Ensui was the poetry name of Basho's childhood friend and adult follower Soshira. He was the oldest son in a family that owned a sake shop in their home town of Iga; the name of the shop was "The God Within." In 1689 Soshira retired from the business and shaved his head to take the Buddhist name Isen. Basho calls him by any of the three names, however to reduce reader confusion, we always call him Ensui. Here is one of his haiku:
He was four years older than Basho, and I suspect that Ensui was in some way Basho‘s mentor. Basho‘s older brother Hanzaemon was only about 18 when their father died and he became head of the household, too busy to hang out with the 12-year-old later known as Basho. Ensui became sort of a ‘big brother’ at this time – maybe. Or maybe not. In any case Basho and Ensui must have had fun together in those days. I say this because in his letters to Ensui, Basho is so much fun, so quirky and himself. To know Basho, the warm affectionate Basho, travel through his Letters to Ensui.
Basho and his follower Tokoku left Iga on April 19, traveled south to Yoshino, west to Mount Koya, and north to Nara which is only 18 miles from Iga. Ensui and others from Iga walked to Nara to spend time with the travelers before they parted on May 10th to continue their journey west.
(Basho in Kyoto, Ensui in Iga)
Basho does something he will do again and again in letters to Ensui: he mentally links his activities with those of his old friend, transcending the barriers of space between them. Every step I take is one with every step you take, although we walk in different places and directions. We never really part: our spirits remain together.
Basho feels he can share Ensui’s experiences across the barriers of space because their separate hearts have bonded since childhood.
Basho’s letters to Ensui contain much poetry, and in this passage he uses certain elements we find often in his linked verse:
1) that special feeling of twilight, evening or morning
2) mention of personal relations (wife, children, servants),
3) welcoming the traveler home
4) physical sensory experience (entering clear hot water)
5) specific activities and body parts (massaging swollen shins).
Each of these five elements, as well as a similar spirit, appear in the final paragraph of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Sam has parted from Frodo, as Ensui has parted from Basho, and returns to his home.
Basho would have appreciated Tolkien's art.
While they were in Nara, Ensui and Somu went with Basho and Tokoku to attend the ceremony for a new hall at the world-famous temple Todaiji. Most people want something tangible for a souvenir, an object or a photograph to complement their memories, however for Basho memories are tangible.
In 1672 the father of a village woman, Ima, was sick. Told that if he ate unagi, eel, he would recover, Ima tried every means to get some, but none could be found in her tiny inland village. Late one night startled awake by the sound of water in a jug, she found eel flopping about. Her father ate these and got well. Ima was officially honored by the Shogun as a ‘filial daughter.’ She is now 64.
On the first day of the Fourth Moon (in 1688, April 30th) people store away their winter clothing, but Mangiku on the road when this day came, had to carry around a robe he never wore. He managed to sell it to someone and gave the money to the old woman. Ima did not DO anything to make the eel materialize in her jug, however something ‘hidden within’ her enabled her prayer to get through to the kamisama so they responded. Sixteen years later Basho and Mangiku could see that devotion still hidden within her.
Taima Temple is a large and famous temple , but Basho says that a woman can be more splendid
than any temple.
Taishi to the south of Osaka and Amagasaki to the west are 32 miles apart, both on the main island, Honshu, We see that in Basho’s time, as well as in ours, the Japanese used ferryboats to get around their island nation.
With his letter Basho included this note from “Mangiku” and also the cartoon DIAGRAM OF A SNORE (F-7)
Tokoku’s charming note well conveys the mountainous, well-watered terrain of Japan.
He seems obsessed with counting and recording things – which probably helped him in his business dealings. With his business gone, he goes on cataloguing everything -- until at the end he gives up.
