Where to start in the whole of Japanese literature? Where better than with a book whose title is a matter of dispute, and which is the work of a haiku master?
奥のほそ道（おくのほそみち） (Oku no Hosomichi) by 松尾芭蕉（まつおばしょう） (Matsuo Bashō) is in the form of a travelogue interspersed with poems written at each place where Bashō and his travelling companion Sora stayed. It starts with the wonderful sentence:
which Donald Keene translates as:
The months and days are the travellers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers.
When I first came across this, I was only beginning to learn Japanese, but I was struck by what an evocative sentence this was, even though it was made up at least partly from simple kanji that even I, as a beginner, could already read – 月 (moon/month), 日 (sun/day), 百 (hundred), 行 (go), 年 (year) and 人 (person) are among the first characters to be taught in most textbooks (with the exception of Heisig – of whom more on another occasion – who starts off with the sun and goes onto crystals and choirs!). Of course, being able to recognise a few kanji and being able to read a text in seventeenth-century Japanese are two quite different things, and a good translation is definitely needed to be able to enjoy it. The version I have is the Kodansha International bilingual edition with English translation by Donald Keene and illustrations by Miyata Masayuki (ISBN 4770020284). For those who are able to read it, there is an online version of the text provided by the University of Virginia here.
So how to translate the title into English? The variants I have come across so far are “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” (probably the best known), “The Narrow Road to Oku” (the Keene translation), “Narrow Road to the Interior”, “The Narrow Road Through the Provinces” and “Back Roads to Far Towns”. The “narrow road” part appears relatively uncontroversial – 細い（ほそい） (hosoi) means ‘narrow’ and 道（みち） (michi) is a road or path – but 奥（おく） (oku) has a range of meanings and nuances that are not easily covered by a single English word. It is translated as ‘interior’ or ‘heart’ (in the sense of the centre of something, rather than the organ) or ‘inner recesses’ (Keene) but the character was also part of the name of the former province of Japan, variously known as 陸奥国（むつのくに） (Mutsu no kuni), 奥州（おうしゅう） (Ōshū) or Michinoku 陸奥（みちのく） or 道奥（みちのく）, to which Bashō travelled, and which corresponds to the modern Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate and Aomori Prefectures and part of Akita Prefecture. This is the part of Japan where I first made my home in 2006 and the part that was, more recently, devastated by the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Apart from large cities such as Sendai, the area is still a somewhat rural part of Japan, and certainly far from the image that many people have of a high-tech world of robots and anime characters. Many of the towns that Bashō visited have a monument to the fact, such as a stone inscribed with one of his haiku, and some have created an entire tourist industry around his visit – notably Matsushima, which is more famous for a poem that Bashō may or may not have composed
aa matsushima ya
than for the one that Sora actually did compose:
tsuru ni mi o kare
Borrow your plumes from the crane
O nightingales (trans: Keene)
possibly because it is difficult to understand at this distance in time what the significance of the cranes and nightingales in Sora’s poem are. (Any haiku experts who can shed some light on this, please do leave a comment!)
After visiting Matsushima and other coastal towns, Bashō went deep into the interior (奥) mountain country, the realm of the ascetic Shugendō sect of Shintō . Those who have lived in Japan will know that the majority of towns and cities are along coastal plains and there are large mountainous areas in the interior part of the country that are very sparsely populated, if anyone lives there at all – some indication of this can be seen on the ‘population’ map on this page. The ‘interior’ is therefore not just the ‘back of beyond’ or ‘inland regions’ but a mysterious place, far from the bustling, worldly life of Edo (modern Tokyo). Perhaps there is even a sense that Bashō is journeying into his own interior.