Basho’s follower Kyorai, the second son of a doctor of Chinese medicine in Kyoto, had a cottage in Saga on the western outskirts. Basho, here for 16 days in 1691, wrote this haibun:
One autumn Kyorai planned to pick the persimmons hanging over the roof the next day, but you know, man, he did not get around to it, and the rain that night knocked them to the ground, so he called the place “House of Fallen Persimmons.” Sounds like a hippie.
Prose passages and haiku on the next eight pages from Basho’s Saga
Diary are given their dates by the Western calendar for 1691. On his
first day in the cottage, Basho went to see “traces” of a woman.
May 16 -
Kogo was taken as a courtesan by the Emperor Takakura already married to the daughter of Kiyomori, chief of the Heike clan ruling Japan. Kogo hid from Kiyomori’s rage in an isolated cottage in Saga
with many enormous bamboo groves. The anguished emperor sent a palace guard named Nakakuni to search for her. Kogo was a virtuoso on the koto or 13 string harp which suggests the sensitivity
in her heart. Nakakuni rode all around Saga until the sound of her koto brought his horse to a stop on a bridge.
Three places in Saga claim to be the site of Kogo’s cottage, but Basho is not one to be fooled by some tourist trap on the other side of town from the Horse-stopping Bridge. Kogo returned with Nakakuni to the Capital, but when Kiyomori found out she was back, he was furious. He forced her into a nunnery and she later threw herself into the river.
The final sentence reaches to the Outer Limits of Obscurity: an old Chinese poem compares the arch of willow branches in the village where King Sokun was born to a lady’s eyebrows; and the blossoms
at the shrine of the goddess Fujo to crimson lipstick; this sketch of Kogo’s face – only eyebrows and lips (a motif often seen in modern advertising) - fills Basho’s thoughts.
Each of the nodes at regular intervals along hollows stems of bamboo forms a solid disk through the diameter. Life moves along smoothly but every so often come to a solid mass of sorrow. Kon speaks of Lady Kogo “tossed about in the world, finally to be buried in a bamboo grove where she changed into bamboo shoots, the end of her road so pathetically sad.”
Towering bamboos form a cathedral of green with moonlight trickling through; the clear bright five-note call of the little cuckoo punctuates the feeling of divine presence.
So Basho would not be lonely, either Kyorai or Boncho stayed the night. On May 16th, Boncho spent the night. His wife, Uko who is a nun, came out to the cottage the next day.
This verse by Uko is the only haiku by a woman in Basho’s published prose. Uko demonstrates the traditional role of women in Japanese society: providing hospitality. Instead of putting forth her own experience, Uko focuses on Basho, welcoming him to Kyoto and Saga by saying that whenever he comes here, strawberries will redden to celebrate his presence.
While Basho was in Saga, he helped Kyorai and another follower Boncho compile a major anthology of the Basho school, Monkey’s Raincoat, to be published later that summer. Here is a renku from it:
Beside the rice field, a row of stone statues of Buddha has stood there for centuries. Looking closely at each one, I see that every single one has patches of raw stone where a feature -- the nose on one, an ear on another – has broken off from the rain, snow, and wind. Rotsu contrasts the deteriorating stone Buddhas with the liveliness and vitality of Basho’s rice maidens. The trio is a sandwich: Basho’s vibrant, feminine, and playful stanza is the tasty filling between two slices of plain white bread, one masculine, the other inanimate. His stanza may not appear so special when considered by itself, however standing out from the stanzas before and after, it becomes a feminine anthem. The female liveliness in Basho’s stanza is all the more lively and feminine in contrast to the leisurely bumbling male and the ancient stone statues.
Tonight Uko and husband stay over and
The fifth person may be either the delivery guy who brought the
cakes from Kyorai’s house, or a fellow named Yohei who lives next
door and is caretaker of the cottage when Kyorai is not here. The mosquito net is a special one, made for fishermen to set up over the river, so it’s pretty big – two tatami mats, about 6 foot square. They appear to be lying in alternating directions, “up and down,” my shoulders near your knees, for efficient use of space. In Japan both genders may sleep in the same room, in separate parts of the tatami floor, with no thought of sex. Still, five adults spread out inside one mosquito net is bound to get interesting, especially when one is a
woman and furthermore a nun, and there is also her husband who is a doctor, their Poetry Master, the guy who owns the cottage, and someone else, presumably of a lower social class, but they all lie down together in one mosquito net.
No one gets any sleep though, so they “each come out from the net” and eat some cakes and drink some sake until everyone gets light and happy and they party till dawn. They sound like college students.
