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March 10, 2014

Basho's haiku on Nara (1): "Scent of Ancient Buddhas"

Basho was born in 1644 in the castle town of Iga-Ueno, in the Kansai area, but at a young age settled in Edo. He made several trips back to western Japan and then also often visited the Nara area or Yamatoji as it is called in Japanese. In 1684 he visited Yoshino and the next year he observed the Water Drawing Ceremony in Todaiji and an outside Noh performance (Takigi-Noh) in Kofukuji. He also visited Horyuji. These visits have been described in Nogarashi Kiko, 'The Record of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton.' In 1686 he was again in the Kansai, and this time he wrote Oi no Kobumi, 'The Record of a Travel-Worn Satchel,' about his peregrinations, this time to Hase, Tonomine, Yoshino, Katsuragi, Nara, Ishinogami, Miwa, Yagi and Taima. Next he was back in 1689 for the famous Wakamiya Festival of the Kasuga Shrine. In 1691 he again saw the outside Noh performance at Kofukuji. In 1694, the year of his death, finally, he spent one night in Nara on the way to Osaka.

Here is the fist of several posts with haiku Basho wrote inspired by the temples and shrines of Nara: about the many Buddha statues in the ancient town, the crying deer of the Kasuga Shrine, the Water Drawing Ceremony in Todaiji and an old pine tree at Taimadera temple. Most moving of all is the haiku he wrote about the blind Ganjin, the founder of Toshodaiji.

We start with the "Scent of Ancient Buddhas."


[Ancient Buddha - Binzuru statue of Todaiji]

scent of chrysanthemums
in Nara
ancient Buddhas

kiku no ka ya | Nara ni wa furuki | hotoketachi

Shonenji is a tiny Jodo sect temple standing in the southwest corner of the block that forms the old Nara town. It is almost not part of that old town anymore, standing within hearing distance of a busy road and encircled by small, ugly apartments. The laundry of the inhabitants, hanging from their balconies, almost wholly covers the grounds of Shonenji. One would expect Buddhist banners and pennants here, but instead finds T-shirts and underwear fluttering in the wind.

The temple was founded by Chogen (1121-1206), the Todaiji priest who was responsible for the rebuilding of the temple after it had been destroyed in the Genpei War in 1180. It must therefore date from the 12th or early 13th c.; the only reminder of those days is a statue of Shandao (one of the founders of Jodo or Pure Land Buddhism) brought back from China by Chonen and now still in the temple. It is not normally on view.

In fact, one only comes to this temple to see the famous Basho haiku, inscribed on a stone in front of the small temple hall. Basho was in Nara on the ninth day of the ninth month, 1694, the day the Choyo no Sekku or Chrysanthemum Festival was celebrated. He wrote this haiku while taking a rest in Shonenji and one imagines that the temple grounds were filled with chrysanthemums rather than pants and shirts. The haiku stone is old: it was put up in 1793, to commemorate that already one century had passed since the demise of the haiku master. The haiku wonderfully catches the atmosphere of Japan's ancient capital.

{Shonenji's main hall and the haiku stone}
The haiku stone stands in front of the main hall of Shonenji temple. One can freely enter the grounds to see the haiku stone; the temple hall itself is closed.
20-min walk from Nara Kintetsu Station or JR Nara station.