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 😉