These are not the Japanese Ruth Benedict portrays in TheChrysanthemum and the Sword, all taken up in working off obligations, stiff with the dictates of hierarchy and proper behavior, males always dominating females. Basho says ‘lighten up’ on the issues of obligation, hierarchy, custom, and gender—or maybe that
Japanese society was not so severe as Western writers portray it, or maybe that the crowd Basho hangs out with was exceptionally loose.
So often in poetry Basho speaks of specific body parts and sensations.
The scene of this year’s baby bamboos, like brown pointed magician’s hats, peeking out here and there among their towering parents, is one any child would love to draw. Susabi is the absorption of a child in learning, the compulsion to practice a task over and over again,as Maria Montessori repeatedly described and produced schools to facilitate, so we see 5 year old Basho hunched over the paper, concentrating his entire being on drawing that conical shape on a flat piece of paper,
The reed warbler adds its irritating squawk, day or night, to the overall oppressiveness of the summer season. The scholar Kon elaborates:
“One exhausting endless summer day, having done nothing for days,
with no talent for anything, I just want to sleep – but a reed warbler starts to squawk
so I cannot. Oh! reed warbler, won’t you stop squawking for a bit.”
Basho’s friend Tokoku, his travelling companion for four months in 1688, died in 1690 aged 30.
When Yang, the hot, active aspect of the universe, is exhausted, we dream of fire to replenish it -- a weakness of Yin, the cold, passive, and hidden part, is replenished by a dream of water. Basho says that
through dreams we regulate our own health.
The words are so very simple, at first they seem not to mean much, however, because they are so simple, they can, if we let them, takeon deep personal and social meaning. The image of “dyeing the (kimono) lining,” women soaking fabric in dye to color it before sewing together the two layers of a kimono, adds romantic beauty to the prose. Basho applies this active female image to the innermost places in his heart. Recalling the fun and sadness he shared with Tokoku, friendship soaks the inner layers of his heart.
Notices on the wall some rectangular spaces less discolored than the rest of the wall, Basho realizes that a former resident pasted his favorite poetry cards here and removed them when he left; in these “traces” remaining from a consciousness here long ago, Basho imagines the lovely fair-weather scenes in the poems no longer there.
A few days after leaving the cottage, Basho wrote to his old friend in Iga, Ensui
With his eyes on Mount Arashi across the river, Basho sends his spirit to the vastly greater mountain 350 kilometers away:
Basho’s stanza on the next page is the doorway to a woman-centered section in the otherwise male-dominated Tale of the Heike: the story of four women making their own decisions and interacting
with each other without male presence in much of the long detailed story; the events take place in Saga, and Saga is where you find traces of these events: the temple Gioji in the northwest corner of the area.
Gio and her sister Gijo were shirabyoshi, "white rhythm" dancers who captivated men with their graceful movements, beauty and hair. Their mother Tashi had been a shirabyoshi as well. Gio became the favorite of the arrogant prime minister of Japan, Taira Kiyomori, who allot large allowances to the family so they could live in luxury. But then a younger shirabyoshi appeared on the scene, attracting much attention, but Kiyomori refused to hear her because he had Gio. Gio insisted that the new girl be allowed to perform. She did and took Kiyomori’s heart. From that moment he abandoned Gio and her family, leaving them in poverty. Gio eventually shaved her head to become a nun and live in seclusion in Saga, then her sister and
mother did so as well One night brought a knock on their door: it was the new favourite who realized that the same thing would happen to her as happened to Gio, so she voluntarily gave up her position in Kiyomori’s service, and joined them. Gio said, “And what could bring greater happiness than for us to tread the same path together for the rest of this life?” She is known as Hotoke Gozen, Lady Buddha, because while the three others were reduced to poverty and forced to give up the world, Lady Buddha did so of her own accord from a position of wealth and luxury.
The four nuns lived and prayed together in solidarity, and it is said all reached enlightenment. The temple was renamed Gioji; visitors can see statues of the four ladies, and also their gravestones. From
this story, and its message of female solidarity, I feel justified in translating “ladies’ temple” in Basho stanza.
The Grand Chamberlain (Jijū) is a chief functionary of the Imperial court, and aide to the Emperor of Japan. He also keeps the Privy Seal and the State Seal, but his high rank does not prevent his daughter from experiencing the travails of life. She cuts her hair and escapes to Saga, at the foot of Mount Arashi (Storm Mountain). The Ninomiya Shrine is one of the most famous places in Saga, and Gioji, the temple where Gio and her compatriots lived and prayed, is within walking distance. Because “Gio” sounds like “Gion,” the stanza in Japanese recalls the famous opening to the Tales of the Heike:
“The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things....
The proud donot endure, like a dream on a spring night, the mighty fall at last,
as dust before the wind.”
