The small temple of Gichu-ji in the village of Zeze, where Basho chose to be buried

The small temple of Gichu-ji in the village of Zeze, where Basho chose to be buried (photo John Dougill)

A Resting Place for His Spirit: Basho in Zeze

from the Basho4Now Trilogy
Translations and Commentary by Jeff Robbins
Assisted by Sakata Shoko

Of all the places Basho visited in his travels, one in particular, Zeze, a section of Otsu, (now around the eastern end of the Omi Ohashi Bridge) just across the mountains to the west of Kyoto, drew in his heart. Basho spent days and months at various locations in Zeze, somehow connecting with the place – so just before he died, he requested that he be buried at Gichuji Temple, a short walk from the shore of Lake Biwa.

One attraction of Zeze to Basho’s heart was the presence of Lake Biwa and the mountains surrounding the shore of the vast lake.   Here Basho said:

The mountains in silence nurture the spirit; 
the water with movement calms the emotions.

Not only natural scenery but also the people of Zeze drew Basho into this community: Chigetsu, an elderly widow whose samurai husband was an official at the Otsu Post Station managing the delivery of parcels by horse; when he died in 1686 Chigetsu took the tonsure of a Buddhist nun although still living at home with her family; her younger brother Otokuni adopted to be their “son” and inherit the household; Kyokusui, a young samurai dad, his infant son Takesuke, and the uba or wet-nurse of this family — all these nice people appear in Basho’s words about Zeze. To discover why Basho chose here for his final resting place, we search in natural scenery but even more in the feelings Basho had for these people.

We begin just after Basho finished his journey to the Deep North in the autumn of 1689; still traveling, he went to Ise and his hometown Iga (in Mie-ken). From Iga, Zeze in Otsu is just across a range of low mountains to the north. Here, 400 years before, lived the poetess and nun Shosho. In the coldest time of the year, Basho visits Chigetsu for the first time.   Hostess and guest write two renku stanza-pairs:

Here I speak
with the nun Shosho —
village snow
She was pure sand
here the winter wind

Basho compliments Chigetsu for being an image of Shosho; she responds with standard Japanese humility: “No! No! You must not compare me to the great Shosho. She was pure; I am merely barren.” The stanza-pair contains so much nature – the freezing snow, the sand on the nearby lake beach, the cold winding blowing across the water – but also much human feeling.

Chigetsu begins the second exchange with a desolate image of poverty and desolation living alone in snow country.

A straw broom
only this, in old age
snow on the house
Surrounding the brazier
robes dyed black

Basho counters with warmth and intimacy. Both Basho and Chigetsu wear black robes in vivid contrast to the snow outside. One person cannot surround a brazier (without getting burned); there have to be two people both moving close to the fire.   Basho thus expresses gratitude to his hostess for the warmth she provided with her home and brazier.

Also this spring, someone in Zeze asked one of Basho’s followers to arrange for Basho to name their newborn daughter. He named her Kasane – “to pile up in layers” and also, in the dimension of time, “occur again and again, in succession”) and wrote this double meaning into a tanka of blessing to his god-daughter:

Spring passes by
again and again in layers
of blossom kimono
may you see wrinkles
come with old age

 The tanka seems simple, but the double and triple meanings — the layers of kimono and under-kimono fabric… the succession from bright colorful kimono in youth to dark sedate robe in old age… the succession of each kimono from mother to daughter then granddaughter… the “wrinkles” both in the kimono and her skin –create a web of blessing and hope for Kasane and all female infants.

Basho says to the newborn spirit: Now your time begins, stretching to infinity before unfocused eyes. Soon you will be laughing in the sunshine – so long as no wars come, and natural disaster, serious illness, and financial ruin also stay away. One spring in youth, you shall be given a bright and colorful ‘blossom-kimono,’ an elegant robe to wear once a year celebrating with family and friends under cherry blossoms. May your years pass in peace, so the kimono passes onto your daughter while you wear one more moderate in color, and that also pass onto her, as you wear the sedate blossom-kimono of an older woman. May our nation remain at peace, and the happiness in your family pile up layer upon layer until you see wrinkles in the fabric and in your face. Do not despair my child, for you live again and again as spring passes by and your granddaughters laugh and chatter under cherry blossoms.

Murasaki Shikibu

Statue of Murasaki Shikibu at Ishiyama Temple (Jeff Robbins)

In the year 1004 (according to legend), a 30 year-old woman came to Ishiyama Temple, just to the south of Zeze, for a seven-day retreat, searching for inspiration. The Genji no Ma (Alcove of Genji) is the ‘traces’ of the small room in the side of the main temple building where, overlooking Lake Biwa under the harvest moon, she began work on her Tale of Genji, the world’s first novel and, with 1100 pages in translation, the longest novel written before the 20th century.

After staying the night at Seta at dawn I visit
Ishiyama Temple to see the Alcove of Genji:
the sky still purple
ho toto GI su

The little cuckoo’s bright five-note call– a three note trill ho to-to, a sharp rise in intensity for GI, and the final su trailing off — announces the summer.   The bird sounds breathless, as if striving to produce the five notes with utmost beauty. The striking beauty of the call is enhanced by the coming of daylight.

