Here we learn of one of the greatest friendships ever recorded in world literature. Each item appears chronologically, so we travel with Basho and Sora through their time.
Sora was born in Nagano. When he was young his parents died, so his grandmother took him in. When she died, Sora went to live with his uncle, a priest at a temple in the Nagashima district of Ise. As a young samurai, he served as an official in the Ise government. When he was 32 he retired from his samurai status to go to Edo, and study Shinto. He joined the Basho circle in 1683 and lived near Basho’s place so he could cook and do housework for his teacher.
A man named Sora has settled into temporary residence near here
Each of eight active verbs contributes vitality to this sentence. Notice the three verbs used to describe Sora’s action: he “breaks off (oru) brushwood”, throws it in” (kuburu) to ‘help’ me (tasukeru). These three lively specific verbs combine for a subtle yet delightful comic effect – which is lost when translators combine the three into a single verb, "he feeds the fire". When Basho says “boil tea” (cha o niru) the verb gives a specific action; we do not reduce this to the vague "make tea." Then comes the kicker: Basho’s image of Sora “pounding on the ice” (kori o tataku) conveys the sound and force of Sora “pounding” the ice in the jar to eventually get out some water; the use of the verb tataku, “to pound on” here is unusual, so makes the phrase humorous. When Jane Reichhold translates “he breaks up the ice,” she makes the expression normal and sensible, no longer amusing – thus she is feels justified in claiming Basho had a “serious, plodding nature.”Translators eliminate the words which call up pictures, taking out the humor and personal feeling in the original, then say Basho is humorless and impersonal. When we leave in the warm funny parts, an intimate personal style and buoyant sense of humor is characteristic of Basho.
The prose ends with another one of Basho’s curve balls: he says “Sora comes over to visit the snow” (yuki o towarete) so ‘snow’ is the object of ‘to visit’. This is not a mistake. Basho knows the proper Japanese for ‘to visit me in the snow,’ but he gives us this whim to play with.
Not just a snowball, this is a ball rolled on the snowy ground to get bigger and bigger. What fun! Basho through the verse, speaks to Sora with simple, child-like words that convey his affection for his friend. Basho expresses the nature of deep personal friendship in a way that a child can understand.
Developmental psychologists asked the mothers of infants to play with toys with their babies as they normally would.A typical American mother’s patter might go like this: “There’s a car. See the car? You like it? It’s got nice wheels.”The child learns that the world is objects to like or dislike.
A Japanese mother might say: “Here! It’s a vroom vroom. I give to you (doing so). You give to me (encouraging the child to). Thank you.” The child learns that the world is personal relationships. The haiku YOU LIGHT A FIRE sounds like what the Japanese mother says: you do for me, I do for you, thank you.
In 1686 Sora begins this renku stanza pair and Basho follows:
The emperor has ordered troops to subjugate the rebels; they gather, and when morning comes, leave camp with strict, solemn military precision. Meanwhile, the commander of the rebels (Han Solo) has spent the night in a brothel, and when morning comes makes a hasty departure so he can prepare his army. Before he leaves, since he is not likely to need cash ever again, he gives all he has to his partner in “one night’s vow.” Here we have a play-woman who got lucky. Now she can purchase her freedom, return to her home village, a hero because she saved her family from ruin, marry that boy she loves, and have children. Taking off from Sora’s masculine military stanza, Basho creates a blessing for the female.
Though the woman is not mentioned in any word, if we search between the stanzas, we discover her, one who has endured year after year of degradation in solemn dignity, and from her years of misery we leap to the wonder of her sudden good fortune. After her one night with him, we feel her joy as she realizes what he has given her, and her grief as she realizes why he is giving away all his cash. Only Basho can take us so simply so deeply into the human heart.
Sora accompanied Basho on his 1686 journey to Kashima, then on his famous journey to the Deep North in 1689. They visited the “Caldron of Eight Islands” in Tochigi.
Tree Blossom Princess became pregnant after one night with her husband, so he accused her of sleeping around. Incensed at his distrust, she declared that if she had broken her marriage pledge, the flames would consume her and baby—but instead she gave birth to three healthy baby-gods. Because Tree Blossom Princess endured this ordeal without harm, she became Deity of Easy Childbirth. So the “caldron” is a womb (room).
