Matsuo Basho was a wandering poet in Japan in the early Edo period who, together with his poetry apprentice Sora, set off in 1689 on a 2,400 km journey by foot to Tohoku, the northern part of the main island of Japan. This journey is described in his masterwork Oku no Hosomichi or in English The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Basho’s poems are exquisite, succinct thoughts evoking time and place, written about the people, landscape and experiences of his travels.
After admiring Basho’s succinct and elegant poetry for several decades, in May 2018 three friends embarked on a journey attempting to follow the old trails Basho’s feet had walked in 1689.
Trains, buses, boats and taxis filled in the gaps as we made our way on mountain trails, rural backroads, the Mogami River and sometimes busy highways. Our souls were eased with temple stays and our aching feet soothed with hot springs, and the kindness and hospitality of local people made our trip a wonderful experience, unlike Basho’s description of staying in Hojin-no-ie:
Bitten by fleas and lice, I slept in a bed,
A horse urinating all night close to my pillow
Following Basho’s footsteps as a cohesive walking route, it’s best to start at Naruko Onsen in Miyagi prefecture, and then focus on Yamagata prefecture. Trails to walk are the Dewa Kaido road, the Natagiri Pass, and the three sacred Dewa Sanzan mountains, including the 2446 steps leading up to the mysterious Mt Haguro temple complex. Close the loop by visiting beautiful Yamadera temple where Basho wrote this poem:
In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks
The Tohoku Basho walk requires quite a lot of planning and a guide is recommended, as the trails are not connected and not well-marked. This region receives heavy snow from as early as November until May, so choose to walk in the warmer months. Mt Gassan alpine walking trail is only open from July 1 to September 15. Autumn colours are spectacular up here in the north. Taking the touristy boat ride down the Mogami River just as Basho did, reveals spectacular, steep, forested mountains from the fast-flowing river, relatively unchanged since Basho’s time:
Gathering all the rains of May,
The River Mogami rushes down
In one violent stream
Accommodation in pre-booked ryokan (traditional inns) allows soaking trail-weary bodies in natural hot springs baths and enjoying delicious seasonal meals. Transport between walk locations is by train and taxi – visit the local tourist information centres for maps and advice.