Letter 39 to Ensui, early March, 1689
(two months before Basho left on his journey to the Deep North)
“Crazy Man” is a term of affection. We crossed the hanging bridge with Basho, Etsujin, and companions (in D-6 LAUGHING WITH BASHO). In the legend of Mount Obasute (“Throw-away Old Woman,” a man following village custom took his old mother to the mountain, but when he returned and saw the moon, he “could not be consoled” and went back to bring her home. Women pounding washed cloth on a block to soften, and shaking clappers, wooden blocks tied together, over rice fields to scare hungry sparrows, are an autumn chores of women. The farmers shout to scare off deer from raiding the crops before harvest. This passage from Basho’s letter is a fine example of how he blends sensation, memory, and affection in his personal writing.
Rice fields (ta) now at New Years, in early February, are barren expanse of mud and frost with row after row of rice stubble. The Sun (Goddess) is weak and cold, yet contains the promise of better things to come – and so Basho loves her. Nothing in this verse ties it to Basho’s place or time, nothing requires literary scholarship to understand; any person in the Northern Temperate zone can see and feel the same on a New Year’s Day.
Basho did in fact follow this itinerary, north to Iwate, west and south along the North Coast Road to Kanazawa, on to Fukui and Tsuruga, to end the journey in Gifu. From Gifu Basho traveled south to Nagoya and Iga to be with Ensui. “If life becomes not the dew drop” means “if I do not die.”
Apparently in Nara, Basho and Ensui spoke about the Buddha’s prohibition against the eating of animal flesh. According to the Mahayana tradition, the Buddha in his final scripture insisted that Buddhists refrain from eating ALL meat including fish:
Japan accepted Mahayana Buddhism, but not the prohibition against fish. In the 9th century the Emperor Saga forbade meat consumption except fish and birds, and through the centuries the Japanese (in general) followed this rule rather than the Buddha’s. Along with actual fish, the Japanese got more protein, vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids from octopuses, sea slugs, fish eggs, seaweed, and other slimy creatures that Western readers may not consider food -- though I have seen modern Japanese kids eat them with relish – and the same kids enjoy hamburgers. “Foam vanishing on the water” can be Basho’s future death, yet also the scene Basho saw last April in Gifu, the famous cormorant fishing on the Nagara River. The birds dive to catch fish, but an iron ring around the gullet stops the fish from going down and men steal it from the hungry bird’s mouth. (Talk about exploitation!). Basho wrote this haiku:
We imagine Basho growing up eating fish and sea creatures, often at celebrations. Certainly Basho and Ensui enjoyed these foods together as children and young men. What happened in Basho’s 45th year to cause him to renounce fish? First, in Nara, he and Ensui spoke about the Buddha’s prohibition of meat. Second, in Gifu, he saw life “vanish on the water.”
Throughout the ages countless Asians have been vegetarian because religion/family/society demanded. Mohandas Gandhi speaks of arriving in London after growing up Hindu to discover the writings of an English vegetarian: “From the date of reading this book, I may claim to have become a vegetarian by choice.” Basho, like Gandhi, makes a conscious choice to “cast away” fish from his diet, not only fish in fish form, but also (we assume) in the flavor of katsuo bushi, bonito flakes added to miso soup, and the flavor added to tsumami, snacks such as crackers. One of the most popular in Japan today is takoyaki, literally “fried octopus” but actually fried batter with bits of octopus for flavor. Most Japanese would not consider this “meat eating,” but Basho says “no” to fish flavor as well. So, vegans, Basho for the final five years of his life was one.
Ichinomiya is a shrine in Iga.
Basho says a vegan belly “rustles” gently like tea leaves in the spring breeze; Tanaka translates to sappari shita, “refreshing” which is certainly correct, however I prefer to allow you to get that from what Basho actually wrote.
The great city of Edo (now Tokyo) is famous for consumerism. Noin and Saigyo were famous traveling poets. By the time Basho will leave on this journey, the hazy moon and cherry blossoms of spring in Edo will be past, however in the Deep North he hopes to see these phenomena once more this year.
“Five coins” is about 100 yen or one dollar today. Would you buy a tanka from Basho for a buck? Is Is there no market for haiku? Maybe he could get a quarter for one, or five for a dollar.
