Shopping Cart


Travel Diary

Journey Along the Sea Road

Translated from the Japanese by Meredith McKinney

The Tōkiadō—the great road linking Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo)— was an important highway long before Hiroshige depicted it in his famous woodblock prints. Back in 1223, when this road linked the old capital of Kyoto and the new capital of Kamakura, a Buddhist monk in his fifties set off from Kyoto to see the sights, traveling by foot and occasionally horse to Kamakura and back. We do not know his name or anything about him, but the travel journal he wrote is among Japan's classics. It played an important role in launching a new genre, the literary travel journal, which culminated four and a half centuries later in the haiku poet Basho's great Narrow Road to the Deep North. Days eleven through sixteen from the journal appear below.

On the eleventh day I set off from Hashimoto. Over the bridge and on I went, turning to gaze back to where the cry of the white waves in my wake called up in me again a longing for all I had left, while along the road the green pine branches tugged at my wayfarer's sleeves. Turning north once more, a lake brimmed in the distance, its surface wrinkled to an aged face. To the west the wide sea heaved, spanned by a cloud bridge that the wind had thrown. It is true all water appears the same, yet the look of salt water and of fresh is different. An osprey beat its wings above the deep, stirring the cool water; the sound of a rowboat's Chinese oars evoked the autumn cry of migrating geese here in this summer sky. On such a journey the beauty of the scene sets the feelings constantly astir, and the thoughts to endless turning.

Passing all this, I came to the bay of Hamamatsu. The sand on this long stretch of beach is so deep that with each forward step it almost seemed I was drawn backward. Thousands of pines grew thick about, and the cries of wind and wave battled together. I watched the sand bars drink each wave, then spew it snaking from their winding channels; each wavelet at the shore came in swaying with jewels, only to shatter on the high-piled rocks. How charming, how bewitching! Unforgettable, irrepressible delight. If life allows me I hope one day to come again and see this shore.

Waves in the bay
in the pines

this seething world

cries out high and low to me
to stand and gaze

The forest wind sent me on my way, past the post town of Maisawa. Off in the distance I saw wooded hills and on the plain a river crossing. The trees along the bank grew true, limbs reaching skyward, but in their reflected watery form their branches grew all the other way. Water and wood are friends in the law of the elements,1 but one reflects the other through opposition, it seems.

It was dusk by now, so I sought out a lodging for the night and stayed in Ikeda.

Leaving Ikeda on the twelfth day I traveled on in darkness. Field and forest are all much the same, but the road changes from place to place so the rare and different pleased me as I went. I crossed the Tenchū River, almost half a mile wide, by boat. The water is so swift and the waves so rough that poling is difficult, and one uses a farmer's broad flat earth-tamper wielded sideways like an oar to paddle across. Lacking the loyal courage of Wang Ba, there was no way to freeze this river for crossing. 2 Perhaps, I thought, this boat was more like the log boat of Zhang Bo3 when he climbed the torrent to its source.

Well then, let me drift
to life's far shore

a floating log to cross
this spreading torrent
reaching to the sky

A mile along the road through Ueno Plain, dew still hung in the wide field of grasses; the rising mists, the sough of wind, were soft. Ah, if only this journey had been an autumn one.4

Summer grasses

still tinged with young spring green
and yet these fields

already hold the look

of coming autumn

I went on through the new post town of Yamaguchi, along a road that remained as of old. On I went, repeating the rhythm of plain behind me and village before, until I came to Kotonomama Shrine, where I paused to worship. I do not know which Buddhist deity is enshrined here,5 whether it be a Buddha or a Bodhisattva. At all events, I am sure this deity must show compassion to a sincere heart. Drawn to this shrine, which reminded me of Miwa Shrine with its thick stand of cedars, I felt the urge to pray for peace in this life and the next. My prayer is that I should gain understanding of the truth of Essential Non- being, and that my heartfelt supplication be accepted.

Answer these thoughts within me
oh god of Kotonomama

in your cedar-crowded shrine

and let me see the fruits
of your solemn promise

Crossing the stream that runs behind the shrine, I set off for the mountain pass of Saya no Nakayama. I climbed for some time, deep valleys to my left and right, the long road to the single summit like some high embankment. Beneath my eyes on either side crowded the treetops below; I trod the songs of flocking birds. Beyond the valleys to right and left towered more mountains. It must be because one passes between them that this pass is known as Nakayama or Middle Mountain. The mountain is as it has always been, and the path the same winding one as of old. The trees bear new leaf, the green of their thousand branches still pale.

