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.
In 1689 Matsuo Bashō (then aged about 40) set out on ambitious and gruelling trip. Travelling on foot, he set out from Edo (now Tokyo) and travelled north along the Pacific coast to Hiraizumi, before turning inwards and travelling south along the coast of the Sea of Japan and on to Lake Biwa, finishing at Ōgaki. It was a journey that lasted just over 150 days and covered a total of nearly 2,500 km. Bashō’s journey took him through some celebrated landscapes, to temples and hot springs, mountains and places celebrated by poets. Travelling with his poet companion Sora, Bashō takes us, the reader, on a journey both into the north of the country and into the past.
Bashō’s descriptions of the landscapes he travels through are written with a striking restraint and precision:
Mountains stretched out as far as one could see. Along a valley path that led into the distance, moss dripped from the darkly clustering pines and cedars. The sky, though it was summer, was still cold. When we had passed the last of the Ten Famous Views, we crossed a bridge and entered the temple gate. (p.39)
The viewer moves out of the frame to allow the landscapes, sometimes dramatic (mountains and waterfalls), sometimes apparently mundane (horses feeding in the fields outside a small town) simply to speak for themselves. Seemingly content to present rather than describe what he sees, the writer places the view unobtrusively before the reader without striving for effect. Apparently as flat and pared down as a woodblock print, the scenes are nevertheless imbued with a distinctive, plangent atmosphere:
The sky had cleared a little after a steady rain. Under the faintly shining evening moon the island of Magaki across the water seemed close enough to touch. Little fishing boats were being rowed towards the shore, and I could hear the voices of the fishermen as they divided up the catch. (p.75)
However it is as a poet that Bashō is best known and the travelogue is studded with Bashō’s luminous verse. In this form, the haibun, prose and poetry work together caught in a perpetual dialogue. This contrapuntal technique works superbly; the journey is presented not as a report of travel but as an attempt to capture, albeit briefly, more oblique and opaque thoughts, often meditations on nature or on man’s place within it. The ascent of Moon Mountain is described factually but accompanied by this haiku:
The peaks of clouds
Have crumbled into fragments -
The moonlit mountain!
A view across the Sea of Japan becomes:
Turbulent the sea -
Across to Sado stretches
The Milky Way.
Engaged in unravelling the compressed imagery of the haiku, the reader is drawn into the experience itself, occupying the same space as the poet on top of the mountain, or looking out across the darkening sea.
This technique takes us away from what we might recognise as a travelogue and into altogether different territory. As Makoto Ueda has argued (in his Matsuo Bashō, Kodansha International, 1970), there is a strong spiritual element to Bashō’s travels as they become a journey both away from and into the self. However, what struck me as more intriguing (and immediately recognisable) was the clear sense of the journey as a literary pilgrimage. What remains in the reader’s mind is not so much the image of the landscape or of the places that the traveller has visited, but the sense of having tapped into and perpetuated a poetic tradition. On his journey, Matsuo Bashō repeatedly seeks out uta-makura (places which have appeared in poetry). Landscapes and places are continually filtered through the lens of literature. Crossing the barrier at Shirakawa, Bashō sees, not just the scene before him, but also the scenes placed in his mind by poets:
I felt I could hear the autumn winds and see the crimson leaves mentioned in their poems, and this gave even greater beauty to the green leaves on the boughs before me. (p.47)
Whether it is visiting the hut where Butchō wrote his verse or the cherry tree at Kisakata, commemorated by the poet Saigyō, the traveller is drawn to places already known through verse.
With this pilgrimage comes the awareness of a poetic tradition that endures more than any man-made structures Bashō visits or even the natural world that he travels through:
Many are the names that have been preserved for us in poetry from ancient times, but mountains crumble and rivers disappear, new roads replace the old, stones are buried and vanish in the earth, trees grow old and give way to saplings. (p.75)
This relatively common poetic motif of mourning the past whilst renewing it afresh through writing is, in this account, physically enacted in the form of the traveller poet who revisits and perpetuates that which is apparently lost. Throughout the work, we get brief (and rather endearing) glimpses of Bashō and his poet companion Sora, hats on, sandals strapped to their feet, simultaneously travelling and composing verse. If one of the themes of the travelogue is the evanescence of the world and doubts about man’s place in it, then the figure of the poet writing his way through the landscape provides a strong countercurrent to this. This piece of writing itself ensures that the past is mourned, celebrated and, through the reader, lives anew.