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Autumn 2006, vol 4 no 3

An Account of Our Master Basho's Last Days
By Takarai Kikaku
Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa

This narrative is a translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa of an important manuscript by Takarai Kikaku, also known as Shinshi, one of Basho’s followers.

To mark the 300th anniversary of Kikaku’s death this text forms part of a new booklet, produced in Japanese and English, which also includes a commemorative Kasen renku, entitled "Springtime in Edo", led by Prof. Yuasa.

An Account of Our Master Basho's Last Days

The flowering spring made his head heavy, his eyes muddy, and his heart melancholy. The cool bower in summer dotted with stones around a pond brought him dampness, sleeplessness, and sickness in the morning. The autumn simply increased his sorrow and strained his bowels. One winter he wrote:

Somehow I came home
To see dry pampas grasses
Standing in the snow.

He closed his gate to the world, realizing how vain it was, and everyone who went to see him had to leave without seeing him. They all said it was a great pity that he had grown so old.

This master was a lonely man and very poor, but his virtues were infinite. More than two thousand disciples in different parts of the country, far and near, had universal trust in him - something that goes beyond our usual understanding.

In the winter of the third year of Tenna, his grassy cottage was engulfed by a sudden fire, and he had to save his life by wading through the river water, holding a rush mat over his head, and running though the smoke. This was the beginning of his hard life. He must have realized that his life in this world was frail and flimsy like his house. He gave up the idea of settling down in one place, and went to a mountain village in the province of Kai. However, he found the view of Mt. Fuji too cold and aloof. So he returned to his old place, hoping to attain a state of sheer ecstasy under the pure beams of the moon. His followers were glad to see him back and built for him a cottage in the old place, planting a stock of basho tree to comfort his eyes. He continued to live a secluded life and wrote the following poem on a rainy night.

The wind-blown basho tree,
The noise of raindrops hitting
A basin in the dark.

Yet, his friends who loved the secluded life came to see him and we began to call him our master Basho.

About this time, Daiten, head priest of the Engakuji Temple, who had great knowledge of divination, studied our master’s fortune at my request, and found that of all the signs, 'Sui' was where his fortune resided. In other words, his fortune was like a stock of pampas grass blown by the wind and beaten by rain, beset with numerous worries and troubles, but his life was safe in spite of all this, and he would continue to scrape through the years, for ‘Sui’ means ‘to gather’.

Thus our master would gather all sorts of men and things to himself, so that he would have no time to rest his mind. Such was the auspicious power of this divination that our master did gather all sorts of people to his grassy cottage. They all looked up to him as a teacher, and tried to console him in every way they could. His cottage was ideally located for such gatherings, as there were bridges, boats, trees, and towers nearby, and the view our master described in the following poem was truly attractive:

Clouds of cherry bloom,
Does the bell come from Ueno
Or from Asakusa?

Thus our master lived a happy life in his cottage, many people trying to help him; but one autumn day in the first year of Jyokyo, he decided to travel to his native place, remembering certain things he had left unsettled there. He was accompanied by Chiri on this journey, and visiting many places in Yamato, even went to the deepest part of Yoshino, where he wrote:

In these drops of dew
Let me wash as a trial
The dust of this world.

He started on his journey, dressed in his usual brown coat and wearing a cypress bark hat, writing a poem about ‘the severity of the noise of the hailstones beating’ against his hat. However, many people along the way tried to help him during his journey, knowing that he was a famous poet and that his poems were truly worth praising, so that in one poem, he compared himself to Chikusai. Indeed he plodded along in his life just like that famous quack doctor gifted with poetic talent, till everyone began to admire our master and regard him as the originator of the ‘true’ style. Many people from nearby villages and towns came on horseback to invite him to stay with them, and he did not have a single day to rest his mind. This consumed so much of his time and energy that at last he fell ill, as the following poem shows:

A sick goose fallen,
I slumber at Katada
In my wandering.

However, his friends at Otsu and Zeze looked after him very well till our master regained his health and enjoyed short stays at Genjuan Cottage and Gichuji Temple. He spent some years visiting famous sights in the vicinity, infusing his mind with their beauty.

Formerly, our master had studied Zen under Priest Buccho of the Konponji Temple. He became famous as the sole heir to his teacher’s doctrine, and his determination was unshakable as iron. Now in his old age, his poetic style has become so hard and dry that his poems naturally remind us of the best of Saigyo’s works in Sanka Shu. No wonder he is sometimes praised as the Tu Fu of haikai. Our master was poor but he was kind to his friends, so that he was popular even at tea parties, and the witty word-plays of Sokan that our master talked about became part of his own teaching. Consequently many people imitated the so-called ‘free’ style and the 'mad' style. However, our master’s poetic sincerity and genius sent forth fragrance like cherry flowers, gleamed like the moon, spread like willow seeds, and flew like snowflakes.

Having slept in a boat at Suma and Akashi, and having watched the sunrise over the island of Awaji, our master carried his staff to join Noin at Kisagata, Kenko in the mountains of Kiso, Saigyo at Futami, Jyakuren at Mount Kova, Sogi and Socho in the province of Echigo and Kensai at his cottage in Shirakawa. These people were long dead, but to our master, they were alive, and their living images invited and urged him to visit them. In short, even in his wanderings, our master had a purpose which made him look towards the distant skies with hope.

