From Tosei to Bashō

By Sandra Simpson


This article, which originally appeared on the Haiku NewZ website, has been pieced together from several sources – my role has simply been to pull it together in one place. I hope to give a feel for the times in which Bashō lived, to humanise him for those of us who view him only on a pedestal.

The Tokugawa Shogunate was established in Edo in 1603, and was the last feudal military government of Japan. During the Shogunate the Emperor remained in Kyoto, the formal capital of Japan. At the fall of the Shogunate in 1867, Edo was renamed Tokyo and the following year, the first of the Meiji Restoration, the city became the nation’s capital and welcomed the Emperor.

The social structure of the Edo Period saw samurai at the top – constantly training throughout this 250-year peace so socially irrelevant and with falling incomes; and merchants at the bottom, banned from taking positions of political power but becoming increasingly wealthy thanks to the immense number of military personnel living in Edo.

The professions required to build and sustain the city were traditionally held by men, such as artisans, merchants, construction workers, carpenters, tailors, surveyors, draftsmen, storekeepers, clerks, tatami makers, scholars, and legislators. As a result, men outnumbered women in Edo by two-to-one. The city’s residential areas were segregated into areas for each of the four classes.

An urban culture developed that stressed an appreciation of nature and artistic cultivation, and women and men of all classes engaged in music, painting, calligraphy, and games of skill. Edo citizens became patrons of art, creating a previously unprecedented artistic pluralism. For the first time, the aristocracy no longer dictated artistic trends and production, despite attempts by the Shogunate to curtail artistic consumption among its subjects. 1

Tosei arrives in Edo
In 1672, a 28-year-old poet using the pen name Tosei (Green Peach) set out from Kyoto for Edo to carve out a career as a professional poet. His first book had been recently published, and about 30 of his verses were in anthologies.

He landed in the bustling Nihonbashi quarter, a haven for haikai poets (in those days this meant those practicing renku). The neighbourhood was named for the famous Nihonbashi bridge and boasted an equally famous wholesale fish market, Uogashi (fish quay). Uogashi fish wholesalers were those Edokko (people born and raised in central Edo) who had economic power and the distinction of having been designated purveyors of fish for the Shogunate. These wholesalers acted as patrons of Edo’s popular culture, while the young men working at the Uogashi represented the dashing and swashbuckling Edokko. 2


True View of Nihonbashi Bridge, together with a Complete View of the Fish Market, from the series ‘Famous Places in the Eastern Capital’ by Utugawa Hiroshige. Image: Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Nihonbashi was part of the commercial centre of Edo – the 51m-long Nihonbashi Bridge being the start/end point of the great Tokaido highway to Kyoto, and the bulk of the city’s people and commodities moved by water. The bridge, which has had many iterations (it burned many times), still exists, although today is dwarfed and almost hidden by an elevated highway. Mileage throughout Japan was measured from a marker in the middle of the bridge, and it was where news and proclamations were posted – and major criminals  punished.

In the early 1700s, reasonable estimates showed a population concentration in Kanda and Nihonbashi of nearly 70,000 people per square mile compared with a mere 15,000 per square mile in the samurai districts, and 22,000-odd people in the most crowded districts today. Little wonder that a fire in 1657 killed more than 100,000 people. 3

nagamuru ya   Edo ni wa marena   yama no tsuki

viewing a mountain moon
rarely is it seen so clear
in dirty old Edo

Bashō, tr Jane Reichhold

Tosei lived in the residence of Sugiyama Kensui, a haiku poet known as Ozawa Senpu, and a carp wholesaler using the business name Koiya. Kensui’s eldest son, Sanpu (1647-1732), is considered Basho’s greatest benefactor and came to be known as one of the master’s 10 most prominent students. Among his students, Basho trusted Sanpu most for his coherent and sound style, unaffected by trends, as well as for his personality. 4

persistently I stare
at the moon
still I cannot hear


Sanpu suffered severe hearing loss and it’s said that Basho was very upset with Takarai Kikaku (1661-1707) for teasing Sanpu that he would never keep up with the world because of his disability. 5

Kikaku was among the most accomplished disciples of Bashō and his poetry is known for its wit and its difficulty. Whereas Bashō, especially in his later years, focused on the countryside and espoused an aesthetic of simplicity, Kikaku preferred the city and the opportunities it provided for extravagant play. He also preferred a more demanding form of poetry, one laced with wordplay, allusions, and juxtapositions of images that defy easy explanation. At the time of his death, he was perhaps the leading poet in Edo, which had a population of about one million, making it perhaps the largest city in the world at the time. 6

into the soup pot
rain drops from a bamboo hat…
harvesting rice seedlings

Takarai Kikaku, tr Joshua Gage

Kikaku, who wrote of coarser subjects than Bashō, set the tone for haikai from Bashō’s death until the time of Yosa Buson in the late 18th century. 7 He also wrote An Account of our Master Bashō’s Last Days.

By 1675 Tosei was gaining recognition in Edo through haikai gatherings and anthologies and had begun to attract students. In the spring of 1677 he held a 1000-verse gathering and acted as judge and teacher – in other words, a professional. 8 Also in 1677 he joined about 60 other poets in a colossal, sponsored poetry contest – Hokku Contest in 600 Rounds! – with well-known haikai masters serving as judges. Tosei won nine matches, lost five and tied six, placing him among the established masters, like Yuzan, with whom he studied. 9

Tosei’s next step was to become a fulltime tenja (marker), a licensed haikai poet to whom work could be submitted for review and marking with judgements of excellence. Most of his students were amateurs but a number were becoming disciples and in the summer came the collection, Best Poems of Tosei’s Twenty Disciples.

