“God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth of which he spoke in the Apocalypse . . .

— Christopher Columbus, 1498

“Here am I, in the Second Year of Genroku, suddenly taking it into my head to make a long journey to the far, northern provinces. I might as well be going to the ends of the earth!”

— Matsuo Basho, 1689

Strange, by Western standards, that premodern Japan’s most famous traveler should have been a poet. The voyagers the West celebrates as explorers and discoverers were hard-headed seamen, rapacious adventurers, high-minded idealists — a mixed bag, but poetry?

Their inspiration lay elsewhere — in ambition stronger than prudence, in lusts deeper than fear. Fear of what? They hardly knew, which made it doubly fearful. It took Prince Henry the Navigator’s 15th-century Portuguese sailors more than 60 years to inch their way down the unknown African coast — “for, said the mariners, this much is clear, that beyond [Morocco’s Cape Bojador] there is no race of men nor place of inhabitants . . . while the currents are so terrible that no ships having once passed the Cape, will ever be able to return . . .” So noted a contemporary chronicler.

Bartholomeu Dias, who rounded the continent’s southern tip in 1488, was driven by courage of course, but also, lest his courage fail him, by a storm so terrible the crew “gave themselves up for dead.” When the wind abated they found, to their astonishment, that the coast ran northeast. The Indian Ocean lay open before them, vast and uncharted. Somewhere out there were the fabulous Indies, including “Cipangu,” Japan — islands “most fertile,” Marco Polo had reported 200 years before, “in gold, pearls and precious stones, and they cover the temples and the royal residences with solid gold.”

The cozy little world of medieval Christendom, three continents huddled around the Mediterranean with Paradise somewhere off to the east, was about to explode.

“On the 27th day of the third moon” of the second year of Genroku — May 16, 1689, 314 years ago this week — Basho (a pen name deriving from the basho, banana plant, by his cottage) set forth from Edo (Tokyo) on his most famous journey — a five-month trek north to Hiraizumi in present-day Iwate Prefecture, then southwest down the Sea of Japan coast to Ogaki near Lake Biwa. He was 45, a veteran of the road, with four poetic travel narratives already behind him. “Oku no hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Deep North)” in 1694 became the fifth.

In the first, “The Record of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton,” he describes his wanderlust: “Following the example of the ancient priest who is said to have traveled thousands of miles caring naught for his provisions and attaining the state of sheer ecstasy under the pure beams of the moon, I left my broken house on the River Sumida in August [1684], among the wails of the autumn wind.”

We gather from the title that he was not robust and his poem as he prepares to depart — “Determined to fall/ A weather-exposed skeleton . . .” — suggests awful, perhaps fatal rigors lying ahead. The anticipated harvest was poetry — not gold, spices, slaves, knowledge, trade routes, heathens converted to Christianity, or new lands won for his sovereign to reign over. Poetry: “Sheer ecstasy under the pure beams of the moon.”

Basho surely never heard of Columbus and his new continent, or of Vasco da Gama who sailed round Africa and landed in India in 1498, or of Ferdinand Magellan who circumnavigated the globe in 1520-21. Basho’s world, in physical terms, was far, far narrower than even the pre-Columbian Western world.

“China” was Basho’s symbol for anything in it that was not Japan. He had never set eyes on China, never would, didn’t want to. Had not Chinese and Japanese poets of old already captured its magnificence in verse? He left for the Deep North “dreaming of the moon over Matsushima”; nor did Matsushima disappoint him when he finally arrived: “Matsushima is indeed the most beautiful place in all Japan! It can easily hold its own with Lake Tung-ting and Lake Xi in China.”

China meant more than dream-scenery to Columbus, and he had every intention of setting eyes on it. He envisioned a fabulous empire of gold, jewels, spices, inconceivable flora and fauna, possibly even the legendary Christian king known as Prester John, reportedly eager to unite with Western Christians against the infidel. China is where Columbus thought he was going when he sailed westward from Spain in August 1492; it’s where he thought he was two months later when a Cuban “Indian” made a reference to a local region called “Cubanacan” and Columbus took him to mean “El Gran Can” — the Great Khan of Marco Polo’s China. Thinking they were being escorted to the khan’s palace, Columbus and his men arrived instead at a village of 50 palm-thatched huts, whose awed inhabitants received them as messengers from the sky. Basho would have been charmed.

Basho’s “Cuba” — his “America” — was Japan’s “far, northern provinces.” That was as remote as a Japanese could legally venture in his day, and for nearly two centuries to come. The country had been sealed shut 60 years earlier by order of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The policy was called sakoku — literally, “closed country.” Venturing overseas — or, having ventured, returning — was a capital offense.

Might that not cramp a wandering poet’s style? Not Basho’s. Far from straining at the bit, far from lusting for the great wide world from which his country’s laws barred him, Basho paused at the Tokugawa shrine at Nikko on his way north to pay fulsome homage to “the most sacred of all shrines [whose] benevolent power prevails throughout the land embracing the entire people, like the bright beams of the sun.”