Letter 109 to Ensui, June 6, 1691
Saga is famous for the House of Fallen Persimmons, the groves of towering bamboos, for the river bank and pleasure boats, and for Mount Arashi rising from the opposite bank. With his eyes on the summit of Mount Arashi across the river, Basho sends his spirit to the vastly greater mountain 400 miles away. All these sights are part of the modern tourist extravaganza which is Saga (15 minutes west from Kyoto Station on the JR Sagano line).
(replying to a letter from Ensui)
Because Basho and Ensui have known eachother for about forty years, they communicate deeply personal thoughts. The “government place” is Edo, the Shogun‘s capital, and where there is government there is bound to be wealthy, powerful, and obnoxious men. Basho rejects that testosterone charged scene in the Capital to return to Iga and flow down the stream of his hometown memories. The following nine-line word painting is the finest passage of stream-ofconsciousness I have found in Basho’s letters: the sequence resembles four stanzas of linked verse.
First he takes us through a gate in a fence covered with wireweed (the climber that locked the mountain hick‘s jaw shut (D-6 LAUGHING ALONG) on their way to an old favorite cherry tree in full bloom. Next he offers memories of the picnic – which Ensui certainly will recall since he was there that day too. Thus Basho links his mind with Ensui’s through memories they share.
Near the picnic spot, attached to an old dilapidated house, a thin yet strong rope of hemp fibers holds nothing. The thatch at the center of the roof congeals into a solid water-proof mass, but around the edges can collapse. Rich, famous, and self-important people never come to places like this, nor do they enjoy country-style vegetable dishes. Scallions are green onions with long stem and almost bulbless root. Horsetails, tsukushi, are a spring plant with a top that looks like a round brush. And yes, taste does leave strong memories.
The camera then moves to the humanity eating these foods in this rustic place: two old friends at the party, one struggling to think of a serious poem, the other having lots of fun. Kyoya is a merchant in Iga. Hattori
Doho, the leader of the Basho circle in Iga, is an Instructor in the martial art of the Spear (so you don’t want to mess with him), and the head of a family related to the master ninja Hattori Hanzo – but he too seems like a fun guy. Through a flow of images -- natural surroundings, specific details about the place, favorite foods, and old friends -- Basho encapsulates his and Ensui’s experience of their hometown.
One month before the New Year:
Miso is eaten in hot soup, so warms the body in winter; seasonal awareness is vital to both Basho haiku and letters. Ichibei and Kyoya are merchants in Iga. This yam paste with red miso, made by the women of Ichibei’s house, is eaten on top of rice, and is especially popular in Iga. Letter 136 to Ensui contains a sketch of Kyoya, at a picnic; this is the miso he produces and sells. Though gustatory memories they share from growing up together in Iga, Basho links his consciousness with that of Ensui.
In the Tale of Genji Murasaki Shikibu describes Genji’s infant daughter, the Akashi Princess:
A flower bud is a hard brown shell from which green life emerges at the tip, then grows to form a flower.
Thus Murasaki Shikibu combines the images of "tip of bud green" and the infant princess, for both will blossom into full life and beauty.
Beginning 1693, Basho received a New Years’ letter from his childhood and lifelong friend Ensui with a haiku telling of the birth of his first grandchild, a girl.
On New Year’s Day (by the Oriental calendar early February) the dark brown buds on plum tree branches show green at their tips; as the First Lunar Moon progresses, these will become gorgeous white plum blossoms with a sweet fragrance. Thus Ensui combines in his mind three images: the New Year and new spring emerging from winter, the green life of plum blossoms emerging from their buds, and his granddaughter emerging from the womb. The Akashi Princess grows up to become Empress; Ensui apparently has high hopes for his granddaughter.
Basho replied to Ensui on April 9 of that year, 1693:
The baby’s immaturity just shows that the best is yet to come. Basho experiences Ensui’s joy in his own chest. We cannot read this letter without feeling the warmth in Basho’s heart. He expresses so clearly.
