Archaic FutureCulture Lifestyle Art
The Izumo and Iwami regions of Shimane Prefecture in western Japan are a place of myth and mystery. Perhaps it is because of the landscape. Along the rugged coastline that rises out of the Sea of Japan are giant rocks that were formed by millions of years of violent upheaval and now inspire the imagination with their bizarre shapes.
There are also old pine trees above the rocky seashores that cling precariously to the windswept cliffs; their gnarly branches, tortured by relentless winter storms, have been twisted into dragonlike and other mystical shapes.
When spring arrives in these regions, the mountains become a tapestry of green. If you travel inland from the rocky coast the mountains begin to undulate and stretch out into broad valleys where clear water flows down to irrigate the ancient rice fields. This land has been cultivated by local farmers for over two millennia.
Izumo and Iwami are part of an ancient land. This is where powerful clans from Korea arrived during the Yayoi era, starting in the third century BCE. These people from the continent settled here, introducing agriculture, metallurgy skills, and other technologies that enabled the culture of the region to flourish.
Before these culturally sophisticated clans arrived, there were the prehistoric Jōmon tribes who had their own native culture. They had lived in villages along the shores of Lake Shinji for thousands of years and apparently lived peaceful lives. Life was easy. They made beautiful pottery and jewelry ornaments. The land was rich for hunting, fishing and harvesting the little, black shijimi clams that today are a popular ingredient in miso soup. Izumo and Iwami continue to be renowned for their abundant and delicious food resources. Perhaps this is the reason this area of Japan is called “the country of the gods.”
Another reason is the natural beauty of the region. Whenever I visit the Izumo and Iwami region I am always inspired by the clouds above Lake Shinji. Because of the coastal winds, the clouds move swiftly across the sky. They constantly change shape throughout the day and seasons, with their beautiful and unusual shapes inspiring a heightened sense of wonder. Maybe this is why the word Izumo means, “the place where clouds come from.”
In the Kojiki, the oldest collection of poetry in Japan, there is a beautiful poem that celebrates the “eight” (meaning something like “myriad”) clouds of Izumo. The poem goes something like this: “Eight clouds arise in Izumo. I will build an eightfold fence, like them, to house my wife. Oh! the enchantment of those eight clouds!”
I first read about this part of Japan when I was a college student. My Japanese history teacher recommended a book by the Greek-Irish writer, Lafcadio Hearn.
The book was a collection of stories and personal experiences, called Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, that Hearn wrote while he lived in Matsue, a castle town in the Izumo region. Hearn was inspired by the deeply beautiful and mysterious world he found there and wanted to record that ancient way of life, because it was rapidly disappearing at the end of the nineteenth century.
I was deeply inspired by Hearn’s writings as a student, and that inspiration has continued over the years. Before the COVID-19 pandemic I decided to make a series of photographs in the Izumo and Iwami regions. I wanted to pay homage to Hearn’s great work and deeply explore the area for myself.
When I take photographs, I don’t use an ordinary camera. I prefer a large wooden camera and nineteenth-century antique brass lenses. I don’t use ordinary film. I prefer to make my own handmade glass negatives, preparing each negative in a darkroom tent that I assemble near the place where I take a photograph. It is a time-consuming process, but I have discovered this is the best way to create my vision of Japan.
In Hearn’s writings, he described this region as “the soul of Japan.” Even today Izumo and Iwami are places where people come on pilgrimage to find peace and spiritual inspiration. On my own journeys I have been impressed by how the local people have a connection with the past that is truly extraordinary. One local historian told me: “We can never forget in our hearts the anguish of being invaded by the Yamato clans, nor the nostalgia we feel for the abundant way of life we lived in the time before.” He was referring to events that happened more than 1,400 years ago. “The memories of our ancestors can still be found in the landscape,” he added.
I had the crazy idea to photograph those landscapes and somehow capture those ancient memories with my glass plate negatives. To achieve this, I was helped by numerous local people who guided me to the special places presented in these photographs. I was surprised to discover that such places have continued to survive during the past 125 years, since Hearn wrote about their impending loss.
I was also introduced to local people who are “keepers of the soul” of the Izumo and Iwami land: farmers, Shintō and Buddhist priests, and metalsmiths and other traditional craftsmen. I met young people, and even small children, who passionately performed the local kagura trance dances. These people, both young and old, continue the old traditions. They don’t have a hard-headed stubbornness, but live with a heartfelt dedication that nourishes their lives with deep and fresh vitality.
As I met these “stewards of the land” and made their portraits, I was deeply inspired by their way of life. They are deeply connected with the land, their communities, and their past. This was something that deeply moved my heart. They have created an alternative way of living—so different from the contemporary world, where people are mesmerized by contemporary trends and the latest new technologies.
This is why I called this series of images Archaic Future. I believe these people of the Izumo and Iwami regions represent a new way of living that is more heartfelt and sustainable. As a photographer they also taught me how to listen to the land and make images that speak of something deep and ancient. I believe this is of vital importance in the world we live in.
(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Clam fishermen at a Lake Shinji port. All photos © Everett Kennedy Brown.)