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
On this part of our journey we are headed once again to Tokyo, this time covering sites along the old Tokaido route. Our first journey is to cross the Wakayama peninsula towards one of Japan's most revered and ancient shrines - Ise Jingu. We arrive at a very grey dark Toba station in the rain after having passed through beautiful mist and clouds. Now too wet and dark to take pictures, and as there is no suitable accommodation we decide to get back on a train and go on to Ukata, which will put us in easier reach of an utamakura at the beach of Kou. In the night we step out of the hotel to find somewhere to eat and settle on a large, but empty Japanese restaurant. Apart from us there is only one other customer; a very drunk man sitting at the counter, grunting. The woman working there is nervous that his inarticulate noises disturb us and sits near him to shush him whenever he starts to moan loudly.
A bus ride to the beach where the wind whistles through the nets of a golf course that runs the length of the shore.
Maidens on sailing ships pass by
Their red sleeves trail
In the water of Ago bay
And fill with the tide
Anon. Man'yoshu Vol.15 #3610
Going back to Ukata we pick up our luggage and then go on to Toba to catch a ferry to Toushijima, a small island in the bay of Ise, visited by one of the Man'yoshu's most illustrious poets. The concrete tetrapods that surround the small hill that is the utamakura are a very particular shape; Like Escher in three dimensions. Crows and hawks hover over the cape.
This day too,
At the cape of Tafushi
With their bracelets of shell,
Are the courtiers gathering seaweed?
Kakinomoto no Hitomaro. Man'yoshu Vol.3 #41
On the way back to Toba on the ferry the wind bites very cold, but it looks like a summer sunset. From the port we travel on to the town of Ise. After dinner we walk around and come to the outskirts of the outer shrine which, in the dark, appears as an impenetrable forest.
The dawn comes up slowly through patchy clouds, at the outer shrine there are many guards dressed in heavy navy blue coats with gold trimming, and an unusual number of surveillance cameras. Scattered through the grounds at the foot of twisted trees are offerings and tiny wooden torii - temple gates. We go on to the inner shrine, the very central part of which we cannot enter, but we see the bright glint of the golden roof work shining through the trees above the wall of the enclosure. At the entrance a pure white cloth flaps in the cold winter wind flashing us glimpses of the shrine within, while nearby a shinto priest is in prayer. On the way back to the gate we come across a solitary white horse, its head hung low, standing quietly in a stable.
It is now late in the morning, and we take a train to Matsuzaka and from there take a bus to Higashi Kurobe which at the time of the Man'yoshu used to be known as Matokata. In the strong wind occasional sun pierces the clouds and although the area is an empty plain it is strangely impressive. The first character of Matokata is also the word for 'target' and the uta for this place revolves around this homonym or 'kakekotoba',
Shooting arrows straight to their targets
Pure to my view -
Leaving for Nagoya, we pass by Akuragawa, which in Man'you times was on the coast. Now the Utamakura of Shide temple is landlocked and a line of factories stands between it and the sea. The temple itself is buried in the shadow of surrounding trees and as it would not make an interesting picture I am about to admit defeat and move on without getting my camera out when we come across a small allotment amongst the houses. Fixed to a barren tree are black strips of vinyl that wave in the breeze and the scene seems to fit the poem,
At Cape Shide
I think of you in Nara -
Tying a thread on these boughs
I pray for our happiness
Anon. Man'yoshu Vol. 6 #1031
At Nagoya, before meeting an old friend we visit Sakurada, a hill that once looked out over the sea.
The cry of cranes
As they fly to Sakurada
And the tide has ebbed from Ayuchi bay -
The cry of cranes as they pass by
A bright hazy day. Before we leave Nagoya we must try to take a picture of Chita bay, but as factories cover the coastline we do not know how we can get to the shore. We take a train to what we think is the nearest station to the bay, thinking we will be able to walk from there, but instead we take a taxi, and ask the driver to take us to the sea. With increasing discomfort we watch the fare on the meter rise into thousands of yen as we wait for him to drop us off somewhere. In the end any worries about his honesty are put aside as we eventually end up at what seems to be the only place with public access to the water side; a long bar of concrete for fishing from presided over by two gigantic smokestacks.
At Chita bay, the ships rowed out
In the morning
seem too far from the shore
Irago. An hour and a half bus ride from the nearest train station, when we get on the bus, one of the other passengers is a young man who cannot sit still, his head darts from side to side as if he cannot bear to miss anything from the window. Then he cannot decide on a seat and keeps moving in the bus. At first, his behaviour is irritating and makes me angry, and then I realise that he is mentally disturbed; his face is blank and his mouth hangs open slackly. I wonder about my own reaction to his behaviour, which now I realise was wholly unnecessary.
At Irago port there is a lively business at the ferry terminal with plenty of people waiting to catch the boat to Toba, but a few yards away rubbish and concrete make for an empty and unappealing shoreline. Heavy fog hangs over us and out to sea, ships and islands drift in and out of view. Here the nobleman Prince Omi contemplated his conviction and exile from court -
Sorrowful life in this world
Soaked by the waves
On Irago island
I harvest seaweed
Man'yoshu Vol 1 #24
However, we walk a kilometre around the promontory on which the lighthouse stands and find a long empty beach of white sand. Despite the dirty wet weather, the water of the Pacific is a pure aquamarine, and the translucent inner curve of the waves is deeply peaceful.
