Tuesday, 9 August 2011


I am very excited to introduce my first guest post on narrow roads. It is written by my brother who is spending a year teaching English in Japan. His enthusiasm for the country and its culture has inspired me when writing this blog and I am delighted to be able share a post from him.

A memorial print of Hiroshige by the contemporary artist Kunisada via Wikimedia

My first intimation of falling in love with Japan, as it were, was the woodblock prints of the artist Hiroshige, particularly his masterpieces depicting the Tokaido Road, the famed Eastern Sea Road from the military capital Edo to the Imperial court in Kyoto. Ukiyō-e had become popular for the prints of great beauties and stars of the kabuki stage, but around the 1830s a combination of factors led to the runaway craze of landscape prints. The Tokugawa shogunate had started to view the licentious actors and courtesans with suspicion, believing the ‘floating world’ to corrupt morals with its message of easy life:

Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…

Asai Ryoi, Tales of the Floating World (浮世物語 Ukiyo Monogatari, 1666)

This easy lifestyle was clearly incompatible with the strict code of Bushido that the government promoted. In 1842 the shogunate introduced the Tenpō reforms, in response to earthquakes, famine and external pressures. This restricted decadent urban life, especially the kabuki theatre and ukiyō-e that showed any aspect of courtesans, geisha or actors. It also banned, among other things, such dangerous habits as gaudy signboards and decorations on smoking pipes.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Tosa Nikki

Image via Wikimedia
All translations from Ki no Tsurayuki The Tosa Diary (trans. William N. Porter Tuttle Classics, 1981, Boston)
If The Narrow Road to Oku demonstrates the transformative power of travel, the next travelogue I tuned to revealed the very opposite. The Tosa Diary (Tosa Nikki), written by Ki no Tsurayuki in 935 dwells in the grittiness of travel: the tedium and discomfort that can creep into the spaces between moments of excitement and revelation and the frustrations and boredom of a long and potentially dangerous journey. Far from being a disappointment after Bashō’s transcendence, I felt grateful for Tsurayuki’s honesty and refreshed by the way the Tosa Diary revealed the quieter and more human pleasures and annoyances of travel.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Yosa Buson

Landscape with a Solitary Traveller by Yosa Buson via Wikimedia

I didn’t anticipate this blog being dominated by Matsuo Bashō but he seems to have made himself very much at home here. I was captivated by the story of Bashō’s hard won achievements as a poet and his honesty in looking loneliness in the face and I’m finding it hard to move on to new writers. But before I wrench myself away from the world of darkening skies, of birds calling in the melancholy dusk, and serene days spent in a ramshackle house buried in a tangle of wild persimmon trees, I wanted to point you in the direction of Yosa Buson’s illustrations of Bashō’s work. Buson (1716-1783) was a poet and painter who (like many others) had followed in the great master’s footsteps, visiting the landscapes of his travelogue and illustrating the poem.

The Yamagata Museum of Art has an excellent image of Buson’s very appealing illustrations – click here and zoom in to see
Bashō and Sora in action!

Now, on to tackle the tottering tbr pile and find out what other discoveries are round the corner.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Thin Line

Matsuo Bashō by fellow poet and painter Yosa Buson via wikimedia


The Narrow Road to Oku surprised me. I hadn’t expected to enjoy the travelogue as much as I did and one aspect that I found fascinating was the figure of Matsuo Bashō himself. Having read the story about his arduous trip to the north of Japan, told with such grace, I wanted to know more about this figure. Who was he, what prompted him to set out on such a journey and to write about it in the way that he did?

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Oku no Hosomichi

The Falls at Nikko (Urami-no Taki by Hiroshige, via www.hiroshige.org.uk. One of the early stops on en route for Bashō)
The months and days are the travellers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the read, and I too for years past have been stirred by sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming. (p.19)
(all quotations taken from Donald Keene’s wonderful translation The Narrow Road to Oku (Kodansha International, 1996)
Thus begins Matsuo Bashō famous travelogue Oku no Hosomichi, variously translated into English as The Narrow Road to Oku or (more alluringly) The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It seemed an appropriate place for me to start but Bashō’s beguiling prose and delicate haiku and soon ensured that this volume was picked up more for enjoyment than what it could reveal about the geography of Japan.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Next Page

If St. Augustine is right when declaring that “the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page” then I am hugely looking forward to reading what will be the next page for me. Exquisitely illustrated in pen and ink perhaps, or inscribed on wafer thin leaves of hand crafted paper, I am turning the page onto a wonderful trip to Japan later this year.
Tragic events have put Japan firmly in the spotlight this year and it has been difficult to think about planning a tourist trip amidst the turmoil and the suffering that has unfolded in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. But alongside those stories, I have been uncovering others in guidebooks and anthologies, poetry volumes, and collections of short stories. As a lifelong literature addict, books and writers are never far from my mind when thinking about any trip (or anything at all really). My speciality has always been English literature so it is with great excitement (so many new writers to discover!) and a large amount of trepidation (I know so little!) that I have put this blog together as a place to record some of my discoveries. I hope very much that you’ll stop by, say hello, and (if you are very kind) perhaps point me in the right direction.
I began my discoveries by falling under the spell of the great haiku poet and travel writer Matsuo Bashō...