (Penguin Classics, 1966)

It’s not just the beauties of nature he notices, though.  We follow the poet through mountains, over fields and past ruined temples, where Bashō laments the passing of time.

However, these earlier sketches are mere shadows of the main text, the longer account he is to produce of his journey to the north.  Setting off in 1689, at the age of forty-five, on a journey he suspected he might never return from, Bashō was to spend six months walking through what was still a fairly unknown part of the country to most, and it wasn’t always a pleasant experience:

I had a bath in a hot spring before I took shelter at an inn.  It was a filthy place with rough straw mats spread out on an earth floor.  They had to prepare my bed by the dim light of the fire, for there was not even a lamp in the whole house.  A storm came upon us towards midnight, and between the noise of thunder and leaking rain and the raids of mosquitoes and fleas, I could not get a wink of sleep.
‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’, p.110

Ah, yes, the dangers of Airbnb…

All of the five travel journals follow a similar structure, written as they are in haibun, a mix of prose and poetry, but as Yuasa explains in his lengthy introduction, it’s in the final piece, as long as the others combined, that Bashō finally finds the right rhythm:

It seems to me that there are two things remarkable about ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’.  One is variety.  Each locality, including the little unknown places Bashō visited in passing, is portrayed with a distinctive character of its own, so that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that Bashō was in possession of a magical power to enter into ‘the spirit of the place’. […]  The other remarkable thing about ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ is its unity.  To use Bashō’s own classification, variety, being the temporary, changeable element (ryūkō), is in the substance (jitsu) of the work.  Unity, on the other hand, is the permanent, unchangeable element existing in the essence (kyo) of the work. (pp.37/8)

Which is all a fancy way of saying that this one is better than the others.

The reason for this is the improvements made in terms of the balance of the text.  In the earlier pieces, the poet swings from a focus on the poems, with the brief prose fragments merely there to string them together, to an abundance of description, including lengthy explanations for the reason for his journey.  It isn’t until we get to The Narrow Road to the Deep North that the two parts of haibun marry successfully, making for a much better reading experience.

This last piece is also simply more engaging than the others.  Yuasa is spot on when he talks of Bashō’s ability to make each place visited distinct, and as he sees castle ruins, twisted trees, unknown villages and the famous pine islands of Matsushima, his enthusiasm shines through.  Later, a few tears are shed when he and his companion come across the ruins of the estate of the northern Fujiwara family:

A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors.
‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’, p.118

A poignant moment as he looks back five hundred years, and we look back more than three hundred at him.

History is an important part of the book, and as is the case with many Japanese classics, your enjoyment will be enhanced by having read other older works.  When Bashō makes his way to Akashi and Suma, J-Lit aficionados will no doubt be reminded of Genji’s exile there, as well as of the poems of Ariwara no Narihara.  However, the work that crops up repeatedly in these accounts is The Tale of the Heike, with Bashō drawn during several of his journeys to sites mentioned in the book.  I’m not saying you need to have read all these works to appreciate this one, but it does add a certain flavour and helps you see how a Japanese reader would react.

As entertaining as Bashō’s journeys are, I wouldn’t say that this is for everyone.  It’s fairly short, and at times there’s a lot of linked verse, which without the Japanese, and in Yuasa’s chosen four-line format, doesn’t always come across that well.  However, at its best, particularly in the main piece, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is an enjoyable, entertaining ramble across Japan in the company of an interesting man – who happened to be about my age when he set off on his final major journey…

Hmm.  I think I’ll just stay at home and travel vicariously through books, instead 😉

17 thoughts on “‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Matsuo Bashō (Review)

  1. This is one of those canonical books that I’ve circled around for years, but never summoned up the energy to read. I can’t say I feel it’s moved up my priority list much after this interesting response of yours. But one day, I’m sure. Same goes for Genji…


  2. Ah, Simon, it’s so good! I’m re-reading it now, in a gorgeous illustrated edition, which does not hurt. Tony is right that it is not for everyone, but only for people who love literature.

    I would love to do this walk, or some version of it. One would see a lot more concrete now, but the inns would be immaculate.

