Narrow Road to the Deep North

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Matsuo Basho's

"Narrow Road to the Deep North"

Tr. by Nobuyuki Yuasa

Source: http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~kohl/basho

Station 1 - Prologue

Days and months are the travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives travelling. There are a great number of the ancients, too, who died on the road. I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind- filled with a strong desire to wander.
It was only toward the end of last autumn that I returned from rambling along the coast. I barely had time to sweep the cobwebs from my broken house on the River Sumida before the New Year, but no sooner had the spring mist begun to rise over the field than I wanted to be on the road again to cross the barrier-gate of Shirakawa in due time. The gods seem to have possessed my soul and turned it inside out, and the roadside images seemed to invite me from every corner, so that it was impossible for me to stay idle at home.

Even while I was getting ready, mending my torn trousers, tying a new strap to my hat, and applying moxa to my legs to strengthen them, I was already dreaming of the full moon rising over the islands of Matsushima. Finally, I sold my house, moving to the cottage of Sampu, for a temporary stay. Upon the threshold of my old home, however, I wrote a linked verse of eight pieces and hung it on a wooden pillar.

The starting piece was:
Behind this door

Now buried in deep grass

A different generation will celebrate

The Festival of Dolls.

Station 2 - Departure

It was early on the morning of March the twenty-seventh that I took to the road. There was darkness lingering in the sky, and the moon was still visible, though gradually thinning away. The faint shadow of Mount Fuji and the cherry blossoms of Ueno and Yanaka were bidding me a last farewell. My friends had got together the night before, and they all came with me on the boat to keep me company for the first few miles. When we got off the boat at Senju, however, the thought of three thousand miles before me suddenly filled my heart, and neither the houses of the town nor the faces of my friends could be seen by my tearful eyes except as a vision.

The passing spring

Birds mourn,

Fishes weep

With tearful eyes.


With this poem to commemorate my departure, I walked forth on my journey, but lingering thoughts made my steps heavy. My friends stood in a line and waved good-bye as long as they could see my back.

Station 3 - Soka


I walked all through that day, ever wishing to return after seeing the strange sights of the far north, but not really believing in the possibility, for I knew that departing like this on a long journey in the second year of Genroku I should only accumulate more frosty hairs on my head as I approached the colder regions. When I reached the village of Soka in the evening, my bony shoulders were sore because of the load I had carried, which consisted of a paper coat to keep me warm at night, a light cotton gown to wear after the bath, scanty protection against the rain, writing equipment, and gifts from certain friends of mine. I wanted to travel light, of course, but there were always certain things I could not throw away either for practical or sentimental reasons.

Station 4 - Muronoyashima


I went to see the shrine of Muronoyashima. According to Sora, my companion, this shrine is dedicated to the goddess called the Lady of the Flower-Bearing Trees, who has another shrine at the foot of Mt.Fuji. This goddess is said to have locked herself up in a burning cell to prove the divine nature of her newly-conceived son when her husband doubted it. As a result, her son was named the Lord Born Out of the Fire, and her shrine, Muro-no-yashima, which means a burning cell. It was the custom of this place for poets to sing of the rising smoke, and for ordinary people not to eat konoshiro, a speckled fish, which has a vile smell when burnt

Station 5 - Nikko

I lodged in an inn at the foot of Mount Nikko on the night of March the thirtieth. The host of my inn introduced himself as Honest Gozaemon, and told me to sleep in perfect peace on his grass pillow, for his sole ambition was to be worthy of his name. I watched him rather carefully but found him almost stubbornly honest, utterly devoid of worldly cleverness. It was as if the merciful Buddha himself had taken the shape of a man to help me in my wandering pilgrimage. Indeed, such saintly honesty and purity as his must not be scorned, for it verges closely on the perfection preached by Confucius.

On the first day of April l3, I climbed Mt. Nikko to do homage to the holiest of the shrines upon it. This mountain used to be called Niko. When the high priest Kukai built a temple upon it, however, he changed the name to Nikko, which means the bright beams of the sun. Kukai must have had the power to see a thousand years into the future, for the mountain is now the seat of the most sacred of all shrines, and its benevolent power prevails throughout the land, embracing the entire people, like the bright beams of the sun. To say more about the shrine would be to violate its holiness.
It is with awe

That I beheld

Fresh leaves, green leaves,

Bright in the sun.


Mount Kurokami was visible through the mist in the distance. It was brilliantly white with snow in spite of its name, which means black hair.
Rid of my hair,

I came to Mount Kurokami

On the day we put on

Clean summer clothes.


--written by Sora
My companion's real name is Kawai Sogoro, Sora being his pen name. He used to live in my neighborhood and help me with such chores as bringing water and firewood. He wanted to enjoy the views of Matsushima and Kisagata with me, and also to share with me the hardships of the wandering journey. So he took to the road after taking the tonsure on the very morning of our departure, putting on the black robe of an itinerant priest, and even changing his name to Sogo, which means Religiously Enlightened. His poem, therefore, is not intended as a mere description of Mount Kurokami. The last determination to persist in his purpose.

After climbing two hundred yards or so from the shrine, I came to a waterfall, which came pouring out of a hollow in the ridge and tumbled down into a dark green pool below in a huge leap of several hundred feet. The rocks of the waterfall were so carved out that we could see it from behind, though hidden ourselves in a craggy cave. Hence its nickname, See-from-behind.

Silent a while in a cave,

I watched a waterfall

For the first of

The summer observances

Station 6 - Nasu
A friend was living in the town of Kurobane in the province of Nasu. There was a wide expanse of grass-moor, and the town was on the other side of it. I decided to follow a shortcut which ran straight for miles and miles across the moor. I noticed a small village in the distance, but before I reached it, rain began to fall and darkness closed in. I put up at a solitary farmer's house for the night, and started again early next morning. As I was plodding though the grass, I noticed a horse grazing by the roadside and a farmer cutting grass with a sickle. I asked him to do me the favor of lending me his horse. The farmer hesitated for a while, but finally with a touch of sympathy in his face, he said to me, 'There are hundreds of cross-roads in the grass-moor. A stranger like you can easily go astray. This horse knows the way. You can send him back when he won't go any further.' So I mounted the horse and started off, when two small children came running after me. One of them was a girl named kasane, which means manifold. I thought her name was somewhat strange but exceptionally beautiful.
If your name, Kasane,

Means manifold,

How befitting it is also

For a double-flowered pink.


By and by I came to a small village. I therefore sent back the horse, with a small amount of money tied to the saddle.

Station 7 - Kurobane

I arrived safely at the town of Kurobane, and visited my friend, Joboji, who was then looking after the mansion of his lord in his absence. He was overjoyed to see me so unexpectedly, and we talked for days and nights together. His brother, Tosui, seized every opportunity to talk with me, accompanied me to his home and introduced me to his relatives and friends. One day we took a walk to the suburbs. We saw the ruins of an ancient dog shooting ground, and pushed further out into the grass-moor to see the tomb of Lady Tamamo and the famous Hachiman Shrine, upon whose god the brave archer, Yoichi, is said to have called for aid when he was challenged to shoot a single fan suspended over a boat drifting offshore. We came home after dark.

I was invited out to the Komyoji Temple, to visit the hall in which was enshrined the founder of the Shugen sect. He is said to have travelled all over the country in wooden clogs, preaching his doctrines.
Amid mountains mountains of high summer,

I bowed respectfully before

The tall clogs of a statue,

Asking a blessing on my journey.

Station 8 - Unganji
There was a Zen temple called Unganji in this province. The priest Buccho used to live in isolation in the mountains behind the temple. He once told me that he had written the following poem on the rock of his hermitage with the charcoal he had made from pine.
This grassy hermitage,

Hardly any more

Than five feet square,

I would gladly quit

But for the rain.
A group of young people accompanied me to the temple. they talked so cheerfully along the way that I reached it before I knew it. The temple was situated on the side of a mountain completely covered with dark cedars and pines. A narrow road trailed up the valley, between banks of dripping moss, leading us to the gate of the temple across a bridge. The air was still cold, though it was April.
I went behind the temple to see the remains of the priest Buccho's hermitage. It was a tiny hut propped against the base of a huge rock. I felt as if I was in the presence of the Priest Genmyo's cell or the Priest Houn's retreat. I hung on a wooden pillar of the cottage the following poem which I wrote impromptu.
Even the woodpeckers

Have left it untouched,

This tiny cottage

In a summer grove.

Station 9 - Sesshoseki

Taking leave of my friend in Kurobane, I started for the Murder Stone, so called because it kills birds and insects that approached it. I was riding on a horse my friend had lent me, when the farmer who led the horse asked me to compose a poem for him. His request came to me as a pleasant surprise.

Turn the head of your horse

Sideways across the field,

To let me hear

The cry of the cuckoo.


The Murder Stone was in the dark corner of a mountain near a hot spring, and was completely wrapped in the poisonous gas rising from it. There was such a pile of dead bees, butterflies, and other insects, that the real color of the ground was hardly discernable.
I went to see the willow tree which Saigyo celebrated in his poem when he wrote, "Spreading its shade over a crystal stream." I found it near the village of Ashino on the bank of a rice-field. I had been wondering in my mind where this tree was situated, for the ruler of this province had repeatedly talked to me about it, but this day, for the first time in my life, I had an opportunity to rest my worn-out legs under its shade.
When the girls had planted

A square of paddy-field,

I stepped out of

The shade of a willow tree.

Station 10 - Shirakawa

After many days of solitary wandering, I came at last to the barrier-gate of Shirakawa, which marks the entrance to the northern regions. Here, for the first time, my mind was able to gain a certain balance and composure, no longer victim to pestering anxiety, so it was with a mild sense of detachment that I thought about the ancient traveller who had passed through this gate with a burning desire to write home. This gate was counted among the three largest checking stations, and many poets had passed through it, each leaving a poem of his own making. I myself walked between trees laden with thick foliage with the distant sound of autumn wind in my ears and a vision of autumn tints before my eyes. There were hundreds and thousands of pure white blossoms of unohana in full bloom on either side of the road, in addition to the equally white blossoms of brambles, so that the ground, at a glance, seemed to be covered with early snow. According to the accounts of Kiyosuke, the ancients are said to have passed through this gate, dressed up in their best clothes.

Decorating my hair

With white blossoms of unohana,

I walked through the gate,

My only gala dress.


-- written by Sora

Station 11 - Sukagawa


Pushing towards the north, I crossed the River Abukuma, and walked between the high mountains of Aizu on the left and the three villages of Iwaki, Soma, and Miharu on the right, which were divided from the villages of Hitachi and Shimotsuke districts by a range of low mountains. I stopped at the Shadow Pond, so called because it was thought to reflect the exact shadow of any object that approached its shore. It was a cloudy day, however, and nothing but the grey sky was reflected in the pond. I called on the Poet Tokyu at the post town of Sukagawa, and spent a few days at his house. He asked me how I had fared at the gate of Shirakawa. I had to tell him that I had not been able to make as many poems as I wanted, partly because I had been absorbed in the wonders of the surrounding countryside and the recollections of ancient poets. It was deplorable, however, to have passed the gate of Shirakawa without a single poem worth recording, so I wrote:
The first poetic venture

I came across --

The rice planting-songs

Of the far north.


Using this poem as a starting piece, we made three books of linked verse.
There was a huge chestnut tree on the outskirts of this post town, and a priest was living in seclusion under its shade. When I stood there in front of the tree, I felt as if I were in the midst of the deep mountains where the poet Saigyo had picked nuts. I took a piece of paper from my bag, and wrote as follows:

"The chestnut is a holy tree, for the Chinese ideograph for chestnut is Tree placed directly below West, the direction of the holy land. The Priest Gyoki is said to have used it for his walking stick and the chief support of his house.

