Significance of travel in Basho's Narrow Road Through the Backcountry

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Questing for Connections to the Past
Waldo Ralph Emerson said "Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not." In Bashō's Narrow Road through the Backcountry, exactly this sentiment is realized in the literary capture of North Japan's natural beauties on his journey for poetic enlightenment and motivation. This work is the story of the journey that Bashō began near the end of his life in order to attain inspiration for writing poetry, specifically in haiku-type forms. Bashō's chosen path mirrored that of Saigyō, a well respected monk and poet, which ran through the locations of residence and inspiration of various other notable Japanese poets and writers. The travel tale has long been held in high public regard and is widely known as one of the most iconic pieces of Japanese literature. Bashō had a fascination with nature and a rare bond with his surroundings, but by pursuing the trail first blazed by Japanese poets of old, Saigyō in particular, Bashō hoped to perfect his art and find inspiration by connecting to the locations of those poet's inspiration from long before, and had a much greater impact than one could have predicted.

One of the early encounters with a place formerly associated with a past figure that Bashō describes poetically is the arrival to the Sunlit Mountain, Nikko. Bashō explains that the mountain was named Nikko by Master Kukai, a monk who started a temple on this mountain. Bashō also explains the significance of the mountain's name and tells of how he feels Kukai has in a way predicted and blessed their trip. Observing the mountain exemplifies what Bashō is trying to accomplish on this journey as he quickly scribbles down a self-admittedly simple and quick verse. Though simple, this is exactly what Bashō is looking for: an opportunity to observe what inspired the poets of old, which gives him the motivation to write. The works of Kukai had given him the basis for which to write upon. The haiku reads "yes, how brilliant!/green leaves, young leaves/luminous within" and without Kukai having named the mountain as the Sunlit Mountain, Bashō would have never had the inspiration to write about the luminosity of the scene. Though no direct credit to Kukai or the mountain is mentioned in the poem, there is a direct link to both.

At Unganji, Bashō is inspired to write about the hut of his former Zen meditation teacher, Butcho. A slightly melancholy haiku is written about the vacant, decrepit hut. This is a deep and emotional example of the inspiration that Bashō sought. Evident in his haiku is the sadness from the lost connection to his Zen master alongside the majesty of the place which he is writing about, which combine for a beautiful piece of poetry. By no other force than by physically being at the site of the hut could a poem like that have been composed. Travel not only allows Bashō to connect with the site which he is describing, but also--in a more ethereal way--with his mentors and those who preceded him. Most renown of these predecessor poets is Saigyō, whom Bashō modeled his path after. Along the way, various of Saigyō's poetic inspirations and sites are mentioned and seen by Bashō. Bashō is particularly excited by one of these moving sites; the willow tree. In the eyes of Bashō, Saigyō has been immortalized in this tree and thus, standing in the shadow of the willow's leaves and branches is like standing in the shadow of one of the great muses. This is a particularly rewarding experience for him, as Saigyō is his guide and truest predecessor. This is reflected in the excitement of his writing about the experience of standing in his shadow. Various other times throughout Bashō's text, Saigyō's writings are referenced to help describe scenes about which Saigyō did not specifically write, which speaks to Bashō's keeping of Saigyō's writings and path in his mind throughout his journey. A connection which is undeniably deeper than that with...
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