This place is much spoken of, and I paused moment by moment over and over to gaze about me—the trees sang like rain in the wind, yet I bathed my ears in it untouched by moisture; the autumn cry of the wind dyed my heart deep although it held no color.

Struggling, I make my way
at last over the pass

of Saya no Nakayama

and yet once crossed
my pain is all in leaving it behind

My dappled horse stumbling with tiredness, the sun sinking in the west, I stopped the night to tend to this frail life of mine in an inn in Kikukawa, or Chrysanthemum Stream.

On the pillar of a house, Count Muneyuki6 had written the following:

At Chrysanthemum Stream in China's Nanyang County
they draw the downstream waters for long life;

here at its namesake on the eastern sea road

at life's end I lay my head upon the western shore7

Pitiful indeed. Born to a family of wealth and abundance, risen to high rank, at the palace's Moon Banquets in jeweled head-dress consorting with luminaries; at the emperor's Flower Banquets clad in fine brocades that vied with all in splendor. Ample in talent, more than full in fame, he gloried in his finest hours, while near and far the people bent before him. Could he ever have foreseen that he would come to this?

An astonishing event! In the middle of the sixth month of Jōku 3 (1221), a wild wind blew in the land and the waves beat fierce.8 Their forces hurtled forth from the imperial walls and the barbarian warriors rushed to battle. Stormy thunder echoed among the clouds, the light of the heavens was eclipsed; the armies shook the very earth while bow and sword plied wildly. The winds, which should have sung the emperor's long life, forgot their ways and blew the trees to tumults, while the limpid river turned from its purity to muddy waves.

The emperor rode the high waves to exile across the western sea, while those of exalted birth were taken and scattered in the east. And this was not all, for the glittering princesses were moved hither and yon to live beneath the clouds of far travelers' skies, grieving to the sigh of wind through the bamboo of a rustic land. No news blew to them as they wandered far abroad. Was this dream or reality? Nothing like it had been heard of. The great curtained mansions lost their owners and now became the lodgings of warriors, while the gold and brocade that had once been tributes were now all in the hands of commoners from far lands. The lifelong lover's vows of couples who had once lain together under their fine bedding were now wrenched asunder while they yet lived, and those who had served them faithfully morning and night for years saw their bonds snapped.

The truth of Buddha's teaching, that all is fleeting and those who meet must part, is truly before our very eyes. I mourn the thought of all those, both high and low, who lie now in the depths of hell. Weep though they may, no one can save them. In tears Count Muneyuki set out on this journey, his spirit weakened. Those who accompanied him were armored warriors, their eyes fixed solely on him as he rode. For his part, he watched the blades they carried, and his soul seemed to leave his breast. In what despair for his life must he have written these lines? Surely tears would wet the sleeve of any who read them, monk or layman.

You who have a heart
pity me, he wrote

that traveler at the inn
who left for us
the flowing traces of his brush

I next went over the plain known as Shimizu Crossing. Though it was the middle of the fourth month, with the beginnings of summer warmth in the air, I still had no urge to dip my hand in the chill of the spring water.

Were it deep summer

I would have paused my horse
to cool myself

and idle at this spring
timeless until the sun had set

Going on through the post town of Hazukura, I arrived at i River. There are many crossings here and the water is swift, overflowing itself, branching into rapids and in and out among islands. Two or three miles on along the road the land spread hazily all about me, filling me with the irrepressible emotions of the traveler. Fierce gusts of river wind whipped the white sand to mist. Tilting my traveler's hat against it, I crossed into the land of Suruga.
I passed through Maeshima, but no waves lapped there as its name suggests; at Fujieda Markets the wisteria was indeed in bloom.

The froth of waves

that should lap round Maeshima
long gone

turned now to the waves

of Fujieda's wisteria blooms

On through the village of Okabe and onward, I made for Mount Utsu. This mountain among mountains was surely carved by the fine skills of a mountain- loving craftsman. Beneath, under the emerald cliffs, stretches a long sandy beach where great boulders tower, while above on the green summit fallen leaves make a rich soil. Wrapping my arms behind my back, face to my chest, up I climbed. Sweat trickled over my bare skin, the single robe I wore hung heavy on me, but I drew the fan from my sleeve and found relief in its light breeze. In this way, I made my way through the dense forest and over the soaring peaks.

