Published: February 2008
Michael Yamashita
Interview by Glynnis McPhee

How did you get this assignment?

Basho is the Shakespeare of Japan, he’s a household name, so every Japanese knows him. Everyone knows the route, everyone knows the book (Narrow Road to a Far Province), but I don’t think many have traveled it as extensively and seen it in detail as I have. When I heard that there was a story on him, I asked to be assigned. It’s a story I actually photographed for Nikon back in the 1980s. Of course, what the trail was like in the eighties is so different now.

How has Basho’s trail changed since the 1980s?

I didn’t see any thatched roof cottages that people were actually living in—they’re museums now. Even in the countryside Japan has prospered so much in the last 20 years it’s unrecognizable between then and now. In fact, a lot of the trail is along the highway. You drive along the highway and see a signpost that points to the trail, then you might be on the trail for two to three miles, and it dumps you back onto the highway.

The trail is 1,200 miles. How did you decide where to photograph?

I went with the book, circled every haiku, and placed it along the route where it was described. That location would be a main point of interest, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the picture. Some of the haiku are place specific, but in general I was looking to make poetic nature images that would fit with these haiku. Most haiku are seasonal, so I needed images that said “summer,” “fall,” and “spring.” The difficulty was finding the pristine nature that he writes about in his book. The three mountain area is about the wildest, most unspoiled part of the trail. I did a lot of hiking in that area. It was wonderful in that, like Basho, I was wandering along this route and looking for a picture but without necessarily a particular subject.

How were you able to shoot a story without a subject?

Other than the route itself, it was an interesting story because there was no real subject. Well, the moon was a subject. You may think that would be simple to shoot, but it isn’t. You only get the full moon once a month, therefore I had to be there at that particular time—and considering it’s a six week assignment that was spread over three seasons, I needed to be there in those two weeks to actually see a full moon. Then the difficulty would be the weather. I’d tap into the weather station to find out the time of the moonrise. I’d be prepared for the moon rising at eight o’clock, except there would be all these clouds, and I wouldn’t see it until 11 p.m. Instead of being where I thought it would be, it would be in the middle of the sky, because six hours had passed. In fact, there were some nights I was shooting way late into the night because I didn’t see the moon for the first five to six hours.

So most of the pictures weren’t planned?

No, I did a lot of contemplating, just staring at things, like a stream. I saw the red leaf and thought it would make a great “fall” image. I didn’t plan that, but once I saw it I took a lot of pictures. I kind of get into a zone when I shoot these things. With the rice paddy photo, I’m staring at this rice paddy and I see all these patterns—it’s almost like an optical illusion. I ended up shooting a lot of pictures of that, almost a thousand. It happens to me when there is no subject.

With so many images, how did you choose that specific one of the rice paddy?

The graphics kind of grab you, and the color, and you look at it and think, What am I looking at? To me, in these young shoots, the rice—these actually look like Japanese characters.

Was there one picture that was particularly challenging to get?

Well, the frog picture. First of all, I had to find the frog. This was in a really smelly pond at a small temple. I was walking by, and again there was no planning. Number one, I didn’t realize there would be a banana tree at this temple and—surprise—there is a banana tree. This was an important picture since basho means “banana tree.” It was raining, and I’m walking back to the car and I just happen to look over and see this frog. So I spend the next two hours in the water. The frog, of course, was afraid of me and jumped into the water, so I had to wait for it to come out. I got a dose of what the wildlife photographers do on a regular basis.