katatsuburi soro-soro nobore fuji no yama
inch by inch, climb
In Issa's time, climbing Mount Fuji was thought to be a sacred pilgrimage. However, not everyone could make the climb. Therefore, imitation Mount Fujis (small, sculpted hills) were built at various shrines, such as Asakusa Shrine in Edo, so that everyone, including the infirm and elderly, could reap spiritual benefit by climbing them. Issa's snail is climbing one of these pseudo-mountains. Its climb has both Shinto and Buddhist significance. For Shinto, Mount Fuji is the home of the great goddess Konohanasakuya-hime, enshrined near the summit. For Buddhists, it is the abode of Dainichi Nyorai 大日如来, the Buddha of All-Illuminating Wisdom, and its snowy peak represents a supreme state of meditative concentration or zenjo 禅定. The snail climbs to the goddess's blessing; the snail climbs to enlightenment.
According to Kai Falkman, "[This] haiku shows Issa's compassionate irony. However, as anyone can see, Issa presents Mount Fuji at the end of the poem in order to achieve a maximum pun"; see Understanding Haiku: A Pyramid of Meaning (Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2002) 105.
This is the first haiku by Issa that I read. I found it in J. D. Salinger's novel, Franny and Zooey. In that particular translation, the haiku begins with the snail and ends with the word, "slowly": "O snail/ Climb Mount Fuji,/ But slowly, slowly!" Other translators, including Matthew Gollub, present the same ordering of images; Cool Melons--Turn to Frogs! The Life and Poems of Issa (New York: Lee and Low Books, 1998). I agree with Kai Falkman: the order of images in Issa's original poem is important. He starts with a little snail, advises it to keep climbing, and only at the very end does he pull camera focus from close-up to wide-angle and reveal the vast sweep of locale and task: this snail is climbing ... Mount Fuji! See my discussion of this haiku in Haiku Guy (Winchester, Virginia: Red Moon Press, 2000) 114-18.