He took to the road before dawn, the moon still visible through the early March mist. The night before, he had patched his torn trousers and fixed a new strap to his hat. He was approaching fifty, gray hairs frosting his head, and applied mugwort to his legs to strengthen them for the journey.
It was early spring of 1689 when the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō left Edo on the third of his major travels. He sold his house, meaning that this time, he expected not to return. He took an unfamiliar path toward the deep North: a strange territory that represented the unknown.
By then, he was an experienced traveler, a regular man in motion. Years ago, he recorded his first major journey to his hometown of Ueno, where his mother had died, in The Record of a Weather-exposed Skeleton, a melancholy travel diary. Other subsequent records of his travels include A Visit to the Kashima Shrine, The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel, and A Visit to Sarashina Village. These journals were experimentations with form that combined haiku and prose in a style Bashō called “haibun.”
A simple principle for understanding many genres of haikai (linked verse)—among which are haibun, haiku, renku, and tanka—is “link and shift.” A haiku evokes a close-up image that “links” to the haibun’s prose and then “shifts” away from it. Thus, haiku and prose are connected intuitively. By the time he wrote The Narrow Road to the Deep North detailing his last and most famous journey, Bashō had developed his haibun to the point that his prose and haiku reflected one another like shifting mirrors.
An excerpt of haibun, from when Bashō arrived at Hiraizumi:
The ruins of the main gate greeted my eyes a mile before I came upon Lord Hidehira’s mansion, which had been utterly reduced to rice-paddies…When a country is defeated, there remain only mountains and rivers, and on a ruined castle in spring only grasses thrive. I sat down on my hat and wept bitterly till I almost forgot time.
Ah! Summer grasses!
All that remains
Of the warriors’ dreams
There are myriad reasons to take to the road. To write a new chapter. To leave your home, return, and wonder at everything that’s changed—all odysseys are, after all, attempts at traveling home. The allure of being the same person with the same feelings in a slightly different town across an ocean. Sometimes not so much to arrive at a new place as to flee an old one.
The way I’ve encountered the idea of the road in (mainly American) mythos and, by consequence, my own imagination, is as an endless realm of possibility. The natural landscape sprawls out and spatially dominates, taking on a grandeur that outpaces the physical reality. “The open road” quickly becomes a signifier of salvation and reinvention, more romanticization than truth. The road symbolizes freedom while home represents stagnancy. Will a new location make me happier, less self-absorbed, more fulfilled?
The hard truth is that we may believe these things to be true, but we can never fully escape ourselves. But it’s a comfort to know that Bashō believed in the same mythology of the road, felt a similar agitation thousands of miles away and hundreds of years ago and sought out the road for solace.
By 1680, Bashō’s followers had built a small hut for him in Edo; he famously took his pen name from a bashō (banana) tree outside it. He grew restless in stagnancy, however, and many of his haikus from the period reflect his internal agitation and discontent with the enclosure made of the world around him. In 1684, he left his hut and chronicled his travels through haibun.
In the introduction to Nobuyuki Yuasa’s translation of The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Yuasa writes that “Bashō had been going through agonizing stages of self-scrutiny in the years immediately preceding the travels, so that it was quite certain that, when he left his house, he thought there was no other alternative before him…Bashō had been casting away his earthly attachments, one by one, in the years preceding the journey, and now he had nothing else to cast away but his own self...”
In casting off himself and the rest of the world—and by staying perpetually in motion—Bashō learned to see things as they are. That every moment is only one moment followed by another. And it is in those one moments that the self can be relinquished, and experience can be brought into full clarity. A tree passed by on the roadside is just one tree, not to be seen again.
Among Japan’s four great haiku masters—a cohort that joins Bashō with Buson, Issa, and Shiki—Issa stands out mainly due to his focus on and compassionate treatment of small creatures, the oft-neglected and detested.
I first encountered Kobayashi Issa several years ago on a long drive to an apple orchard. Issa is at his best outside, surrounded by long grasses, midsummer heat, the buzzing of mosquitoes, warbling birds, and the laughter and games of children. His verse is tender, wry, and humorous, meeting all manner of creatures, pests, and plants with the same humility.
In falling spring mist
the cat learns festival dance—
taught by a small girl
New Year greeting-time:
I feel about average,
welcoming my spring
Issa’s life was marked by tragedy. His mother died when he was three, and he was sent away by a cruel stepmother when he was fifteen. His adulthood was impoverished, and he wandered from place to place calling himself Issa the Beggar.
While Bashō’s travel haibuns were borne out of his agitation at staying in one place, Issa set onto the road because home had long been denied to him. His most famous work, The Spring of My Life, is a series of haibun written in 1819 chronicling what he considered the most important year of his life. From the new year to year’s end, Issa’s sketches detail visits with friends, festival celebrations, his taking to the north like Bashō did a century earlier, parables and individual histories—and, most of all, studies of nature and chronicles of the daily joys and sorrows of life.
He writes of raising his two-year-old daughter, who “beams like clear moonlight, far more entertaining than the best stage act.” And upon her death to smallpox, he dutifully records in haibun:
I knew heartbreak but also knew that tears were useless, that water under the bridge never returns, that scattered flowers are gone forever. And yet nothing I could do would cut the bonds of human love.
This dewdrop world—
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet, and yet . . .
On losing my traveling companion:
At sunset this fall
evening, I wrote on a wall:
“I’ve gone on ahead”
For Issa, perhaps putting his griefs to paper made them easier to bear.
Contemporary haibuns take many forms—travel journals, diaries, nature studies—but, like their predecessors, are most commonly concerned with a search for place, literal or figurative pilgrimages for belonging when home and stability seem distant.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jennifer Hambrick wrote haibun about anxious pilgrimages to the grocery store, describing the “sweaty mask / sweaty shirt / breathing fast.” Many other haibun written under the shadow of the pandemic reflect distance, hunger for contact, and a slow suffocation. In that first year, I remember writing my own anxious Notes app journal entries, bullet-listing what I did on a day-to-day basis to keep a grip on time. By January 2021, I found myself pacing in and out in the same circles around my neighborhood, often going out to repeat the ritual at one or two in the morning to feel calm.
There is an urgent claustrophobia in Issa’s travel sketches too, the suffocating anxiety of not being able to escape calamity. Though he may be physically in motion, his writing paces in cramped circles. Among recollections of life and summer creatures are dense moments of grief. However, just as present as Issa’s recollections of his sorrows are his ultimately hopeful celebrations of life, the sanctity of which he empathetically extends to snakes and fleas and humans alike. Perhaps that’s what he ultimately discovered: what it means to live linearly, perpetually in motion, with the necessity to take it all as it is.
As Bashō wrote of writing and observing, “You can learn about the pine only from the pine, about the bamboo only from the bamboo. Observing an object you must leave aside preoccupation with self, for if you do not, you impose yourself, hence do not learn from it.” The idea of being able to leave home but not ourselves is difficult to internalize. But maybe in the end it’s enough to experience the journey as it is, rather than as an allegory of the self. Maybe it’s enough that a tree by the road is just one tree.