In 1689, when he was 45 years old, a Japanese poet wrote what we might call – using a modern world – a travelogue, partly in prose and partly in poetry.
He described his trip along “The Narrow Road to Far North», which had lasted over 5 month.
The poet was called Matsuo Munefusa and he was born into a noble samurai family, but he had chosen to reject that particular world to become an inspired wander, to study Zen and to devote himself to a serene and voluntary frugality.
Matsuo Munefusa enjoyed a meditative and solitary life – we know that mediation needs solitude – and he used to find inner peace and inspiration withdrawing to a kind of simple hut thatched with leaves of plantain.
In Japanese plantain leaves are called “basho” and it became the pseudonym of Matsuo Munefusa, who is well known in the history of world literature and poetry as the finest writer of Haiku.
Now that we have sketched the essential lines to understand whom we are speaking of, let me quote the very words of Basho himself, because when one has to deal with a poet, one should stay silent and let the poet speak.
“Much praise has already been lavished on the wonders of the islands of Matsushima.
Yet if further praise is possible, I would like to say that here is the most beautiful spot in the whole country of Japan, and that the beauty of these islands ….
The islands are situated in a bay about three miles wide in every direction and open to the sea through a narrow mouth on the south-east side….this bay is filled with the brimming water of the ocean and the innumerable islands are scattered over it from one end to the other.
Tall islands point to the sky and level ones prostrate themselves before the surges of water.
Islands are piled above islands, and islands are joined to islands, so that they look exactly like parents caressing their children or walking with them arm in arm.
The pines are of the freshest green and their branches are curved in exquisite lines, bent by the wind constantly blowing through them. …”
But before writing this delicate and effective description, Basho had put his emotions, discovering the beauty of Matsushima bay, in a Haiku, which has remained among the most famous for its essential concision, which makes us understand what impressed the poet more than hundreds of possible words.
Basho meant to express his overwhelming feeling in front of the amazing beauty of the view spread in front of her eyes which had left him speechless.
Here is the haiku
A-ah, Matsushima, ah!
Only that, like a sigh…Too much to add anything else.
Maybe Basho was amused by the idea of a Zen paradox, maybe he was self-ironical, or maybe he simply intended to teach us that often words are useless, even for a poet, because they cannot be adequate enough to show the hues of feelings.
What could Basho say today arriving from his long walk?
Matsushima (the pines’ island) doesn’t exist anymore, erased drastically from landscape by tsunami which has struck the Eastern coast of Japan.
Nature is neither good, nor evil.
Matsushima is only one of the places in Japan, dramatically hurt by the indifferent and unconscious cruelty of nature.
It might be one little symbol.
As it inspired Basho the poet to meditate on beauty, when that beauty was intact, it might give us, by imagining its nowadays desolation and destruction, the inspiration to think over about and to feel empathy.