My Favourite Dragons

2024 is the Year of the Dragon in Japan (all over Asia, actually), and dragons are a popular motif in Japanese art. They have a special connection to Zen temples, where dragons are often depicted on the ceilings of their main halls. Since they are considered to live in water, placing their image there is a prayer for protection from fires (not very successfully, as history shows). Dragons are also thought to protect the Buddhist Dharma and to keep a watchful eye over the priests and congregation below them.

My favourite dragon painting is that of Kennin-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, founded in 1202. In contrast, the painting was only created in 2000, so it has a very vibrant and modern feel to it and provides a stark contrast to the old temple hall. Here it is:

It’s actually two dragons intertwined instead of only one; one of them with mouth closed, the other one with mouth open, reminiscent of the guardian lions that can be found at many temple and even shrine entrances. They seem to fight over one single ball of treasure, which one of them holds proudly in a 5-clawed paw, something that is rare in Japan. Most dragon paintings here have only 4 or even just 3 claws, the use of the 5-clawed dragon was reserved for the Chinese emperor.

Anyway, the painting is stunning and whenever I go there, I spend some time sitting down and following the bodies of the dragons, trying to find all the parts and figuring out to which dragon they belong. Sadly, Kennin-ji has become very touristy (I remember when I first visited it, there was nobody there), so it’s less peaceful than it once was 10 years ago.

Garden of Fine Arts

Today, I took advantage of the free admission to finally visit the “Garden of Fine Arts Kyoto”. It lies next to the Botanical Gardens on Kitayama Dori, which is probably the reason why there isn’t a single plant in sight…

Instead, it is an outdoors gallery on three underground levels, created with massive concrete slabs and pillars by architect Tadao Ando. It is home to eight large-scale ceramic reproductions of famous pieces, among them Michelangelo’s Last Judgement and Leonardo’s Last Supper. Because of the way the gallery has been set up, the art can be viewed from several levels and perspectives, giving new insights along the way (literally).

Throughout the place you can hear the gushing of water as it flows along walls into pools at the very bottom. You make your way down on gentle slopes and there are benches to sit and view the art pieces.

I’m not a fan of this kind of architecture, to be honest, and the Western art at least didn’t touch me either. I’m not sure why, maybe because the surroundings were so much different that what I’m used to. Also, there is the age of the reproductions to take into account, even though ceramic should be able to withstand quite some abuse. I couldn’t find anything definite, but apparently the gallery opened in the 1990s.

I did like the Choju Jinbutsu Giga, a long scroll from the 12th/13th century depicting frolicking animals; it is often called the first Japanese manga. Because these tiles lie under the walkways, they seem to be in better condition and that you can get really close is definitely a plus.

Overall, I’m not sure if I can recommend the Garden of Fine Arts. If you like Tadao Ando’s work, do check it out, it’s currently only 100 yen to view it. If you’re not into grey concrete slabs, you won’t miss much if you pass.

Shunga

Shunga – Erotic Art in Japan
Rosina Buckland

Shunga, “spring pictures”, are erotic images from Japan – mainly woodblock prints, but also paintings – that had their heyday during the Edo period (1603 – 1868). They depict all forms of love-making among the ordinary people from Japan’s urban centers who were also the main audience for these images. Shunga live not only by their stylized depictions of sex – greatly enlarged genitals, clothing or hairstyles that indicate the status of the portrayed persons – but also by their lively commentary that is included in the picture and lets the viewer listen to the conversation of the couple.

This large-scale book presents a history of shunga in the Edo period while explaining the meaning behind the illustrations that are given. It also lists a number of famous ukiyo-e artists who have produced shunga at some point (or throughout) their career, like Harunobu, Hokusai, Utamaro, and others. It provides a deeper insight into shunga that goes beyond the erotic aspect. The accompanying 140 illustrations are beautifully reproduced pieces taken mostly from the British Museum’s collection. The famous Hokusai print with the woman and the octopus is included, of course.

I enjoyed learning about shunga. It is interesting that the vast majority of these images deal with consensual sex, and when prostitutes are depicted, they are always involved in a clandestine meeting with their secret lover instead of a client. In general, satisfying the woman seems to have been very important in real life too, and female sensual bliss is indicated by her curled toes in the images.

