Friday, October 18, 2013

Carpe Diem's Oku no Hosomichi station 8, 9 and 10 "Shirakawa"

Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,

Today we are going 'on route' again together with Basho and his travel companion on their way to the 'Deep North'. In this episode of Oku no Hosomichi we will bring a visit to the hut of Basho's Dharma-master Butcho. He studied Zen under the supervision of Butcho between 1673 and 1684 at the temple of Chokei at Edo.

Temple of Chokei

And we will fulfill Basho's dream to see the willow tree which was described in a poem by Saigyo (1118-1190). At the end of this episode we will arrive at the frontier post to the High North and will enter the Northern regions of the Japanese Northern Island Honshu. Let us pick up our back pack and go on with our journey.


Behind the temple of Unganji in the mountains a hut is hidden which Basho wants us to visit. "It's the hut of my Dharma-master Butcho", he says. "Did you study Zen under his supervision?" I ask him. "Yes, I did". As we climb to the temple, we get company of a group of youngsters with their walking sticks pointing towards the shrine. They bring joy and happiness and we started a lively conversation. In no time we are at the shrine. Time flies when you have fun and a good conversation.
The day was still young and the spring air felt still cold and gave me the shivers. We walked underneath a roof of pinetrees and cedars and after every curve in the path, new landscapes unfold.
As we arrive at the temple. Basho takes me by the hand. "Come on", he says. "My masters hut is behind the temple. I will show you". We walked on and then ... there was Butcho's hut. It looked similar with the hut of Miyozenji and the hermitage of the Zen master Houns. Both were Chinese Zen-masters and wellknown for their ascetic lives.
On a rock we can still read the vague image of a poem by Butcho:

five feet square -
I hadn't built that hut
for the world,
but the rain
was to heavy!

(Tr. Chèvrefeuille)

Butcho's poem

While reading the poem aloud I saw tears in Basho's eyes and I thought "He loved his Dharma-master very much and has learned a lot of him". In some way it was an awesome experience to stand there next to Basho in tears. I felt a strong connection with him, a very strong connection.
Before we went on with our journey and left the temple Basho wrote a haiku and pinned it on a pole. I tried to write a haiku myself to catch that moment next to Basho.

with tears in their eyes
the master and his pupil -
the spring breeze

(c) Chèvrefeuille

The next few hours we walked in deep silence our minds full of emotions and images of the shrine and the landscape. As the starts his journey to the evening horizon and the moon climbs to the sky, we settled in a little mountain hut for the night. We cooked us a simple meal of bread and soup and there-after we sat down in front of the hut drinking tea and enjoying the spring evening.

drinking tea
on the porch of a mountain hut -
the almost full moon

(c) Chèvrefeuille

Saigyo's Willow

After a good night's rest we went on with our journey with the rising of the sun. The mountains covered in a blanket of clouds. A chilly spring morning.
"Today", Basho said. "I hope to see the willow of Ashino. It's in the middle of a rice field. Saigyo once wrote a poem about that willow standing along a crystal stream". "I am looking forward to see it too master Basho", I answered.

Alongside the path
Fresh water flows, and
In the willow’s shade
Just for a little while
Would I take my ease..

(c) Saigyo (1118-1190)

Around noon we arrived at Ashino and my heart is beating wild. "I hope it will be still there, that willow. I love to see my master happy and in awe", I thought.
It turns out that Basho knows a lot of people of different ranks and here at Ashino he knew a high ranked samoerai. That samoerai brought us to the willow. It was still there and Basho, Sora and I were in awe. We sat underneath the willow and listened to the sweet song of the rice-planting girls. As they left for home we came out of the shadow underneath the willow.

finally have seen
the willow at the crystal stream
sung by Saigyo

(c) Chèvrefeuille

What a joy and how is it possible that this willow has been there for several centuries and still is. I can almost sense, feel, the spirit of Saigyo here and now.


A few days later we arrive at Shirakawa where the frontier post is to the Northern part of Honshu. There are three of those frontier posts and they have all wonderful names. The posts, as Basho told me, are more then once sung in poems throughout the centuries. The names of the frontier post are "autumn wind" and "red maple leaves" Basho told me and Noin and Yorimasa have written nice poems about these posts. Saigyo was influenced by those poets.
After a curve in the way it feels like we walk on the top of a mountain were the everlasting snow lays. Everywere I look I see the white flowers of the Unohana (Deutzia) in full bloom and Brambles in full bloom. "Chèvrefeuille?" Basho asked. I looked at him and smiled. This was the first time he mentioned me by my 'nom de plum' Chèvrefeuille. "Yes, Master Basho?" "Do you know Kiyosuke?" I nodded. "Yes, I know him. He's a poet from the Heian period". basho smiled and clapped his hands. "That's right. Kiyosuke wrote about this frontier post. As the people walked through the post they were always clothed in the most beautiful kimonos. They made it a celebration to walk through this post. So maybe we have to 'up-date' our clothing". I nodded and plucked some flowers of the Unohana (Deutzia) and laid them on my hat and I plucked a little branch of blossoming Brambles and pricked it on my jacket. And as a finishing touch I hung a few Deutzia flowers and branches of Brambles at my back-pack. "Well ... how do I look?" Basho smiled. "You look great Chèvrefeuille, really you look very festive. Come let us celebrate that we entered the realm of the High North of Honshu. There is a little inn. There we will sleep and eat and tonight we celbrate our arrival with sake and a Renga session.

