Prose passages from Basho's travel journal selected for their expression of humanity, overflowing with human life, activity, and speech expressed in a plethora of lively, active verbs, so Basho takes us along with him and his traveling companion Sora, through the heartlands of Japan, the rugged backward northern areas where people still live close to their cultural roots. Note that the actual journey occured from spring to autumn in 1689 - but Basho did not compose A Narrow Path in the Heartlands until 1694, five years later,
and added some fictional elements.
Haiku in the journal are usually not included, to concentrate our attention – mine and yours – on Basho’s prose. A great deal of prose also does not appear here; I have selected only passages which move me with their portraits of men, women, and children. To escape from the “Basho Image” – austere, detached, impersonal – that has formed around him, we focus on the wonder of his portraits of humanity. His descriptions of natural scenery, shrines, and temples are certainly wonderful, but here are not included. Here is only humanity.
Brower and Miner note a “sinuous forward pressure” in Japanese literary prose: the words press forward, like water always accumulating power to the final words and final image. Basho is the master of this. As usual in Basho4Humanity, prose is sectioned off into phrases each occupying a single line, making them prose poetry, enabling the images to stand out in our consciousness.
Basho’s preface to A Narrow Path in the Heartlands begins with words tsukihi wa hakudai no kuwakaku ni shite… every high schooler in Japan is forced to learn, along with other famous lines from the classics, to pass an exam (as Shoko recalls in the A-4 Preface) and most come out of the experience with a lifelong distaste for that old-fashioned “literary” stuff. As adults they probably can recall the first few words of the passage, but only as relics from their school education, having no relevance to anything of today. We can transcend their judgments.
Humanity enlivens every phrase: days and months are “guests” who visit us then go elsewhere, years too are “travelers,” the vivid active images of boat people "floating through life" and horse guides "leading the mouth of horses," then the poets and sages long ago who died while traveling (as Basho will do five years after his journey).
Arranging phrases vertically, in poetic form, as in a supermarket shopping list, allows the brain to process them holistically. Throughout Basho prose and poetry, the key words are the verbs expressing life and human activity: "enticed... vagabonding... went off to wander... cleared away."
More and more active lively verbs: "seized with a madness... cross...beckoned." Basho follows “my hands could hardly hold on to things” with a list of three skilled tasks he performed with his hands: "mended breeches...changed cords...burned moxa." When we notice the incongruity, the passage becomes humorous.
Matsushima is 200 miles north of Edo where Basho is, but where he will be in six months. The moon there already “over my heart” is a typical Basho expression of the spirit transcending barriers of space and time.
The wealthy merchant Sampu has through the years provided both the money Basho needed to live and the spiritual sustenance that kept him going. (See Sampu: Patron and Close Friend) He allowed Basho to spend the first night of his trip in style; since Sampu is wealthy, his tea cottage mst be a masterpiece of design and carpentry, a remarkable place for Basho to sleep the first night of his journey. The whole passage builds up to its final expression of gratitude to Sampu, making Sampu’s name live through the centuries. Basho says in his Will:
Friends of Basho and Sora gathered at Sampu's house and rode with them up the Sumida River to Senju (in Adachi-ku), starting point of the Nikko Road to the North. "3000 leagues" (more than 7000 miles) is an idiom for a vast distance; the actual distance was less than one-quarter that, but still very far walking and occassionally riding a horse.
Sora studied Shinto so can speak of these matters, although probably Basho made up this speech. This shrine in Tochigi has absolutely no connection to Tree Blossom Princess, the goddess of Mount Fuji, who.
married Ninigi, the grandson of the Sun Goddess. When she become pregnant after only one night with him, he accused her of doing it with someone else.
Since she was telling the truth, she did not die from burning, but instead from her caldron (i.e. womb) she gave birth to three baby gods. Nice story, but this is NOT why this place is called "Caldron of Eight Islands." Basho is having some fun with us us, while he brings our attention to one of his favored themes: the faithfulness of women and goddesses. (See Women with Goddess.) In the 20th century, this shrine in Tochigi built itself a pond with eight islands, so the hordes of tourists would have something to see and take pictures of; everyone assumes the islands have some connection with Basho, although they have none at all.
