How Matsuo Basho Created “Oku no Hosomichi”?

by Amy
Oku no Hosomichi

Matsuo Basho, one of Japan’s most famous and influential poets, is best known for his haiku and travel writings. Among his many works, “Oku no Hosomichi” (“The Narrow Road to the Deep North”) stands out as a masterpiece of travel literature. This poetic travelogue, written in the late 17th century, chronicles Basho’s journey through the rugged and remote regions of northern Japan. It is a work that combines prose and haiku to create a vivid and deeply personal account of his experiences. This article explores the creation of “Oku no Hosomichi,” examining the historical context, Basho’s motivations, the journey itself, and the literary techniques that make this work a timeless classic.

See also: How To Make A Haiku Poem About Nature?

Historical Context

The late 17th century in Japan was a period of relative peace and stability under the Tokugawa shogunate. This era, known as the Edo period, saw the flourishing of arts and culture. Basho, born in 1644, lived through a time of significant social and economic change. The rise of a merchant class and increased urbanization led to greater access to education and the arts for a broader segment of the population. The haikai no renga, a form of linked verse poetry, evolved into the more refined haiku, a form that Basho mastered and popularized.

Basho’s travels and writings were influenced by the broader cultural currents of the Edo period. Pilgrimages to sacred sites and the exploration of Japan’s natural beauty were popular pursuits among the literati and the emerging middle class. Travel literature, known as kikobun, became a popular genre, blending poetic descriptions with personal reflections. Basho’s “Oku no Hosomichi” is a prime example of this genre, reflecting both the cultural trends of his time and his unique poetic vision.

Basho’s Motivations

Basho’s decision to embark on the journey that resulted in “Oku no Hosomichi” was driven by multiple factors. First and foremost, Basho was a deeply spiritual individual, influenced by Zen Buddhism. He sought to transcend the mundane aspects of life and achieve a deeper understanding of the world through travel and poetic contemplation. This journey was a form of spiritual pilgrimage, a way for Basho to connect with nature, history, and the divine.

Additionally, Basho was motivated by a desire to follow in the footsteps of his poetic predecessors. The journey through northern Japan, particularly to the site of the famous battle of Sekigahara and other historical landmarks, allowed him to engage with the literary and historical heritage of Japan. By visiting these places, Basho aimed to draw inspiration from the past and contribute to the ongoing literary tradition.

Finally, Basho’s travels were a means of seeking personal growth and artistic renewal. He was aware of the transient nature of life and the importance of seizing the moment. The journey was an opportunity for Basho to immerse himself in new experiences, encounter different people, and observe the changing seasons, all of which would enrich his poetry.

The Journey

Basho’s journey began in 1689 when he set out from his home in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) accompanied by his disciple, Sora. They traveled on foot, covering over 1,500 miles through some of the most remote and rugged regions of Japan. The journey took approximately five months, from late spring to early autumn, allowing Basho to witness the beauty of Japan’s landscapes in different seasons.

The route of “Oku no Hosomichi” took Basho and Sora through places of great natural beauty and historical significance. They visited sites such as Mount Fuji, the Shirakawa Barrier, the ruins of Hiraizumi, and the islands of Matsushima. Along the way, Basho recorded his observations, encounters, and reflections in a diary that would later become “Oku no Hosomichi.”

One of the key aspects of the journey was Basho’s deep connection with nature. He described the landscapes in exquisite detail, capturing the essence of each place with a few carefully chosen words. For example, his description of the Shirakawa Barrier as “the entrance to the deep north” evokes both the physical and metaphorical significance of crossing into a remote and mysterious region.

Basho’s journey was not without challenges. The rough terrain, inclement weather, and physical exertion tested his endurance. Despite these hardships, Basho maintained a sense of wonder and gratitude for the experiences he encountered. His haiku often reflect this appreciation for the fleeting beauty of nature and the transient moments of human existence.

Literary Techniques

“Oku no Hosomichi” is renowned for its masterful blending of prose and haiku. Basho’s prose passages provide context and narrative continuity, while his haiku capture the essence of specific moments and scenes. This combination creates a rich and multi-layered text that engages the reader on multiple levels.

Basho’s haiku are characterized by their simplicity, vivid imagery, and emotional depth. He often used seasonal references, known as kigo, to ground his poems in the natural world. For example, in one of the most famous haiku from “Oku no Hosomichi,” Basho writes:


Summer grasses—
all that remains
of warriors’ dreams.

This haiku, written at the site of the former Hiraizumi battlefield, poignantly reflects on the passage of time and the impermanence of human endeavors. The contrast between the vibrant summer grasses and the long-faded dreams of warriors underscores the transient nature of life.

In addition to haiku, Basho employed other literary techniques to enhance the depth and resonance of his travelogue. He often alluded to classical Chinese and Japanese literature, creating a dialogue between his own experiences and the broader literary tradition. These allusions enrich the text and invite readers to consider the connections between past and present, nature and culture.

Basho also used the technique of honkadori, or “allusive variation,” where he echoed lines from classical poems while giving them new context and meaning. This technique allowed Basho to pay homage to his predecessors while simultaneously asserting his own poetic voice.

The Legacy of “Oku no Hosomichi”

“Oku no Hosomichi” has had a profound and lasting impact on Japanese literature and culture. It is considered one of the greatest works of travel literature in the world, admired for its poetic beauty, philosophical depth, and vivid descriptions of the natural world. Basho’s journey and his reflections on the transient nature of life continue to resonate with readers across centuries and cultures.

The influence of “Oku no Hosomichi” extends beyond literature. Basho’s reverence for nature and his contemplative approach to travel have inspired generations of writers, artists, and spiritual seekers. His haiku, with their emphasis on capturing the essence of a moment, have become a cornerstone of Japanese aesthetics and continue to influence contemporary poetry and art.

The text has been translated into numerous languages, making Basho’s journey accessible to a global audience. Each translation brings its own interpretation and nuance, reflecting the universality of Basho’s themes and the timeless appeal of his writing.


Matsuo Basho’s creation of “Oku no Hosomichi” is a testament to his genius as a poet and his profound connection with the natural world. The journey that inspired this work was a spiritual and artistic quest, driven by Basho’s desire to explore the depths of his own soul and the beauty of the world around him. Through his masterful blending of prose and haiku, Basho crafted a travelogue that transcends time and place, offering readers a glimpse into the heart of Japan and the mind of a great poet.

“Oku no Hosomichi” remains a timeless classic, celebrated for its poetic brilliance and its philosophical insights. It stands as a reminder of the power of travel and nature to inspire and transform, and of the enduring legacy of one of Japan’s greatest literary figures. As we continue to explore and appreciate Basho’s work, we are reminded of the importance of seeing the world with fresh eyes and an open heart, capturing the fleeting beauty of each moment in our own journeys through life.

Related Articles


Discover the soulful universe of PoemsHubs, where words dance with emotions. Immerse yourself in a collection of evocative verses, diverse perspectives, and the beauty of poetic expression. Join us in celebrating the artistry of words and the emotions they unfold.

Copyright © 2023