Basho and the aesthetics of wandering: recuperating space, recognizing place, and following the ways of the universe

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Author: Thomas Heyd
Date: July 2003
From: Philosophy East and West(Vol. 53, Issue 3)
Publisher: University of Hawaii Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,876 words

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An appeal is made to the foot travels of Matsuo Basho, especially his 1689 journey to northern Japan, reflected in his Narrow Road to the Interior, as examples of wandering. It is suggested that while the travels of a poet-wanderer such as Basho are notably distinct from shamanic travels in some respects, they are similar in other important ways, for example in their capacity to give perspective to our everyday experience. Based on Basho's example, three aspects of wandering are discussed that may be of aesthetic interest, and it is concluded that in the face of various technological and social developments in industrial societies that increasingly alienate us from our environment, wandering may help us to recover a sense of the depth of space, the real diversity of places, and our human lives in the larger context of nature.


This road-- No one goes down it Autumn's end (1)


With the development of high-speed transportation, the technology of instantaneous communication, the ubiquity of cellular telephones, the planetary reach of broadcast television, the acceleration of immersion in cyberspace, the globalization of trade, the proliferation of malls and chain convenience stores, and so on, space appears to be shrinking, places are losing their uniqueness, and nature is fading from our view. In this essay I propose that wandering--the act of leisurely, albeit attentive, traversing the land in a relatively unaided way--has an aesthetic that may help us to recover a sense of the depth of space, of the real diversity of places, and of our human lives within the larger context of nature.

I approach this topic by taking as my guide the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), and I begin by describing his poetic way of wandering. Next, I argue that the wandering of the poet is similar in certain interesting aspects to the shaman's journey. Then I sketch an outline of an aesthetics of wandering, and conclude that the practice of wandering may constitute a way to resist the de-aestheticizing effects of the trends in modern society just mentioned.

Following Basho in the Three Mountains of Dewa

   Travel is the flower of haikai. Haikai is the spirit of the
   traveler. (2)


As soon as I walk into the woods through the torii gate, (3) Togei's treeless road with its jumble of telephone and power lines, channeled creeks, vending machines (with Boss Coffee, Vitamin Water, beer, and cigarettes), and the other signs of 1999 Japan disappear from my consciousness. I descend to the Haraigawa, River of Purification, by way of a centuries-old staircase flanked by towering cryptomeria trees. On the other side of the red shinkyo, or sacred bridge, one of the giant trees, just like the big boulder by the torii, is laced with a thick rope that has white pieces of paper attached to it at regular intervals.

Trees and boulders are notable for being the sites of kami, powerful spirits or gods; according to Japanese traditional belief this forest is alive in a far more profound sense than modern people may be aware. Passing a beautifully weathered pagoda, built more than a thousand years ago, I climb up the steep, slippery, and somewhat wobbly 2,446 stone steps until I reach the top of Hagurosan, Black Feather Mountain. Here one finds a temple-and-shrine complex where the sounds of a flute and the hard clack of two sticks being knocked together in a backbeat fashion accompany a highly ritualized ceremony.

Then I continue on to the much higher Gassan, Moon Mountain, ambling through alpine meadows, sliding over the remainders of winter's ice fields, and stemming myself against the cold winds as I walk up to the cloud-shrouded, shrine-bedecked summit. After a rest I return to the lowlands by way of mythical Yudonosan, Hot Water Mountain, where busloads of pilgrims expect blessings from walking barefoot around a red rock bathed by a hot spring. Basho, Japan's most celebrated haijin (haiku poet), walked this way over three hundred years ago and recorded his wandering in a partly fictionalized account called ku no Hosomichi, or The Narrow Road to the Interior. (4)

Basho was on his last major wandering tour when he set out into Japan's deep North on the two-thousand-four-hundred-kilometer, five-month-long trek that reached its highest point in these famed mountains of the Dewa region, (5) He is known for having given the art of haiku--or, more properly, hokku no haikai, since "haiku" is a nineteenth-century contraction of the two terms (6)--its definitive form. In the process he also perfected an aesthetics of wandering that for him was intimately connected with the art of poetry.

Basho gave the art of haikai an entirely new character. Previously, haikai poetry had been written on topics determined by the somewhat precious taste of the courtly elite or, alternatively, on amusing subjects that were of interest to Japan's emerging seventeenth-century merchant class. In contrast, Basho's lifelong dedication to this art form issued in a kind of poetry that was at once deep and light. (7) That is, for Basho poetry was meant to reach the very essence of things, but the occasions that open the way to this very essence were to be found in common, everyday experience. (8)

According to one commentator, by the end of Basho's life there were tens of thousands of poets throughout Japan who sought to follow shofu, Basho's new way of haikai poetry; (9) thus, his wanderings also turned out to be workshop tours. Friends and acquaintances took every opportunity to set up convivial haikai sessions to be headed by him, and Basho, as a haikai master, would give critiques of his disciple-students' poems. For all this, Basho denied that there was, strictly speaking, a technique to creating good haikai; he contended that it was primarily a practice dependent on a flash of insight and its immediate articulation in language, (10) But what circumstances are propitious for this practice? The answer that we can gather from Basho's peripatetic life seems to be: wandering. (11)

