Written by Patricia MacLeod-Kishi
With Bashō On The Narrow Road To The Deep North - A Visit To Obanazawa
Matsuo Basho, the famous haiku poet of the Edo period, visited Obanazawa, Yamagata prefecture, on his way to the northern regions. This article introduces Obanazawa and its surroundings, trailing the route walked by the poet.
Of all Japanese writers, Matsuo Bashō (1644 - 1694) probably has the highest name recognition around the world. His haiku have inspired poets in other languages and, now that wastefulness is seen as not smart, his sense of economy fits the mood of our times.
It is intriguing to follow the path that Matsuo Bashō took on his five-month tour around Japan. Carrying only writing materials and changes of clothing, he and his companion covered about 1,500 miles (2400 km).
"The Narrow Road to the Deep North"
On May 16th, 1689, Bashō left Edo (Tokyo) with his traveling companion Kawai Sora, to begin his journey towards the north. The Tokugawa government seems to have commissioned Sora and Bashō to inspect waterworks and also to report back on the degree of loyalty of various feudal lords. I don’t want to say that they were government agents exactly, however this was not exclusively a poetic adventure. Anyway, visiting the renowned scenic spots of Matsushima and Kisagata were among his goals.
The farthest point north reached by Bashō was Kisakata (Akita prefecture), known as a famous place of beauty since the Heian
era. Unfortunately, in 1804, a powerful earthquake (7.1) caused a 2.4 meter upheaval in the crust and the coastal islands Bashō wrote about no longer exist, although they are still visible features of the landscape.
Bashō and Sora mostly walked. In spite of the ongoing transformation of the countryside, the same shrines and similar views can be found along Bashō’s route. Sometimes it doesn’t even take that much concentration to set your mind back 300 years. Here and there, it is possible to follow exactly in Bashō’s footsteps, taking peaceful trails over hills and through woods and rice fields.
Natagiri Pass - A Path Through the Mountains
When Bashō went from Naruko to Mogami-machi he had to walk through a silent forest of dense and dark cedar trees, at risk of bandits and bears. Apparently this was quite a frightening trip and he depended heavily on a local guide to get him safely over the hills and through the woods.
Then, from Mogami-machi his path went over the Natagiri Pass (Natagiri Tōge). This short segment from Natagiri Pass to Obanazawa is refreshingly barely visited and you can enjoy a very pleasant and quiet walk along a trail maintained by Bashō fans.
If walking in a group appeals, you can sign up for an annual commemorative walk that this year (2016) will take place on August 7th. The 3,000 yen fee covers lunch and the rental of Bashō era straw shoes and clothes (the cost for cleaning these is included).
Obanazawa - Poetry Nurtured by the Locals' Hospitality
Much relieved at arriving in Obanazawa in one piece, Bashō was most grateful for the generous hospitality offered by a man named Suzuki Seifū. This was a poetry-loving, wealthy safflower merchant who himself was well accustomed to the hardships of travel and therefore able to empathize with Bashō’s trials on the journey.
Quite at peace
As if it were my home
In this house of fresh air
(Bashō's haiku from "The Narrow Road to the Deep North", translated by the author)
The statue of Bashō in front of the Bashō-Seifū Historical Museum
The merchant Seifū’s home is now a museum called Bashō-Seifū Historical Museum (Bashō-Seifū rekishi shiryōkan).
As he had come to the district, Bashō was advised to go on to Ryūshakuji Temple at Yamadera (also known as Risshakuji). This had not been part of his original plan, but he went there on horseback and afterwards returned to Oishida to take a riverboat on the way to Haguro.
Yokochō Tōfu shop, Oishida
Oishida was the point beyond which boats on the Mogami River could no longer pass. It was therefore a commercial hub and large storehouses remind us of its former prosperity. One of these storehouses, now the Yokochō Tōfu shop, sells the popular Mogamigawa sembon dango (skewered mochi rice dumplings) and attracts customers from as far away as Sendai.
Yōsenji Temple, where Basho spent most of his days while in Obanazawa
Obanazawa is famous all over Japan for its soba, watermelon and Obanazawa beef. On August 7th there is a fun watermelon splitting event at Tokura Lake.
Bicycling across “Oku” from Sendai to Kisagata is a feasible challenge, although parts of the journey do involve little choice except to cycle along busy roads with no bike lanes. Otherwise, car and train are convenient if you have the time to stop and walk along portions of the trail.
In spite of the hardships of his journey, or perhaps because of them, Basho was able to see the world in a tiny wild flower and some of his sketches still survive.
He valued the quality of lightness (karumi) in poetry, which means that the poem should sound as if written by a child. His aim was to focus on the simplicity of absorbing details so that people could forget themselves and experience the feeling of being one with the universe.
Poetic imagery can lead us to wisdom and calm. Muga (loss of awareness of oneself), the ideals of wabi (satisfaction with simplicity and austerity) and sabi
(an appreciation of the imperfect) can be fostered by the contemplation of nature. The weather and seasons reflect change, like the transience of our existence.
All of these qualities can be experienced in the peaceful woods and rice fields around the
A visit to Obanazawa would be a trip to an old Japan that most visitors would not think about putting on their itinerary. However, low-key and rural, one of the districts of Obanazawa is Ginzan, one of the most famous onsen towns in Japan, and nearby is Akakura, also an onsen town with a very old history going back to Jōmon times (corresponding to the period from about 12,000 BC to about 300 BC). There are two golf courses nearby (Oishida and Sakuranbo) and you can even have the fun of making your own artwork or souvenir gifts out of glass at the Tokurako Glass Studio Asahi or the Tanaka Kōbō.
Whether following Bashō's steps, or simply enjoying a trip to Tōhoku, I warmly recommend you to visit the charming town of Obanazawa.