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Exploring Yamagata the Basho Way

Narrow Road to the Deep North

Matsuo Basho, an Edo Era Japanese haiku poet (1644-1694) undertook a five-month journey, mainly on foot, to the north of Japan.

His account of the journey is published in the travellogue “The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches”.

Despite this famous son of Nippon leading the way in 1690, Yamagata Prefecture does not frequently feature on travel itineraries these days.

Located 300 km north of Tokyo, it still seems as remote to city dwellers today as it was centuries ago.

As the name Yamagata (“mountain-shape”) hints, two-third of the region is covered by mountains. No wonder then that one of Yamagata’s holiest places can be found on top of a mountain.

Yamadera, which literally means “mountain temple”, was established in 860 by Ennin, a monk of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. It was originally just holes carved into the mountainside which were used by the monks as places for meditation and ascetic practices. You can see these holes all over the mountain.

Basho changed his travel route on advice of some locals, literally walking some extra miles to get to Yamadera. At the time it was a dangerous journey to cross the remote mountains and he had to hire a local guide. Nowadays you just hop on to a train from Yamagata City which will take you to the temple complex in about 20min.

Basho reached the Yamadera temple on a late afternoon. Being there at that time of day, one can easily imagine the poet contemplating the quiet scenery before he wrote this masterpiece, which is one of Japan’s best-known haiku:

In the utter silence Of a temple, A cicada’s voice alone Penetrates the rocks.*

His next adventure was sailing down Mogami River, lovingly referred to as “mother river” by the locals. The rapid currents of the river frightened Basho as he sat there in a tiny boat that rushed him down towards the mouth of the river. He promptly penned a haiku to voice his experience:

Gathering all the rains Of May, The River Mogami rushes down In one violent stream.

Over the next week or so he climbed Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono, the Three Mountains of Dewa before he continued his journey to the castle town of Tsuruoka and from there, again by boat, to Sakata, a port city by the Sea of Japan. From there he traveled down the Western coast of Honshu Island passing through what are now the prefectures of Niigata, Toyama and Fukui.

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Justin Velgus 8 years ago
Great article. I agree that Yamagata should be on the wish list for those looking to experience an interesting part of Japan!

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