Basho's wandering goes beyond aimless walking about, but it is also distinct from the kind of hiking trip that has a set goal such as the "conquest" of a peak. (12) The poetic wandering that Basho exemplifies is leisurely, that is, not done for any special purpose, as well as disciplined, that is, done methodically. (13) The method that he uses serves to assist the poet in concentrating on the way. (14) He usually travels on foot, and he himself carries his luggage, such as his several changes of clothes and his writing materials (as well as whatever presents are given to him), and he takes the longer and more arduous route, all of which makes evident to him the great difference between wandering and going for a stroll near the humble hut that is his home. (15)

Basho does not, however, rely on novelty alone to help him focus on the way. (16) Rather, his travels are structured by visits to sites known for their historical, religious, or aesthetic associations, and he allows himself to be inspired by the work of earlier poets so that, resting on the comfort of this uta makura (literally, "poet's head rest" or "poet's pillow"), he may further plumb the significance of these sites. (17) Moreover, although Basho's wandering method (angya) is not as extreme as the shamanistic wandering austerities (shugyo) of the yamabushi--the mountain ascetics whom he admired and whose practice included immersion in cold mountain waterfalls and fire walking--he does share the seriousness of their intent. (18)

Basho's method of wandering serves to bring him into direct contact with the natural world in a way that is unusual for most people. On his trek North, for example, he nearly dies of cold climbing Mount Gassan; he rides down the dangerous, rain-swollen Mogami River; and he takes time to notice cuckoos, cicadas, woodpeckers, pheasants, and a variety of plants. He ends up translating many of these encounters into poems, such as the following:

   Piercing the rock
   The cicadas' song. (19)

In summary, insofar as Basho describes a practice that concerns the experience of wandering in and for itself, he has set out the rough parameters of what we may call an "aesthetics of wandering." We may glean three objects of focus from his practice: the activity of traversing space by moving oneself and one's things along a path, the (re)cognition of places, and the coming to know nature as it presents itself to a wanderer in the land.

The Poet-Wanderer as Shaman

   The changes of heaven and earth are the seeds of poetry. (20)


When we speak of space and place it is easy to fall into reductionism--a practice that we owe to our education in physical science. Space seems to denote the empty (Newtonian) expanse in which objects find a place determinable by Cartesian coordinates. In his recent discussion on landscape, Eric Hirsch pointed out that both in our own and in other cultures the terms "space" and "place" function in much richer ways than this in terms of content. Hirsch argues that space and place form a conceptual twosome related to each other in the same way as background potentiality and foreground actuality, outside and inside, and that they are dependent on each other for their meaning. (21)

Places distinguish themselves by being comparatively well known, by being determined for us in some way, and by being locations from which one can act. Space stands for the rest, for that which is relatively unknown, where one is not present (at least not at the time one is thinking about it) but where one could potentially be. (22) Hirsch recounts the various ways in which the dialectic between space and place is effected in diverse cultures. For example, among the Yolngu of Australia the background space is characterized by tracks left behind by the ancestral beings in the Dreamtime. These tracks constitute mythical maps that serve the Yolngu in the identification of actual places in the land. Their lived experience, interestingly, slowly modifies the mythical maps. In this way their sense of space and the places that they know are in continuous interaction and recreation. (23)

In another example Hirsch mentions the Piro of Amazonian Peru, who make a marked distinction between the places where they have their gardens and homes and the dangerous background space encompassed by the forests and the river, which they see as sources of sickness and death but on which they nonetheless depend for new gardens and homes, and for meat and fish. Interestingly, however, they are not entirely cut off from that background space, because their shamans, taking the drug ayahuasca, do enter that other space both literally and through trance and bring back the knowledge to cure their sick. (24)

The inherent interdependence of the notions of space and place is perhaps most evident in the notion of a journey, insofar as it implicates the idea of a proximate foreground place from which to depart and the idea of a distance or space to be traversed. Moreover, enacting a role similar to the shaman's, the traveler fulfills an important function (aside from the bringing or sending back of practical goods or information) in the cultural life of the community. The traveler provides perspective on the here and now (the ephemeral everyday) by reporting on the reality of other, distant places throughout the spread of space. One may say that a place here and now only properly becomes apprehensible as such by receiving a horizon in space. In this context we may characterize the poet-wanderer's activity, as exemplified by Basho, as exceptionally appropriate for the recovery of space and the recognition of place.

In some senses the poet-wanderer can be seen as a sort of shaman, on the condition that at least two differences are noted. First, the poet, in distinction to the shaman, does not apply techniques of ecstasy, and, second, the poet is a poet by virtue of her ability to capture experience in lyrical language, which is not a requirement for being a shaman. (25) The poet-wanderer is like the shaman, however, in that she travels to distant, disconcerting places through (relatively) unknown and possibly dangerous space, eventually reporting back on those other places to the ordinary person in the everyday. And, qua poet-wanderer, she does this in not just one way but two: literally, as other travelers do, and metaphorically, as other poets do.

