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
After one night we travel on to see the Mogami River at Oishida, it seems deep in the heart
of the country and the river itself is silent and grand, although in the tradition of classical
poetry it is described as a rushing torrent. We stop only for 45 minutes, and a light rain spits
down from heavy cloud.
The rains of May
Basho _ The Narrow Road to the North
五月雨をあつめて早し最上川 （松尾芭蕉 − おくの細道）
The complete silence
Of the temple _
Only the voice of a cicada
Pierces the rock
Basho _ The Narrow Road to the North
閑さや岩にしみ入る蝉の声 （松尾芭蕉 − おくの細道）
We travel on to Yamadera the same day_ from Basho's description of it as a place of silence
and stillness I am looking forward to seeing how much the place has retained this quality
after 300 years. Also I have been told that we may meet someone there; Toshihiro san, who
is also travelling around Japan, researching a book on place and poetry. The
coincidence that we will be in the same place at the same time looking at the same things
is very exciting, but also I am conscious of the fact that this means little in terms of whether
we will be of like mind. The majority of people who have seen the exhibition at Asuka have
been politely perplexed as to why I should include diggers or corpses of dead cats in
pictures of sites revered in ancient poetry as places of great beauty.
We arrive at Yamadera at night and the shadow of the mountain rises darkly above us. It is
not completely silent _ there is the quiet sound of the river in the moonlight, and, strangely,
no houses in the village show signs of life. Only the pension where we are staying has light
in the windows. However there is no one called Toshihiro booked in. I am relieved and
disappointed at the same time
The next day it all changes with hundreds of visitors arriving. The temple and view from the
mountain is overwhelmed by the chattering and to-ing and fro-ing. The final straw comes
when a woman selling konyaku at the site of the semi zumi _ the spot where Basho
composed his haiku praising Yamadera stillness - chastises me for smoking on a sacred
In the evening we arrive at Sendai. Something of a relief to be in a big city, and in the
midst of drunk salarymen and hostess girls on the way to work we find a hotel in the pleasure
Fleas and lice
Asleep in bed
A horse pissing
Close to my pillow
蚤虱馬の尿する枕元 （松尾芭蕉 − おくの細道）
The day is very grey, and a succession of slow local trains lead to a station in the boondocks.
We are the only people to get off at Sakaida, where the house in which Basho composed
the above poem has been turned into a museum. We have only a few minutes to get a
picture of the house before the next train arrives in the opposite direction to take us back to
Sendai; if we miss it there's a long wait in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do but get
drizzled on by a light rain. Before leaving the platform I contemplate taking a picture of
the toilet at the saddest station in the world; there is no ticket office or even a vending
machine; just an empty waiting room with the small concrete block of the toilets next to it. I
open the door and see that it is full of cobwebs and bugs. Perfect; but in the rush to get to
the museum and back to the train I have to forgo capturing this image.
Send for an umbrella,
For the dew under the trees
Is greater than rain
Kokinshu #1091. Anon
みさぶらひみかさと申せ宮城野の木の下露は雨にまされり 古今和歌集 #1091
Early in the morning we visit Miyagino which in Basho's time was well known as a field of
bush clover and for the dense pine woods of Konoshita. The Miyagino we see today is a
sports stadium and baseball field, and further out, a container yard. Then, after a long
midday siesta, we then rush out to Natorigawa at sunset, where I hope there was enough
light, as the image I found there was one of my favourite so far _ a suspicious looking 70's
car parked under a graffiti covered bridge.
The Shadow of red autumn leaves
On the banks of Natorigawa
Makes a carpet of rich cloth
On the river bed
なとり川きしの紅葉のうつる影は同じ錦を底にさへ敷く （西行法師 − 山家集）
On the road again after our relatively luxurious stay in Sendai; I had some developing done
and to my great relief the negatives look usable. I cannot enjoy the views I see worrying
about whether I will adequately visualise what I want on film, at the same time I cannot
enjoy a scene unless, in some form, I try to create something from the experience of it.
It is a short trip to Shiogama, but we are definitely in the country again. The hotel where we
stay is reminiscent of Vietnam, in the 50's leatherette feel to everything. A hard day out - a
lot of walking in strong winds, but, on the bad side of the tracks, so to speak, we come across
a junkyard that is full of colour and where half empty cans of paint, plastic armchairs and
dead fish share the same resting place. Delightful. In the evening Tamiko wants to have
sushi as we are staying in one of the biggest ports in Japan. It tastes good, but I must admit
that even after all this time of eating Japanese food, I can't help feeling uneasy in case
anything I eat moves.
In Michinoku province
Everywhere is sorrow _
But especially here in the bay of Shiogama
When I see the boats pull away
Kokinshu #1088. Anon.
みちのくはいづくはあれど塩釜の浦漕ぐ舟の綱手悲しも （古今和歌集 − #1088）
After a week in the North we come to Matsushima _ One of the main reasons Basho sold his
home and belongings to travel. The crowd on the boat is a portent of things to come; noisy
and drunk, Tamiko takes the lighter view of this and is happy that the crowd are enjoying
With so many poems already written about the beauty of Matsushima, Basho did not
attempt to write anything here, and in a similar fashion I am inclined not to compete with
the wealth of gorgeous images that so many photographers have made of the islands here.
However, when we go up to the viewpoint of Saigyo Modoshi koen, where the poet Saigyo
failed to answer a koan and had to return from Matsushima without seeing the islands, I
cannot resist taking a picture of a 'panorama' caf_. It is loudly playing 70's music to the only
other visitors there _ a young couple who resentfully move on when we disturb them from
We are booked into a little ryokan near the sea front, and the woman who checks us in is
extraordinarily helpful and kind. She brings us our meal with a deep sincere bow that is
almost shocking, I want to eat everything on the tray to show how much I appreciate her
Early next morning, feeling guilty about my failure to even try and capture some of the
beauty of the place, we go to the little island where Basho first alighted in Matsushima and
catch the dawn.