Sora studied Shinto so is qualified to teach Basho, however apparently Basho made up this tale. Sora says nothing about this in his factual diary of the journey. There is no shrine at this place in Tochigi, and the place has absolutely no connection with Tree Blossom Princess who is the Goddess of Mount Fuji. It appears that Basho wanted to tell a story about a Goddess and vows, and invented this nonsense, attributing it to Sora as a gag.
On the journey to the Deep North, at a place called Sukagawa (Fukushima-ken) , Basho and Sora composed a 36-stanza renku sequence with two local poets. Following are four stanza-pairs from this sequence.
In each case, Sora writes the first stanza, and Basho follows. Sora sets up the shot, and Basho kicks in the goal.
All the village men work together without charge to repair the thatch on each village roof before snow comes; they compete with each other to show how hard they can work, yet all for the common good. A troupe of missionaries chanting the nembutsu prayer for salvation, accompanied by drums and gongs, dances along the street in front of the house whose roof is being thatched. Women from the house come out to the road to give the dancers cups of tea. Following the stanza before, we see that Basho is praising the women for their hospitality which is a form of altruism. Patriarchal society considers them “lowly women,” but this quality places them higher in Basho’s esteem.
Cicadas fill the trees in the heat of summer, the males endlessly from morning to evening emitting ear-splitting cries. Even a cicada must dream of love, and maybe that all-day-long barrage of sound carries the love-vibrations of male cicadas -- but countless tiny twigs of the catalpa tree interfere with transmission to females. Sure.
Sora depicts the hard life of a man in winter. Basho makes him a warrior from spring to autumn but he must survive winter. In this village all the men wait for spring when, like snow melting from the mountains to flood the valleys, they can march to war. All that male energy is frozen and contained in Basho’s stanza, waiting to flow freely in the vast waste of humanity called war.
In The Tale of Genji, a young woman Kiritusbo, “summoned” by the Emperor becomes his favorite and bears him a son. Other court ladies, led by his senior consort, spread rumors about her; being women themselves, they know exactly how to shame a young woman, and eventually Kiritsubo sickens and dies. Basho, however, aims for life, not death. Lying in bed beside him, carefully maneuvering her arm under his neck without waking him, such is her delicacy, her devotion to touching him with sensitivity and love.
From Fukushima, Basho and Sora continued north to the hill in Hiraizumi (Iwate-ken) where, exactly 500 years before, Japan’s great hero, Yoshitsune, his wife and infant daughter, and 16 loyal retainers fought against an army, and Yoshitsune committed ritual suicide before the enemy could get to him. Here Basho wrote his ultimate haiku on this theme, and Sora capped Basho’s verse with a complimentary verse – although Shirane Haruo believes that Basho actually wrote both poems, but attributed the second one to Sora:
The two poems illustrate two approaches to poetry. Basho’s is abstract; Sora’s is specific. “Summer grasses” are an undefined area of various grasses of unspecified types and heights; “Mayflowers,” u no hana, deutzia, are a particular flower that forms in May in five-petal clusters, each the same as all the others, on a shrub typically the height of an adult. The “great warriors” are known to history, but within Basho’s poem are unnumbered and unnamed. Kanefusa, on the other hand, was a distinct individual: one of Yoshistune retainers, 62 years old at this time, he helped Yoshitsune’s wife and daughter commit suicide and set fire to the fort so the enemy could not capture the hero’s corpse. “Traces of dreams” are ephemeral and have no visual component, whereas Sora focuses on a “vision” of the whiteness of flowers and hair. Shirane says “the white flowers appear in the midst of a field of summer grass, from which the figure of Kanefusa rises like a ghost, his white hair waving in the air.” Opposites complement each other.
In his Travel Diary, for August 1, Sora writes:
Udon, wheat noodles in broth, is still popular for lunch.
Here at Kisagata, Sora wrote
Ospreys, or fish hawks, form a ‘pair-bond’ so a couple stays together till one dies. They usually build their nest in trees, but this rock among the waves stands high enough that the birds feel it safe for their nest, and in that safe place they vow their commitment to each other and to their young.
And here is Sora’s diary entry for August 26th:
That’s interesting, Sora. While the clothes were drying did Basho wear other clothes?
Or just gambol about in his loincloth? In both entries, Tom and Huck dry out clothing.
Men doing laundry.
Basho and Sora continued on west to Kanazawa, but then Sora took sick.
