Narrow road

“The Narrow Road Through the Backcountry”: Walking with Bashō on a Journey of Invention

Matsuo Bashō’s masterpiece The narrow road through the hinterland is a travel diary based on a five-month, 24,000 kilometer trek through Japan. The classic work, however, incorporates much literary invention, influenced by writings of the past.

Almost a work of fiction

Matsuo Bashō was around 45 years old in May 1689 when he embarked on the five-month journey through Japan that inspired the most famous of his travel diaries: Oku no hosomichi (trans. by Steven D. Carter as The narrow road through the hinterland). From his home in Fukagawa, Edo (now Tokyo), he traveled north to Hiraizumi in present-day Iwate Prefecture, then west and along the coast of the Sea of ​​Japan, before ending his trek at Ōgaki in present-day Gifu Prefecture.

For most of the journey to the Yamanaka hot springs, Bashō was accompanied by his disciple, known in the text as Kawai Sora (although scholar Muramatsu Tomotsugu has shown his real name to be Kasai Sora). He also traveled with haiku poet Tachibana Hokushi from Kanazawa until shortly before Fukui. In addition to visiting historic places known for their poetic associations or past battles, he wanted to meet poets, create verse bound together, and pass on his version of haikai, the light-hearted and humorous literary genre that he helped shape so much. Another reason was probably that it was the five hundredth year since the death of Saigyō, a much admired Bashō literary ancestor, who had also traveled to Hiraizumi. There are frequent moments in the text where one can feel that Bashō is deeply aware of the previous writer. It is believed that he edited the work in its final form from 1692, three years after the trip, to 1694, the year of his death.

From Sora’s journal, which records what happened during the expedition, it appears that The narrow road through the hinterland contains a lot of description that is different from what actually happened. While Bashō based his literary travel diary on real travel, he incorporated many of his own original ideas. It could almost be called a work of fiction, and in that sense it holds a special place in the classic travel literature of Japan. Basically, it uses the following three approaches.

1. A focus on time

The journey takes place from late spring to late autumn, and the work is very focused on the seasonal transitions and annual observances during this time. The narrator is also frequently moved by realizing the passage of time when viewing objects, sites, or customs related to the distant past.

2. Use of Nō Drama concepts

There is a form of nō called the mugen-no (dream game) in which the shit where the main character is a ghost appearing in the dream of the waki or secondary character. There are parts in The narrow road through the hinterland where we feel the influence of dialogues with people who are no longer of this world.

3. The traveler as a disciple of Saigyō

Although the work has a first-person narrator, it is not stated to be Bashō himself. Bashō molds the narrator as an admirer of Saigyō, who follows the previous poet’s actions.

Yosa Buson, Oku no hosomichi-zu byōbu, 1779. Buson created this screen with text from The Narrow Road Through the Hinterlands and images from his various episodes out of esteem for Bashō.  (Courtesy Yamagata Museum of Art, Hasegawa Collection)
Yosa Buson, Oku no hosomichi-zu byōbu1779. Buson created this screen with the text of The narrow road through the hinterland and footage from his various episodes out of esteem for Bashō. (Courtesy Yamagata Museum of Art, Hasegawa Collection)

travel through time

I will begin by considering the opening of the work.

Months and days are travelers through the ages, as are years coming and going. For boatmen who spend their lives on the water and stokers who grow old riding their horses, every day is a journey, and the journey is their home. Many veterans have died on the road, and I too, for the past few years, have had to follow the wind like a wisp of cloud, unable to contain my wanderlust. I wandered along the coast. . .

The emphasis is clearly on time, as a concept assimilated to travellers, and more precisely as the narrator’s traveling companion. This “I” will continue to note the beginning of summer and autumn, as well as specific calendar festivals, including Tango no Sekku, Tanabata, Obon, and Mid-Autumn Moon Night. He also sees heirlooms left behind by Minamoto no Yoshitsune and his servant Benkei – who were driven north from Hiraizumi by the elder Yoritomo’s half-brother, the founder of the Kamakura shōgunate – and visits historical places such as the Konjikidō Hall at Chūsonji Temple in Hiraizumi. Such links with the past move him to tears.

