More Armchair Travel: Heading Toward Tohoku

Okunohosomichi coverWith virus cases continuing to rise in both Japan and elsewhere, clearly it’s still not a good idea to travel. So I’ve headed back to my collection of travelogues to see what I might find to fire my imagination and evoke my own memories. My eye fell upon Dorothy Britton’s 1974 translation of “Narrow Road to a Far Province” (Oku no Hoso Michi), a travelogue/poetry collection by the famed haiku poet Matsuo Basho relating his 1689 travels in Japan’s Tohoku region.

Tohoku is both fascinating and charming, with historical and cultural features distinctive from the better-known and more frequently visited parts of Japan. Each time I visit I find more new and wonderful insights and adventures. I can feel some pity for Basho, who visited relatively late in life and in somewhat poor health, never to make a return visit.

A number of the places Basho visited are surprising unchanged, even though he traveled more than 330 years ago. Let’s visit with him a few of his destinations in Miyagi and Iwate.

Matsushima is today regarded as one of Japan’s top three beauty spots (the other two are Miyajima and Amanohashidate). Basho concluded that it was “the most beautiful place in all Japan!” He relates how he and his companion “hired a boat and set out toward the pine-clad isles”. Taking a boat ride around the scenic bay remains popular with visitors, although these days it is more commonly a motorized sightseeing cruise. Thankfully the bay was only minimally affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated this Sanriku coastline.

To share Basho’s observations: “There are countless islands: some tall, like fingers pointing to heaven; some lying prostrate on the waves; some grouped together in twos and threes, branching to the left or stretching to the right; some with babes upon their backs or clasped to their bosoms, like parents and grandparents. The pines are a deep, dark green. Their branches are bent by the salt sea winds into naturally graceful shapes, and they have a profound elegance, like that of a beautiful woman whom artifice has made even lovelier still.” Indeed, a painted footbridge connecting two islands appears like a slash of lipstick on the lips of a great beauty.

Basho’s next destination at Matsushima was Zuiganji, a Zen temple founded in the 9th century and rebuilt by the great feudal lord Date Masamune in 1609, “with its walls of gold leaf and its resplendent ornaments, it shone with light like paradise itself.” One aspect of the temple I found particular fascinating  were the niches in the moss-covered cliffside that forms the northern boundary of the temple’s precincts. Strangely, that received no mention by Basho. Also striking are the tall cedar trees on the temple grounds, creating an overall atmosphere of quiet dignity.

After visiting Matsushima, Basho continued north, travelling hard to reach Hiraizumi, the seat of the Fujiwara clan, a powerful family during the Heian Period (794-1185). Even by Basho’s time, the Fujiwara glory days had passed; as Basho said, “now but a brief remembered dream.” Basho observed that in its hey day Hiraizumi was the northernmost outpost of civilized Japan, with points beyond being under the control of the “Ainu tribesman of the north.” These days, the most historical sites in and around Hiraizumi have received World Heritage listing as “Sites Associated with Pure Land Buddhism”, a sect of Buddhism that attempts to create heaven on earth through beautiful gardens representing the ideal world. The expansive gardens at Motsuji are an excellent example.

Basho seems to have spent most of his time in Hiraizumi at Chuzonji, a hillside temple complex that is still the most spectacular sight in the town.

The two structures of Chuzonji that Basho specifically mentioned as noteworthy still exist, the two oldest structures on the site: the “Sutra Hall” (Kozo-do) and the “Hall of Light” (Konjiki-do). Says Basho, “The Hall of Light’s enamel decoration would have been scattered long ago and lost–the gem-studded doors shattered by the winds, the gold leaf on the pillars decayed by frost and snow, and the hall itself reduced to rubble in an empty field of grass–had it not been encased by four walls and covered with roof tiles to protect to protect the building from the elements. Thus, it will probably stand for a long time as a memorial of a thousand years ago.” Basho has proven accurate in his prediction, as indeed the Konjiki-do stands, protected by an outer structure.

Chuzonji warrants hours of detailed exploration to see all of its sub-temples and shrines and unlock all its secrets.  Although Basho does not say so, doubtless he did exactly that. Chuzonji returns his praises by honoring him with a statue, too.

From Hiraizumi, Basho turned west and travelled to the Sea of Japan before heading back to Tokyo. His entire journey lasted five months, which is probably the minimum period we’ll all be unable to travel.

© 2020 and Vicki L. Beyer
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