Much Seasoning
Besides Buddhist and Shinto festivals and observances, the citizens of Edo – and particularly the Edokko – from all walks of life were connected deeply with nature and marked various seasonal events throughout the year with outings and special foods.

furi uri no   gan awarenari   Ebisu ko

a peddler’s
wild ducks are pitiful
good fortune festival

Bashō, tr Jane Reichhold (the festival of Ebisu is on November 20)

In the spring, it was off to see blossoms and listen to nightingales; in summer firefly viewing and fireworks; moon-viewing and strolling amid coloured leaves in autumn, and in winter admiring snowy scenes. People also enjoyed boating for leisure along the rivers and on the sea harbour and attending markets.

hotaru mi ya    sendo youte   obotsukana

firefly viewing –  
the boatman is drunk,
the boat unsteady

Bashō, tr David Landis Barnhill

A Move to the Countryside
But poetry alone couldn’t keep the wolf from the door and for 4 years from 1677, Tosei was employed by the waterworks company, supervising the maintenance of a 5km canal carrying drinking water from the Kanda River to Edo. Apparently he liked working in the farming countryside of Sekiguchi, enjoying views of rice paddies brimming with water from the Kanda. When this job wrapped up he moved even further from the central city, to the rural east bank of the Sumida River, and gave up his practice as a marker. 10

basho cottage brookyln

Bashō’s hut on Camellia Hill beside the Canal at Sekiguchi by Utagawa Hiroshige from his series ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’. The original Basho home (far right) was lost to fire with the current structure built after World War 2. Image: Wikipedia

At this time Fukagawa was a sparsely populated piece of reclaimed delta land beyond the boundary of Edo – and there was no bridge linking the area to the city, although ferry and freight boats plied the busy waterway during daylight. Early in the morning and in the evening silence prevailed and Tosei could hear the gongs of temple bells ringing in Ueno and Asakusa, 4km away. Nearby was a Zen temple, Rinsen-ji, where Tosei practiced meditation with the monk Butcho. 11

hana no kumo   kane wa Ueno ka   Asakusa ka

clouds of blossoms – 
that temple bell, is it Ueno?

Bashō, tr Robert Hass

Jane Reichhold in Basho, the Complete Haiku relates that the area was “exposed to the constant attack of sea wind from Tokyo Bay, as well as the danger of tidal waves from the ocean … Because the area had no safe water supply, water was delivered by boat. It was a rough and wild place for a poet to live.”

Ironically, as we’ll see shortly, the land at Fukagawa had been reclaimed by using burnt earth from the great fire of 1657 when almost two-thirds of the city, including the castle’s gold stock, was destroyed. Started by flying embers at a temple, the two days of fire and the following snow and cold weather killed 108,000 people (out of a population of 300,000). The re-born city looked somewhat different as officials demanded wider streets, firebreaks, and the use of plaster as a fire-proofing method. The new Ryogoku bridge allowed development of the east bank of the Sumida River, including Fukagawa which immediately became home to the city’s (flammable) timberyards. 12

Although many scholars find it difficult to explain why Tosei moved to this isolated area, other than he was fed up with life in the city and seeking a simpler existence, Steven D Carter sees the move as denoting a new seriousness of purpose – the kind of seriousness displayed in this hokku composed in 1680. 13

kareeda ni    karasu no tomarikeri    aki no kure

on a withered branch
          a crow has settled—
                        autumn evening

Bashō, tr David Landis Barnhill

Tosei still had his scholars (and so some income from poetry) and continued to compose renku. Over the years he lived in three different cottages in Fukugawa, one a remodelled place that had previously been the caretaker’s lodge at Koiya’s carp farm. 14

He wrote: I live alone in a dilapidated hut by the river. I sit and admire the view of distant Fuji and of passing boats. In the morning I watch boats sail out of the harbour. At night I sit in the moonlight, listening to the wind in the reeds and lamenting the emptiness of my cask. Even in bed I lament — the thinness of my blankets! 15

The Birth of Basho
In 1681 Rika, one of Tosei’s pupils, gave him a banana tree (bashō in Japanese) and he planted this rarity from southern China beside his cottage. Visitors started to call the cottage ‘Bashō-an’ and the poet adopted Bashō as his new pen name. This was, Reichhold says, apparently the first haiku he wrote using his new pen name:

basho ue te    mazu nikumu ogi no    futaba kana

planting a banana tree
more than ever I hate
sprouting reeds

Bashō, tr Jane Reichhold

By way of explanation, Reichhold says that because Bashō lived in a marshy area where two rivers joined, it was possible that many reeds grew around his home. Reeds have thick, deep and connected root systems that would compete with those of the banana tree. She also notes that reeds were a classical topic for court poetry and that Bashō was ‘competing’ by trying to establish a new mode of poetry. 16

The first book to contain his new pen-name was Eastern Trends (1681), intended for readers in Kyoto, about the poetry scene in Edo. The collection managed to feature Bashō and his disciples so prominently, one would have thought they dominated Edo poetry. 17

aki totose   kaette Edo o   sasu kokyo

ten autumns
Edo has become
my hometown

Bashō, tr Jane Reichhold

Bashō’s fame spread so that even in the boondocks of Fukagawa he was able to give lessons by correspondence, with a letter dated June 20, 1682 the oldest evidence of his teachings. But, Reichhold says, “acquiring a house and a growing circle of renga students only increased Basho’s unhappiness with himself and his writing”.

