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
Sunday in Tokyo - we wander around like country folk bumping into people and nearly getting run over as we stare at the buildings and the white people.....we visit Yoyogi park where the teddy boys have given over to breakdancers and idol bands. We sit and listen for a long time to a drummer, bassist and guitarist improvising along jazz lines. They and those listening to them cannot help but grin with happiness as the sun goes down.
Tamiko does not get up with me this morning as I go out to take a picture of the slightly dilapidated fun fair behind Kaminarimon. Without crowds of people it has a threatening aspect and in one spot near a betting shop an old man is throwing bottles at the pigeons. The sound as they smash carries a long way in the morning air. We spend the rest of the day pretty not doing much, still feeling tired and rather listless after arriving in Tokyo.
Found a temporary home near Yoyogi park in the form of a weekly mansion and we sit up on a dark bridge at 1.00AM to watch the shooting stars coming out of Leo, these come only every 33 years, so they were last seen the year I was born. The TV predicts hundreds of shooting stars an hour - but the whole thing is something of a disappointment.....we see only four.
18/11 - 24/11
The days become indistinct in Tokyo; although travelling is tiring, so is staying put and we have little energy to do much. However we do manage to visit three sites despite our torpor. At the starting point of Basho's journey, where a statue of the old man looks out over the Sumida river a local businesswoman has parked her car in the spot where I would like to take a picture and I ask her if she wouldn't mind moving it. Tamiko, who is by now long used to my lack of hesitation in asking for things, merely comments on how kind the woman is. At what is now Kita-Senju Basho wrote the second haiku of Oku No Hosomichi:
The birds in sorrow
Fish with eyes full of tears
The passing of spring
There is a map of the Oku No Hosomichi in this unpleasant little children's playground squeezed under the metal framework of a bridge. Even though we ourselves have seen the open beauty of many of the sites on the map it's hard to believe now, as we stand in the midst of this huge city, that they exist.
Before we leave Tokyo we also visit Tamagawa - an uta from the Man'yoshu:
Waving in the waters
Why do I love her so -
In a way pleased to be travelling again - packing everything into what I can carry. But certainly part of me has enjoyed the passivity of remaining in one place. I am looking forward to seeing Kanazawa though, of which I've always heard many good things. We are headed north again towards Sado Island. This is a visit that I have been thinking of for quite a few years and all that time it has bothered me how I am going to take a photo of Sado Island with the Milky Way in accordance with Basho's poem. On the way to the coast we stop at Shibukawa. Snow has appeared on the very tops of mountains, while on the lower slopes the autumn leaves are still red.
Next day Ikaho up on the mountain, nearly lose eachother in the cold, very hard to take a decent photograph of this tourist place.
Even the wind at Ikaho
Sometimes disappears -
But my love for you will never cease
Anon Man'yoshu #3422
However Tonegawa back in Shibukawa in the sunset is gorgeous.
You who I met with heart yearning
I did not know where the shallows were
And crashed into the waves of Tonegawa
Anon Man'yoshu #3413
The views from the train on the way to Yahiko are in between desolate and gorgeous. But although the scenery is wonderful it is a difficult day with many changes and long stopovers. I can't imagine another country that would have this special mix of conveniance with nature. Finally arrive exhausted in Yahiko expecting to have to really go out of my way to take a decent picture of Sado Island off the coast. The owner of the minshuku is eager to make contact - and we try having a conversation half in English half in Japanese sitting in the empty dining room. I feel embarrassed to tell him all the places I've been when he says that he's never been out of Yahiko. His wife is shouting at him from the corridor to help her with the washing-up until she puts her head round the door and sees me sitting in the corner.
I get up at 5AM to take a picture of the Milky Way, but it is pouring down. I can hear a steady drumming on the roof which is so loud, at first it's hard to believe water could make so much noise, however a look out the window confirms it. Simoultaneous relief and disappointment as I get back into bed. We spend this wet day looking at Yahiko temple with the hills behind half hidden in mist.
Even on a day of blue clouds
A little rain
Anon Man'yoshu #3883
We make another timetable mistake and end up having to wait for two and a half hours at the station. However i am quite happy for this, the weather has cleared up and we sit in the park under the red maple leaves, I spend the time carving a stick, while Tamiko reads. We are headed towards the place where Basho wrote the Sado uta and another chance for me to catch the Milky Way.
