SOKA, Saitama — Haiku master Matsuo Basho’s “Oku no Hosomichi” — a record of his epic 17th century journey across Japan — was celebrated here recently for its significance as not a classical text, but an immortal work that inspires people to revisit the paths he took and Japanese culture throughout the ages.
The Saitama Prefecture city of Soka is the first locale to be named in Basho’s major work, which mixed prose and poetry to describe his 150-day, 2,400-kilometer journey in 1689, mostly done on foot. On July 30, the “Oku no Hosomichi Summit” was held in Soka for the first time in around 30 years, to celebrate Basho’s achievements and the 100th anniversary of the late scholar Donald Keene’s birth. Keene translated many Japanese literary works, including “Oku no Hosomichi,” which he gave the English title “The Narrow Road to Oku.”
During a special talk, specialists from in and outside Japan shared their love of and insight on the work. It is said that the purpose of Basho’s epic journey was to visit places traveled by literary predecessors he admired, including Heian-era (794-1185) Buddhist priest-poets. Japanese literature scholar and Waseda University professor emeritus Minoru Horikiri noted that this spirit to travel to places already imagined in the mind is part of Japan’s culture.
Haiku poet Yasuaki Inoue recounted the time he visited a path trod by Basho himself, and said, “It was just green paddy fields stretching out before me, and nothing special. But, I felt the urge to make a poem based on my thoughts and impressions of the day. It must be that I sensed the history of all those who came here and made poems before me.”
Inoue was not the only speaker who enjoyed tracing the paths taken by Basho and his predecessors. U.S.-born poet and translator Arthur Binard, who visited a mountain temple that was along the route of Basho’s journey, said, “I think it’s important to view the piece as not something to read, but something to do and experience.”
Binard pointed out that if you visit paddy fields today, which are reminiscent of a passage in Basho’s work where rice planters are singing, you notice that the sites of Basho’s travels are not tourist spots, but ordinary places that embody Japan’s food culture and the customs of daily life.
What is also charming about the travel account, Binard said, is that it shows Basho’s free-spirited “badly behaved” side, which can be compared with Beat Generation authors. In the passage about Soka, instead of mentioning the attractive sights of the area, Basho complains about “the weight of the pack on my scrawny shoulders,” as translated by Keene.
“Oku no Hosomichi can serve as a sort of map or guidebook, but it’s not a serious tourist pamphlet. Basho writes everything honestly as it happened, including the wonders and annoyances he met on the way. This makes you want to follow in his footsteps,” Binard said.
Haiku poet Momoko Kuroda visited the culture embodied in Oku no Hosomichi in a different way — as a child, she memorized it by reading and writing it down numerous times. She said, “The lives of Japanese people portrayed in each region that appears in the work will forever be within me.”
When haiku poet Kai Hasegawa suggested that the Oku no Hosomichi route be preserved as a world heritage, the other speakers agreed enthusiastically.
On this day, students from Ryoshinden Junior High School, Kawayagi Junior High School, and Soka Junior High School also recited the opening passages from the original work plus Donald Keene’s English version. Between the recitations was a shamisen performance by Keene’s adopted son Seiki, who narrated the text while playing the three-stringed lute used in Japanese traditional Bunraku puppet shows.
(By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)
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The Second Oku no Hosomichi Soka Matsubara International Haiku Competition award ceremony also took place on the same day. Below are some of the selected pieces from the international haiku contest.
Soka Mayor’s Award (Grand Prize)
il neige du silence
sur le silence
– Zlatka Timenova (Portugal)
Soka City Cultural Association Award (Special Prize)
how the dandelions change
from suns to moons
– Vandana Parashar (India)
“Oku-no-hosomichi” Association Award (Special Prize)
infused with scents of
petrichor and pine resin
a new path beckons
– @ayeshakajee (South Africa)
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