On December 28, 1682 his cottage – and again much of Edo – was destroyed by fire, a common occurrence in a land of wooden and paper buildings, open fires for cooking, braziers for heating, and dry winter winds. In fact, fires were so common in Edo that its inhabitants had a saying: ‘Fires and quarrels are the flowers of Edo.’ Bashō’s disciple Takarai Kikaku describes the event:

His grassy cottage was engulfed by a sudden fire, and he had to save his life by wading through the river water, holding a rush mat over his head, and running though the smoke. This was the beginning of his hard life… He gave up the idea of settling down in one place, and went to a mountain village in the province of Kai. However, he found the view of Mt. Fuji too cold and aloof. So he returned to his old place … His followers were glad to see him back and built for him a cottage in the old place, planting a stock of bashō tree to comfort his eyes. He continued to live a secluded life and wrote the following poem on a rainy night.18

basho nowake shite   tarai ni ame o   kiku yo kana

storm-torn banana tree
all night I listen to rain
in a basin

Bashō, tr Jane Reichhold

His students, and old friend Sanpu, rally round and not only build a new cottage but furnish it and provide Bashō with clothes and food. But the year is one of mostly downs – despite the publication of the first major anthology of his school (Minashiguri, Shrivelled Chestnuts) – this is also the year his mother dies.

On the Road
Depressed, Bashō gives up his new cottage in 1684 and embarks on the first of his several journeys that result in published collections of poetry and haibun, in this case Journal of Bleached Bones in a Field (Nozarashi kiko). He finds that as he travels his mood lightens and he begins to enjoy both the walking and his encounters and experiences. This first journey prompts several others of varying length.


Bashō meets two farmers celebrating the mid-autumn Moon Festival in a print from Yoshitoshi’s series ‘Hundred Aspects of the Moon’. The haiku reads: Since the crescent moon, I have been waiting for tonight. Image: Wikipedia

“Haibun in the broad sense existed before Bashō in the form of prefaces, headnotes to hokku, and short essays written by haikai masters,” Hanuo Shirane writes. “Bashō’s new notion of haibun, by contrast, is characterised by the prominent inclusion of haikai words,  particularly vernacular Japanese and Chinese words.” Bashō wrote haikai prose throughout his literary career, but it was not until about 1690, after his journey north, that he strove to develop prose with a haikai spirit as a new literary genre and that he began to use the word ‘haibun’. 19

Travelling in Japan in the 17th century was fraught with danger – bandits, illness and disease, and potentially a lack of food and shelter. To try and put rogues off, Bashō dressed as a monk to appear poorer than he was, and walked most of the way. To repay hospitality, or to earn along the way, he would act as guest of honour at a renga (linked verse) writing party, something he seemed to enjoy.

A Pond and a Frog
Settled back at Fukugawa, in early 1686 he composed one of his best-known haiku:

furuike ya   kawazu tobikomu   mizu no oto

old pond –
a frog jumps in
the sound of water


By April (spring) the poets of Edo gathered at the Bashō Hut for a haikai no renga contest on the subject of frogs that seems to have been a tribute to Bashō’s hokku, which was placed at the top of the compilation. 20 The debate continues as to whether there was one frog or several (Japanese is unclear on singular and plural) and whether the pond and the frog(s) were in the same place.


Portrait of Matuso Bashō by Yokoi Kinkoku c 1820. The calligraphy is his ‘old pond’ haiku. Image: Wikipedia

Linking the Koiya ownership of the cottage to this haiku, Susumu Takiguchi says, “It is known that there was an ikesu (a special pond or pool where many fish are kept before being sold) near his hut. There is a possibility according to a theory that this ikesu was no longer used and had effectively become an ‘old pond’.” 21

Dogged by Illness
Bashō suffered from recurring stomach problems – Reichhold characterises it as colitis, while Makoto Ueda describes Bashō as having a delicate constitution and suffering from several chronic diseases. 22  Jeff Robbins writes that Basho had likely had bowel issues at least from his twenties, giving as evidence a pair of haiku seemingly written before Tosei moved to Edo. “When someone writes poetry about going to an outdoor toilet (setchin, literally ‘hidden in snow’) at midnight with bowel disease, we can say he truly is a poet of human experience.” 23

But when all has been said, I’m not really the kind who is so completely enamoured of solitude that he must hide every trace of himself away in the mountains and wilds. It’s just that, troubled by frequent illness and weary of dealing with people, I’ve come to dislike society. Again and again I think of the mistakes I’ve made in my clumsiness over the course of the years. There was a time when I envied those who had government offices or impressive domains, and on another occasion I considered entering the precincts of the Buddha and the teaching rooms of the patriarchs. Instead, I’ve worn out my body in journeys that are as aimless as the winds and clouds, and expended my feelings on flowers and birds. But somehow I’ve been able to make a living this way, and so in the end, unskilled and talentless as I am, I give myself wholly to this one concern, poetry. Bo Juyi worked so hard at it that he almost ruined his five vital organs, and Du Fu grew lean and emaciated because of it. As far as intelligence or the quality of our writings go, I can never compare to such men. And yet we all in the end live, do we not, in a phantom dwelling? But enough of that – I’m off to bed.