The Gion Shoja (or Jetavana) temple in India is where the Buddha gave most of his discourses. This passage can refer to the fall of Kiyomori and his clan from power and wealth to exile and death – however the words well apply to the tale of the four ladies.
Basho sets up the opposition of storm and bells. The first is wild, violent, uncaring; the second deep, steady, and unifying. The storm represents the arrogance and intimidating behavior of men such as Kiyomori, the bells are the steady, focused energy of “ladies.” Temple bells, with their reverberations of up to a full minute, are conducive to meditation, and have become a symbol for world peace. “Bells” as final word of the verse resounds through the weariness of the daughter as well as the violence of the storm.
Basho returned to Edo at the end of 1691. He stayed there for all of 1692 and ’93. On June 3rd of 1694, he set out west on his final journey, accompanied by his 15 year old grandnephew Jirobei. In a letter to Sora on July 13, 1694, Basho in Zeze says
When Basho stayed in Kyorai’s House of Fallen Persimmons for two weeks in 1691, it certainly needed renovation. On July 14, they left Zeze to walk to Saga. Basho apparently wrote this haiku about his experience on the road to Kyorai's cottage, and then used the verse to begin a renku composed there:
The sensations in this verse are remarkable: the coolness of melon seeping through the willow-branch basket on one shoulder, the body adjusting to compensate for the extra weight on one side, the
anticipation of sharing the sweet juicy melon with good friends when he arrives.
Here is a stanza-pair from that sequence:
Basho poetry focuses on body parts, actions, and sensations.
On the 23rd day of the Intercalary 5th Moon -- July 15, 1694 –Basho in The House of Fallen Persimmons sent his follower Shiko a letter:
One present Shiko sent was a kiseru, a long thin pipe with bamboo shaft and metal mouthpiece and bowl. The bowl is tiny, only big enough for two or three inhales. Wikipedia says “Kiseru were used for smoking a fine, shredded tobacco, as well as cannabis.” (Before World War II, cannabis was often smoked both for recreation and medicine.) Basho makes the absurd suggestion that ‘pipe cleaning’ become a reference to the Intercalary 5th Moon because the illustrious non-smoker Kyorai cleaned a kiseru for the very first time during this Intercalary 5th Moon. So, when the next Intercalary 5th Moon comes in thirty-six years, it will be remembered as the season of Kyorai cleaning the kiseru. How ridiculous! but then that’s par for the course in this letter.
“Bufu” is a funny-sounding alternate name for the province where Edo is. Gaiters of straw or cloth, are worn to protect the lower legs while travelling If Basho was smoking cannabis in Kyorai’s hippie cottage, that helps to explain his bizarre sense of humor.
On July 24th at the House of Fallen Persimmons, Basho wrote in a letter to his neighbour Ihei at home in Fukagawa near Edo:
Basho sounds like a fun guy who enjoys eating and laughing with young people.
Makota Ueda translates this passage,
“Penniless students of mine in Kyoto and Osaka rush here
one after another these days: they eat all the food
available and spend their time in loud laughter”
In Ueda’s words, Basho is not a part of the eating, drinking and laughing; he sounds like a fussy old man annoyed with his followers. The Japanese (as usual) is vague; it can be taken either way -Basho eating and laughing with them, or Basho annoyed at their eating and laughter – but Japanese Language Instructor Shoko can see no sign of annoyance in the original. Ueda’s translation is heavy, coming from the “no-fun” Basho image. Our translation is light and leads to “Dear Uncle Basho.”
Here beside the river in Saga, Basho wrote this haiku:
Basho sees his Ideal of Purity in the round moon on flowing water.
Basho returned to Zeze in early August, then to Iga for September, Nara on October 28th and finally Osaka. After midnight on November 24th on his deathbed Basho wrote his famous haiku about dreams wandering about on withered fields. He went to sleep; when he awoke the next day, he asked Shiko
Basho told Shiko to revise this to:
This poem actually was Basho’s final poem, although scholars donot count it as such. Because the season in the poem is summer while the season in reality was winter, scholars say CLEAR CASCADE does not belong to the end of Basho’s life; it appears in the chronology of Basho poetry in summer where nobody notices it.
Basho, however, wrote the verse upon waking from sleep, so it is reasonable to imagine it as a record of Basho’s dream. In sleep Basho left his sick old body dying in the cold winter night to dream travel back to summer in Saga beside the raging river. As a dream-haiku, this verse does belong to the early winter night of 1694 and is Basho’s death verse.
The pine needles, still green and full of life, fall into the rushing water, and swirl about and away, leaving no traces of their existence. The flow never returns and what is gone is gone forever.