That is, taking Basho in his Narrow Road to the Interior as our example, we may note that, as a wanderer, he goes to the end of the civilized world as known to the Japanese of his time on a relatively risky, comparatively unknown and difficult route, thereby underscoring the distance in space that he covers. (26) And, as he visits remote locations, he makes them a little more accessible as places, both to himself and to his readers, by relating, whenever possible, the names of famous people, notable incidents, or well-known poems that may be connected or associated with them. This is Basho's way of effectively establishing reference to places in distant space that otherwise might have no reality for his readers, and only very limited reality even for himself. However, he goes beyond the mere reiteration of well-known place names drawn from his literati background, which he could have listed just as well from the comfort of his hut in Edo (today's Tokyo). (27) Rather, he further affirms the reality of the remote places he has visited (adding to our conception of them in a manner reminiscent of the transformation of mythical maps by the Yolngu) by reporting on his own insights while at these places.

Basho does this both through hokku no haikai and through haibun, that is, highly condensed, lyrical prose accounts. Thus, we may say that, qua poet, Basho goes on another sort of journey, a metaphorical journey to the depth of things, reporting through his poetry to those who are preoccupied by the everyday. (28) Thereby he provides evidence of his own journey in a way that the mere repetition of even the most beautiful and insightful poems written in earlier times cannot achieve. And, insofar as he provides a believable report, we may be persuaded that what the poet apprehends is real, and thus his poetry becomes an invitation to visit those depths of being, those metaphorical spaces, after he has done so.

What do we know about Basho's attitude toward those "metaphorical journeys," that is, poetry? In the preamble to an earlier travel account, The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, he notes that the hallmark of great art is "the poetic spirit, the spirit that leads one to follow the ways of the universe and to become a friend with things of the seasons." The poetic spirit that Basho is speaking of is a capacity for finding a larger, meaning-giving context to every situation, such that "For a person who has the spirit, everything he sees becomes a flower, and everything he imagines turns into a moon." (29)

For Basho the task of the poet is to view the human condition from a detached perspective, and, in this way, all aspects of living will become subjects for aesthetic appreciation. (30) Consider, for example, the following poem praised by Basho for its sabi, that is, its representation of the feeling of detachment:

   Cherry blossom guardians--
   Their white heads
   Bumping together (31)

Here Basho is reframing the human experience of coming to the end of life, from a broad, "objective" perspective. Just as the impending fall of the blossoms may be tolerable, and even aesthetically pleasing, so, perhaps, may old age.

The effect of insightful poetry and attentive wandering is, among other things, an estrangement from the everyday. So, similar to the way that reports about our home country delivered by someone who has gone abroad may give us insight into our place precisely because she is not so near to it, for Basho the purpose of poetry is to provide a horizon to the worn-out everyday that keeps us focused on the narrow angle of our own private fortunes or misfortunes. The question then remains, why does Basho double the estrangement of the everyday by going on literal as well as metaphorical journeys?

Although no certain answer may be available, it seems that the kind of concentrated grasp entailed in the composition of poetry was difficult for him to maintain while remaining in one place for very long.32 Even an exceptional poet such as Basho might have feared that he would get stale under such circumstances. It may also be, however, that Basho engaged in wandering because of the special aesthetic appeal that this activity itself held for him.

The Aesthetics of Wandering

   From which year was it? I was summoned by the winds of the scattered
   clouds, with no end to thoughts of wandering. (33)


Wandering includes walking, hiking, climbing, and other such relatively unaided, self-propelled ways of traveling, if done for their own sakes and attended to as such. My account is of the aesthetics of wandering as an activity, and in this respect it is similar to the aesthetics of acting, figure skating, and artistic dance, all of which are activities appreciated as such and not (or not only) for their products. This contrasts with the aesthetics of painting, sculpture, and musical composition, which generally are appreciated as the products of activities. Wandering, moreover, is an activity that arguably may best be appreciated aesthetically by those who perform it, since they are the ones who are in a position to be most aware of the value that the activity affords (i.e., the aesthetics of wandering is not a spectator aesthetics). In this sense the relevant class of activities that wandering compares with includes acting, figure skating, and dance as appreciated by actors, figure skaters, and dancers, respectively.

As noted, I take Basho's practice as a wandering poet to provide the general outline of the aesthetics of wandering. Basho was not inclined to develop a theory of the aesthetics of wandering, but I propose that we may build on his implied outline. As noted earlier, one may focus on the following central aspects: the event of traversing space, the event of coming to know places, and the event of coming to an understanding of the nature of things.

Traversing Space

Wandering is a way of becoming aware of space, which itself is fundamentally dependent on the awareness of bodily movement insofar as it is anchored in our experiences of right and left, up and down, inside and outside. (34) So, the aesthetics of wandering may usefully take as a guide the aesthetics of artistic dance, which also has the (relatively unaided, self-propelled) body in motion as its focus. (35)

Like dance, wandering, if done with a certain degree of intensity, requires continuous choices in the placement of the feet (and often the hands); in the balancing and unbalancing of body weight; in the acceleration or in the management of the acquired momentum of one's body mass; and in the articulation of one's body's position with the physical environment, which, in the case of the wanderer, may include branches, rock faces, slippery-muddy areas, fragile moss surfaces, swampy areas, slick tidal flats, razor-sharp volcanic rocks, hidden lava tubes, boulders, pebbles, scree, sand, creeks, rivers, and so on.

