Here are poems, prose passages, and letters about leaving home, traveling, or returning.
One of Basho's earliest renku stanzas, from the first sequence he participated in:
The moon at dawn, a pale whiteness in the sky, casts no shadow at all, so who is this “shadow figure?” At night our side of the planet in shadow, while no humans are on the road, so the shadow travels alone.
While Basho still lived in his hometown of Iga (east of Nara, southwest of Nagoya), he traveled to Kyoto to study. He wrote both of these stanzas in succession:
Walking from Kyoto to Iga, apparently he spent the night in Mika no Hara, a place in Kizugawa south of Kyoto, alongside the Kizu River which leads east to Iga. Already in his twenties Basho suffered from the bowel disorder that ended his life two decades later.
In 1672 when he parted from his hometown friends to move to Edo, Basho wrote this haiku:
In spring the wild geese which winter on the streams and marshes of Japan leave for their summer homes in Siberia – Basho’s image contains the promise that just as the geese will return in autumn, the friends who are parting will someday see each other again. The double verb – iki- modori “going, returning” – expresses the urgent force pressing on the geese to migrate, the forces of life pressing on humans to part, to go on journeys.
This haiku begins Basho first poetic journey in 1684. To start out on a journey just as winter begins shows that one truly is a traveler.
Halfway from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto, looking back to the sky behind anf forward to the sky ahead, I travel in the center of time, and all I can see are snow clouds.
On his journey in 1687, when Basho passed through Nara, his old friend Ensui and others from their hometown came out to meet him and spend some time together before he continued west.
Again and again in letters to Ensui: he 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.
Basho in this passage combines certain elements we often see in Basho poetry:
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).
On his journey from Edo east to the Chiba peninsula, accompanied by Sora and the Zen monk Soha:
A lovely little sketch of a Zen monk on a journey. Basho begins with specific visual imagery, then uses active physical verbs “strikes . . .touches. . .walks” to describe the state of non-attachment sought in Zen. The Gateless Barrier is a book of Zen koans but Soha transcends all barriers (though he does get attached to books; see Letter 193 To Sora)
On his journey through the mountains of Nagano, they meet another monk:
The dull and stuffy monk feels an obligation to Basho and Etsujin for helping him, so as they strap his trunk load of Buddhist artifacts to the horse, he begins to repay by insisting that their skimpy backpacks go on too. Still not satisfied, the monk insists that Basho ride on top of the luggage, because if not, that would suggest that the monk’s luggage was keeping Basho from riding. Basho has to perch on top of everything just to prove to this old fart that he is not imposing -- which he most certainly is.
Notice the lively, active verbs Basho uses to set up the scene
Here comes the monk and his insufferable meddling, his phrases sound so boring, just like the monk himself. It’s all so comical. Because the monk talks, and talks, and talks of Amida, the Bodhisattva who vows to save all humanity, he must belong to one of the Pure Land sects which draw a vast membership from the common people and seek salvation by endlessly repeating Namu Amida Butsu, “I entrust myself to Amida Buddha.” Like everyone else, they have their miracles and divine visions, all of which the monk tells Basho.
The monk never asks, so he never learns that Basho belongs to the esoteric Shingon sect which does worship Amida, but through contemplation -- not by blabbing His Name all over the place.
Historian Charles Dunn notes that in the older sects of Japanese Buddhism – such as Shingon – the priests sought enlightenment only for themselves: “they were not remotely concerned with the masses.” The Pure Land sects were an innovation in Buddhism; they sought Enlightenment for everybody. They were do-gooders, as we see in Basho’s account.
Basho’s two passages on the ‘pious monk’ are his comic masterpiece, among the funniest moments in world literature. Compare this pious monk to a few other notorious windbags:
Polonius in Hamlet, Polonius who said,
then did exactly the reverse.
Or Dogberry in Much Ado about Nothing:
No, we won’t forget.
Or Pumblechoock (love that name), the loquacious dum-dum in Dickens’ Great Expectations:
Basho uses fewer words than Shakespeare or Dickens, but through brevity – the soul of wit – he reaches the same quality of humor.
