Out of Japan: Poetic journey to find simple things in life

HIRAIZUMI - 'I bet you don't get blue skies like this in England,' said Toshio Tanaya, not lifting his eyes from his sketchbook. 'The autumn skies in Japan are very special.' And indeed the high pearly blue hanging over the rice fields with misty mountains in the distance was special - even worth painting.

Mr Tanaya is retired now, and travels around Japan sketching and painting watercolours. He used to work for the City Hall in Ibaraki prefecture, north of Tokyo. Last week he had come to Hiraizumi in Iwate, on a tour to visit the Chusonji temple, with gold-plated Buddhist shrine, that is one of Japan's treasures.

He was following in the footsteps of Japan's most famous poet, Matsuo Basho, who in 1689 travelled to Hiraizumi in a six- month odyssey that he later wrote about in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, known today to every schoolchild. It describes, in poetry and prose, his pilgrimage to what was then the 'wild north', accompanied by one disciple and carrying only an extra coat, a bathrobe and writing materials.

Basho was born in 1644 close to Kyoto. He perfected the three- line, seventeen-syllable haiku, the short burst of inspiration and sentiment so beloved of the Japanese. He lived in a world of trees, rocks, wandering Zen monks, cicadas and frogs jumping sonorously into still ponds, taking delight in the simple things in life.

The trip to Hiraizumi now takes about three hours by bullet train from Tokyo. At more than 200mph the train passes rice fields, towns with large neon advertising signs, and the ubiquitous high nets of driving ranges.

Life moved at a slower pace in Basho's day. He left Tokyo - then Edo - in the spring, and did not arrive in Hiraizumi until the summer rains had started in June. He stayed in temples, or in ordinary farmers' houses. Often the price of his stay was a poem or two, dedicated to his hosts.

At one stage in his travels he became so tired of walking that he asked a farmer to lend him his horse. The farmer did so, asking Basho to send it back when the horse reached unfamiliar territory and would not go on. This he did, 'with a small amount of money tied to the saddle'. Times have changed.

A thicket of summer grass

Is all that remains

Of the dreams and ambitions

Of ancient warriors.

So wrote Basho when looking out over the rice fields around Hiraizumi, once the site of a bustling metropolis established in the 12th century by the Fujiwara clan. They prospered from local gold mines until they were defeated in battle in 1189 by a rival clan and faded into history. Even in Basho's day little remained of the glory of the Fujiwara, except the golden shrine in Chusonji temple, a 17ft square single-storey construction full of Buddha statues and entirely plated in gold.

Even the long rain of May

Has left it untouched -

This Gold Chapel

Aglow in the sombre shade.

Today it has been housed behind a protective glass wall - Japan's wooden temples burn down with depressing frequency. Flocks of tourists visit, led by guides with walkie-talkies who co-ordinate the movement of tour buses at the temple entrance.

On the side of the 'moon- viewing slope' that runs between pines and cypress trees up to the temple, a camera company has installed plywood cut-outs of samurai and geisha women with faces cut out for people to pose for snaps. Tour Guide No 10 was giving a brief speech about the area's history, reminding her listeners that this was where Basho had come three centuries ago . . .

Mr Tanaya had left his group to have a few minutes alone to sketch. He asked me to write my name in his book and then to write down my feelings about the view. I attempted something about green fields and the lessons of history, but he quickly recognised the plagiarism from Basho.

We shared a bunch of black grapes, and he leafed through his paintings from other parts of Japan: harbours, temples, mountains and trees. He said he wanted to go to Spain next year because he had heard the light for painting was good. Then he picked out a watercolour of a mountainscape and offered it as a parting present.

Basho ends his journal:

As firmly cemented clam-shells

Fall apart in autumn,

So I must take to the road again,

Farewell, my friends.

A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home