Saturday, 19 November 2016

Japan through the eyes of legend and antiquity.

My journey on the narrow road to the deep north is going slow. But it is a beautiful journey. Only recently I said a little about it here. But even as I am reading Lesley Downer's account of how she followed Matsuo Basho's path into the north of Japan, I find myself stopping constantly to take notes. 

Only a few months ago I read a translated version of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. For the uninitiated, it is a travelogue by the most celebrated poet of Japanese literature, Matsuo Basho. The travelogue is documented in the form of haibun, short passages of prose interspersed with haiku (a seventeen-syllable form of Japanese poetry). It is a very short tra
velogue; it number about fifty pages or less. But I took my time with it for it was worth savouring slowly and patiently. 

As I said, this was a few months ago. Now, I am reading Downer's attempt at following the path the old poet took over three centuries before, and I am plunged back into Matsuo Basho's time. It feels like I am travelling three different paths at the very same time. This is a travelogue that moves three dimensionally (for want of a better word). In reading Basho's work we are taken so much further back into Japanese history as Basho lives in his present. We feel the ancient ghosts of old Japan keenly through Basho's writing as he reminisces and considers the heroes and legends of old. 

Downer writes, 
Basho's purpose, I was beginning to realise, was a poetic one. While I wanted to see Ezo country, the farmers and peasants of the far north, Basho was visiting places which had inspired poets in the past. Many poets had written about these places, but few actually visited them; and Basho's aim was to revive his poetic spirit by seeing the places themselves. 
'Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought', he wrote.   (Location: 749)
And now, through Downer's journey we get to see the Japan of the late 1900s, of the mid-1600s, and the Japan of ancient legend as she constantly quotes Basho, and leads the reader back to the poet's feelings and opinions about the places she visits. 

Downer not only visits the places Basho went to, but makes a particular effort to go see the things Basho went to see - memorial stones, old castles, old temples that hold things of legend, and other things of this kind. And with each of these places and artefacts comes a history of the places and these things. Downer is thorough as the legends come to life on my kindle pages. I feel my heart beat with excitement and a sense of awe. I suppose the fact that I enjoy watching Japanese anime and reading Japanese manga that deal with Japanese history makes these legends all the more fascinating.

I am only 21% into the book, but so far I have revisited, with Downer, the barrier at Shirakawa, and have seen the satchel of Benkei who was the legendary Yoshitsune's companion, the Tsubo stone, and Matsushima -- the last an archipelago described exquisitely in Basho's travelogue and which, Downer informs us, has never been described in poetry by poets for words were never enough.

As you can tell, I am enjoying this exquisite trip On the Narrow Road to the Deep North. The antiquity of the whole journey is perhaps the most thrilling part about it. And so I think it fitting to end this post with both Basho's and Downer's words:
 'Mountains crumble, rivers change their course, new roads replaced old, stones are buried and vanish into the earth and old trees yield to saplings. Time passes, one era replaces the next, and we cannot be certain that anything of them will remain. But here before my eyes was a monument which without a doubt had stood for a thousand years, through which I could see into the hearts of the men  of old. This, I thought, makes travel worthwhile and is one of the joys of being alive, and forgetting the pains of the journey, I wept for joy.' 
That was one of the things I was looking for too, some feeling of 'seeing into the hearts of the men of old'. Basho himself had become one of the 'men of old'. Three hundred years before he had been following in their footsteps -- and now here was I, following in his. And what for him had been reality, the prosaic present, had now slipped as inexorably into the past and disappeared as completely as the age of chivalry, the romantic era of Yoshitsune and Sakanoue-no-Tamuramaro.      (Location: 1004)

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