We know your wife shall be thoroughly consoled…
Basho acknowledges that Ensui‘s wife did the work and suffered the hardship of raising the child who is now a parent, so now she will be consoled by seeing her granddaughter.
The Chinese Buddhist monk Fa-hsien was some traveller. Starting in 399 at age 65, he WALKED from central China across the desert, over the Himalayas, and through India where for ten years he collected Buddhist texts and icons, then carried them to China by ship (a wise choice). Once in India, Fa-hsien was sick and had a longing for hometown Chinese food. Basho also has an attachment to the foods of his birthplace, but not because he is a saint like Fa-hsien; rather he is “greedy by nature, I guess.”
Whitebait: herring-like fish, finger-length, slender, semi-transparent; early spring as they swim up river from the bay , caught in nets; eaten fried or in soup, but also alive and still “dancing.”
(This haiku is not in the letter, and was written years before.) The Dharma is the Law of Buddhism that all must die and pass away. The startlingly black eyes of the silvery fish open to the Truth as the net takes
them. Basho however is vegan, so no whitebait die for his protein.
Shijimi are small clams, the shell only an inch long, so the tiny hands of children are efficient at gathering them from the tidal flats. Shoko says they "taste good and smell good." Soybeans and tofu contain isoflavones, chemicals which “convey the benefits (bone density, heart protection, reducing hot flashes) to post-menopausal women without increasing the risk of breast cancer -- so might be a good choice for women around menopause – and probably contribute to the longevity of Japanese women. Men also benefit from the estrogen in tofu (unless one is allergic to it) which may explain Basho‘s (and my) devotion to it. You may note that, in each letter to Ensui, Basho at some point talks about food.
nine months before Basho’s death:
By the Japanese count, Basho is 51, entering his second half century. The sharp flavor in daikon pickles penetrates his teeth because they are old and need much dental work. Mochi itself has no flavor to arouse young people; they like it mixed with other flavors. Only old patient taste buds enjoy it for its subtle taste.
Last spring Ensui told Basho of the birth of his granddaughter who was “plum blossoms still emerging from the bud,” and Basho replied within the same metaphor. Now, a year later, he wishes that this year the
whole tree will become fragrant and colorful, as Ensui’sgranddaughter who can now stand by herself goes out into the world, with the same qualities. Again Basho transcends the distance between them, feeling Ensui’s love for his granddaughter in his own heart. He clearly, more clearly than any other male writer, affirms the worth of the infant female.
The following haiku is NOT in the letter to Ensui, though was written this spring, probably after Basho mailed the letter, but was still thinking about his childhood friend having a granddaughter.
February the coldest time of the year, early morning the coldest time of the day, the mountains colder and windier than anywhere else, yet wild plum blossoms are colorful and fragrant. Of course, this haiku is fine by itself, without referring to Ensui's granddaughter, however because last spring and again this spring Basho’s heart dwelled on Ensui’s granddaughter, and because the major symbol for the entire nation
is the Rising Sun, and in Japan the Sun is a Goddess, we can see Basho in this haiku going beyond
Murasaki Shikibu and beyond Ensui to encompass five images in a vast panorama:Spring emerging
from hard cold winter, plum blossom emerging from brown bud to become fragrant and colorful,
Ensui's granddaughter emerging from the womb to blossom as a girl, the sun peeking out
from the horizon, and the Sun Goddess emerging from the Rock Cave to shine on all of creation.
In Letter 217 to his older brother Basho further describes the symptoms he suffered from October 28th to November 7th. Such intermittent fevers, called ague, are usually malarial.
In the letter to Sampu on page 212, Basho said “In Nagoya, Iga and Zeze, the poets still rest their butts
in a comfortable place.” Doho and Ensui were included in this criticism. Here Basho tells his two old friends, “when I was in town, you still had not ‘gotten’ Lightness, but the verses you sent show me that now you have.” Basho’s great wish is for “Lightness” to appear on this Earth. We can try to fulfill his wish.
Eighteen days later Basho died.