Iwa ni shimiiru
Semi no koe
The way stillness is
Sinking into very stones
Voice of cicadas
The little town of Yamadera lies in a small valley, recognizable by the cliffs jutting out of the forest on one side, rocky outcroppings on which perch halls of the revered Risshakuji Temple (lit. “The Temple of Standing Stones”). A stone stairway on this side of the valley leads through the temple and up to these precipices. In the early morning or after dusk, one can still find the stillness here that Basho spoke of, transfixed by the voices of cicadas in summer.
On the other side of the valley is another stairway. It leads up to a viewpoint looking back—over the river, across the town, to Risshakuji. It also leads to a museum devoted to Matsuo Basho, one of Japan’s most prominent haiku poets. Yamadera was one of the poet’s well-known stops along his journey through the north, immortalized in his travelogue The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He passed this way in July of 1689—hence the cicadas and safflowers referenced in his haiku about Yamadera. You can come relax here before or after visiting Risshakuji, letting it all sink in.
Climbing this other set of stairs, up a gentler slope than those it faces, you will find the hiragana for two of Basho’s haiku marked on the steps, reading one on your way up, and another on your way down. Climbing, step by step you will read: shi-zu-ka-sa-ya—and you come to a small landing marking the first five-syllable line. Taking your next step, still reading off the stones: i-wa-ni-shi-mi-iru—seven syllables; second landing, then se-mi-no-ko-e. Extra steps are provided above, inviting one to play with the meter of the poem for a little while before you reach the top.
This approach brings you to the Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum. The images presented in Basho’s poetry will come to life as you walk about this simple but engrossing museum. Scrolls in Basho’s own hand will show you how he presented some of the haiku, as gifts or in competitions. Basho’s stated goal was to find and observe remote places worthy of fresh verse. His accomplishment was not only a splendid collection of transcendent poetry but also a lively, engaging selection of prose travelogue, passing from one landmark to the next while telling how he passed and whom he met.
In addition to the permanent exhibits, there is also special-exhibition room with exhibits that are rotated on a semi-regular basis. The special exhibit might focus on an aspect of Basho’s life and work, or might delve into the culture and history of Yamadera. For example, when I visited in October, the special exhibit was the sixth installment in a series of exhibitions which highlighted Yamagata’s history as a prosperous region for benibana (safflower) production.