Monday, September 22, 2008

Mount Fuji seen from the beach at Tago

In Japanese literature certain place names, utamakura, have specific poetic associations. 'To mention Miyagino was to imply hagi, bush clover. Yoshinoyama implied cherry blossoms. Tatsuta(gawa) implied brightly coloured autumnal leaves. There were obviously such coloured leaves in autumn not only at Tatsuta, [both] in nearby Yoshinoyama and in far away Miyagino. But to speak of coloured leaves at Miyagino or cherry blossoms at Tatsuta violated decorum, or the hon'i of the place' (The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature). I have described here before references to Tatsuta and Yoshinoyama. Miyagino was visited by Basho on the Narrow Road to the Deep North, where he saw fields of bush clover, and there is a typical poem in The Tale of Genji: 'Hearing the wind sigh, burdening with drops of dew all Miyagi Moor, my heart helplessly goes out to the little hagi frond.'

Photographer John Tran has undertaken an Utamakura project to photograph these poetic places as they appear now. His photograph of Yoshino, for example, shows a bus parked by a dirty road. 'Utamakura were celebrated for their beauty, their literary associations, their emotive connotations, or some purely associative quality. Generations of poets visited and wrote about these sites, adding layer upon layer of depth and complexity to their mystique. Some survive as beauty spots in contemporary Japan, others have changed irrevocably in the intervening centuries. The former beauty spot of Tago no Ura, for example, on the Pacific coast south of Mount Fuji, is now notorious for pollution caused by paper mill effluent. Sites that are preserved as a consequence of their association in the public mind with historical culture draw such huge numbers of visitors that the attraction of the place itself is often supplanted by the overwhelming human activity that occurs there. The massive disparity between the high culture of uta and haiku sensibility and the everyday culture of advertising, cigarette butts and commuter trains forms the basis of the Utamakura Sites series.'

Tago no Ura was formerly famous for its white strand, wisteria and view of Mt Fuji. It was visited (at least in the imagination) by poets following in the footsteps of Yamabe no Akahito, the Nara period court poet whose famous poem in th Man'yoshu anthology depicts the mountain, seen from Tago Bay, under a flurry of snow.

Tago Bay near Eijiri on Tokaido, Katsushika Hokusai, c1830
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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