Bashō, from The Hut of the Phantom Dwelling, 1690

basho-anatomy woodblock

Internal Bodily Functions Dramatised by Popular Kabuki Actors is a woodblock print from the late 19th century. Image: UC San Francisco, Special Collections

On February 16, 1691, Bashō sends a letter to his female friend and fellow haiku poet Kawai Chigetsu (1634-1718): “My sick bowels for 53 days now have felt fine and this spring I will take care of my health and become fierce as a demon.” 24

kusuri nomu   sarademo shimo no   makura kana

taking medicine
it is as bad as having
frost on the pillow

Bashō, tr Jane Reichhold

Bashō would have had access to good medical care – supposing that anything could be done to alleviate his symptoms – and knew physicians through his network of contacts.

While local variants of Chinese medicine dominated Japanese medical practice in the 17th century, Western medicine made significant inroads, thanks to the Dutch traders and Portuguese priests confined to Nagasaki (despite the Portuguese being expelled and a ban on reading European literature).

hari tate ya   kata ni tscuhi utsu   kara koromo

hammering into the shoulder
without clothes

Bashō, tr Jane Reichhold

The Dutch were required to send an annual delegation to meet the Shogun in Edo but in 1650, due to the serious illness of the Shogun Ietsuna Tokugawa, the delegation was forced to wait in the city for several months. The long wait and a foreign surgeon – German Caspar Schamberger – unemployed at the delegation’s inn saw some high-level officials suffering from diseases of old age invite Schamberger to their residences. Successful treatments brought more patients of rank and name, giving social credibility to the medical practices of the redheads (as the Dutch were called). Schamberger was asked to stay in Edo for another 6 months, sparking a lasting interest in Western medical treatment and giving birth to kasuparu-ryū geka (Caspar-style surgery). 25

In the second half of the 17th century, Dutch translations of French literature on surgery were donated to Edo University and translated into Japanese. With the help of these works, the study of surgery developed and several surgical schools were established. 26

yakuran ni izure no hana o kusamakura

from your medicine garden
which flower should I take
to stuff in my pillow?

Bashō, tr Gabi Greve

Although Bashō was only 50 when he died, young by today’s standards, he was right on the button for the average life expectancy during the Edo period. From 1868 to 1926,  average life expectancy actually dropped (43 for both men and women), partly thanks to diseases such as cholera and smallpox which arrived after Japan was forced to re-open its ports in 1858. 27

Goodbye to All That, Maybe
Bashō set out for the deep north on March 27, 1689 (resulting in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Oku no hosomichi). He travelled up the Sumida River to Senju, where he took his leave from those who had accompanied him on the first part of the journey, including his long-time friend Sanpu (now owner of the Koiya fish wholesale business), who had supported him for so many years and who, it’s said, tried to prevent Basho from travelling north out of concern for the chill in the early spring air. 28

basho by Myoriku

Matsuo Bashō and Kawai Sora on Pilgrimage by Morikawa Kyoriku, 1693. The bag would have contained at least a lantern, purse, compass, lunchbox and foldable pillow.

Bashō returned at the end of 1691 to live again in Nihonbashi, while another cottage was built for him at Fukugawa. In his introduction to The Essential Haiku (ecco, 1994), Robert Hass notes that by this time Bashō was considering giving up poetry, “but confessed that he couldn’t do it”.

“Though Edo literary life disgusted and seems to have exhausted him, Bashō was a beloved teacher and was gradually drawn back into that life. He moved into another, his third, Bashō Hut [at Fukagawa], where his students and friends transplanted the banana tree.” Bashō wrote to a friend complaining, “Everywhere in this city I see people writing poetry to try to win prizes or notoriety. Anything I might say to them would no doubt end in harsh words so I pretend to not see or hear them”. 29

uguisu ya mochi ni fun suru en no saki

bush warbler:
shits on the rice cakes
on the porch rail

Bashō, tr Robert Hass

(Hidenori Hiruta says about this poem composed in 1692 that it was the first time the word ‘shit’ had been used in tanka or haiku!)

Around the Home
For the third time Bashō’s disciples build a cottage at Fukagawa and he moved in May, 1692, the same year he also produced an essay on transplanting banana trees.

One year I decided to take a journey on foot to Michinoku, and since the Bashō-an was already about to fall apart, I moved the banana next to the brush fence and gave instructions over and over to the people in that neighbourhood to cover it whenever there was frost and to enclose it whenever there was wind.

In the fugitive pastime of the brush I left writings about it. When I slept on my journey far away, concerns welled up in my breast that the plant had been left alone.

Separated from many companions and longing for the banana plant, in extreme loneliness I passed the springs and summers of three years, until at last I shed tears once again upon the banana plant.

This year in the middle of the fifth month, when the fragrance of the mandarin orange blossoms was not far off, the promises of my friends also had not changed from of old. I could not part from this neighbourhood. Quite close to my old hut they built a suitable thatched hut 18 feet square. The cedar pillars are cleanly planed, the door woven of bamboo twigs is pleasing, the reed fence is built thick. It faces the south looking out on the pond, and to me it is a water pavilion. The site faces Fuji; the brush gate standing aslant enhances the view. The tide of Che-chiang river brims full in the stills of the Three Forks of the Sumida River; and as this is a fine aid for viewing the moon, from the new moon on I detest clouds and deplore rain.

