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VINE VOICEon 28 February 2011
Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water -
A deep resonance.

Praise first to Nobuyuki Yuasa, whose lucid and natural translation throughout is a joy to read. As the haiku above amply demonstrates, Yuasa's decision to render Basho's haiku in 4 lines in English, to my eye and ear at least, captures the precision of the images and the depths of meaning beautifully. Yuasa writes a long introduction, that's highly enjoyable, introducing an overview of haiku, and some of the background to Basho's own life and story, before looking in more detail at the five texts contained within this book.

The reader will most likely concur with the translator, that the first four "sketches" (The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, A Visit to the Kashima Shrine, The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, and A Visit to Sarashina Village) are all steps on the journey to the classic The Narrow Road to the Deep North, whose combination of prose and haiku "illuminate each other like two mirrors held up facing each other." This journey is in the art of writing "haibun": a composition where prose and poetry meet and neither are ascendant.

Basho's personal journey, as a student of Zen Buddhism, was one in which he travelled to escape from the bonds of the material world, looking for enlightenment: "neither a priest nor an ordinary man of this world was I, for I wavered ceaselessly like a bat that passes for a bird at one time and for a mouse at another" he tells us in A Visit to the Kashima Shrine. And it's hard to say whether he found what he was looking for, ending:

So I must take to the road again,
Farewell, my friends.

Basho's work has undoubtedly transcended its own time, and nearly 350 years later fills our contemporary world, so separated from the natural rhythms of the earth, with "the very paths of the sun and moon". It captures mountains and moonrises, temples and tears wept, history and the composition of haiku as a gift: "the old seed of linked verse once strewn here by the scattering wind had taken root ... but ... these rural poets were now struggling to find their way in the forest of error ... I sat with them to compose a book of linked verse, and left it behind me as a gift."

His prose is composed with the same clarity and grace as his haiku; and his wanderings are painted in vivid colours: "the wind seemed to breathe out black soot through every rift in the hanging clouds." He rarely complains of the hardships of travelling by foot, or by occasional borrowed horse, through Japan's 17th century hinterland, though a humorous haiku hints at it:

Bitten by fleas and lice,
I slept in a bed,
A horse urinating all the time
Close to my pillow.

And so the work is part travelogue, part spiritual journey, and part evolution of an art form. Unique and inspiring, Basho has left us with "his vision of eternity in the transient world".
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on 1 September 2009
I bought this book after hearing it reviewed on BBC 4's programme "A Good Read".
It is beautifully written and was perfect reading for a quiet country holiday.
Each haiku portrays the landscapes Basho travels through so well that it is easy to close your eyes and 'be there'
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on 10 June 2013
Matsuo Basho is the Shakespeare of Japan, a wandering poet of the 17th century who's considered to be the master of haiku. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is an early example of a travel diary, where notes about his travels are presented alongside the haiku that he wrote along the way.

While that might not sound thrilling, and while the comprehensive notes at the end are enough to put anyone off, think of them as optional - the real joy here is the main body of Basho's work, as intriguing as it is melodic. The innate beauty of Basho's writing is reflected in the world that he sees around him.

If you haven't heard of Basho, you should look him up - he's an unacknowledged hero who influenced a bunch of the writers that you're in love with.
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on 2 October 2010
Basho writes of simple things with real grace and clarity. As one might expect from a student of Zen, he is quietly attentive to the world around him, and this clear attention somehow finds expression in both the poetry and prose sections of the Narrow Road to the Deep North. He has developed a vision of the world - a vision which is not esoteric in any way, and not specific to his time and culture, but rather an alertness to the flow of life which feels universal, and which he shares with us across a span of three or four centuries. I have greatly enjoyed this book, and found it be an everyday source of gentleness and clarity (and surely we could all use a little of that in this frenetic, unbalanced world we seem to have created!)
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on 14 December 2008
This is one of my favourite books, a very lucid account of Basho's travels through Japan interspersed with Haiku. His descriptions of the various sites visited and encounters with other poets, monks etc are very enjoyable reading. Along with "Book of Tea" by Kakuzo Okakura this gives a really good insight into Japanese culture of the time.
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on 7 January 2014
This is quite a strange but fascinating travel book - based on Haiku and other more extended forms of Japanese poetry. I have to admit it sometimes felt a bit short of what I had been expecting - buy this was probably due to the translation - I think it loses something uniquely Japanese - not that I am a Japanese speaker! Having said that it has a beatiful zen-like charm and is distinctly different from Western travel books since it is written primarily from a poetic and spiritual viewpoint. The final Narrow Road to the Deep South brings everything together for a beatiful travelogue - unique in travel writing
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on 17 January 2001
This book was written in the 17th century, and gives an account of the poet's travels in the North of Japan. What is so interesting is the correspondance with modern Japan - their feelings for the past, for their traditions are put into focus by the descriptions of what the poet sees. An essential accompaniment for your travels in Japan, if you really wish to understand the Japanese.
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on 6 November 2014
A great little work that brings out the inate humanity of Basho and makes the reader realise that, even though he lived and breathed centuries ago, we are not so dissimilar after all. Interspersed with good examples of haikus, this is a book to treasure.
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on 23 February 2015
A got to have book and once you have it never let it go!
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on 2 October 2014
So interesting, wonderfully poetic all of it!
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