From Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior
Today we came through places with names like Children-Desert-Parents, Lost Children, Send-Back-the-Dog, Turn-Back-the-Horse, some of the most fearsomely dangerous places in all the North Country. And well named. Weakened and exhausted, I went to bed early, but was roused by the voices of two young women in the room next door. Then an old man’s voice joined theirs. They were prostitutes from Niigata in Echigo Province and were on their way to Ise Shrine in the south, the old man seeing them off at this barrier, Ichiburi. He would turn back to Niigata in the morning, carrying their letters home. One girl quoted the Shinkokinshū poem, “On the beach where white waves fall, / we all wander like children into every circumstance, / carried forward every day . . .” And as they bemoaned their fate in life, I fell asleep.
In the morning, preparing to leave, they came to ask directions. “May we follow along behind?” they asked. “We’re lost and not a little fearful. Your robes bring the spirit of the Buddha to our journey.” They had mistaken us for priests. “Our way includes detours and retreats,” I told them. “But follow anyone on this road and the gods will see you through.” I hated to leave them in tears, and thought about them hard for a long time after we left. I told Sora, and he wrote down:
Under one roof, prostitute and priest,
we all sleep together;
moon in a field of clover
From Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior (Sam Hamill translator):
Checking Kaemon’s drawings as we walked, we followed the oku-no-hosomichi along the mountainside where sedge grass grew tall in bunches. The Tofu area is famous for its sedge mats sent in tribute to the governor each year.
At Taga Castle, we found the most ancient monument Tsubo-no-ishibumi, in Ichikawa Village. It’s about six feet high and three feet wide. We struggled to read the inscription under heavy moss:
This Castle Was Built by Shogun Ono-no-Azumabito in 724. In 762, His Majesty’s Commanding General Emi-no-Asakari Supervised Repairs.
Dated from the time of Emperor Shomu, Tsubo-no-ishibumi inspired many a poet. Floods and landslides buried trails and markers, trees have grown and died, making this monument very difficult to find. The past remains hidden in clouds of memory. Still it returned us to memories from a thousand years before. Such a moment is the reason for a pilgrimage: infirmities forgotten, the ancients remembered, joyous tears trembled in my eyes.
From The Knapsack Notebook of Matsuo Basho, in Basho’s Journey: The Literary Prose Of Matsuo Basho translated by David Landis Barnhill
Among diaries of the road, those of Ki, Cho-mei, and the Nun Abutsu are consummate works, bringing to fulfillment the feelings of the journey, while later writers merely imitate their form, lapping their dregs, unable to create anything new. I too fall far short, my pen shallow in wisdom and feeble in talent. “Today rain fell, it cleared at noon. There was a pine tree here, a certain river flowed over there”: anyone can record this, but unless there is Huang’s distinctiveness and the freshness of Su, it’s really not worth writing. And yet the scenes of so many places linger in the heart, and the aching sorrow of a mountain shelter or a hut in a moor become seeds for words and a way to become intimate with wind and clouds. So I’ve thrown together jottings of places unforgotten. Think of them as the delirium of a drunk or the rambling of one asleep, and listen recklessly.