Matsuo Bash, known as Bash, combines his talents as a poet and essayist in the writing of the poetic diary, a form of literature that was prized highly during Bash’s time. Bash, whose name is a nickname meaning “banana tree,” had been called Kinsaku as a child and Matsuo Munefusa as an adult. When he first began writing poetry, he called himself Sobo, and later, for about eight years, he used the name Tosei.
Planted in the garden near one of Bash’s residences was a banana plant that had wide leaves, especially enjoyed by Bash. When people sought directions to his house, they were told to go to the house with the banana tree; gradually Bash came to be referred to as the “banana tree person.” Around 1681, he took Bash as his pen name. Changing names and taking pen names was not unusual in Japan at the time, especially for a person such as Bash, who was of samurai, or feudal warrior, stock.
After Bash moved to Edo, now Tokyo, he became a teacher of haikai, a special kind of poem that was at first something of a light-hearted diversion from the more serious renga, or linked verse. This type of poetry has an opening stanza composed by one person and is completed by another person, hence the name “linked verse.” Largely because of Bash’s artistry, the haikai developed into a serious kind of poem. The word haiku developed from the hokku, or “starting verse” of a linked verse. A haiku, then, is an independent poem derived from the haikai; thus, the haiku is literally the hokku of a haikai. This miniature poem has seventeen syllables, which usually follow a pattern of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively, as in “a ya me ku sa (blue flag herbage, or iris)/ a shi ni mu su ba n (feet on bind)/ wa ra ji no o (straw sandals of cord),” which can be translated, without following the syllabic pattern, as “I will bind irises/ Around my feet/ Thongs for my sandals.”
Bash wanted to go beyond traditional haikai forms and find fresh ways of writing poetry. He thought that traveling would provide a means of broadening the scope of his life and his poetry, so he made four journeys between 1684 and 1689. These journeys can be considered spiritual pilgrimages as well as physical journeys to seek the ultimate of beauty.
The first journey, westward, began in the fall of 1684 and was completed in the summer of 1685. On returning, Bash wrote the first of several travel diaries, Norarashi kik (1687; The Record of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, 1966). A second journey westward in 1687 resulted in two more diaries, Oi no kobumi (1709; The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, 1966) and Sarashina kik (1704; A Visit to Sarashina Village, 1966). It was Bash’s third journey, his longest, that provided the material for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This time, Bash went northward into the least developed areas of Japan, the northern part of Japan’s largest island, Honshu. The diary in its published form took about four years to complete, although it is only about thirty pages long in English translation.
The book’s original title, Oku no hosomichi, has been translated several ways; it is difficult to express in English all that the word oku includes. On one hand, the name is that of an actual road that Bash traveled; oku is also a short form for Michi-no-Oku (or Michinoku), generally translated as “the road’s far recesses.” Michi-no-Oku was a popular name for a region called shu, or the “far provinces.” Over and above the literal explanations of the word, it carries a sense of an “inner recess” or something “within oneself.” Bash was known for choosing titles that could be interpreted on more than one level, in this case, an actual journey as well as an inward search.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North traces Bash’s fifteen-hundred-mile route from Edo to Ogaki, describing activities and places he visits or stays during the 156-day trip. The diary is by no means just an ordinary travel journal with a few poems. Bash sometimes changes...
(The entire section is 1740 words.)