Turning below the hill
A traveler has freedom to move through space (notice how every word is spatial), to be refreshed by nature, to drink from the pool below the falls. Basho, in a remarkable twist, adds tension to the scene. The pool also attracts animals and a hunter who aims to shoot one. With his hand he orders the traveler to stay away from the pool, because if he did drink from it, animals would stay away for some time. The tension is between hunter and his prey, as well as between traveler who loves freedom and is refreshed by nature and the hunter with his dangerous weapon who prohibits freedom and kills nature.
Leaving at daybreak to visit the Ise Shrine, afraid of running out of cash on the trip, since everybody else is still asleep, he pilfers a few coins from the shop. Because he is on a spiritual pilgrimage to the high holy shrine of Shinto, he will be forgiven. Basho not only agrees with this conditional morality; he affirms it with the most positive of all images to the Japanese, the Rising Sun. The row of clouds in the sky above the sun is a smile welcoming the golden orb; thus nature smiles on the traveler, even though he has stolen.
He climbs the mountain for a spiritual purpose, and travels light, at night resting his head on the straw bag he carries on his back. He may have carried something in the bag to dedicate to the gods, something that represented his mother’s hotoke, or Buddha nature after death – or maybe he carried her spirit in his heart. As he lays his head on the bag, in sleep he entrusts her soul to the Gods.
(from A Narrow Path in the Heartlands)
Basho’s journal of his journey to the Deep North, A Narrow Path in the Heartlands, is a polished work of literature. Here, from a letter to Sampu written in Fukushima, is a more basic portrayal of the journey.
People before embarking on a journey burned moxa on acupuncture points of the feet to make them strong.
(We all imagine omens.)
Basho has spent his whole life in a single latitude, that of Iga, Kyoto, and Edo. Here for the first time he is far enough north to change the timing of seasons. Travelers today may appreciate his feeling for how different parts of Earth receive more or less of the Sun’s heat.
Behind me on the road are pilgrims walking around the country to visit every temple on a list, striking bells and drums while chanting the nenbutsu prayer for salvation. So the pilgrims come from the “traces” I left on the road. Basho opens a window into the Noh play Ataka where Yoshitsune and his followers avoid capture by the forces of his brother the shogun Yoritomo by pretending to be mountain ascetics on a journey. At a barrier gate with samurai instructed to capture Yoshitsune, they see on display before the gate the severed heads of three ascetics executed the day before. So Yoshitsune and his followers are traveling in the “traces” of these three who died yesterday. It is said that Basho, after he wrote this stanza, regretted his use of such brutal imagery
One with a tumor rides west, past the 25-mile-long base of Mount Fuji on his way to Kyoto (so he has a long way to go) where the well-known healer will wave his hand and say some magical words to remove the tumor . Is this reality, or a dream? Real or magic?
Mount Fuji is shaped like the round conical hats of East Asian farmers and travelers, worn to ward of rain and snow as well as sun and wind. Basho’s stanza is deliberately ambiguous; I and the mountain each wear a conical hat, I and the mountain each ride the horse. I bounce up and down from the movement of the horse, and the multimillion ton mountain moves up and down from the movement of my eyes on horseback. Riding a horse past Mount Fuji, magically the mountain moves; is this reality or a dream?
Both men and women of the upper classes treated their hair with camellia oil so it would hold the customary styles. A meshi mori onna at a roadside inn cooks for travelers and also provides sex. She hates the greasy smell a customer leaves on her pillow. She also hates the pretence of false vows made to satisfy him with no possibility of becoming true love, and this hatred burns hot enough to roast the sardines she prepares for him.
In early spring of 1691, Otokuni’s departs on a journey to Edo. Basho begins the sequence with a farewell verse to the traveler:
Mariko (now in Shizuoka City) is a post station on the Tokaido, about 2/3s of the way to Edo, famous for this paste of grated mountain yam seasoned and eaten over rice. The two plants are eyes, and the tasty food a smiling mouth, so Basho gives Otokuni a Happy Face to make his journey more pleasant; as he travels, he will enjoy the plum blossoms and young greens alongside the road, and anticipate that yam paste Basho enjoyed when he traveled this road years ago. Otokuni adds a brand new conical hat to Basho’s Happy Face, then provides a most wonderful background – for “daybreak in spring” suggests the famous opening to the Pillow Book. What a fine gift Basho and Otokuni have created to enrich the traveler’s journey.