Before Sora left, he and Basho and a local poet Hokushi composed a sequence of linked verse containing the next two pairs by Sora and Basho:
Sora originally wrote “four or five stage performers” who could be male or female. Basho, by his authority as Master, changed to “play-women.” Most play-women in this era were “indentured” (i.e. enslaved) to a brothel or independent pimp. Sone Hiromi tells us "instances of individual prostitution in which a woman made a living without an employer or anyone watching over (or living off) her were extremely rare.” But, rather than individual prostitution, Basho offers us a collective of five women, together strong enough to handle any customer who refuses to pay or abuses one of them. Sora’s stanza revised by Basho is an Ode to Female Solidarity.
In her room at an inn, one of the traveling play-woman notices on the wall some scribbles of wavy Japanese writing, and recognizes a female name, though the writing is male. Because, instead of being a slave in a brothel, she travels about in solidarity with her sisters, she has the leisure to study human sexual affection, and has become wise in its ways. She can see in the brush strokes this unknown man wrote for her name the love he feels for his darling. She smiles at this charming evidence of adoration in a man she has never and will never meet – as she whispers Basho’s stanza across the barriers of space and time to the writer of the scribbles. In the long pause in the middle segment, we explore the nature of human love.
Sora sees a man cut a fine stalk of bamboo to make a hunting bow, and wipe off the morning dew. Basho switches to his child who weeps because father is going to kill an innocent animal -- but can speak no word of this to his domineering parent.
in his journal Basho gives the poem Sora wrote on their parting:
Before leaving Edo on this journey, the two wrote beneath their hats, “We two with no home on earth or in heaven go together”
The next night I stay as a pilgrim in the temple Zenshoji… still in Kaga province . . . Sora stayed here last night. He left this verse for me.
Basho continued on his journey to Ogaki where
A year later, Sora is in Edo where Basho’s nephew Toin lives with a woman and her three children
Lettter 85 to Sora, October 13, 1690:
Even without modern psychological terms, Basho describes his nephew’s problems with considerable accuracy.
A tea canister disappeared from a house where poets gathered, and blame fell on Rotsu. The canister was found and Rotsu exonerated, but apparently hard feelings lingered from the incident.
In the summer of 1691 Basho stayed for two weeks at Kyorai’s cottage in Saga: here are entries in his Saga Diary for three days near the end of his stay:
for May 29:
Men and their lives of leisure – in the long summer rains.
In 1694 Basho and Jirobei left Edo on a journey west. Sora went with them 50 miles to Odawara and climbed to the barrier gate at Hakone Pass (elevation 2575 feet). From Hakone Pass, Sora returned to Edo while Basho and Jirobei continued west to Mishima in Suruga province (Shizuoka-ken). They arrived in Shimada the evening of the 7th, and the next day Basho sent a short letter to Sora; a month later from Zeze, Basho wrote an exceptionally long letter to Sora; both letters appear in G-18 LETTERS TO SORA: Here are just a few sections of the second letter directly related to Sora.
Jirobei is getting his education on the road, talking non-stop with Japan’s greatest poet. What is going on with this kid though? He is 15 or so. With his father dead, why isn’t he working to support his family of dependents? Also we wonder about Basho: was he, as many Japanese believe, a ninja? – though this would involve gathering information, not killing people or burning down castles. Hiroaki Sato says that rather than Basho, the spy is more likely to have been Sora. If Sora was a spy working for the government, he probably had access to good “travel information.” Maybe this “information” was actually instructions for Jirobei to follow. The boy was an apprentice spy, learning the trade from his granduncle Basho, while also strengthening his body, so he could go back to Edo and work with the spymaster Sora to make a living for his family. (Of course there’s no record of this. What do you expect?)
Readers accustomed to the explosions, assaults, and ugliness of modern movies and video games may find these letters “boring.” Who cares about the small talk of some old poet dead for 300 years? Eric Hoffer -- in no way referring to Basho or Japan -- says,
I have always felt that the world has lost much by not preserving the small talk of its great men. The little that has come down to us is marked by a penetration and directness not usually conspicuous in formal discourse or writing, and one is immediately aware of its universality and timelessness.
The letter ends with messages for Sora to deliver to other Edo followers:
In Basho’s final letter to Sora on August 30, 1694, he provides a message for other followers in Edo where the experts reject Basho’s new poetic ideal of Lightness: