Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Days and months are 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 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. . . .

Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa (The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, 1966)

On a beautiful Spring morning, the poet Matsuo Basho patched his trousers, fixed his straw hat and rubbed moxa into his calf muscles to strengthen them. Then he picked up his writing instruments, a few travel necessities, and, accompanied by his friend, Sora, left his simple hut on the banks of the Sumidagawa in Edo (present day Tokyo) to begin a long journey into both his and Japan’s interior. He wrote:

Behind this door
Now buried in deep grass
A different generation will celebrate
The Festival of Dolls

The year was 1689. In England, William of Orange was being crowned King, and was to go on to crush a Catholic Irish rebellion in The Battle Of The Boyne in 1690, an event still celebrated annually by ‘the Orangemen’ (Ulster Protestants). Basho, however, "was dreaming of the full moon rising over the islands of Matsushima.”

After his travels, he spent four years compiling his writings into a book, oku no hosomichi (variously translated as ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ or ‘The Narrow Road to the Interior’), which has since become one of the most revered classics in Japanese literature.

The passing spring
Birds mourn,
Fishes weep with tearful eyes.
In the late summer of 2005 I boarded the Intercity Hopper from Bristol International Airport, bound for Schiphol in the Netherlands. Here I picked up a KLM long-haul flight to Narita, Tokyo. I was going to realise a long-held dream: using oku no hosomichi as a guide, to follow in the ancient Master’s footsteps - or as many of them as I could in five weeks.

Edo (Tokyo); north to Matsushima with its fabled islands, further north yet to Hiraizumi and Choson-ji, site of the Golden Hall of Konjikido (already reputed by Marco Polo); then East, East across the spine of Honshu, the main island of Japan; through Naruko Hotsprings and the Shitomae Barrier; on to Tsuruoka and a pilgrimage to Black Feather Mountain, Moon Mountain and Bath Mountain, where there is a shrine so holy even Basho was not allowed to say anything about it; then plunging down the coast of the Inland Sea, past Children-Desert-Parents, Send-Back-the-Dog, Turn-Back-the-Horse – fearsomely dangerous places in Basho’s day – and on to Kanazawa, exquisite Kenroku-en, Fukui, Eihei-ji, headquarters of the Soto Zen School founded in the 12th century by Dogen Zenji…

These fabled names dance in my head as I haggle over the price of a pair of lightweight Gortex boots in the Outward Bound shop, scrutinise the Lonely Planet guide for places to stay, kiss my wife goodbye, and begin a long journey into my and Japan’s interior.


Blogger Lina said...

thank you very much for sharing.

11:39 am  
Blogger Graeme said...

Looking forward to reading what you write. Will it be in haiku?

2:45 pm  
Blogger Gloria Ojulari Sule said...

Hi Ralph, looking good will keep checking it out

12:26 pm  
Blogger Gloria Ojulari Sule said...


12:29 pm  
Blogger jenny grahan said...

Good luck on your journey. Each time I see the shadow of a flower cast on a wall or ground I will think of you and your quest.

1:26 pm  

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