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
Basho wrote that on his way north to Hiraizumi he mistook the way along a little used and
lonely path and ended up in the busy port of Ishinomaki. Even now the trip seems like a detour
into a strange secluded world. One hour on a local bus from the nearest train station the
journey along the coast road leads us to a hotel perched on a cliff. It is mostly empty, and
despite the beautiful scenery leading up to it, from looking out the window it seemed that I
would not get a clear view of the utamakura that we have chased here,
As if by chance to honour
Our prince's reign of peace
The discovery in the north
Of a mountain blooming
With flowers of gold
Otomo no Yakamochi
The mountain of the poem, Kinkazan, is on a small island a few hundred metres across the
water from the hotel, it looks fairly plain, and the view is obscured by ragged bushes and
treetops. However, before dinner, Tamiko and I try to find a way down to the shoreline, and
down precarious steps and over branches blocking the path we find an empty beach.
Listening to the waves there I feel at peace for the first time since coming to Japan. The
mountain in the last minutes of the sun set glows gold, and then, if that was not beautiful
enough, a thick full orange moon rises suddenly from the clouds over the mountain.
We have to back track a little to move on to our next stop Hiraizumi site of ancient battles
and a shrine covered in gold. We are lucky to find a place to stay that has a grand view over
the old battlegrounds. Many fires burn across the plain and the sun seems to boil the clouds
in its descent behind the mountains. Here we finally catch up with the elusive Toshihiro; after
checking in I go into town and meet up to have dinner, Tamiko elects to stay in. Instantly
upon seeing him I can see that we are going to get on. He has a slightly impish look and has
already sunk two bottles of beer while waiting for us; despite this he looks totally focused. His
knowledge of the uta of the ancient anthologies is very thorough and he can quote off by
heart every waka or haiku for all the places we have visited. Despite this knowledge he is not
in the slightest bit intimidating; it is almost as if the knowledge is a burden to him, and he has
had to take to the road to refresh his interest. After I have also had a few beers the
conversation begins to cover many things a similar childhood appetite for science fiction,
a present interest in Sherlock Holmes and dislike of TV commercials. I am surprised to find we
have so many seemingly random things in common. We are off to different places tomorrow
but should meet up again further south.
It is the first day of really bitter cold caused mainly by a strong northern wind. We have
three places to visit: the temple covered in gold, a hill looking over a battlefield and the river
Komoro. The very bright sun makes taking pictures difficult today, the golden temple
Konjikido at Chusonji is in fact protected by a singularly plain-looking concrete outer
building, but even this glows too bright in reflected light. However, after in the plains the
clouds and wind are tremendous.
From this viewpoint Basho, thinking of the battles of the Fujiwara clan, wrote that he sat down
Only the summer grass is left -
The remains of hopes and dreams
Of warriors long dead
The last photo taken tottering over Komorogawa in icy wind finally does me in. When we
get back to our ryokan I have to spend half an hour in the bath to thaw out and I sleep deeply.
When you leave me,
waves of sorrow
soak my sleeves
After two days in Sendai trying to find the right kind of film to stock up on we travel on towards
Fukushima and the grave of Lord Sanetaka. It is quite a way from public transport and though
Basho writes of it in Oku No Hosomichi, he failed to reach it. The poem he writes at this point
is of the difficulty of getting to the village nearest the grave
How far is it
To Kasajima village?
Endless road, heavy with mud
Of the early rains
We do manage to get to the grave, by taxi, and while we are there we meet several people
who are also following Basho's Oku No Hosomichi. This particular journey, more than
Saigyo's original journey in Michinoku that Basho wanted to emulate or even Basho's travels
in central Japan, fires something in our imaginations ﾉ.the idea of self-denial, spiritual
growth through hardship, the rejection of worldly goods ﾉ.None of this actually applies me
of course, being utterly devoted to my lightweight fully waterproof boots, mobile phone,
laptop and camera equipment. The only rejection of worldly goods I have had to suffer was
a rejection of me by the goods; having failed to pass my driving test before coming to Japan
we have been forced to take public transport.
