Archive for the ‘寺社’ Category

In my last post, I talked about visiting the Yonashiro History Museum, where they had on display some Roman coins uncovered in archaeological excavations at Katsuren castle.

After leaving the museum, I made my way to the castle itself, but first had to go find some lunch. This was my first time up to that part of the island, and walking around that section of Uruma City, I don’t know if I just was in the wrong part of town, or if I should have turned left when I instead turned right, but the stretch of road I ended up walking on was just amazingly devoid of any kind of café or restaurant that looked inviting at all. The local Uruma City tourist guide pamphlet I picked up at the castle listed all kinds of wonderful-looking vegetarian cafés and ice cream shops… looked very appealing. But these guides expected you to have a car. And while I certainly could have just taken another bus (still for free), I thought I’d just grab something quick, nearby. I found lots of “snack” bars – which might be just a sleazy townie dive bar, or might be a front for more illicit activities – and a few super-run-down-looking cafés or diners (shokudô), but nothing that looked at all welcoming or appealing. Finally, finally, after walking many blocks, I settled on eating at a Hotto Motto, a chain store selling premade bento boxes. *smh* One of the few days I’m off-campus, and out in a different town, really having the potential to be on vacation (kind of) for a day, to experience a nice local restaurant and maybe try some different foods, and instead I end up at a Hotto Motto.

Anyway, it was an interesting and valuable experience to see this one more corner, one more bit, of the kaleidoscope that is the “real” Okinawa. Really makes me wonder what the experience of everyday life is like there, and what it’s like to grow up there. And just how much of Okinawa prefecture (or even just of Uruma City) looks like this. Certainly, riding on the bus, looking out the window, things didn’t look so different from one city to the next. As we drove up into Okinawa City (formerly Koza), and then Uruma, I definitely had a feeling of excitement at visiting a different part of the island that I hadn’t been to before, and genuinely retained that excitement even despite the fact that everything looked pretty much the same…

The castle site itself was quite interesting, when considered in comparison to Nakagusuku, another major World-Heritage-Site-designated gusuku ruin from the same period, which I had just visited a couple weeks earlier. I was surprised at how small Katsuren was. I don’t know how big it is in terms of square hectares or whatever, or how tall; I have no doubt that it was a sizable and imposing compound in its time. But, while it may have simply been a result of entering via a side gate instead of a main gate, or something like that, Nakagusuku felt as though one had to double-back numerous times in order to make sure one had explored the entire compound. There were a lot of different areas, to put it quite simply. At Katsuren, by contrast, one simply entered at the fourth enclosure (or kuruwa), and walked up some stairs to a small area that constituted the third enclosure, then up a few more steps to the second enclosure, then up a few more steps to the first enclosure, and that was it. Done. You’ve seen the whole castle. And, each of the individual enclosures was also much larger at Nakagusuku.

That said, Katsuren provides I think a more direct, clearer understanding of the structure of a “standard” or “classic” gusuku, both in terms of the experience of the actual site, and because of the very nice model on display in the rest station across the street (right). I’m quite curious to visit Nakijin castle, as that’s the one that seems to get most often cited as emblematic of the standard form. But, this is seen at Katsuren as well.

A small first enclosure was the innermost part of the castle, the most well-protected by virtue of its location atop the hill, surrounded on all sides by either the second enclosure, or steep drop-offs. This would have contained the castle’s treasure houses, and at least one major sacred site. The second enclosure, a bit lower down the hill but still very well protected, was larger, and contained the main administrative buildings and lord’s residence. A narrow set of stairs connected the first and second enclosures, hindering invaders. The third enclosure, by contrast, is separated from the second by a series of very accessible, wide, steps, connecting the palace buildings in the second enclosure to plaza areas in the third, which would have been used for ceremonies and perhaps for other more “public” court events.

Stone foundations suggest the shape and scale of the structures that once stood in the second enclosure.

The third enclosure also included a number of water cisterns, and sacred sites. Following the fall of the castle in 1458, the third enclosure came to be frequented by noro and other local priestesses, who transformed the space into their own – a space for offerings, prayers, and rituals. The third enclosure is the last (or, I suppose the first, depending on how we’re counting) to be well above ground level and to have access protected by twisting and narrow stairways. The fourth is the “ground floor,” so to speak, of the castle compound, a wide extensive area, albeit still surrounded with stone walls, and guarded by heavy wooden gates which are no longer extant today. It was in this area, somewhere, that the Roman and Ottoman coins were found. Sections just outside the fourth enclosure would have included rice paddies and other farmland and swampland; as signs on-site explain, this not only helped supply the castle with food, but also served as a further defense against invaders, who would have had to plod through deep, wet, muddy ground.

Interestingly, unlike many Japanese castles we might visit, most of which took their well-known “Japanese castle” forms towards the very end, or even after, the period of warfare (Sengoku period, 1467-1600), and thus never actually saw serious siege or attack, Katsuren absolutely did. With all of these structural, geographical defenses, one can only imagine how the battle actually went, as the forces of the Ryukyu Kingdom took the castle in 1458.

The main gate of Jingû-ji, as it appears from within the temple grounds, looking out.

After taking a second look around to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I called my visit to Katsuren done and successful. I then took the bus down to Futenma, so I could quickly pay a visit to Jingû-ji, the temple immediately next door to Futenma Shrine, which I missed when I went to visit the shrine. Not too much to say about the temple, I suppose. But, I do love and am still not tired of seeing the distinctive Okinawan architectural style – lighter wood than in mainland Japan, and the distinctive red roof tiles. When we remind ourselves that Ryukyu was once an independent kingdom, and we start to think not simply about regional variation within Japan, but about the ways in which different schools of Buddhism took on different forms in different places all across Asia – when we start to think of Okinawan architecture not as a variation within Japanese styles but as something to be compared against Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese styles, there’s something very interesting and powerful there, I think.

Anyway, with that checked off my list, I then started to make my way home, and ended up walking quite some ways, maybe about half the length of the main center of Ginowan Town, along the outsides of the fences of the Futenma Air Base. An interesting contrast with that one neighborhood near Katsuren – for all its problems, and I’m not saying Ginowan is the most happening and exciting city either, Ginowan felt more lively, more welcoming/appealing, and more upscale (though it would hard to not be more upscale than what I saw in Katsuren). Despite the length of the walk, it was surprisingly enjoyable, easy, and refreshing. I passed by lots of shops that looked kind of appealing… many of them quite clearly aimed at military folks as their market. Second-hand shops for clothes and for furniture (specifically American-style furniture), some nice-looking bars, some nice restaurants… closer to campus, further from the base, I found a cute little bakery with scones in all sorts of flavors (banana, green tea, earl grey). I’m really tempted, though it’s maybe a little embarrassing to admit, to try out the California-style Diner. Though maybe try to figure out some time to go when there’s no military around? Actually, that particular moment as I passed by that night, the place was empty…

And once I got my bike back – oh yeah, I locked my bike to a barrier on the side of the sidewalk in Ginowan all day while I rode the bus up to Katsuren. Thankfully, the police or someone didn’t confiscate it, and it was still right where I’d left it :) – I got my bike back, and was thinking of going to BookOff, but was already most of the way back to campus and didn’t feel like backtracking… but I found a great little soba shop on the side of the road! Sometimes you really can’t tell from the outside how nice a place might be on the inside. And by nice, to be clear, I don’t mean fancy – I just mean, it had a pleasant atmosphere. Brightly lit, colorfully decorated, with very friendly staff…

So, yeah, all in all, a rather successful day, I would say.

All photos my own.

