The Japan Society takes me on the Narrow Road to the Deep North

Japan Society Book Club booksTranslations – don’t they drive you up the wall? They’re either accurate or readable but somehow never both. You’re always having to settle for one or the other.

So what’s got me so bothered about them just now?

Well, this week the Japan Society Book Club met at Waterstones in Piccadilly to talk about Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North. The translation they told me to get was Cid Corman’s Backroads to Far Towns.  Hm, I thought. Because I’ve already got the Penguin Classics Noboyuki Yuasa translation of Narrow Road to the Deep North and didn’t much want to buy another one. But I did as I was told.

Narrow Road to the Deep North and Backroads to Far Towns

The Narrow Road to the Deep North was written by Matsuo Basho, Japan’s greatest haiku poet, in 1689.


It’s his account of a journey around northern Japan that took him and his companion, Sora, five months.

Illustration by Yosa Buson

Yosa Buson – Kyoto National Museum

They started at his house in Fukagawa in Edo (present day Tokyo), headed up into Tohoku as far as Sendai and then turned and cut across to the other side of Honshu and came back down through Kanazawa and Fukui to Ogaki.

Illustration by Yosa Buson

Yosa Buson – Kyoto National Museum

It’s a kind of travel journal but it’s very short and interspersed with the haiku he and Sora wrote along the way. It’s a great classic and a tremendous challenge for the translator because it’s so elliptical and allusive.

Illustration by Yosa Buson

Yosa Buson – Kyoto National Museum

Basho wrote the most famous haiku of all (not in this book), which you’ve probably come across:

Old pond – frogs jumped in – sound of water (trans. Lafcadio Hearn)

Frog by Getsuju

Anyway, back to the book club. Armed with my two translations, I went along to meet the rest of the group and find out what they thought.

It turned out that everyone else had turned up with their favourite translation too, including one manga version (well, actually that one wasn’t a translation, it was just in Japanese but interesting all the same).

Two people had brought Donald Keene’s translation, The Narrow Road to Oku, which had the advantage of including the Japanese text and having great colour illustrations as well.

Narrow Road to Oku - book with illustration

We found it really hard to decide between them. Just so you can make your own mind up, here is one of the haiku in all three versions, Backroads first, Penguin Classic second and Donald Keene third:

Ah to have blue flags
On one’s feet in the form of
The straw sandal cords

It looks as if
Iris flowers had bloomed
On my feet –
Sandals laced in blue.

I will bind iris
Blossom round my feet –
Cords for my sandals!

Illustration by Yosa Buson

I’ll finish with a confession. I wasn’t much interested in Basho until I bought myself a yukata (cotton kimono) that was patterned with persimmons and calligraphy, and got curious about what the calligraphy said. There were a few words that were block printed -Basho, Narrow Road and Hototogisu (Japanese cuckoo). That made me realise that my yukata is actually covered with quotes from Basho, Japan’s greatest poet. Isn’t that nice?

Yukata patterned with persimmons

The illustrations I’ve used were drawn by Yosa Buson, published in 1744 after Buson travelled the same route as Basho and Sora.

Illustration by Yosa Buson

PS If you want to know more about the places Basho visited, Lesley Downer has written a book called On the Narrow Road to the Deep North where she follows the same route as Basho did. You can get secondhand copies on Amazon.

On the Narrow Road to the Deep North - Lesley Downer

7 thoughts on “The Japan Society takes me on the Narrow Road to the Deep North

  1. Ahh I know how you feel about translations! The more I learn Japanese, the more I realise how wrong translations can sometimes be when I watch anime and drama. But it’s sometimes also interesting to see how some things will be translated due to cultural differences 🙂


  2. This sounds like an interesting evening. I’m a big fan of Basho, and lovely Lesley Downer’s book, too. If I won the lottery I have always thought I would like to follow basho’s path around Japan, writing haiku as he did. It would be incredible.


  3. Pingback: Dear Dragonfly, Here Is Pepper Pod: Haiku Correspondence

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