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Poetry in motion

Follow in the footsteps of a haiku master on a walking tour of the untouched Japanese countryside. Story and photography by Peter Neville-Hadley

 

In early 1689, Japanese poet Matsuo Basho - master of the 17-syllable haiku form - began to dream of seeing the moon hanging over Matsushima Bay, one of Japan's most famed beauty spots.

"The gods took possession of my soul," he later wrote, "the roadside deities beckoned", and he set off for a five-month trek north of what is now Tokyo and then looped around to Kyoto. He chronicled this journey in his most famous work, a haiku-sprinkled travelogue called The Narrow Road to the North.

The book remains a handy travelling companion - many of the paths trodden by Basho have disappeared under concrete, but others still wind through car-free woodlands and over remote, undisturbed passes little changed from the poet's time - down to the original ishi-datami paving stones with rounded edges that once provided grip for the straw sandals of straining porters.

Basho walked on a combination of older footpaths and an early 17th-century highway network for foot and horse traffic. Today, most visitors to Japan simply ricochet between Tokyo and Kyoto by bullet train, unaware that the country seems purpose-built for walking tours.

The volcanic landscape offers gentle climbs to passes with fine views that are often recognisable from the works of woodblock print artists. And after a long day spent on foot, mineral-rich, geothermally-heated spring waters cleverly piped straight to baths at each night's accommodation provide the perfect balm for any aches.

For 20 years, Hong Kong-based Walk Japan (www.walkjapan.com) has been taking small groups to retrace these ancient highways, and now a new tour meanders through rural lifestyles and wild landscapes scattered between the scenic spots, temples and historic battlefields that originally drew Basho to his wanderings.

But judicious use of Japan's infinitely efficient rail network means there's no need to follow the poet and take five months off. Tokyo's seemingly endless suburban sprawl shoots by as quickly as 300km/h on the way to the site of the fortress at Kokufu-Tagajo. The distance that took Basho from March to May to traverse can now be reached before lunch, and taxis and delivery companies can conveniently whisk modern travellers' baggage ahead, leaving only cameras to carry.

The castle was long gone even by the time of Basho's visit, but he still recorded the inscription on a 1.8-metre-high stele marking its foundation nearly a thousand years earlier, which still stands gnarled and covered in lichen at the base of a broad stone staircase. He was moved by the loss of monuments to the passing years - but excavations mean there's now more to see than there was in the poet's day, not less. It was on his walk to the port at Shiogama that Basho first used the phrase that became the title of his book. What he called the "narrow road to the north" winds uphill past fields of leafy daikon radishes, trees hung with neon persimmons, and great stands of bamboo and pines. Small houses have tiny gardens of exceedingly neat topiary, and dignified torii gates lead to shrines for the roadside deities that called to the writer.

The Shiogama port operates a ferry service to Matsushima town that follows the exact route taken by the boat Basho chartered. It weaves between cormorant-covered rocks and tiny striped islands perforated by the action of the waves and covered with pines so close-set that they resemble toothbrush heads. Basho was so overwhelmed by the bay's beauty that his haiku-writing skills temporarily deserted him.

Some Matsushima temples lie on islands reached by long, narrow, orange-painted bridges. And others feature caves heavily carved with relief, with halls fitted with golden screens and the mournfully pretty tomb of a warlord's grandson who was poisoned by agents of the shogun before he could mature into a military threat.

Subsequent highlights include a climb through forests at Hiraizumi on paths deep in drifts of footfall-deadening pine needles to visit the Golden Hall of Chuson-ji, a 12th-century mausoleum holding four generations of the Fujiwara family.

It's a masterpiece of delicacy, drenched in gold leaf and gold-dust-laden lacquer with a gaudy array of figures inset with mother-of-pearl, all enclosed in an even larger building for protection. As Basho wrote:

Summer rains

Leave yet untouched

The Hall of Light.

One walk on an old highway winds up through pine forests with occasional pauses to bang on bear-scarers, then down past restless hillsides emitting columns of sulphurous steam, before leading to the former home of 16 generations of the merchant Ariji family. This is the last of Basho's accommodation to survive as he saw it.

The Ariji family was allowed the rare privilege of keeping horses, which were stabled inside the house. Basho wrote of his stay:

Fleas and lice.

A horse urinates

Next to my pillow.

Modern accommodation is definitely of a higher standard, including resorts with basements that bubble with geothermally heated waters, and outdoor baths that combine steamy comfort with scenic views across valleys or along coastlines.

But perhaps the best night is spent in traditional accommodation at the ancient shrine atop Mount Haguro, reached via 2,400 stone stairs.

While Basho obtained an audience with the head priest, today there's the option to observe an early-morning Shinto ceremony, and perhaps to meet the current post-holder.

Here, the multicourse vegetarian feast of locally picked mountain vegetables is perhaps the finest meal of the trip, despite competition from the freshest of seafood along the coastline and a delicate kaiseki ryori banquet at a restaurant once visited by a crown prince.

Add a boat trip down the Mogami River between steep hillsides blushing with colour, a walk to the site of a celebrated 12th-century battle won at night by tying flaming torches to the horns of cattle, and a stroll around the famous gardens of Kanazawa, and you'll know Basho was right to go where the roadside deities beckoned.

 

Taking creative licence

More countries should erect statues of their travel writers. Bronzes of Matsuo Basho crop up repeatedly, occasionally accompanied by ones depicting his acolyte and travel companion, Sora.

Sora kept a rather plodding diary which resembles much humdrum modern blogging, except when he dashes off haiku of such quality that Basho often repeats them himself. Discovered in 1942, the diary has waited for John McBride, deviser of the Basho Tour, to translate it.

Between comments on the weather, Sora inadvertently reveals many inaccuracies in Basho's account. For example, at Matsushima, Basho tells of the travellers piously visiting the more religiously important temples before the famously gaudy ones, but the opposite was true. And Basho describes the interior of another temple while Sora mentions they were unable to obtain the key. The poet also compares Matsushima Bay favourably to two Chinese beauty spots that he never actually visited.

It's all a bit reminiscent of Lonely Planet guidebooks. But write poetry like Basho, and your statue will never tarnish.

 

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