Three more Basho linked verses about Kyoto

Translations and commentary by Jeff Robbin   Assisted by Sakata Shoko

Recently I posted an article, Living in Kyoto vs. Returning Home, containing four Basho linked verses. John Dougill kindly says, “These are no doubt the first time for the subject (Basho’s relationship with Kyoto) to be treated in such detail in English, and make for fascinating reading.” Well, here are three more linked verses about Kyoto which I have recently discovered, and I hope they add to the fascination. They all come from Basho’s youth, before his 36th year (1680) when he moved into his hut in Fukagawa, across the Sumida River from downtown Edo, to devote himself to poetry.

(As always, I use bold face for Basho’s own words.)

First is a sequence of only two stanzas both by Basho.

       River wind so cold
midnight to the outhouse
Leaving Kyoto
today Mika no Hara
belly painful

川かぜ寒き    夜中の雪隠

京出で  けふみかのはら  痛むらし

Kawa kaze samuki yonaka no setchin

           Kyou dete   kyou Mika no Hara   itamurashi


This pair is undated, but written before 1676, and probably before 1672 while Basho still lived in his hometown of Iga (now Mie Prefecture, about 50 km. southeast of Kyoto) and traveled to Kyoto to study. Walking from Kyoto to Iga, apparently he spent the night in Mika no Hara, a place in Kizugawa south of Kyoto, alongside the Kizu River which leads east to Iga. “Hara” is both “plain” in the place name, and also “belly.” Assuming that the verse describes Basho’s own experience, we see that already in his twenties he suffered from the bowel disorder that ended his life more than two decades later in 1694. When someone writes poetry about going go to an outdoor toilet (setchin, literally “hidden in snow.”) at midnight with bowel disease, we can say he truly is a poet of human experience.

And here is a trio from 1676 in which Basho wrote the first and third stanzas, and Shinsho wrote the second.

Shell discarded
in Yoshino mountains
strumming koto
Wind through the leaves
plays the bamboo flute
His hermitage
among pines and cedars
outside Kyoto

うつせみも  吉野の山に  琴ひきて

青嵐ふく  ひとよぎりふく

松杉の 木の間の庵  京ばなれ       

Utsusemi mo   Yoshino no yama ni   koto hikite

Ao arashi fuku   hitoyogiri fuku

Matsu sugi no   ki no ma no an     kyou-banare 

The juvenile cicada sheds its skin – or “exoskelton” or “shell” — to emerge as an adult; the utsusemi, or abandoned skin, remains, on the bark of the tree. Utsusemi, in the Tale of Genji, is a woman who resisted Genji’s romantic advances; one night he tried to force himself on her, but she escaped, leaving her outer robe behind and giving her the name she is known by. The Yoshino Mountains, are far enough from Kyoto that she can play her koto in peace without Genji bothering her. The mountain trees are full of countless adult male cicadas making their “cries” by rapidly vibrating abdominal membranes; the sound goes on and on all day long in the heat of summer, driving some people crazy, while some, such as Basho, compare the notes of a koto, or Japanese 13-string harp. Shinsho maintains the theme of music as an expression of nature sounds, shifting from koto/cicadas to a bamboo flute — hitoyogiri, the traditional flute of Japan, antecedent to the shakuhachi –.which sounds like wind through the leaves. Basho then gives this flutist a hermitage among the trees where he can master his instrument by imitating that wind – still with access to the City.

In this stanza-pair from 1679 Isshun begins and Basho follows.

Again he is thrown
Maruyama gets black
Half of go board
all over eastern Kyoto
blossoms scatter        

又なげられし  丸山の色

片碁盤 京の東  花ちりて

Mata nagerareshi Maruyama no iro

Kata goban   kyou no higashi hana chirite


Maruyama was a famous sumo wrestler in Basho’s time. A victory in sumo is recorded with a white circle, a loss with a black circle. Basho jumps from sumo to the board game of go, from Maruyama the wrestler to Maruyama a section of eastern Kyoto famous for cherry blossoms. The objective in go is to surround the opponent’s stones and remove them from the board. Here the one playing black is totally overwhelmed: white stones are everywhere on one side of the board, as if all the blossoms in the eastern half of Kyoto have fallen. Those of you who watch sumo, or play go, or hang out in Maruyama: this verse is for your especial enjoyment. Let’s have fun with Basho!

I think that such flights of imagination as we see in these poems reveal why young Basho’s verses were popular even before he became a serious poet.


I request your assistance in getting out the word on the warm affectionate Basho who wrote hundreds of poems about women and children, about friendship, love, and compassion; hundreds of Basho works unknown to all, yet the most pro-female, child-centered, and life-affirming works ever written?

Feedback will be greatly appreciated.