The chestnut by the eaves

In magnificient bloom

Passes unnoticed

By men of the world.

Station 12 - Asaka
Passing through the town of Hiwada, which was about five miles from the house of the Poet Tokyu, I came to the famous hills of Asaka. The hills were not very far from the highroad, and scattered with numerous pools. It was the season of a certain species of iris called katsumi. So I went to look for it. I went from pool to pool, asking every soul I met on the way where I could possibly find it, but strangely enough, no one had ever heard of it, and the sun went down before I caught even a glimpse of it. I cut across to the right at Nihonmatsu, saw the ancient cave of Kurozuka in a hurry, and put up for the night in Fukushima.

Station 13 - Shinobu


On the following morning I made my way to the village of Shinobu to look at the stone upon whose chequered face they used to dye a certain type of cloth called shinobu-zuri. I found the stone in the middle of a small village, half buried in the ground. According to the child who acted as a self-appointed guide, this stone was once on the top of a mountain, but the travellers who came to see it did so much harm to the cropsthat the farmers thought it a nuisance and thrust it down into the valley, where it rests now with its chequered face downward. I thought the story was not altogether unbelievable.
The busy hands

Of rice-planting girls,

Reminiscent somehow

Of the old dyeing technique.

Station 14 - Satoshoji

Crossing the ferry of Moon Halo, I came to the post town of Rapid's Head. The ruined house of the brave warrior Sato was about a mile and a half from this post town towards the foot of the mountains on the left. I pushed my way towards the village of Iizuka, and found a hill called Maruyama in the open field of Sabano. This was the site of the warrior's house. I could not refrain from weeping, when I saw the remains of the front gate at the foot of the hill. There was a lonely temple in the vicinity, and tombs of the Sato family were still standing in the graveyard. I wept bitterly in front of the tombstones of the two young wives, remembering how they had dressed up their frail bodies in armor after the death of their husbands. In fact I felt as if I were in the presence of the Weeping Tombstone of China.

I went into the temple to have a drink of tea. Among the treasures of the temple were the sword of Yoshitsune and the satchel which his faithful retainer, Benkei, had carried on his back.
Proudly exhibit

With flying banners

The sword and the satchel

This May festival day.

Station 15 - Iizuka
I stopped overnight at Iizuka. I had a bath in a hot spring before I took shelter at an inn. It was a filthy place with rough straw mats spread out on an earth floor. They had to prepare my bed by the dim light of the fire, for there was not even a lamp in the whole house. A storm came upon us towards midnight, and between the noise of the thunder and leaking rain and the raids of mosquitoes and fleas, I could not get a wink of sleep. Furthermore, an attack of my old complaint made me so ill that I suffered severely from repeated attacks while I rode on horseback bound for the town of Kori. It was indeed a terrible thing to be so ill on the road, when there still remained thousands of miles before me, but thinking that if I were to die on my way to the extreme north it would only be the fulfillment of providence, I trod the earth as firmly as possible and arrived at the barrier-gate of Okido in the province of Date.

Station 16 - Kasajima

Passing through the castle towns of Abumizuri and Shiroishi, I arrived at the province of Kasajima, where I asked the way to the mound of Lord Sanekata of the Fujiwara family. I was told that I must turn right in the direction of the villages of Minowa and Kasajima visible at the foot of the mountains in the distance, and that the mound was still there by the side of a shrine, buried in deep grass. I wanted to go that way, of course, but the muddy road after the early rain of the wet season and my own weakness stopped me. The names of the two villages were so befitting to the wet season with their echoes of raincoat and umbrella that I wrote:

How far must I walk

To the village of Kasajima

This endlessly muddy road

Of the early wet season?


I stopped overnight at Iwanuma.