On the bus back an old man tries to spark up a conversation with us to which in my minimal Japanese I am polite but non-committal. As it turns out he also is mentally disturbed, and I watch while he tries to talk to other people on the bus. When it comes to his stop he engages the bus driver in a long and illogical discussion, the bus driver, however, remains calm and polite throughout.
Far inland now, at the town of Iwata:
Endlessly the waves
Caress the long beach at Ono bay
As I long for my love
Emperor Shomu. Man'yoshu Vol.8 #1615
At Yaizu we check into a cheap business hotel and then take a bus to the Oi river. At first bright and sunny, as we stand on a bridge over the river that is trembling from the passage of heavy trucks the sky turns black and for a brief moment we see Mount Fuji before it starts raining.
The boats in the morning
On Shida bay
Are they rowed without purpose?
No, not without reason
Anon. Man'yoshu Vol.14 #3430
Mt Fuji flashes in and out of view as the day passes, when appearing it dominates everything in sight. We visit the shrine at Kiyominosaki which is oddly placed, cut in half by a railway line passing through it. Once boasting a fine view of the bay - Tago no Ura - now the shrine looks over a container yard and giant gantry cranes. On the sea journey to assume the governorship of Kamitsuke (in present day Gumma prefecture) Lord Taguchi Masuhito wrote:
Glittering in the sunlight
I can look endlessly
At the bay at Tago -
Bowing to the order of my sovereign
I look now in the darkness of night
Man'yoshu Vol. 3 #297
At Shizuoka we stop to drop off our luggage, which these last few days the weight of which has been making me short-tempered and unreasonable, and then go on with just the camera equipment to Fujikawa. We are here to take a picture of the river, but somewhat uncommonly there is no path to the water's edge. Strangely complete items of garbage litter the riverbank - a wetsuit carefully laid flat on the rocks, a nearly new motorbike propped upright on its stand, a car driven into the river, its trunk end stuck up in the air. Mt Fuji in an otherwise empty blue sky creates an ever renewing cloak of white cloud. In our frustrated wait for it to appear we tramp through rotting unattended allotments, mosquitoes and marsh to finally drop down to the river's edge where there is a wide beach of chalk pebbles.
High peak of Mount Fuji
In its honour
Even the sacred clouds
Part and trail behind
Anon. Man'yoshu Vol.3 #320
We spend the night at an old friend's house in Shizuoka. As we have not seen each other for five years I am in that unpleasant predicament of having a lot to tell and little to say.
My verbal paralysis lasts all day as we poke around in our friend's car looking for a good spot to take a picture of the bay - Tago no Ura, which was originally celebrated for its view of Mt Fuji. The original area of the utamakura is mostly taken up by a busy highway, and the area that is now referred to as Tago no Ura belches smoke and steam from a multitude of large factories. In both cases the shoreline is not generally accessible, however we find a place to follow the river at Yui down to the sea where there is a stony beach and a very friendly dog who keeps us company for an hour or so.
We stay another night at our friend's house and meet her husband who runs a second-hand jazz and soul record shop. After plenty of beer and Chinese brandy we talk late into the night about Japan in the midst of the present depression and what might happen in the future.
A clear wintry day; we leave for Tokyo and on the way stop at the town of Fuji to take a picture of the landscape of factories with Mt. Fuji in the distance,
Never again to meet my lover -
As the high peak of Fuji
In the land of Suruga burns within
So shall I
Anon. Man'yoshu #2703
We arrive at Tokyo station at night and stay the night in a cramped business hotel named 'Heimat'.
29/1 - 5/2
Almost as soon as we have found a place to spend the week in Komagome - a residential area of Tokyo - Tamiko goes down with flu. Consequently much of our time is spent in the tiny area of our weekly mansion. With so little room and not much to do the smallest actions of daily life - making tea, having a shower - become strangely distorted into major operations. In between mopping Tamiko's brow and various meetings I only have the opportunity for two excursions - one to the suburb of Ichikawamama and then to Sumida river. At Ichikawamama, known as Katsuhikanomama in the man'you period, the day is heavy and the light is a sickly yellow-grey. Here many uta are sung to the grave of the beautiful maiden Tekona who, courted by innumerable suitors, committed suicide to avoid having to choose among them.
Thoughts of Tekona
Seeing the well at Katsuhikanomama,
Knowing that it was here she stood
To get fresh water.
Takahashi Sakimaro. Man'yoshu Vol.9 #1808
Later in the week I walk along the northern part of Sumida river looking for a suitable place to take a photograph, under every bridge it seems there is a little cardboard and blue vinyl bivouac with a pathetic collection of collected objects.
The most famous uta about the Sumida is by the notorious lover-poet Ariwara no Narihira, who on travelling east reached the river and about to board a ferry became nostalgic for the capital in Nara and the people left behind. At this point he sees a bird which the ferryman identifies as a 'capital bird' or Miyakodori. To this the poet sings:
If you are truly
Of your name
I ask you this, Miyakodori
What news of my love?
Tomorrow we go back to Kansai, and then on to Kyushu to spend a week covering the area of Otomo no Tabito's governorship. We are now more than half way through our journey and as the days get longer and the sky brighter the end of each leg brings our return to England closer. Despite the bitter winter wind I cannot help having a certain deep-down envy of a man who lives under a bridge with no social obligations.