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.

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