Lying over angry seas
And the distant Sado Island -
The arch of the Milky Way
Another difficult night in a minshiku and a disturbing dream in which a bus full of people falls off a cliff and is smashed on black rocks. I try to open the bus doors with my tripod after hesitating to go down to help afraid of the blood and broken limbs I will see. I cannot open the doors and wake up with the thought 'the tripod doesn't work' running through my head. At 4.30 AM The wind and rain outside is of typhoon proportions, which means another lost opportunity. But later, in the dawn, I go out and try to get a decent photo out of a very dull beach. While I am changing the film the tripod topples over and the camera smashes on the rocks.
Basho said hundreds of years ago that the area was desolate and he travelled quickly without writing any haiku until Ichiburi where he invented a fictional night spent under the same roof with concubines. The place is just a few houses in two rows by the sea. There is a school, and while we are standing outside it wondering where our objective is, a Brylcreemed man pulls up in a tinted-windowed car and bizarrely (since we are carrying rucksacks and dressed in heavy weather clothes) asks us if we are primary school teachers. At a modern house further into the village a board outside declares that this was the place Basho purported to have stayed.
Sleeping in one house
Consorts and I
Bush Clover and the moon
Tamiko sits quietly looking out to the ocean while I try to wring an image out of the place. I'm getting increasingly hungry and there is nowhere to eat, but we find a shop that has bread and we eat on the train to Takaoka. After only four days travelling I'm exhausted and happy to collapse onto a hotel bed.
Wandering around Takaoka. The most interesting thing being a large cast bronze Buddha with an extra wooden head tucked inside itself in a dark chapel in it's base. I thought we might be blessed by it, but if we are it is a strange blessing - when we get back to the hotel we realise that somebody must have pickpocketed us since Tokyo since we are missing some money.
We visit the Man'yo museum, to check on some poem references. It surprisingly high-tech, with holographic images and sophisticated lighting. Clearly a lot of money has been spent on canonising the literature of the Man'yoshu and the project we are working on seems completely unrelated. Two utamakura sites are nearby; Shokoji temple and the site of a castle -
From my bed in the morning
I can hear singing
While they row their boats
On the Imizu river
Otomo no Yakamochi Man'yoshou #4150
Somewhat incongruously there are a lot of Russians wandering around, and where we have our lunch the owner becomes slightly diffident when in response to him asking where I'm from I say that I am from England. As I speak in Japanese to him and look Asian his expression clouds with suspicion.
At 1AM I am treated, if this is the right word, to two undubbed Greenaway films - a little glimpse of home.
A lot of sitting around waiting for the weather to clear up. In grey drizzle we go out to Oyabegawa which is heavily used by pulp factories.
Late at night, unable to sleep
A bird cries out
Longing for a nesting place
On the river
Huge rusted boxes sweating out smoke and steam, we catch a tram through the industrial area to the larger Shou river and Nago bay where there should be a beautiful view of the snow-covered Tate mountain range. From the guide books we have been using it looks like it would be one of the most beautiful sights of our trip, tantalisingly we saw brief glimpses of the mountains the train when we arrived in Takaoka, but today it's far to cloudy to see anything. Feeling dizzy I get some bread and tinned tea and we sit down by the mouth of the Shou river (called Ogamigawa in the Man'yo period) amongst the rubbish washed up on the beach, mainly hundreds of drinks cans, and have a break.
On the surface of Ogamigawa
Maidens are standing in the shallows
Collecting river reeds
In a brief moment of near sunshine I manage to get a picture of the bay and the river watched over by a scruffy ginger tabby.
Sensing that I am getting bored with hanging round Takaoka Tamiko invites me to a party in the hotel room we are staying in. I accept and look forward to jumping up and down on the bed and throwing the TV out of the window - which is my understanding of what parties in hotel rooms consists of.
Let us ready the horses
And set out to see
The waves crashing into
The clear bay at Shibutani
More dirty weather, and Tateyama continues to be hidden by cloud. We decide though that we cannot afford to spend more time in Takaoka waiting for the weather to change and reluctantly decide to move on to Kanazawa. As we leave, between the platform and the electric lines, we are surprised to see Tateyama shining with snow under the clear but darkening sky.
Opening the curtains of the hotel window this morning I see the sky is completely cloudless, so we go back to Takaoka for the day. The atmosphere is completely different with the sea calm and blue, and although the scene is beautiful I am happier with the photo I took previously when the weather was awful.