Sei Shonagon opens her Pillow Book with these words:

“In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful.
As the light creeps over the hills,
their outlines are dyed a faint red
and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them”

Basho says that Shonagon’s spring moment is still glorious on the first morning of summer, the season of the hototogisu. The haiku seems simple with so few words, yet Basho has brought these two great female authors together with the grandeur of daybreak, the color purple, and that inspiring bird call: Ho toto GI su.  Otokuni tells the following story about Basho in Zeze:

One night Old Man Basho and his followers were gathered in the hut. Discussing elegance, one person spoke out: “I have read some ancient works in bits and pieces, but never really explored Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. I do feel attracted to it.” Hearing this, Basho said,

Well, if exploring it becomes important to you, I hope you will find a NEW approach to her heart.”

Basho responds that although the Pillow Book is ancient, you young people can discover a fresh, novel, youthful way to pass through it.  He separates from the old-man scholars who insist that we follow their approach which they have perfected for decades before we were born. He tells us that it is okay for us now to interpret a poem in a way the author or the scholars never conceived. Okay to take the ball and run with it.

This summer and early autumn, Basho stayed for four months at a hut in the hills above Zeze owned by Kyokusui; here he wrote his longest and most well-known haibun, At the Hut of Unreal Dwelling. Below is a short passage in which we meet some Zeze folk:

…in the day my heart is moved by those who on occasion come to visit me, the old one who takes care of the shrine, the men from the village telling me of a wild boar tearing up the rice stalks, of rabbits getting into the bean patches, farmers’ talk I have not heard before.

In the summer of 1690, Kyokusui was among the entourage of the Lord of Zeze in attendance on the Shogun; they remained in Edo throughout the next year and into the spring of 1692. Meanwhile in Zeze, Basho visits Kyokosui’s mansion. Here is a passage from his letter to Kyokusui, dated August 4, 1690:

Takesuke day by day getting bigger, endowed with such intelligence and in good health and mood because your wife, the uba, and others there in your absence behave more cheerfully than he, so Takesuke shows no  signs of loneliness.  I am glad to have seen this.

Basho could see that the baby was “born with” (umare-tsuki) intelligence, endowed by his parents; thus he also praises Kyokusui and wife. Readers familiar with child welfare terminology may note that Basho gives a remarkably complete developmental profile on the infant: 1) gaining weight, 2) shows intelligence, 3) health good, 4) father absent  5) but child lives in stable, extended family of women devoted to his care.   6) They remain cheerful even when he is sad (because papa is away)  so they cheer him up and 7) Takesuke “shows no signs of loneliness.” Doctor Basho looks equally at the physical, mental, emotional and social aspects of child development – and sends his observations to the father to help him feel better in his absence from his son.

After four months at the Hut of Unreal Dwelling, Basho stayed at a cottage on the grounds of Gichuji Temple in Zeze. For the Harvest Moon that year (September 17, 1690), Basho had his Zeze followers over for a moon-viewing party. Being in Zeze seems to have given Basho some extraordinary power, for he wrote four distinct haiku on the magnificent white globe shining over the expanse of Lake Biwa.

Harvest moon
facing the lake, seven
ages of Woman

Looking over Lake Biwa from the holy island of Chikubushima

Looking over Lake Biwa from the holy island of Chikubushima

Scholar Kon Eizo says, “As the beautiful scenery of Lake Biwa under the harvest moon transforms according to the position of the moon in the sky, so we recall seven changes in her illusionary beauty.”  Each position of the Moon is one act in the play of a woman’s life. Watching the enormous round moon move throughout the long night, the seven stages unfold before our eyes: infancy, school girl, lover, wife, elder, crone, second infancy. In Zeze, Basho has the power to write so transcendental a haiku.

Harvest Moon –
children standing in line
temple verandah

From Moon in the sky to line of round heads on short bodies.  Chigetsu writes:

Stretching up
and pointing, children
view the moon

Chigetsu appreciates the children’s life force, their excitement at reaching a bit closer to the Moon. Chigetsu, like Basho, pays attention to “what children do.” The glory of the moon merges with the glory of the child. Because she captures more of the children’s activity and characters, I prefer her verse.

Here in Zeze, Master Takesuke growing up,
often laughing, a sturdy lad,
as sturdy as he can be in his second year of life.
And Osome and the uba are without misfortune.

Basho’s praise for one-year-old Takesuke pleases Kyokusui because his young heir is the next generation, the next layer, of Kyokusui. The father is a samurai, but nowadays there is no fighting, and samurai have become government administrators. Kyokusui has little opportunity to be manly, and his son is growing up without father present. Basho reaches inside Kyokusui’s heart to reassure him that his son is becoming a takumashii (strong, sturdy, vigorous) little samurai who can also laugh – just like Dad.

On February 16, 1691, Basho sends a letter to Chigetsu

My sick bowels for 53 days now have felt fine and this spring I will take care of my health and become fierce as a demon.

Basho counts the days he is free from his chronic disease. Exactly 53? In a letter to a woman and nun he tells the condition of his bowels; now that’s personal!

p.s. Your daughter-in-law always, always breaking her bones till it hurts to see her, and so we should feel gratitude.  I hope you are very, very aware of this.


