I was a young man and about to begin four years of military service when I came across a haiku poem that struck me profoundly: ‘How admirable, / He who thinks not, “Life is fleeting,” / When he sees the lightning!’
It was written by Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), who is certainly one of the greatest of the haiku poets, if not the greatest. The above poem conveyed to me something bracing and hopeful: the human capacity to see an eternal significance in the present moment. This is a general theme that is present throughout Bashō’s work.
The book that I have kept with me for most of my adult life is called “The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches”. Published in 1966, it was translated from the Japanese by Nobuyuki Yuasa (who also provided a helpful introduction and footnotes). The translation includes five travel sketches by Bashō, the most prominent being “The Narrow Road” itself.
In the latter, Bashō describes a lengthy journey that begins near Edo (Tokyo) and advances northward as far as Kisagata; then he travels down Japan’s west coast to Ōgaki. Sometimes he is riding on loaned horses, but for the most part he walks. Prose is interspersed with poetry as he describes various sights and encounters along the way: the receding presence of Mount Fuji at the journey’s outset; a stay at an inn that is run by a man who reminds the author of ‘the Merciful Buddha himself’; the distant sight of Mount Kurokami, ‘brilliantly white with snow in spite of its name, which means black hair’; he treks through a dark forest ‘where even the beams of the sun could not penetrate’; and he weeps at the ruins of a castle where he composed the following:
‘A thicket of summer grass / Is all that remains / Of the dreams and ambitions / Of ancient warriors.’
On the west coast, Bashō observes a rough sea and the Milky Way’s bright clouds of starlight that are visible to the naked eye on clear nights:
‘The great Milky Way / Spans in a single arch / The billow-crested sea, / Falling on Sado beyond.’
Despite my very limited command of Japanese, I venture to suggest that this poem could be broken down as follows: araumi ya (the turbulent sea) — / sado ni yokotō (and falling in the direction of Sado), / ama no gawa (heaven’s river).
It should be noted that the island of Sado was a grim place of exile. Its inhabitants had included the zealous Buddhist teacher, Nichiren.
In a postscript, a priest and scholar named Soryū states that Bashō’s masterpiece includes “everything under the sky”. That’s an exaggeration, of course. However, I do think that “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, more than any other written work, articulates and reveals the soul of Japan.