I didn’t design my trip to Japan to revolve around haiku, although considering the content of this blog, it would have been fitting! I went to Japan to hike on the Nakasendo Way (the old Edo era highway between Kyoto and Tokyo, now the equivalent of a national historic trail), be immersed in a totally new place and culture, and unplug. People do, in fact, plan whole trips around Bashō and his poetry (the tour company I used – and would highly recommend – even offers a “Bashō Tour”). I am not so organized a traveler, however; it turned out that I would walk in the footsteps of Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) on at least two occasions during my trip.
Matsuo Bashō is one of the four Japanese haiku masters – together with Yosa no Buson (1716-1784), Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), and Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). Bashō moved around quite a bit during his life, living in a number of cities, as well as traveling extensively, including on parts of the Nakasendo Way.
Our second night on the trail, we stayed at a traditional Japanese bed and breakfast, called Sinchaya – or New Tea House. I learned “new” is a relative term in Japan, and seems to mean that the inn is merely several hundred years old. Across the road from the B&B was a beautiful pond and garden. I could see the garden from my room and was drawn to wander around and take photographs of it (like the photo above) while I waited for dinner to be ready. There was a brass plaque in the garden, but as it was entirely in Japanese and I was entirely out of reach of Google translate, its meaning remained a mystery to me.
The next morning, our guide informed us that it was tradition for the innkeepers to see us off as we lumbered back onto the Nakasendo Way. Our two lovely hosts did just that, enthusiastically waving and watching until we turned the corner and were out of sight. As the trail glided up between terraced rice paddies, our guide causally mentioned that Sinchaya – in particular, its pond and garden – was the source of a famous haiku written by Bashō. I looked it up later and discovered I had been part of a ritual going back 350 years.
Kiso no aki
Seeing friends off
being seen off, and now —
autumn in Kiso
Later in the week, back in Tokyo in a torrential downpour, we darted from high-rise portico to high-rise portico with another guide. Sheltering under a non-descript overhang in the Nihonbashi district, our guide pointed to a beautiful stone with a brass plaque on the sidewalk. “Matsuo Bashō lived here,” she proudly proclaimed before asking, “Has anyone heard of haiku?” I raised my rain-slickered arm high. The plaque commemorated a haiku he wrote in about 1677:
Yado no Haru
This is a hokku
Matsuo Tosei’s (“Green Peach”)
home on New Year.
Tr. Gabi Greve
Several websites remarked that this haiku was Bashō’s official “grand opening” as a professional poet and teacher. Nihonbashi is now a maze of high rise office buildings – the bashi (bridge) spans the river in the permanent shade of an elevated highway. But tucked in every corner was history and in at least one case, poetry.
It is good to be back and I’m looking forward to catching up on everyone’s blogs. Don’t worry, you’ll be subjected to more pictures from Japan for many Silent Sundays to come!