After some experience a wanderer, like a dancer, may develop her own general mode and styles of approach to various environments. In some environments she will perhaps simply walk, feeling her limbs rhythmically carrying her along as she alternates between ruminating on any thoughts that pop into her consciousness on the one hand and fixing her senses on some particular sight, smell, sound, or feel of the land on the other. In some environments she will perhaps imitate the considered, circumspect mode of travel of a grazing but predator-conscious mountain goat, taking her time to leap from one rock or ledge to another, reconnoitering with care along the edge of some abyss, and so on. And in some others she may appear more like a dancer doing body-contact improvisation, attentively leaning into and away from the rocks and other objects around her that offer support.

Each wandering excursion, moreover, may be seen as a kind of project for which one tacitly designs something akin to a choreography. That is, for a terrain that promises a combination of steep ascents and uncharted routes as well as clearly defined level trails one may prescribe for oneself a different set of paces and overall style of travel than for a terrain that has only one of these features. And in addition to terrain, the wanderer may take into account general and particular climatic conditions, the precise condition of her body, the level of skills already acquired, "props" to be carried (backpack, hat, garments, staff), other participants (and their respective circumstances), and so on in the (perhaps not fully conscious) design of her journey.

The analogy of wandering with dance is useful in highlighting the fact that we may gain aesthetic pleasure in situating ourselves through bodily motion, but there are differences, too. The pleasure of dance is constituted largely by the variety of bodily movements of which a human being is capable, and by the extent to which we are able to inhabit or fully identify with our body as it moves in space. Wandering, as exemplified in a walk or a trek, usually presents a more limited repertoire of bodily movements, but it offers an additional sort of aesthetic value, namely that of making space concrete.

While prior to wandering we may know that there are so many kilometers between one town and the next, representing so many hours of travel by train, automobile, or airplane, we may not be able to apply a picture to the space to be traversed. Wandering, however, entails an effort and an engagement that may leave us with a collection of richly textured images that are visual, aural, and tactile, but also olfactory, kinesthetic, and maybe gustatory, that, as we shall see next, establish places for us. It is this cognition of space as composed of perceptually meaningful places that gives reality to abstractions, such as the space represented on a map or in a story. So, insofar as wandering is traversing space, then, insofar as we find either the experience of our bodies in motion or the making concrete of space aesthetically interesting, so do we find wandering. (36)

Coming to Know Place

What is it about the activity of coming to know places through wandering that may be aesthetically interesting? We may think that the aesthetic interest in coming to know a diversity of places is due to the fact that such an experience gives us leverage, the feeling that "we know our way around there" and that we can launch ourselves across space from these places. But this may be to focus on wandering as instrumentally valuable and not as valuable in and for itself. I think it useful to follow Basho once again to get a clearer picture.

Coming to know any thing, including a place, is a process that begins long before one has direct acquaintance with that thing, and the process may continue long after one has left it behind. Basho's practice of wandering illustrates this very well. Prior to going on his way into the interior of Japan he had already thoroughly absorbed the rich literature and historical and geographical knowledge then available to the Japanese (and a great deal of Chinese culture, too, as is evident from his constant references to Chinese poets and landscapes). Certainly the process of knowing place fully demands attentive firsthand exploration, but Basho carries this further, sedimenting his experiences and previous knowledge into lyric prose (haibun) and haikai poetry. One way to describe this kind of process may be to call it a form of engagement.

So, my proposal is that the aesthetic interest in coming to know place through wandering lies in the fact that wandering tends to engage a variety of our faculties and that it may do so at various levels of excellence. More specifically, it seems that the cognition of place may engage us as cultural beings insofar as this cognition may call for a grounding in our culture (and perhaps the cultures of other societies), including our culture's history, literature, customs, aspirations, and so forth. (37) This cognition may engage us as athletic beings, insofar as it more or less may demand of us mental and physical effort and skill to become acquainted directly with place through our body-mind unit. Furthermore, it may engage us as creative, productive beings insofar as it may call on our ability to generate an image (a poem, a story, a song, a drawing) of what a place is for us. Each of these engagements, and perhaps others, may occur at various levels of excellence. In this sense they reflect various skills, and, as such, each engagement may be appreciated for its own sake and hence may contribute to the aesthetic interest of wandering.

Following the Ways of the Universe

Nature, of course, has long been of aesthetic interest. But, what is it about wandering as a way of coming to know nature that may be of aesthetic interest? Basho certainly showed no interest in doing natural science while on his travels or while composing poetry. The knowing of nature exemplified by Basho's wandering is not a matter of accumulating scientific information, although acquiring information may well be involved in the process.