For more than ten years, he made constant use of his staff and hat. If he stayed at one place for more than ten days, he said that the gods of the road made his mind restless. Once he wrote:

A houseless rover
And a mobile foot-warmer,
Both likewise restless.

When our master wrote this hokku, he had in mind the following waka by Priest Jichin:

In the roving world
A rover sleeps with his head
On a grass pillow,
Seeing in his slumbering
A mere dream within a dream.

Travellers were known to have died on the road, but our master thought little of them and decided to leave on his fourth journey, writing the following poem when he left his cottage at Fakagawa:

A warbler complains
Of its age in a thicket,
Bamboo sprouting up.

His friends wept to see him go, but he told them that many people were voicing their desire to see him. He reached his native town in the province of Iga and stayed at a cottage there, enjoying for a while a restful period but seeking an excuse once again to take to the road.

Soon the gods of the road seemed to have given him a good opportunity. Our master was invited by some friends living in the province of Tsu to spend the winter there. They wished to show him their country, knowing that he had a mind attentive to such beauty. On September the twenty-fifth our master received a kind invitation from Kyokusui, a man living in Zeze. In reply to this, our master wrote:

No one but myself
Goes along this road at dusk,
The end of autumn.

Our master was probably aware where this road was taking him.

He soon fell ill, but everyone thought that his illness had been caused by the cold wind from the mountains of Iga, which had made his paper bedding wet, and by the common mushrooms which were too heavy for his stomach. So they gave him his usual medicine. But he was actually suffering from water poisoning, and he was confined to bed on the night of the last day of September with frequent diarrhoea. He was so weak that he was not able to speak, his hands cold as ice. The news of his terrible illness reached Kyorai, who came in a hurry from Kyoto. From Zeze came Masahide, and from Otsu came Bokusetsu, Otokuni, and Joso. They were soon joined by Riyu from Hirata. Together with Shiko and Izen, these disciples deplored his condition and whispered their concern.

Our master showed no signs of mental disorder. He told everyone to stay away on account of the frequent visits he had to make to the lavatory. He must have heard the prayers of his disciples through the wall, for waking from his sleep, he said to them, "I have just awoken from an idle dream," and gave them the following poem:

Ill on a journey,
Round and round the withered field
My dream keeps roving.

He then asked if it would be better to say:

Round and round the withered field
My dreaming mind roves.

This poem in a way expresses deep-rooted delusions in his mind, but his strong attachment to his art and his determination to dedicate himself to poetry moved everyone to deep sorrow. On October the eighth, his disciples wrote the following poems, feeling anxious about his future.

Poems of Prayer for His Happiness
For mental repose
We clean hands without water,
To ask gods to come.               Bokusetsu
The wind-swept cold sky,
I look up at it once more,
Hearing the crane’s cry.     Kyorai
Light of foot indeed
In its flight through bamboo groves,
A wren passing by.     Izen
When the first snow comes,
I will lead him by the hand
To the Sada Shrine.     Masahide
Gods absent this month,
We must depend on the wind
That blows through the pines.     Shido
Placed high on the perch,
Its face becomes forbidding.
A hawk for hunting.     Kako
I am please to hear
A call for a foot warmer
Breaking my slumber.     Shiko
A bunch of daffodils
Brought here by a messenger
Lifts him from his bed.     Donshu
A flock of wild geese,
Their faint cries over the hill
Vying with each other.     Joso
His face looks better
Than it did the day before,
Late chrysanthemums.     Otokuni

This was the last occasion for merrymaking before his death.

It is true that our master said he would continue to take the medicine Bokusetsu had provided for him till the very last moment. It was the only help he had. He was so ashamed of his unclean condition that only two men were allowed to assist him in bed. They were Donshu and Shara, two followers of Shido, who was a poor man, but whose sincere love for our master was highly appreciated by him. That is why these two men were allowed to attend on him. They were very happy to play their role and looked after him very well, but they were indeed very sorry to see him confined in his death bed. His disciples, according to their respective means, gave him different things: for example, a new hemp robe to replace the old one which was soiled, or a richly embroidered nightshirt to replace his old one which was too thin to keep him warm. It was really a credit to all his disciples that they tried to help him in one way or another.

Our master spent October the ninth and tenth in a serious condition, but he inquired after me, and hearing from Otokuni that I was in the vicinity of Tannowa in the province of Izumi, sent me a letter, saying that he yearned to see me. The letter, however, failed to reach me in time. I boarded a boat together with Gano and Kio and enjoyed the sights along the coast of Fukei, spending the night at Sakai. I reached Osaka on the evening of the eleventh, and inquiring after my master, I was told that he was in a bad condition. So I went at once to see him in his sick bed. We spoke our inexpressible thoughts in weak voices, feeling that it was the god of Sumiyoshi that had brought us together, appreciating our devotion over the years. I had also prayed at Wakanoura for the health of our master, and had asked the gracious god of Aridoshi to refrain from inflicting misfortune on him. So I had had no premonition of his illness, but now seeing him in bed, I could not help melting into tears. I was crouched at my master's bedside, but Kyorai and Shiko signalled with their hands to come away. I left my master and tried to regain my composure. Sitting somewhat at ease, I looked at my master’s ailing face. It seemed almost dead, and the rain that fell constantly only aggravated my grief. So I wrote:

How I wish to call
A white crane from Fukei,
But for this cold rain.