Most of us, as we grow up, begin to deceive people with a façade. This innkeeper is one who does not. He simply is himself, never realizing that to compare himself to the Buddha, even if he is only repeating what others say about him, is socially unacceptable and makes him look foolish. Because he actually is as honest as he says, he gets away with it.
Basho identifies a genetic quality in this innkeeper, a quality of honesty and goodness that is inherited, that quality Confucius saw in his idealizaton of a superior man or "gentleman."
From the inn, Basho and Sora go to visit the Toshogu Shrine at Nikko which enshrines the spirit of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who from 1603 established the national peace and social harmony in which common people can afford to be honest and kind. Western scholars tell us the Tokugawas were cruel and capricious dictators, but Basho, who actually lived in these times, says different. Basho the Anthropologist.
The four classes of citizens are samurai, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants. Since a man's career is decided by his birth, he spends no time searching for a career or struggling to decide what to do,
so there is "reassurance and calm."
This “husband of the fields” seems content with his life. When two strangers come wandering through his fields, he stops working to chat with them, and is even willing to loan them his horse with no guarantee that it will be returned. The kindness and consideration Basho puts into his speech is an expression of the "honorable light shining everywhere under heaven" thanks to Tokugawa Ieyasu.
We see this is a Time of Peace; small children are not afraid of strangers – and also, Dad was doing childcare while farming. Kasane is fortunate to have a father like this. Basho's feeling for this little girl remains with him, and a year later, when someone asks him to name their newborn daughter, he named her Kasane. To see the consciousness that sprouted in Basho's mind from the name Kasane - which means in space "to pile up in layers" and in time "to reoccur again and again" - see C-14 Blessings Unto Kasane.
The kindness of father together with the openness of daughter combine to form an image of peaceful village life - and we note how unusual this is, for many Western books say village life at this time was “constant humiliation and back-breaking toil…” Historian Susan Hanley and Agricultural history expert Sato Tsuneo and the other authors in Tokugawa Japan paint a much happier picture: villagers cooperating for the prosperity of all, peasants in Japan at least as well off as peasants anywhere in the world at this time.
When Basho moved into a hut in Furukawa (now Koto-ku, Tokyo) in the winter of 1680, the Zen priest Butcho was staying a few minutes walk away. Basho apparently went to Butcho's place to meditate and study with the priest, although there is no evidence that Basho committed himself to Zen Buddhism now or at any time in his life. (See E-5 FRIENDS IN ZEN). Butcho returned to his home in Chiba in the summer of 1682, but Basho held onto respect for the Priest; in 1689, on the journey to the Deep North, he went to visit the ruins of a hermitage where Butcho stayed and meditated years before:
Basho portrays human interaction, being with young people so vigorous and high-spirited that he forgets where he is. Later on in this passage, Basho talks about ancient Chinese Zen monks, but I instead highlight his captivation with these ordinary young people so alive and energetic he forgets where he is.
Since ancient times, tanka have been written on rectangular cards. For the shorter haiku, slender vertical cards have come into use. The man’s request shows an awareness of developments in contemporary poetry and of Basho’s role in them, an awareness Basho is pleased to find out here in the boondocks. Nakane Chie notes that, “in China and Korea scholarship was a prerequisite of the upper-class group” but in Tokugawa Japan “the people were stimulated to develop a vigorous popular culture.” So Basho is showing us that in his time literacy and even knowledge of poetry reached the peasants.
Lady Tamamo was a courtesan of a 12th century Emperor:
“Her body mysteriously always smelled wonderful, and her clothes never became wrinkled or dirty. Tamamo was not only beautiful, but also infinitely knowledgeable in all subjects. Although she appeared to be only 20 years old, there was no question she could not answer. Because of her beauty and intelligence everyone at court adored her and the Emperor fell desperately in love with her.”
But then the Emperor became ill. An astrologer discovered Tamamo was actually a witch-fox in human disguise who had seduced the Emperor in a devious plot to take the throne. Suddenly she disappeared from court. Warriors tracked and killed the fox who turned into an enormous stone that killed anything that touched it – until a hundred years later a Chinese priest exorcised Tamamo’s evil spirit.
