Bashō and Tohoku in the BBC News

“There was a shopping mall
Now it’s all covered with flowers”

–Talking Heads, “Nothing but Flowers”

 

When I open my browser, the BBC automatically opens showing me world news headlines and current events. It’s the first thing I see when I get on line, and I usually take the time to scroll down the page before moving on to check my e-mail and start my day.  Today I saw a section labeled “Japan” with the phrase “Japan’s most heavenly village.” Of course I had to click and I’m glad that it did–it brought me to an article titled “A Pure Land Inspired by Treachery.”

Image result for hiraizumi yoshitsune benkei

The article is about a town called Hiraizumi 平泉 in southern Iwate 岩手県, which is right next door to Akita 秋田県. Hiraizumi is significant to me for two reasons: it is where (according to legend) Minamoto no Yoshitsune 源義経 and his side-kick/ retainer Saitō Musashibō Benkei 斎藤武蔵坊弁慶 died; and it is one of the places in Tohoku 東北 where Matsuo Bashō 松尾芭蕉 stopped during his Oku no hosomichi 奥の細道 journey. My M.A. thesis as well as my current research is on Yoshitsune lore, which basically encompasses any type of literary genre that features Yoshitsune. Also, I’ve been teaching an intensive course on  Bashō for a few years now.

Yoshitsune is known as a tragic hero in Japanese history. The article mentions his older brother Minamoto no Yoritomo 源頼朝:

“the Buddhist utopia was attacked by warlord Minamoto no Yoritomo in his successful quest to become shogun and establish his military dictatorship in Kamakura 鎌倉, a town not far from present-day Tokyo”

Yoritomo saw the younger Yoshitsune as a threat to his maintaining power over the country, and so sought to have him killed. The kōwakamai 幸若舞 librettos  I studied for my thesis (Shikoku-ochi 四国落, Togashi 富樫, and Oi-sagashi 追探) were about Yoshitsune running all over the country, trying to escape his brother. His attempts to escape Yoritomo’s grasp ended when Yoshitsune was finally cornered at Hiraizumi where he took his own life as the enemy closed in. His retainer, Benkei, armed with a bow and a quiver of arrows, fought off Yoritomo’s invading forces to allow his lord, Yoshitsune, to commit suicide. There is a famous woodblock print of Benkei riddled with arrows while fighting off hordes of enemy soldiers.

The second reason Hiraizumi is special to me is because–like the article mentions at the end–it is one of the places Bashō visited during his last long journey through Japan–the journey from which he based his book Oku no hosomichi. Although almost 500 hundred years after the death of Yoshitsune, the historical significance of Hiraizumi was not lost on Bashō. As the article mentions while there he composed the haiku:

The summer grass

‘Tis all that’s left

of ancient warrior’s dreams

夏草や

兵どもが

夢の跡

Natsu kusa ya

Tsuwamono-domo ga

Yume no ato

 

This haiku is an example of what I call Buddhist irony–Hiraizumi was once a beautiful, palatial city. It was called the Kyoto of the North for a darn good reason: politically the Ōshū Fujiwara 奥州藤原 rivaled the powers in central Japan, the city employed hundreds of skilled artisans, had a large Buddhist population, and had many gardens that added to the aesthetics of the city, much like the gardens of Kyoto. However when Bashō visited Hiraizumi all this majestic wealth had all but gone away. All that was left was overgrown grass, reminding Bashō that everything in this world is momentary. It reminds me of the Talking Heads song “Nothing but Flowers” which describes a post-apocalyptic word where all the signs of our mass consumerism have been overgrown by grass and flowers.

 

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Also check out the version by our beloved Guster…!

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