To enhance the prospect during the autumn full moon, first of all I transplant the banana plants. Their leaves are broad, adequate to cover a lute. Sometimes they are blown and broken in the middle, and I lament this damage to the phoenix tails; and when the green fans are torn, I deplore the wind. Occasionally a flower blooms but it is not florid. Their trunks are thick, but they are not struck by the axe. They are in a class with that category of mountain trees which are not of useful quality, and this characteristic of theirs is fine. 30

having planted a banana tree, 
I’m a little contemptuous
of the bush clover

Bashō, tr Robert Hass

Before 1693, Bashō used either river ferries or the Ohashi (Great Bridge) at Ryogoku, a beautifully arched bridge that appears on many ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), to access Edo. But in September 1693 construction began on another bridge, Shin-Ohashi (New Great Bridge), almost next to Bashō’s cottage. The new 200m-long bridge made trips to and from Edo much easier for Bashō and his disciples. 31

mina idete   hashi o itadaku   shimoji kana

how grateful I feel
as I step crisply over
the frost on the bridge

Bashō, tr Insight Guide Japan

basho shin ohashi bridge

View of Tokyo’s Shin-Ohashi Bridge in Rain by Kobayashi Kiyochika, 1876. Image: Arthur M Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Earlier in 1693 Bashō had opened his home to his nephew Toin, dying of tuberculosis, and borrowed money to pay for his care. He was also likely caring for a woman, Jutei (Hass describes her as a Buddhist nun; Reichhold as a next-door neighbour with whom Bashō may have had a relationship; Sam Hamill says she’s possibly Toin’s wife), and her three children (Reichhold says ‘several’). One of her sons moves in with Bashō to help care for Toin, who dies at Bashō-an in the spring of 1693.

Bashō fell into a deep depression after Toin’s death and complained of “too much useless chatter” among his guests, but was forced to participate in haiku gatherings to pay his bills. Unwell through the summer, he closed and locked his gate in August, refusing to see anyone for 2 months. 32

asagao ya  hiru wa jō orosu  mon no kaki

morning glories — 
locked during daytime, 
my fence gate

Bashō, tr David Landis Barnhill

A letter written in 1693 is bleak. “When people visit there is futile talk. When I go out, I feel I’m interfering in the lives of others. I must now emulate the Chinese sages who hid themselves away. Friendlessness will be my companion.” 33 But at some point during this year he developed his philosophy of karumi (lightness) and at one of his last meetings with the Edo group explained it as “[a style] that gives the impression of looking at a shallow river with a sandy bed”. 34

shiba no to ni    cha o konoha kaku    arashi kana

into my gate of brushwood sticks
the wind sweeps
tea leaves


In early June 1694 Bashō journeyed with Jutei’s youngest son to Ueno and Kyoto, with Jutei moving into Bashō-an. She died there in midsummer, and he died in the Osaka area at the end of November after spending time with his family the previous month.

End notes
The bashō tree, or its descendants, at Fukagawa apparently survived until the early Meiji-period (1868-1912), although the cottage had disappeared (one report says it survived until the late 19th century, the site forming part of a samurai mansion). The local council has honoured the poet by establishing a Bashō museum at Fukagawa and, fittingly, a banana tree has been planted against the building. 35

As Bashō moved about three times within Fukagawa, and the whole area underwent drastic changes in land ownership in modern times, the exact locations of all the Bashō-related sites were forgotten and became difficult to determine. However, a clue may have been found in 1917 after a tsunami hit the area and unearthed a stone frog. As it is known that Bashō liked these creatures and had been given just such an object, a small shrine (Bashō Inari) was built on the spot where the stone frog was found. Today’s shrine and frog are both replicas after World War 2 bombing destroyed the originals. 36

Footnotes, all websites accessed April 2019

1: Edo Period (1615–1868) Culture and Lifestyle in Japan.

2: The History of Nihonbashi Uogashi (wholesale fish market), Part 4: The Vanishing Uogashi by Issei Tomioka.

3: Nakasendo Way.

4: The History of Nihonbashi Uogashi.

5: Ibid.

6: Takarai Kikaku, Wikipedia entry.

7: Haiku by Kikaku.

8: On a Bare Branch: Bashō and the Haikai Profession by Steven D. Carter  (American Oriental Society, Vol 117:1, 1997).

9: Basho, the Complete Haiku by Jane Reichhold (Kodansha, 2008).

10: Where ‘Green Peach’ Blossomed, The Japan Times, June 20, 2002.

11: Walking the Path of a Legendary Poet, The Japan Times, July 1, 2005.

12: Tokyo: A Biography by Stephen Mansfield (Tuttle, 2016).

13: On a Bare Branch: Bashō and the Haikai Profession.

14: The History of Nihonbashi Uogashi.

15: Japan in a Nutshell by Professor Solomon

16: Basho, the Complete Haiku.

17: Ibid.

18: An Account of our Master Basho’s Last Days by Takarai Kikaku, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa (Simply Haiku Vol 4:3, 2006)

19: Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900, edited by Haruo Shirane (Columbia University Press, 2008).

20: Matsuo Basho, New World Encyclopedia entry.

21: A Contrarian View on Basho’s Frog Haiku by Susumu Takiguchi (NZPS).

22: The Master Haiku Poet Matsuo Basho by Makoto Ueda (Twayne Publishers, 1970).

23: Basho, Linked Verse of Kyoto by Jeff Robbins, 2016.

24: Basho in Zeze by Jeff Robbins, 2016.

25: Western Medicine and Pharmaceutics in 17th Century Japan by Wolfgang Michel, Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on the History of Science in East Asia (Shanghai Jiao Tong University Press, 2005).

26: Medicine in Edo Japan, a thesis by Frandra Hiwat, Leiden University, The Netherlands, 2016.

27: Edo Tokyo Museum Permanent Exhibition Catalogue (2017).

28: The History of Nihonbashi Uogashi.

29: Narrow Road to the Interior, translated by Sam Hamill (Shambhala Classics, 1991).

