A Hundred Gourds 5:3 June 2016

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In the Footsteps of Bashō: small group travel in Japan
with a focus on Japanese Literature

by Beverley George

| Introduction | page 2 | page 3 |page 4

In the Footsteps of Bashō – the first journey

In late October 2010, twelve Australians began their journey in the footsteps of Japanese poet, Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694).

As many reading this will know, Bashō’s writing was influenced by deep admiration of the Tang Dynasty poets, particularly Tu Fu, Li Po and Po Chu-i. In the west he is best known for his haiku, which stemmed from the hokku (starting verse) of linked verse, haikai-no-renga, of which Bashō was a master. In his own day he was best known for this role of renga master, and also for his haibun (haiku prose) which ranged from brief sketches and diary entries to travel journals.

It was the most famous and the last of his travel journals, Narrow Road to the Far North which inspired our first journey, carefully and imaginatively coordinated by Mitsui Travel director, Ayako Mitsui, who kindly appointed me as literary adviser. Consultation was conducted prior to the trip with Ayako and I discussing various places of relevant interest, before she efficiently organised all the details. Once in Japan we had the services of a full-time English-speaking guide, well-versed in history and literature.

Before we set off, all travellers read Oku no Hosomichi1 (Narrow Road to the Far North) in at least one of its English translations, such as those by Yuasa, Hamill, Britton or Keene. A highlight was that along the way, travellers took turns to read the passage relevant to each site we visited. Our journey took us from Tokyo to Yamagata, heading north in Bashō’s footsteps, never travelling far on any day. The poet’s journey, which covered a far greater distance than ours, ended in Ogaki six months after he had set out, at which point the journal concludes. But it is worth noting that, although travelling in dangerous times, Bashō spent more than two and a half years on the road before returning to Edo (Tokyo) in 1691.

Our pilgrimage started from the site of Bashō’s small hut beside the Sumida River, given to him by his pupils. Simple, authentic (and non-touristy), this was a great start. Bashō’s name was Matsuo Kinsaku. His (pen-name) came from that of a plant, a type of plantain, that did not bear fruit but whose broad leaves shredded in the wind. It is said Bashō drew a parallel with this and the life of a poet.

Unlike Bashō, who burnt moxa on his shins to give him strength, we travelled by comfortable coach and three times across water. There was also ample opportunity for walking, or climbing steps, at mountain shrines and temples.

Our group comprised haiku and tanka poets and a travel writer. All were avid readers. Several were first time visitors to Japan. By the end of the journey, every traveller had felt moved to express some impressions of their journey in haiku, and several also in haibun.

Bashō museum
watching and listening
the ripples widen

– David Terelinck, Biggera Waters, QLD

my feet
too small to fit
Bashō’s sandals

– Jo Tregellis, Cooranbong, NSW

waiting for the typhoon
prayers flutter
on bare branches

– Dy Andreasen, Centennial Park, NSW

Shinto temple
an icy blast
brings cedar offerings

– Helen Davison, Goonellabah, NSW

black pine
layers of needles
layers of light

– Catherine Smith, Elanora Heights, NSW

a lone birch
on this high road to Sagae
all the gold spent

– M L Grace, Bilgola, NSW

turning gold, as I
turn silver

– Rob Miller, Biggera Waters, QLD

on a stone lantern –
               light enough

– Michael Thorley,Tamworth, NSW

five-tier pagoda
a spider on stilt legs
over ancient rock

– Quendryth Young, Alstonville, NSW

Hojin No Ie . . .
smoke from Bashō's fire
lingers on my skin

– Carmel Summers, Canberra, ACT

on the golden cliffs
koi rising

– Lynette Arden, Norwood, South Australia

Geibi Gorge
the boatman’s chant
flows through us

– Beverley George, Pearl Beach, NSW

Within the far broader framework of learning about Japanese culture, by enjoying its nutritious, exquisitely presented food, sleeping in traditional Japanese inns (ryokans), as well as western hotels, and visiting an onsen (communal bath) on several occasions, our focus was on the places to which Bashō travelled in 1689 and where he wrote many of his memorable haiku.

Activities included a tea ceremony, a Buddhist and also a Shinto purification ceremony, apple picking, a stroll through a traditional market town, entertainment by two maiko (trainee) dancers, a calligraphy demonstration, a ginko, and a bilingual reading. We shared many hilarious moments as well as more reflective ones.

We crossed Matsushima Bay by boat, threading between 260 pine clad islands, each individually named. It is engaging to note that Bashō was so moved by his first sight of this special place, he exclaimed but then chose to make poems by others his “companions for the night”.


Matsushima (pine islands) Bay

Twice we journeyed peacefully by river, in gorges where the mountains rose steeply on either side, pines with their evergreen foliage threading the changing colour of autumnal leaves. In Geibi Gorge we travelled by ikada (Japanese raft). The seventy-year old man who poled the boat sang in a traditional way that moved us deeply.

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