by Stephen Phelan

Letter From Japan – On Being Basho

September 4, 2009 | by Stephen Phelan

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Letter From Japan – On Being Basho By Stephen Phelan


I am living a long way from Tokyo, at the opposite side of Japan’s main island, Honshu, in a small rural town called Daishoji. It is five minutes’ drive to the cliffs by the sea, about an hour to the white mountains in the distance, and over four hours south to Kyoto, the nearest major city. The town itself isn’t much to look at. It used to be a wealthy seat of power for the local shogun, and more recently a holiday retreat for urbanites, but it was hollowed out by the Japanese recession of the 1990s, leaving seasonal restaurants, hotels, and amusement arcades permanently closed and presumably haunted at the edges of surrounding padi fields.

Daishoji’s only lasting claim to fame is that the great haiku poet Matsuo Basho stopped here towards the end of his wanderings, and of his life, in the autumn of 1694. So, this nowhere place was and is immortalised in The Narrow Road To The Deep North, which the author modestly described as a “little book of travel”, but has since become a canonical masterpiece of the national literature.

Basho is now considered Japan’s closest thing to Shakespeare – not that his compressed, distilled, refined poetic style is at all comparable to the Englishman’s flaming alchemical rhetoric – and a modest industry has been built around him, with museums and monuments forming a broken tourist trail along the various paths that he took on his epic cross-country walking tours.

My new home has little to offer the scholars and pilgrims, except a statue at the nearby Zenshoji shrine, inscribed with a haiku that Basho wrote for the resident monks who accommodated him: “All night long/I listened to the autumn wind/Howling on the hill/At the back of the temple.” The rigid rules of this form make these poems awkward to translate, toppling three lines and 17 syllables of shaped and sculpted Japanese into longer, less elegant stanzas for the sake of conveying the meaning.

Perfect simplicity is the object, and the appeal, of haiku, but this can make them look and sound easy in English, as if nothing were required to write them except an ability to count – five syllables, then seven, then five. Auden, Eliot, and Heaney have all given it a shot, and the American Zen poet Gary Snyder has spent his 50-year career working to encompass all life on Earth within a single breath-group.

But Basho remains the master, a hardy little guy in a straw hat and sandals who would walk a thousand miles to watch the full moon rise over a particular pond, and try not to be dispirited if it was completely obscured by clouds when he got there. He came north, according to the translator and biographer Nobuyuki Yuasa, because this part of Japan was then relatively uncharted, and represented to Basho “all the mystery there was in the universe”.

“He travelled as anyone would travel through the short span of his life,” writes Yuasa in his introduction to the Penguin edition of The Narrow Road To The Deep North. “Seeking a vision of eternity in the things that are, by their own very nature, destined to perish.”

The more I read of Basho, and about him, the more I want to be like him. I am happier to live in a ghost town knowing that he is one of the ghosts. I have also been following in his footsteps, albeit mostly by rail, to visit those places where he felt tired or inspired enough to sit down and render the scene with a few strokes of calligraphic script. On my way up the coast to Tsuruoka, where Basho climbed the three holy mountains of Haguro, Yudono, and Gassan, I wrote a haiku about the ultra-rapid shinkansen service: “Japanese trains go/So fast, not like in Britain/Where they are rubbish.”

Indeed, I have decided that haiku is the best way to express my impressions of this country, and document my progress through the various stages of culture shock. This began several months ago with a defensive sense of alienation – “Stop staring at me/I thought Japanese people/Would be more polite” – but has recently reversed into an irrational, juvenile hostility towards any fellow Westerner I happen to pass in the street: “Stupid foreigner/Where the hell are you going/With your stupid face?”

There were no other tourists around, foreign or domestic, when I arrived at the base of Mount Haguro, which is the shortest of the three Dewa peaks, and the only path that stays open through the winter. Basho ascended the 2466 stone steps to the summit on June 3, 1694, writing as he went: “Blessed indeed/Is this south valley/Where the gentle wind breathes/The faint aroma of snow.”

The snow was not so faint on the day I tried to follow him. It was first thigh-deep, then nipple, then neck, and what may well have been a pleasant summer walk for the poet became a huffy ordeal for me, inching my way upward on my hands and knees, using my head as a plough. It took more than four hours to climb the 410 metres to the top, where I lay wheezing and sweating and freezing in that place of spiritual enlightenment, my knackered oaths and blasphemies echoing back down the south valley. “I hope that Basho/And the gods of old Japan/Can’t translate swear words.”

There are three other Westerners now living in Daishoji, all of whom are English teachers. To school kids, we are local celebrities, and in this capacity I was recently invited to give notes on a new play written and performed by members of the senior English class at Daishoji High. As a showcase for their language skills it was pretty impressive, from the bold title – Let’s Change The Future – to the often hysterical dialogue, which emphasised their knack for vernacular with question marks and exclamation points: “Are you crazy?” “You’ve gotta be kidding!” “What the hell?!”

