Friday 4 July 2014


Kasane 重ね "heap" is the name of a girl who has a walk-on part in the drama of Matsuo Bashō's Narrow Road to the Deep North. 奥の細道 Oku no Hosomichi. This is perhaps the best, most evocative and most allusive travel book ever written about Japan. The fact that it was written in about 1692 means that you can pare away the facade (trains, tickets, iPhones, luggage) of travel and concentrate on the timeless truth about going places. If you want a more recent version of travelling through Japanese territory you may, with advantage, check out Peter Fleming's One's Company.

In Bashō's day, of course, the vast majority of people never travelled more than a few km from their rice-paddies.  In Ireland as well: it wasn't that Japanese peasants were notable home-bodies; and no, I realise that there are few rice-paddies in Ireland. Louis Agassiz famously gave up the jangle of travel to focus on the microcosmos of his back-yard. He was a Swiss-American biologist and correspondent of Charles Darwin’s.  At the end of his life he was director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. When the Faculty reassembled one fall, a colleague met Agassiz in the mail-room and asked if he had had a good summer. “Wonderful”, replied the great man, “I worked my way half-way across my back yard”.  For him clearly work – tracking beetles through the grass – and pleasure were one-and-the-same.

But travel does broaden the mind . . . if you let it.  If you spend the whole time eating chips and yakking on your mobile phone just like you do at home, then you won't get anything from the trip. You can, after all, buy a postcard of the Госуда́рственный Эрмита́ж or the art-work within without ever having to go to Petrograd.

Bashō was born Matsuo Kinsaku in 1644. He was a poet to his marrow and is known as the first master of haiku: the hip 5-7-5 syllable verse form that is much imitated by Westerners.  Indeed he is the author of the most translated haiku of them all:
古池や furu ike ya
蛙飛こむ kawazu tobikomu
水のおと mizu no oto
An ancient pond / a frog jumps in / ploosh!  Or as BP Nichol rendered it with a minimal spareness:
Ah So!

He changed his name to Bashō  because some of his disciples set him up in the unfashionable part of the city of Edo (now Tokyo) with his own hut in which to think deep thoughts and a banana tree Musa basjoo to inspire them. As it says on the tin (basjoo) the name of this inedible relative of our bananas and plantains in Japanese is Bashō.  He loved his tree and left detailed instructions about how to care for it when he was away.

On 16th May 1689 he left his sparse but comfortable billet and set off for The Interior or The Deep North: a region in the North of Honshū perceived by the sophisticates from Edo as being Bandit Country.  He was accompanied part of the way by a young chap called Kawai Sora, whose diary is less poetic and vague than Bashō's masterpiece and so we are able to trace their journey with some accuracy from village to mountain to shrine. You can do a Footsteps of The Master holiday with all your accommodation pre-booked and an informative guide to make sure you don't miss anything significant. Which probably means that you miss any chance of finding something significant in yourself or about the country you traverse.  I've paid my dues to St Peregrine the Traveller, and I came back a different, much thinner, man.  The Camino de Santiago has its own antient text called the Codex Calixtinus, now believed to have been compiled in the C12th by a Frenchman called Aymeric Picaud although possibly commissioned  by Pope (1119-1124) Callixtinus II.  The most interesting bit for modern trekkers is Liber V Iter pro peregrinis ad Compostellam. The guide for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostella. It is full of sensible advice about where not to stop, what food to avoid and where the best relics are. Almost all the places mentioned are recognisable, often with the same name, 800 years later

The Narrow Road to the Deep North takes the form of prose notes of events and encounters on the journey, peppered with enigmatic verses.  The poetry makes a little more sense with the notes to put things into context. As an example of how freely you can translate to squeeze meaning from Japanese, check out 9 versions of the first section.  At one stage, Bashō sees a horse grazing idly beside the path and asks the farmer if he can borrow it for a while. The farmer takes pity on the weary and disorientated traveller and tells him that the horse knows the way across the blasted heath to the next town and will come back of its own accord when Bashō is finished with it. As the poet leaves, a couple of small children run after the horse and one of them confides that her name is Kasane (meaning layer, pile or heap) which Bashō says sounds pretty but is a funny name for a girl. It reminds him, however, of Dianthus superbus var. longicalycinus (R) the Fringed Pink, and so his muse (or maybe his companion Soba's) comes up with
かさねとは   Kasane to wa
八重撫子の   yae-nadeshiko no
名成べし   na naru beshi
Double layer to your name
pretty as a 
double-flowered pink.
There's something beautiful and sad in this preservation of the memory of a long-dead girl. But Bashō's anecdote captures the ideal of those pretty, sassy, vivacious young girls that we've all of us known. Excuse me while I shed a hiraeth tear <sniff> for the pair of small-small daughters who were once the sunshine of our home . . . and grew up into such fine young women:
our pint of Guinness:
the older African dark
her sister's blonde head

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