The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Basho, Japan.1702

Basho, was the pseudonym of Matsuo Munefusa, a Japanese poet, who is considered the master of the Japanese poetic form of haiku. He was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan. Basho is also celebrated for his works in the collaborative haikai no renga form. His poetry is internationally renowned, and within Japan many of his poems revered.

Born into a lower level samurai family in 1644 in the province of Iga, Basho went through the usual education of one of Japan’s minor nobility and was expected to join the military when old enough. But Basho became interested in poetry at a young age and began writing. Increasingly at odds with his family he became a servant to a teacher who introduced him to Hokku poetry. Finally, he rejected his samurai obligations and moved to Edo, modern day Tokyo, in order to write poetry. He quickly became accepted into Edo intellectual circles and in 1664 he published his first poems.

At first, Basho enjoyed the fame but he soon became disillusion with Edo and its fashionable intellectual elite. He would retire to his hut of plantain leaves, or basho-an, to write. He soon adopted the nickname Basho. Finally, Basho decided to leave Edo and wander Japan looking for inspiration for his poems.

Traveling rural Japan was a very dangerous pursuit, liable to end in death at the hands of the country’s numerous bandit. Basho, however, found the exercise uplifting and managed to make his numerous journeys safely and without violent incident.

Basho’s poems became influenced by his firsthand experience of the natural world around him. He infused a mystical quality into much of his verse and attempted to express universal themes through simple natural images. His attention to the natural world transformed the haiku form from a frivolous exercise into a major genre of Japanese poetry.  Basho brought to haiku fuga-no-michi or the Way of Elegance, a Zen influence, and a belief that poetry could be a source of enlightenment.

He returned to Edo after many years of wandering and made a modest living by teaching, writing and accepting donations from his students. In 1686, one of his poems won the prestigious Hokku competition and Basho quickly became the most highly regarded poet in Japan. But he was again quietly filled with the urge to wander.

In 1689, he made the journey for which he would become famous. Basho and a companion departed from Edo for the northern region of Oku, and to visit the places that poets like Saigyo had written about many years before. Basho wandered for more than six months and covered more than a thousand miles mostly on foot.

Returning to Edo, Basho began to write about the journey and that work would become Oku no Hosomichi, or The Road to the Deep North. He would spend five years, working and reworking the complex blend of prose and poetry. He became rather less reclusive in later life and even took a female companion.

In 1694, Basho finished the work and embarked on another journey. However, on the road to Osaka he fell ill and died surrounded by his disciples. Oku no Hosomich was finally published in 1702 to enormous acclaim.

Oku no Hosomichi or The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a mixture of prose and verse, with many references to Confucius, the poet Saigyō, ancient Chinese poetry, and even the Tale of the Heike. It is primarily a travelogue, with vivid descriptions of the places Basho and his companion Sora visit. Stops on his journey include the Tokugawa shrine at Nikko, the Shirakawa barrier, the islands of Matsushima, Hiraizumi, Sakata, Kisakata, and Etchu. What makes this travel book stand out is the exceptionally poetic and evocative verse and prose that describe the brilliant beauty of many of the sites.

Today the work regarded as one of the foremost works of Japanese literature.

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