In summer of 1693 Kyoriku set out to travel the Kiso Road through the mountains of Nagano; apparently he felt nervous about the hot muggy Japanese summer, staying in backward, unsanitary inns. Basho’s parting haiku was:
Basho encourages Kyoriku to learn how to transcend the discomfort and annoyance that accompanies flies -- as Basho will do in his final moments of life. (See E-10 DYING WITH A SMILE)
Six hundred years before Basho, Fujiwara Teika wrote this tanka:
The traveler stands over the void, in the last of day light, before winter begins, looking forward to his journey, while the long hanging sleeves of his kimono blow back, with his thoughts, to his home. In the autumn of 1686 Basho and his follower Yasui wrote a stanza-pair before Yasui left on a journey. While the two were still together, Basho looks into the future to ‘see’ Yasui walk away:
This sketch of Yasui departing, maybe never to be seen again, concludes with the autumn wind penetrating Basho’s heart. Without the extraordinary and glorious visuals -- “sleeves blown back” and “bridge over the gorge” -- of Teika’s tanka, the haiku simply conveys an experience anyone could have in autumn watching a friend depart. The magnificence of Teika’s tanka makes it irrelevant to our everyday lives. Basho aims for the reality of us, our actual experiences. Although his stanza is about loneliness, this is not the loneliness of a hermit with no friends, but rather the loneliness of watching a friend leave on a journey. In his message to Yasui before they part, Basho affirms the value of their friendship.
The leaves are falling from willow trees in the garden, but Yasui focuses on the kage, the “shadows,” of these falling leaves. Kage is also their “shade” which suggests the dying of the life-force in winter, and also the darkening in Basho’s heart as Yasui leaves. Yet Yasui’s stanza looks ahead, beyond the autumn wind, to the buds left behind by those falling leaves, the buds which, when spring has come, will give birth to new willow leaves – thus he promises to Basho that he, like Spring, will return to fill the loneliness in Basho’s heart.
After a long day on the road, Basho arrived at his inn, sat down in his room, removed his sandals and washed his dirty feet, then lay down for a short rest before dinner – and woke up at dawn still in his travelling robe.
In summer, 1678, the mother of Fuboku passed away. At the memorial service, Basho wrote:
As we enter the temple grounds, at a rock basin with spring water, we put our hands together and pray to Buddha; this is called “offering water.” Rice is cooked then dried and ground to a powder, for travelers to carry on journeys; adding water makes a meal. May Fuboku’s mother add the sacred water of the temple to the dried rice powder for nourishment on her long journey.
Five years after his journey to the Deep North, Basho, accompanied by his 15 year old grandnephew Jirobei, set out on another journey. Here Basho writes to Sora five days into the journey:
They had to stay for three days in Shimada because the Oi River was flooded from summer rains.
A second letter to Sora, six weeks later, continues the story:
In May some fields in Japan are covered with tall yellow stalks of barley; once these are harvested, the fields are ploughed and flooded with water, then rice seedlings are transferred to the mud. Basho is visiting Kakei’s home in Nagoya. The host and his guest portray this interface between barley and rice.
Kakei begins with an expression of hospitality; he orders his wife or servants to boil the new just-harvested barley (not last year’s leftovers) to a softness Basho’s chronically ill digestive system can manage. Basho replies with a message of consideration to the wife or servants; it is easier to serve breakfast to everybody at once instead of providing the meal to Basho at a later time. Thus the stanza pair portrays the give-and-take of human relations
Also in Nagoya on this final journey, Basho wrote:
May the “great warriors” forego ambition leading to war, so we all go and return in peace.
On his deathbed, four days before the end,
“Fields” are land covered with grasses and wildflowers, the home of insects and birds. “Fields” may also be the body while dreams are the spirit which animates the flesh for a while and then passes on. In the spring and summer and autumn of life, dreams wander about fields bright in the sunshine and alive with birdsong. But then comes winter, time for dreams to wander off into eternity. This lonely desolate poem, however, did not end Basho’s poetic journey; the next day he wrote another haiku:
The green in CLEAR CASCADE is a rejuvenation in Basho’s spirit, another (though not the final) casting off of the heaviness and negativity of Japanese thought, a reaffirmation of Lightness as the Way of Basho. Instead of an old man sadly wandering about and dying we feel youth lightly flowing onward. But this rejuvenation is only an illusion, a deep-rooted illusion of what is gone.