But I was probably too distracted by the plot even to notice the lapses in grammar or syntax. The hero, a young man named Hashimoto, was transported to the future by a malfunctioning toaster, and caught in the crossfire of a robot war. With the help of an attractive 25th century girl called Richard – who later turned out to be male, in a final twist that the mostly-female cast apparently insisted upon – “Hashy” traced the cause of the conflict to a device known as the Magic Mind Control 5000, and they travelled back in time to persuade its inventor to destroy it.

Without reading too much into this, and leaving aside the play’s needlessly provocative gender politics, the fact remains that when left to their own devices, a group of lower-middle-class Japanese 17-year-olds came up with a parable about the hazards of technology.

It doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest that their imaginary war machine is a metaphor for nuclear weapons. Japan’s relationship to its own recent past can be difficult to fathom, and its pop-cultural pro-Americanism a little baffling in the context of two atomic bombings. As far as the young are concerned, one thing may have nothing to do with the other.

But when posing for photographs (which is often) they all make the peace sign with their fingers. To an outsider, this appears instinctive, involuntary, almost like a flinch, and Let’s Change The Future seemed to me an extension of the same pacifist reflex. We would probably have it too, if the whole universe had exploded in our faces, twice.

The Japanese economy is even worse than most at the moment, but the yen is stronger than it’s been in decades, which is crippling exports and making life especially difficult for ex-pats who get paid in almost worthless pounds sterling.

International businesses are recalling their executives from Tokyo, emptying the upmarket cocktail bars of Ginza, and the Foreign Correspondents Club is becoming too expensive for remaining members to get a round in.

The novelist David Peace, who has lived in Japan for 15 years, recently told me over tea that will soon be returning to the UK with his family. Money is a major factor – the exchange rate effectively means he has taken a substantial pay cut on the publishers’ advance for his forthcoming novel Occupied City. Not that he is under any illusions about contemporary Britain, which some would say is again coming to resemble the desperate place he described in his popular “occult histories” of the North in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I’ve read all this panic in the media about hard times coming back,” said Peace. “But for a lot of people, they never went away. Whenever I go home for a visit, I see places like Dewsbury, that have been in recession for 20 or 30 years. They might have been lighting cigars with banknotes in London, but large parts of the UK never saw any boom times.”

Even so, he’s now thinking that he’d like to live in York, near his elderly parents. He has also been thinking ahead, to his own old age. “Not to sound morbid, but I just don’t want to die in a Japanese hospital.”

New books are among the first things to go when adjusting your disposable income for Japanese living costs. The price of the trashiest new paperback is never less than 1500 yen (£12 approx), and small-town libraries tend not to have an English language section. This is why I’ve been savouring my heavy hardback Everyman collection of George Orwell’s essays, keeping it beside the bed like a bible, sometimes falling asleep with its comforting weight on my chest.

So perhaps you can imagine the taste of my shame when I woke one morning last week to discover that I had defiled it in the night. Not to make excuses, but I had been for a “nomihodai” dinner at a neighbourhood restaurant – pay 4000 yen, then eat and drink as much as you like for two hours. This only represents a bargain if you approach it like a Turkish warlord, and I obviously went to bed with my stomach dangerously unsettled.

At some point in my sleep, I must have been spectacularly emetic, and ruined my precious Orwell. Lying there at dawn in the resulting, disgusting crime scene, I had to wonder – as Orwell fans often do – what the man himself would have thought of this. He actually used the word “vomit” quite often in his criticism and fiction, as a metaphor for the poetry of Rupert Brooke, or a signifier for the smell of the lower-classes in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

But then, he also had proletarian affectations of his own. He claimed to have “vomited with rage” when cheated out of wages while working in a Paris kitchen. And eyewitnesses saw him do the same, right over the bar, when in his cups one night at The Wheatsheaf on London’s Rathbone Place. Ever the enemy of hypocrisy, I don’t think Orwell would have the right or the nerve to condemn my unfortunate hiccup.

He might even approve. In my pristine replacement copy of the essays (ordered online from the great UK-based Book Depository service, which delivers worldwide with no charge for postage and packing), I found a quote that makes me feel better about relating all of this: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.”

The Japanese food which I find to be the most effective hangover cure is takoyaki – small chunks of octopus cooked inside hot balls of batter, topped with fish flakes, mayonnaise and some kind of BBQ sauce. I know how that sounds, and I don’t expect you to believe me. The best are supposedly made in Osaka (the Japanese are highly territorial about their delicacies), but we recently found a place in the neighbouring town of Katayamazu where a lone specialist chef has spent his career serving a long queue of locals every weekend.

We each swallowed down at least 12 of those suckers, like boa constrictors, and swore to come back every Sunday. But the following weekend the restaurant was closed, and we were told that the chef had been suddenly diagnosed with a brain tumor. He’s a stranger, of course, and there’s probably an element of selfishness in wishing him a full recovery, but I don’t think a haiku can do any harm: “Please get better soon/Oh takoyaki man, and/Not just for my sake.”

From this Issue

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by Roger Hutchinson

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