We may note, for example, that Basho advised his students to pay close attention to natural processes. He said "Go to the pine tree if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo." But the involvement suggested here is personal even if the subject is to focus on something other than the self. Doho, one of Basho's followers, comments that in this text "'Learn' means to enter into the object, perceive its delicate life, and feel its feeling, whereupon a poem forms itself." (38) It seems, hence, that the process of knowing nature that Basho had in mind was a matter of apprehending nature for what it is, but from a personal perspective.

The issue is not, however, that one is doubtful of the reliability of others as witnesses; the issue is that in coming to know nature for oneself one comes to know how oneself and the rest of nature fit together. Another way of putting this may be that in this way of knowing nature one comes to know it dynamically. The being of nature, one may say, shows itself in being put to the test, but to know nature concretely one cannot leave the testing to the laboratory with its beakers or its particle beams; one needs to meet it oneself as the kind of being that one is. The ideal at work here has been identified as a representation of "landscape in human emotion, and human emotion in landscape. " (39) To illustrate this we may consider Basho's coming to know nature at Gassan, Moon Mountain.

Before Basho arrived there on his wanderings, Gassan, as one of the three sacred mountains of the Dewa region of Japan, was likely no more than just a name to him. But then, on his journey to the innermost parts of Japan, he climbed Gassan, and the mountain environment left a trace on his body and mind, and he, likewise, left a trace on the mountain, however insignificant these respective traces may be in the long run.

Basho recounts:

   I walked through mists and clouds, breathing the thin air of high
   altitudes and stepping on slippery ice and snow, till at last
   through a gateway of clouds, as it seemed, to the very paths of the
   sun and the moon, I reached the summit, completely out of breath
   and nearly frozen to death. (40)

Basho and Gassan had undergone an agon, a struggle or test, in which both he and the mountain revealed a bit of their respective natures: Basho showed endurance and attentiveness, and Gassan its harsh but aesthetically captivating alpine landscape as it rose nearly one thousand nine hundred meters from the plain below.

For a wanderer such as Basho to reach a point on his trajectory represents not merely a stepping-stone to somewhere else where some business will occupy him. It is to come to know a terrain, along with the various natural phenomena occurring in its environment, in the particular ways that it presents itself to the wanderer in his own particular condition. That is, it offers, for example, certain resistances to a body like his that tires from walking, and it offers certain images for a being like him who has senses, a walking pace, and a certain capacity for acculturation. This way of knowing may not always be pleasant. Basho intended to visit the famous historical site of Kasashima on his journey to the interior, but it rained so much when he approached the town that he simply walked past it and wrote:

   The fifth month's
   Mud road.

Knowing nature through wandering is a process of attending to both one's own nature and the nature of one's surroundings in the particular way that they reciprocally exhibit themselves, and this attending can be done more or less skillfully. (41) Hence, also in this way, wandering may be of aesthetic interest.

Concluding Comments

    Traveling on and on
    Though I fall down dead--
    Clover fields. (42)


Wandering, as I have proposed here, is an activity that may be aesthetically appreciated in at least three contexts: in relation to bodily movement through space, the cognition of places, and coming to know nature. As such, wandering also affords the aesthetic appreciation of three sorts of objects--space, place, and nature--and in an especially poignant way compared with the appreciation afforded by other modes of travel as well as more stationary conditions.

Travel by train, automobile, and airplane also puts the body in motion, and hence makes possible the experience of space. Wandering, however, is less mediated and slower than these modes of travel. The images (visual, but also aural, olfactory, kinesthetic, tactile, and sometimes gustatory) that are perceived while wandering change, but in direct correlation with two distinct factors. On the one hand, the images depend on the changes brought about by the elements in the environment, from which the wanderer is not shielded in the way that other kinds of travelers tend to be. On the other hand, the images gathered depend on the amount of effort exerted through physical activity and conscious effort.

Even if altitude sickness, a thunderstorm, or some major obstacle such as a swollen river at some point slows down or halts the wanderer, she may still see these experiences as valuable because they are a confirmation of her change of location in, and of the resistance offered by, space. By being all the more unaided and slower in pace, wandering facilitates a denser, richer experience, and, hence, it provides a better opportunity than alternative modes of travel for the concrete appreciation of space.

Wandering also seems to provide a better opportunity than the alternatives for the aesthetic appreciation of place. Because it is slower than other modes of travel, it allows for a more thorough engagement with all the dimensions of experience (cultural, athletic, creative/productive) mentioned above. Moreover, because the event of coming to know a place is ephemeral for the wanderer--for her a wandering sojourn tends to be short in comparison with an exploration carried out by someone who remains in an area for a longer duration--the result is that the time actually spent by a wanderer becomes more valuable, and the experience of engagement more poignant than it would have been otherwise. (As is well known, the longer one remains in one location the harder it is to apprehend many of the location's features; they tend to become submerged in one's perceptual routines. (43))

