A Journey Through Japanese Haiku

Death on a Journey

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Setting out on a journey, Bashō imagines his death on the road.

野ざらしを心に風のしむ身哉 芭蕉

Nozarashi o / kokoro ni kaze no / shimu mi kana

A bleached skull
in my heart—the wind chills
my bones

(Poem by Bashō, written in 1684.)

Bashō was around 40 when he left Edo (now Tokyo) in the autumn of 1684, heading for his hometown of Ueno in Iga Province in what is now part of Mie Prefecture. On the way, he walked around various parts of the Tōkai and Kansai regions, and he returned to Edo in the early summer of the following year, recounting the journey in Nozarashi kikō, (translated by Steven D. Carter as Bones Bleaching in the Fields). The above poem appears at the start of this account, conveying Bashō’s feelings as he sets off on his travels.

The word nozarashi describes a weather-beaten skull. At the time, travel was a dangerous undertaking, and it was not uncommon for wanderers to die far from any settlement. The first part of the haiku nozarashi o kokoro ni depicts how Bashō was imagining his bones bleaching by the wayside after his death on the road.

Mi ni shimu is an autumn kigo or season word, expressing the feeling of cold seeping into one’s body. In this haiku, kaze no shimu mi kana describes how the poet’s body is chilled by the autumn wind.

The deliberate contrast of the inner kokoro (heart/mind) and external mi (body) is a typical haiku touch. When the poet imagines his corpse in the elements, he is psychologically affected, and feels the physical cold of the autumn wind all the more.

A month and a half after his departure, Bashō reached Ōgaki in what is now Gifu Prefecture, and composed the following haiku: Shini mo senu / tabine no hate yo / aki no kure (Not yet dead / after so many nights away— / autumn’s end). Despite picturing his demise mid-journey, he made it through the autumn. The journal Bones Bleaching in the Field, though, stresses how death is never far away on a journey.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo © Pixta.)

literature haiku Matsuo Bashō Japanese language and literature