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June 21, 2012

Basho’s haiku along the Sumida River (Haiku Stones)

Several of the haiku Basho wrote on the Sumida River have been printed on text boards standing along a path skirting the river in Tokyo's Koto Ward. This is the part of Tokyo where Basho lived since 1680, a fact commemorated in the Basho Museum, which also stands here. Thanks to the Oedo line, access to this area has been dramatically improved and the museum is only a few minutes walk from Kiyosumi-Shirakawa station. Inside the museum, you will find Basho memorabilia, calligraphies of haiku, and haiga or haiku paintings. There is also a small garden with a miniature copy of Basho's cottage. When you exit via the gate in the back wall (normally unlocked when the museum is open) you find yourself on a path along the Sumida River.

[Haiku Board]

Turn right and first follow the path to the next bridge called Shin-Ohashi. You will find several haiku boards in the bushes along the path and even one on the pillar of the bridge! It is a pleasure to walk along the river, although it has been encased in concrete as far as the eye can see. On both sides is a jumble of buildings, roads and even elevated expressways. There is no nature left here, and the scene is completely different from what Basho saw, when this was still countryside on the edge of the city of Edo.

Next, retrace your steps and continue down the path past the backdoor of the museum garden. You will come to a quite street leading away from the river, with a small Inari shrine in the usual vermillion color standing between residences and small warehouses. This shrine marks the spot where (presumably) Basho's cottage used to stand. It is said that a ceramic frog was found here in modern times. Opposite is a staircase leading to a rooftop garden where you will find a nice Basho statue. The haiku master sits pensively staring at the river, probably contemplating the enormous changes that have taken place here. Let us have a look at some of the haiku that the scenery inspired Basho to write.
plantain in autumn blasts
listening all night
to rain in the tub!

basho nowaki shite | tarai ni ame wo | kiku yo kana
In 1681 Basho received a plantain (called basho in Japanese; sometimes also translated as 'banana tree') from one of his pupils. He planted it alongside his cottage in the countrified outskirts of Edo, on the opposite bank of the Sumida River. Basho had started living here the year before in what was almost a self-imposed exile from the bustle of the city. The poet was delighted with the gift. He felt empathy with the plantain because of its small and unobtrusive flowers, exuding a certain loneliness, and the soft leaves that were easily torn in wintry storms. Above all, the tree was of no practical use whatsoever - like the poet himself. Basho perhaps thought of the useless tree in a famous anecdote in the Zhuangzi, which was spared the carpenter's axe, and therefore attained a ripe old age.

At night Basho sat alone in his hut, listening to the wind sounding in the plantain leaves. In stormy nights the tree was pitiful indeed, shaken by the inclement climate of the northern land where it did not feel at home. The roof of the hut leaked and Basho had placed a basin under the hole to catch the rain drops. The dripping went on all night and strangely mingled with the rustling leaves outside.

Perhaps noting the affinity between poet and tree, visitors started to call the hut 'Basho-an,' or Plantain Hut. The name then also stuck to the poet himself and he was happy with it. For the rest of his life, he would call himself Basho and that is how he is known today. The plantain apparently survived the poet: it was incorporated into a samurai mansion built on the spot of Basho's hut and lived until the early Meiji-period (1868-1912), when it finally withered and died. The Koto Ward has honored the poet that used to live in what is now its territory by establishing a Basho museum (called Basho Memorial Hall, 'Basho Kinenkan') not far from where the hut used to stand. Fittingly, a new plantain stands against the wall of the building and greets visitors with its soft green leaves.

[Model of Basho's hut in the garden of the Basho Museum]
plantain leaves
to hang on the pillar
moon in my hut

bashoba wo | hashira ni kaken | io no tsuki
There were in fact three 'Basho huts': the first was one built in 1680, when Basho moved from Nihonbashi in the center of Edo to Fukagawa in the countryside on the opposite bank of the river. This hut was destroyed by a fire in 1682. The second one was built soon after that, but sold in 1689 when Basho went on his long trip to the North. The third hut, finally, was built near the former site in 1692.

The present haiku dates from that year, when Basho's disciples replanted the old plantain to the new hut. Why does the poet hang a leaf of the plantain on the pillar of his hut? Perhaps because it reminds him of moonviewing sessions in his old hut: he enjoys seeing the moon shine through the soft and fragile leaves of the plantain, the tree that he loved so much and from which he took his poetic name. After the long trip to the North, he finally feels at home again. But is not the comfort of worldly possessions or attachment to physical comfort that makes him feel at home: it is moonlight seen through a basho leaf...

[Sumida River]
and here downstream
moonviewing buddies

kawakami to | kono kawashimo ya | tsuki no tomo
Moon viewing is as old as Japanese poetry, and Japan borrowed the custom from China where it is even more ancient. The full moon of the ninth month was the favorite for moon parties, when poets would ascend a hill or pavilion to see the perfect round arc and indulge in verse.