As far as appreciating the nature of things, it is clear that things show their nature to us even when we do not slow down to wander--as when, riding the bullet train, we hurtle on elevated tracks over the plains, never coming close to rice paddies, villages, or waterways, and through the bowels of mountains. But how much do we know of the nature of plains and mountains by this mode of travel? Only that the contours of the land may be obscured and that its rocky outcrops have been blasted or perforated by the power that we have harnessed through our technology. How much do we come to know of Mount Fuji as we hurriedly approach it and then rapidly retreat from it by high-speed train? Not a lot more than a series of postcards or a travel video may tell us: seen through a train's windows (if the blinds have not been drawn throughout the journey, as they often are) Fuji remains a kind of sequential, almost two-dimensional object, like the image on a television screen. The nearly vertical reach for the sky of Fuji's slopes, the diverse textures of its volcanic rocks, and the delicious, thimble-sized wild strawberries and bright yellow chanterelles in its fragrant forests cannot be appreciated in this way.

Nowadays the summit of Hagurosan can be reached by automobile or bus. We may compare these ways of knowing the nature of this mountain with Basho's; on his arrival, he was able to provide this hokku no haikai for an improvised poetry session with his hosts there:

   Thank you-Snow--
   South Valley.

Where our approach by bus takes place in a cool, air-conditioned environment, complete with comfortable chairs in which we are sometimes buffeted to sleep on the windy, asphalt road, Basho's trek up the slopes of Hagurosan afforded him a constantly changing experience, both physically and aesthetically demanding, where he would have been reminded of the smell and feel of the breeze coming down from the snowy heights of Gassan. His experience of the cool mountain breeze after a hot, perspiring walk up from the sweltering humidity of the Mogami River valley below, heightened by his keen appreciation of natural phenomena, provided the material for a poetical conversation with his hosts, who perhaps had forgotten how fortunate they were to be surrounded by the refreshing mountain air.

So, I propose that wandering affords an aesthetic appreciation of nature in an especially appropriate way, again due to the relatively unmediated nature of wandering and its relative slowness, which lead to a direct and particularly intense interaction between nature and self. The significance of this interaction is further heightened by the transitoriness of the wanderer's presence. As noted, this transitoriness makes the subject's experience rare and stamps it with a special value, promoting a sharpened kind of engagement or attention.

As noted at the beginning, recent trends in our contemporary world are loosening our aesthetic hold on space, place, and nature. Wandering, and perhaps other, related activities such as gardening, may nonetheless still serve to ground our lived experience. In the process of wandering, space may be felt to expand, places may be experienced as increasingly distinct, and our selves may be discovered to be in constant conversation with the rest of nature. Basho reminds us that in wandering we enter the flow of the universe:

   The months and days are travelers of a hundred ages; the years that
   come and go are voyagers too. (44)


This essay was written while I was a Japan Foundation Fellow in the summer of 1999. I am grateful to the Foundation for its support as well as to Professor Fumiaki Taniguchi of Konan University for his generous hospitality and for the stimulating discussions with him on environmental thought. I am also grateful to Shelly Ridder and to Professor Masaru Ogawa of Naruto University for critical comments on earlier drafts of this essay.

(1)--Quoted by Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory and the Poetry of Basho (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 285, from Backpack Diary (Oi nikki [1695]). Translations from the Japanese are by the authors cited; otherwise, the translations of poems are my own.

(2)--Quoted by Shirane, Traces of Dreams, p. 252.

(3)--A torii is the entrance gate to a shrine or sacred natural space.

(4)--Oku no Hosomichi, which recounts Basho's travels to the interior of Japan in 1689, was only completed in 1694 and first printed in Kyoto in 1702; it is found in Matsuo Basho shu, ed. Imoto Noichi, Hori Nobuo, and Muramatsu Tomotsugu, in Nihon koten bungaku zenshu (Shogakukan, 1972), vol. 41, pp. 341-386. For English translations see Nobuyuki Yuasa, trans., The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (Penguin, 1966); Donald Keene, trans., The Narrow Road to Oku (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1996); and Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu, trans., Back Roads to Far Towns (New York: Grossman/Mushinsha, 1968). Also see the German translation by G. S. Dombrady, Auf Schmalen Pfaden durchs Hinterland (Mainz: Dieterich'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1985), with a very useful introduction and extensive notes on the text and with detailed annotations on each of the poems. For an engaging French translation with an inspired summary see Jacques Bussy, trans., La route etroite du Nord profond, in L'Ermitage d'lllusion (La Delirante, 1988). Also of interest are Makoto Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991); Haruo Shirane, "Remapping the Past: Narrow Road to the Interior," in Shirane, Traces of Dreams, pp. 212-253; and, for a contemporary retracing of Basho's journey, Lesley Downer, On the Narrow Road to the Deep North: Journey into a Lost Japan (London: Jonathan Cape, 1989).

(5)--Dombrady, "Introduction," in Auf schmalen Pfaden durchs Hinterland, p. 12, notes that Basho thought that this risky adventure, following the paths into the innermost heartland of Japan taken by many previous, important poets, was a duty for him; he notes (p. 24) that Rene Sieffert calls it "un pelerinage aux hauts lieux de la poesie classique."