Politics aside, freedom is Basho’s theme, embodied in his very trajectory. Heading north, writes Basho translator Nobuyuki Yuasa, meant “avoiding the familiar Tokaido route.” In the imagination of the people at least, the North was largely unexplored, and it represented for Basho all the mystery there was in the universe.

Symbolic gateway to this “mystery” was the Shirakawa Barrier, 180 km north of Edo in present-day Fukushima Prefecture. An ancient defense against northern barbarians, it was a mere ruin in Basho’s day, but as an utamakura, a place with poetic associations, it was very much alive. “Had I a messenger I would send a missive to the capital!” wrote the poet Taira Kanemori at Shirakawa in the 10th century, by which time the barrier was already in disuse. The suggestion is of hopeless remoteness — but Basho, unlike Kanemori, was not ending his journey here. He was beginning it.

The West had its own version of sakoku. Scholars call it the “Great Interruption” — a 1,000-year attempt, reinforced by all the supernatural terrors of the primitive Christian imagination, to squeeze the world into a shape consistent with Holy Writ. Jerusalem was “the navel of the world.” “Six parts hast thou dried up,” declared the apocryphal Book of Esdras — six parts of seven, that is; oceans hardly came into the picture at all. When they did, they led to the void or to Paradise.

St. Brendan (484-578) sailed westward from Ireland to Paradise. So he said on his return, and he was believed. “His sacred island,” writes historian Daniel Boorstin, “remained plainly marked on maps for more than 1,000 years, at least until 1759.” Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of America, made four voyages to his new continent without realizing that it was one. He thought it was Asia. But the puzzles and inconsistencies multiplied. His journals show him suspecting the truth (“I believe this is a very great continent, until today unknown”), then veering away from it: “I am convinced it is the spot of the earthly paradise wither no one can go but by God’s permission . . .” The great discoverer died in 1506, unenlightened by his discoveries.

By Basho’s time, of course, most of the confusion had been sorted out. America was settled and thriving; the institutions and the thinking that were to produce the American Revolution were well under way. Europe’s fleets plied the oceans, its commerce spanned the globe. Even closed Cipangu had given the Dutch a foothold, at Nagasaki. The new world, vast beyond medieval imaginings, was slowly growing familiar.

Basho, meanwhile, plodded north. A famous contemporary portrait shows him in priestly garb, leaning on a stick, his feet shod in thin sandals, his disciple Sora following behind. He traveled mostly on foot, occasionally on horseback, a prematurely elderly man, feeble and frequently ill, braving the rigors of the road in pursuit of “the moon over Matsushima.”

“Whatever such a mind sees is a flower,” he had written earlier — “such a mind” meaning a mind in harmony with nature — “and whatever such a mind dreams of is the moon.” In Basho, the stars pass almost unnoticed.

Did he know of the newly discovered shape and extent of the world? There is no indication he did, or that he cared about such things. Other matters preoccupied him, the smaller and quieter the better.

Born Matsuo Kinsaku in 1644 in the castle town of Ueno, near Kyoto, he studied poetry as a child and, as a young man, cast off his samurai status to enter a temple. He moved to Edo, became a teacher of poetry, grew increasingly restless with social and poetic conventions, and drifted away from both, moving into a quasi-hermitage on the Sumida River and slowly, over the years, refining haiku from a facile social pastime into an art mirroring “our everlasting self, which is poetry.”

“What is the matter, you Christian men, that you so greatly esteeme so little portion of gold more than your own quietnesse . . .” So the 16th-century chronicler Peter Martyr records a young Indian reproaching a party of Spaniards quarreling over gold. A pity Basho never encountered these Indians. He would have liked them — and they him. “Since I had nowhere permanent to stay,” he wrote, “I had no interest whatever in keeping treasures, and since I was empty-handed, I had no fear of being robbed on the way.”

As for “quietnesse,” that was Basho’s special discovery, and he gave it a significance beyond mere absence of noise:

“Stillness —
the cicada’s chirp
seeps into the rocks.”

He trudged miles, for months, through primitive country, in poor health — seeking no reward beyond “stillness.” It must have been a marvelous stillness indeed, purchased at so high a cost.

Among the squabbling Spaniards was one Vasco Nunez de Balboa. The Indian, in Peter Martyr’s report, continues: “I will shewe you a region flowing with golde, where you may satisfie your ravening appetites . . . When you are passing over these mountains . . . you will see another sea . . .” Following the Indian’s directions, Balboa and his party hacked their way across the Isthmus of Panama, passing “through inaccessible defiles inhabited by ferocious beasts . . . risking poisonous snakes and the arrows of unknown tribes.” On Sept. 25, 1513, they became the first Europeans to behold the Pacific Ocean. “Kneeling upon the ground, [Balboa] raised his hands to heaven and saluted the . . . sea; according to his account, he gave thanks to God and all the saints for having reserved this glory for him, an ordinary man . . .”

Basho immortalized lesser glory. From Yamagata, where he encountered the cicada, he trekked on to the Mogami River. “The river was swollen with rain, making the boat journey perilous.” Of such scenes is haiku made.

“Gathering the rains of the wet season — swift the Mogami River.”

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