Posted by: gdevi | March 21, 2016

Study Notes: Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (1689)

The nation of Japan is constituted of 4 major islands–Honshu (big central island), Hokkaido (north), Kyushu (southwestern), and Shikoku (southern). Japan has a total of six thousand or more islands scattered in the Pacific ocean. Basho’s (1644-1694) Narrow Road to the Deep North (Oku no Hosomichi) is set in the big central island of Honshu documenting a trip he took in 1689 from Tokyo north to Ogaki through perilous mountainous terrain. The trip lasted five months, roughly 156 days, and covered 1500 miles primarily on foot. It is one of the most famous classical travelogues with a distinct narrative voice and persona. The travelogue contains Basho’s impressions of places and people, poetic allusions, historical anecdotes and observations.


Basho was born in Kyoto to a samurai family fallen on hard times. Samurais were soldiers attached to particular feudal houses. Basho moved to Edo (modern Tokyo) in his youth and made a living there as a poet and poetry teacher. Basho followed the haikai verse tradition at first, eventually refining the haiku as a stand-alone sui generis poetic form. Haikai were linked verses often of humorous import with clever word play composed collectively by a circle of poets, sometimes for competitions. Haiku began its life as the first poem that started a poetry cycle, and soon became distinguished as a stand alone complete poem. Haikus are comparable to imagistic poems in the western canon, where a poetic image captures an intense emotional and intellectual instance that is both abstract and concrete at the same time. Haikus are closed forms made up of three line stanzas of this exact distribution: 5-7-5–with the first line comprising five syllables, the second line seven syllables, and the third line of five syllables.


The Narrow Road to the Deep North is not merely an account of Japan’s natural landscape. It is also an account of its poetic landscape. The narrative abounds in allusions to earlier poets who had visited the same places and had composed poetic tributes to temples, shrines or other monuments. Review all the footnotes. Thus Basho is part of a tradition of Japanese nature lyric poetry, but also distinct and apart from it, in his own poetic treatment of the same places.

Study questions:

1. Basho visits the following places of interest in the course of his trip. What does he encounter in these places, in terms of monuments, natural formations, people and events? What do these encounters tell us about Basho the traveler and his values and persona? What do these encounters tell us about Japanese culture in the 17th century?

  • Edo (Tokyo)
  • Nikko mountain
  • Shirakawa Barrier
  • Shinobu Mottling Rock
  • Ichikawa
  • Matsushima
  • Hiraizumi
  • Dewa Province
  • Yamagata
  • Yudono
  • Kisagata
  • Ichiburi
  • Toda Shrine
  • Iro no-hama
  • Ogaki

2. Several of the sites that Basho visits are temples. Would you consider this travel diary a pilgrimage with a spiritual intent? Why or why not? What associations do the words “narrow road” and “deep north” allude to within the themes suggested by the narrative?

3. What values are associated with the natural landscapes that Basho visits?

Here are some beautiful haikus by Basho:

Spring night,


blossom dawn.


Spring rain —

under trees

a crystal stream.


Spring moon —

flower face

in mist.

Enjoy the first day of spring!


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