Bashō’s Narrow Roads of the Deep North: Notes on 4. Muro-no-Yashima, 5. “Hotoke” Gozaemon, and 6. Nikkō

4. Muro-no-Yashima, Notes 1–5

1. At Shintō shrines like Muro-no-Yashima, worshipers give thanks to nature or ancestral deities called kami and ask for blessings. Muro-no-Yashima, known as Ōmiwa Shrine today, is in Tochigi City. On May 18 (3.28), Bashō and Sora left Kasukabe (post town 4 on the Nikkō Road), walked 22 miles north to Mamada (post town 11), and spent the night there. The next day, they left the Nikkō Road and walked 10 miles north from Mamada to visit Muro-no-Yashima, then continued on to Kanuma, where they stayed overnight. Bashō composed a verse about this small village: “spring nightfall [spring ends]: village where no temple bell sounds” (kane tsukanu sato wa nani wo ka haru no kure).

Muro no Yashima (Ōmiwa Shrine), Tochigi City (Google Maps)

A pond next to the shrine has eight islands (yashima); the man-made islands are connected by bridges.

2. Sora was raised by an uncle who was a Shintō priest in Ise Province (Mie Prefecture), where Bashō’s hometown was located. Sora moved to Edo in 1681 and studied with a Shintō priest and scholar (Sato 138, endnote 4). Bashō relied on Sora’s knowledge of Shintō and shrines.

3. During the Muromachi Period (1338–1573), Konohana-sakuya-hime, a Shintō fertility goddess (a daughter of Ōyamazumi, Great Deity of Mountains), became identified with Sengen or Asama, the volcano goddess of Mt. Fuji. The two goddesses are considered manifestations of the same kami (one body) and are worshiped at Sengen shrines around Mt. Fuji. Worshipers pray to them for easy childbirth and protection against fire.

4. Smoke is mentioned in classical poems about Muro-no-Yashima. Shirane notes, for example, that in one Muro-no-Yashima love poem, smoke is used “as a metaphor for suppressed desire” (“Narrow Road” 213, note 56).

Sora connects the smoke in poems about this place to the Shintō love story of Konohana-sakuya-hime, who married Ho-no-Ninigi, the grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Ninigi was sent from the Plain of High Heaven to rule the Land of Reed Plains below. When the fertility goddess became pregnant after only one night, her husband questioned whether the child was his. Ashamed and angered, she carried out a vow to enclose herself in a chamber (室, muro) and set it on fire, declaring that if the child died, it was someone else’s, but if it lived, it was her husband’s. Unharmed by the fire because of her purity, the princess gave birth to three sons in the burning chamber: Ho-no-susori no Mikoto, born when the fire broke out; Ho-no-akari no Mikoto, born when the fire reached its height; and Hiko-Ho-ho-demi no Mikoto (Prince Ho-ho-demi), born as the fire subsided (Nihongi 85). Prince Ho-ho-demi was the grandfather of Jimmu, the first Emperor of Japan.

In Kojiki, Japan’s earliest historical record, presented to the Imperial Court in 712, the Land of Reed Plains, where Ho-no-Ninigi descended to rule, is called Ō-yashima-kuni (大八州国, Great Eight-Island Country) (28). Later the land became known as Yamato, then Nihon or Japan. The Eight Islands (八嶋, Yashima) were procreated by Izanagi and Izanami, brother and sister creation deities, who also gave birth to the sun goddess Amaterasu. (See “23. Matsushima,” note 3.)

Bashō composed a verse about Muro-no-Yashima: “smoke rising up with the shimmering heat” (itoyū ni musubi tsukitaru kemuri kana).

5. Sato points out that broiled konoshiro (gizzard shad) smells like a corpse being cremated, but commentators differ inconclusively about the reason for banning the fish (139, endnote 5). Perhaps the smell of the burnt fish was anathema to a goddess whose flesh doesn’t burn. Translators assume that the ban applies to broiling and eating konoshiro, but smelly broiled fish like sardine (along with pointed leaves like ayame or holly), are also customarily used in some areas to ward off diseases and disasters at spring equinox. Bashō composed a poem about this custom: “ayame arrayed with sardine skulls on the eaves” (ayame ikekeri noki no iwashi no sarekōbe).

Road to Nikkō
Driving toward Mt. Nikkō (Nantai) on the Nikkō-Utsunomiya Road

5. “Hotoke” Gozaemon, Notes 1–4

1. The town of Nikkō lies six miles east of Mt. Nikkō. Bashō dates their arrival 卅日 (misoka, thirtieth day) [of the third moon], or 3.30. Commentators note that the third moon had only 29 days that year. Sora’s diary gives the date of their arrival at Nikkō as the first day of the fourth moon (4.1).

