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Narrow Road to the Deep North

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Statue of Basho, Hiraizumi

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.


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.


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 whirlwind tour of all visited sights.

Due to Basho's predelection 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.

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The starting point of the trip is Tokyo, the capital of Japan. The ending point is Ogaki, now a station on the Tokaido Shinkansen — the nearest airport is Kansai, but these days it's only a few hours by train all the way back to Tokyo.

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).


Old house in downtown Tokyo
Carvings in Toshogu, Nikko
Pine islands, Matsushima
Pure Land Garden, Hiraizumi
Outdoor bath, Naruko
Trail to Hagurosan, Dewa Sanzan

Basho's original itinerary is as follows, with modern placenames or major nearby cities in parentheses where applicable.

Basho starts off from the heart of downtown (shitamachi) Tokyo, bidding farewell to Ueno and Yanaka — both well worth a visit.

Unusually, 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.

Matsuo's chosen route of boarding a boat here for Matsushima remains very popular today.

The craggy pine tree islands here are considered one of the Japan's Top 3 scenic spots.

The island of Kinkazan, while not visited by Masho, makes an interesting detour from here.

At this point Basho abandoned the original plan to head all the way north to Aomori and instead decided to head across the mountains. Naruko is now popular hot spring resort.

The temple of Ryushakuji is quite literally carved out of the mountainside: hence the common name Yamadera, "Mountain Temple".

The three holy mountains of Dewa Sanzan are the center of worship for the Shinto-Buddhist Shugendo sect and its mountain-climbing yamabushi ascetic monks.

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.

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