Basho speaks of the yome, Chigetsu’s daughter-in-law who came to this household decades ago. Without Abigail Adams to remind him, Basho “remembers the ladies.” He praises the solidarity of two women of different generations.

  Chigetsu must have told Basho of her pleasure at receiving a letter from Uko, so in a letter to Uko, Oct. 13, Basho says:

For the letter you sent to Chigetsu you have made me thankful.  Gentle your heart’s intention, returning again and again.  Chigetsu also knows that feeling.

Basho praises the gentleness of woman, and also women’s solidarity. Again he seems to be building bridges across the generations between two women.

Finally after two years in Kansai, Basho returned to Edo in late autumn of 1691, there to stay in peoples’ houses for nine months. On April 4, 1692 Basho writes to Kyokusui at home in Zeze; Takesuke is two or three.

In your letters you have not written about Takesuke and the others. He must be getting big and everyday his mischief extreme.


Basho, without seeing the child, knows how children develop so can imagine Takesuke well into his “terrible twos” — and he wants to know more about this child of Zeze.

(Letter to Chigetsu, June 21, 1692)

For one year a dream has been like reality.  On each of us old age presses. The day may not be as far as today or tomorrow.

Seven months before, Basho parted from Chigetsu in Zeze to return to Edo. Basho is 48 and Chigetsu in her sixties. At that time old age was said to begin at 40.   (Young people still think this.)

The summer heat at the Gichuji Cottage is one sort of the memories that arises. Here where everything is rough and approximate everything is disabled, so unable to forget the extent of my obligation I feel only longing to be with you…

“Rough and approximate” (omaka naru) is his current state, staying in someone’s house in downtown Edo without a place of his own. Since he now feels that way, Basho feels on (obligation) to the Zeze people for giving him such a peaceful place to stay at Gichuji the year before.

Soon after this letter, Basho moved into a new three-room hut built for him by his Edo followers. For New Years of 1693, Kyokusi was in Edo and visited Basho who cooked some zoni, vegetable soup with mochi dumplings, a traditional New Year’s dish. For the New Years of 1694, Kyokusui is home with his family. Basho in Edo sends a letter on February 22, 1694

That was a meager vegetable-mochi soup I served you. This year at your house the uba fed you so much you got sick of it.

 Zoni is traditionally served throughout the New Year season, which lasts 20 days. Thus by the end of the First Moon, when this letter was written, one might be tired of zoni. We see that the uba—who was Kyokosui’s wet nurse—likes to overfeed her baby. Basho is kidding his friend – an illustration of how close was their friendship.

On June 3, 1694 Basho left Edo on another journey west, accompanied by his grandnephew Jirobei. They reached Iga on June 20th.  Here is a sentence from Basho’s letter to Sora from Zeze on July 13th:

The many fleas and mosquitoes make summer in Iga hard to bear, so we have come out here to Zeze.

Iga lies in a basin surrounded by low mountains which trap the warm sultry air, so fleas and mosquitoes flourish. In Zeze beside Lake Biwa there is always a cool breeze to drive them off.

 Lake ripples
and the wind’s fragrance
one rhythm

The ripples of Lake Biwa against the shore and the wind’s fragrance have one rhythm – and to share his moment we can go to Zeze today, or maybe we can feel it beside any lake in summer.

 We have yet to see Kyorai. Joso now lives in Zeze. And Shiko has extended his sphere of influence all the way to Ise-Yamada and done such things as build a cottage for me. I met him unexpectedly when he came to Zeze to manage the Kyoto sightseeing for the family of the Head Priest of the Ise Shrine. We hung out together for two nights and a day, then he went up to Kyoto. Masahide squealed in delight and gave us dinner, but tea-picking is such a frenzied time for them that we spent part of our sojourn at Kyokusui’s.

Ordinarily Basho would have been buried in Iga with his family, however on his deathbed in Osaka he requested burial at Gichuji:

There at the crossroads of East and West where ripples are clear against the shore and vows of a lifetime are deep, when beloved friends come to visit, they shall not be put to inconvenience.

Iga is far from the main road between Edo and Kyoto, while Zeze is right alongside that major road – and so at the end Basho thinks of his friends’ convenience. Basho had himself buried in Zeze, in a shroud made by Chigetsu and her daughter-in-law, so it would be easy for you to visit him; you too can be one of those “beloved friends.”

Take the Tokaido Main Line 10 minutes from Kyoto Station to Zeze station, and walk (the temple says) seven minutes to Gichuji Temple. On the grounds is a large, spectacular stone for the 12th Century warrior Kiso Yoshinaka, and a small irregular shaped one for Basho.


I request your assistance in getting out the word on this ‘other Basho’ – the warm affectionate Basho who wrote hundreds of poems about women and children, and hundreds more about friendship and love, hundreds of Basho works unavailable in English, yet the most pro-female, child-centered, life-affirming, and fun-filled works in old-time literature

Feedback will be greatly appreciated.


Basho's grave at Gichu-ji (Dougill)

Basho’s grave at Gichu-ji (Dougill)