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8/9 Friday

Today was my last day in Okinawa :(

I started out by heading for Shikinaen, the one truly major sightseeing site in Naha that I’d missed on my previous trip to Okinawa, on account of them being unexpectedly closed on Wednesdays. (Many museums, around the world, are typically closed on Sundays or Mondays or Tuesdays, or even Fridays, I guess. But Wednesdays? Took me completely by surprise. And was not the most pleasant end to a rather long walk from Shuri castle.)

Ah, but first I headed back to Gekkôsô / Tsukinowa for breakfast. I skipped out on posting about them in my previous entries, but the short version is, it’s a rather ramshackle-looking youth hostel located at the end of a back-alley off Okiei-dôri near Miebashi (in central Naha). I was introduced to the place during my Naha Machima~i walking tour of the Miebashi neighborhood; I’m not sure I’d ever stay there, but it was a really fun place to hang out at night, and to go back to for breakfast. Very friendly, very real. The staff aren’t professional staff, like at a corporate hotel, who are there just to provide professional service, but, rather, are young people hanging out and enjoying living in Okinawa for a few years – they’re friendly and open and honest, and in short, just very real. And the guests as well, mostly college kids from mainland Japan, here to hang out and just have fun in Okinawa for a few days… I never did manage to get invited to join any locals in hanging out and singing folk songs or playing sanshin or whatever, like I did five years ago, but I did bring my sanshin to Gekkôsô late one night, and just hang out, sharing in their food and drink, and singing along and just generally having a good time, in that particular sort of youth hostel / beach house sort of way. Though it is a hostel, they welcome people who are not staying overnight to join them for dinner, or drinks, running a cash bar in the hostel’s common rooms, and they prepare breakfast too. A nice, cheap, filling breakfast, including an amazing banana milkshake (nothing but fresh bananas and local Okinawan milk, or so the menu says), and some nice conversation. Life in a normal hotel can be quite isolating and lonely, as you explore the city alone each day, and whatever – visiting Gekkôsô at night, and again in the morning for breakfast, brings in the social element. I’m not sure I’d ever stay there – it’s quite cheap, but also quite ramshackle (I didn’t actually see the guest rooms, but…), and, well, maybe if I were younger, but, I’d definitely recommend at least dropping by one evening, and/or in the morning for breakfast, for a taste of that backpackers / beach bums side of the Okinawan experience.

On my previous trip to Okinawa, five years ago, I walked to Shikinaen from Shuri castle – a pretty logical way to go, or so it seemed at the time, given that the Kinjô ishitatami (cobblestone) walking road suggested in all the tourist guidebooks seems to lead towards it. But, as it turns out, it’s still a really long walk beyond the end of the ishitatami road. Today, instead, I took a regular public city bus from right in front of Mitsukoshi (on Kokusai-dôri), and it dropped me off more or less right in front of the gardens.

Shikinaen was the bessô, or second residence, for the Ryukyuan royal family, a sort of relaxation pleasure garden. Is there a standard English-language term for this sort of thing? I see that the British royals have “London residences” and “country residences”… Shikinaen is only a couple hours walk from the main royal palace at Shuri, so I don’t know that I’d call it a “country residence,” but, then again, it’s certainly at a remove from the city proper, and a few hundred years ago, the urban areas would have been even smaller… In any case… In some respects, Shikinaen is quite similar to a lot of the other historical mansions I’ve visited elsewhere in Japan – such as castles, or the former Hotta clan residence in Sakura that I’ve yet to post about. You pay a small fee to get in, wander around along a set recommended path (順路), take lots of pictures, read the signs, learn a little something, maybe stop and sit for a bit and just enjoy the garden.. and maybe wonder what it was like in the time of the kings. Sure, it’s a pretty nice, pleasant, place, and a nice escape from the city, its own little self-enclosed green space, with a pond and a nice residence, but, god, what did people do for fun back then? Was it really so enjoyable just to have a garden, and sit there, and look out over the garden? .. Now that I think about it, it seems perhaps really not so different from our summer homes or country homes today. We escape from the city, and go spend the weekend, or a few weeks, in a rustic-looking home up in the mountains, surrounded by woods, maybe with some deer, and it’s all quiet and cozy, a very romantic getaway…

The residence at Shikinaen, similarly, is quite simple in comparison to the luxurious furnishings of Shuri castle – or, at least, those parts of Shuri castle that we most strongly associate and think of. Yet, it is still a royal space, and so I was surprised at its simplicity, and at the relatively unassuming scale of the gates, and of the house itself. While certainly larger than a typical vernacular home (such as the one on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum), like the Hotta mansion it’s basically just a larger version of a very standard basic form: wood construction, tatami flooring, red ceramic tile roof. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, and it’s beautiful in its simplicity and craftsmanship, and the simplicity helps make it feel all the more relaxing and cool, breezy, like a vacation home should. But, still, this is a royal residence?

I wonder if our 20th-21st century American lifestyles, the large houses, the consumer culture, have perhaps skewed our (my) appreciation of what luxury looks like in other places and times. The house I grew up in, a three story Victorian (two floors plus attic and basement), with a front and back yard, total something like 3/4 of an acre, with a garage, two compact cars, no pool, no extra-fancy furnishings, no second vacation home, based on my upbringing, compared to the people around me, I thought (and still think) was pretty average, pretty typical middle-class. But, even putting aside that people in the past didn’t have electricity or cars or cable TV etc etc., and just talking about the size of the space, the comfort level, and the sheer amount of stuff we own (including things made of precious materials and/or fine craftsmanship) even our (my) notion of a typical, average size home is apparently pretty large, if not explicitly “luxurious,” compared to, for example, the middle-ranking samurai homes I saw in Sakura. Even at Shuri castle, despite the Seiden (main audience hall) being all done up in red and gold and everything, I wouldn’t be surprised if the royal residence was relatively plain, like this garden villa. It just goes back to what I was saying in previous posts about our assumptions about the past based on examples of the most lavish, the most luxurious clothes and architecture from that period or culture, and how this, apparently, skews our visualized understanding of what was typical/standard, very much.

Daimyô in audience with the shogun, as represented by mannequins, in the Ninomaru Palace at Nijô Castle in Kyoto. Sure, it’s a bit cheesy, and I am sure there are other very valid arguments against having such a display, but, these totally empty rooms (sometimes only largely empty) at so many historic houses only go so far to help us really imagine what the spaces looked like, and how they were used, in their time. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I think I’d like to see, one of these historical homes more fully set up, with all the furnishings, and other objects, maybe even mannequins showing how the space was used, how full and lively and formal or elegant these palaces were. And maybe include pleasure boats floating on the pond, palanquins, and mannequin horses in the stables, because otherwise the whole place just feels so plain, and empty. (The Shinsen-en in Kyoto includes a reconstruction pleasure boat, and it adds so much to the impression of the place as an Imperial/aristocratic pleasure garden.) Admittedly, Shikinaen does display quite a few old photos, allowing us to see how the space was furnished – and now that I’m looking at these, and seeing all the lacquered furniture and fancy plaques (扁額) hung on the walls, it’s certainly looking more luxurious than the empty rooms themselves attest. I suppose it would be difficult and expensive to obtain, and maintain such furniture (read: conservation issues, climate control, etc.). Still, it would be nice to see. Of course, all that said, I enjoyed Shikinaen very much and was very glad to have gone. It certainly helps provide an insight into the aesthetic or style, and lifestyle, of the Ryukyuan royalty.

