The global award in photography and sustainability

Rinko Kawauchi

I had a dream. I think it was probably six or seven years ago. I remembered the dream clearly because the internal scene was so powerful, so beautiful it was almost scary. About six months later, as I was drinking my coffee on a Sunday morning, idly watching TV with my head still half-asleep, I was surprised to suddenly see the image from that dream reappear. It was a scene of many people and horses together in a green meadow before a large mountain—a place called Aso.

I immediately typed “Aso” into an Internet search engine, only to learn that it is a town in Southern Japan, one of the regions in which yakihata take place—controlled agricultural burning, in which fields are burned in advance of planting. I had always been interested in yakihata and had long wanted to witness this farming ritual. With these two key words having lined up, I decided that I had to go. That was in 2007. I found out that yakihata takes place every year in March, and so I first visited Aso in March of 2008.

During that first visit, I wasn’t able to see the green field I had seen in my dream, and perhaps because it was cloudy and cold, there were no tourists. Standing by myself, solitary in that vast land, the feeling that I was living on this planet called Earth suddenly welled up inside me. Since I never paid any attention to such thoughts in my everyday life, it was something of an odd sensation. The awareness that my legs were, at that very moment, being pulled by gravity toward the Earth.

And with the yakihata taking place before my eyes, I had another realization. The force of the flames burning up the vast grassland was far stronger than I had imagined. Witnessing the landscape completely burnt to pitch black, I was seized by the illusion that I myself had burned up. It was a refreshing sensation, as if the self I had been up until that time was no longer—that I had been reborn anew.

Over the five years since then, I have often made time to visit at other times of year, not just during the burning, hoping to see other aspects o this region. The other subjects I have been photographing during this same period—planetariums, night Kagura dances, the sky seen from my home, even the Western Wall in Jerusalem—all lie in a haphazard array with seemingly nothing to connect them, but when lined up on a single time axis something can be read from these things too.

For example, there is an invisible point of tangency between seemingly unrelated things. I investigate the connection between dreams and reality; a consideration of the beginnings of things.

Through 1,300 years of field burning, human ritual has sustained a beautiful meadow, which cattle graze on, and people in turn receive a bounty from the cattle—an interconnected chain. The ceremonies that are ceaselessly passed down over generations, the habits, traditions, and such things are the product of prayers and wisdom that help people survive.

In the freezing cold of deep winter, when men surrender themselves to unconsciousness from dancing through the night, perhaps they become a pillar of light that connects heaven and earth. This is not done to for the benefit of anyone. It is a veneration of the invisible world that has continued since the distant past, in small villages, nestled deep inside the hills.

The sunset I see from the window of my home tonight is similar but different from what I saw yesterday. Every day is in a continuum of new days, each somehow different from yesterday. How can we say that there is no connection between those who pray in a far-off land and me, watching the sunset in Tokyo and feeling grateful at the end of a day? Throughout the world, we are comrades who share grace, and the challenge to overcome any number of difficult obstacles. Even if our paths never cross, we who exist now on the same Earth certainly share something, a shared time and a shared space.