The accompanying 1830s woodcut print is the image of the great haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), rendered by Hasegawa Settan (1778-1843). Depicting a legendary scene in which the poet was inspired to pen one of his masterpieces, Basho is seated at his writing desk in a humble cottage thatched with straw. A brushwood fence in the foreground on the right-hand side, moss-covered stepping stones in the garden, a pond overgrown with reeds, and stark surroundings suggested by thick horizontal lines in the background, all combine to conjure up the image of a hermit in seclusion from worldly concerns. Pausing in his work, the poet casts a glance at the pond and sees a frog leap into the water, creating ripples. This was the birth of his famous haiku: “Listen! a frog, Jumping into the stillness, Of an ancient pond!” (Translation by Dorothy Britton). The print is completed with the poem written at the top.
In 1680, Basho moved to Fukagawa on the east bank of the Sumida River to escape the din and bustle of Nihonbashi, near the center of the city, where he had lived for nine years. In those days, Fukagawa was a sparsely populated piece of reclaimed land beyond the boundary of Edo City.
With no bridge yet built on the Sumida, boats plied busy waterways during the day, but early in the morning and evening silence prevailed in the area and Basho could hear the gongs of temple bells ringing in Ueno and Asakusa, 4 km away. Nearby was a Zen temple, Rinsen-ji, where he was admitted to practice meditation. The whole set-up was to his taste and met his needs so Basho made Fukagawa his base in Edo until his death in 1694. It was from here that he struck out on his many travels. (See this column, June 3, 2005).
He was especially pleased by a banana tree planted in the garden and used the plant name, basho, to call his cottage Basho-an. He also changed his pen name from Tosei to Basho (See this column, June 20, 2002). The plant, which had been introduced from China for medicinal purposes and to get fiber for weaving, was probably loved for the sound it made when raindrops pattered.
Our exploration of Fukagawa starts at Kiyosumi Shirakawa Station on the Hanzomon and Toei Oedo lines. Leaving the station via Exit A1, make a U-turn right to reach Mannenbashi bridge, passing the Oguruma-beya sumo stable along the way (marked by a sake keg at the front door). You might see young wrestlers out on the street after morning training.
Located at the junction of the Sumida and the Onagigawa, one of the first canals Tokugawa Ieyasu, not yet the shogun, ordered to be dug upon his arrival in Edo in 1590, Mannenbashi offers an excellent view of the big river and the city beyond. Edo artists Hokusai and Hiroshige made dramatic renditions with Mount Fuji in the background. Contemporary visitors might be tempted to take a stroll on the recently refurbished riverside walkways descending from the current iron truss bridge built in 1920.
For now, however, let us hurry to cross the bridge and look for Basho Inari-jinja shrine on a lane to the left. Though dedicated to Inari, the god of rice harvest and business prosperity, the shrine is a Tokyo Metropolitan Government-designated historic site that commemorates Basho’s abode.
As Basho moved twice within Fukagawa, and the whole area underwent drastic changes in land ownership in modern times, the exact locations of all the Basho-related sites were forgotten and became difficult to determine. However, when a large tsunami hit the area in 1917, a stone frog was discovered at this spot, suggesting the possibility that his last cottage stood here, especially as the poet had a fondness for the amphibian. Local citizens then decided to dedicate a shrine to his spirit as well as to the Inari god whose shrine was marked here on the old area map. As the original wooden building was burnt down by the 1945 air raids, they built a new one in concrete.
The poet is honored by another, more modern memorial nearby. At the end of the lane, a pocket-size park is tucked away behind a wooden gate and short flights of rugged stone steps. Ascending to an airy terrace on the very edge of the Sumida, visitors would hold their breath at the sight of Kiyosubashi Bridge straddling the broad expanse of the river water as boats passed by underneath it, with their white wakes. A bronze statue of Basho on a pedestal is installed at the center of the platform, surrounded by bamboo, banana trees and other plants that sway in the wind, as well as reproductions of Basho-themed old sketches.
Leaving the park, backtrack and cross Mannenbashi, and take the third left to look at two more sumo stables, Kitanoumi-beya immediately on the left and Otake-beya in the next block on the right. Turn right around a corner with a curved mirror ahead and cross the highway. Straight ahead is the entrance to Kiyosumi Garden. The garden, along with Kiyosumi Koen on its right, used to be a property of the Iwasaki family, the founders of the Mitsubishi financial and industrial conglomerate, who donated it to Tokyo city in 1924. Enjoy a leisurely stroll in one of the finest gardens in Tokyo before returning to Kiyosumi Shirakawa Station.
Time permitting, you could extend your walk to Fukagawa Edo Museum where a small town which is assumed to have existed on the Sumida riverside has been recreated, offering an experience going back in time to the mid-19th century.
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