Departing Shikinaen, I considered what to do with the rest of my day. I’d been thinking of doing more shopping – either for used books, or more Okinawan clothes – but my bags were already quite full, so I decided to pass on that point. Plaques and guide signs at Shikinaen indicated that many famous historical Ryukyuan officials – such as Tei Junsoku and Nomura Anchô – were buried nearby at Shikina-reien (Shikina Cemetery), but, as it turns out, unlike Yanaka Cemetery in Tokyo, or Green-Wood in Brooklyn, there are no maps or guides to these famous graves. Guess they don’t get many tourists. And I absolutely was not going to go traipsing around in the hot sun across a cemetery with no idea of which section to look in, or where I was going. But! The office at Shikinaen sold these nice little pamphlets of guides to walking around Shuri & Naha. The maps inside aren’t the greatest, and the info about each site is in a separate pamphlet, but each one was only 100円, and they did include a number of sites I hadn’t been able to find, or hadn’t known about, previously.

So, I set out to fill in the gaps of some of the places I’d missed the first time around. First was Kume and the old town of Naha, known simply as Nishi and Higashi (West and East districts). The public bus from Shikinaen let off just near Fukushûen (“Fuzhou Gardens”), a Chinese-style garden built as a gift from the city of Fuzhou and as a replica of a garden located there. This was built in the 1990s, and so it’s not strictly speaking a historical site at all, but it’s representative of the long history of Kumemura as the center of classical Chinese learning & classical Chinese high culture in the kingdom. I saw the garden last time, so I didn’t bother visiting it again. But, I found to my surprise a Confucian temple behind it, looking quite shiny and brand new. Turns out it was built/opened this year.

A nice statue of Confucius now stands on the original site of the historical Kume Confucian temple. Meanwhile, two reconstructions, revivals or recreations, of that temple can now be found in Kume – one which I visited five years ago, in the Naminoue neighborhood, right near Naminoue Shrine and Gokoku-ji, and the other newly established here right behind Fukushûen – both with extremely similar names, layout, and appearance. Not that I’m complaining. I wonder if there’s some kind of political or sectarian divide between the two that would spark the construction of a second one…

I pulled out my map, and moseyed over to Nishi, from Kume, and found a plaque marking the former site of the zaiban bugyôsho, the office of the Satsuma samurai official who oversaw matters in Ryûkyû, on behalf of the daimyô. There’s nothing at all to see on the spot today, but this whole street would have, in the 17th-19th centuries, been all homes and offices of the small contingent of samurai stationed in Ryûkyû. Kind of like the earliest Japanese version of the US military bases now occupying so much of Okinawa’s land.

Speaking of which, my next destination was Omono-gusuku (O: Umungusuku), a storehouse located at the end of an earthen embankment, jutting out into Naha harbor. Like Mie gusuku, it survives, in a form, with more modern buildings established atop its ruins, for modern official purposes. I was a bit surprised to find the site completely inaccessible, but then realized that it’s not so unreasonable for major port shipping facilities to be closed off to general access, to people just wandering in amongst the trucks and shipping containers and all that. Not only would tourists be a major nuisance, and danger, but in this post-9/11 world, there is a need for a certain degree of security in and around shipping.

Ah, but, as it turns out this is no civilian shipping facility. Nope. A US Army Facility sign on the barbed wire fence – sadly, not an uncommon sight on Okinawa – means that no one, regardless of Japanese or American citizenship, is getting in there. Oh well. I got some good pictures from afar, and, in fact that’s better for depicting the site as a whole, and its location in the harbor, rather than taking pictures on/at the ruins themselves.

I then turned around and returned to Kume, in search of the former site of the Tenshikan, a sort of guesthouse maintained by the Ryûkyû Kingdom for housing and entertaining Chinese investiture envoys who came to the islands to formally invest the Ryukyuan king with the position of king, as officially recognized and acknowledged by the Emperor of China. According to my maps, it was right around the corner from the Tenpi Shrine site I’d found a few days earlier, but, in the end, I didn’t manage to find it. I imagine there’s likely nothing there but a marker or a plaque anyway, unlike the Tenpi Shrine itself, of which only one gate survives today, but that gate is sure a lot more than nothing.

I then returned to the Tomari Foreign Cemetery, as the maps I obtained at Shikinaen now indicated that had I simply gone the other way around the cemetery, I would have found Ameku Shrine right quick, rather than wasting an hour or two wandering pointlessly all the way around that stupid “Ameku Greenspace” in the hot sun unsuccessfully looking for any kind of indication as to the direction to the shrine. Following my new maps, I found the shrine very quickly and easily, along with the small temple Seigen-ji associated with it, and then returned to the cemetery. Still very tempting to just hop the wall. A sign in the cemetery said something to the effect of “if you’re interested in cleaning up your ancestor’s grave, please notify the City Board of Cultural Affairs ahead of time,” and gave a phone number. So, thinking that the Board of Cultural Affairs had some kind of authority over the site, I decided to call them. I don’t think my Japanese has gotten any better since my last time in Japan – if anything, it’s gotten worse – but, somehow, I just never really thought of using the phone before. I guess I was nervous it would be too difficult, navigating the formal Japanese used by any kind of customer service phone-answerer, dealing with trying to understand someone based on sound alone (no facial or bodily indicators of meaning), and, I guess, just being nervous that I was bothering people who were much too busy to deal with a foreigner who can’t express himself perfectly. But, actually, numerous times this summer, whether it was something like this, calling up the Naha City Board of Cultural Affairs, or whether it was calling a museum to ask about ordering an exhibit catalog from them, it all went really smoothly, and was so effective compared to not calling at all; I obtained a number of museum catalogs this way that would have been very difficult to obtain otherwise. Anyway, I called the Board of Cultural Affairs, and explained simply, “I’m here as a tourist, and I thought I’d visit the cemetery, just as an interesting historical site, no real serious reason or serious business, but the gates are closed, and is there a given day or time that they’d be open?” He told me, “oh, the gates are closed, but they’re not locked, so let yourself in, and just be sure to close the gates again when you’re done.” … Really? Okay. Thanks. So, now bearing official permission, I let myself in, and poked around the cemetery, finding the graves of a number of members of Commodore Perry’s crew, as well as a few of missionaries from various European countries, and other foreigners resident in 1840s-50s Ryûkyû for a variety of other reasons.

What a way to leave Okinawa. Look at that sky. Just gorgeous.

And that was it. Time was up. I made my way back to the hotel, collected my bags, and set off for the airport. Flying the budget airline Air Asia was a bit of an adventure, as they’re located not in the Domestic Terminal, nor in the International Terminal, but in a converted cargo shipping terminal space. lol. And I was afraid for a moment that they might not allow me on with as many bags as I had – it’s only a 2 hour flight from Okinawa to Tokyo, and if they were using a smaller plane, then my sanshin case might be too much. Thankfully, in the end, that wasn’t a problem, and the flight itself went just fine as well.

Back to Sakura for just a few days, and then, my summer adventure in Japan was all over. Back to CA for the school year. Cannot wait to go back to Japan again.

For more of my adventures in Okinawa, check out my Flickr page, Tumblr, or the Samurai-Archives Wiki, where I will continue to add content from my trip.

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Wow. Day Five already? Almost done :(

You’ll notice there is no post for Day 4. This is because, while the day was certainly eventful and successful in certain respects, for the most part it consisted of just being dragged around by the sensei from one thing to another… so I don’t really have stories or photos to share. Today, on the other hand, Day 5, was quite busy.

After several days of following the sensei around, and operating on their schedule, I was once more free to go out and do my own thing. Not that I’m complaining – the sensei did so much for me, bringing me places I might not have been able to go/see otherwise, and helping me get access to all kinds of resources.

The objectives for the day were to see sites, to buy books, and to buy some clothes. I started out by visiting Tsuboya, the famous pottery center of Okinawa. In 1682, the royal government ordered several pottery centers from across the island to be relocated here, making Tsuboya – a neighborhood just beyond what is today the Kokusai-dôri / Heiwa-dôri shopping arcades – the chief center of pottery production in the islands. Of course, I am sure they must produce cups and bowls and other standard pottery products, but, this being Okinawa, shisa (guardian lions) are a major portion of the area’s output, along with ceramic funerary urns.

I’ve never been nearly as interested in pottery as in paintings & prints, so Tsuboya was pretty low on my list, but, after walking over to the Tourist Info Center at the corner of Kokusai-dôri & Oki-ei-dôri, I was pretty much already there, so I decided to check it out. And I’m glad that I did. I don’t know how touristy it might feel later in the day, but at that early hour, it felt very quaint and nice, with lots of traditional architecture and cute shops. The downside of getting an early start on the day, though, is that most of the establishments were closed. Even so, in the end it was actually a pretty nice street, with lots of little shops and cute quaint architectural atmosphere; I didn’t end up going inside anywhere, but still I’m glad I went.

My next stop was BookOff. One of the major goals of this trip, for me, was to get more books about Okinawa, and to hopefully get them cheaply. There are some scholarly books out there that have a cover price of as much as ¥12,600 (roughly, US$126) for no goddamned reason, and if I could just get lucky, maybe I could get it for a more reasonable price. Besides, BookOff is wonderfully cheap, and so even for the more reasonably priced $15-20 books, if I can get them for $5-10 instead, it’s a win. Unfortunately, to my surprise, the two BookOffs I visited (at Akamine & Azato) – the only two easily accessible by monorail – had astonishingly few books of interest or relevance to my research. On the one hand, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they had a whole separate section set aside for Okinawan topics, meaning I didn’t have to scour through the History, Art History, etc. sections each individually, but it also meant that whatever was not in that set-aside section, was most likely not in the store at all. If I recall correctly, I left with nothing at all. Strange and surprising, given that when I visited Fukuoka a few years ago, their BookOff had a great selection of books about Okinawa…

In any case, the second half of my shopping aims was to obtain some kariyushi wear, since all but one of my aloha shirts have mysteriously developed giant holes in them. Kariyushi wear is like aloha wear on a basic level, insofar as that in both Hawaii and Okinawa, rather than wearing proper dress shirts, neckties, and business suit jackets, people wear short-sleeved shirts in flowery patterns, sometimes on an extra-light / summery material, and this counts as formal enough. However, while aloha shirts are certainly popular enough and common enough in Okinawa, worn in place of kariyushi wear, I discovered that the true kariyushi wear – the ones with more distinctly Okinawan patterns and/or materials – are disgustingly overpriced.

Right: A kariyushi shirt with a wonderful original design based on traditional bingata designs. I tried it on, and it looked, and felt, great! Shame it was $250. Are you kidding me?

Everywhere I went, I found plenty of really standard aloha shirts – the kinds of things you could get from a random street vendor in Waikiki for $15, or could probably even find at WalMart or something; really standard – for $30-40, which of course I’m not paying, and then the ones with the really nice, really distinctively Okinawan styles, for upwards of $100 or even $200. Whoever pays these prices, and therefore allows the supply side to continue to get away with charging such prices, should be shot. These weren’t fancy boutique stores, either – these were mom & pop booths in a shopping arcade, and “discount sale” sections in the mall. In the end, I did manage to find one shirt I really liked, for a very reasonable price, and I’m very happy with it, but I really kind of expected to be buying more, and I’m still quite annoyed at the entirely unreasonable prices for some of the other things. I know it’s Made in Okinawa, and that it’s a unique design by a named designer, and so from the supply side, there are some arguments to be made for why it’s so expensive, but, frankly, at some point, on some level, a shirt is a shirt, and I generally try not to spend more than $30 on a shirt.

Asahibashi Station, on the Okinawa Monorail line.

I’d heard that Oroku – the neighborhood where this BookOff and shopping mall were located – was also known for having some relatively intact traditional-style cobblestone-paved sidestreets. There’s even a walking tour that one can take that’ll show you around these streets. But, not being on a tour, and just being on my own, I couldn’t find them, so I skipped over to Onoyama kôen, two stations away. The 600円 all day pass was definitely worth it on these wandering/exploring days. It costs anywhere from 220円 to 320円 to go from one station to another (depending on distance), so, in just two to three rides you recoup your costs. Anyway, I don’t remember what I thought was at Onoyama Park – I’m not sure I knew there was anything at all in particular there, and was just going to check it out, and find out. But, once I arrived and looked around a little, I very quickly found that I was very glad to have gone.

The city of Naha was, historically, up until the late 19th or early 20th century, made up primarily of a series of islands, and was not the relatively integrated “mainland” city it is today. Much of the core residential and commercial parts of the city – Kume, Wakasa, Nishi and Higashi – were located on a large island called Ukishima, while many temples, fortresses, shrines, and warehouses were located each on their own separate, tiny, islands in the harbor. Over the years, the harbor gradually silted up, and in the late 19th and early 20th century large-scale public works projects used landfill to dramatically alter the shape of the city, erasing the separate islands and the waterways that separated them, and creating the Naha we know today. Onoyama was the largest of these islands, and, to make a long story short, it today includes two major shrinesOki Shrine, or Oki-gû, one of the Eight Shrines of Ryûkyû, and Gokoku Jinja, or “Protection of the Nation Shrine,” a Meiji era creation – alongside baseball parks, an archery range, and all sorts of other rather shiny, new, well-maintained-looking athletics facilities.

The archery range, or kyûdôjô, at Onoyama Park.

The concept, the grouping, of the “Eight Shrines of Ryûkyû” is itself a Meiji era creation, and so I’m not so sure I care that much about the grouping itself. However, most if not all of the shrines in the group were of some considerable significance during the era of the Ryûkyû Kingdom (prior to Japan’s takeover and annexation of the islands in the 1870s), and Oki-gû is no exception. After finding and exploring Oki Shrine, I thought I might divert my efforts to making sure I found all eight, but, some are quite far outside of Naha, and in the end I managed to see four, which isn’t too bad, I think. There are some other sites, such as the temple of Rinkai-ji, which I kind of regret not going out of my way to find, but, there will be a next time.

Oki Shrine, as it exists today, is a rather interesting site. It strikes me as very much a mixture of Okinawan and Japanese architectural elements (and other elements), the very representation of what a Shinto shrine adapted to Okinawa could, would, should look like. Shinto is not, was not, native to Ryukyu, but was for the most part introduced/imposed in the Meiji period (in fact, much of what Shinto looks like today, even in mainland Japan, is owed to its reinvention in the Meiji period), so I’d be very curious what these major shrines, like Oki-gû and Naminoue, looked like in the previous centuries.

Today, Oki Shrine incorporates Japanese torii, the criss-crossing roofbeams of a Shinto shrine, and much of the forms and practices otherwise of a Japanese Shinto shrine – including a Shinto priest in standard white Shinto priest’s robes, performing what I can only assume were standard Shinto rituals (I didn’t get that close) – combining these with very Okinawan elements, from the lush greenery growing on the rocks and surrounding elements of the shrine, to the red-tiled roof and otherwise generally Okinawan style of the main hall. And, higher up the hill, several utaki – sacred spaces in the traditional Ryukyuan (not Japanese/Shinto) fashion, essentially just stone markers marking a rock or tree or space as being sacred.

I don’t know much, in depth, about either Ryukyuan religion or Shinto, but from what I do know, it’s interesting to see the similarities and differences – both are founded on very similar principles, the identification of natural spaces or objects of spiritual power, and the construction of a named or designated “shrine” space around it. Yet, in the execution, it is quite different. Whereas Ryukyuan utaki, for the most part, it is my impression, consist of little more than stone markers identifying the space, and sometimes stone walls marking off, or closing off, the space, even the smallest Shinto shrines generally consist of a wooden shrine building – sometimes far too small for human entrance, but no less architecturally complex – and at least one torii gate. By no means do I wish to enter into the fallacy of an argument that Ryukyu represents precisely what Japan used to be – and, indeed, in this case I’m not sure it could hold true anyway, given that Japan has been building Shinto shrines, i.e. with actual, sometimes quite large, shrine buildings, for over a millennium. But, there is certainly something interesting in the intersection between the ways the two belief systems identify, designate, and maintain sacred spaces, and in the objects of the worship themselves – generally, a worship of the sacred found in nature itself.

Adani-ga-daki, an utaki in Shuri, consists at its core of a small inner sacred space with a small stone marker, like every other utaki I’ve seen. But, unlike those, this one has a stone wall and stone-paved outer area, plus a red gate. Is this typical? I don’t know. Is it so different from the basic concept/layout of a Shinto shrine?

Wow. It was a busy day… I guess I’ll have to leave the rest of Day 5 for the next post.

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The blog Heritage of Japan shares with us today a Japan Times article summarizing the history and importance of Hôryû-ji.

When UNESCO cast its beady, critical eye on Japan 18 years ago to assess the country’s cultural and natural merits with a view — in the agency’s ponderous prose — to “inscription on the World Heritage List,” it settled on four places that became the nation’s first entries to those ranks so adored by tourism associations.

It may have come as rather a surprise to some that Horyuji, located 14 km southwest of the city of Nara, should have been selected ahead of obviously much more famous Kyoto — and indeed Nara itself. But Horyuji really is exceptional. As well as being a landmark in Japanese history and the oldest existing Buddhist temple in the land, the complex of Horyuji contains the world’s oldest wooden buildings.

For those interested, you can read the rest at the original post on Heritage of Japan, or at the Japan Times.

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In addition to the Utamaro paintings I found out about (and blogged about) recently, I have just come across news articles relating a number of other interesting finds in Japan.

(1) The World’s Oldest Timbers in active use, Older than at Hôryû-ji, found at Gangô-ji

The temple of Hôryû-ji in Ikaruga, just outside the city of Nara, is often said to contain (some of?) the oldest wooden structures in the world. Core elements of the pagoda and kondô (main hall; lit. “Golden Hall”) have been dated to the 6th and 7th centuries, respectively, and I suppose it is generally believed or assumed that enough of the rest of these structures (beyond just the core pillars and such) dates back to that time as well that it can be said that the building as a whole, despite later repairs and the like, is that old.

However, the Asahi Shimbun reported a few days ago on the discovery of timbers at Gangô-ji, another temple in the Nara area, which date back earlier than the Hôryûji structures. As usual, the Asahi cannot be trusted to maintain any kind of archive, and the link could stop working at any moment. So, for the sake of posterity, and for the sake of informing the public, I provide the original text and a translation. No claims of authorship or ownership of the original Japanese text are made, and all intellectual property rights belonging to the Asahi Shimbun and the original author (reporter) are acknowledged and recognized.

It may be a small point, but one thing which stands out to me in this article is the fact that these timbers, dated to the 6th century, and installed in a building built in the early 8th century, should be in a place called the “Zen Hall” or “Zen Room”, when Zen did not come to Japan until the 13th century or so.

現役木材、法隆寺より古かった 奈良・元興寺、世界最古





 飛鳥寺の正確な建立年は不明で、590年に用材を伐採したことが日本書紀に記されている。飛鳥寺の部材が禅室に再利用されたとみられる。光谷教授は「国内初の寺院の部材がいまだに健在なのは、加工しやすく耐久性に優れたヒノキだったから。日本の木の文化を象徴する建物として、禅室は貴重だ」と話す。 禅室の屋根裏は10月17日~11月13日、1日160人の限定で公開される。申し込みは往復はがきで9月17日必着、先着順。詳しくは元興寺文化財研究所のホームページ(http://www.gangoji.or.jp/)で。(編集委員・小滝ちひろ)


 〈元興寺〉 蘇我馬子(?~626)が飛鳥地方(奈良県明日香村)に創建した飛鳥寺を、奈良時代に北約22キロの平城京内に移した寺。東大寺などとともに南都七大寺のひとつに数えられる。室町時代に金堂などが焼失、江戸時代には五重塔や観音堂などが焼けた。現在は、本堂と禅室からなる極楽坊と、観音堂の系譜を引く寺院の二つに分かれる。極楽坊は1998年、「古都奈良の文化財」のひとつとして世界遺産に登録された。

A survey performed by Visiting Professor Mitsutani Takumi of the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature in Kyoto has revealed, based largely on the counting of tree rings, that pieces of cypress used in the Zen Hall (a National Treasure) of Gangôji (also known as Gokuraku-bô), which is located in the Chûin neighborhood in the city of Nara, were originally felled in the Asuka period, around the year 586 CE. Dated to roughly 100 years before the construction of Hôryûji (late 7th to early 8th century), the site of the oldest wooden buildings in the world, this would make these timbers the oldest wooden architectural elements in active use (that is, serving a functional purpose within a structure) in the world.

Gangôji was preceded by Asuka-dera (now Hôkô-ji, in Asuka village, Nara pref.), the first Buddhist temple to be built in Japan. [Though the site remained active as a temple, now called Hôkô-ji], along with the moving of the capital in 710, [significant elements of Asuka-dera] were moved to Heijô-kyô [i.e. Nara]. Construction on Gangô-ji began in 718, and though the buildings are acknowledged as having been newly constructed at that time, there is a strong possibility that the Zen Hall at least was moved there from Asuka-dera.

The Zen Hall is a long, narrow wooden one-story building, 26.8 meters from east to west, 12.8 meters from north to south, and 8.4 meters tall. It is used as a monastic residence, and since a later time has also come to be used for ascetic practices.

In 2000, when Professor Mitsutani was head of the Excavation Techniques section of the Nara Cultural Properties Research Institute, he began surveys on the tree rings on wooden elements taken from the Zen Hall as part of repairs in the 1940s, and found pieces which showed that they were from a tree felled around 582. Seeing that elements from the same period were still in use, in 2007, he used a digital camera to capture images of the tree rings evident in elements on the underside of the roof, and employed computers to analyze the images. As a result, it was determined that a number of horizontal pieces called kashiranuki, which run between the upper sections of the vertical pillars, were the oldest, dating back to 586.

The precise year in which Asuka-dera was constructed remains unclear, but according to the Nihon Shoki, trees felled in 590 were used in the construction. It appears that elements from Asuka-dera were reused in the construction of this Zen Hall. Professor Mitsutani said, “That elements from the first Buddhist temple in this country are still in use is due to the durability of cypress, and the ease with which things can be built from it. As a building symbolizing Japan’s wood culture, this Zen Hall is precious.” The underside of the Zen Hall will be open to the public from October 17 to November 13, with a limit of 160 people per day. The deadline to apply is September 17 [sorry, guys, for the short notice. -T], and applications will be handled in the order in which they are received. For details, see the Gangôji Cultural Properties Research Center website http://www.gangoji.or.jp/ [Japanese site; no English, I’m afraid].

