Written in a combination of prose and haiku, Basho’s account of his journey, Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) became one of the major texts of Japanese literature (now required reading for all high school students), and pioneered the genre of Japanese travelogues, which are popular to this day.
Retracing parts of Basho’s journey has long been popular among travelers. So pack your hiking boots and get ready for adventure as we highlight two of the most fascinating and beautiful spots on this famous journey!
When Basho arrived in Matsushima, he was so overwhelmed by beauty that he was famously unable to compose a haiku. Instead, he wrote a prose passage in which he praised the scenery as the most beautiful in all of Japan. To this day, the view of Matsushima Bay is considered one of the Three Great Views of Japan.
Matsushima (literally "pine islands") is indeed a tremendous sight to behold. The town overlooks a bay that's strewn with tiny, pine-tree-covered islands of all shapes and sizes. Some of the larger islands can be explored on foot, while cruise boats provide up-close looks at the smaller ones.
In addition to stunning natural beauty, Matsushima provides cultural and historical sites as well. In particular, the temple Zuigan-ji, originally founded in 828, features a number of natural treasures and cultural assets, including golden-painted fusuma screens, caves carved into cliff faces, and many statues of the god Kannon.
The Three Mountains of Dewa ('Dewa Sanzan')
Sacred to both the Shinto and Buddhist religions and holy to the Shugendo religion, the Three Mountains of Dewa (Dewa Sanzan)—Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono—are the earliest known sites of mountain worship in Japan, and visited even today by pilgrims and tourists alike.
Basho hiked all three mountains, composing one haiku for each. Of Mount Gassan he wrote,
The peaks of clouds
Have crumbled into fragments—
The moonlit mountain!
Featuring fantastic views, ancient shrines and a five-story pagoda designated as a National Treasure of Japan, these mountains have it all. You can hike all three mountains by foot as Basho did, or you can ride a bus to cover the long distance between Mount Haguro and Mount Gassan.
By visiting Matsushima and the Three Mountains of Dewa, you’ll have scratched the surface of the Basho’s amazing journey. There are plenty more sites to see, so check out the complete route by visiting Chopsticks NY below, and experience Japan’s deep north!