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July 20, 2011

Haiku Stones: Kurobane (Basho)

For haiku fans, the quiet former castle town of Kurobane in northern Tochigi is an important pilgrimage place, as Basho spent two weeks here in 1689 on his way to the Deep North. It is indeed a great place for a leisurely walk, there is a fabulous temple (Unganji) and a Basho museum... and the soba is also delicious! So why not head out to Kurobane this summer?

[Gate to Unganji Temple]

The steward of the castle of Kurobane had been Basho's student in Edo and invited the haiku master to stay over in his house. Basho ended up sojourning here for a full two weeks, his longest stay on the journey to the north (Oku no Hosomichi). Besides the warm hospitality of Joboji Tosetsu, the castle steward, and his younger brother Tosui, the opportunity to hold renga sessions together as well as the rainy weather may have been elements behind the decision to delay his further travels for such a considerable time. Basho was also guided by his eager hosts to all the sites in the town and its vicinity.

Kurobane is encircled by paddies and during my visit the new rice was standing tall. The fresh green of the stalks was almost dazzling. The small town sits on the bank of the river Naka and nature is never far away. I start by touring the haiku monuments of Kurobane, first walking through the fields on the west side of the town, later strolling through the park on the north side, where I also find a Basho Museum, built entirely from still fragrant wood. Here at the edge of town stands Daioji, an old Zen temple with impressive thatched roofs and a courtyard enclosed by a wooden gallery. Inside the yard plants and trees are rioting. Azaleas and lilies are still in bloom. Finally, I make may way to the clean and solemn Unganji Temple, a 20 min taxi ride out of town, one of the highlights of Basho's visit as it was the site of the meditation hut of his Zen teacher Bucho. Kurobane is a great small town, a glimpse of the good old Japan still relatively untainted by the excesses of our consumer society and a day spent here is unforgettable.

Here are the haiku Basho wrote in Kurobane.

[Basho on horseback, statue in front of Basho Museum, Kurobane]

must be another name
for "Eightfold Pink"

kasane to wa | yaenadeshiko no | na narubeshi
On the way to Kurobane from Nikko, Basho and his companion Sora took a road through the wild fields and somehow ended up getting lost. As a result they had to spend the night in a farmer's cottage on the moor. The next morning they borrowed a horse, so that Basho could ride. They probably also hoped that the horse would instinctively know the right way. Two small children ran behind them as they set out. One of them was a small girl, and when the travelers asked her same, she said she was called "Kasane."

According to Oku no Hosomichi, this name inspired Sora to the above haiku (in reality the haiku was probably written by Basho - there are many fictional elements in the travel dairy).Nadeshiko is a small plant known as 'pink,' usually associated with girls. As 'Kasane' means ''layers' or 'double,' Basho made a wordplay by adding the prefix 'yae-' (literally 'eightfold') to 'nadeshiko.' A flower called 'Double Pink' does not exist. The haiku means something like: "This child has the name Kasane (Layers); compared with a flower, she would certainly be a Yae-nadeshiko (Double Pink)." This kind of wordplay is the desperation of translators.
The haiku stone stands in the grounds of Saikyoji, a small temple west of Kurobane (30 min walk from the Kurobane Bus Terminal). There are 2 more stones with this haiku in the greater Nasuno area. There is no connection between Basho and Saikyoji.

[Site of Joboji's house]

hill and garden
both moving in -
summer room

yama mo niwa mo | ugoki-iruru ya | natsu-zashiki

In Kurobane, Basho lodged from April 4 till April 11 with his pupil Joboji Tosetsu who - although only 28 at the time - acted as the steward for the daimyo Ozeki Masatsune, meaning he was in charge of the administration of the fief. Basho writes that Joboji was delighted with the unexpected visit and that they kept on talking day and night.

Of course, a haiku master and his student do not stop at talking. Poetry was constantly written, and a renga (linked verse) session was also convened. The above haiku (not included in Oku no Hosomichi, but recorded by Sora) was written by Basho as homage to his host: he praises the location of Joboji's house - sitting in the warm summer room, the garden in front of it and the hills in the distance are so close they seem to be with you in the room.

Joboji lived on a small hill to the south of Kurobane Castle. Nowadays, nearby stands the Nasu-Kurobane Pension, that apparently is still run by descendants of Joboji. Below the hill flows the River Matsuba, and a cool wind blows through the tree tops. Even today, it is a peaceful bower where summer comes to visit.
The haiku stone stands at the site of Joboji's house, a 30-min. walk from the Kurobane bus terminal.

[Main Hall of Unganji]

even woodpeckers
don't damage this hut
summer grove

kitsutsuki mo | iyo wa yaburazu | natsu kodachi

Among the Kurobane sights was one place Basho himself very much wanted to see: Unganji Temple, 12 kilometers outside the town in the mountains. In this Zen establishment, Basho's Zen teacher, the priest Butcho, had once lived and trained. As soon as possible, already on the second day of his stay, Basho set out for Unganji. The road, which I followed by taxi, winds steeply into the mountains, crosses a pass, and then descends into the secluded valley where the temple stands. Basho walked all the way, leaning on a stick. Sora, his companion on the long journey, was of course with him, as were a number of people from Joboji's house. It was apparently a merry company and they reached Unganji before realizing they had already covered such a large distance. Basho describes the mountain behind the temple as covered with dark cedars and pines, and writes that the banks along the narrow road were covered with dripping moss. Nowadays, there are still many trees, but the overall impression is rather bright.

