A Poet’s Journey

from Tokyo to Kyoto via the old narrow road, with Jacqueline Buswell

Islands of Matsushima, photo by Gabrielle Wang.

Shiogama and Matsushima by the ocean in east Japan:

I had looked at the map of our projected travels, looked for Fukishima and saw that we would travel in the area of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant disaster. I had seen an exhibition at Sydney’s Japan Foundation about the tsunami’s aftermath. Even so, it came as a surprise on day one of our travels to find myself at tsunami markers… the water came this far inland (we hadn’t even smelled the sea), the water came this high… In these cemeteries, said the guide, each new black gravestone represents a family, not an individual. The area has been reconstructed in part, but there’s still a hole in these towns, evidenced in empty blocks, new buildings.

memories held in the incense

temple bells to soothe the loss

still, the ache of absence


Matsushima Bay

full of island characters

some bald, most covered in trees

ocean currents

paths on the great whale acre


sticks, frames and buoys for fishing

shags dry their wings there

a solitary boatman does his rounds

Early morning walk, I cross the red bridge to Fukuura-jima island.

silent forest and then

birds fly and sing

cease my footsteps


a single violin

in the illuminated gardens

changes everything


sculptured pines

red maple yellow leaf

all trembling in the pond


Japan closed its doors to the world for 250 years -

Christian crosses

slanted and connected

disguised in temple paintings


in Tokyo we saw a field of peonies

mowed down for winter

but here they are

carved in the lintel lattice

at Zuiganji temple

An older Japanese woman offered to guide us round Zuigan-ji temple, telling us the symbolism of images and materials in the paintings — she had associations for everything, my note-taking couldn’t keep up, there was copper, lapis lazuli, ruby, coral, oyster shell.

peacocks and golden pheasants, for bravery

dragons and elephants, guardians of Buddhism

a candle-shaped doorway

white camellia for gracefulness, peony for prosperity, bamboo for honesty

the hawk, symbol of power, chasing the hare


chrysanthemums in the healing room

pine trees for a long life

evergreen and strong


a dragon and a water tiger

forever fighting each other

gales of wind against a tsunami


and Kariobinga, woman bird, who sings of paradise


Hiraizumi — flat valley of hot mineral springs

we turn as one

to watch the hawk


Chusonji temple –

Basho said

“the summer rains had left / as yet untouched / the hall of gold”

The golden altars are so precious, so holy, we cannot photograph. We make up for this and take photos of ourselves in the gardens, with Basho in bronze.

Entrance gate, Nijo Castle, Kyoto. Photo by Gabrielle Wang.

At the Benkei Inn in Hiraizumi I see

pieces of charcoal

in the ikebana

petals on dark mountains


the passing bullet train

could grab me

from the platform


I felt this same hole at the bottom of my stomach at the dark pond amid the illuminations at Entsuin temple in Matsushima:

at the autumn evening festival

the pond so still and deep

I step back


the tree fell

and broke its spine

at the gully


Don meets an old woman bent with age, he wants to practise his Japanese and greets her with a cheery “Ohayo gozaimasu”.

the old woman unfolds

at his greeting

her smile remains

The caretaker serving tea at the magistrate’s house where haiku master Basho and his disciple Sora spent the night.

At the house of the local headman where Basho and Sora stayed, we sit around an open fire with a heavy metal kettle, and drink tea. Wooden Basho and Sora stand outside, more photos… The charming caretaker speaks not of poetry, but of maintenance issues.

how to thatch a roof

40 truckloads of straw

one 76 year old master


We climb the mountain Haguro-san, its 4,500 steps under cedar trees and mixed deciduous forest. We reach the temple late afternoon and then are taken by bus to a local onsen and somewhere else to a sumptuous dinner. This trip is in the dark, and I have to say I don’t know where we went. The baths were the busiest and best we had yet visited, and they had an outdoor bath as well which we enjoyed briefly. Briefly, because we had to hurry on to the next bus ride to the evening banquet. We return to simple lodgings at the temple on Mt Haguro and sleep at the saikan, in rooms divided or joined by sliding partitions. It is cold. In the morning we attend a Shinto ceremony and are blessed by a shaking of bells on our backs. We are given a sip of sake, I partake, yes, at dawn!

three legged crow

on a stone globe

crow clan shows the way


at this temple they practise

ascetic endurance

why are there weeds out the back?


Buddhism, Shintoism

centuries of power struggles

so complicated -

I believe in the onsen

the pure land of the west

gives healing waters

We travel through mountains, some with snow, by bus and train heading southwest, in Yamagata prefecture — to Kanazawa. I glimpse the Sea of Japan through the train window — China’s over there.

travellers zipping bags

after a good night’s sleep

at the top of the world


they trundle with their bags on wheels

each new surface

brings a change of key


it’s not all palaces and pagodas

electric toilets

shoe horns in hotel rooms


on the bullet train

when you board and alight

seconds count


new social division at the railway:

those with big bags

to the back of the wagon

those with small bags move forward

Kurikara Pass walk -

an apple orchard

heavy with fruit

we stand and salivate


beaten down

by long-past warriors and pilgrims

the path has sunken

well below the forest floor

how much heavier on the earth

today’s asphalt and concrete


the joy of arriving in Kyoto

tempered by

election news from USA

the day is nine-eleven


the shops are endless

the shopper is persistent

with smiles the gifts are wrapped


Passing through Tokyo to catch our flight home I remember our first hotel:

the old red antenna

at night

a tower of orange jewels

Jacqueline Buswell (right) with travelling buddy Lyn McGettigan and Basho’s statue.

© Jacqueline Buswell 2016

Jacqueline Buswell is a Sydney based traveller, poet, interpreter and translator with a keen interest in Spanish/English communication (and now Japanese kanji). Her first collection of poems is published with Ginninderra Press.

Jacqueline was a traveller on Haiku Walking in Japan 2016. The next trip heads out in November 2017.

Except where indicated, photos by Jan Cornall.

Read other contributions to Summer Grass here.

www.writersjourney.com.au