The days and months are travellers of eternity, just like the years that come and go. For those who pass their lives afloat on boats, or face old age leading horses tight by the bridle, their journeying is life, their journeying is home. And many are the men of old who met their end upon the road.
How long ago, I wonder, did I see a drift of cloud borne away upon the wind, and ceaseless dreams of wandering become aroused? Only last year, I had been wandering along the coasts and bays; and in the autumn, I swept away the cobwebs from my tumbledown hut on the banks of the Sumida and soon afterwards saw the old year out. But when the spring mists rose up into the sky, the gods of desire possessed me, and burned my mind with the longing to go beyond the barrier at Shirakawa. The spirits of the road beckoned me, and I could not concentrate on anything. So I patched up my trousers, put new cords in my straw hat, and strengthened my knees with moxa. A vision of the moon at Matsushima was already in my mind.
So that year – the second year of Genroku  – I had suddenly taken it into my head to make the long journey into the deep north, to see with my own eyes places that I had only heard about, despite hardships enough to turn my hair white. I should be lucky to come back alive, but I staked my fortune on that uncertain hope.
We barely managed to reach the post-town of Sōka by nightfall. My greatest burden was the pack I carried on my thin, bony shoulders. I had planned to set out travelling light, but had ended up taking a paper coat to keep out the cold at night, a cotton dressing gown, rainwear, and ink and brushes, as well as various farewell presents that I could not refuse and that had to be accepted as burdens on the way.
A man told us, ‘Those villages you can see at the foot of the mountain way off to the right are Minowa and Kasajima. The shrine to the spirits of the road and the memorial of pampas-grass are still there.’ After the heavy rains of previous days, the road was in an awful state, and I was so tired that we contented ourselves with simply looking that way as we trudged on. The names Minowa [Raincoat] and Kasajima [Umbrella] were so well suited to the rainy season that I wrote this verse:
so whereabouts is
Rain-Hat isle? how far along
muddy roads of June
We stayed the night at Iwanuma.
We crossed the river Natori and went into Sendai. It was the day when people hang blue irises beneath the eaves. We found an inn where we stayed for four or five days.
I will bind iris
blossoms round about my feet –
straps for my sandals
Early the next morning, we visited the Shrine at Shiogama, which had been restored by the governor of the province. Its pillars stood huge and majestic, brightly painted rafters sparkled, and stone steps rose up flight after flight. The crimson fencing was dazzling in the morning sunlight.
It was nearly noon. We hired a boat and crossed to Matsushima. After five miles on the water, we landed on the beach of the island of Ojima.
In the province of Yamagata, there is a mountain temple called Ryūshaku-ji. Founded by the Great Teacher Jikaku, it is a wonderfully serene and tranquil place. We had been urged to go there, and so had retraced our steps from Obanazawa, a distance of some seventeen miles. It was still daylight when we arrived. We reserved a lodging in the pilgrims’ hostel at the foot of the mountain, and then climbed up to the temple on the summit. The mountain was made up of boulder upon boulder, with ancient pines and cypresses upon its slopes. Moss lay like velvet upon the soil and stones. At the summit, the temple doors were closed, and not one single sound was to be heard. But we skirted round the cliffs and scrambled over the rocks, and reached the temple precincts. The quiet and lonely beauty of the place seemed to purify our hearts.
the utter silence ...
cutting through the very stone
a cicada’s rasp
Our host told us that the road into Dewa was an ill-marked trail through high mountains; we would be wise to hire a guide to show us the way. We agreed, and hired a strapping young man, who strode ahead with a sword at his side and an oak staff in his hand. As we followed him, we worried that this would be the day we were sure to run into danger. Just as our host had said, the mountains were high and densely wooded. Not a single bird-cry could be heard. It was dark beneath the canopy of trees, so dark it was like walking in the night. Feeling as if ‘dust was raining from the edges of the clouds’, we groped our way through thickets of bamboo, waded across streams, stumbled over rocks, all the while in a cold sweat of fear, until at last we reached the town of Mogami. In high spirits, our guide then told us that unpleasant things were always happening on the trail we’d followed. He’d been lucky to bring us through in safety. Even though the danger was now past, his words made our hearts still pound.
We rested at a small hut on the edge of the forest for a few days. At one point a man with white hair, one eye hidden behind his bangs, came walking down the road. On his back he wore a wooden box, and he travelled alone. He stayed with us for a night and shared our fire. He told us of his travels, that he was a mushi-shi, and that because of this he could not stay anywhere for very long. In the morning I saw him stirring before the sun rose behind the hills, and by the time the dew glistens in the first light of day he had already gone.
We followed his path, wandering in the direction of the ocean.
Text by Matsuo Bashō (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) and Hudson Gardner