Moved by the desire to see the moon rising over a famous shrine — or simply to test the strength of his “slender legs” — Matsuo Basho (1644—94) made five major treks through Japan during the last decade of his short life. He wrote about each of his trips in brief travel journals that he illustrated with haiku, a form of poetry that he nearly perfected. Filled with humble though memorable images of things seen on the road, these haiku journals have become classics of Japanese literature, treasured by many for their freshness and careful balance of poetry and prose.
Dressed like a priest (though he never took orders), Basho tramped along the treacherous roads of Edo Japan in coarsely woven straw sandals, following in the footstep of the ancient poets who obtained a state of ecstasy through taking very long walks. He possessed nothing but what he carried. He worried only about where to sleep and whether his sandals were the right size. In his pack he toted only essentials: a paper raincoat, cotton-stuffed mantle, hat, stockings, medicine, a lunch basket, and of course, his writing brushes, ink stone, and paper. He slept beside the road on a bed of leaves when absolutely necessary; but most nights were spent at inns, monasteries, or under the roof of a friend. For payment or as a token of gratitude he composed a poem or two, which he pinned to a wall just before departing on the next leg of his journey.
His wanderings took him to snow-viewing parties, reunions with old friends, high mountain passes, hidden waterfalls, ruined palaces, temples, hermitages — anything picturesque that might provide poetic inspiration and help his readers become one “with nature throughout the four seasons of the year.” But his greatest pleasure in travelling came in discovering a person — a “genius hidden among the weeds” — who showed the slightest sensitivity to poetic elegance.
I’m perhaps still just a worm among the weeds. Basho’s sardonic wit, his stamina, his love of nature and his dedication to art are all very attractive. But his poems, though evocative and sharp, were too short to be satisfying. Like sushi, each gem-like haiku can be visually stunning and yield a burst of sensations that delights, for a moment; but their compactness can become cloying, and too often they left me hungry. The prose was almost as disappointing: I found myself tripping over the many cultural and poetic references and details (alas, the footnotes ask for a fairly detailed knowledge of Chinese and Japanese history and literature). Ideally, I would have the time and resources to walk where Basho walked, to study his beliefs, to grow familiar with his allusions, to read his language; but until then, I’m afraid these travel journals will remain for me a spare and surprisingly unsatisfying sketchbook of the thoughts and landscapes of seventeenth-century Japan.