Poster showing part of Basho’s route to the deep north of Japan

I’ve spent the past week walking in Matsuo Basho’s footsteps. As most of you will know, Basho was a seventeenth century Japanese poet, most famous for his haiku. What fewer people know is that he was also a long-distance walker. In this blog, I’m going to say a little about the walks I’ve been doing following Basho and what I’ve found along the way.

I began the journey with a small group in Tokyo, on the west coast, we travelled to Hiraizu in the north and have ended it in Kanazawa on the east coast. For me, the highlights have been visiting the places where Basho wrote his haiku, including the Uramino-taki waterfall above Nikko (trans. by Nobuyuki Yuasa):

Silent a while in a cave,

I watched a waterfall,

For the first of

The summer observances.

At Nikko

We travelled by foot and boat to Matsushima Bay, with its hundreds of islands. Basho found Matsushima so beautiful, he couldn’t write about it. I’ve had a go but if it was too much for Basho, then I won’t feel too bad if it turns out my poem doesn’t work either. My favourite place on the whole trip so far is at Matsushima – the Zuigan-ji temple, founded in 828 AD. The Buddhist temple has completely over the top golden rooms, painted with cranes and chrysanthemums. I love the fact that Zuigan-ji has special rooms for tea-makers, doctors and samurai – of course, the samurai room is the largest, and one of the grandest. No one is allowed to take photos here. I was glad, I stood looking out of the temple’s wooden sliding doors and could hear nothing but crows and crickets

Where Basho slept on Mount Haguro

Continuing the journey in Basho’s footsteps, we slept overnight in a warrior monk temple, at the top of Mount Haguro-san. The monks, who seemed perfectly peaceful and, I’m delighted to say are all vegetarian, follow Shugendo, which is a mix of Shintoism and Buddhism. Basho camped for several days lower down the mountain. His camp was well chosen, on good flat ground, next to a smaller Shugendo temple. That temple no longer exists but there are stones with engravings of Basho’s haiku and a basic shelter to mark the spot.

At shrines along the route Basho took

You might be wondering where Shirley Bassey comes into the picture? This was on the Natagiri Pass en route to Mount Haguro. Someone had been attacked and injured by a bear on the same stretch of forest path that we were taking, so we sang to give the bears warning and hopefully to make them keep their distance. I sang Hey Big Spender, one of my favourite Shirley Bassey numbers and about the only thing I’ll sing at karaoke (my mum was a Bassey fan, so I get it from her). I also treated the bears and my travelling companions, (from Australia, Canada, Malaysia and the UK), to several traditional Cornish songs. If my poetry never goes any further, I could have a role as a professional bear-scarer. Happily, we were able to continue our walk relatively unscathed, although there was certainly recent evidence of bears. The phrase including the words ‘bear’ and ‘woods’ comes to mind. When Basho walked the route, he and his companion Sora hired a huge man, armed with a stick and a sword, as a guard to cross the same Natagiri Pass.

Basho doesn’t report that he encountered any bears but he did have to contend with fleas and lice, something thankfully I haven’t had to put up with. But I did visit the inn at Shitomae-no-Seki, where Basho slept, and where he wrote this haiku (trans. by Nobuyuki Yuasa):

Bitten by fleas and lice,

I slept in a bed,

A horse urinating all the time

Close by my pillow.

The building’s no longer an inn and is now clean and open to those interested in Basho. I was able to sit around the same fire that Basho would have enjoyed, and heard more about his travels from a local man, in the near dark over cups of green tea, or ocha.

Shitomae-no-Seki

It’s been pretty cold and wet for much of the journey so far, so the traditional hot spring baths, called onsen, where the water is typically upwards of 40° C and you can soak looking up at the sky, have been wonderful. Especially when followed by a good dinner (I’m really enjoying Japanese food, particularly tempura, seaweed, miso and the many varieties of seaweed) and ice cold sake or reishuu. And I’ve been reading Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North along the way.

I’ve been trying to write each day, as Basho tried to do on his journey. It’s too soon to tell if any of my poems will come to fruition but I’m enjoying the challenge.

Two more challenges lie ahead, whether the current typhoon which is lashing Japan will enable me to get to Kyoto as planned – it’s a grade 4 typhoon, which is pretty severe but this being Japan, everything will probably go ahead as usual – and of course, the challenge of doing my first reading in Japan. How will that go? I’ll report back in my next blog.

Thanks for reading. And thanks to Arts Council England/British Council for an Artists International Development Fund grant, which has enabled me to travel to Japan. Here’s a little on what I’m doing overall in Japan http://www.katrinanaomi.co.uk/japan-and-writing/.

And thanks to Matsuo Basho’s, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa), Penguin Books, 1966 and Walk Japan’s Basho Tour notes, prepared by John McBride, 2017, and my travel companions from Australia, Canada, Malaysia and the UK, and John Sweeney, our guide, and the many people who have shown us such kindness along the way.

Arigatou gozaimasu.