Rosina Buckland is currently the curator of the Japanese collections of the British Museum.

Whether you’re interested in the images or the historical background of shunga, this book is worth it either way. Get it from amazon.

Kawai Kanjiro

Since its founding, Kyoto has been a hotbed for artists and craftspeople, and not even the move of the government to Tokyo could change that. While Kyoto’s number one craft remains the textile industry, numerous other artists have found a welcoming home here.

One of these was Kawai Kanjiro, one of the best-known ceramic artists from Kyoto. Although, technically, he is not a Kyoto person, since he was born in Shimane prefecture and only moved to the city after graduating. However, he lived and worked the rest of his life in Kyoto’s Gojozaka area, where he established his pottery workshop and rose to international fame. But let’s start at the beginning of his career.

Already at age 16, Kanjiro decided to become a potter and started to pursue this career. After having graduated from the Department of Ceramic Industry of what is now known as the Tokyo Institute of Technology, he moved to Kyoto to study at the Ceramic Research Institute and there acquired the scientific, chemical basics of making pottery.

However, the purely academic-theoretical approach did not satisfy him, so he taught himself the use of natural glazes and traditional methods used in Japan, China, and Korea. When he was 30, he bought a climbing kiln – a noborigama – at Gojozaka and put his knowledge into action in what is now known as his first period.

Yet, he was still not satisfied and felt that something was missing. Together with Yanagi Soetsu and Hamada Shoji, he founded the Mingei movement, a kind of back-to-the-roots of Japanese folk art, complete with Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo (established in 1936). This second period is marked by pieces that are reminiscent of Japanese folk art – not just in design, but also in technique.

At this time, Kanjiro also began to write poetry and essays and started to experiment with other forms of expression. After WWII, in what became his third period, he also taught himself wood carving techniques. A number of large-scale pieces survived and they are marked by a shift towards more abstract designs.

Although Kawai Kanjiro soon became well-known in Japan and even abroad, he was not interested in personal fame. He rarely signed his pieces, noting that his style should speak for itself; he also eschewed taking part in prize events. The two Grand Prix Prizes at international exhibitions he received were due to friends submitting his pieces. Kanjiro also declined many honors of the Japanese government, like being named a “Living National Treasure”, which is one of the highest distinctions for Japanese artists.

Kawai Kanjiro died in 1966, but his adopted heir Hirotsugu, as well as his nephew Takeichi and his son Toru continued the family tradition of mingei pottery.

The former residence and workshop of Kawai Kanjiro, located in the Gojozaka neighborhood, the traditional potter’s district of Kyoto, opened as a museum in 1973. It was designed and remodeled by Kawai Kanjiro himself in 1937 and differs from the many machiya merchant houses of Kyoto in important ways. First of all, it was modeled after classical rural cottages rather than urban town houses, additionally, it shows some Western influences. The large room near the entrance, for example, has a wooden floor on one side and slightly raised tatami on the other, with a traditional irori sunken hearth as the centerpiece.

The house is quite large, and most of the rooms are accessible. At the rear of the house lies Kawai’s workshop where he created his pottery together with his son and apprentices. Also preserved and accessible is the large noborigama climbing kiln that has eight chambers and was built on/into the slope behind the house.

I’m Back!

Yes, holidays are over here too, but it was a nice summer, and pretty hot too. Pumpkin suffered from the heat as much, if not more, than me, he often hid inside the oshiire all day. In the evenings, he would come out and sleep on my desk until it was time to go up to bed. At least in the night, it seems to be much cooler up here than in my old apartment, so I could sleep almost every night. There are also fewer cicadas in the area for some reason, so it gets fairly quiet after sunset.

Work was fairly quiet as well, but of course, it didn’t shut down completely, and What’s up in Kyoto did keep me busy throughout summer. There were two press previews for exhibitions in my time off, and I could convince a friend to come along as my interpreter.

The big thing, however, was the unveiling of the above painting by Nagasawa Rosetsu, which was thought lost since 1971. It resurfaced at an art dealer in Osaka and was bought by the Fukuda Museum in Kyoto after being certified as genuine. The painting of Daikokuten, one of the Seven Lucky Gods, was first presented to a group of journalists (including me) and will be on public display at the museum from Mid-October. This was definitely a summer highlight for me!