The temple stands on the slope of a hill covered with tall trees. In front of the hill is a small stream, the river Mumo, that is crossed by a vermilion bridge. I am not sure that bridge already existed in Basho's time, although it now dominates the scenery: the red bridge, behind that the steep stone staircase leading up to the formidable Sanmon gate. It is a scene like a postcard. On the other hand, the venerable Sanmon itself was certainly seen by Basho, as this is the oldest surviving part of Unganji. Behind the gate is an old, simple Zen hall, and another precipitous, stone staircase leads up the hill, to where the main hall stands. The mountain setting is a steep as the practice of Zen.

Unganji was founded in 1283 by the Zen master Bukkoku Kokushi at the behest of the Kamakura regent, Hojo Tokimune. Bukkoku (Koho Kennichi, 1241-1316) was a son of emperor Gosaga. His background was Tendai Buddhism, and his teaching apparently contained a liberal admixture of the esoteric. By his founding of Unganji in Nasu (as the area is called) he made a large contribution to Zen in the eastern provinces. His most famous disciple was Muso Soseki (known as the founder of Tenryuji in Kyoto and a famous garden designer). Bukkoku selected this spot for his temple as it lies at the foot of Mt. Yamizo, an area where yamabushi, ascetic mountain priests were active.

The temple flourished in the Muromachi period, when among its many buildings even a nine-storied pagoda was counted. This good fortune ended in 1590 when the local Nasu lord fled to the temple when he was under attack by the army of Hideyoshi. Except the Sanmon gate, the whole temple was destroyed in the ensuing fighting and looting. Now most buildings are from the mid-nineteenth century, and all blend perfectly into the woodland. The main hall, the Sanbutsudo, is dedicated to the founder Bukkoku, his teacher Bukko and one of his disciples, Butsuo. All three had the element 'Butsu,' Buddha, in their name, originating in the name 'Hall of the Three Buddhas.' They must indeed have been holy men. Bukkoku's tomb also lies in the grounds but is not accessible.

Unganji's silence is profound. The atmosphere of severe asceticism and meditation initiated by the 'three Buddhas' still lingers on. Basho came in search of the hermitage of his Zen master Butcho, a fourth Buddha. Butcho was Basho's Zen master and used to live in a temple close to Basho's hut in Fukagawa. Basho found the hut, where his teacher Butcho had trained, still intact at the back of the temple. It stood on top of a boulder and was nothing but a small shelter built in front of a cave. Butcho did not live there anymore at the time and the rough cottage was deserted. In an obvious tribute to his teacher Basho composed the above haiku.

Woodpeckers were irreverently hammering away on the trees around him, but they avoided Butcho's shelter, as if out of respect for the Zen master. It is not possible to check whether that hut still exists today, as the path to the site has been closed off because it is now considered too steep and dangerous.

Unganji does not cater to visitors. It tolerates them in its courtyard, it allows them to peep into the Zen hall and worship building, but nothing more. Stern signs have been put up to warn that this is a living Zen temple. One is admonished to be quiet, but in fact such an exhortation is superfluous. Unganji is the perfect location for meditation, for feeling one with nature. Buildings and grounds are perfectly kept, there is a natural feeling of discipline. The atmosphere of Unganji makes one feel just as reverend as the woodpeckers.
The haiku stone stands in the grounds of Unganji Temple, to the left of the Main Hall. It dates from the Meiji period and also contains the text of the tanka by Butcho cited above. There is another stone (from 1989) with part the the Oku no Hosomichi text and this haiku near the entrance of the temple.
Unganji Temple stands in the hills outside Kurobane, about 12 kilometers from the town center. From the Kurobane Bus Terminal, there are a few buses a day to the temple; a taxi takes 20 min.

[Road through the fields of Nasuno]

in the summer hills
praying to clogs
the start of my journey!

natsuyama ni | ashida wo ogamu | kadode kana

After Basho's timely visit to Unganji, the rains kept falling for several days. From the 6th to the 8th, he was not able to leave Choboji's house. On the 9th, however, he decided to go out in the rain and was taken to Komyoji, a shugendo temple in the fields on the east side of the town. This temple was famous for its Gyoja Hall, a hall dedicated to En no Gyoja, the legendary founder of the ascetic mountain Buddhism.

The 'ashida' mentioned in the poem (here translated as clogs) are a special kind of high geta, worn by those monks when practicing austerities. To make walking difficult, these geta had only one support instead of the normal two. The temple probably housed a statue of En no Gyoja wearing such high clogs.