As we miss the train we have to walk back into town and reaching Kanazawa again in the evening we walk around looking for somewhere to eat. We are lucky enough to find a place where the food is cheap but very good, I also have the dubious pleasure of sitting next to a man, who by his behaviour and language, must surely be a local yakuza.
At the funeral service of a fellow poet in Kanazawa Basho wrote:
The silent grave does not answer
The sound of crying
Or the voice of the autumn wind
The weather has closed in again and although I can see that in better weather it would be nice to spend time here, at the moment the city is slightly oppressive. I have a perverse streak of missing the ease of missing the convenience of towns when I am in the country, and then missing the openess of the country when I am in towns.
After a brief look round the city in the morning sunlight we travel up the Noto peninsula to Suzu, another utamakura from the Man'yoshu. The journey takes all day and we arrive at an inn with a room a few yards from the sea. We are the only visitors, and it is thrilling to hear the sound of the waves outside the window in this empty place.
I have to sneak out of the inn at 5.00AM as, officially, no one is allowed in or out until 7.00. Outside the rocks are conveniently lit by floodlights and a white heron stands absolutely still on the beach. For an hour and a half I experiment with my replacement camera sent from Tokyo. The sun comes up brilliant red.
Dawn light on the sea
We row to Nagahama and there -
The moon on the water
Coming back down the peninsula is like coming back down into the world - with all it's faults and agitation.
We spend the night at Komatsu where we can take a bus to Natadera. For a while we are the only visitors at the temple. As Basho described it 'the entire place was 'filled with strange sights' and the women working there aggressively try to sell Buddhist trinkets and spiritual services. For 2000 yen we can get a Buddha ring that will ward off all bad luck (will not tarnish while washing the dishes), for a 1000 yen we can buy a year's worth of prayers to protect our health.
The temple's centrepiece was originally the statue of the bodhisattva Kannon, who has an eye on each of her thousand hands. However, since Basho's visit the temple seems to derive more renown from the rocky hill around which it is built.
The autumn wind
Blows far whiter
Than the white mountain rocks
The Narrow Road to the North
Dreary drizzle at Yamanaka, where Basho wrote -
And the scent of the hot springs
We take a long walk by the river Daishoji where we can see the unkempt backs of the spa resorts, and the river water glows a strange milky green. With the grey sky and most of the shops closed it would be nice to stop over at an onsen and relax into a hot spa, but we move on to the town of Daishoji which, apart from the luxury of staying in a modern hotel, is a non-event. The autumn cold has emptied the streets of life.
At the Myojin shrine at Tsuruga -
In the ever changing sky of the north
The full autumn moon
Though the buildings and people may have changed the weather has not, and while I am taking pictures the sky goes through all kinds of convulsions. Rain falls soflty and then suddenly starts pouring - forcing me to give up trying to fight spots of water on the lens and seek shelter. In our dingy hotel room we have a coin-operated TV to look forward to.
There are only three buses a day to and from our next destination, Iro no Hama, in English Colour Beach, and we decide to go by taxi and then come back by bus. The tourist office at the station tells us that there is nothing there, so we buy box lunches at the supermarket and look forward to a quiet picnic on a deserted beach. The journey there is promising - travelling along the coast there is a low mist over the bay and the hills on the other side slide in and out of view. But when we arrive at Colour Beach, while I am setting up the camera I see dark black clouds moving towards us a white sheet of rain hangs from the clouds and everything behind it disappears. I only have time to press the shutter once before the rain reaches us obliterating the sight of anything that is further than 100 metres away. We spend the next three hours sheltering under the eaves of the empty community centre until the bus comes.
Lonelier even than Suma -
Standing on this beach
The end of autumn
Basho - The Narrow Road to the North
Ogaki - Basho's last stop on the Oku No Hosomichi. He describes the day as a happy reunion with friends, but his final haiku faintly reflects the sorrow of his first, as, although he finishes the journal of his travels to the north, he continues walking for several months.
As the clam opens in autumn
I must separate from my companions
And travel on
The day for us is horribly drawn out - the day is too bright to take a reasonable picture and we have to wait until sunset walking around listlessly, since we have checked out of the hotel. The six hours stretch out in a daze, the bright sun, harsh shadows and the mundane sounds of the daytime city becoming an increasing irritation. Finally, when the sunlight is soft enough and I have taken a picture we hurry to catch the train to Kyoto. As we near our destination the sites and station names get more familiar until finally we are standing up on a busy local train coming in to Kyoto just as though we are coming back from a day at work. Although I know no one here I allow myself the luxury of feeling that I have come home.