Back in the day (well, the 1990s/early 2000s – not quite so far back as my First Big Reads in the 1980s!) I went through what OH called my Japanese Period, when I was fairly obsessed with the country, its literature and its art. I read stacks of books by and about Mishima, drank plenty of tea and covered the walls with Japanese prints. It’s a hankering that still comes back to me periodically, and it was rekindled recently by my little post on Richard Brautigan’s birthday. He was a real lover of Japan and its culture (and its women!!) and I felt the need to dig out some Japanese titles I hadn’t read yet. In fact, rummaging among the shelves of Japanese books was an enjoyable and therapeutic exercise, and I ended up picking out and reading three different books: “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Basho; “Of Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho”; and “The Book of Tea” by Kakuzo Okakura. The haiku book is one I’ve had for a long time; the tea book was a Christmas gift; and I sent off for the “Narrow Road” because I just liked the sound of it!
The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches by Basho
Matsuo Basho is widely regarded as the greatest master of haiku, and Wikipedia says of him “Matsuo Bashō (?1644 – 1694) was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan. During his lifetime, Bashō was recognized for his works in the collaborative haikai no renga form; today, after centuries of commentary, he is recognized as the greatest master of haiku (then called hokku). Matsuo Bashō’s poetry is internationally renowned; and, in Japan, many of his poems are reproduced on monuments and traditional sites.”
However, as well as a poet he was also an inveterate wanderer, and this collection brings together several brief travel sketches. Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, who also provides a very informative introduction, the book contains five pieces; from Basho’s earliest travellings in “The Records of a Weather Exposed Skeleton”, to the title work where his art had reached its highest point. Each is a mixture of prose and haiku, with the most successful being when the transition between the two is seamless, evoking the journey and its emotional effect on the traveller.
Intriguingly, the translator renders the haiku in a four-line, stanza form, rather than the more usual three-line format. He explains that the rhythms of the stanza would seem more natural to the English-speaking reader and that his book is more for lovers of poetry than for scholarly study – which is a lovely idea, and certainly I’m not going to go all purist about it.
It was the middle of April when I wandered out to the beach of Suma. The sky was slightly overcast, and the moon on a short night of early summer had special beauty. The mountains were dark with foliage. When I thought it was about time to hear the first voice of the cuckoo, the light of the sun touched the eastern horizon, and as it increased, I began to see on the hills of Ueno ripe ears of wheat tinged with reddish brown and fishermen’s huts scattered here and there among the flowers of white poppy.
At sunrise I saw
Tanned faces of fisherman
Among the flowers
Of white poppy.
The prose is spare, yet evocative, putting the haiku into context and showing us how Basho would take a moment of existence and capture it beautifully in a few lines. A lovely, slim volume with some beautiful, memorable imagery.
Of Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho
I picked this book up ages ago, but after reading Basho’s travel writing I wanted to read more of his haiku, and this collection has them rendered in the more traditional three-line format. Translated by Lucien Stryk, the book also has an excellent introduction by him which did a lot to help me understand the purpose of haiku which in turn helped me read and enjoy this book so much more. As Stryk says:
So the poet presents an observation of a natural, often commonplace event, in plainest diction, without verbal trickery. The effect is one of spareness, yet the reader is aware of a microcosm related to transcendent unity. A moment crystallized, distilled, snatched from time’s flow, and that is enough. All suggestion and implication, the haiku event is held precious because, in part, it demands the reader’s participation: without a sensitive audience it would appear unimpressive.
Certainly, these short but lovely haiku *do* capture the fleeting moments of life and perhaps are also useful in slowing us down a little, making us more mindful of our surroundings, of the everyday simple things which make up our life. In these days of mass media, constant distractions from gadgets and social media, and all the pressures of modern living, we certainly need all the help we can get to remember what it is to be human!
Moonlit plum tree –
spring will come.
The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura
The third of my Japanese books was a Christmas gift from Eldest Child, picked from my wishlist. I can’t actually recall where I stumbled across mention of it, but I like tea and I like Japan, so I guess those things were instrumental in my choice!
Okakura himself sounds a fascinating character; given a Western education when young, he didn’t actually start to learn anything about his traditional culture until he was 11. He travelled the world, lived in India and America, and was something of a cultural ambassador for Japan. The book was written in English, and although it purports to be a study of Japanese tea culture (or “Teaism” as he jokingly call it) it’s actually a lot more. Okakura uses the format of his book to sneak in a number of observations about the differences between East and West, as well as providing a study of Japanese culture as a whole – its religions, its aesthetics and its attitudes to life, love and war.
Those of us who know not the secret of properly regulating our own existence on this tumultuous sea of foolish troubles which we call life are constantly in a state of misery while vainly trying to appear happy and contented. We stagger in the attempt to keep our moral equilibrium, and see forerunners of the tempest in every cloud that floats on the horizon. Yet there is joy and beauty in the rolls of the billows as they sweep outward toward eternity. Why not enter into their spirit or, like Liehtse, ride upon the hurricane itself?
There’s some beautiful, thought-provoking writing in this deceptively slim volume, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone wanting to explore the Japanese soul.
Reading these three volumes in succession was a wonderful experience; if I can’t travel in real life, at least I can do so in books, and my recent visit to Japan was a joy! 🙂