This place is truly deserving of its fame. Moved now by one fine stand of trees, now by another, bewildered by the extraordinary power of my emotions as I gazed about me, on I went. Morning clouds darkened the peak—the tiger setting off from General Li's mountain home; evening winds in the valley were chill—the crane dwells where Commander Zheng once lived.9 Already the vermillion sun had winged its way west. Great stretches of cypress and yew were all that met the eye. My aged body's strength flagging at last, mossy boulders met my plodding feet as I struggled on along the steep vine-covered path. I rested a while, and a couple of fellow monks paused too and set up their rope meditation stools to rest beside me.

Mountain monks of Utsu
heading home

take back this message

that I have crossed the pass alone
yearning for the capital

I stayed in an inn at Tegoshi, nursing my feet.

Leaving Tegoshi on the thirteenth day, I went on over the far plains. Soft green leaves on the trees heralded the start of summer, yet the dew on the grass below spoke of autumn evenings. Off in the distance to the north rose a snow-white mountain. Its name was Kai no Shirane, I learned. I had heard this name for years, and now life had let me see it. In these past days I feel I have nurtured my spirits and lengthened my life by a hundred years. Of what use is the afterlife's elixir of immortality in this world below, after all?

Much as this life

means nothing to me, still
having lived thus far

has brought me this reward—
the sight of Mount Shirane

On past Udo Beach, where the waves' sound and the wind's cry purify the heart. To the southeast stands a holy mountain temple, soaring above the landscape all around. It belongs to the great Tendai temple of Enryakuji.10 It is massed with buildings, and preserves the ceremonies of Enryakuji's Great Hall. All year long rise the ceaseless voices of monks chanting the Lotus Sutra. They vie with each other in performing the three-month summer seclusion and the altar offerings. Their practice follows the Middle Way, and they discourse on Emptiness and Non-being. All beings benefit from their practice, and near and far it draws the people's faith.

What was its name? I asked. It is called Kunōji Temple. It was founded by Gyōki,11 and its architecture feels as purifying as a clear wind. I learned that it enshrines the Bodhisattva Kannon;12 the holy goddess of Mount Fudaraku manifests here and shines like the full moon. Buddhism has thrived in this venerable temple for hundreds of years. Monks live on its mountain, in more than three hundred cells deep in mist. The god who was the stone boat in which Kannon rode protects worshippers from sin at the mountain's foot, while the image of Kannon in heaven is enshrined inside the temple to bestow her blessings....

Passing Ejiri Bay, green moss smothered the rocks, and dark seaweed washed against the shore. To the south beyond the bay stretched the endless ocean, sea and sky as one, where a lone sail floated; to the north, dense pine woods draped their somber branches, banking the road on either side.

The fisherman hauls his nets, tiring his body in the very act of shielding it from starvation; the starving fish takes the bait, its very need for life condemning it to death. Just how much can a man profit in this world; how much can a little fish consume? Each feels the same about existence, each treasures life. Further, the woodsman sweating on the hillside, who returns at evening bearing the north wind at his back, the limping seller plying his trade through the fields, who sets out at dawn through the thick white dew—their work may differ but for all, the sufferings of this life are one.

Each one of us

may run our different course
thinking our separate thoughts
yet that road we run on

is the same for all

On I went, gazing far out beyond the bay, where the seaweed drifted like rootless grasses on the waves and jellyfish like little moons floated on the tide, both offering us the lesson of this world's impermanence.

Those sea moons

afloat in swaying waves
watch with an eye that says
you too are adrift

in this unstable world

At the Kiyomi Barrier Gate, my eyes found themselves deceived where high and low, sea and sky stretched as one to the south west. To the north east, meanwhile, mountain and sea cliff both soared steep and arduous to my stumbling feet. Below the rocks white-foamed waves flowered in the wind like spring blooms bursting open, while above the shoreline the pines held their rich green against the threat of autumn. Above in the sky, clouds frothed like waves upon the beach, and the moon like a little boat set forth into the night. On earth, the rocky shore stretched like a road ahead, where the swift-footed wind ran on into morning. Famous places are not always those that move one, long-resonant names do not always delight the eye. But in this bay, I found a place where all I had heard was at one with all I saw. Soaked in the washing waves as I went on, my sullied heart too was washed to pure serenity. With good reason was this place given the name of Kiyomi, or Purifying Sight.

I sought for the remains of the old barrier gatehouse, but heard only the answering empty lament of wind in the pines. At the mossy seashore was a stone that had once been bolts of folded cloth. Once there had been near the gatehouse a place for storing the cloth which the guards took from passing travelers, and it is said this pile of cloth changed to the layered rock we see today.