30: Basho – the Man and the Plant by Donald H Shively (Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol 16: 1-2, 1953).

31: Basho’s Haiku along the Sumida River, Ad Blankestijn blog.

32: Narrow Road to the Interior (Hamill).

33: Classic Haiku, introduction by Tom Lowenstein (Shelter Harbor Press, 2016).

34: Basho, the Complete Haiku.

35: Basho’s Haiku along the Sumida River.

36: Finding Basho in Tokyo.


Steamy haiku

I was noodling round the internet yesterday looking for suitable illustrations for another project when I came across this lovely vintage tourism poster.

Issued by the NZ Railways publicity branch in about 1932. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library.

‘Taking the waters’ in Rotorua has been popular since the 19th century and in the early 20th century many of my extended family, yes travelling by train, would stay for a week or so and bathe to help relieve the pain of arthritis (a condition which fortunately seems to have petered out in more recent generations).

day spa
paying a stranger
to touch me

Marianne Paul, Wishbone Moon (Jacar Press, 2018)

The iconic Tudor-style Bath House opened as a treatment centre in 1908 and closed in 1966. At its height the spa gave 60,000 to 80,000 baths annually and about 30,000 special treatments. In 1969 part of the building opened as Rotorua Museum, which gradually took over all the space. The building was closed in 2016 due to a need for earthquake strengthening and is due to reopen in 2021.

bath house2 - Copy

The Bath House pictured during the 2016 Tulip Festival, before the ‘keep out fences’ went up. Photo: Sandra Simpson

I was in Rotorua only a fortnight ago, soaking at the Polynesian Spa and in a hot tub on the deck of my hotel room. It was a fine, but cold weekend (scraping ice off the car windscreen on Sunday morning) which made the hot pools even more of a treat – and even then we didn’t feel the need for the hottest of the lakeside pools (42°C), Priest’s Pool, named for a Catholic priest from Tauranga who was carried to Rotorua by Maori to soak in this spring. It so relieved his arthritis he was able to walk back to Tauranga (about 64km).

hotpools –
my breasts weightless
in your hands

Joanna Preston, the taste of nashi (Windrift, 2008)

Water from the Rachel Spring (a natural antiseptic due to its sodium silica content) is piped from the surface beside the historic Blue Baths in Government Gardens to the Polynesian Spa and used in several pools. We went to look at the art deco Blue Baths but they were shut with the attendant saying they were having trouble with the naturally heated water (it’s not mineral water here) – the pool should have been about 30°C, but was achieving only 15°C! And no one could figure out why.

The Blue Baths feature on this booklet cover by Leonard Cornwall Mitchell and issued by the NZ Tourist and Publicity Department in about 1937. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library

We were fascinated by the sign at the Rachel Spring: “Water from this boiling cauldron is alkaline and reaches 212°F [100°C]… Whangapipiro was renamed Rachel Pool after Madame Rachel, a notorious English cosmetician who promised youthful complexions because of the softening effect of silica water on the skin.”

Madame Rachel (I’ve since found out) was Sarah Rachel Russell (Levison), born in about 1814 to a Jewish theatrical family and dying in 1880. Madame Rachel operated a prominent London beauty salon at 47a New Bond Street from which she sold “fabulous preparations”, such as “magnetic rock water dew from the Sahara Desert”. She personally guaranteed her clientele everlasting youth if they used these products – which were, of course, made from quite ordinary things. She later became well known for blackmailing many of London’s upper class wives and was jailed for 10 years. Her date of birth is unsure because, unlike many women, she claimed to be older than she was, thus demonstrating the efficacy of her products!

New Year’s eve bath –
I fail to become
a swan

Fay Aoyagi, Chrysanthemum Love (Blue Willow Press, 2003)

Madame Rachel was the subject of a 2010 biography by Helen Rappaport, Beautiful for Ever. Read a review here. “This barely literate woman went from frying fish near Covent Garden to setting up shop in Mayfair and acquiring a country house at Blackheath.” Why is there no movie?


Praise for ‘number eight wire’

A review – the first! – of number eight wire has this week been posted to the Australia Haiku Society website. Written by Vanessa Proctor, a former resident in New Zealand, the review describes the fourth New Zealand haiku anthology as “delightful” and “beautifully produced”.

“This reviewer read through the anthology and then immediately turned back to the beginning to read it again, such is the quality of the work.”

Read the full review here.

Update, July 15: A short review has also appeared in Frogpond 42.2, the journal of the American Haiku Society. Read it here (opens as a pdf, scroll down to the second item). The reviewer calls it “this fine collection”.

Another short review in Modern Haiku 50.2, which includes “impressive”. Read it here (opens as a pdf, go to page 138)

Ordering details here.

New publications

The first issue of haiku journal Leaf-fall arrived in my letterbox recently, a gift from editor Akira Yagami who invited five poets to submit to the inaugural issue – Eva Limbach, John McManus, Alan Summers, Lucy Whitehead and myself.

after the scan
a dollhouse with
no one inside

Lucy Whitehead, Leaf-fall 1.1

This is from Lucy’s bio at Tinywords: Lucy Whitehead has a BA (hons) in Archaeology and Anthropology and an MA in the History of Art and Archaeology (of Asia). She has worked as an archaeologist and academic editor. She started writing haiku in 2018. Lucy lives in Essex in the UK.

star-spattered sky
the loneliness
we share

Eva Limbach, Leaf-fall 1.1

Eva writes in both English and her native German.You can read more of her work at her blog, Mare Tranquillitatis (Sea of Tranquility). She lives in Saarbrücken, a German town near the French border and has been writing haiku since 2012.

