Battle over Bashō: Adachi or Arakawa?

My friend, Kaori, from grad school sent me the link to a recent article about the famous 17th century haiku poet Matsuo Bashō (松尾芭蕉, 1644-1694). When I graduated from CU, I was fortunate enough to have been selected (along with Kaori) by our adviser, Dr. Laurel Rasplica Rodd, to guide a group of American teachers through Japan and trace the steps of Bashō’s famous journey up through northern Honshū–the journey that Bashō wrote about in a book titled The Narrow Road to Oku, or Oku no hosomichi 奥の細道. Bashō’s travel writing is very introspective, and self-reflective. He writes about the nature of those with whom he comes in contact with on the road, as well as on the nature of the environment through which he passes. I teach a class on Bashō every spring and sometimes attempt to write haiku, so Kaori knew that I would be interested in the article.

Bashō and Sora departing on their journey.

Bashō and Sora departing on their journey.

The article was on the Asahi news website (dated 16 October 2015) and titled, “Where did Bashō start his journey? The dispute between Adachi-ku and Arakawa-ku.” Bashō set off on his 1,522 mile-journey (2,450 km) from Edo (the area of Tokyo more or less around present day Tokyo Station) on 16 May 1689. The trip would end up being one large loop up the east of Honshū (Japan’s main island) to present day Iwate, then across to the Japan Sea on the southern edge of Akita bordering Yamagata, then down south to Ise.

Bashō is highly revered in Japan to this day. Even in countries outside Japan, students as young as those in elementary school read his haiku. It is no surprise then that all along the route that he traveled, you may find restaurants, coffee shops, statues, gift shops, inns, museums, and the like commemorating the famous writer’s journey, and luring tourists & their money!

I’m becoming increasingly interested in the social and economic effects that literature has in regions, and this is a fine case. It may seem silly that two little neighborhoods in Tokyo are in a dispute over where Bashō began his journey, but there is a real economic effect, albeit at the micro level. Every year perhaps a half dozen people or so (maybe even more. There aren’t any records–someone should try to keep track of this!) set-off on their own to re-trace the steps of the great poet. They eat at restaurants and cafes, they sleep at inns, they bathe at local onsen, they buy souvenirs, leave donations at temples and shrines, use mass transit, etc., etc., all things that require money! School students, while not embarking on the full 1,522 mile journey, will spend a day visiting museums and historical sites dedicated to the poet, which, again, require money to be spent on admission fees and the like. City councils use tax dollars to maintain areas related to Bashō’s journey, and in some cases may even apply for extra government money to create new attractions or to upkeep ageing ones.

Indeed, it is not clear in “The Narrow Road to Oku” from where Bashō departed. He writes that he sold his hut and stayed in the home of a man named Sugiyama Sanpū’s 杉山杉風 until he departed on his trip. On the day of his departure, he writes that he left at dawn and that a group of friends had come to see him off. They all got in a boat, which carried him up a river to the northern edge of the city to “a place called Senjū.” His friends accompanied him no farther than Senjū.

Modern day Senjū straddles the Sumida River (north of Ueno Station). Arakawa-ku is on the south of the river and Adachi-ku is on the north. Minami Senjū Station (South Senjū Station) is in Arakawa and Kita Senjū Station (North Senjū Station) is in Adachi. Thus, two different municipalities vying for the attention and spending of travelers, tourists, and researchers.

Bashō does not write specifically where he got off the boat, only indicating that it was “at a place called Senjū.” Canals and rivers crisscrossed and wrapped around the old city of Edo, allowing goods to be moved by boat all throughout the city. So it is not so strange that Bashō avoided the busy streets and took a boat to the northern edge of the city. It is also probably likely that his friend Sugiyama Sanpū paid for the cost of the boat ride. What is odd to me is that Bashō writes “a place called Senjū” (senjū to iu tokoro, 千じゅうと云所). He writes as if it is an unfamiliar, not very well-known place. If this is so, then why did he get off there?

I don’t know if the history of commerce on the Edo waterways is well documented or not, but I feel like if it were, then this debate could be easily answered. There are boat rides for tourists that go up and down the river as well as small Bashō museums and monuments in both Arakawa and Adachi. However, if it were decided that Bashō began his journey from Adachi, then this would cause people to avoid Arakawa altogether, thus having a definite impact on the local economy that relies on Bashō enthusiasts.

In case Asahi takes down the article, here it is:
芭蕉さん、旅の始まりどこでした? 足立・荒川区が論争:朝日新聞デジタル


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