The Narrow Road to the Deep North

The Princess must leave those who love her on earth. Photo.

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is a tenth century story that is regarded as Japan’s oldest prose narrative. The story links Mount Fuji clearly with blessing, unbearable loss, and immortality. This theme continues in Japan’s greatest works of art and even in contemporary film.

Bashō’s hermitage and Camellia Hill. Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Matsuo Bashō (松尾芭蕉) was unquestionably the most famous haiku poet of the Edo Period. He made a particularly great contribution in helping to refine a collaborative linked verse style. Bashō’s most famous work, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (おくの細道) begins with lines that many western readers may find a little puzzling:

Determined to fall
A weather-exposed skeleton
I cannot help the sore wind
Blowing through my heart.

Traveling was such a perilous endeavour at that time that the poet fully expected to die, possibly at the hands of bandits.  He was to be pleasantly surprised, however. He arrived home safely and his work was a huge success. Even so, this determination to give up worldly pleasures and perish, exposed to the elements, actually fits a pattern of sacrifice and devotion that was firmly established in Japanese culture, as we will see later.

Twenty Five Bodhisattvas Descending From Heaven. By Anonymous (Kimbell Art Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As we consider the historic and cultural importance of the view of Mount Fuji, Bashō’s next lines are perhaps even more puzzling:

In a way
It was fun
Not to see Mount Fuji
In foggy rain.

During the Edo Period, with no high-rise buildings, Mount Fuji was visible on a clear day, even from great distances. ForBashō, Mount Fuji remains a significant presence, even when it cannot be seen, and the mountain somehow connects to the poet’s decision to give everything up and submit to fate and the elements. The importance of Mount Fuji in Bashō’s travels is given more emphasis by the lines contributed by his servant, Chiri.

I left my master’s house
In Fukagawa,
Leaving its Bashō tree
In the care of Mount Fuji.

The mountain, as a guardian presence, cannot really be left behind, and it persists in the imagination on a journey to death and, perhaps, immortality.

Ōgaki Castle, Ōgaki, where Matsuo ended his journey. By 名古屋太郎 (投稿者が撮影。PENTAX K10D +smc PENTAX-A 1:1.2 50mm) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, the 2015 movie The Sea of Trees explores similar themes of acceptance of death. While the movie has received awful reviews, the fact that it is set in the Aokigahara Forest (青木ヶ原樹海) is significant. This huge expanse of trees, located at the northwest base of Mount Fuji, is also known the suicide forest, and is shrouded in mystery and tales of the supernatural. The forest itself may be understood as Mount Fuji’s most astonishing act of destruction and creation. It continues to play an imaginative role related to acceptance, death, and the quest for immortality.

Bashō. By Morikawa Kyoriku (1656-1715) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons