“The months and days are the travellers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.”
These are the opening words (translated by Donald Keene) of Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Deep North), a prose and verse travel diary written in the late 17th century by one of Japan’s literary giants, Matsuo Basho, who is most famous throughout the world for his haiku poetry. The journey he described in his book is not simply a splendid introduction to the landscape of Japan but it is also a wonderful introduction to the heart and soul of this rich culture.
Today I gave away my copy of the travel diary to an art collector in Pasadena called Jim who has asked me for advice in building up a collection of Japanese prints. He is particularly interested in the works of one of Japan’s great artists Hiroshige, who, some 200 years after Basho, described the urban and rural landscapes of Japan visually in some of the country’s most spectacular woodblock prints, some of which had a profound effect on modern Western art. His prints in the series The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido (the Eastern Sea Road, linking Edo and Kyoto) are some of the most highly sought-after Japanese prints today. However, this prolific artist created many views of Japan, including a series called the Views of the Sixty-Odd Provinces, which presents views of parts of Japan much further afield. Like Basho, Hiroshige spent much of his time traveling around Japan on foot, sketching along the way in preparation for his various series.
On the advice of a friend who is a Japanese print dealer, I recommended Jim look more closely at this particular series of prints as he begins his journey into the intriguing world of Japanese prints. The journey will not be an easy one as there are print dealers out there who will try to take advantage of his unfamiliarity with the road and trip him up along the way. There are also many “reproductions” that will lure him away from the true works of art out there. However, with a trusty guide, a fair amount of patience and a strong sense of adventure, I hope that Jim too will be stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud as he journeys deep into Japan’s natural and artistic landscapes.