The last site we visit today is the pine tree at Takekuma. Although having been grafted and
re-planted many times over the centuries, even before Basho saw it, the graceful curves and
twin trucks that made the original so renowned have been retained. Unfortunately for me
when we arrive there the strong sunlight makes composing a reasonable picture very difficult.
Tamiko and I have to wait for nearly an hour for some clouds to cover the sun sufficiently so
that the pine is not in shadow, but in the precious few seconds that I am trying to take
a photograph somebody comes up and asks me what I'm doing. While my head is exploding
in fury I try to keep a civil tongue and my face muscles under control. However, the moment
of panic passes; the photograph is taken successfully and I have managed not to be unfairly
rude to anyone. As I pack up my things the man, in English, wishes me good luck.
Iouji temple is on a small branch line from Fukushima and Basho wrote of having tea there
and admiring the treasures of the temple a sword of Lord Yoshitsune, who was to later die
at Koromogawa, and a case that belonged to his follower, the warrior-monk Benkei.
On this May day
With banners flying
Proudly show this sword and case
We are too early to enter the temple, but before we go back to Fukushima we walk around the
area and find that behind the temple is a large area of orchards. From the hills around us the
sound of gunfire is so intense that at first I think that we must be in the midst of some self-
defense force exercises, but when I listen more carefully I realise that it is the sound of
Later in the day we take a bus to Shinobuzuri which from the outside looks unpromising, two
coach loads of obachan arrive as we walk up to the gate, so we decide to wait a while outside.
Initially I am quite disturbed by the fact that at nearly all the main sites we have been to the
atmosphere has been dominated by the loud chattering and laughing of these women who
seem to take no interest in the actual place they are visiting. Then as we are sitting in the sun
outside the temple it occurs to me that we hardly ever see the husbands. I ask Tamiko where
they are 'Dead?' she replies.
When eventually we go into the temple grounds it is empty. Tamiko tells me the story of the
moss-covered stone behind an old rusted gate a young man and woman of the local village
fall in love, but he has to return to the distant capital. For a hundred days she prays at the rock
for his return and on the hundredth day a vision of his face appears in the rock, which she
takes as sign of him coming back. But he does not return; she takes poison, and a letter
from him expressing his constant love comes too late.
Basho wrote very obliquely about the rock which had previously been used for dying cloth,
only relating how local farmers thought it a nuisance because of all the visitors it brought.
The haiku he wrote has the slenderest relation to the story of the romance;
Busy working hands
Of girls planting rice,
Of the old way of dying cloth
Up on a hill above the rock is a pine tree in beautiful autumn colours.
On the way back to Fukushima we come to the Abukuma river whose name means 'to meet
again'. A poem from one of the old anthologies is:
Is not on your way
How then can you contemplate
Leaving me now?
The day is too bright. We go to a little out of the way utamakura at Asakayama that at first we
cannot find. Tamiko has read that it is a spring, and seeing a sign we suppose that the small
wet ditch below it is the spot. Contemplating my options I set my equipment down nearby and
walk around. In fact the well is a little further on next to a giant pylon and sheltered by a
beautifully shaped pine tree. Apart from this small area directly by the well and the tree,
the place had a very empty feel to it; only car parks and a sandy children's park. Two old men
were attending to the little garden of the well cast suspicious glances at me while I set up the
Like the deep mountain well
that reflects even the shadow of things,
I think of you
Not with a shallow heart
Although I left the capital together with the spring mist
now the autumn wind is blowing
At Shirakawa gate
I know from my limited knowledge of Japanese literature that Shirakawa has a special
significance as the start of the north. Many songs have been written here of the sorrow
of parting or the feelings of finally leaving the known country of the south. We are of course
travelling in the opposite direction, and, unrealistically of course, I am somehow expecting
to come to a town that will somehow make me feel like I am on the edges of the sophistication
of Tokyo. In fact we have a hard time trying to find anywhere to stay, and while Tamiko tries
to find a hotel I make friends with the station cat who miaows as he comes up to all
the people passing through.
