September 08, 2012

Oku no hosomichi

Well, since we are fast approaching the 200-comment mark, after which subsequent comments disappear into some sort of limbo state, I figured it was time for a new post.

For a year now, I've been doing research on Japan, and studying Japanese. And now the time has come to go there, which I shall do on October 1st, and stay for six weeks. Whether I'll actually be able to write a book on Japanese culture--not being able to read a word of the language--remains to be seen. The only thing I'm sure of is that it won't be easy.

I'm spending two of those six weeks retracing the journey that the great poet, Matsuo Basho, made in 1689, into the north of Japan. The result was a poetic diary called Oku no hosomichi, The Narrow Road to Oku. Basho's haiku (known in the 17th century as haikai) are quite famous; the basic form is syllabic in a pattern of 5-7-5 (in Japanese, of course, not English). When he came across a ruined castle in the far north, he wrote:

A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors.

An early "Ozymandias," I guess.

Basho died five years later. This was the last poem he wrote:

Falling sick on a journey
My dream goes wandering
Over a field of dried grass.

My "Japan Project," as I call it, does seem a bit overwhelming, as I hope to talk to philosophers at the U of Tokyo, shokunin (craftsmen) in the Kansai region, and friends/contacts I've made over the last few years. Plus sit in pachinko parlors, watch some Kabuki, and try not to die from fugu (blowfish). For inspiration, I sometimes bring to mind a haiku by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827):

Snail slowly slowly
Mt. Fuji.