The passing spring,
With tearful eyes
Matsuo Basho- The Narrow Road to the Deep North
A fortnight ago Sendai, Fukushima and Matsushima meant nothing to us. Now, they are all too familiar as places hit by the Japanese tsunami. We’ve seen the images of the wreckage but the pictures on TV give us no idea of the beauty of the landscape which was destroyed. It was a beauty as renowned in Japan as the Lake District is here.
On 27th March 1689, exactly 322 years ago, the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho set off from Edo on a journey north, which he described in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, one of the best travel books of all time (now published by Penguin Classics). He stayed in Fukushima and Sendai (where he threw fresh leaves of iris on the roof of his inn and prayed for good health) and took a boat to the islands of Matsushima. This is how he described them:
“I would like to say that here is the most beautiful spot in the whole country of Japan and the beauty of these islands is not in the least inferior to the beauty of Lake Dotei or Lake Seito in China. Indeed the whole beauty of the entire scene can only be compared to the most divinely endowed of female countenances, for who else could have created such beauty but the great god of nature himself?”
Not much later our Romantic poets would be describing described the beauty of the Lake District in similarly ecstatic terms. Basho’s words give us a deeper understanding of why the Japanese love our Lake District so much, and make it even more poignant that their own favourite place of beauty has been destroyed.