(6)--Hokku designates the first poem of a chain of poems called haikai created jointly by a number of poets as a group activity. The term "haiku" was introduced by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902); Rene Sieffert, trans., Le haikai selon Basho (Publications Orientalistes de France, 1989), p. xxxix, argues that it is "non seulement un anachronisme" to speak of Basho's haiku but that it goes against Basho's deep-seated conviction that poetry is a dialogic activity.

(7)--On Basho's innovation see Dombrady, Auf Schmalen Pfaden durchs Hinterland, p. 186 n. 259, and Sieffert, Le haikai selon Basho, pp. xxxix-xxxviii. On the history of haikai see Sieffert's "Introduction," passim; also see Shirane, Traces of Dreams, passim.

(8)--See Le livre rouge, sec. 2, in Sieffert, Le haikaiselon Basho, pp. 120-121.

(9)--See Sieffert, "Introduction," in Le haikai selon Basho, p. xxxii; Sieffert claims that presently there are millions of Japanese practicing haiku who recognize Basho as their master.

(10)--See, for example, Le Livre rouge, sec. 5, in Sieffert, Le haikai selon Basho, p. 122; also see Sieffert's "Introduction."

(11)--Also see Dombrady, "Introduction," in Auf schmalen Pfaden durchs Hinterland, pp. 29-37.

(12)--"Conquering mountains," by the way, is a highly paradoxical affair. If one reaches one's destination one still has the return journey to accomplish, and once one has returned to the trailhead the whole trajectory remains to be done over once again. So, the conquest of a peak is like Sisyphus' fate: to accomplish it is to fail. The only way to conceive of a conquest that might correspond to the notion of subjugation, common from the human context of conquest, is to suppose the obliteration of the obstacles that constitute the trail or route. Such obliteration, however, is even more paradoxical since, if really carried out by, for example, dynamiting or mining (or by bulldozing trails, perhaps--as is being done on Mt. Fuji!), it also eliminates the thing supposedly conquered. In other words, the thing supposedly subjugated either continues offering its obstacles, in which case it is not conquered, or it ceases to exist, in which case there is literally nothing left that one could point to as conquered.

(13)--See Dombrady, "Introduction," in Auf schmalen Pfaden durchs Hinterland, pp. 29-37, on the idea of leisurely wandering (see especially p. 31 on its Daoist source in Chuang Tzu), and on the yamabushi or mountain ascetic's way of disciplined wandering. Also see Basho's Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, in Yuasa, The Narrow Road, p. 85, where Basho prides himself for, and describes, his walking "at full ease."

(14)--Basho's method was to focus on the way in two senses, namely on the way understood in the Daoist manner as the way of life (dao in Chinese or do in Japanese; see Dombrady, Auf schmalen Pfaden durchs Hinterland, p. 24), and on the path to be walked (which also functions as an analogue of the Daoist way of life).

(15)--Shirane reports that some later poets "severely criticized" Basho for his "stance as a hermit-traveler [as] both hypocritical and anachronistic" since he, supposedly, "had no need to be a wanderer." But see my comments on Basho's wandering below.

(16)--Regarding the importance of novelty in Basho's poetry see Sieffert, Le haikai selon Basho, p. xxxvii; also Le livre rouge, sec. 6, p. 123 and passim.

(17)--On "the cult of uta makura" see Dombrady, Auf schmalen Pfaden durchs Hinterland, pp. 20-25. Also see Basho's comments near Ichikawa in Narrow Road. Perhaps it may be objected that Basho's practice of visiting places of some renown would seem to diminish the pleasure that comes from one's discovery of a new place, but this need not be so. Places and perceivers change, and so one experience of a place is never identical to the next. The well-traveled wanderer knows that no matter how prepared she is on arrival at a place, her experience at that moment will be different from her previous ones or somebody else's. In fact, having a culturally crafted image of a place may make possible the apprehension of details otherwise overlooked, just as most works of art will only be properly appreciated if attended with a certain degree of preparation. Also see Shirane, Traces of Dreams, on the "refiguring [of] cultural memory" effectuated through Basho's wandering.

(18)--On angya, wandering exercises, also see Basho's comments near Ichikawa in Narrow Road, and Dombrady's notes 166 and 167, in Auf schmalen Pfaden durchs Hinterland, p. 134.

(19)--This poem from Narrow Road reflects his visit to the peaceful Ryoshaku or Yamadera Temple.

(20)--Quoted from the Sanz6shi in Shirane, Traces of Dreams, p. 254.

(21)--See Eric Hirsch, "Introduction," in The Anthropology of Landscape: Perspectives on Place and Space, ed. Eric Hirsch and Michael O'Hanlon (Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 1-30, especially p. 8.

(22)--On space and place also see Michel Foucault, "Of Other Spaces," Diacritics, Spring 1986, pp. 22-27. Already in classical times Pomponius Mela had argued for the creation of a chorographia, an account that was to treat places as more than mere analogues of locations determinable on maps (see Pomponius Mela, Chorographie, trans. A. Silberman [Paris: Societ d'edition "Les belles lettres," 1988]).