Encounters with ghosts

Next, I would like to look at the section of Takadachi, Hiraizumi, the battlefield where Yoshitsune and his followers were defeated. Incidentally, Saigyō traveled to Hiraizumi while Yoshitsune took refuge there.

Yoshitsune’s minions took a stand here and won glory in battle, but the moment has passed and their glory has turned to grass. “The state in ruins, the mountains and the rivers remain. Spring green grows on the fortress. Putting down my hat, I forgot the passage of time and I cried.

Natsu kusa ya / tsuwamono-domo ga / yum no ato
summer herbs,
all that remains of
warrior dreams

Unohana ni / Kanefusa miyuru / shiraga-kana (Sora)
In the flowers of deutzia,
I see Kanefusa’s
White hair
(poem by Sora)

This section shows a strong influence of the mugen-no. It is written in such a way that it can be read that the narrator forgets the passage of time lamenting the past battle where Yoshitsune and his minions were defeated. At this time, the warriors appear in his dream to tell him about the events of the battle, and when he wakes up, only the summer herbs remain.

The passage also suggests that it was in a dream that Sora saw the white hair of the losing army warrior Kanefusa. Sora’s real-life diary does not include the haiku, which actually seems to have been Bashō’s later invention. In Nō terms, if the narrator is the waki (secondary character), Sora is the awakening (secondary character’s companion), and both offer poems to those who have fallen in battle.

Praising Saigyō

The following passage, describing Bashō’s arrival in present-day Fukui Prefecture, is a good example of how the narrator is presented as a follower of Saigyō.

We crossed the border to Echizen and crossed Yoshizaki Bay by boat, visiting the Shiogoshi pines.

Yo mo sugar / arashi ni nami o / hakobasete /
tsuki o taretaru / Shiogoshi no matsu (Saigyō)
All night long
beaten by
stormy waves,
moonlight in the falling drops—
Shiogoshi Pines
(poem by Saigyō)

This single poem conveys the beauties of the place in all its forms. Adding something would be like putting a sixth finger on a hand.

The poem here is, in fact, the work of another writer called Rennyo, and the idea that Saigyō wrote it is Bashō’s invention. Rennyo was a major Buddhist figure and the moon symbolizes enlightenment. Thus, Bashō uses this poem in The narrow road through the hinterland to show, across the moon, the completion of Saigyō’s Buddhist training, as well as the narrator’s desire to praise him.


Various versions of the text were produced before Bashō’s death in 1694. His handwritten manuscript is known as the Nakao Version after its discoverer in 1996. The Sora Version – so called because it was passed down to Sora’s family – is a faithful copy, which was later revised and fine-tuned. The Nishimura version, named after its owner, is a copy of the Sora version made by calligrapher Kashiwagi Soryū at Bashō’s request, while another copy made by him is called the Kakimori version, as it belongs to Kakimori Bunko.

All these elements are handwritten. Bashō apparently showed no intention to publish The narrow road through the hinterland. What does it mean that he left only handwritten manuscripts? One reason may be the comparative value of rarity, which would be lost by printing many copies. There are many ways to interpret the situation, but I would say that Bashō saw the text as a work in progress, which he intended to refine further.

The year of his death, Bashō took the Nishimura version back to his hometown in Iga Province (now Mie Prefecture), where he introduced it to his older brother Matsuo Hanzaemon. It then passed to Bashō’s disciple Mukai Kyorai, and this version was published by Izutsuya in Kyoto in 1702. It was the basis for many later reprints. It was long considered the only version, until various manuscripts were discovered in the 20th century. The original version of Nishimura was found in 1943, the Sora version in 1951, the Kakimori version in 1959, and the Nakao version in 1996. It was in 1943 that Sora’s diary emerged to give an alternate version of events. These discoveries gave new impetus to studies of the Bashō classic.

(Originally published in Japanese on April 20, 2022. Banner image: Yosa Buson, Shihon tansai oku no hosomichi-zu [Picture from The Narrow Road Through the Hinterlands in Light Colors on Paper], 1779. Buson’s illustration shows Bashō and Sora departing from Senju in present-day Adachi, Tokyo. Courtesy of Hankyū Cultural Foundation/Itsuō Museum.)