by Sabrina Koumoin
Most of us have probably experienced at least once a desire to escape everything – our homes, our responsibilities, our banal lives. Though for many of us such desires never actually materialize, Matsuo Basho, a Japanese Haiku master of the 1600s, realized his escapist fantasy when he embarked on a pilgrimage to explore the Japanese Deep North. In his travelogue The Narrow Road to the Deep North, he recounts the experience of travelling with his friend Sora and becoming a tourist in his own country. He connects with nature, the past, and his inner self on this exciting adventure and uses haiku to immortalize his feelings and discoveries.
He invites us through his poetry to savor the experience with him. Bashō’s decision to embark on this five-month journey to the deep north is made after he accepts the “summons of the Deity of the Road” (683). Before he leaves and parts with his house, he dedicates a haiku to the event: “Time even for the grass hut / to change owners – / house of dolls” (683). These verses articulate his renewed understanding of transience and impermanence as he moves into a new period of his life. “Even for the grass hut” emphasizes how nothing in life is invulnerable to change.
Bashō’s last stop before beginning his journey is Senju, where he is seen off by a crowd (684). He immortalizes this moment with his first journal entry of the journey, ‘Spring going – / birds crying and tears / in the eyes of the fish’ (684). He mentions Spring to not only mark the starting time of his travel, but also to express his own transition into a novel personal season.
Additionally, the imagery conjured by these verses – that of animals crying, in particular the fish – emphasize his attunement to nature and sensibility to the melancholy of change.
One of the places Bashō visits during his pilgrimage is the holy Nikko mountain. It used to be called Nikkozan, Two Rough Mountains, but was renamed by the late Priest Kukai as Nikko, Light of the Sun (684). There he writes: “Awe inspiring! / on the green leaves, budding leaves / light of the sun” (685). He finds the reflection of the sun on the leaves particularly inspiring, as if they perfectly embody the meaning of the mountain’s name – as if the Priest had peered from the past into this specific moment in the present. He feels a “sense of reverence and awe” at the Priest’s apparent transcendence (685).
Bashō’s journey is not only filled with dreamy moments. In the midst of enchanting or dreamy poetry, “Fleas, lice – / a horse passes water / by my pillow” is a more realistic entry, highlighting the difficulty of the road and its often unpleasant aspects (689). He also writes about being forced to stay “in the middle of a boring mountain” and in doing so allows us and himself to also experience the more mundane and earthy aspects of his voyage (689).
One night as he goes to bed, he hears two “women of pleasure,” who are also on a pilgrimage of their own, conversing with an old man in the neighboring room (693). He captures this night with the verses, “Under the same roof / women of pleasure also sleep – / bush clover and moon” (693). He paints a peaceful scene of humans just being – where “moon” (693) symbolizes the priest and “clover” (693) the women – suggesting that despite our differences in class and reputation we all share a common humanity.
In The Narrow Road to the Deep North Matsuo Basho sets off to discover Japan, his native country. His haiku verses help him capture his emotions – from awe and inspiration to melancholy and boredom – and in the process, he also discovers himself.
Bashō, Matsuo. “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Vol. C, 4th ed., Norton. 2018, pp. 683-694.