Wash to me

wind off Kiyomi Bay

the shells of forgetting —
though I gather them

I will not forget this memory

Could later tears

tell of it as now I feel
and see it, sleeves soaked
remembering the beauty
of Kiyomi Bay

Prawns, those old ones of the sea, swim among the waves, while this foolish old man drifts along the beach. Both are bent with age. Are you aware, little prawns, how much longer your drifting life will last? As for my own, this phantom moment of passing existence, I know not.

Passing on along Okitsu Bay, wisps of smoke from the salt kilns rose in the air. Sleeves sodden, the fisherfolk plied their trade, while on the shore little fish lay drying on the roofs of hovels, flashing like scaly roof tiles in the sun. Seeing the fine stands of pines and the rich-colored waves even I, dull and insensitive as I am, longed to share the scene with one who could truly feel.

Soak if you will

these traveler's sleeves, you waves.
While the day lasts

the bay's fresh breeze

will blow to dry them

At Kuki Point fierce winds whipped the sand up, and wild waves barred the way. Drawing breath for the ordeal, the traveler must wait and watch for the moment of a wave's retreat to hurry across. A steep hill rises to the left, and beneath it we dart between rock and rock, while to the right the waves spread far into the distance, drawing the eyes till they seem to leave their sockets.

On and on, to Ōwada Bay, where I saw little boats afloat out in the offing. The sails flew far and fast on the wind, into the white spume beyond, while great turtle-backed waves billowed like clouds, dyed purple-red as they washed the sun. I sought a seaside lodging here, but though this place stopped the heart it offered no pause for the body....

On beyond the post town of Yui is a place called Senbon no Matsubara, or Thousand Pine Beach. My aged eyes dimmed as they gazed out over the far water, my deaf old ears were rinsed of other sound by the singing pines. The wind in the trees sounded like rain on this fine day, but I had above me an emerald canopy as umbrella, so I rested there at ease. White foam-flowers bloomed on the water by the beach, flowers that feared no scattering breeze. Looking back over my long journey, my heart yearned ever more for what lay ahead.

Dividing winds

that ply their many ways
through these thousand pines
sing to me in a voice

that carries the journey's sorrows

I stayed that night in Kanbara, sleeping on a rough reed mat.

On the fourteenth day I left Kanbara and traveled on. Another traveler who had set off before me dropped back to water his horse at a stream along the way, while I arrived after him and sat resting on the grass waiting for his arrival to send him on ahead again. One goes before, the other follows, it is all one in the end—as it is said of death, so also in travel, I thought, and pondering this I crossed Fuji River.

This river flows fast and sinuous over shifting rocks in its center. It is not only the swift waters of Wu Gorge that can capsize a boat, the old poem tells us— the human heart is more treacherous than any river. So it was that I put my trust in a horse to see me across. Old horse, old horse, your wisdom knows not only the mountain path beneath the snow but also the hidden ways of river water....

Going over Ukishima-ga-hara, Floating Island Plain, I found it odd that it is not in fact in the sea but should rather be called a path through open plain, with grassy fields and trees. On I went, watching sporadic drifts of house smoke that now died now rose again. Between the houses young trees have sprung up, so that neighbors grow distant; travelers too, traveling east and west, pass each other unknowing, and the road that runs north and south through the village looks only to mountains one way, or to sea.

With what sorrow

must true friends part
since along the road
even a stranger

stirs the heart in passing

Seeing Mount Fuji, I found it was indeed all that I had merely heard tell of back in the capital. It hung huge against the sky, dwarfing the mountains around. Its peak is the haunt of birds; animal tracks wind about its feet. Human footsteps peter out in the face of this mountain soaring there alone. A hood of snow lay white over its summit. A long belt of soft cloud swathed its thighs. It seemed a very ladder to heaven, it was so high. Those who attempt to climb turn back before they reach its top. The base is so vast that it takes days to circle; those who pass by seem to bear the mountain on their back as they walk. A hot spring bubbles at its summit, a thin trail of smoke rising from it, while at its sides brim cold lakes whose overflowing waters become the Fuji River. This mountain is indeed sacred above all others....

I passed through a place called Kuruma-gaeshi, which means “wagon- repelling.” Perhaps in times past, as in the old proverbs, some mantis guard stood here to block the road to travelers, or perhaps children playing here built a mud fort and ignored Confucius' orders to let him pass.13 Or say it was that village of legend whose name meant “Mother-defeating”—surely anyone, not only the virtuous Zeng Can, would turn back at the unfilial implications.14 Or perhaps one might call this the road over Grand Pass for its forbidding steepness.15 As for myself, however, I was a mere horseback traveler with no wagon to turn back, so the horse and I passed blithely through together....

