The Narrow Road to the Deep North (奥の細道 Oku no Hosomichi) is the title of famed haiku poet Matsuo Basho's most famous work, a poem-filled travelogue through Japan's remote northeastern region of Tohoku.
Born Matsuo Munefusa in 1644 in the town of Ueno near Kyoto, Matsuo Bashō (松尾芭蕉) is generally regarded as Japan's greatest haiku poet, largely responsible for creating the art form with its 5-7-5 syllable syntax. His pseudonym Bashō means "banana tree", chosen after a fruitless tree near his hut. He achieved a modest degree of fame during his lifetime with gems such as this:
古池や (Furuike ya)
蛙飛び込む (Kawazu tobikomu)
水の音 (Mizu no oto)
An old pond!
A frog jumps in—
the sound of water.
Tired with a sedentary life, in 1684 he embarked on the first of his many trips, traveling to Mount Fuji and Ise. His art reached its greatest form during his five-month trip to the Deep North in 1689, during which he wrote his masterpiece The Narrow Road to the Deep North developing his concept of sabi, the identification of man with natural beauty.
Basho died in 1694 shortly after leaving Kyoto on another trip, and is buried in the town of Otsu.
One of the most famous travelogues ever, the Narrow Road continues to inspire Japanese art and visitors to Tohoku, and each of the places Basho visited continues to revere his poems and observations.
In Basho's day, the land of Oku (奥), literally "Within", was the back of beyond in Japan, where farmers eked out a meager living and bandits and hermits roamed in the mountains. Well aware of the dangers awaiting him, Basho fully expected to never return, selling his house and preparing a will.
When reading Basho's work, it is important to note that he takes more than a few poetic liberties with the exact route chosen and the sights seen. Fortunately, he traveled for most of the way with fellow poet Sora, whose more factual diary has allowed the reconstruction of the route.
There came a day when the clouds drifting along with the wind aroused a wanderlust in me, and I set off on a journey to roam along the seashores...
Back in 1689 Basho walked the entire distance, starting in late spring and taking over five months (156 days, to be precise) for the entire journey.
Even with the assistance of modern transportation and perfect scheduling (public transport is sparse in this neck of the woods), it would take a month for a whirlwind tour of all visited sights.
Due to Basho's predilection for mountain climbing, a faithful copy of the itinerary can only be done in summer, after the heavy snows of the Sea of Japan coast have melted and the mountains are accessible.
The starting point of the trip is Tokyo, the capital of Japan. As the first stretch of the trip has been largely absorbed into urban sprawl, many choose to head straight for Sendai (Stage 18) and start their trip there (with a possible detour to Nikko).
Intriguingly, Basho does not even mention Nikko's largest tourist draw, the extravagant Tokugawa mausoleums. Instead, he climbs Mt. Nikko and visits Futarasan Shrine, dedicated to the mountains' guardian spirits.
The province of Echigo is now Niigata prefecture. A worthwhile side trip here is Sado Island, once a harsh place of exile known for its gold mines, but now home to a yearly music festival that draws people from around the country.