Does this story sound ‘for real’? Probably not. That’s the point. When we hear an old story about a woman found to be a witch, we can be pretty sure the story has gone through many tellers – invariably men – who have embellished it for their own purposes. A “witch” usually turns out to be an intelligent woman who wanted to decide her own life, which so irritated the local men that they declared her a witch and killed her. History tells the story from the men’s point of view. It sounds like someone very powerful got very envious of Tamamo. Who was the real woman behind this legend? Can we ever know her story as she would have told it?
The lies and half-truths glued together by malice and sexism have died and piled up till the true color of a woman cannot be seen.
Women and girls centuries ago in a village in Fukushima produced the famous mottled Shinobu-zuri pattern by rubbing dye on two-layer silk on a certain rock with an intricate checkered surface. Basho and Sora came here to search for the stone.
Basho and Sora came here hoping maybe to see some ‘traces’ of the ancient cloth dyeing -- but all they could find was some old rock half-buried in the ground. Their young informants explained, in their rustic northern dialect, in that breathless way children tell stories, that hordes of sightseers tore up the surrounding barley fields to rub on the rock and see if they could get some color (huh?) that the farmers, annoyed with the damage to their fields, eliminated the tourist attraction altogether.
Basho uses dialogue to convey the character of people: the words of the farmer who loaned them his horse reveal the kindness and consideration of this village man; the words of the man pulling their horse show his knowledge of poetry. These children at Shinobu managed to tell a complicated story so this strange old guy from who knows where could understand. Basho is showing us that children in these days, even out in the boonies, were bright and lively and communicated well. He always sees the positive in humanity.
The two Sato brothers died defending the great hero Yoshitsune from his enemies.
Basho pays attention not to the male warriors, but rather to their wives:
Basho says these women were kaigaishii, a word usually used for men, meaning 'gallant, heroic, brave, hard-working' - but instead of writing it in the four Chinese characters for this word, he writes in hiragana, which makes the reader have to pause to think about the meaning. History and literature remember the men while women (aside from romance) are forgotten, however Basho honors these two widows for going on through the lonely years doing the best they could for their children and household. Only Basho would consider this as being as gallant and heroic as were their husbands who died in ferocious battles.
Where else in world literature does any male author honor women this way?
Penelope in the Odyssey resists the suitors for years until her husband finally came home to wipe them out.
Emilia in Othello stands up against Iago to tell the truth in her magnificant display of moral courage. These are the women we should listen to and study. Basho tells of the Lady Gio who fought against the dictator Kiyomori in the renku STORM OVER NINOMIYA in L-17 WOMEN IN BUDDHISM. In B-13 EMPOWERING WOMEN are six more verses of women being heroically brave.
Later on, Basho and Sora find a stone marker for an ancient castle now in ruins:
Haruo Shirane says of this passage:
Parallel syntax is combined with contrastive or corresponding words -
mountain and river, rocks and trees, old age and youth, travel and life,
to generate a folksong type of rhythm and a Chinese poetic pattern.
Basho accurately describes his way of thinking based on traditional Japanese thought, always focusing on connections to the past, which produced so many poems until now, 1689. After this journey ends, however, Basho begins to reject this past-oriented thinking, to instead focus on NOW with his new poetic ideal, Lightness, a rejection of the old and heavy.
Basho describes the beauty of Matsushima Bay, considered one of the three most beautiful scenes in Japan, with a parade of lively active verbs
Basho sees the earth as female
The earth, like a woman, adorns herself with green make-up.
The hero Yoshitsune, his wife and infant daughter, and sixteen retainers, died on a hilltop in Hiraizumi (Iwate-ken) 500 years before Basho came here
This haiku is discussed in Dreams of War / Light of Peace. This prose passage and the very famous haiku are the high point of Basho's journal. Basho constructs his prose so many of the incidents up to here correspond to incidents that follow. The incidents shortly before Hiraizumi correspond to those shortly; the ones long after correspond to those long before. They correspond both through similarity and trough contrast -- often like the link between two renku stanzas. By exploring these similarities and contrasts, we learn how Basho's mind functions.
This young hunk in his youthful vigor practically strides from the page with his “superb” body, sword, and staff. His young right-now-living power contrasts with the only-a-dream power of the heroes who died on the hilltop centuries ago.
