“The Narrow Road to the Deep North” was inspired by my life long fascination with Japanese culture and its idiosyncrasies. During the spring of 2017, I travelled by Shinkansen, regional, and local trains from hyperkinetic Tokyo to the traditional rural north, spending time in Tokyo at both the beginning and end of the journey (route taken displayed on map to the left).
I took part in Hanami (the Japanese tradition of cherry blossom viewing) at various locations along the way, from local villages to larger venues. Hanami is more than a picturesque spectacle; it is a quintessential expression of Japanese culture and the Japanese “Way”. The cherry blossoms with their magnificent but short blooming season represent a metaphor for the transience and fragility of life, a major tenet of Buddhism and Bushido (the codified samurai way of life), and also a symbol of spring, the time of renewal and celebration. During Hanami, from sunrise to midnight, people wander through gardens, castles, and temples transfixed by the flowering cherry trees and their surroundings. They celebrate the season with picnics, sake and local carnival-like festivals that demonstrate the strong Japanese connection to nature, and the resilience of traditional ways and culture alongside the 21st century techno-culture prevalent in Tokyo.
As I wandered through the gardens and temples of northern Japan I was moved by statutes and stone monuments engraved with the poetry of Matsuo Basho, the 17th century master of haiku and linked verse. The central aim of haiku is to reveal in a few words not just what is seen but what is felt with emotions awakened–to present in just a few words the essence through simplicity, brevity and nuance. This reinforced and invigorated my approach to photography, which in addition to telling stories, visually evokes mood and spirit, and reveals what might not have been apparent or fully seen at the time of capture. Whether in the few words of a haiku, or the frame of the camera, the intent is to capture the essence and feeling of the scene and eloquently convey that meaning, imbued with the atmosphere of the moment.
In 1648 Basho travelled a similar route from Tokyo (Edo at that time), to northern Japan by foot and horseback. His travels were designed to allow him to strip away the trappings of the material world and discover spiritual enlightenment. The result was his most renowned work, a travel sketch consisting of haiku and linked verse, 'The Narrow Road to the Deep North", now evoked and chosen as the title of this show of photographs in Basho’s honor.