Station 17 - Takekuma no Matsu


My heart leaped with joy when I saw the celebrated pine tree of Takekuma, its twin trunks shaped exactly as described by the ancient poets. I was immediately reminded of the priest Noin who had grieved to find upon his second visit this same tree cut down and thrown into the River Natori as bridge-piles by the newly-appointed governor of the province. This tree had been planted, cut, and replanted several times in the past, but just when I came to see it myself, it was in its original shape after a lapse of perhaps a thousand years, the most beautiful shape one could possibly think of for a pine tree. The poet Kyohaku wrote as follows at the time of my departure to express his good wishes for my journey:
Don't forget to show my master

The famous pine of Takekuma,

Late cherry blossoms

Of the far north.


The following poem I wrote was, therefore, a reply:
Three months after we saw

Cherry blossoms together

I came to see the glorious

Twin trunks of the pine.

Station 18 - Sendai

Crossing the River Natori, I entered the city of Sendai on May the fourth, the day we customarily throw fresh leaves of iris on the roof and pray for good health. I found an inn, and decided to stay there for several days. There was in this city a painter named Kaemon. I made special efforts to meet him, for he was reputed to be a man with a truly artistic mind. One day he took me to various places of interest which I might have missed but for his assistance. We first went to the plain of Miyagino, where fields of bush-clover were waiting to blossom in autumn. The hills of Tamada, Yokono, and Tsutsuji-ga-oka were covered with white rhododendrons in bloom. Then we went into the dark pine woods called Konoshita where even the beams of the sun could not penetrate. This darkest spot on the earth had often been the subject of poetry because of its dewiness - for example, one poet says that his lord needs an umbrella to protect him from the drops of dew when he enters it.

We also stopped at the shrines of Yakushido and Tenjin on our way home.
When the time came for us to say good-bye, this painter gave me his own drawings of Matsushima and Shiogama and two pairs of straw sandals with laces dyed in the deep blue of the iris. In this last appears most clearly perhaps the true artistic nature of this man.
It looks as if

Iris flowers had bloomed

On my feet --

Sandals laced in blue.

Station 19 - Tsubo no Ishibumi
Relying solely on the drawings of Kaemon which served as a guide, pushed along the Narrow Road to the Deep North, and came to the place where tall sedges were growing in clusters. This was the home of the famous sedge mats of Tofu. Even now it is the custom of the people of this area to send carefully woven mats as tribute to the governor each year.
I found the stone monument of Tsubo no Ishibumi on the ancient site of the Taga castle in the village of Ichikawa. The monument was about six feet tall and three feet wide, and the engraved letters were still visible on its surface through thick layers of moss. In addition to the numbers giving the mileage to various provinces, it was possible to read the following words: This castle was built upon the present site in the first year of Jinki (724) by General Ono no Azumabito dispatched to the Northern Provinces by His Majesty, and remodelled in the sixth year of Tempyohoji (762) by His majesty's Councillor and general Emi no Asakari, Governor of the Eastern and Northern Provinces.

According to the date given at the end of the inscription, this monument was erected during the reign of Emperor Shomu (724-49), and had stood here ever since, winning the increasing admiration of poets through the years. In this ever changing world where mountains crumble, rivers change their courses, roads are deserted, rocks are buried, and old trees yield to young shoots, it was nothing short of a miracle that this monument alone had survived the battering of a thousand years to be the living memory of the ancients. I felt as if I were in the presence of the ancients themselves, and, forgetting all the troubles I had suffered on the road, rejoiced in the utter happiness of this joyful moment, not without tears in my eyes.

Station 20 - Shiogama

Stopping briefly at the River Noda no Tamagawa and the so-called Rock in the Offing, I came to the pine woods called Sue no Matsuyama, where I found a temple called Masshozan and a great number of tombstones scattered among the trees. It was a depressing sight indeed, for young or old, loved or loving, we must all go to such a place at the end of our lives. I entered the town of Shiogama hearing the ding-dong of the curfew. Above was the darkening sky, unusually empty for May, and beyond was the silhouette of Migaki ga Shima Island* not far from the shore in the moonlight.



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