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The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a chef-d’oeuvre collection of life experiences as recorded by Matsuo Basho. The work revolves around Basho’s travel experiences to different provinces in Northern Japan. On the surface, Basho’s accounts appear as normal travel experiences, but a deeper and critical look at the context reveals more than that presumption. The book is an account of Basho’s traveling experiences when he sets out on a journey towards the northern provinces of Japan.
A deep-seated desire troubles Basho’s heart and it cannot let him stay at home. He has to travel and experience nature and perhaps rejuvenate, inspire, and sharpen his writing artistry. This paper explores Basho’s motivations for travel when he begins the journey coupled with how it fits in with his religious sensibility. The paper also highlights the spiritual goals that Basho tries to meet by having this journey. Finally, the paper highlights how Basho’s concept of travel and writing compares with the memoir-writing of Lady Sarashina coupled with the common themes that unite these writers.
Basho’s motivations for travel
One for the main motivations for Basho, before he begins the journey, is the need for spiritual enlightenment. Shortly after arriving from his previous journey, Basho writes a poem that reveals a troubled soul. Part of the poem reads that as the wind swings the Basho tree, his inside freezes, and he weeps while surrounded by the darkness that defines the night.
This poem clearly highlights that Basho is a troubled man. He does not get contentment or derive pleasure from his current way of living. At the start of the journey, he notes that perhaps the gods have invaded his soul and created an internal turmoil that deprives him of peace and tranquility. He also claims that somehow, images from the roadside are beckoning him from all over the world, and thus he concludes that he cannot afford to stay at home any longer (Narrow Road, p. 97).
This confession gives a two-pronged theme behind Basho’s travel motivation. The first one is the spiritual side, where the gods are troubling his soul, thus nudging him to travel to new places for enlightenment. The second aspect is an adventure. The phrase “roadside images” is used here symbolically to highlight the adventurous side of this journey. Conventionally, the adventure involves visiting new places where the traveler sees new things coupled with having novel experiences.
The third motivation hinges on the perspective that Basho views life as a journey that has to be traveled constantly. In the opening paragraph of the travelogue, Basho notes time is a traveler in the continuum of eternity. Based on this understanding, he insinuates that people are born, live, and die on the roadside of time, which is a traveler. He posits, “There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road. I have been tempted for a long time by the cloud-moving wind – filled with a strong desire to wander” (Narrow Road, p. 97).
Based on this understanding, it suffices to conclude that Basho is motivated to travel by life. Apparently, to him, traveling is living. This assertion explains why in another area he confesses that he cannot continue staying home idle. To Basho, when one stops traveling, s/he stops living, and thus he cannot afford that costly mistake of dying from the inside albeit physically alive.
How the journey fits in with his religious sensibility
According to the details given in Basho’s book, it is clear that he is a follower of Zen Buddhism. In the introductory part of the book, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Yuasa reveals that Basho studied and practiced Zen under the leadership of Priest Buccho. Apparently, Basho has to leave everything behind and travel to far places, where he will achieve enlightenment through meditation and experience. Additionally, Zen holds that honoring of historical places and figures constitutes one of the key elements of spiritual enlightenment.
Therefore, in light of this understanding, one can argue that Basho’s journey fits perfectly in his religious sensibility. The idea of honoring historical figures stands out when Basho says, “…There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road” (Narrow Road, p. 97). In another area, he reflects with nostalgia about the ancient travelers who had taken the same road of self-discovery and decided to write their experiences on the same (Narrow Road, p. 105).
This way, Basho honors ancient poets that have walked the same road before him. The other aspect of Zen involves visiting ancient places and Basho accomplishes this goal throughout his journey. He visits Mount Nikko, Muronoyashima, Kurobane in Nasu, unganji, and Shiogama among other ancient places. All these places offer lessons on spiritual enlightenment, which is one of the chief reasons for the travel.
Basho tries to meet the spiritual and literary goal of self, which is poetry. By discovering himself, he understands and experiences the truth of beauty in poetry. He argues that the most important thing is to remain aware that there exists a world somewhere, which embodies the truth about living. He notes that while it is important to visit this world occasionally, people should come back to the present world and experience the beauty of living therein based on the understanding of the other world of true understanding. He concludes, “No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self, which is poetry” (Narrow Road p. 28).
The spiritual goal of self-discovery comes by learning from the ancient individuals who went before him. He also accomplishes this goal by meditating upon the wisdom of the sages hidden in the many places that he visited. The self-discovery journey sharpens his sense of poetry by learning from his fellow poets who went before him. For instance, at Yamanaka, Basho meets Kumenosuke, a son of a poet, Teishitsu.
Basho learns that Teishitsu’s desire to study poesy came from the ignorance that he saw in a man he once met at Kumenosuke. Teishitsu was so humiliated by the man’s ignorance of poetry that he decided to study, become an established poet, and teach anyone willing to learn poetry at no cost.
Comparison with the memoir-writing of Lady Nijo
Lady Nijo’s writing style compares significantly with that of Basho. The two writers incorporate short poems in their writings, and this aspect makes them peculiar individuals in the world of Japanese poetry. Also, the two writers focus on travelogue where they chronicle their travel experiences. Lady Nijo’s travel experiences begin when she is kicked out of the courts due to infidelity. Just like Basho, she is troubled from within, and she cannot take it anymore. She confesses, “…I longed in my weariness to go and live beyond the mountains” (The Confessions, p. 126).
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In Book Four of her memoir, Lady Nijo leaves her home and sets out to become a traveling Buddhist nun on the road to self-discovery. Just like Basho, she gives up her home and travels to places where ancient poets had traveled. Therefore, Lady Nijo and Basho’s writing styles are similar in many ways. Additionally, the two writers ascribe to Buddhism, where they draw inspiration and life lessons.
The only differentiating factor between the two writers is the motivation for their travels. While Basho is motivated by the need for enlightenment, Lady Nijo is running from her guilty past. She wants to reconcile with her past and perhaps discover the beauty that lies within.
Basho and Lady Nijo brought changes in Japanese poetry by introducing a novel writing style, which incorporates short poems into prose. The need for spiritual enlightenment motivated Basho’s final and long journey, which resulted in the chronicles of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. On religious matters, Basho ascribed to the Zen teachings of Buddha. According to Basho, life is a journey that has to be traveled constantly. This understanding explains why he could not “sit idle” at home in Edo. Basho and Lady Nijo incorporate travel experiences in their writings. However, the two writers differ in their motivation for traveling. While Basho travels for spiritual enlightenment, Lady Nijo is seeking to reconcile with her dark past.
Basho, Matsuo. The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches. Trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa. London: Penguin Books, 1966. Print.
Lady Nijo. The Confessions of Lady Nijo. Trans. Karen Brazell. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1973. Print.