For 1688 we have letters to Sampu and Ensui, and for 1689 to Ranran, Ensui, Somu, and Sampu;
the final of these gives an account of Basho on his world-famous journey to the Deep North.
Basho left Edo in winter, 1687 and arrived in Iga in time to spend the New Year with his family. He was shown the remains of his imbilical cord, kept as a momento, the “physical remains of Basho’s connection to his mother.”
In early spring Basho traveled to Ise to visit the Grand Shrines, and there meet his follower Tokoku who came back with him back to Iga, then traveled together with him for three months. Tokoku parted from Basho in Kyoto, and Basho continued on to Nagoya; here he met up with Etsujin who traveled with him over the Kiso Road through the Japan Alps to Edo where he spent two months in Basho’s hut. Basho passed the winter and early spring in Edo, eager to go on another journey, this time to the Deep North. Basho accompanied by his follower Sora, traveled for five months to Gifu, then continued traveling to Ise, his hometown Iga, and Zeze beside Lake Biwa.
Letter 27 to Sampu, mid-March
At the Ise Shrine, the center of Sun Goddess worship, Basho wrote this haiku which he sends to Sampu in the letter; the blossoms here are deeply fragrant plum tree flowers.
(A special ceremony is held for the 33rd year after death.)
Tokoku -- a wealthy rice dealer in Nagoya who got caught in some shady deal in rice futures and was sent into exile at the tip of Atsumi Peninsula -- joined him in Ise. The convict was able to travel with Basho for three months because he hid his identity under an alias, Mangiku.
Why is Basho so concerned with the family of Jokushi, a wealthy samurai from Mino now living in Edo?
This question reappears when we get to Basho’s will at the end of this collection.
p.s. Is Ihei applying himself to his work, I worry…
Ihei is one of Basho’s neighbors in Fukagawa. On April 19th Basho and Tokoku headed south to Yoshino to see the cherry blossoms that Yoshino is famous for, then west to Mount Koya, and north to Nara where Basho’s childhood friend Ensui along with the rice merchant Somu walked 18 miles to meet them, and spend more time together. While they were in Nara, they also attended the ground-breaking ceremony for a new hall at Todaiji, the famous temple where the Great Buddha, 50 feet tall, sits on a lotus pedestal 65 feet around. They parted, Basho and Tokoku to the west, and Ensui and Somu east to Iga.
Letter 29 to Ensui, May 24th
(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.
In 1672 when a village woman, Ima, was 47, her father was sick. Told that if he ate unagi, eel, he would recover, she tried every means to get some, but none was available in this tiny village. One late 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 in Nara, 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, so Basho and Tokoku could have gone on land, but they chose to take a ferry. We see that in Basho’s time, as well as in ours, the Japanese used ferryboats to get around their island nation.
Basho included with his letter this note from “Mangiku” and also the cartoon that follows:
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.
This diagram of Mister Mangiku’s snore I present to you. When Tokoku (sorry, “Mangiku”) was in Iga, he stayed in Ensui’s house, so maybe with the help of this diagram, Ensui can recall the tones of his snore. It truly is a “diagram”– a sketch, drawing, or plan which explains a thing by outlining its parts and workings -- however the thing diagrammed is a snore. More Basho nonsense.
Ten bu makes a sun (inch), and ten sun make a shaku (foot), so the snore bulges out to 47 inches, and all that sound comes from a hole just 1.2 inches in diameter. (I love the precision). Then, on the right side, the snore rattles along like a kuruma nagamochi, a huge wooden chest on wheels kept near the door, in case of fire used to get valuables away from the house. In 17th century Japan, however, wheel technology is not so advanced (no rubber, no shock-absorbers, no casters, just wooden wheels on a wooden axle) so the heavily laden chest shakes about a lot as it rolls – which is how the snore ends. It is difficult for me to study this “diagram” without laughing uncontrollably.
We begin this year with New Year’s letters to Ranran and to Ensui; then another letter to Ensui in April; and a letter to Sampu in June. In the first letter to Ensui, Basho jumps back and forth from past journey to future journey exploring how time passes. In the second he does more of the same, and provides a fascinating list of what he will carry. The letter to Sampu is the only one in this collection actually written on the journey to the Deep North. A Narrow Path in the Heartlands is world-famous and everywhere represents Basho – however Letter 44 to Sampu in a small way provides a more personal account of Basho on a journey.
Ranran, one of the first in Edo to follow Basho, has been with him since 1674.
Letter 38 to Ranran, February 16
(Basho in Fukagawa, Ranran in Edo)
I am grateful for your letter,
for the barrel of takuan radish your wife sent;
for every favor and the heart attached, thank you.
Ranran made a New Year’s visit to Basho’s hut, but the wind was so noisy they could hardly hear each other, and Ranran returned home.
The other day, after you left, the wind quieted down,
all the more to my regret. When for a while we can speak
our great hopes without passing shall become clear.
Letter 39 To Ensui, late February
Since last autumn, thoughts have filled my heart and so I have not written to you. Sometimes I hear from my brother about the presents you have given. Ever and again I long to be with you.
Last autumn on the Kiso road accompanied by a crazy man named Etsujin, our lives in danger at the Hanging Bridge, the mountain where the son “could not be consoled” as he abandoned his aged mother, the sounds of pounding cloth, rice field clappers, voices chasing away deer, all were deeply moving, yet still only thoughts of you emerged in my heart.