Gangôji: The moved Asuka-dera, which was originally built by Soga no Umako (d. 626), and then rebuilt in the Nara period in Heijô-kyô, roughly 22 km to the north. It is counted as one of the seven great temples of the Southern Capital (Nara), along with Tôdaiji. The Kondô and other structures burned down in the Muromachi period, and the pagoda, Kannon Hall, and other structures burned down in the Edo period. Today, it is divided into two temples, with Gokurakubô containing the Hondô and Zen Hall, and with both drawing upon the heritage of the Kannon Hall. Gokurakubô was recognized in 1998 as a World Heritage Site, along with a number of other sites together comprising the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara.”

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The Shûon-an Ikkyû-ji, a temple in Kyoto prefecture where the Muromachi period monk Ikkyû once stayed, is replacing 43 Kanô Tan’yû wall paintings in its hôjô hall with digital reproductions, for conservation purposes, while the real paintings are removed and placed into storage. The same is being done for four paintings by late Edo period artist Hara Zaichû.

The paintings have suffered from sun damage, and from frequent repairs, to the point that, according to yesterday’s Asahi Shinbun article, the ink lines are growing less crisp and are bleeding into the blank spaces.

The temple commissioned Dai-Nippon Printing for the task. Large scanners and cameras were used to capture the images from the original paintings. The images were then touched up so that the more damaged parts matched the better conserved areas in tint and hue, and everything was printed out onto washi (Japanese paper). In these reproductions, the elegant brushwork of Tan’yû’s most mature period can be seen clearly. The chief priest said, “From now on we can view these paintings with relief, unconcerned about deterioration.”

I present the original text of the article here, as Asahi is sure to take it down soon:

狩野探幽の障壁画、デジタル技術で再製 京都・一休寺

2010年4月24日9時48 分





A lot could be said about the philosophies of curation vs conservation, the value of seeing the real object at the cost of exposing it to potential damage, the value of preserving the real object at the cost of not being able to see it, etc.

I fear the day that more and more temples, shrines, and even museums display only reproductions, but of course, one also does not want to see real objects kept in poor conservation conditions, exposed to dangers and damage.

I recall some time ago, an article about major museums in Japan reproducing and displaying reproductions of objects they don’t own, in order to make available to the Japanese public objects in American or European collections. This of course raises other questions and issues.

Perhaps after beginning the Museum Theory course I’m taking next term I’ll have more to say about this, but for now, I shall simply leave it by saying that it’s something to think about, and I’m not sure I can personally come down on either side, for or against reproductions.

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The Heritage of Japan blog shares with us today interesting news about CG recreations of what the famous Byôdô-in at Uji, just outside Kyoto, may have originally looked like.

I’m not sure how often or how recently the Byôdô-in may have been repainted or renovated, but to some extent it is Japanese practice (unlike the practice in many parts of mainland Asia) to allow temple buildings, Buddhist sculptures, and the like to show their age. Thus, while a great many temples, statues, etc throughout Japan have a wonderfully aged, romantically historic look to them, at the same time, the original appearance is lost. These CG images are one way to regain that old look, and to share it with the public, without actually repainting or renovating (which some might argue to be a form of defacing, perhaps) the actual object or structure.

Thanks much to Heritage of Japan for this info!

Photo my own. Taken May 2008.

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The Asahi Shimbun reports today that Nihonga painter Koizumi Junsaku, age 86, who I’ve discussed twice before, has produced a number of sliding screen (fusuma) paintings for the Tôdaiji in Nara. Nara is currently celebrating the 1300th anniversary of its becoming the capital of Japan (though, it only remained capital for about 60 years). To the left, you can see one of these fusuma (actually, it looks like a folding screen, but the article says fusuma) in front of the Great Buddha (daibutsu) of Tôdaiji, the largest bronze Buddha in the country.

Though I must admit Koizumi isn’t exactly my favorite artist or anything, it is quite interesting to see how patronage works these days, and how artists in a rather modern form (Nihonga was first developed around 1900) are commissioned by some of the oldest temples to produce works for them.

Photo copyright Asahi Shimbun.

As usual, as the Asahi is sure to not leave this article up for more than a week or so, leaving you with nothing but a broken link, I’ll provide a translation of the full (very brief) article. Original text is copyright Asahi Shinbun, and no attempts are made to claim that text as my own intellectual property – only to make it available to the world once asahi.com takes it down.

Forty sliding screen paintings by Kamakura-based Nihonga painter Koizumi Junsaku (85) were donated on April 20 to the Tôdaiji (Ueno dôzen bettô) in Nara. The works took him five years to complete, aiming towards completion in time for this year, the 1300th anniversary of the transfer of the capital to Heijô (Nara). The dedication ceremony was held in the Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden), and a memorial service was held with one of the works set up in front of the Great Budda.

The fusuma range from 81-197 cm tall, and roughly 3.84 to 20 meters wide. They depict themes such as weeping cherry (shidarezakura, a type of sakura tree), lotus pond, and heavenly musicians, and will decorate the Great Audience Hall (ôhiroma) and jôdan-no-ma for special occasions.

In addition to his “Twin Dragons” ceiling painting produced for Kennin-ji, he painted a portrait of the late Kiyomizu Kôshô (sp?), images of Emperor Shômu and Empress Kômei (r. 8th century), and a number of other works; his connections with Tôdaiji are quite deep.

The screen paintings will travel the country on exhibition, beginning this September at the Takashimaya Department Store at Nihonbashi in Tokyo.



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A good friend, Jon of the “As I See Japan…. from LA” blog, who goes by Tornadoes28 online, has posted some sad and surprising news.

See his blogpost here: Story behind the famous Tsurugaoka Hachiman tree

As I Google it now, I see that he is far from the only one to have posted about it…

A very large and prominent tree, standing just to the left of the main staircase at Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura, Japan, said to be at least 1000 years old, worshiped as kami (a sacred tree, a tree representing the manifestation of a particularly strong concentration of sacred energies), and with particular historical or legendary significance, has fallen in a storm.

My photo of it, taken April 2008, at right.

It’s hard to imagine that such a thing would happen in our lifetimes… a tree which has stood there for 1000 years, to fall right at this moment, and not to hold on another 50 or 100 years. I suppose in the end, one day is just as likely as another. If it had fallen 100 years from now, it’d just be some other guy blogging about how he can’t believe it happened in his lifetime.

In any case, the story goes that this was the tree behind which Minamoto Kugyô hid on that fateful day in 1219, when he leapt out from behind the tree to assassinate Minamoto no Sanetomo, the third shogun of the Kamakura shogunate. Some accounts have him simply stepping or leaping out from beside the stairs, with no mention of the tree, but nevertheless, the legend has come to incorporate the tree. Now, I can imagine you reading this and thinking “big deal. I’ve never heard of Sanetomo or the Kamakura shogunate or any of this.” Yeah, you’re right. Kamakura’s not the most famous of shogunates, Sanetomo’s not the most famous of Kamakura shoguns, and the incident, the assassination itself, is hardly more than a footnote in most accounts of Japanese history. But, within the context of Kamakura history, and the history of the shrine – a most prominent and famous shrine I have visited so many times I’ve lost count – it is a pretty big deal.

So many things happen, so many little things change here and there while we are gone. One day, I look forward to telling my students, and my children, about how I visited Tsurugaoka Hachimangu when the tree was still there. That I attended plays at the Kabuki-za – admittedly not the original one, but the original postwar one, which is being knocked down next month, April 2010.

The official Asahi Shinbun article (in English) will not be there long, as they don’t archive their articles for some reason, but I’ll link to it anyway.