I tried to comfort my master with this poem of prayer for his long life.

Our master said jokingly, "Genjuan, where I found my first prop in a pasania tree, is too far from any human abode, I would rather have my grave by the side of Lord Kiso." These words later became a legacy among his disciples. Our master was of the same mind as Saigyo, who wished to die under the full moon in the second month of spring. He constantly thought about his end and wrote poems expressing his premonitions of death. Therefore, he did not have to write any poem of farewell on his death bed.

His disciples gathered round a pot of charcoal fire to heat the medicine which was having no effect. As they kept vigil, they wrote the following poems on the ashes of the fire pot:

Crouched by the fire
We boil medicine for him,
Feeling dreadfully cold.     Joso
Confined by winter,
We sip what is left over
Of his medicine.     Kyorai
Sleeping in one bed
Each pulls the quilt to himself,
General laughter.     Izen
Told to go away,
I find the adjacent room
Unbearably cold.     Shiko
Our thoughts all as one,
We wish to nurse him all night,
Our winter penance.     Masahide
By lot we decide
Who cooks the porridge with greens,
Nursing him all night.     Bokusetsu
We are his children,
And weep as cold bag-worms mourn
Their father’s absence.     Otokuni

About four o’clock on the afternoon of the twelfth, our master passed away. His dead face was beautiful, like a face asleep. We covered his body and placed it in a large coffer. We then dressed ourselves like traders carrying their merchandise, and, putting the coffer on a river boat, we sailed, ten of us together; Kyorai, Otokuni, Jyoso, Shiko, Izen Masahide, Bokusetsu, Donshu, Jutei's son called Jirobei, and myself. Under drops of night dew, similar to those that came down from the rush roof of our boat, our master must have slept many times with cold sleeves. We did not know how many, we said to ourselves, and talked in small voices about the miraculous connection we had with him. We all sat like priests in meditation and said prayers for him, remembering the precious words and gentle admonitions with which he had taught us over the years. Now that we had lost him, this great light in the art of haikai, we thought that we should remember his teachings as if they were his relics, and repeated old tales about him, yearning after him in our hearts.

Our master had no permanent abode and travelled in all directions, invited by his friends, if he had died at Matsushima in the deep north or at Mt. Hakusan in the province of Echizen, we would not have been able to do anything for him except to express our sorrow at the sad news, but here, we could guard him from the wind, sitting close to his remains. I was thinking about his disciples who were not so lucky as we were, when birds began to awaken me, and soon, while counting the strokes of the temple bell that began to toll, we reached Fushimi.

We moved our master’s remains from Fushimi to the Gichuji Temple, where his funeral was performed with solemnity and sincerity. His disciples, people of different ranks high and low, came from Kyoto, Osaka, Otsu, and Zeze, for they earnestly desired to pay their respects to their loving master. More than three hundred people attended the funeral, uninvited. His white robe and other necessary things were sewn by two ladies, Chigetsu and Otokuni's wife.

After the funeral, Priest Chokugu of the Gichuji Temple, led us to a small mound and buried him, as our master desired it himself, next to the mound of Lord Kiso, a little behind the temple gate, near the place where an old willow tree was standing. We thought there was a mysterious connection between Lord Kiso and our master, so we made our master’s grave similar in shape to the grave of Lord Kiso, and built a simple fence round it. We also planted for his name’s sake a stock of basho tree which had withered in cold weather.

Our master had a particular love for scenic places. His grave is graced by Mt. Nagara and Mt. Tanokami and the waves of Lake Biwa that come right up to the temple gate. The boats going out leave their traces on the water, reminding us of the short span of our life. Deer on the woodcutters’ paths, wild geese flying over farm houses, the moon shining over the lake — all these add beauty to his grave. It seems to me that this site was not chosen for his grave out of mere whim.

Most of his disciples stayed on after his funeral for seven days, and then went home. I stayed longer, till a memorial meeting was held at which various poets gathered to compose a linked verse in his honour. I consider it my singular good fortune that I have been able to do so, and sympathizing with the disciples who were not able to attend his funeral, I have written this account of his last days, though really I consider myself too foolish to undertake such a task. I am hoping that the wind will carry this work of mine to far places, and that those who wish to remember our master will be inclined to say more prayers for him after reading it.

Written by Shinshi and placed below his master’s memorial tablet at the Gichuji Temple in Awazu.

A hat to cover
The body of our master,
Withered pampas leaves.


A copy of this booklet can be obtained direct from Nobuyuki Yuasa, Regalia 1118, 7-32-44 Fujimicho, Tachikawashi, Tokyo 190-0013, JAPAN. Please enclose a postal money order for 1500 Yen to cover postage. An Audio file of the commemorative renku appears in the Renku Column of this edition.