At first glance, Takehito Miyatake’s photos of magical firefly trails, glowing forests, and the eruptions of the Sakurajima volcano in Japan call to mind a long-forgotten childlike sense of wonder. However, further consideration of the Japanese photographer’s work reveals his profound reverence for the power of nature and a confident, lyrical use of light that is more often found in painting than in photography. It is no wonder then that two of Miyatake’s foremost influences are waka, a classical form of Japanese poetry, and the devastating Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami of 2011. Waka poems, written in thirty-one syllables, arranged in five lines, of 5/7/5/7/7 syllables respectively, are meant to be a concise expressions of the human heart’s response to nature.
Miyatake considers his work to be similar in form, “snapshots” of the forces that have both shaped and destroyed the country he grew up in. TIME Associate Photo Editor Mia Tramz interviews the 2014 Nikkei National Geographic Photo Grand Prize winner.
Mia Tramz: Can you briefly explain your process in making these photos? How long are your exposures, how do you choose the locations you photograph at?
Takehito Miyatake: There are so many local photographers shooting the Sakurajima explosion. Millions of images are captured. You need to walk a lot, and wait a long time to get the shot. I need to find the spot where I can capture images which nobody has ever taken. The exposure time for the explosion took 15 sec. to two minutes, the firefly shot took three minutes to 30 minutes.
MT: Can you explain what Waka is and how it relates to your work?
TM: Waka is a poem to express the scope of nature [by] using limited words since its birth in the eighth century in Japan. The method has been working beautifully and precisely to express nature with sympathy. I believe Waka is very similar to nature photography. Waka poems describe not only fireflies but a broader sense of the environment, space and even beyond current existence to the world where past friends stay. I wanted to start capturing this broader world like Waka poetry does when I saw fireflies and stars at the same time. I felt some sympathy to [contemporary Waka poet] Utsubo Kubota, who also had very warm memories for his past friend when he saw the mystic light of fireflies and stars.
MT: Is there one piece of Waka poetry that has had the greatest influence on you?
TM: The poetry of Kubota represents what I saw and felt when I took these images. When I photograph, a mystic feeling comes over me. I sometimes admire the mysterious legends that are a part of Japanese folklore that express a fear of nature. I believe Waka also intends to capture this sort of fear of the mystic beauty of nature.
Takehito Miyatake is a Japanese photographer. His work has been published in five photobooks, most recently Living Earth Sakurajima by PIE International.
Mia Tramz is an Associate Photo Editor for TIME.com. Follow her on Twitter @miatramz.