Through his poetry and travel writing, born out of a desire to isolate himself from society, Matsuo Bashō established himself as one of Japan’s most important literary figures, known for refining what would later become the haiku.

There was a time when I envied those who had impressive government offices or estates, and on another occasion I considered entering the Buddha compound and the teaching halls of the patriarchs. Instead, I wore my body out on journeys as aimless as the winds and clouds, and spent my feelings on flowers and birds. But somehow I was able to make a living that way, and so in the end, inexperienced and untalented as I am, I give myself entirely to this one concern, poetry.

Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) wrote this self-description in his late forties, in the work “Genjūan no ki” (the excerpt above is taken from Burton Watson’s translation, “The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling”). It could be rephrased, in short, as his assertion that he could only live by literature – namely haikai.

Haikai is an abbreviation of haikai no rengaa lighter and more humorous version of renga related verses that emerged from Japan’s high tradition of waka poetry. The term haikai became more widely used to describe individual poems – now commonly called haiku – and prose with the same spirit. As literacy rates increased during the early Edo period (1603–1868), haikai the works became popular among samurai and townspeople.

Bashō was born in 1644 as the second son of the Matsuo family in Ueno, Iga Province (now Iga, Mie Prefecture). The Matsuos had been samurai – albeit without allowance – but his father lost that status and moved the family to the walled town of Ueno, where he lived as a farmer. Bashō was originally named Kinsaku, taking the name Munefusa as an adult. In his late teens, he went to work for the Tōdō house and was chosen as the literary companion of Lord Toshitada’s son (also known as haikai name of Sengin), developing his own poetic capacity through this association. However, Toshitada died young, and in his late twenties Bashō moved to Edo (now Tokyo).

Basho in Edo

In Bashō’s youth, the Teimon school of haikai poetry, centered on Matsunaga Teitoku, was in vogue. This style adapted ideas from waka and other classic literature while emphasizing wordplay. In Edo, however, Bashō encountered the Danrin school, founded by Nishiyama Sōin, which drew inspiration from the Taoist text Zhuangzi and often parodied songs of the nō drama. He employed whimsical word associations and turns of phrase, while enthusiastically incorporating the customs of the time into poems.

Once in Edo, Bashō took the pen name Tōsei. After working for the city’s water service, in his thirties, he managed to earn his living as a haikai teaching, which was a popular occupation in the city. He held kukai gatherings at Nihonbashi, tweaking client works and editing anthologies. Around this time, he hired disciples like Kikaku, Ransetsu, and Sanpū, who would support him until the end.

Here is an example of one of Bashō’s poems from this period.

実にや月 間口千金の 通り町
Ge ni ya tsuki / maguchi senkin no / toricho
So beautiful the moon—
The facade is worth a thousand gold coins
in Torichō

He humorously alludes to a well-known verse by Chinese poet Su Shi, which states that a moment on a spring night is worth a thousand pieces of gold. Tōrichō was the main shopping street in Nihonbashi, central Edo, with correspondingly high land prices. In Danrin style, Bashō’s poem is a jubilant song to the rising city.

Reclusion and travel writing

Bashō was building a reputation for haikai teacher when, in 1680, he suddenly retired to the village of Fukagawa on the east bank of the Sumida River. the bashoor banana tree, planted outside his hermitage by a disciple first gave its name to the dwelling itself (Bashōan) before being adopted by the poet as a pseudonym under which he would become known to posterity .

A portrait of Bashō by Ogawa Haritsu, lacquer artist and craftsman as well as one of Bashō’s students. (Courtesy of Bashō-ō Memorial Museum)

As Danrin’s school declined, haikai entered a period of change and confusion. Leading a reclusive life, Bashō sought to forge a new path and he studied Zen under the priest Butchō. About the time he entered his forties in 1684, he began a series of travels, which he documented in journals, as shown below. (All English titles are taken from translations published in 2020 by Steven D. Carter in Matsuo Bashō: Travel Writings.)

Nozarashi kiko (Bone bleaching in the fields)

From the fall of 1684 to the following spring, Bashō traveled along the Tōkaidō highway from Edo to his hometown of Iga, also visiting Kyoto, Ōtsu, and Atsuta Shrine along the way.

