A narrow road to the North

Thailand October 30, 2013 00:00

By Lee Siew Hua
The Straits Time

7,548 Viewed

Retracing the footsteps of the 17th century poet and wanderer Matsuo Basho

Traipsing through Northern Japan’s whispered cedar forests in a misty rain, I find myself repeating the words of poet-wanderer Matsuo Basho, who penned the timeless travelogue “Narrow Road to the Deep North” in the 17th century and whose steps we are retracing on this quixotic foot journey.
Written in an era of social turbulence, his classic, a blend of prose and haiku, evokes the Japanese sense of beauty and the transience of life.
In middle age, the feted poet sold his house and devoted five months to traverse a 2,000-kilometre route in the spring of 1689 with a disciple-friend, Sora.
The north, which includes the tsunami-hit prefectures of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi, was an unexplored land that evoked mystery for Basho.
Today, this Tohoku region is still remote and little visited by non-Japanese. I barely see foreign faces on my sojourn with a dozen walkers on the first Basho Tour hosted by pioneering adventure company Walk Japan.
A 10-day trip, which starts in Tokyo and ends in Kyoto, costs 418,000 yen (Bt133,000). I ask for a compressed five-day version.
Like Basho, I begin my road trip in Tokyo, though we hop onto a blazing bullet train to Sendai, slicing off the urban sprawl in a couple of hours to focus on the far north.
We walk 8 to 10km a day, a dreamy stroll compared to the 30 to 40km clocked by the tough-minded poet.
But it is enough time and distance for me to savour the haiku moments of each day, whether we are looking at a salt cauldron in Shiogama or stopping at shrines to think about the afterlife.
Each new day brings a stream of highlights, which inspire my travel companions to write haikus on the move while I tweet instead. 
The bay in Miyagi prefecture with its pine-clad islands is one of the beloved Three Views of Japan. The other two are the Amanohashidate sandbar in Kyoto and Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima.
On a 50-minute cruise, we view the islands and their twisted pines, which symbolise long life and joy.
The moment I step off the local train into little Hiraizumi, I love its manicured beauty and intimate scale, which allows us to walk in minutes to its Motsu-ji Temple and gardens, and the trails beyond.
Hiraizumi is Japan's newest World Heritage Site. The status was conferred in June 2011 and this uplifted northerners greatly three months after the tsunami, earthquake and nuclear scare.
Hiraizumi, 40km from the Pacific Coast, was spared the devastation. Indeed, its trails and temples are pristine, while the kabuki-like story of its powerful Fujiwara family, which reigned during the 11th and 12th centuries, still intrigues the modern soul.
I imagine soldiers and sojourners such as Basho on the ancient Dewa Sendai Highway, now a forest trail profusely signposted in Japanese and English. The boards carry facts and little narratives, such as the one about the merciful monkeys that sheltered and offered sake to a runaway ruler.
In mist-like rain, I trek through gorges with hairpin bends and over streams like Basho. He slept at an inn in Yamagata prefecture infested by fleas and lice, he complained. When I visit the lovingly restored inn, however, my trek-weary toes are warmed by a fireplace built into the floorboards and I am soothed by the hot tea poured by a storytelling host.
The inn, built with chestnut pillars, also has glass cases of straw sandals, replicas of those worn by Basho.
The next day, we climb 2,466 stone steps up to Mount Haguro and I am grateful that the steps are gentle, each stone beautifully cut in the 1600s. The 600-year-old cedars are majestic, and I hear the sound of a conch shell blown by priests. Halfway up is a tiny teahouse, where I am soothed by matcha and a panorama.
Canadian Sue Joel, 71, a retired engineer on my Basho tour, tells me she joined a Walk Japan trip three years ago on the Nakasendo Way, which maps out the “post towns”, rest stops for travellers in old Japan, in the heart of Japan.
“You see things in a much different way while walking. You experience the country and the people in a more intimate way,” she says. “It's a wonderful combination of history, culture, tradition and physical exercise.”
Indeed, on the road, curious Japanese chat with us on country lanes. We see Basho statues and poignant tsunami memorials everywhere in the north, including on Mount Haguro, where the colourful flowers for the youngest victims are searing.
Like Basho, we relish nature and gripe when the path is tricky. But I also love his resilience and his delight in the northern world.
Basho, restive, witty and sometimes melancholy as he travelled through a changing mediaeval Japan, sought beauty and significance on the road.
We travel for much the same reasons today.
If you go
_ Thai Airways International operates daily flights between Bangkok and Tokyo.