As I put on my own raincoat and prepare to walk in Basho’s footsteps, I harbor no delusions that I am about to travel through an ancient Japan like that of the Narrow Road. As the scholar Donald Keene reported, “Each place it describes is totally transformed. Senju, the first leg of Basho’s journey, is now a bustling commercial district, and Soka, where he spent his first night on the road, contains a mammoth housing development. But the truth of The Narrow Road ... will survive such changes.”
Former poet laureate Robert Hass paraphrases Basho this way: “Avoid adjectives of scale, you will love the world more and desire it less.” Following that admonition, I have neither large nor small expectations. I do know that even today, eternal landscapes and age-old shrines can be found along Basho’s route, connecting an open-minded traveler to the past in ways no human industry can impede. Besides, beauty is found not only in what you observe with compassionate perspicacity but also in how you come to know yourself when alone. Meandering along farmland roads on foot or riding in a car in 21st-century Japan, staying the night in a traditional inn near mount Gassan or in a business hotel in Tokyo, I will seek refuge in the indispensable idea of Basho.
Basho is said to have told a student that he often “held forth” with great Chinese and Japanese poets of the past, calling one such occasion a “conversation with ghost and ghost-to-be.” For over a year now I’ve been thinking of my journey as a kind of portable séance, an ongoing dialogue with Matsuo Basho. I will pray for decent weather (I’ll be traveling during typhoon season), good moon viewing, and quiet hours to fill notebooks. And step by step I will happily define myself as a ghost-to-be.