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
Before moving to London in 1994 Tamiko and I lived in Kobe for several years, so we are on home territory, so to speak. The three weeks travelling along the north coast in increasingly bad weather were not so easy, and coming back into the Kansai area is a great relief. The weather is more temperate, and I have the feeling of being surrounded by all kinds of activity, but not rushed and frenetic as Tokyo was.
For the past few years whenever I have been staying with my in-laws I have been taken pictures of the area, as just outside the apartment is an uta stone from the Man'yoshu.
At the dock of Muko bay
Heaven is moving -
And as the day ends
I think of home
Anon. Man'yoshu vol. 17 #3895
As with many of the utamakura whose topic is the sea I am presented with the dilemma / choice of taking a photo at the location of the utamakura stone or of going to the present-day coastline that is nearest the original utamakura. In the case of Mukogawa, the coastline, as a result of a combination of natural geographical processes and the building of artificial islands, has moved about 2 kilometres south. I choose to take a photograph from the veranda of the apartment as a little nod to Andreas Gursky.
After a few days at Mukogawa we move to central Osaka from where we can reach several sites to the east and south. I have a strong affection for Osaka's rough and ready metropolitanism, but I have to admit that the homogeneity of its grimness is only broken by areas that are so forlorn that the buildings and covered streets seem to have organically congealed in the outpourings of grease from a hundred ramen shops. Before any Osaka readers start sending complaints about this description, let me just say that this is a compliment.
Waving coyly - a silk tree in Tsugano
Where rumours about my lover abound
I can barely stand
Waiting - always she is in my thoughts
Anon. Man'yoshu Vol. 11 #2752
As far as the classical poetry anthologies are concerned the main recurring subjects of uta in this area were the reeds of the bay and the beauty of the coastline of what was then called 'Naniwa in the land of Tsu', which was referred to almost as an earthly paradise. Many of the poets of the later collections would write of the beauty of Naniwa purely on the basis of reputation since in fact they had not been there themselves. In this respect I have a clean conscience about taking pictures anywhere in the modern Osaka area to represent these uta.
Once known as Naniwa
Here we have built a palace -
How like a capital
This country has become
Fujiwara Umakai. Man'yoshu vol. 3 #312
At Temmabashi, close to were we are staying:
As night deepens
The sound of the oars
Of the boats on the Horie, grows louder
I wonder, how swiftly does the river flow -
Anon. Man'yoshu vol.7 #1143
To the south of Osaka the suburbs and factories spread out along the coast towards Wakayama. Dotted amongst the smokestacks and the fifties blocks are more specific utamakura - at strangely named Kire Uriwari at sunset:
The palace servants hear
The sound of oars
From the boats on the Horie river
Otomo no Yakamochi. Man'yoshu vol. 20 #4459
Although one of the main compilers of the Man'yoshu anthology, Otomo no Yakamochi seems to have had a dislike of the politics of court life, and did not rise very high in the hierarchy, despite an illustrious family background. As we have come across utamakura with his and his father's poetry several times in our travels we are beginning to feel some attachment to their work.
Further south the housing gets less dense, and we alight at Asaka station which straddles a bridge over the river Yamatogawa:
As evening falls, the tide
Rises into Asaka bay at Suminoe
I wish I were there
Harvesting the rich seaweed
Prince Yuge writing to Princess Ki. Man'yoshu Vol.2 #121
One day we go east to the hills of Ikoma. As we travel out of the city the smog gets thinner, and eventually we come out into a clear blue sky. We take a cable car to the top of Ikoma san where there is an amusement park and as it is the day after a national holiday there are only a handful of visitors.
Longing for my wife
I saddle the horse
Hurrying to her
Over Ikoma mountain
The autumn leaves are falling
Anon. Man'yoshu vol.10 #2201
It is after Christmas when we leave Osaka, and we go back to Tamiko's parent's from where we can visit sites around the Kobe area. However flu keeps me in bed until well after New Year.
When I am well enough to travel I go back to an area west of Kobe that I am very familiar with - and perhaps where I got my taste for industrial landscapes, as I used to teach in several of the steel factories along the coast. By some strange coincidence there is an utamakura at each of the factory sites where I used to work. Two of them are:
Deep in this great sea of Inami
Hidden by a thousand waves
The island of Yamato rises
Kakinomoto no Hitomaro. Man'yoshu vol.3 #303
I will leave tomorrow
The Inamu river
Flowing ever on
The one I love already gone
Anon. Man'yoshu vol.12 #3198
One day we go on a family outing to the Wakayama peninsula, where at Kimiidera temple we cross paths with Basho once again, though the haiku is not from the Oku no Hosomichi travel journey:
The cherry blossom cleared away
As it is early January there is no blossom, of course, but after I have pressed the shutter two workman set up a ladder and take down the fairy lights.
We go down the hill and stop at the bay - Waka no Ura - that has a special significance in poetry since 'Waka' is a homophone for the Japanese word for verse. It is surprisingly hot for January and the sea and hills in the distance are obscured by haze.
The tide rises in Waka bay
As the mud flats disappear
Cranes crying out
Flying towards the reeds
Yamabe Akahito. Man'yoshu vol.6 #919
On another day, nearer to home, between a petrol station and second-hand car dealer's:
My tears fall In Ashiya
Standing at the grave
Of the maiden Unahara
Takahashi no Mushimaro. Man'yoshu vol.9 #1810
A few kilometres from the apartment an uta by Otomo no Yakamochi's father Otomo no Tabito:
Do they make fires
Man'yoshu vol.17 #3899
At dusk we go to a town where some of our friends live and before we visit them to eat and drink sake we go to the beach, the sunset lights up the clouds.
If I pity the lonely twilight sky
When the smoke of boiling brine
Rises into space
Is there any relief?