City people, today we rarely see the moon, and we certainly do not go out of our way to view it. Edo was very different from the explosions of electric light that our modern cities are and, on top of that, Basho lived in the river land out of town. Basho's hut must have been a perfect place for moon viewing.

The moonviewing buddy living downstream in the present haiku is Basho himself. Fukagawa was close to the sea. Upstream may refer to the Katsushika ward, but learned commentators are not in unison about who Basho's moon-loving companion may have been.
It does not matter. Let scholars wear out their pens about such a futility. Provided that we as readers are sufficiently sensitive and receptive to haiku, we all can be called Basho's "upstream companions."

[The Onagi River]

full moon -
thrusting against my gate
tidal crests

meigetsu ya | kado ni sashikuru | shiogashira

This is another poem about the bright harvest moon. Full moon is also the time that the tide in Tokyo Bay is highest. As Basho's hut stood on a tip of land near the mouth of the Sumida River, at the point where the Onagi River flowed into it, he was in a good position to observe tidal patterns.

Moon viewing was a social activity in traditional Japan, but Basho apparently is alone this night. Suddenly, visitors arrive: the waves pushing against his gate, as if wanting to enter and join the poet in his appreciation of the bright moon. And why not share nature with nature?

[Basho statue near the Sumida]
call lying down -
on the water

hototogisu | koe yokotau ya | mizu no ue

The cuckoo of this haiku is called hototogisu in Japanese, and does have more positive connotations than its European relatives. The bird has relatively large wings and a long tail, a gray back and a white belly with black stripes. The only bad habit it has in common with the Western cuckoo is that it, too, is a parasitic breeder. But the Japanese 'cuckoo' has a gentle call and is one of the best loved Oriental song birds.

As this bird arrives around May in Japan, it is considered the harbinger of warmer weather. From the time of the first poetry collection, the Manyoshu (8th century), this small bird has inspired many poets. In haiku, it figures as a season word for 'early summer.' As the call of the hototogisu is rather sad, it was also interpreted as expressing the melancholy longing of the soul of a dead person. And as it was believed to sing until it coughed out blood, the modern haiku poet Masaoka Shiki who suffered from tuberculosis took hototogisu in the Chinese pronunciation shiki as his pen name...

Basho describes in this haiku how the call of the cuckoo, even after it has stopped, still reverberates over the river. The poet was especially interested in such 'lingering sounds,' an effect he tried to match in his own haiku. This was also an important effect in ancient Chinese poetic theory: the subtle aftertaste is more important than the original flavor...

["Frog" Shrine near Basho Museum, Tokyo]
in my brushwood gate
raking leaves for tea
the storm!

shiba no to ni | cha wo konoha kaku | arashi kana

The brushwood gate refers to Basho's rustic hut. The leaves being raked are, of course, not the tea leaves themselves, but fallen leaves from trees and shrubs, which are used to make a fire for boiling the tea water. In Japanese, the pun is 'who' does the raking: Basho, or the storm that blows the dead leaves in neat heaps on behalf of the poet. Basho has nobody to help him, but again nature kindly lends a hand.

[Basho contemplating the change in scenery]
first snow -
on the new bridge
almost completed

hatsu yuki ya | kakekakaritaru | hashi no ue

Basho's main connection with Edo was via the bridge spanning the Sumida at Ryogoku, a beautifully arched bridge that appears on many ukiyo-e. This bridge was called Ohashi, the Great Bridge.

In September 1693 construction was started on another bridge much closer to the location of Basho's hut. In fact, it stood almost next to the poet's cottage and he must have had a good view of the construction work. It was called the New Great Bridge, or Shin-Ohashi. Originally it stood further downstream than the present Shin-Ohashi Bridge, in about the same position as the Basho Museum.

The new bridge, which made trips to Edo so much easier for Basho and his disciples, was finished in December 1693. It was 200 meters in length. The present haiku was written when the bridge was half completed, with the frame already standing. That frame in all its newness was crowned by fresh snow - the first of the season. Hatsu, 'first,' speaks of Basho's joy at the new bridge.

Another haiku, written after completion, expresses Basho's gratefulness, which to me again has Buddhist overtones, as it sounds like gratitude towards Tariki, the Other Power in Jodo Shin Buddhism:
everyone goes out
grateful for the bridge
covered with ripe

mina idete | hashi wo itadaku | shimoji kana

Haiku Cluster: Various haiku boards set alongside the Sumida River Promenade close to the Basho Museum. The haiku on those boards are associated with Basho's hut that stood on the riverbank in this area. The last haiku has been reproduced on a metal plaque on one of the pillars of the Shin-Ohashi Bridge.
Access: 5 min. from Kiyosumi-Shirakawa Station on the Oedo line; 7 min. from Morishita Station on the Shinjuku Subway line; 25 min. from Monzen-Nakamachi on the Tozai Subway line; 20 min. from Ryogoku Station on the JR Sobu line.