This day, I had planned to cross Ashigara Mountain and spend the night at Sekimoto, but crows already thronged the evening sky, and herons quarreled over roosts among the trees, so I stopped before I reached the mountain and put up for the night in a place called Takenoshita. High mountains towered all around, a single stream wound its way through the valley, and in the night a storm blew down and beat about my ears—but when I listened more closely I knew it for the wind in the pines. A glittering frost lay on my sleeves, but when I brushed it off I saw it was moonlight. In melancholy wakefulness, I rose and sat out the remainder of the night.

Dreaming in the night

of one I used to know

I wake to that lingering feeling
in shimmering moonlight

and the wind's sighs among pines

Tossed sleepless

on my pillow by the storm
as the night deepens

even my dreams

feel farther from home

I left Takenoshita on the sixteenth day. Going on through a forest and on yet further, I crossed a long single-plank bridge and set out to claw my way up Ashigara Mountain. Wise and virtuous old pines stood sternly about me, a noble wind lifted the broad hat from the traveler's head; clouds piled high upon the tree tops, and the mountain peak towered ever higher. Rain fell during the morning, mimicked in the voice of wind in the pines. Before long the sun rose over Tōka Peak, the clouds fled and the heavens brightened. The old song of the mountain god is still sung today by traveling entertainers. In the evening, the monkey's cries trouble the heart of those who journey here.

Now the peaks soared still higher, and I proceeded at a crouch, clutching at tree roots as I clambered up, scrabbling at the bearded moss that clings to the endless boulders, legs trembling from the effort of the climb. These mountains are referred to as Muma-gaeshi (or Horse-repelling). But if a horse did somehow climb here and one spent the night sleeping propped at its side, the place might punningly be called instead Mumakura (or Pillow-backed Horse).

From here I passed into the land of Sagami.

If it were autumn

with what tumult

these leaves would scatter
as the storms descend
over Mount Ashigara

I went on through the post town of Sekimoto, where the citizens in their rows of houses offer lodgings and wait upon the traveler as their master for a night, while the girls singing in the windows entice him in to treat him as a husband. How sad, to pin such vows of eternal love on a night's transient dream, a long life's faithful bond on the desires of a passing traveler. Though so different from all the rich trappings of bridal jade-green curtains and scarlet boudoir, life together in a humble hut with rustic brushwood door is the same, for both are no more than the brief pleasures of a passing lifetime.

Here among mountains
this valley boasts
the beauties of its blossoms
but their delights
are gone with the passing spring

1. The circle of five elements consists of water, wood, fire, earth, and metal.
2. This and the following reference are to Chinese legends. Wang Ba was a general who encouraged his army across a river with the false promise devoted loyalty to the emperor whose orders he was following.
3. Zhang Bo was said to have followed the Yellow River upstream to find its source on the orders of the emperor.
4. The melancholy season of autumn was considered the most poetically suitable time for a journey. He is traveling in the fourth month, early summer in the old calendar.
5. The deity of a shrine (Shinto) was believed to simultaneously be the embodiment of a figure in the Buddhist pantheon.
6. Fujiwara no Muneyuki (1174-1221), a high-ranking court noble who was captured during a failed uprising. Muneyuki was among the captives taken to Kamakura, but was executed en route.
7. The west is the realm of the Bodhisattva Amida's paradise.
8. The following is a poetic description of the failed uprising that had recently taken place, in which Emperor Gotoba sent forces against the ruling Kamakura government. Many of the nobles who took part, including Count Muneyuki, were executed and the emperor was sent into exile.
9. This sentence weaves together quotes from Chinese poetry referring to well-known legends.
10. Enryakuji, the head temple of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, stands on Mount Hiei near Kyoto.

11. An early saintly monk (668-749) who traveled widely.

12. Avalokitesvara, Bodhisattva of Mercy.
13. The first reference is to the expression “a mantis repelling a cart,” meaning to stand and recklessly confront an outsized enemy. The second is to a story in which Confucius found his way blocked by a children's mud fort in the road, asked them to move it for him, and was impressed by their argument that a cart should make way for a building.
14. Zeng Can was said to have avoided a village of this name because it 
offended his Confucian morality.
15. A road renowned for being so bad that it destroyed vehicles.

Meredith McKinney's translations include Essays in Idleness with Hōjōki by Yoshida Kenkō and Kamo no Chōmei, The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon (both Penguin), and White-Haired Melody by Furui Yoshikichi (University of Michigan). Her collection of classical Japanese travel writing, Travels with a Writing Brush, is forthcoming from Penguin Classics. She lives in New South Wales.


Sign up for A Public Space's Newsletter