On May 16, 1689, the Japanese poet Basho and his companion Sora set off from Edo, the present-day Tokyo to explore the north and west of their country.

The result was the Narrow Road to the Deep North, a travelogue infused with haiku and sketches of characters they meet on the way.

On May 16 last year Alec Finlay and Ken Cockburn set off from Edinburgh to explore Scotland and record their own road north in a joint diary with poetry, photographs and art.

“We did what Basho did. We met people; we were their guests; we wrote about them,” says Finlay. The meeting and visiting were as important as the writing. The pair are both poets but Finlay is an artist who uses many media, including, in this case, tea.

In each of the 53 places they visited they have left a haiku written on a label and usually tied to a tree. “What else were we to do with them? They belong to the place but I don’t mind if they get taken away because we have the photographs,” says Finlay.

The physical record of the visit provided by theose photographs changed the way both wrote, making their poems less descriptive and very simple. Another unforeseen effect of technology was that the blog they kept changed their intended format. Cockburn says they imagined they would write more poems after they had been to a place “but the blog won us over with its informality, its ability to combine different things and being somewhere between a diary and a book. It changed the original static concept of going to a place, looking at a view then writing, to one of reacting to incidental things.”

For Finlay, the blog, for all its ease and welcome scope to include video and audio, brought a new challenge: “A lot of art is made by editing out but in writing the blog there was a sense of having the courage to allow the process to show. We have revealed more than we usually would. That is partly Basho, because when he writes about love or illness or death, there is an obligation on us to do the equivalent, although neither of us would be regarded as a confessional poet”.

The locations were chosen as parallels to the Basho text in which mountains and shrines are places of pilgrimage and for historical and literary resonance. Prehistoric sites, such as stone circles and forts, were their substitutes for Buddhist shrines. Where Basho seeks out the grave of a poet, his Scots counterparts visit Raasay in the company of the poet, Meg Bateman, to pay homage to Sorley MacLean.

There were other literary echoes. Boswell and Johnson’s path round the Western Isles crossed with Finlay’s and Cockburn’s at several points including on Raasay. “In many ways that was the high point of their journey, so we were reading their account as well as Sorley Maclean’s Hallaig,” says Cockburn.

But the concept of view, so important in Japan, is equally transferable to Scotland. In particular, they each became aware, sometimes on separate journeys, that they were circling round Schiehallion. It added a physical dimension to time because they were looking at where they had been or where they were going next week, prompting reflections on what particular views must have meant to the drovers.

The obvious danger of over-philosophising, is avoided with a refreshing cynicism. Finlay’s epigram on Schiehallion is: “like an old stripper/Schiehallion kens hoo tae haud on/tae thon last tassel/o’ cloud”. The haiku label they tied to a tree at Dunsinane bears the message: “the trees are moving/but it’s just the wind”.

At each of their 53 stops they brewed a different tea, a ritual that was not only a homage to the Japanese origins of their odyssey but the material for a series of tea moons. These are art works created by Finlay by imprinting a circle of tea from the used cup, each a different colour of brown or green according to the type of leaves.

Before climbing Slioch, Cockburn notes: “The tea’s Curly Silver-winged Dragon and I feel I’ll need its strength today”. Another equally important ritual was to pour a libation to the spirit of each location with a miniature of whisky , Cockburn’s contribution “to bring together whoever was there,” which once included 25 people. Despite the apparently esoteric nature of their project both poets hope it will inspire others to extend it in their own way by looking more intently at landscape and creating their own life-enhancing rituals. Finlay says he now ties a label with a poem on something on his way to work. “That, to me, is what being cultured is: being able to respect something and share that in a relaxed way”.

Alec Finlay and Ken Cockburn’s year-long project top create a word atlas of Scotland ends with a festival of tea and poetry at the Hidden Gardens at the Tramway in Glasgow on Sunday. www.theroadnorth.co.uk/