Utamakura includes locations familiar to the court of ancient Japan, such as
- particularly sacred Shinto and Buddhist sites,
- places where historic events occurred, and
- places that trigger a separate mental association through a pun.
Utamakura serve as a significant tool to achieve yugen (mystery and depth) in Japanese poetry by adding profundity and indirect beauty in poems. Also, it can be used as a source for identifying significant figures and places in ancient Japan. Utamakura enables poets to express ideas and themes concisely and thus allowing them to stay within the confines of strict waka structures.
Some scholars see the use of geographical allusion as the evidence for a restricted scope of poetry writing. Although the poets' "true" meaning was true because the essence was initially pre-established, the poems were written within fixed topics (dai). The poet could inhabit a subjective position or persona and write about the topic, but not necessarily about his/her personal feelings. Utamakura could have suppressed poets' individuality or creativity.
The history of utamakura is found in documents on the study of poetry such as the Utamakura of Noin, by the poet and monk of the late Heian period, and lists of places in the Utamakura Nayose (Utamakura reference book).
Utamakura were first used by traveling priests. These priests collected stories from the different towns they traveled to. Since they traveled many places, it was easier to remember the details of a story by using a single, consistent reference point for each recurring type of event that occurred in their tales. Over time, the people across the Japan came to identify utamakura place names by the psychological feelings associated with the references made by the wandering priests.
After utamakura place names and people had become well established, eager waka poets went sightseeing to the sites of utamakura. Beyond becoming familiar with the actual scenery of the poems, entering the locale of a poem or story deepened one's understanding of it.
Examples of utamakura
tateru ya izuko
Yoshino no yama ni
yuki wa furitsutsu
Where are the promised
mists of spring?
In Yoshino, fair hills
of Yoshino, snow
—Anonymous —Translated by Lewis Cook
yama mo kasumite
furinishi sato ni
haru wa kinikeri
Fair Yoshino, mountains
now wrapped in mist:
to the village where snow
spring has come.
—The Regent Prime Minister
—Translated by Lewis Cook
hito no kokoro no
oku no miru beku
I long to find a path
to the depths of Mount Shinobu
that I might fathom
of another's heart.
—Translated by Jamie Newhard
and Lewis Cook
Mount Shinobu is a pun on the verb shinobu, meaning "to conceal," "endure," "long for," and "remember."
Contemporary examples of utamakura
Today in Japan you can find many examples of utamakura in every day readings. Often, restaurant menu items will be named after their visual appearance with a reference to a well-known Japanese scenic area. For example, the Tatsuta River is famous for its red autumn maples. Therefore, a menu that includes tatsuta age will consist of crispy fish or chicken that was marinated in soy sauce before it was dredged in cornstarch and deep fried. The cornstarch coating absorbs some of the soy, so that when it is fried it takes on a burnished, russet color.
Parallels in other cultures
Utamakura can be described as "descriptive epithets" or "circumlocutions designating geographical sites" in poetry of other languages that conjure a memory, thought, image or association with the place referred to.
A lake is form'd, (the Stygian named of old)
By this sad stream, when downward it hath run
Neath the grey rocks that hem the baleful hold.
In contemporary Western cultures, parallels to the Japanese utamakura can be found in many popular songs. Musical artists use place names in their lyrics to invoke certain conformed thoughts associated with the sites mentioned by the musician. California is a common reference for many artists in that it invokes thoughts of excess, splendor, wealth, and a sense of fakeness in body and spirit. Weezer references the excessiveness of Beverly Hills in their hit song "Beverly Hills", while the Red Hot Chili Peppers refer to the sense of things not being "real" in their song "Californication" by including lyrics about plastic surgery and the use of Hollywood sets in government conspiracy.
- "Spring. No. 3". Kokin Wakashū. Japanese Text Initiative. University of Virginia Library. 2004. Retrieved 28 July 2013.
- "Shinkokinshu". Japanese Text Initiative. University of Virginia Library. 1 August 1999. Retrieved 28 July 2013.
- Carter, Steven D. (1993). Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology. Stanford University Press. p. 172. ISBN 978-0-8047-2212-4.
- "Ise Monogatari". Japanese Text Initiative. University of Virginia Library. 11 November 1998. Retrieved 28 July 2013.
- McCullough, Helen Craig (1968). Tales of Ise: Lyrical Episodes from Tenth - Century Japan. Stanford University Press. p. 80. ISBN 978-0-8047-0653-7.
- Andoh, Elizabeth (8 November 1997). "Japanese Menu Names". Daily Yomiuri. Retrieved 28 July 2013.
- Kamens, Edward. Utamakura, Allusion, and Intertextuality in Traditional Japanese Poetry. Yale University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-300-06808-5
- Raud, Rein. “The Lover’s Subject: Its Construction and Relativization in the Waka Poetry of the Heian Period”. In Proceedings of the Midwest Association for Japanese Literary Studies, vol. 5, summer 1999, pp. 65–79.
- Shirane, Haruo (editor). Traditional Japanese Literature.Columbia University Press: New York, 2007.
- Wright, Ichabod C (Translator). The Inferno of Dante. Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman: London, 1833.