Books / Reviews

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches: Basho's enduring collection of poetry and travel writing

by Iain Maloney

Special To The Japan Times

With only a few words, a Haiku master can paint a picture so vivid it’s as if the reader is standing beside them — great travel writers have similar abilities. Matsuo Basho was both.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, by Matsuo Basho, Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa.
176 pages
PENGUIN, Nonfiction.

“The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is a fearsome 17th-century poetry collection and an illuminating travelogue, inspired by Basho’s journeys through Japan as he delved into Zen in search of spiritual peace.

The Penguin Classics edition includes four other “travel sketches” and a lengthy but fascinating introduction.

Far from being an introspective, metaphysical quest, Basho’s journeys were about connecting him to the world. He wrote about the people he met and landscapes he passed. He also read the literature of his age — and older ages — remarking with delight, for example, on how a famous pine tree was exactly as ancient poets had described. He presented poems written by his friends and companions, offering tantalizing glimpses into the community of artists to which he belonged.

In 1694, priest and scholar Soryu wrote a postscript to “The Narrow Road.” He wrote that “everything under the sky” is included in Basho’s volume. More than 300 years later it continues to touch and inspire readers. The honest sadness of the final lines — “So I must take to the road again, farewell, my friends” — sing to anyone who feels the pull of the open road.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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