    The true beginnings
    Of poetry – an Oku
    Rice-planting song. (tr. Donald Keene)

    I won’t hear this on the way. Maybe there is a recording at the Rice Museum.

    I should track down that Penguin; I have not read the earlier journeys.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tom – Just been having a conversation on Facebook with a Japanese translator and academic (he’s not Japanese, he works *with* Japanese, to be precise), and one thing he stressed is that the poetry translations in this version don’t really attempt to capture the rhythm of the original. they’re often four-line, English-style versions.


      1. I’m so glad to see this book getting attention. Basho’s “Narrow Road” is perhaps the book I cherish most in the world; I’ve read it many times in many different versions, as well as in Japanese, and every time it reveals new facets and new insights to me.

        Although the difficulty of translating the poetry gets a lot of play, I think too often the nuanced nature of the prose goes overlooked. As this post suggests, it’s not there just to space out the haiku. A lot of the available English translations don’t do justice to the flowing, rolling stream of ideas that make up many of the sentences in the Narrow Road. They tend to break the lengthy sentences of the original into several English ones, which is appropriate in many cases in many translations, but not here. Let me suggest Cid Corman’s version, published under the title “Backroads to Far Towns,” as the one that, in my opinion, does the best job among currently available English translations of capturing the cadence of Basho’s writing.

        The one comment I would make to those who are considering reading this work (I’m going to try to limit myself here; I’d happily prattle on about this all day) is not to think of it like a modern travelogue. Rather than trying to describe places in detail or even evoke them for the reader like a modern writer might, Basho is situating each place he visits in the great poetic stream (or, if you will, road) that runs from the ancient Chinese poets, through the famous Japanese collections, past Basho’s own idol Saigyo, and in which he himself now finally stands. (Haruo Shirane, in his book “Traces of Dreams,” makes a powerful and sometimes moving argument about how Basho refigures older Chinese and Japanese poetic traditions in light of the newer movement surrounding what would become haiku.) That’s not to say there aren’t human emotions to discover and human connections to make in and with this text – there absolutely are, as the review mentions. It’s more to suggest that they might lie slightly tangent to where you expect them. But finding them is very much part of the journey.


        1. Kevin – Thanks for your comment and your insights 🙂 I’m certainly one who is more drawn to the travel side than the haikus…


  3. Those are some lovely excerpts. Seems like an author to read up more about — especially since I mean to read up some haikus next for the Japanese Literature Challenge 14. Thanks for spotlighting this one, it sounds perfect for one of those distracted days.


    1. Hi Lexlingua–If you’re interested in learning something about Basho’s life and background, let me recommend Donald Keene’s “World Within Walls,” which though a somewhat older book by now remains a standard reference. It’s a larger book, but only the first 150 pages or so are about haiku, along with another fifty-ish later on if you’re interested in where the form went after Basho. There’s naturally a chapter devoted to Basho himself, but there are also chapters detailing the evolution of haiku (or, if you will, haikai) before the arrival of Basho, and giving some context to what this form of poetry was trying to achieve.

      Makoto Ueda’s “Matsuo Basho” touches on a lot of the same things in a single shorter volume, but if you’re curious about the haiku specifically, please consider Ueda’s “Basho and His Interpreters,” which presents poems of Basho’s along with selections from commentary spanning centuries, giving a sense of how Basho and his work have been seen and used over the ages. Then of course there are the straightforward anthologies if you prefer, like David Landis Barnhill’s “Basho’s Haiku.”

      Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Another book that I loved so much back in the days when I was studying Japanese, and that I’m almost afraid to return to. But Basho travels a bit like me, with lots of free associations, rather than detailed observation of a traditional travelogue. (And we did read him mainly for the haikus in class, because our literature professor was -and remains – a poetry fan.)


  5. I was so confused when I read the title of your post because I read another book with the same name, but different author – The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Initially I thought it was a coincidence, but it wasn’t – Richard Flanagan used the phrase intentionally (as explained in the link below). It’s the first time that I encounter two books with the same name, written by different people 🙂



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