We have no choice about where to stay and the business hotel that we check into feels a
little odd; there is too much pornography lying around and directly outside our window two
workmen are working on digging a grave in a large cemetery. Although I have to wake up
early tomorrow I cannot sleep
I get a taxi to the old Shirakawa border gate at dawn; smoke from bonfires mixes with early
morning mist. Where the taxi drops me off I am surprised to see how shabby the gate is
considering its prominence in Japanese literature.
The dilapidated state of the place is very beautiful to me though; leaves lay un-swept all
around, and moss and weeds grow on the roof of an empty shrine. I never enjoy waking up
early in the morning, but the reward today is to see the dawn sun rise through the trees and for
there to be no one to break the silence.
More trains south to Sessho seki the murder stone. The smell of sulphur everywhere, it is
spectacular scenery, but a few metres down from the stones is a strange ghost town of
minshiku and onsen which seem derelict even though there are the odd signs of habitation.
It seems that earlier this year heavy rains caused a great deal of damage to the area and the
tourist trade has suffered accordingly. There is a crisp chill in the air an otherworldly
coldness and clarity. We have an unexpectedly delicious meal in a roadhouse eatery
sitting next to a blind man who is really enjoying his beer.
Up just before the dawn. It looks bad outside and in fact turns out to be the hardest morning
so far snow driven by a very cold wind. A suitable setting for the murder stone. At first a
gorgeous red dawn makes the autumn trees glow, but as the snow clouds take over my hands
stop responding to commands. Still it is exhilarating being on the mountainside on my own.
Scent of the stone
The summer grass turns red
The morning dew burns hot
The next stop is Kurobane, the journey looks unpromising a local train to Nishinasuno, then
to get to Unganji no public transport for 14 kilometres. After this morning's work I am chilled
to the marrow and very tired. So tired that a two hour wait as the result of missing a connection
leaves me unruffled since I am barely awake anyway sitting in the middle of nowhere with
a cold sun hurtling down with nothing to do. When we get to Kurobane things look even
more pitiful. The place we are staying has clearly seen it's heyday we are the only guests
in a minshiku that has an empty banqueting hall. The kindness of the owners makes the stay
even more moving. We are given a lift by one of the men of the house to komyoji. This turns
out to be a stone in some bushes with nothing of interest around it at all. I am very
hard pushed to find an interesting shot. But as we walk back to town we are treated to another
wonderful sunset with golden clouds.
I go to sleep directly after dinner and wrap myself up tight to sweat out a cold that's just
around the corner.
Now we have the task of going to Unganji at 7.00am, which seems like throwing good money
after bad as it's a 4000 yen taxi trip after the sun has come up already. However, as it turns
out there is something very special at Unganji; a temple that is a temple, and not a tourist
attraction. I can feel it as we cross the bridge over the stream to enter the temple grounds. We
have two hours to wait until the first bus back to town, but it is two hours of quiet happiness.
This sacred abode
Amid the summer trees
Not even a woodpecker
Would dare disturb it
We leave to go on to Nikko. A place that I have wanted to visit for many years, but I have a
feeling of dread as we arrive in the crowds in the late afternoon, without a place to stay. It
feels as if we have really left the north and come back to the outskirts of Tokyo.
In the morning, up early to take pictures of the main road looking towards mountain
Kurokamiyama and the light coming through the trees.
I am blessed to see
Fresh green leaves
Shining in the sun
Basho Narrow Road To The North
When Tamiko wakes up we walk up to the waterfall Uramitaki; a thin trail through the red
maples to a rainbow glittering in a grove over the splashing water,
A moment of silence in a hollow
Watching the waterfall -
First sight of summer
Tamiko and I spend the rest of the day amongst the crowds; watching archers on horseback,
young couples and American tourists. As it gets dark we leave for Tokyo on a crowded slow
train with no reading matter to hand.