Basho’s Journey

Basho's drawing while on the road.

I’m an unabashed Basho fan. As some of you may know, Basho (1644-1694) is the most famous of all Japanese poets. On this date in 1689, he set off on a 150 day journey around Honshu. His travels during this time were the basis for his travel dairy Oku no Hosomichi, or “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, considered one of the major works of Japanese literature.

You can read about the book and Basho’s journey here at Wikipedia.

Basho, a Zen Buddhist, journeyed often during his life. He approached both his poetry and his wayfaring (always dressed in Zen robes) as spiritual pursuits.

One of his best known haiku, and one of my favorites, reads:

Old pond,
frog jumps in
– splash!

D.T. Suzuki, another famous Zen Buddhist, said of the haiku:

This sound coming out of the old pond was heard by Basho as filling the whole universe. Not only was the totality of the environment absorbed in the sound and vanished into it, but Basho himself was altogether effaced from his consciousness.”

“The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is written in a form called haibum, a combination of prose and haiku which Basho was the first to develop. The link between the haiku and the prose section is not always clear. Often it is left up to the reader to discover. However, in this selection, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, the connection is rather obvious. Yamagata is a prefecture of Japan located in the Tohoku region on Honshu island.

from Oku no Hosomichi:


There was a temple called Ryushakuji in the province of Yamagata. Founded by the great priest Jikaku, this temple was known for the absolute tranquility of its holy compound. Since everybody advised me to see it, I changed my course at Obanazawa and went there, though it meant walking an extra seven miles or so. When I reached it, the late afternoon sun was still lingering over the scene. After arranging to stay with the priests at the foot of the mountain, I climbed to the temple situated near the summit. The whole mountain was made of massive rocks thrown together and covered with age-old pines and oaks. The stony ground itself bore the color of eternity, paved with velvety moss. The doors of the shrines built on the rocks were firmly barred and there was no sound to be heard. As I moved on all fours from rock to rock, bowing reverently at each shrine, I felt the purifying power of this holy environment pervading my whole being.

In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.


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