Kashima-style (A pilgrimage to Kashima)

In 1687, Bashō traveled to Edo and Kashima and returned to enjoy tsukimi (moon sighting).

Oi no kobumi (Notes on the backpack)

From the winter of 1687 to the summer of the following year, Bashō first went to Iga, before wandering around the Kansai region with Tsuboi Tokoku, notably going to see the famous cherry blossoms in Yoshino.

sarashina kiko (A trip to Sarashina)

Bashō set out from Nagoya with Ochi Etsujin in 1688 to see the autumn moon at Sarashina before returning to Edo.

Oku no hosomichi (The narrow road through the hinterland)

From spring to autumn 1689, Bashō traveled from Edo with Kawai Sora through the northern provinces of Ōshū and Dewa, then west through Hokuriku before arriving at Ōgaki in present-day Gifu Prefecture.

Bashō’s many travels later in life were partly inspired by a wish for ascetic training through pilgrimages, away from society. He also wanted to see for himself the many places made famous by classical literature and follow in the footsteps of poet monks like Nōin, Sōgi and especially Saigyō. broadcast sound haikai styling across the country must have been another of his motivations.

The following poem was composed when he started the journey to be documented in Bone bleaching in the fields.

野ざらしを 心に風の しむ身哉
Nozarashio / kokoro ni kaze no / shimu mi kana
Bleached bones—
the wind is cooling
my heart

Unpacking the poem into context, one might paraphrase it as follows: “As I go on a journey, I imagine my bones whitening in the open air and the autumn wind chilling me.” However, despite the possibility of dying on the road, his desire to wander is such that he cannot hold himself back.

On the way to Saigyō

After the trip around northern Japan and west through Hokuriku which served as the base for The narrow road through the hinterland, Bashō spent about two years in the Kansai region. It was there that he wrote “The Hut of the Ghost Dwelling”. Then he returned to Edo, where he remained for two and a half years before traveling again to Iga in 1694. That summer he passed through Kyoto and Ōtsu, while in the fall he headed from Nara to Osaka . He died in a rented room on Midōsuji Street in Osaka on November 28, 1694. The cause of death appears to have been stomach illness.

Bashō did not marry and had no children. There is no solid evidence for the suggestion that a woman called Jutei was his lover. During the last five years of his life, one can sense that Bashō’s style was influenced not only by classical literature in the form of waka, nō and kanshi (Chinese poetry) but also through an understanding of Zen Buddhism and Zhuangzi. He championed and instructed his followers in the aesthetic concepts of wabiwho sees virtue in renouncing material satisfactions for honorable poverty; sabi, who appreciates faded or withered beauty; and Karumiwho finds classic elegance in the everyday or the vulgar.

In linked-verse haiku forms, Bashō has moved away from linking through kotobazuke (word association) and kokorozuke (extension of the scene or story) to develop the technique of nioizuke, literally “olfactory link”, in which links are made based on mood rather than reason. He espoused the use of this technique in combination with Karumi. In Bashō’s later years, he took on disciples such as Kyorai, Jōsō, Kyoriku, and Shikō. From the middle of the Edo period, his style of haikai became mainstream and it grew to be revered for its pivotal role in the genre.

旅に病で 夢は枯野を かけ廻る
tabi ni yande / yume wa kareno o / kakemawaru
Sick on a trip—
my dreams wander
the withered fields

Bashō wrote this poem shortly before his death in Osaka. (Many readings take the last word as kakemegurubut it is likely that kakemawaru based on the writings of his followers at the time.) It alludes to a poem from earlier centuries by Saigyō, which contrasts a past spring in Naniwa with the present in which the wind blows through the dead leaves of the reeds. At the time of Bashō’s poem, it was winter and Naniwa was Osaka’s old name, so he apparently wanted to see the same landscape of withered reeds as in Saigyō’s poem. His illness, however, prevented him, and only his dreamy spirit left his body to wander the parched fields. The poem symbolically demonstrates how Bashō always followed Saigyō, even until his death.

(Originally published in Japanese on Jan 13, 2022. Banner image: Portrait of Bashō. Courtesy of Bashō-ō Memorial Museum.)