In the ordered days of the Edo Period, the northern parts of Japan were considered untamed lands of deep mountains and wild forests. One of the ways of entering this region was via the Nikko Kaido highway leading from Edo, now known as Tokyo, to Nikko. The early staging point for a journey on this famous road was Soka.
The Old Soka
These days, Soka is famous for its senbei rice crackers and commuter town university life but some three hundred-plus years ago, the master haiku poet Matsuo Basho put Soka on the map in a very different way. Leaving Edo to go and explore the wild north, Basho’s journey began in Soka and ended up leaving an indelible impression of Japan to his fellow countrymen and women and subsequently, the world.
Soka City’s Inspiration
Basho’s most celebrated work, Oku no Hosomichi
, commonly translated as The Narrow Road to the Deep North
, is a timeless masterpiece of travel literature and the inspiration for aspiring poets and travelers everywhere. Enthused by the rustic beauty of Basho’s words, people from all corners of the globe still dream of walking in the master’s footsteps.
Hundreds of Trees, Hundreds of Years
Soka City still maintains a very real connection with Basho’s time. During those Edo Period years, hundreds of pine trees were planted along the Nikko Kaido highway. These trees, as well as more recent ones, still line the now nationally recognized 1.5 km Soka Matsubara Promenade.
At the time of its recognition in 2013, the Soka Matsubara Promenade featured 634 pine trees and the city has worked hard to ensure that Basho’s legacy – and its own –remains accessible. The area, following the north-south flowing Ayase River, is part of the Fudaba-gashi Park and is replete with symbols and reminders of this legacy.
Standing sentinel at the entrance to the promenade leading north is a wooden Edo Period watchtower. Its crisp geometric shaping marking the line between Basho’s old life and the coming new one. Further on, just beyond the tower, modern-day visitors will come across Basho himself. Lifelike and in transition, a bronze statue of the master stands glancing back towards the old city of Edo as he steps forward.
The Two Bridges
Soon after, Yatate Bridge appears. Named after a famous line in Basho’s travel diary referencing the start of his writing, the bridge offers easy views of the pine trees. A more impressive bridge further along is the arched Hyakutai Bridge. Inspired by the first line of Oku no Hosomichi, hyakutai literally means ‘100 generations.’ Considering the seemingly ageless pines of the promenade and the influence of his poetry, the naming of this bridge is prophetic.
Soka’s Tribute Festival
In celebration of Matsuo Basho’s place in Soka City’s history, the city hosts the annual Soka Matsubara Dream Festival. Established in 2015 the summer festival is now held on the first Sunday of July and features night illumination of the bridges and pine trees as well traditional Japanese street stalls and boat rides down the Ayase River.
Much has changed in Japan since Basho left the capital on his voyage into the wild lands of Japan over 300 years ago. What hasn’t changed though is the admiration, respect and influence that one of Japan’s greatest masters continues to inspire. Though small, Soka City’s role in that inspiration was pivotal and is now easily enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year.
Take the Tobu Skytree Line to Dokkyo Daigaku Mae Station (formerly known as Matsubara Danchi Station). The promenade is a 5-minute walk from the East Exit. The Dream Festival runs from 5:30pm to 9:30pm on the first Sunday of July.