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This edition of the Highlights features the first chapters of "The Narrow Road to the Deep North," by Basho.
Matsuo Basho was born in 1644 at or near Ueno in Iga Province. In 1689 he journeyed in northern provinces of Honshu. The journey provided material for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which he completed some time later
Days and months are the travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth till they succumb to the weight of years, spend every minute of their lives travelling. There are a great number of the ancients, too, who died on the road. I myself have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind -- filled with a strong desire to wander.
It was only toward the end of last autumn that I returned from rambling along the coast. I barely had time to sweep the cobwebs from my broken house on the River Sumida before the New Year, but no sooner had the spring mist begun to rise over the field than I wanted to be on the road again to cross the barrier-gate of Shirakawa in due time. The gods seem to have possessed my soul and turned it inside out, and the roadside images seemed to invite me from every corner, so that it was impossible for me to stay idle at home.
Even while I was getting ready, mending my torn trousers, tying a new strap to my hat, and applying moxa to my legs to strengthen them, I was already dreaming of the full moon rising over the islands of Matsushima. Finally, I sold my house, moving to the cottage of Sampu, for a temporary stay. Upon the threshold of my old home, however, I wrote a linked verse of eight pieces and hung it on a wooden pillar.
The starting piece was:
It was early on the morning of March the twenty-seventh that I took to the road. There was darkness lingering in the sky, and the moon was still visible, though gradually thinning away. The faint shadow of Mount Fuji and the cherry blossoms of Ueno and Yanaka were bidding me a last farewell. My friends had got together the night before, and they all came with me on the boat to keep me company for the first few miles. When we got off the boat at Senju, however, the thought of three thousand miles before me suddenly filled my heart, and neither the houses of the town nor the faces of my friends could be seen by my tearful eyes except as a vision.
With this poem to commemorate my departure, I walked forth on my journey, but lingering thoughts made my steps heavy. My friends stood in a line and waved good-bye as long as they could see my back.
I walked all through that day, ever wishing to return after seeing the strange sights of the far north, but not really believing in the possibility, for I knew that departing like this on a long journey in the second year of Genroku I should only accumulate more frosty hairs on my head as I approached the colder regions. When I reached the village of Soka in the evening, my bony shoulders were sore because of the load I had carried, which consisted of a paper coat to keep me warm at night, a light cotton gown to wear after the bath, scanty protection against the rain, writing equipment, and gifts from certain friends of mine. I wanted to travel light, of course, but there were always certain things I could not throw away either for practical or sentimental reasons.
I went to see the shrine of Muronoyashima. According to Sora, my companion, this shrine is dedicated to the goddess called the Lady of the Flower-Bearing Trees, who has another shrine at the foot of Mt.Fuji. This goddess is said to have locked herself up in a burning cell to prove the divine nature of her newly-conceived son when her husband doubted it. As a result, her son was named the Lord Born Out of the Fire, and her shrine, Muro-no-yashima, which means a burning cell. It was the custom of this place for poets to sing of the rising smoke, and for ordinary people not to eat konoshiro, a speckled fish, which has a vile smell when burnt
I lodged in an inn at the foot of Mount Nikko on the night of March the thirtieth. The host of my inn introduced himself as Honest Gozaemon, and told me to sleep in perfect peace on his grass pillow, for his sole ambition was to be worthy of his name. I watched him rather carefully but found him almost stubbornly honest, utterly devoid of worldly cleverness. It was as if the merciful Buddha himself had taken the shape of a man to help me in my wandering pilgrimage. Indeed, such saintly honesty and purity as his must not be scorned, for it verges closely on the perfection preached by Confucius.
On the first day of April l3, I climbed Mt. Nikko to do homage to the holiest of the shrines upon it. This mountain used to be called Niko. When the high priest Kukai built a temple upon it, however, he changed the name to, which means the bright beams of the sun. Kukai must have had the power to see a thousand years into the future, for the mountain is now the seat of the most sacred of all shrines, and its benevolent power prevails throughout the land, embracing the entire people, like the bright beams of the sun. To say more about the shrine would be to violate its holiness.
Mount Kurokami was visible through the mist in the distance. It was brilliantly white with snow in spite of its name, which means black hair.
--written by Sora
My companion's real name is Kawai Sogoro, Sora being his pen name. He used to live in my neighborhood and help me with such chores as bringing water and firewood. He wanted to enjoy the views of Matsushima and Kisagata with me, and also to share with me the hardships of the wandering journey. So he took to the road after taking the tonsure on the very morning of our departure, putting on the black robe of an itinerant priest, and even changing his name to Sogo, which means Religiously Enlightened. His poem, therefore, is not intended as a mere description of Mount Kurokami. The last determination to persist in his purpose.
After climbing two hundred yards or so from the shrine, I came to a waterfall, which came pouring out of a hollow in the ridge and tumbled down into a dark green pool below in a huge leap of several hundred feet. The rocks of the waterfall were so carved out that we could see it from behind, though hidden ourselves in a craggy cave. Hence its nickname, See-from-behind.
A friend was living in the town of Kurobane in the province of Nasu. There was a wide expanse of grass-moor, and the town was on the other side of it. I decided to follow a shortcut which ran straight for miles and miles across the moor. I noticed a small village in the distance, but before I reached it, rain began to fall and darkness closed in. I put up at a solitary farmer's house for the night, and started again early next morning. As I was plodding though the grass, I noticed a horse grazing by the roadside and a farmer cutting grass with a sickle. I asked him to do me the favor of lending me his horse. The farmer hesitated for a while, but finally with a touch of sympathy in his face, he said to me, 'There are hundreds of cross-roads in the grass-moor. A stranger like you can easily go astray. This horse knows the way. You can send him back when he won't go any further.' So I mounted the horse and started off, when two small children came running after me. One of them was a girl named kasane, which means manifold. I thought her name was somewhat strange but exceptionally beautiful.
By and by I came to a small village. I therefore sent back the horse, with a small amount of money tied to the saddle.
I arrived safely at the town of Kurobane, and visited my friend, Joboji, who was then looking after the mansion of his lord in his absence. He was overjoyed to see me so unexpectedly, and we talked for days and nights together. His brother, Tosui, seized every opportunity to talk with me, accompanied me to his home and introduced me to his relatives and friends. One day we took a walk to the suburbs. We saw the ruins of an ancient dog shooting ground, and pushed further out into the grass-moor to see the tomb of Lady Tamamo and the famous Hachiman Shrine, upon whose god the brave archer, Yoichi, is said to have called for aid when he was challenged to shoot a single fan suspended over a boat drifting offshore. We came home after dark.
I was invited out to the Komyoji Temple, to visit the hall in which was enshrined the founder of the Shugen sect. He is said to have travelled all over the country in wooden clogs, preaching his doctrines.
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