. Lake Biwa is the largest freshwater lake in Japan. It was created by an ancient movement of the Earth’s crust. It has many rivers running into it, but only one outlet, which has several names: Setagawa as it flows out of the lake, Ujigawa as it passes by the famous temple Byodoin, and Yodogawa as it flows through Osaka. If you look at this river on a map, you might wonder about its rather tortuous course. Scientists say that originally this river ran into Ise Bay, but as the Suzuka Mountain Range rose higher and higher, it caused a change in its course. Its proximity to Nara and Kyoto makes this lake very important in many ways – political, religious, and economic. Basho loved this lake, as the following poem testifies:
… At the end of spring
… I deplored its departure
… With my Omi friends.
Kyorai (1651~1704) has an interesting comment on this poem. Apparently Shohaku (1650~1722) criticized his master’s poem by saying, “Omi could easily be changed to Tanba or any other place.” To this, Kyorai answered, “No, that is not true. Omi is the best place to bid farewell to spring because mist over the lake helps us to deplore its departure.” Basho is reported to have sided with Kyorai by saying, “I agree. Many ancients, too, wrote poems about departing spring in Omi, no less than in Kyoto.” I believe this report shows that Basho had a special attachment to Omi, especially Lake Biwa. In Sarumino, an anthology published in 1671, a short preface is added to this poem, saying that it was written at Karasaki, which is a beautiful spot on the southwestern side of the lake. This place has long been famous for its Pine-tree. Even today, we can see a pine that stretches its arms in all directions. The Pine-tree of Basho’s time was a generation prior to the present one and much bigger. Basho’s poem runs:
… Dimmer than the cherries,
… The Pine-tree of Karasaki
… Hazed in thick mist.
. Kyorai recorded an interesting comment about this poem, too. Kikaku (1661~1707) is reported to have criticized his master’s hokku by saying, “The way the poem ends with にて (ni-te) makes it more suitable for the third verse. I wonder why our master has made it a hokku.” Kyorai admits that Kikaku has a point, but insists that the poem should be taken as a piece of pure description, and that it is indeed suitable as a hokku as it is.
. Not far from Karasaki, we have another celebrated spot, Katada, where there is an ancient shrine, Ukimido, standing out in the lake. Basho wrote a beautiful hokku here.
… Unbar the door
… And invite the moon to shine
… Into this floating shrine.
When I visited the shrine, its entrance door was open, and all the shining statues housed in it were looking out on the lake as if praying for its safety. Beyond the far shore, I could see the comely cone of Mt. Mikami, about which Basho wrote the following poem:
… Like the heavenly swan,
… Heron, bridge the snowy mountains,
… Hira and Mikami.
Mt. Hira and Mt. Mikami are on opposite sides of the Lake, so Basho is telling the heron to fly across the water like the legendary swan which soars across the Milky Way once a year to bring together the stars of the Two Lovers, the Cowherd (Altair) and the Weaver (Vega). I am impressed by the scale and warmth of Basho’s vision in this poem.
(to be continued…)
* Lake Biwa area ; ** area to the northwest of Kyoto