The moon and sun are eternal travelers.
Even the years wander on.
A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a
tired horse into the years,
every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.
From the earliest times there have always been
some who perished along the road.
Still I have always been drawn by windblown clouds
into dreams of a lifetime of wandering.
Basho, more than 300 years ago in the first entry of his masterpiece, Oku no
Hosomichi, or Narrow Road to the North.
Picture and Poem by Matsuo Basho: Quietly, quietly,/ yellow mountain roses fall –
/sound of the rapids. (Makoto Ueda)
The temple bell stops.
But the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.
Hiroshige. One Hundred Famous Views of Edo #040. "Basho's
Hermitage and Camelia Hill on the Kanda Aqueduct at Sekiguchi"
From Michael Yamashita's photos
featured in National Geographic's
photo gallery "Basho's Trail."
along this road
going with no one
“The road gods beckoned.” Thus the poet Matsuo Basho set off in 1689 into Japan’s backcountry. His journal, Narrow
Road to a Far Province, described a path, still visible on Natagiri Pass, that devotees have followed ever since.
sea and sprouting rice fields
Basho celebrated the gauzy green of newly planted rice fields in spring in a haiku—a short, chant-like poem with nature at
its heart. “One whole paddy field / Was planted ere I moved on / From that willow tree!”
if I took it in hand,
it would melt in my hot tears-
heavy autumn frost
A watery moon rises above Nanko lake, reminiscent of the moon views that Basho extolled. Comparing himself to a
windblown cloud, he wandered for five months, from spring through fall, exulting in almost every view.
All along this road
not a single soul-
only autumn evening
Though a celebrated poet, Basho yearned for a simple life. On the trail he dressed as a Buddhist monk, perhaps wearing
straw-and-cotton sandals like ones still used at a Zen retreat.
The splash of a frog, a cricket chirping from beneath an empty samurai helmet, “the cool fragrance of snow”: Such closely
observed moments in nature, often marrying unlikely elements, distinguish Basho’s poetry.
let that be my name-
the first winter rain.
Shroud-like veils of falling water on the Abukuma River evoke the ghostly presence of past poets whose words kept Basho
company on the rugged trail. Hoping to “feel the truth of old poems,” Basho plotted his route to pass sites known as uta-
makura, or poetic pillows: shrines, mountaintops, cherry-tree groves, and other spots memorably described by other
writers. Many of the haiku in his book allude to these earlier verses—Basho’s way of adding layers of mood and meaning to
the landscape he evoked.
Won't you come and see
loneliness? Just one leaf
from the kiri tree.
A meditative observer, Basho paid heed to nature’s modest dramas, like a leaf floating through reflections in a mountain
stream. Sights like this reminded the poet that life is fleeting. At a fort fallen into ruins, he wept as he wrote, “A mound of
summer grass / Are warriors’ heroic deeds / Only dreams that pass?” His closing haiku hints at Basho’s sense that his own
days were waning. He died in 1694, not long after finishing his book. Three centuries later, Basho’s words still touch a chord
with travelers sensitive to language and landscape.
breaking waves smell of rice wine
Basho’s route led across the Mogami River. When he crossed in July 1689, the river was swollen with rainwater and running
dangerously fast. After his “perilous” voyage in a borrowed rice cargo boat, Basho wrote: “Gathering as it goes / All the
rains of June, how swiftly / The Mogami flows!”
Fishes' eyes are filled with tears
Silhouetted against the surface of the Mogami, a fisherman carries a long bamboo rod, the same kind that was used in
Basho’s day. After viewing the river’s mouth at sunset on a sweltering day, he wrote: “The river Mogami / Has drowned
the hot, summer sun / And sunk it in the sea!”
in a field of sunlight
that is all
In his travel diary, Narrow Road to a Far Province, Basho found lyric use for the iris and its brilliant hue. Presented with a
gift of straw sandals with blue laces, Basho was moved to write: “Sandal thongs of blue: / We’ll seem shod with irises /
Of the bravest hue!”
In 1680 one of his students built the poet a small house near the River
Sumida, and soon after, when another presented him with a stock of
basho tree (a species of banana), the poet started writing under the
name that has endured: Basho. Credible accounts of his life hold that
during this period he was plagued with spiritual doubt and took up the
study of Zen Buddhism. His despair only deepened in 1682, when his
house burned to the ground in a fire that obliterated much of Edo. He
Tired of cherry,
Tired of this whole world,
I sit facing muddy sake
And black rice.
banana plant in autumn storm
rain drips into tub
hearing the night
The poet’s samurai name was Matsuo Munefusa, but we know him by the name he adopted in middle age. That name,
Basho, is Japanese for a kind of banana plant with a sturdy stalk and fragile, easily torn fronds—features with which the
poet identified. The banana plant that grew outside his simple house in Edo, the former name of Tokyo, figures in one of
his contemplative haiku: “A banana plant in the autumn gale— / I listen to the dripping of rain / Into a basin at night.”
How wild the sea is,
and over Sado Island,
the River of Heaven
Pine, rock, and sea form an elemental vista along the Sea of Japan, where Basho endured the most difficult stretch of his
1689 journey. Beset by heat and rain, he struggled for nine days on the coastal path. “It was every man for himself,” he
wrote, “as the names of the worst spots implied: ‘Oblivious of Parent, Oblivious of Child,’ ‘Dogs Turn Back,’ and ‘Send
Back Your Horse.’”
A setting sun seen through fringe of pampas grass heralds the night, a time when Basho enjoyed socializing. He often
lodged in the houses of friends, students, or admirers, joining them in composing haikai—linked verse. He also stayed at
shrines, where the discipline of the monks deeply impressed him. And at least once, according to his diary, he slept
outdoors, witnessing the sunrise on the snowy heights of mount Gassan.
The bee emerging
from deep within the peony