(23)--See Hirsch, "Introduction," and also Howard Morphy, "Landscape and the Reproduction of the Ancestral Past," both in Hirsch and O'Hanlon, The Anthropology of Landscape, pp. 184-209.

(24)--See Hirsch, "Introduction," and also Peter Gow, "Land, People and Paper in Western Amazonia," both in Hirsch and O'Hanlon, The Anthropology of Landscape, pp. 43-62.

(25)--See Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Ancient Techniques of Ecstasy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), especially p. 4, on a definition of shamanism; see p. 510 on his speculation on the relation between at least some lyric poetry and shamanism. Also see note 28 on Eliade below.

(26)--Bussy, La route etroite du Nord profond, in L'Ermitage d'lllusion, pp. 8-9, emphasizes that the "depth" represented by the Japanese word oku in the title of Basho's Narrow Road is not just geographical. Rather, it stands for the heart of the Japanese land: "cette profondeur designe un dessous sand fond.... Ce que recherche Basho, c'est la fraicheur de I'origine."

(27)--Dombrady, in Auf schmalen Pfaden durchs Hinterland, pp. 92, 94 n. 83, recounts an amusing story about the poet Noin-hoshi, known for his travel poetry: apparently Noin-hoshi never went to some of the places, such as the barrier at Shirakawa, that he claimed to have visited. Supposedly he hid away for a long period, all the while sticking his hands out the window to bronze them, to make it seem that he had been traveling.

(28)--Also see Mircea Eliade's discussion of Hesiod, Theogony 32, 38, according to whom "When the poet is possessed by the Muses, he draws directly from [the goddess of Memory] Mnemosyne's store of knowledge, that is, especially from the knowledge of 'origins,' of 'beginnings,' of genealogies" (Eliade, Myth and Reality, trans. Willard R. Trask [New York: Harper and Row, 1963], pp. 120121). So, on this ancient Greek account the poet is a kind of messenger on the remote depths of things.

(29)--Quoted by Makoto Ueda, "Basho and the Art of the Haiku' Impersonality in Poetry," in Literary and Art Theories in Japan (Cleveland, Ohio: The Press of Western Reserve University, 1967), pp. 147-148. In Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel Basho urges haiku poets to "follow the ways of the universe," by which he means that they should pay attention to the ways of nature.

(30)--On the unattached perspective especially see Ueda.

(31)--Shirane, Traces of Dreams, p. 78, translating one of Basho's hokku from the Komojishi shu. Also see Kyorai, sec. 36, in Sieffert, Le haikai selon Basho, p. 91.

(32)--See Sieffert, Le haikai selon Basho, p. 37.

(33)--From the beginning of Oku no Hosomichi, quoted by Shirane, Traces of Dreams, p. 230.

(34)--The dependence of space awareness on the awareness of bodily movement may itself be worthy of further discussion, but this is beyond the limitations of this essay. See M. Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962); also see Hirsch, The Anthropology of Landscape, especially "Introduction," p. 1 7.

(35)--On the aesthetics of dance see Francis Sparshott's extensive work, especially Off the Ground: First Steps to a Philosophical Consideration of the Dance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988); also see my "Dance Today: Art of Body among Simulacra," Journal of Aesthetic Education vol. 34 (Summer 2000), 15-26.

(36)--Although Basho has little to say about the aesthetics of wandering in terms of bodily movement, he does seem to have had an extraordinary appreciation for making space concrete through wandering, even if this entails considerable discomfort. See, for example, Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, in Yuasa, The Narrow Road, especially p. 85.

(37)--Also see Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Perception, Attitudes and Values (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), pp. 93-95, on the role of historical and other knowledge in the aesthetic appreciation of place- and naturerelated environmental features such as "scenery." Moreover, see Allen Carlson's writings on environmental aesthetics, for example "Appreciating Art and Appreciating Nature," in Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell, eds., Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 199-227.

(38)--Quoted by Ueda, pp. 157-158. Also see Le livre rouge, sec. 3, in Sieffert, Le haikai selon Basho, p. 121.

(39)--This is a Chinese ideal enunciated by Sod6, one of Basho's contemporaries. See Shirane, Traces of Dreams, p. 243.

(40)--Yuasa, Narrow Road, p. 125.

(41)--Wandering may also become unpleasant because it makes personal weaknesses ever so evident. Basho, for example, had a chronic stomach ailment that he suffered all the more from en route. He considered it part of the wandering exercise, however, to come to terms with such symptoms of our ephemeral condition. See, for example, his reflections on "the bad night in lizuka" in Narrow Road.

(42)--The poem, attributed to Sora, is from Narrow Road, after their visit to Yamanaka Hot Springs, at the moment when Sora leaves Basho because of his stomach trouble.

(43)--See, for example, Italo Calvino, "Cities and Eyes 4," in Invisible Cities (London: Picador/Pan Books, 1974-1979) (trans. William Weaver from Le citta invisibili), pp. 72-73.

(44)--Quoted by Shirane, Traces of Dreams, p. 245, from the beginning of Narrow Road.

Thomas Heyd

Department of Philosophy, University of Victoria

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A105915811