Both the male poets are from England. Read more about John McManus. Alan Summers is a busy haiku bee who writes, teaches and supports various haiku institutions. His website is here.

And me? Well, you know me already!

first cold morning
the unlined face
of my oldest doll

Sandra Simpson

Akira Yagami has sent submission and subscription details for Leaf-fall, which is a print-only journal: April 15-May 15 (estimated publication date in early June); October 15-November 15 (estimated publication date in early December). Annual subscriptions are available: £10 outside UK (postage included) for two issues, beginning with 1.2. All payments via PayPal to akirayagami (at) gmx (dot) com

Cover artwork is also being sought for issue 1.2. All kinds of art considered, but please send only jpeg files to the above email address with the subject line ‘art cover submission’.

The next publication to arrive was NOON: An anthology of short poems (Isobar Press), a collection from the journal of the same name, covering the period 2004 to 2017. From 2004 to 2009 NOON was a print-only journal, before migrating to the web in 2014. ‘Short poem’, by the way, is anything up to 14 lines, so yes, haiku, but other types of work as well.

In his Introduction, editor (of both the anthology and the journal) Philip Rowland says, that, even online, having one poem per page means “each poem [has] the space to ‘breathe’; [but] the poem must also, so to speak, warrant the page”.

In this way the journal’s format has helped open the question: how much can these poems of very few words do, individually and collectively? The challenge is one
of concision – but also connection, for each issue is meant to form a sequence of poems, short enough to be read at a single sitting.

Likewise, the arrangement of poems in this anthology has been a crucial consideration: they have been carefully juxtaposed throughout. Thus it is not simply a ‘best-of’ collection, but rather a new configuration of selected poems – a retrospective special issue, effectively. Given the scarcity of the print issues and the ‘virtual’ form of the later ones, the general aim has been to provide a representative sample of poems from the journal in a more readily available book, offering, it is hoped, a distinctive and wide-ranging selection of contemporary short poetry.

The result, Philip says, is a “renga-like chain of over two hundred poems by almost half as many poets”.

The NOON Anthology isn’t without its challenges for a conservative writer like me, but there’s plenty here for even the moderately adventurous reader – including humour.

art school
the urinal

Helen Buckingham

Read about Marcel Duchamp’s ‘artwork’ Fountain. The Lee Gurga piece below sounds like a snippet from a Billy Collins poem (a compliment, by the way).

mother’s burial dress


Lee Gurga

November wind
the garden reverts
to Latin

Rick Tarquinio

end of the month –
the clatter of a knife
in an empty jar

Sandra Simpson

A review of this anthology is in the pipeline and will be posted here on breath when the author has completed it.

Haiku fellowship

One of the things I like most about the haiku community is the sense of fellowship among writers – we’re all pursuing perfection in an artform that to outsiders looks ‘easy’ – so getting together with fellow haikuists (who understand the pain of creating a poem in only a few words) is always a pleasure.

I’m rather tardy in posting this, but poets from either side of the Kaimai Range met for a misty, but enjoyable, walk round a park in Matamata in May, followed by lunch and then a round robin reading/discussion session in a nearby cafe.

From left: Shirley May (Tauranga), Mac Miller (Hamilton), Sandra Simpson, Harry Frentz (both Tauranga) and Barry Smith (Hamilton). Still to come were Jenny Fraser (Mt Maunganui) and Deryn Pittar (Papamoa). Photo: Keith Frentz

We hope it will be the first of many such get-togethers – an idea sparked during the launch of number eight wire in Tauranga in March – to deepen the connection between two clusters of poets who as the crow flies don’t live very far apart (drat that mountain pass) but who number among them many excellent writers.

The cafe wall motto seemed appropriate, clockwise from left, Barry Smith, Sandra Simpson, Keith Frentz, Harry Frentz, Shirley May, Mac Miller and Deryn Pittar. Photo: Jenny Fraser

It was a pleasure to re-establish my acquaintance with Barry Smith – I used to run into him at poetry weekend get-togethers in the 1990s – and to meet Mac Miller, someone I’d only known by email until then but whose work I like.

See you all again (and many others from our respective areas, it’s to be hoped) soon!

One thing + another thing 2

Hiroshige’s most popular prints were produced in the tens of thousands and, after the opening of Japan post-1853, were also popular in Europe where they had a huge influence on Impressionist artists.

The ‘One Hundred Views of Edo’ [Tokyo] series was produced between 1856 and 1859, with Hiroshige II finishing it after the death of his father in 1858. The print below is the 30th in the series.

The Brooklyn Museum website says the image is of the most famous tree in Edo, the celebrated ‘Sleeping Dragon Plum’ of Kameido.  Known for the purity of its double blossoms, which, according to one guidebook, were ‘so white when full in bloom as to drive off the darkness’, the flowers’ powerful fragrance were reputed to have lured in the 18th century the shogun Yoshimune as he passed nearby.

“The unusual pattern of the tree’s growth is seen by the low branches entering the soil and re-emerging at a distance to create new trunks, thus, the tree was constantly rejuvenated and had spread over an area of some 50 feet square [4.6 square metres]. The image of the ‘sleeping dragon’ came from the way the branches looped across the ground. It was surrounded by a low fence to keep people from pressing too near.”

The tree survived until 1910, when it was killed by a flood.

