The Narrow Road

In the late spring of 1689, the most famous of Japanese poets, Matsuo Bashō, set off from Edo to an arduous journey to the wild and dangerous parts of northern Japan. As he had done in his previous trips, he kept a diary. Here is the opening passage:

The days and months are travellers of eternity, just like the years that come and go. For those who pass their lives afloat on boats, or face old age leading horses tight by the bridle, their journeying is life, their journeying is home. And many are the men of old who met their end upon the road.

How long ago, I wonder, did I see a drift of cloud borne away upon the wind, and ceaseless dreams of wandering become aroused? Only last year, I had been wandering along the coasts and bays; and in the autumn I swept away the cobwebs from my tumbledown hut on the banks of the Sumida and soon afterwards saw the old year out. But when the spring mists rose up into the sky, the gods of desire possessed me, and burned my mind with the longing to go beyond the barrier at Shirakawa. The spirits of the road beckoned me, and I could not concentrate on anything. So I patched up my trousers, put new cords in my straw hat, and strengthened my knees with moxa. A vision of the moon at Matsushima was already in my mind. I sold my hut and wrote this just before moving to a cottage owned by Sampū:

kusa no to mo
sumikawaru yo zo
hina no ie

This was the first of an eight verse sequence, which I left hanging on a post inside the hut.

Thus begins The Narrow Road into the Deep North (Oku no Hosomichi), that is nowadays heralded as one of the most celebrated pieces of the Japanese literature.

Travel has always been a hugely important part of the Japanese culture. As anyone who has been to Japan at the peak of the cherry-blossom season in late April to early May can readily attest, Japanese take their travel very seriously to this day – and a casual observer can only see the tip of the proverbial iceberg of the Japanese tabi no bunka. In addition to wading around in huge groups and taking a seemingly impossible amount of photos, Japanese idea of travel also includes customs such as senbetsu (farewell money) and omiyage (return gift), there are famous places (meisho) that have to be visited in proper time and in a proper way, with many people writing short travel waka to record and reflect upon their experiences.

The European (and more broadly, western) concept of tourism – and indeed, the very word itself – comes from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century custom of young British aristocrats going to the Continent for the year-long Grand Tour. It was supposed to be a character-defining experience, a rite of passage, whereby young noblemen were to have an exposure to arts, culture and refined manners of the European civilisation. While the route was more or less standard, leading from Dover to Rome or perhaps Naples, the journey itself was a deeply personal one. This tradition formed the basis of how travel is seen and understood in the West to this day.

All this bears several similarities to the way how travel is understood also in Japan. In Japan too tabi is an experience of self-discovery. However, there is one crucial difference. The western tourist, more often than not, is after the experience that is “unique,” looking for an “unbeaten path,” a road less traveled. Sallie Tisdale has put it in a wonderfully acerbic way, noting that what matters for us is “not to be the first to see remote lands but to be the last to see the land remote,” and the knowledge (or indeed, any hints thereof) of any westerners having been in the same spot before is clearly detrimental to such an aspiration.

Not so for Japanese. In its classical form tabi meant not going out into unknown, rather than closely following in someone’s footsteps. When Bashō was traveling, he tried to visit the very same places that Saigyō, his great model and inspiration, had written about more than five hundred years before. Oku no Hosomichi is full of allusions and references to earlier texts and poems. For example, the very opening lines allude to the famous poem by 8th century Chinese poet Lǐ Bó (who was also an avid traveler):

Heaven and earth are the inn for all things, the light and shadow, the traveler of a hundred generations. Accordingly, this floating life is just like a dream.

In Japanese culture, leaving one’s house and home – shukke – is a start of the journey that leads one to experience the impermanence of earthly things (諸行無常). It has a Buddhist meaning of leaving behind all of one’s loves and hates, and embarking on a journey to attain an enlightenment through ascetic training (shugyō). It is a path to detachment. Every stop along the way enables us to reflect upon this impermanence, to consider those who have walked the same path before, and who are no more – while at the same time trodding the way for those who will eventually follow us. Interestingly, the very same staged or step-wise approach of enlightenment and detachment can be found also in traditional Japanese music, martial arts, poetry, tea ceremony and so on.

As it happens, I will be following Bashō’s trail to North myself. I will arrive in Tokyo on Thursday, only to leave towards Yamagata the next day along with my Portuguese friend Luis, with whom we will be traveling together for the first week. From there on I will head to Sendai, which is a stone’s throw away from Matsushima that beckoned Bashō 324 years ago. I will pack his book along, to read the passage when I look at the very same pine-clad islands over the bay.


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