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In the book Musashino in Tuscany: Japanese Overseas Travel Literature 1860-1912, Susanna Fessler identifies two central features of Japanese travel literature: 1) uta makura (codified poetic references) and 2) meisho (famous travel places). She writes:

“Most Japanese travel literature deals with a famous place, or by incorporating the poetic images associated with famous places. … In [early] poems and histories, the mention of a famous place and what aspect of it was most prominent or noteworthy — in other words, the creation of an uta makura — often established the precedent to be followed from that point forward throughout Japanese literary history.” (12)

Of course, most of the places with uta makuras were located in Japan, so the first Japanese overseas travelers went without precedent. Fessler’s book is a satisfying account of the changes Japanese travel literature went through as it encountered traditions from the “Western” world.

What interests me as a poet is where travel literature goes from here? In what ways will it change, adapt, evolve? I’ve been working on a project for the past six years that deals with these questions, and Fesssler’s book helped clarify some of the aesthetic problems at play.

For one thing, she makes an interesting point about the difference travel writing traditions in the “West” and Japan:

“There is no such thing as an uta makura in the Western tradition; the writer-travler is not as much an artist as a communicator of strange facts and fictions, and his narrative is not as much a celebration of place as it is of self. Thus, Western travelers write of experiencing profound emotions at certain sights, or of maturing over the course of their journey; the narrative tends to be an individualistic one, centered on the author, and not on the place. In contrast, the Japanese travel writer hesitates to talk of his/her own impressions or emotional developments beyond being moved by the appropriate sight in the appropriate famous place.” (22-23)

What she’s describing here are two different attitudes toward ‘place.’ One attitude imagines place-as-scenery, place-as-backdrop, serving to foreground the artist/writer undergoing a transformation.

The other attitude foregrounds the place, and the uta makura makes it so the visitor is participating communally with all the other visitors who have been to that place.

I prefer the latter, but I’m also interested in what happens when these concepts, ideas and attitudes come into contact. For instance, what if the place is foregrounded, but it’s not ‘famous?’

In other words, what would it mean for a poet today to write about a place that’s not famous but with the intention of making it so? How does the concept of uta makura affect the poet’s composition about a place about which there is no uta makura?

That’s precisely the problem that the subjects in Fessler’s books encounter. As they travel to places unknown to themselves and their readers, their travelogue traditions reflect their imaginative responses to new conditions.

I would like to see poets apply their imaginations to travel writing today, to figure out how else the genre can be conceived. And to consider questions like, what role do concepts like uta makura and meisho have today, especially given the ubiquity of social media?