What a nice young man! strong, helpful, polite to old people. He could use his strength to bully, but instead he uses it to help people, and this makes him happy. He too is a product of the Pax Tokugawa.
For the Cove of Kisa drenched by rain so common on this gloomy coast facing Siberia, Basho envisions the tragic beauty of Lady Seishi, one of the Four Great Beauties of Ancient China, born in 506 BCE - 22 centuries before Basho - said to be most beautiful when frowning, and the men in her life gave her plenty to frown about.
The melancholy sadness of the Cove of Kisa and the Lady Seishi contrasts with the sunshine and sparkle of Matsushima and the woman who adorns herself.
According to the journal, at the provincial barrier gate at Ichiburi, west of Niigata City:
Contrary to male scholars' assumptions, these women are not traveling prostitutes in elegant kimono; they are indentured to a brothel in Niigata, but do not take this occupation on a pilgrimage. Only as pilgrims, in pilgrim’s robes, without much luggage, would they be allowed to pass the provincial barrier gates.
The man came as far as this barrier
The play-women’s lament expresses the misery of all women enslaved to the sex trade: the degrading pretense of sex without vow of fidelity. The speaker claims no understanding of karma—since no human can actually know what is destiny and what is the result of personal choice or the actions of others—but she wonders—as every woman trapped in sexual slavery must wonder — how could her life which began with her family could have turned out this way? For more on the lives of "play-women," see W-20 Brothel Slavery.
Sora wrote a completely factual diary of this journey, and although he mentions them being at Ichiburi, he says nothing about any play-women. Some scholars take this as evidence that Basho made up this story to add to his journey - however it is also possibie that he heard their voices through the wall while Sora was already asleep, but the account of meeting them in the morning is fictional.
Whether Basho actually encountered these play-women, or invented his account, he focuses on their inner strength to endure hardship and misery; thus they contrast with the two widows of the Sato brothers who Basho praised for their "sturdy diligence." Each woman in both pairs has a source of strength no single woman has: solidarity.
At a place where Basho and Sora can either stay on the main road to Kanazawa or take a side trip to see a place famous in an old poem, a local advises them:
This incident is in contrast to the squalid huts where they did stay at an hot spring.
Basho uses sound sensations to convey the feeling of a Zen temple in the early morning - however note that he remained in bed (on a futon) to hear the monks chanting through the walls; he did not get up to attend the service - so we see his lack of commitment to Zen self-discipline.
As Basho steps down the temple stairs to the ground, the young monks “pursue” him (another active lively verb) eager to get a poem from Basho poem (in our time, it would be a selfie). He focuses on the vigor and enthusiasm of these young, bald headed men. They are in contrast to the young joyful folks who accompanied Basho to the traces of a Zen priest's hermitage in Tochigi.
Many times in renku, Basho leaps from a scene of nature to an image of a person;
this is what he does here:
"That tale long ago" is, of course, the Tale of Genji, which contains so many women that it ought to be called The Tale of Genji's Women. This old woman near the end of Basho's journal, so full of kindness and consideration, corresponds to the lovely little girl Kasane near the beginning.
Tosai correspoonds to Kasane's father. Each man breaks up the stereotype for men in the era.
Kasane's father by being kind and thoughtful; Tosai by tucking his kimono up in unusual way.
Tenya operates a tour boat business, so here he provides his usual service to Basho for free.
He is the contrast to the innkeeper Gozaemon.
Basho pours on the humanity, filling the cup to the brim with humanity, and this passage at the end of the journal correspons to the "beloved friends" who rode with Basho and Sora on the boat to Senju at the beginning.
With only four words in Japanese, Basho conveys his ideal for humanity
And Basho applies these words to Sampu who allowed Basho to sleep the first night of this journey in his tea cottage. We recall all the various joyful and caring people Basho met on this journey: Sora, the innkeeper Gozaemon, the farmer and his daughter at Kurobane, the horse guide, the young folks on the road to Uganji, the children at Shinobu, the young hunk who guided them through the mountains of Dewa, the villager who advised them to stay on the road to Kanazawa, the wife of Tosai and Tosui himself, Tenya, and finally Rotsu, Sora, Etsujin, and the rest. So we say Basho is the poet of joyful, caring humanity.