In May 1689 the great Haiku poet Matsuo Basho sold his house and began travelling north through Japan. His written impressions of the journey, over 1200 miles later, became The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a compilation of travel sketches in prose and verse which is a famous reminder of Basho’s ongoing legacy. Starting from June 2014, 325 years later, Pablo and Anya, retraced Basho’s footsteps. Together they created a collaborative Artists Book, compiling poetry, art and prose to make a beautiful and accurate impression of their journey, that also underscores the changes that have taken place in Japan in the last three centuries.
rice-planting songs from the heart
of the country - Matsuo Basho
Basho, renowned by many as the founder of the contemporary haiku poetic style, believed deeply in the power and relevance of nature to all art. We share this view. The constant changes we experience on the road bring us closer to the essence of the landscape we travel through. One cannot take in a country or a culture from behind a car window, and it was important to us not only to follow the path Basho wove through Japan, but also to echo his unhurried method of travel by repeating the trek under only human power.
Across the north of Honshu (Japan’s main island) Basho captured the essence of his experiences, from his descriptions of the Toso-gu shrine in Nikko, to Shirakawa castle, to the pine-clad islands of Matshushima. Myazawa (the 20th century poet) once said, “It was as if the very soul of Japan had itself written it”.
For us, Basho’s narrow road represents the ideal of art and the spirit of adventure. We flew to Tokyo on the 5th of June, (Edo in Basho’s time, and the starting point of his journey). For three months (90 days) we walked through all the places Basho walked, camping in the open, and the most important of all, producing art.
After the success of this project, as promised, we are compiling comprehensive artist’s book, as well as many paintings and woodblock prints and organizing exhibitions to tour internationally, showcasing our work. "On Basho's Footsteps" reflects on two aspects. The first one is Basho’s approach to art and travelling, his wandering spirit, and his simple and natural style. Retracing his footsteps was, in the end, less about physically following his trail and more about reaching for this same outlook, in our art and in our hiking. Plus (ironically enough) it was Basho himself who said “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.” What he 'saught' is exactly what we have striven for in this adventure (and continue to reach for, after returning).
The second aspect is to acknowledge the distance between Basho and ourselves. Japan itself has changed a lot since the 17th century and our western mentality is far from Basho’s Zen awareness. Our travel journal represents not only Basho’s way, but also the change that Japan has undergone, a contrast between West and East.
This journey has resulted in an artistic project, a dialogue between cultures. The trip involved demanding hiking and a certain degree of isolation. It is this isolation that helped create in a big shift in the way we perceived the world (it always does). It was a trip with a deep philosophical background (related to our approach to art and also to Zen), but the benefits have come from experience rather than from abstract speculation. In a dialogue with his disciple, Basho explained that one must “learn about a pine tree from a pine tree, and about a bamboo-stalk from a bamboo-stalk.” To learn about the changing landscape of Japan we must let ourselves become one with this landscape: “the poet must detach his mind from self… and enter into the object, sharing its delicate life and its feelings.”
When a country is defeated there remain only mountains and rivers and on a ruined castle in spring, only grasses thrive. I sat down on my hat and wept bitterly until I almost forgot time.
A thicket of summer grass
Is all that remains
Of the dreams and ambitions
Of ancient warriors