flowers on my hat
the sweet perfume of Deutzia
follows through the post

(c) Chèvrefeuille


With this haiku as the starting verse we wrote a 36-linked verse together with a few other guests of the inn. The inn-keeper turned out to be a great poet. One of his haiku I have to share here:

I came back,
having seen a gigantic tree:
the summer mountains

(c) Rankoo

We stayed there for several days enjoying the landscape and the people who followed us through the post to the Deep North of Honshu.


I will re-produce the stations of Oku no Hosomichi which came along in the above post as I use to do every episode of Oku no Hosomichi. 

Station 8 - Unganji

There was a Zen temple called Unganji in this province. The priest Buccho used to live in isolation in the mountains behind the temple. He once told me that he had written the following poem on the rock of his hermitage with the charcoal he had made from pine.

This grassy hermitage,
Hardly any more
Than five feet square,
I would gladly quit
But for the rain

A group of young people accompanied me to the temple. they talked so cheerfully along the way that I reached it before I knew it. The temple was situated on the side of a mountain completely covered with dark cedars and pines. A narrow road trailed up the valley, between banks of dripping moss, leading us to the gate of the temple across a bridge. The air was still cold, though it was April.
I went behind the temple to see the remains of the priest Buccho's hermitage. It was a tiny hut propped against the base of a huge rock. I felt as if I was in the presence of the Priest Genmyo's cell or the Priest Houn's retreat. I hung on a wooden pillar of the cottage the following poem which I wrote impromptu.

Even the woodpeckers
Have left it untouched,
This tiny cottage
In a summer grove.

Station 9 - Sesshoseki

Taking leave of my friend in Kurobane, I started for the Murder Stone, so called because it kills birds and insects that approached it. I was riding on a horse my friend had lent me, when the farmer who led the horse asked me to compose a poem for him. His request came to me as a pleasant surprise.

Turn the head of your horse
Sideways across the field,
To let me hear
The cry of the cuckoo.


The Murder Stone was in the dark corner of a mountain near a hot spring, and was completely wrapped in the poisonous gas rising from it. There was such a pile of dead bees, butterflies, and other insects, that the real color of the ground was hardly discern able.
I went to see the willow tree which Saigyo celebrated in his poem when he wrote, "Spreading its shade over a crystal stream." I found it near the village of Ashino on the bank of a rice-field. I had been wondering in my mind where this tree was situated, for the ruler of this province had repeatedly talked to me about it, but this day, for the first time in my life, I had an opportunity to rest my worn-out legs under its shade.

When the girls had planted
A square of paddy-field,
I stepped out of
The shade of a willow tree.

Station 10 - Shirakawa

After many days of solitary wandering, I came at last to the barrier-gate of Shirakawa, which marks the entrance to the northern regions. Here, for the first time, my mind was able to gain a certain balance and composure, no longer victim to pestering anxiety, so it was with a mild sense of detachment that I thought about the ancient traveler who had passed through this gate with a burning desire to write home. This gate was counted among the three largest checking stations, and many poets had passed through it, each leaving a poem of his own making. I myself walked between trees laden with thick foliage with the distant sound of autumn wind in my ears and a vision of autumn tints before my eyes. There were hundreds and thousands of pure white blossoms of unohana in full bloom on either side of the road, in addition to the equally white blossoms of brambles, so that the ground, at a glance, seemed to be covered with early snow. According to the accounts of Kiyosuke, the ancients are said to have passed through this gate, dressed up in their best clothes.

Decorating my hair
With white blossoms of unohana,
I walked through the gate,
My only gala dress.

-- written by Sora


I hope you did like the read. See you next week as we will go further on our journey to the "Deep North".


  1. I can tell you put alot of time and thought into this Kristjaan
    a beautiful journey

  2. As always, you bring haiku to life Kristjaan. Thank you for sharing with us.

  3. A nice and detailed compilation here! Good good good!!

  4. What an amazing journey - just amazing, and feels very real. And after all, what exactly is reality other than our perception?