Basho prays in front of them, wishing for strong feet and legs himself at the start of his long journey. Unfortunately, Komyoji was destroyed at the beginning of the Meiji period. The haiku stone stands forlorn in the high grass.
The haiku stone stands on the road leading out of town from the Kurobane Bus terminal and is a 20-min walk.

[Gravestones near the site of Suito's house]

man carrying hay
a marker
in the summer field!

magusa ou | hito wo shiori no | natsu-no kana

On the 12th, Basho was taken by his host Choboji on a tour to the eastern part of Kurobane, such as the Tamaso shrine. They stayed in the house of Suito, the younger brother, who lived in the area. The weather was fine this day. The next day, Choboji again came by, carrying lunch boxes, and they spent the day holding a renga session. It is surmised that the present hokku was the opening verse of that renga.

The general meaning is: in the grassy summer fields, a man was walking carrying hay he had cut as fodder for his horse. I was walking some way behind him, and the straws that fell from the pack on his back, acted as road marks for me; that is how I found your house.

The pastoral scene, the fact that the poet finds such a natural guide, these motifs are all elements of praise. After all, it was usual to start a renga by praising the person who acted as host for the session, and Basho never fails to keep this tradition.
The Haiku stone stands in the grounds of the Tamaso Inari Shrine, a small shrine to the west of Kurobane and was installed by the Kurobane Tourist Association. 35 min on foot from the Kurobane bus terminal.

[Myooji Temple in Kurobane where the haiku stone stands]
today again
praying to the morning sun
on top of the stone

kyo mo mata | asahi wo ogamu | ishi no ue

On his trip to the north, Basho held 13 renga sessions. The first one was in the house of Choboji; the second one in the house of the younger brother Tosui - the haiku Basho wrote then has been introduced above.

It is generally surmised that the present haiku formed part of that first renga. Central participants in the session were of course Choboji himself and his younger brother Tosui. The above haiku is not the opening, but sits somewhere further in the chain. Before it comes a verse about an exile cutting grass in the autumn wind. Basho deftly changes the scene to a gyoja, an ascetic priest as the En no Gyoja to whose clogs he had prayed in an earlier Kurobane haiku. The priest usually meditates on top of a stone, and today also stands on it to pray to the morning sun.
The Haiku stone was installed by Myooji Temple. The temple stands in the town, a 15-min. walk from the Kurobane bus terminal.

[Paddies in Kurobane ]
paddies and barley
and especially
the summer cuckoo

ta ya mugi ya | naka nimo natsu no | hototogisu

This haiku was written down by Sora. There is no direct link with Oku no Hosomichi, but the scenery fits Kurobane well.

Sora has added the comment that the poem describes no such great scenery as the Barrier at Shirakawa, where the priest Noin had written a famous tanka about the autumn wind. There is only the green of the young rice plants and the fresh barley, among which the farmers are busily working. This type of scenery is not very special (I disagree - but then, in Basho time there was a lot more of nature left and paddies must indeed have been a very common sight!).

But, concludes Sora, standing in that ordinary landscape and then suddenly hearing the voice of the cuckoo - that makes one realize that summer has come - therefore out of an ordinary landscape still a deep seasonal feeling can be born.
The Haiku stone stands at the site of Kurobane Castle and was put up by Kurobane.
30-min. walk from the Kurobane bus terminal or 5 min. from the Basho no Yakata.

[Basho and Sora setting out]

across the field
pull the horse towards you

no wo yoko ni | uma hikimukeyo | hototogisu

Finally the time has come for Basho and Sora to leave Kurobane's hospitality behind. After taking leave from Joboji on the 14th, they go to the house of Suito, the younger brother, for another leave-taking. He kindly provides Basho with a horse, so that the haiku master leaves in the same state as when he arrived.

An attendant from Suito's household accompanies them, as he has to take the horse back. Suddenly this attendant asks: "Can you write a haiku for me on a slip of paper?"

Basho is touched by the interest a (presumably uneducated) stable boy has in poetry - that must be special to Suito's household. (I rather assume that - as much in Oku no Hosomichi - it was pure fiction; then it would be another way of praising the elegance of Suito, Joboji and the people of Kurobane).

Basho writes the above haiku down. In the wide, wide plain of Nasuno, suddenly the voice of a cuckoo could be heard. Cuckoo, go on crying and pull the head of the horse in your direction!

[Daioji Temple in Kurobane]

The Haiku stone dates from the Edo period and stands in the grounds of Jonenji temple in the town proper.
10-min. walk from the Kurobane bus terminal.
How to get to Kurobane:
From Nishi-Nasuno Station on the Tohoku Main Line (for fast access, take the Shinkansen to Nasu-Shiobara and then backtrack one station on the ordinary line), take a bus to the Kurobane Bus Terminal (a 35 min ride). All haiku stones except the one in Unganji temple are within walking distance from this terminal. It is a good idea to contact the Machi Yakuba (Town hall) of Kurobane in advance of a visit (tel. 0287-54-1117); they will send a set of pamphlets and maps on which all the haiku stones have been indicated (only in Japanese). The Basho no Yakata also sells a (Japanese) booklet about the haiku stones in the area.