In 1689, Japan’s greatest haiku poet, Matsuo Basho, set off on a five-month, 2,000 kilometre journey from Edo (now Tokyo) into the northern interior and back down the opposite coast to Ogaki, in Gifu prefecture. This, the last of many long walks, resulted in a short haibun, a mixture of poetry and prose, called Oku no Hosomichi, or The Narrow Road to the Interior, a Japanese literature classic.
Today, tour companies offer trips that follow Basho’s route – but to truly follow in his footsteps, you need to walk as he did. Basho’s pilgrimage, like those of many Japanese, is more about the journey than the destination. He walks to reflect and to pay more attention to the people, the nature and the culture he encounters.
The Narrow Road to the Interior is not a guide to northern Japan. It is a universal guidebook to every kind of journey we make through life. As one of the first sentences puts it: ‘Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.’ In travel, we are reminded that the stability of a home is an illusion and that nothing is permanent. ‘With every pilgrimage, one encounters the temporality of life,’ writes Basho.
This is evident in the way that Basho responds to the various monuments and ruins he encounters. For instance, on finding how little remained at the ancient ruins of a samurai castle, Basho writes a haiku:
all that remains of great soldiers’
Powers that seem mighty, armies that are thought undefeatable, all are destined to end up fertilising the grass. This, however, should not breed cold-hearted indifference to the dreams and aspirations of the living. Basho’s eyes became glazed with tears at Maru Hill, when he saw a castle in ruins and abandoned family graves. The lesson? We should come to terms with our mortality without losing our sense of sadness at the passing of life.
Visiting ancient sites connects us with those before us. Basho captures this beautifully at a hard-to-find monument, Tsubo-no-ishibumi in northern Honshu’s Miyagi prefecture, built in 724. ‘The past remains hidden in clouds of memory,’ he writes. ‘Still it returned us to memories from 1,000 years before. Such a moment is the reason for a pilgrimage: infirmities forgotten, the ancients remembered, joyous tears trembled in my eyes.’ We stand on the same ground as people long gone: so near and yet so far from them.
Basho’s writing is filled with a deep humanity. Near the beginning of his journey at Soka, in present-day Saitama prefecture, he observes that his pack is ‘made heavier by farewell gifts from friends’ but says, ‘I couldn’t leave them behind.’ Other people create burdens in life but we should learn to carry the weight of friendship and family without complaint because the price of the hermetic alternative is too high.
Travel affords the opportunity to meet diverse people and Basho shows how to do this with compassion and without judgement. He recognises goodness wherever he sees it and is not prejudiced by differences in creed, culture or lifestyle. For example, an innkeeper at the foot of Mount Nikko has earned the nickname ‘Joe Buddha’ for his simple sincerity but Basho calls him ‘a model of Confucian rectitude’, as if to deliberately point out that it doesn’t matter whether he is Buddhist, Confucian, neither or both, as many Japanese were and still are. Nor does he forget Shinto. For the most part, he and his disciple Sora dress as Buddhist monks, but for the ascent of what Basho dubs ‘Moon Mountain’ in Oishida they wear ‘the holy paper necklaces and cotton hats of Shinto priests’.
For Basho, what unites us is always greater than what divides us. At one point, they stay in the same inn as some prostitutes, who ask to follow them. Basho seems to regret refusing them and quotes a haiku written by Sora to express his refusal to see himself as superior to them.
Under one roof, prostitute and priest,
we all sleep together:
moon in a field of clover.
His greatest awe, however, is reserved for nature. ‘The views of Matsushima take one’s breath away,’ he writes, saying it may be ‘the most beautiful place in the world’, a verdict many still agree with today.
Similarly, towards the end of the journey, he writes, ‘after everything we’d seen, thoughts of seeing Kisakata’s famous bay still made my heart begin to race’. However, since an eruption of Mount Chokai in 1804 that caused the seabed to rise, the islands that were once off the west coast of northern Honshu are now surrounded by land. Another reminder of the transience of all things.
One of the most striking features of The Narrow Road to the Interior, especially for non-Japanese readers, is its brevity. Little more than 10,000 characters long, an English translation easily fits into fewer than 30 pages. Perhaps one reason why Basho is a master of words is that he uses them sparingly and knows their limits. At Mount Kurokami in Nikko he observes ‘the greater the glory, the less these words can say’. In a world in which text is constantly being generated and chatter seems endless, Basho reminds us to make space in our travels for silence, to let experience in, and allow it to speak for itself.
Walk Japan offers a self-guided Basho Wayfarer tour, following the poet’s path. For details, visit walkjapan.com