“Crazy Man” is a term of affection. Basho takes Ensui on a montage of memories from his Sarashina journey recorded in D-6 LAUGHING ALONG. 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 damp handspun fiber cloth on a block to soften it. Shaking clappers, wooden blocks tied together, hung over rice fields to scare hungry sparrows, is an autumn chore. The farmers shout to drive away deer from raiding the crops before harvest.
As the New Year began, the feeling of a journey did not cease
New Year's Day
sun on every field
“Field” (ta) means rice field, now at New Years, in early February, a 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. There is nothing in this verse that ties it to Basho’s time; any person on Earth can see it on any New Year’s Day.
When we reach the 3rd Moon, tired of waiting,
I will travel around the northern provinces
and some time from autumn or winter
come down to Gifu or Nagoya,
so if life becomes not the dew drop,
I shall see you again.
While I can stand, as long as I can go to thee,
the pleasant thoughts we shall share.
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.”
Parting from you in Nara as we did long ago,
the ephemerality of one night in one inn,
tears shed are hard to forget.
What we discussed has not left my mind.
Until that day foam vanished on the water,
in life my heart hurries, so from my journey last year,
I have cast away fish and fish flavor from my mouth.
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:
“One who eats meat kills the seed of Great Compassion”.
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, more protein, vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids came from octopus, 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. “Until foam vanished on the water” means “until I die” yet also suggests 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
but by and by sad
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 in 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 flavored snacks as well.
So, vegans, Basho for the final five years of his life was one.
The rice merchant Somu accompanied Ensui to meet with Basho and Tokoku in Nara in 1688 (see letter 29 to Ensui). Ensui and Somu sent a letter to Basho. Here Basho replies, a month and a half before he leaves on his journey to the Deep North.
Letter 41 to Ensui and Somu, April 5
(Basho in Fukagawa, Ensui and Somu in Iga)
Your letter came together with one from my brother.
To read the letter gives me the feeling of being with you,
so last year’s rain at Ichinomiya, I cannot forget.
My belly which eats no fish rustles gently.
When Basho was in Iga, he, Ensui and Somu must have spent some together in the rain at the Ichimiya Shrine in town. Basho here does what in letter 124 he calls “clinging to memories.” Recall in letter 29, he tells Ensui he gave up fish and fish products. He says a vegan belly “rustles” gently like leaves of the tea plant in the spring breeze. Tanaka translates to sappari shita, “refreshing.”
As horsetails and asters open their buds
in this world of not knowing when life will end,
no connection between going and returning
Even in Edo people are unsatisfied by things
so as I know the pain in the heels
of the Priest Noin and Saint Saigyo,
I am obsessed by haste to see
the Moon at Matsushima while still hazy
the cherry blossoms at Shiogama before they fall.
The great city of Edo (now Tokyo) is famous for consumerism.
Noin and Saigyo were two famous traveling poets. By the time Basho will leave on this journey, spring, the season of hazy moon and cherry blossoms will be past, however in the Deep North he hopes to see these phenomena once more this year.
My travel goods
Notebook for tanka (when I am hungry
I can trade one for five coins or ten)
brush and ink set rain gear
bowl staff (two items of a beggar)
cypress hat haori jacket
“Five coins” is about 100 yen or one dollar today.
Would you buy a tanka from Basho for a buck? Is there is no market for haiku? Maybe he could get a quarter for one, or five for a dollar.
This mention of tanka Basho wrote and sold to people for a paltry fee suggests that there were of Basho tanka out there in the world that nobody paid attention to because they were bought for so cheap.
Basho and Sora left Edo on , and traveled 300 miles north in the first month into their journey. Here Basho writes from Fukushima to Sampu in Edo
Letter 44 to Sampu, June 13
I sent you a letter from Kurobane on the Nasu plain.
Was it delivered? I have been robust; the moxa before leaving worked.
Before a long journey, cones of moxa were burned on acupuncture points of the feet to make them strong.
Also I am eating twice as much as usual. (Is this hyperbole?)
I have no anxiety about coming down from the North. In Nasu amidst the long rains, not once did we meet rain, so fortunate is our journey. (We all imagine omens.)
We left Nasu to visit the Lifekiller Stone a 15 mile detour for some sightseeing.
In this region the mornings and evenings are still cold,
but all the inns we stayed in were good, so no problems.
I am waiting for it soon to get warm:
people in the warmth of Edo would find this strange.
Basho has traveled back and forth between east and west, always at a single latitude. Here for the first time he is far enough north to change the timing of seasons.
My regards to all the folks in Fukagawa.
How is Old Soha doing with his sickness?
I hope he gets better and recovers his heart.
As for me, I have not written many haiku.
Sora is healthy. At every place we stay,
we speak only about you in Edo.
On this day of last month, you came to visit me in Fukagawa.
More than a visit from anyone else, this brought me tears.
The Three Thirds of Basho
Basho’s several hundred poems about women children, friendship, love, and compassion are,
Almost unknown both in Japan and in the West
yet may be the most pro-female, child-centered,
and life-affirming works in world literature.
I plead for your help in finding a person or group to take over my 3000 pages of Basho material, to edit and improve the presentation,
to receive all royalties from sales, to spread Basho’s wisdom throughout the world and preserve for future generations