Haiku Poet Basho’s Travelogue Celebrated as a Way to Revisit Japanese Culture






From left, poets Momoko Kuroda, Yasuaki Inoue, Kai Hasegawa and Arthur Binard are seen during a discussion session at the ‘Oku no Hosomichi Summit’ in Soka, Saitama Prefecture on July 30, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

SOKA, Saitama — haiku master Matsuo Basho’s “Oku no Hosomichi” — a recording of his epic 17th-century journey through Japan — has been celebrated here recently for its significance as not a classic text, but an immortal work that inspires people to revisit the paths he took and Japanese culture through the ages.

The city of Soka in Saitama Prefecture is the first place to be named in Basho’s major work, which mixes prose and poetry to describe his 150-day, 2,400-kilometer journey in 1689, mostly on foot. On July 30, the “Oku no Hosomichi Summit” was held in Soka for the first time in about 30 years, to celebrate Basho’s achievements and the 100th birth anniversary of the late scholar Donald Keene. Keene has translated many Japanese literary works, including “Oku no Hosomichi”, to which he gave the English title “The Narrow Road to Oku”.






A monument commemorating Donald Keene, which was recently erected in Soka City’s “Zenso-an Hakutai no Kakaku (Travellers of a Hundred Ages)” facility, is seen on July 30, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

During a special conference, specialists from Japan and abroad shared their love and vision of work. It is said that the purpose of Basho’s epic journey was to visit places traveled by literary predecessors whom he admired, including Buddhist priest-poets of the Heian era (794-1185). Minoru Horikiri, a Japanese literature scholar and professor emeritus at Waseda University, noted that this spirit of traveling to places already imagined in the mind is part of Japanese culture.

Haiku poet Yasuaki Inoue recounted the time he visited a path taken by Basho himself and said, “It was just green rice fields stretching out in front of me, and nothing special. But I felt the need to make a poem based on my thoughts and impressions of the day.I must have sensed the story of all those who have come here and made poems before me.

Inoue was not the only speaker who enjoyed retracing the paths traveled by Basho and his predecessors. American-born poet and translator Arthur Binard, who visited a mountain temple that was along the route of Basho’s journey, said: “I think it is important to consider the article not not as something to read, but as something to do and experience.”






Poet and translator Arthur Binard is seen after the ‘Oku no Hosomichi Summit’ in Soka, Saitama Prefecture on July 30, 2022. He said he would translate the title ‘Oku no Hosomichi’ as ‘Paths Distant, Paths Deep’ . (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

Binard pointed out that if you visit rice fields today, reminiscent of a passage in Basho’s work where rice planters sing, you notice that Basho’s travel sites are not tourist places, but ordinary places. that embody Japanese food culture and customs. everyday.

What’s also lovely about the travelogue, Binard said, is that it shows Basho’s free-spirited, “ill-mannered” side, which can be compared to Beat Generation writers. In the passage on Soka, instead of mentioning the attractive sites of the region, Basho complains about the “weight of the bag on my thin shoulders”, as Keene translates it.

“Oku no Hosomichi may serve as a sort of map or guidebook, but it’s not a serious tourist brochure. Basho honestly writes about everything that happened, including the wonders and upsets he encountered while path. It makes you want to follow in his footsteps,” Binard said.

Haiku poet Momoko Kuroda visited the culture embodied in Oku no Hosomichi in a different way – as a child, she memorized it by reading and writing it many times. She said, “The life of the Japanese portrayed in each region that appears in the artwork will forever be with me.”






Seiki Keene is seen during a shamisen performance at the “Oku no Hosomichi Summit” in Soka, Saitama Prefecture on July 30, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)






Junior high school students recite the work of Matsuo Basho Oku no Hosomichi in Soka, Saitama Prefecture on July 30, 2022. (Mainichi/Chinami Takeichi)

When haiku poet Kai Hasegawa suggested that the Oku no Hosomichi route be preserved as a world heritage site, the other speakers enthusiastically agreed.

On that day, students from Ryoshinden Junior High School, Kawayagi Junior High School, and Soka Junior High School also recited opening passages from the original work as well as Donald Keene’s English version. Between the recitations was a shamisen performance by Keene’s adopted son, Seiki, who recited the text while playing the three-stringed lute used in traditional Japanese Bunraku puppet shows.

(By Mainichi main writer Chinami Takeichi)

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The second award ceremony of the Oku no Hosomichi Soka Matsubara International Haiku Competition was also held on the same day. Here are some of the selected pieces from the international haiku contest.

Soka Mayor’s Award (Grand Prize)

the snow of silence

on the silence

before dawn

-Zlatka Timenova (Portugal)

Soka City Cultural Association Award (Special Award)

gentle breeze

how dandelions change

from suns to moons

– Vandana Parashar (India)

“Oku-no-hosomichi” Association Award (Special Award)

infused with the scents of

petrichor and pine resin

a new path opens

– @ayeshakajee (South Africa)

James C. Tibbs