Lonely Planet Travelblogs has some quite good pictures of the tree fallen, before it was taken away.

Farewell, tree. Rest in peace. You shall be missed.

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As promised, a translation of the interview with artist Koizumi Junsaku, who painted the stunning dragon paintings on the ceilings of temples Kenchô-ji and Kennin-ji.

Thanks to webmagazine i-sys (アイシス会社) for allowing me to reproduce this interview. Original text by Tomoko Takahashi.

Koizumi Junsaku (小泉淳作) was born in Kamakura in 1924. He was conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Military in 1943, shortly after he began his undergraduate studies in the Nihonga section at Geidai (Tokyo Fine Arts University), but contracted tuberculosis at military academy, and was dismissed from service. Koizumi did not return to school, however, until 1948, when he began studying under accomplished Nihonga painter Yamamoto Kyûjin, graduating in 1952.

Koizumi began studying pottery and ceramics in 1962. He showed in his first individual paintings exhibition in 1969, and at a ceramic arts exhibition in 1976. He took part in many more exhibitions over the following thirty years.

In 2000, he completed a dragon and clouds painting for the ceiling of the hattô (法堂, Hall of he Law) of Kenchô-ji, in his hometown of Kamakura, on the occasion of the 750th anniversary of the temple’s founding. Two years later, he completed a ceiling painting of twin dragons for Kennin-ji in Kyoto, on the 800th anniversary of that temple’s foundation.

[My translation of the interview/article begins here.]
After waiting for fullness, creating massive works one after another.
With Nihonga painter Koizumi Junsaku’s figure before them, some people would say he seems an ambitious person. Certainly, despite having reached an age that might be called the “evening years of one’s life,” Koizumi continues to create massive compositions one after another, and presents an energetic figure, so it may be only natural to describe him in such a way.

Takahashi: You have really devoted yourself to large dragon and cloud paintings. As the year 2000 approached, how did you come to be commissioned to create these two dragon and cloud paintings?

Koizumi: In order to construct a new worship hall in honor of the 750th anniversary of the founding of the temple, the Rinzai sect Kenchô-ji temple in Kamakura requested a ceiling painting; that dragon & cloud painting was completed in the 12th year of Heisei. That was the year 2000, right? Right after that, a request for a ceiling painting came in from Kennin-ji, one of the seven Rinzai temples of Kyoto, to be completed for the 800th anniversary of that temple’s founding, which was coming up in 2002. I painted a twin dragons painting. Certainly, as they came in one after the other, as a Nihonga painter, I was blessed with massive works. It’s strange. I had been painting for many years, had continued to create works one after another, but I never thought I could make a living as a painter.

I turned 70 making a living as a painter. That I could have made these two ceiling paintings after that, is something I am very thankful for.

When you think about it, Koizumi could be recognized primarily or solely for how long he has been active as a painter. In order to push aside that thought, however, I would now like to press forward and immerse ourselves in his surging, gushing creation process.

I knew painting from the time I was in elementary school.

Takahashi: Since when do you suppose you set your sights on being an artist?

Koizumi: I’ve never had that thought. Back when I went to kindergarten at Keiô, and went over my classmates’ houses in the neighborhood to play, I learned how to draw and paint. The other kids hated drawing, so they looked at me, and it became a “come here and learn” sort of thing. It wasn’t as if I went to a special art school for gifted children. Drawing was just an extension of play. I think I just had a sense for drawing. Growing up, I was surrounded with more art than in a normal house, and I wonder if there was some influence I was unaware of. But I didn’t have any special cognition or understanding.

Takahashi: Looking at it objectively, the environment you grew up in was quite special. Your youth was, it could be said, so long ago it’s been forgotten, yet it seems that these influences had a considerable effect on your later way of life.

Koizumi: My father Sakutarô was active in the world of mass communication, and later became a politician. I was his seventh son, but was not born to his wife. My birth mother died when I was five, in 1929, and so all my siblings and I ended up living together in the same house. This woman who was a complete stranger to me suddenly said, “Call me mother.” It was a large property, 5000 tsubo with as many as fifty rooms, and we were living among hired help and boarders. My father only came home once every three months. In terms of having a typical household environment growing up, it was horrendous.

My father was known as Sanshin. He was a major collector of Buddhist art, was quite famous in that world, and there are essays and papers he wrote which still remain today.

Takahashi: Most who hear you talk about it must have a certain image in their minds about how wonderful it must have been to grow up surrounded by such artworks, but you have said that for you, it was nothing.

Koizumi: We had a room full of Buddhist sculptures, and I would see them everyday, but I never understood anything about it. I was just a kid. I had many siblings, but none of us really understood the language of beauty of the art. They were all gifted kids, but only in math; not one of us ever stood out as one who said they liked art, or had a special sense for beauty. I was a child who had suddenly changed. I often worried about whether or not I was truly my father’s son. My father died in 1937, when I was 13.

It wasn’t because of the environment I grew up in that I became an artist. My major was French, after all.

Takahashi: Literature captured your heart. French literature, at that.


The setback of being intoxicated with literature. The teenager who chose painting.

Koizumi: From the kindergarten of the special private Keiô school, I moved ahead into the regular grades, and then in 1941, at the age of 17, I started the French literature preparatory course in the literature department of the university. I yearned for literature. By chance, Yasuoka Shôtarô was there. He was four years older than me, and even from that age, there was an air about him that made you think he was born to be a man of letters. Along with a number of friends, he wrote dôjinshi. When it came time to try to get the dôjinshi published, however, it was already wartime, and no one would do it for us. Yasuoka and I had never really been friends, but I asked my older brother if his publishing company would print the dôjinshi, and they did, on unused reams of paper. But, in the end, the only thing that got published was that first volume.

I read the story of Yasuoka’s from that volume, and thought, “ah, this is something I can’t match.” I no longer wanted to be in the French literature section. It was from that that I turned to paintings.

Takahashi: And then you aimed yourself at the path of the artist. But at that time, it wasn’t so easy to receive guidance.

Koizumi: It was easier to draw pictures than people, so I had a strong interest in it. I took one year off from my preparatory course, and studied for entrance exams. I entered Geidai (Tokyo University of the Arts) at the age of 19, in 1943. Though today there is a great clamor about Geidai being hard to get into, at that time, the hardest section to get into was (Western style) oil painting, and one in three got in. For Nihonga (Japanese style painting) and the like, one in two got in. At that time, there were 14 of us.

As we were right in the midst of the war, that was an unhappy time for painting. Those who painted puzzling pictures during the time of the nation’s greatest emergency were rebels or traitors; things like that were being said. When I was 12 or 13, if I said I liked art, my father didn’t smile or make a good face. “What’s that? You’re going to paint pictures or something?” he’d say, frigidly. My own feelings won through, and somehow I found myself in the Nihonga section at Geidai.

Takahashi: When I asked why he majored in Nihonga, an answer came back quickly and easily.

Koizumi: Because the people who taught me the basics were, it so happened, Nihonga painters, right? There weren’t any specific artists I idolized. It wasn’t until I started at Geidai that I first started to look at many different people’s paintings. When I was young, I thought anyone was just as good. Yeah, it was that sort of thing. As I was learning what was “good art” and carefully, laboriously, learning to copy it, I slowly came to throw away those notions. All that remained, I think, was what was important to me.

The environment in which I studied Nihonga was fantastic. We could use the resources and documents as much as we wanted, and the teachers included such people as Yasuda Yukihiko, Kobayashi Kokei, and Okumura Dogyû, who looked at our paintings. It was quite a luxury. I split off and studied directly under Yamamoto Kyûjin, though that was also for only a brief time. As the war intensified, I had to leave school.