2. Hotoke (仏) is a name for Buddha; also, a nickname for someone benevolent or enlightened.

3. Grass pillows (草の枕, kusa no makura) were made by stuffing grass into cloth cylinders; makeshift pillows were also made by bundling grass. Grass-bundle pillows were associated with travel and also suggest poverty.

4. Bashō quotes from Confucius’ Analects (Book XIII, Chapter XXVII). “Ideal humanity” is a translation of jin (仁, humanity, goodness, benevolence), the highest of Confucian virtues. Confucian philosophy was introduced from China in the sixth and seventh centuries and has profoundly influenced Japanese social, political, and moral thinking.

6. Nikkō, Notes 1–10

1. The first day of the fourth moon, 4.1, was May 20 in 1689. (See “Moon Phases and Dates.”.) The sacred mountain is Mt. Nikkō, known today as Mt. Nantai.

The fourth moon of the year, Uzuki (卯月), was the first moon of summer. Uzuki is short for Unohana Tsuki, Moon of Unohana (deutzia), a flower that blooms during this month. The names of the fourth moon and the fourth-moon flower are written with the character for rabbit (卯, u), the fourth Chinese zodiac sign.

2. Mt. Nikkō (日光, Sunlight) was formerly named Mt. Nikō (二荒山, read Futara-yama or sinicized, Nikō-san, Mountain of Two Storms). The old name referred to spring and autumn storms that come from the northeast, a direction associated with malevolent spirits that bring disasters and misfortunes (Kohl).

Mt. Nantai, Lake Chuzenji, and Kegon Falls, Nikkō
Mt. Nikkō, aka Mt. Nantai, in the Kurokami Mountains of NIkkō. The mountains beyond Lake Chuzenji have remnants of snow in mid-May. Nikkō town lies six miles to the east.

Great Teacher Kūkai (774–835) is one of Japan’s most celebrated Buddhist saints. He founded Shingon Buddhism and established temples throughout the nation, including at Mt. Nikkō. He is known posthumously as Kōbō Daishi (弘法, Kōbō, or Propagator of Buddhist Law, and 大師, Daishi, or Great Teacher).

Shingon is an esoteric Buddhist sect that integrates Shintō and mountain worship into its beliefs and practices. (See “Religious Contexts,” 160–162.) Mt. Nikkō (or Mt. Nantai, 男体, Male Body) belongs to a triad of mountains worshiped as deities who protect and bless the region; Mt. Nyohō (女峰, Female Peak) and Mt. Tarō (太郎, Plump Son) are the other two members of the triad (“Nikkōsan Shinkō,” Encyclopedia of Shintō).

3. Bashō suggests that in changing the mountain’s name from “Two Storms,” to “Sunlight,” Kūkai foresaw the peace and prosperity of Bashō’s time, 900 years later. After an era known as Warring States (1467–1603), Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) defeated rival warlords and unified the nation. In 1600, the emperor appointed him shogun, and he established a samurai government that maintained civil order for two and a half centuries, an era known as the Tokugawa Peace and also the Edo Period (1603–1868), after the city that served as the headquarters of the shogunate.

In Confucian tradition, the four social classes, in descending order of status, were scholars, farmers, artisans, and merchants. In Japan, the scholar class included the educated aristocrats, samurai, and priests who ruled the nation. The Tokugawa Shogunate tried to maintain the traditional status of each class, but wealthy artisans and merchants, prospering in cities and towns, rose in status.

4. Commentators suggest that Bashō felt “awe and reverence” when he went to worship at Tōshōgū, a shrine dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu.  After Ieyasu’s death in 1616, his family deified him as Daigongen (“Great Buddha Manifested in a Shintō God”) and his spirit was worshiped for the protection of the nation. Tōshō (東照), Ieyasu’s posthumous name, means “Eastern Illumination.” Tōshōgū was built in 1617 by Ieyasu’s son Hidetada. Sora records that he and Bashō visited Tōshōgū on 4.1.

Ishi-dorii (Stone Gateway) is part of the original Tōshōgū, built in 1617 in Nikkō.
Main Gate at Tōshōgū
Mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu at Tōshōgū

5. “Young leaves” (wakaba) and “green leaves” (aoba) are season-words indicating early summer and summer. (See “Kigo and the Poetry of Seasons.”)

Nikkō hills near Kirifuri Falls in May, with Black Hair Mountains [Kurokami-yama] rising beyond: “oh so sublime! sunlight on green leaves, young leaves.”

