Over the next six months this website will follow a journey around Japan to photographically portray sites related to ancient Japanese literature - Utamakura. This project was originally devised three years ago in London by photographer John Tran and writer Paul St John Mackintosh. From preliminary work-in-progress an exhibition of 30 images from the Kansai region opened at the Asuka Historical Museum in October.
The history of Utamakura goes back to the first written collation of poems, the Man'youshu or 'Anthology of Myriad Leaves', which was produced in the late eighth century when Asuka was the capital of Japan. Thousands of uta - songs - were written about hundreds of places and this project will only take in a fraction of them. However it is hoped that through this work a portrait of contemporary Japan will emerge placed in the context of its extraordinary and often passionate literary history.
The website will be updated weekly by John Tran and Tamiko Nakagawa.
This project has been made possible with the generous assistance and sponsorship of:
The Asuka Historical Museum
The Asuka Preservation Fund
The Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation
The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation
The Toshiba International Foundation
The first utamakura we have come to is the furthest point north on Basho's Oku no Hosomichi. It's beauty he described as 'lonely but also guilty - as if for some secret evil'.
We have arrived at 6.00am, and the sun is just rising over Mount Chokai, we go to visit the site of Tsukumojima, which in Basho's time was a bay, dotted with 99 tiny islands. An earthquake in 1804 pushed the land up and the islands have become hillocks with the surrounding fields being cultivated for rice. Sora, Basho's travelling companion, wrote a haiku about Kisagata which takes on a strange significance given the change in the landscape;
What heavenly sense
Has taught the birds -
No waves rise so high
As to flood their nests?
(Basho - The Narrow Road to the North)
Directly after Kisagata we have travelled on to the port town of Sakata, and we have to spend a few hours killing time before we can check into a hotel. We are in a strange state after only a few hours sleep on the highway bus and when we visited the Ken Domon museum of photography it seemed like a kind of paradise; the sky was a deep blue with a few shining white clouds. Through the pillars and windows of the cool architecture of the museum Mount Chokai is visible with snow on its peak.
Up very early the next morning to take a picture of Mogami gawa. Outside at 5am it is dark and looks very windy, but by 6am it is pouring. Eventually it clears up enough for me to go out and get blown to the place where yesterday we saw thousands of ducks bobbing up and down on the river. Basho had come down the river by boat and wrote this poem about the river in Sakata -