A personal highlight was an old friend from university days who made his way to Kyoto after a conference. We met up for dinner and a day at Kurama, a tiny mountain village north of Kyoto with a lovely temple. I hadn’t seen him in years, yet talking to him felt like picking up where we had left off just yesterday. It’s a wonderful feeling when that happens, a sign of true friendship, for me at least.

Anyway, I’m back, and I’ll try to keep this blog – and you – updated with my whereabouts.

Kurodani’s Buddha

At the cemetery of Kurodani temple (the official name is Konkai Komyo-ji) is this unique Buddha statue.

It is called the Gokoshiyui Amida Statue, but, for obvious reasons, it is better known as the “Afro Buddha”. The story goes that this Buddha had such an incredibly long period of training/meditation that the hair grew to this size and shape.

And indeed, the name “Gokoshiyui” can be translated to “5 kalpa thought”, where a kalpa is an aeon, an incredibly long time. Interestingly, while there are definitions of the length of a kalpa in Hinduism (4.32 billion years), Buddhism prefers to use analogies rather than explicit numbers. Wikipedia states that in some definitions, a regular kalpa is 16.8 million years, and there are small, medium and great kalpas as well, the last one being about 1.3 trillion years.

I guess after such a long time of meditation, you can be excused for having a bad hair day. His face also has a wonderful, serene expression, and I wonder what stories he might tell…

Okoku Konoshima

What makes an artist famous? His works must appeal to at least some of his contemporaries to begin with, but a certain timeless quality is necessary as well to attract new admirers in the future. And of course, the right connections are necessary, or in other words: marketing. Nobody gets famous by working away alone in their basement. Still, things can be more complicated than that.

Kyoto-born Okoku Konoshima is one of these cases. Although he was a prolific artist, many of his large-scale paintings were bought by museums during in lifetime, and he was commissioned to decorate all the fusuma in the main hall of Nanyo-in temple, he doesn’t count among the circle of the truly famous. Only recently, his work has garnered renewed interest. Part of this may well be because he mostly withdrew from artist’s circles in his later life. But let’s start at the beginning.

Okoku Konoshima was born in 1877 as Bunjiro, the second son of a businessman in Kyoto’s bustling Sanjo-Muramachi district. His father’s house saw many guests of different walks of life, and Konoshima was able to meet tea masters, painters, poets, and other creative people from a young age. Although he was meant to study business, likely to take over or at least get involved in his father’s furniture business, he dropped out of the commercial school he was enrolled in and took painting classes instead. 

In 1893, when he was 16, he began to take classes from Imao Keinen, one of the leaders of the Maruyama-Shijo school. This particular school of painting put a great focus on sketches, and over his lifetime, Konoshima filled 674 sketchbooks with animals, flowers, and other drawings. And already in 1899, at the age of 22, Konoshima’s painting “Uryu Brothers” won a prize at an exhibition and was subsequently bought by the Imperial Household Agency.

Konoshima is best known for his paintings of animals. He received free annual passes for Kyoto City Zoo, but was happy to take inspiration from everywhere. His animals are very realistically drawn, but at the same time, they are done in an almost lyrical style that shows a great affection for them.

Besides his animal paintings, there are his landscapes. Konoshima travelled extensively from age 26 or so and filled dozens of sketchbooks on his yearly trips through Japan. They became the basis for large-scale landscape paintings on folding screens and fusuma sliding doors. With these ink paintings, Konoshima created a modernized style rooted in traditional Chinese paintings by incorporating the spatial perspectives of Western paintings. In a way, he was able to transplant these traditional landscapes from China to Japan, creating vistas that were both new and familiar.

As mentioned above, Konoshima withdrew from painter’s circles later in life and instead focused on poetry and calligraphy. His reasons for that are unknown, but he was fond of poetry throughout his life. He died in 1938 when he was hit by a train in Osaka.

I’ll add some images tomorrow.

Shimabara’s Last Tayu

Together with maiko and geisha, the tayu are traditional female entertainers of Japan. And yet, they are much less known to the (foreign) public, partly because today, there are even fewer of them than there are geisha, and partly because of their origin: In the Edo period, tayu were courtesans.

