Book Review: On the Narrow Road to the Deep North by Lesley Downer

On the Narrow Road to the Deep North

A book that starts with a map is always a good thing, and a map of Japan is even better. This map, in Lesley Downer‘s 1989 book On the Narrow Road to the Deep North shows the route haiku poet Matsuo Basho (松尾 芭蕉) (1644 – 1694) took in 1689, as followed by the author in the mid 1980s. Inspired by Basho’s last big adventure, Lesley set out on her own trek through rural Tohoku, walking, hitchhiking, and following a dream. ‘Hitori de.’ By herself.

It’s quite something to think that a woman in the 1980s would set out on such an adventure alone. Remember, this was no trip to Tokyo! Lesley was fluent in Japanese, having lived in rural Gifu for five years from 1978 but still, she was heading into a part of Japan where foreigners really didn’t go. When she told her Japanese boss in the UK of her plans, his reaction was “To Tohoku? You don’t want to go there – there’s nothing there. They’re all yokels. You won’t understand their dialect. Anyway, it’s dangerous. You can’t go up there on your own.” Interestingly, despite around 30 years having passed and vast amounts of development having taken place in the Tohoku region, some people have reacted similarly to my own plans to visit Tohoku this May.

Although I lived in Japan for three years I never made it to Tohoku. Since the tragic events of March 2011, Tohoku has been firmly in my mind, and there has been no doubt that I would visit there on my next trip to Japan. Tohoku, in my mind, is a place full of mystery and ‘real Japan’. I know the Japan of Basho’s day has long gone, but I also know a lot of the natural beauty and spirituality remains. It was with these thoughts in mind that I picked up Lesley Downer’s book and followed her adventure.

Lesley’s journey begins in Shirakawa (白河) (in Fukushima Prefecture), searching for the old barrier or checkpoint at which travellers such as Basho and his companion Kawai Sora (河合 曾良) would have had to stop. This barrier was where Basho felt he had really begun his pilgrimage into the northern territories, but Lesley found that hardly anything remained of the original barrier. “Things disappear quickly in Japan.” she mused.

She may not have found Basho’s footprints in Shirakawa, but as her journey continues she certainly crosses his path. In Obanazawa (尾花沢) (Yamagata Prefecture) she even encounters some followers of Basho; keen artists and poets who write haiku together and welcome her with open arms. The locals she meets along the way are so different to anyone she has ever encountered in Tokyo and southern parts of Japan, and they show her such kindness. The people of rural Tohoku may not have all the bright lights of the cities and latest technology, but they certainly know how to appreciate life and show one another respect.

On the Narrow Road to the Deep North follows Basho’s Oku no Hosomichi (奥の細道 / The Narrow Road to the Interior), even recalling his haiku as Lesley treads the same paths he trod and visits the same places he visited (those that are still there). For a Japanophile and Basho fan such as myself, this book tells the perfect story. I ate up every word, letting the haiku linger on my lips as the rest of the story digested. Having now finished the book, I could easily go back for seconds, even thirds…

Whilst reading this book I have been planning my own trip to Tohoku, and it has been the perfect inspiration. I found out about a festival that will be held in Yamagata and decided to divert my trip there (more about that to come in future posts!), and just as this happened I turned to the chapter entitled ‘The Temple in the Mountains’. This chapter begins with a quote from Basho’s own tale: “In the domain of Yamagata is a mountain temple called Ryushakuji.” ‘Ryushakuji’ is what is now known as ‘Yamadera‘ (山寺), or ‘Mountain Temple’. I confess I hadn’t heard of it before, but this temple is now firmly on my list of places I have to visit whilst in Tohoku this year.

Yamadera ©Daisuke Yatsui/©JNTO

Yamadera ©Daisuke Yatsui/©JNTO

I’ve come to this book late, of course, as it was published in 1989 when I was merely 8 years old and probably couldn’t have found Japan on a map. Yet, despite Lesley’s journey being in a Japan of the 1980s, it’s still utterly fascinating. Many of the places she visits are so rural and under-developed that I find myself wondering what I will find as I travel around Tohoku. I know a lot has changed on the surface, but hopefully much is still the same underneath.

Sadly I won’t have time to follow exactly in Basho and Lesley’s footsteps during my own trip, but I do plan on visiting a number of the same places. Perhaps one day when more time allows I can follow more of the narrow path but, for now, I’m happy to have followed the story as Lesley wrote it, and to have let my imagination wander.

hajime ya oku no
ta-ue uta

Culture’s beginning:
Rice-planting song
Of the far north

Basho – written at the Shirakawa Barrier

On the Narrow Road to the Deep North

2 thoughts on “Book Review: On the Narrow Road to the Deep North by Lesley Downer

  1. Hi, interesting post – I’ll have to add this to my list of books to read. If you have not read them already, I can highly recommend Alan Booth’s books “The Roads to Sata” and “Looking for the Lost” which are also about epic walking trips in rural Japan in the 1980s.

    Hope you have a great trip to Tohoku – I’m looking forward to your thoughts and photos if you are kind enough to post them.


    • It’s a really wonderful book – highly recommend it! I picked up ‘The Roads to Sata’ last year but I haven’t read it yet. I’m looking forward to it though!

      Don’t worry – I’ll be taking a lot of photos whilst in Tohoku and will definitely be writing up my adventures! 🙂


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