Monday 28 September 2020

The Master of Haiku: Basho, Banana Trees, and Beloved Frogs

An old silent pond  (古池や)  

A frog jumps into the pond -  (蛙飛び込む)

Splash! Silence again (水の音)

Matsuo Basho (1686)

Last month's post introduced Shin-Ohashi ("New Big Bridge") on Tokyo's Sumida River, noting how its construction was watched - and written about - by that most famous poet of the Edo period Matsuo Basho (1644-94). As I explained, Basho, who lived on the eastern bank of the river in a cottage, watched and wrote about its construction. Today this whole area is dotted with (not always easy to find) reminders of his presence. 

As the map shows, down the road from the Basho Museum are the remains of the great man's cottage or hermitage (written as anseki or 庵跡 in Japanese), very close to the location of the first Shin-Ohashi Bridge. These remains are marked by a tall stone (pictured) located inside a tiny Shinto Inari shrine. Note the two stone frogs at the base of the stone: Basho is said to have been given a frog like this after writing his famous haiku (top) which became one of his most treasured possesions. Apparently, it disappeared around the mid-19th century but was rediscovered in 1917 after a typhoon prompting the establishment of the present shrine. After going missing again in 1945, a member of the Basho Preservation Society found the frog hidden away in the family safe and donated it to the Basho Museum.

The museum itself is rather marvellous, one of those hidden Tokyo gems. In front of the museum are a number of banana trees: Basho is in fact a pen-name which was given to him because his cottage was surrounded by banana trees (Basho is the name of a type of Japanese banana!). When I visited they were holding a special exhibiton focusining on his most famous collection of haiku, Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道)or The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This collection is based on his 2,400km journey through the North-eastern areas of Honshu (1689-1691) which is traced in red on the map below. In fact, probably my first contact with Basho was in the "Deep North" - as an English conversation teacher in Yamagata where I started my love affair with Japan. Climbing the 1000 stone steps to the 9th century Yamadera Temple I learned that Basho stopped here and composed one of most famous haiku about cicadas and the stillness of summer (look out for the Basho statue and rock inscription of the poem  in the lower area of the temple grounds).

So what is haiku? Most people know that haiku consists of 5/7/5 syllables but in reality it is the sound and rhythm that is most important and not all "haiku" (especially English haiku - see here) religiously follow the 5/7/5 mantra. Moreover, pauses and silence can be a key part of reading a haiku well. It is also widely known that haiku contain a seasonal word (kigo=季語) - the frog in the example represents spring - but less well known that a cutting word or letter (kireji=切れ字) is also a requirement in traditional haiku - "Splash!" in our example - marking a break, turn/twist, or even dramatic ending (in English, this is often performed by punctuation). If you're looking for some inspiration, I recommend the garden just past the shrine which contains a statue of Basho gazing thoughtfully over the Sumida River.

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