Wikpedia’s entry for this image notes: “The series was commissioned shortly after the 1855 Edo earthquake and subsequent fires, and featured many of the newly rebuilt or repaired buildings. The prints may have commemorated or helped draw the attention of Edo’s citizens to the progress of the rebuilding. The series is in portrait orientation, which was a break from ukiyo-e tradition, and proved popular with his audience.”

futamoto no ume ni chisoku o aisu kana

two ume trees in my garden
bloom at a different time;
how dear the difference!

Yosa Buson, tr Shoji Kumano

Ume is the Japanese word for both plum tree and the fruit it bears.

hiroshige plum blossom

Plum Park in Kameido, an 1857 woodblock print by Hiroshige, part of his series, ‘One Hundred Views of Edo’. Image: Wikipedia

One of the painters upon whom this print had a profound effect was Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh who made this oil painting which is more a copy than an ‘inspired by’ homage.

plum-van gogh

Japonaiserie Flowering Plum Tree, painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1887. Image: Wikipedia

The van Gogh Gallery website notes: “When van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886 he was introduced to Impressionism and also explored Japonisme. Van Gogh admired the bold designs, intense colors, and flat areas of pure colour and also appreciated the elegant and simple lines. Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, ran an art gallery in Montmartre where Vincent was brought into contact with ukiyo-e [woodblock prints], and his apartment was next to the Bing Gallery where owner Samuel Bing had thousands of Japanese prints for sale. Van Gogh spent a great deal of time in the gallery admiring and studying the characteristics of Japonaiserie and became a collector of ukiyo-e.

“The influence of Japonaiserie and specifically Japanese prints is still evident in van Gogh’s later works reflecting the Japanese culture and tradition with his strong outlines; the use of black contours is an element typical of Japanese woodblock prints. Also his use of color contrasts and cropped compositions reveals the Japanese influence on his work.”

Dr Lawrence Marceau of Auckland University’s Asian Studies Department was kind enough (in 2015 when I inquired) to provide his thoughts about the Japanese characters van Gogh has added to the sides of the painting.

Van Gogh’s Japanese writing on the sides of several of his renditions of Japanese woodblock prints is quite famous in Japanese art historical circles … he had actually copied inscriptions of print titles and publisher data. The copies he made were from prints other than the one he was adapting into an oil painting.

I can’t read all of the text (some of it may be garbled), but along the right side of the image it says, “Shin-Yoshiwara hitsu dai chome Yagi (?)” (= the Shin-Yoshiwara licensed pleasure quarters, “by the brush of”, “great”, “city block” “establishment/shop” “wood/tree”). It seems that he starts out with a title, and then ends up with the character after the designer’s signature “hitsu”, and probably part of the publisher’s address. On the left it says, “Daikoku-ya Nishikigi Edo-machi itchome” (= The Daikoku-establishment, Nishikigi (personal name?), Edo-machi 1st block. I believe Edo-machi was one of the blocks of the Shin-Yoshiwara licensed quarter, and that the Daikoku-ya was the professional name of one of the bordello establishments there.

The cartouche in the upper right of the picture says “Shin-hyakkei” (New 100 Views) and some other characters in the yellow box that don’t make much sense to me.  The red signature box in the lower left also doesn’t make much sense … In short, it seems to be a combination of words and phrases taken from other prints, and individual characters written just because Van Gogh liked them, apparently. They really have no meaningful relationship to the content of the image, the plum blossoms at Kameido.

perfuming the man
who broke its branch
plum blossoms

Chiyo-Ni (1701-1775), tr Jim Kacian

Recent publications

UK haiku journal Presence is always a good read and Presence 63 is no exception with 105 pages of poems, haibun, essays and reviews. It includes the results of the 2018 Martin Lucas Haiku Award, which I can now reveal that I judged!

the dead owl
mostly soil

Brad Bennett, First

Judging contests is easy compared with the ongoing, laborious work of editing a journal. I daresay there’s some fun to be had too, but hearing Stanford M Forrester (editor of bottle rockets press) say he’d changed his posting address to an anonymous box number due to receiving death threats from a disgruntled submitter put a whole new light on what editors have to deal with!

The process of putting together number eight wire, the newly published fourth New Zealand haiku anthology, prompted me to write a (slightly tongue-in-cheek) piece for Haiku NewZ, Learning Better Habits.

breech birth
the old cowhand
unbuckles his belt

Lew Watts

relapse –
through an icy blast
bleat of a lamb

Andre Surridge


in my prayers –
linnet song

Mary White

swapping seats
on an empty train
afternoon sun

Debbi Antebi

cross-country train –
the little place where we stop
being strangers

Sandra Simpson

Creatrix is the online quarterly publication of Western Australia Poets, with the journal being split into two – one link for ‘regular poetry’ (submissions open only to financial members) and another for the haiku section (open to all).

The only odd thing about submitting to Creatrix is that no one tells you if you’ve had anything selected, you have to wait for the journal to appear to find out! Given they have three selectors and a submissions manager that seems a little, well, poor. If anyone knows of a good reason why this happens, I’d be happy to hear it.

first light
gum branches
tangle the mist

Gavin Austin

country cemetery
the last shop in town
boarded up

Louise Hopewell


floating dandelion
all the locked windows
at the hospital

Bee Jay

end of summer —
the hurdy-gurdy cries
of gannets

Sandra Simpson

And in the past few days I learned that one of my poems has judged a Haiku of Merit in the RH Blyth Haiku Award (UK). Read all the winning entries here.

Persian garden —
every avenue lined
with bitter oranges

Sandra Simpson

Read more about ‘narenj’, the bitter oranges of Iran, used to scent gardens and flavour food.