Takahashi: The war created chaos for everyone. Instead of a paintbrush, you picked up a gun.
Falling ill, the thought of becoming an artist is reignited.

Koizumi: I was conscripted in October 1943. Thus, I entered school before the war, and graduated after the war. It was a considerable number of years before I graduated. This was life in the military academy. The food was bad, the living circumstances terrible. After about one year in military academy, I contracted tuberculosis and returned home in 1945. By then, I was happy for any reason to get to go home. And then, before you knew it, the war was over. At that time, tuberculosis was seen as the disease of death. There was no medicine for it. Rest was the only treatment. I returned to my older brother’s house in Izu, and for about two years, did just about nothing.

I returned to school in 1948. My chest was still having problems, but this time it was something else that was wrong. I was 24 at the time, and thought this quite serious; a medicine called streptomycin had come in from America, and I could get it through my insurance. After continuing to take it for some time, I got better. And then, in the end, I finally graduated in 1952, when I was 28.

Takahashi: After graduating, living was first priority. You couldn’t become an artist overnight, though.

Koizumi: Just after I graduated from Geidai, suddenly someone bought one of my pieces. Painting wasn’t something I could live on back then. In 1954, at the age of 30, I got married. In order to provide for my family, I did design work. Design was for others, art was for myself, was my thinking. I did a lot of designs, like candy packages or bicycle markings. Us outside designers took whatever was decided for us, out of the one hundred or two hundred plans there were. I was often hired, and sold quite a bit. I was making two or three times as much as the average salaryman, but I never grew to like that sort of work. In fact, I hated it. If you hate doing something, what can you do?

I couldn’t stand relying on whether work came in. The man in charge was full of himself. Work came in once a week. He had a custom of holding a banquet in return. If you failed to humor him, “no work for you this week,” he would declare. My stomach started to hurt from all these feasts. It was stress. I put my stamp on it, and my stomach broke (laughs).

I hated having to flatter someone else in order to get work. In the meantime, I was painting, and every year my pieces were showing in public exhibitions. My dream at that time was to wash my hands of the design business.
Creating pottery is an invitation to a new world.

Takahashi: At just that time, you came upon pottery.

Koizumi: I went to buy a teacup, and there weren’t any I liked, so I thought, why don’t I make one myself? It was around 1962, when I was 38. I heard there was someone named Ogi Gyûjirô doing pottery at the studio of Tomimoto Kenkichi in Kamakura; I went to visit the studio, and studied under Ogi. I went when I felt like it, and messed around.

Years passed. My house became filled with ceramics, and people began to ask me if I would be willing to sell them. I held an exhibition, and somehow made enough to last me a year. Deciding that I liked pottery better, I threw out all of my design desks.

I finally quit designing around 1975, when I was over 50. My pottery pieces were selling, and I was having fun. On the other hand, pottery isn’t fine arts. It is thought of as utilitarian. Paintings, whatever you say about them, are pure fine arts. Since there is that thinking, I came to focus myself on that.

Takahashi: From the time you were making a living as a designer, you continued painting pictures. You were honest with himself. I suppose that passion supported you as an artist.

Creating only pictures I like

Takahashi: Not a member of any artists’ group, you came to be called “The Isolated Painter”.

Koizumi: I don’t like that. For over twenty years, I had pieces showing in public exhibitions, but was never accepted as a member of any group. So, since I came without a group, I was called that. It’s not such a cool thing. I showed in a public exhibit for the last time when I was 49. I regularly had individual exhibitions, and in 1977, my painting “Okuizu Landscape” was selected for the Yamatane Art Museum Award for Excellence. That was when I was 53. I never received a prize before, or since. It was because of this that my art became known. That time was a time of yearning for Chinese ink painting.

Takahashi: And from then on, you immersed yourself in ink painting (suibokuga).

Koizumi: I came to do ink painting around when I turned 60. In the Showa 40s (1965-1974), there was a famous art critic named Tajika Kenzô who reviewed my paintings. One time, I was invited to his home, and he showed me some Chinese ink paintings of the T’ang and Song periods. It was incredible. They felt newer, fresher, than today’s Nihonga. There was a philosophical element to it. Sometime, I should try my hand at ink painting, I thought. It was very hard, though.

Generally speaking, Nihonga is a process of starting from the bottom and working your way up, step by step. In my case, I was always erasing, washing, pushing and pulling the things I painted. In ink painting, you can’t do that, or so I thought for a long time. It was when I was sketching Oku-Chichibu Mountain that I suddenly thought, “the time is now.” Thus, an ink painting was born. It was about then that, somehow, it became a painting I could sell and eat off of (laughs).

Takahashi: Knowing 800-year old Chinese ink paintings, you became tied up with ceiling paintings so many years later.

Koizumi: The origin of my paintings is realism. Therefore, I sketch in great detail; I’m very particular about that. Whether my subject is mountains or flowers or vegetables, I confront my subject and, in sketching it, I try to capture the living energy in it. It’s been said that my paintings can be scary, depending on how you look at them. That’s the spirit, the power, that they have. In order to achieve that, sketching is essential.


Painting dragons which are not of this world

Koizumi: They told me, the realist painter, to paint a dragon. It was tough. Something that you haven’t seen. A fictional existence, right? In the end, I decided there was no other option but to study old Chinese paintings. Creativity and innovation becomes self-promotion. I realized that in order to paint dragons, I had to do away with myself. It had to not look like the kind of dragon I would paint. A Dragon & Clouds painting was not a problem, but for the size of the Twin Dragons Painting, even though I searched for a workspace, it was a terribly hard process.

Takahashi: The Twin Dragons Painting is as wide as 108 tatami mats. You looked into building something prefab, but it exceeded the budget, and couldn’t be done. Just as you were beginning to grow truly worried, a perfect workplace in Hokkaido turned up.

Koizumi: In Nakasatsunai village, in the suburbs of Obihiro city, there was a school which had been closed, and I was allowed to use the gymnasium. The building was old, but was still sufficiently usable. There were two hallways, and I was able to step back and get a good view of the whole painting.

In March 2002, when it was affixed to the ceiling in Kenninji, I felt like a samurai marching on the capital. For me, who had walked the path of the painter alone for so long, I thought, at 78 I got to do this great, important work.

Takahashi: Mr. Koizumi, who has produced massive works one after another. What sort of works will you do next?

Koizumi: In 2001, I was honored with a retrospective exhibit. Since it was all my works from the beginning to now, it was hard to look at. Well, it’s not all that important, I thought, but there wasn’t a single work there that was done carelessly or halfheartedly. Having come this far in life, I’ve said the things I have wanted to say. When things were changing rapidly and hectically, I had a set of values inside me of not working in a single, unitary logical or coherent manner. From now on as well, I think that my ability to live honestly and simply has been used up.

If you were to ask what my path is from here, it is a question of how to do a good job in painting new things. If I were to continue doing that until I die, I would always keep in mind these dragon paintings, which represent I who is of this world.

Takahashi: Mr. Koizumi, who paints mountains, valleys, water, sky, and dragons, pours into his paintings the energy that fills the space between heaven and earth.

And now, Mr. Koizumi is planning a new challenge: creating fusuma (sliding door) paintings for the Tôdaiji in Nara. There are almost sixty fusuma in the temple. The ambitions of Nihonga painter Koizumi Junsaku are not used up yet.

Koizumi Junsaku’s new Nihonga world of veteran strength and energy is a legacy for the future, and a thousand years from now might be considered a great heritage.

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