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Travel Books - Basho's Narrow Road

I love reading travel books–a vague category, I know, and one that some writers hate. They feel it demeans their work to be classified as “travel,” but I love being taken on a journey, and, in the hands of a master, a literary journey can be more than just a visit to a place; it can be a paradigm shift, a vision of how other people live and work and think and love and believe. And in some sad cases, a written description may be all we have left of a place after the ravages of time, war, thoughtlessness or natural disaster have left their mark. My plan is to share some of my favorite travel books with you from time to time. My first example is Basho’s Narrow Road.

The 17th-century poet, Matsuo Basho, is well-known in the West as the “father of haiku,” but what is less well-known is that he was a walker par excellence and that he published five travel diaries. His masterpiece is Oku-no-Hosomichi (published variously in English as Narrow Road to the Interior, Narrow Road to Oku, Narrow Road to a Far Province, or Narrow Road to the Deep North), which records a pilgrimage he made a few years before his death. The literary form Basho uses for this record is called haibun, a combination of prose diary and occasional haiku. Though slender, Basho’s journal rewards many readings, for it is more than a record of his journey, it is his attempt to get at the essence of things. The difficulty with reading Basho is in choosing a translation.

I am currently reading Donald Keene’s excellent translation with beautiful kiri-e style illustrations by Miyata Masayuki. Here is how Keene translates the opening passage:

“The months and days are the travellers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.”

And so begins Basho’s final restless journey. He sells his small hut in Edo (old Tokyo) and begins a 2,000 kilometre journey north on foot, dressed as a monk, and carrying all of his worldly possessions on his back. He seeks the places that are mentioned in poetry, in the same way that we might go to the Lake District to see the landscape that inspired Wordsworth. The Japanese have a name for this kind of pilgrimage: uta-makura. Why do I love Basho? Because I sense a kindred spirit. I understand his restlessness and his great love of the natural world. I admire the economy of his prose and the precision of his poetry. I love Basho because I can re-read this short work over and over and never cease to find something new.

If you enjoyed reading Basho, you may also enjoy Lesley Downer’s account of her own peregrination in Basho’s footsteps: On a Narrow Road: A Journey into Lost Japan (Summit Books, 1989).


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