Imagine a young man in black priestly robes, straw sandals, and hat, and a straw cape draped over his shoulders to protect him from the rain, walking deliberately along a narrow footpath through a deep forest, then up onto the side of a mountain.
I walked through mists and clouds, breathing the thin air of high altitudes and stepping on slippery ice and snow, till at last through a gateway of clouds, as it seemed, to the very paths of the sun and moon, I reached the summit, completely out of breath and nearly frozen to death.
This is Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) the great Japanese haiku master. This book is a set of five travel sketches, that describe his travels wandering the country visiting temples, shrines, and mountaintops. The writing is lush, even intimate and is interspersed with his deft haiku.
The name of the tree,
I stood in the flood
Of its sweet smell.
This South Valley,
Where the gentle wind breathes
The faint aroma of snow.
This is great travel writing as the reader feels Basho’s close connection to the natural world. Of great artists he says, “all who have achieved real excellence in any art, possess one thing in common, that is, a mind to obey nature, to be one with nature, throughout the four seasons of the year.” “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is an account of his trip into the northern wilderness of Japan with his student and apprentice Kawai Sora. This journey covered 2,400 km in 150 days. He visits friends, meets strangers, sleeps in temples with monks, and communes with the natural world around him. Highly recommended.