At that time, prostitution in Japan was legal and strictly regulated. The three largest cities – Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka – had city districts dedicated to the love for sale. In Kyoto, this was the Shimabara district, which lies near Kyoto station and still maintains some of its charms (if not the prostitutes). In Edo, it was the famous Yoshiwara district, and old photographs show women sitting in rows behind wooden lattices, ready for work.

You would search in vain for a tayu among them, though. Just like their geisha sisters in the hanamachi, tayu were highly trained and honed their skills in dance, playing instruments, and seductive banter for years. As a tayu, the top-ranking courtesan of the town, she commanded the highest prices for a meeting, and her lovers counted among the country’s elite, financial or in society.

And so were the tayu. In old Japan, the views on prostitution differed greatly from that in the West. It was simply another job. In fact, the young women in the photo above may have come to the Yoshiwara only temporarily to help with family finances. When they returned home, their reputations – and even marriage prospects – were untarnished.

In Kyoto, the famous Yoshino Tayu is revered to this day. She is said to have been the most beautiful tayu in history, and she is featured in kabuki plays and Japanese novels. Her wealth was such, that she could afford to donate a new front gate to Joshoji temple in Kyoto. She was laid to rest there, and has a festival in spring dedicated in her honour.

Kyoto’s Shimabara district and its entertainments are long gone, and although there is still a tayu in Kyoto, she doesn’t usually perform in public. However, I was lucky to see her dance at an exhibition with photos of her, and it was truly special.

As you can see, the style of her dress is so much more flamboyant than that of any geisha – notice the colour red everywhere! The obi is tied in front where it is easy to undo – a nod to her work of old. I was quite surprised by the dragon painted on her outer kimono (which is a family heirloom, possibly more than 100 years old, btw.) as dragons are usually associated with men. Her hairstyle with the dozens of kanzashi pins must be very time-consuming to maintain, and yes, this is her real hair. She also has blackened teeth, something that was normal for married women in the Edo period.

The dance, at first, seemed not much different than the ones that geisha perform. A fan, a letter used as props to tell a story, delicate hand gestures, little kicks to get the long kimono out of the way. And yet, her dance seemed so much more erotically charged, and I’m not sure why. Was it the smiles, the raised eyebrows? The shy looks flashed to the audience from behind the fan? Or her naked toes peeking out from beneath her red underkimono?

I guess, where a geisha means to symbolize an almost maiden-like modesty, a tayu is seen as a grown woman who knows what she wants – and how to get it.

Takigi Noh

As mentioned, I went to see this year’s Takigi Noh, a two-hour-long Noh/Kyogen performance on an outdoor stage set up at Heian shrine. The surroundings with vermilion buildings reminiscent of Kyoto’s Imperial Palace lend a special ambience when stacks of fire and paper lanterns are lit just before dusk to light the stage. After all, Takigi Noh means “outdoor fire-lit Noh”.

The Takigi Noh at Heian Shrine was first staged at the end of May 1950. From 1955 on, the dates were fixed to June 1 and 2. On these two days, 8 plays are shown, two of them are kyogen. Japan’s top actors are invited each year to make this event truly special. However, this is not the only firelight Noh performance, merely the biggest. In Kyoto, Shiramine shrine has a pretty famous one too, and many other shrines show Noh plays at special festivals.

In fact, Takigi Noh has its roots more than 1000 years ago, at Kofukuji temple in Nara, where religious ceremonies called Shunigatsu-e were held in the 2nd month of the year. At that time, Takigi-sarugaku performances took place, early precursors of what later developed into the Takigi Noh theatre of today. Takigi Noh reached the peak of its popularity in the Edo period, fell out of favour after the Meiji Restoration, and was revived again after WWII.

Heian Jingu’s Takigi Noh features 8 plays, and often, there is a common theme that runs through one day. For example, the plays I have seen all had the overarching theme of “heavenly intervention”. It’s not just the atmosphere that makes this Takigi Noh special. The plays are condensed to their most visually exciting parts. Written synopses of all plays are available – even in English – and if you miss getting a leaflet at the entrance, the plays are introduced by two kyogen players who manage to weave in a commentary of current events. Finally, the speech that is given after the fire lighting ceremony is translated into English, something I was especially grateful for.

Unfortunately, taking pictures during the performance was not allowed, that’s why you’re just getting this year’s poster as illustration… Anyway, overall, I had a great evening, and I’m really considering making this a regular occurrence.