6. Kurokami-yama (黒髪山, Black Hair Mountain/Mountains) is a name for the mountains west of Nikkō town. The name is used in the titles of Edo Period prints, for example, “Kirifuri Waterfall, Mt. Kurokami, Shimotsuke Province,” in A Tour of Waterfalls in Various Provinces, by Katsushika Hokusai, and “Kirifuri Falls in the Kurokami Mountains in Shimotsuke Province,” in Famous Views of the Kantō Region, by Utagawa Hiroshige. Kirifuri Falls is in the hills below Mt. Nyohō, which lies four miles northeast of Mt. Nikkō. (See note 2 above, on the three mountains of Nikkō.)

Kurokami-yama is also a poetic place from a poem in which a poet anticipates his aging and white hair, symbolized by falling snow: “It will happen to me not far in the future: on Mt. Black Hair falls white snow” (Sato 48, note 32).

7. Instead of worrying about aging and white hair like the Kurokami-yama poet (see note 6), Sora shaved his head and became a Buddhist pilgrim. “Koromo-gae” (衣更, “clothes for a new season,” lit., “changing clothes”) is a season-word indicating the first day of summer, when people customarily change into lighter apparel anticipating warmer weather. Sora adds another meaning: his new clothing expresses a new religious purpose.

8. Sora was the pen name of Kawai Sōgorō. 

9. Sora may have inked his new name, “Spiritual Enlightenment,” on his bamboo hat to express his new religious purpose. (See “39. Yamanaka,” note 6.)

10. “Summer’s first austerity”: In Bashō’s phrase “ge no hajime” (夏の初, lit. “start of summer”), “ge” is the sinicized reading of the kanji for summer, 夏 (natsu), and 初 (hajime) means “start” or “first.” But “Ge” also refers to the Buddhist practice of ge-goromi—three months of summer retreat for religious austerities, from 4.16 to 7.16. Austerities typically include confinement to a room, fasting, meditation, reading, and copying sutras (Kohl; Shirane, “Narrow Road” 216).

Summer is also the season for pilgrimages, with austerities that include treks over great distances to temples and shrines, living on the road with only bare essentials, and ascending dangerous trails to mountain summits to focus the mind on achieving enlightenment. Still practiced today, pilgrimages often begin with ritual purification, like standing under a waterfall while chanting prayers.

Bashō’s confinement at the waterfall was the first austerity of his pilgrimage, which became increasingly arduous. He trekked on muiddy roads and sheltered from the midsummer rains in ramshackle lodgings with fleas, mosquitoes, and lice; climbed icy Mt. Gassan; and languished in the extreme heat of late summer and early fall. Ironically, Sora, five years younger than Bashō, left the journey to recuperate from ailments while the older Bashō trekked on after rejuvenating himself in the hot-spring waters of Yamanaka.

Urami Falls is located on Route 194, off of Route 120, the road from Nikkō town to Mt. Nantai and Lake Chuzenji. A short hike from a parking lot at the end of Route 194 leads to the falls.

Urami Falls, Nikkō

End of “Narrow Roads of the Deep North: Notes on 4. Muro-no-Yashima, 5. “Hotoke” Gozaemon, and 6. Nikkō”

Bashō’s Narrow Roads of the Deep North—Table of Contents


  1. Bashō’s Narrow Roads of the Deep North: Edo to Nikkō
  2. Bashō’s Narrow Roads of the Deep North: Nasu to Shirakawa
  3. Bashō’s Narrow Roads of the Deep North: Sukagawa to Sendai
  4. Bashō’s Narrow Roads of the Deep North: Tsubo Stone Monument to Hiraizumi
  5. Bashō’s Narrow Roads of the Deep North: Shitomae Barrier to Kisa Lagoon
  6. Bashō’s Narrow Roads of the Deep North: Echigo Road to Zenshō Temple
  7. Bashō’s Narrow Roads of the Deep North: Shiogoshi Pines to Ōgaki; Postscript by Soryū

Notes and Sources

Background and Contexts

  1. Bashō’s Life
  2. Literary Traditions (Renga and Haikai; Renga Composition; Travel Writing; Haibun, or Haikai Prose; Kigo and the Poetry of Seasons; Poetry of Place)
  3. Religious Contexts
  4. Geography and Roads (Edo Roads, Post Towns, Barrier Gates and Checkpoints, Transportation, A Pilgrim’s Outfit and Gear)
  5. Lunar Calendar and Annual Festivals (Lunar Calendar and the Four Seasons, Moon Phases and Dates, Five Annual Festivals)

Related Reading

Pacific Journeys: Home and Away


Pacific Journeys: Home and Away