Kumano Pilgrimage Day 2 by Aaron M. Hyman


Pilgrim Stamps, collected by Zumrad Ilyasova

Open the small door, take out the seal, press it into red ink, and stamp your page. At the Hosshimon Ōji—the entrance to the “pure land” on a Kumano Kodō pilgrimage—the pilgrim’s seal impressed upon us the importance of inscription, vision, and reading. The terms and their related practices wove through our wanderings and our pauses. In a group in which only two people can actually decipher kanji, “lost in translation” pushed us all to remember that the most is gained when terms and concepts break down between interlocutors.

Detail of Gate at the Shinto Shrine at Shingū

Claps (of prayer), clangs (of rattle-bells), clicks (of Heian-style wooden shoes) bring the shrine of Shingū to life. Shinto is a noisy affair. Add to this the fluttering pages of text or the quick turn of a scroll—paper pouring, or rubbing against paper. Tendoku speeds you through sutras: waterfalling an accordion-folded text from the right hand to the left, rolling a scroll at lightening speed makes a text visible. The text moves across the horizon of the visible, and thus it is “read.” But visible to whom and how does “mere” seeing reframe normative definitions of reading?

Sutra Shrine, Kongōbu Temple, Mount Kōya

Such textual activation called up our day on Mount Kōya when at the main temple precinct we spun the sutras. Circumambulating a small repository of texts, we each pushed a handle that sent the scrolls inside spinning. That canon of Buddhist texts was only visible in the mind’s eye, but we felt its literal heft—substrates, ink, and the wooden structure that needed to be moved to send the text into motion.

Sutra Case from Koumyouji Temple Shrine in Shiano, 1156

Some text, however, should be hidden for another day. A small bronze vessel in the humble site museum at the Nachi waterfall shrine was meant to hold sutras safe, out of view, buried in the ground to await an era of the buddha, one that would come in 5.6 billion years. Having crossed back over the horizon of the visible—that is, having been excavated and frozen in a vitrine—it has lost its textual potential precisely because we can now read both the sutra it housed and the text inscribed upon its own surface. Art historical gain comes with a price. “It’s not the first time the discipline has gone trouncing about demanding that things be seen,” our leader noted.

Yet these questions of literal in/visibility crossed into the realm of the theoretical, philosophical, and linguistic. Do kanji have a visible referentiality? To an object on earth, or an idea? Not a phonetic sound—this much was clear as Micki McCoy and Kris Kersey brought characters to voice in dueling Chinese and Japanese intonations. To gesture, certainly: the index of the hand, the body, the brush and its ink. But what of bird writing, the primordial inscription by which characters were offered up in the bodies and wings of birds. We bought talismans of such writing in Nachi; a transparency with kanji was laid atop by the shop attendant. Birds became words, Micki and Kris produced them as sounds. But the transparency was pulled away and birds were left to flutter on the page, the only lines left being those that the eye and imagination could conjure–they could reimpose a horizon of legibility atop the picture. But writing, after all, is always already visible to begin with.

Kumano Pilgrimage Day 1 by Meekyung MacMurdie

Hosshinmon Gate marks the outermost entrance of the Kumano Kodō, a pilgrimage route stringing together ninety-nine Shinto shrines. But Kumano becomes also the site of Amida’s Buddhist Pure Land, a projection of uneasy political cartography given that Kumano lay to the east of the medieval capitals, Nara and Kyoto. Pilgrims offered sutras at the Shinto shrines, mapping the heavenly onto the earthly and altering both in the process. 

Our own way from Hosshinmon Gate took us seven kilometers—through gold and green on well-worn steps—to Kumano Hongū Taisha. Medieval pilgrims heard voices and wrote poetry; no surprise, then, that along the way we traded coffee for conversation. Icon, Naturalism, Calligraphy. What does script make visible? 

The following day ended at Nachi where Shinto and Buddhist temples still stand together. On display at the Treasure House are rows of seated wooden figures. They used to be Goshintai or bodies that housed Shinto deities. These hosts were only revealed, however, after their deities had left them. No one knows what the current Goshintai look like. Close by, the Buddhist temple houses two icons of the same Buddha. One of them was hidden away. The other, a maedachi stand-in, is placed in front of this secret image. The docent at the Treasure House told us that while the hidden Buddha was stiff and stern, the Maedachi was emotive by contrast. 

Questions about form, material, and style are enshrined in the practice of art history, but how do we describe that which we cannot see? How do we wrestle with the ephemeral and catch the divine in the waterfall?  

Kōyasan by Micki McCoy

From Nara we traveled to the port city of Osaka, initiating a multistage journey by train, funicular, and bus into the forested mountains of Kōya, headquarters of Shingon, one of Japan’s esoteric Buddhist sects. Upon arrival, Kris noted that Kōyasan (Mt. Kōya) is many different places at once, among them pilgrimage and tourist site, temple network, sacred landscape, and necropolis. 

The air clear and cool, we arrived at our lodging, Fudōin, one of the many temples that today offer accommodation to the public. We noted the torii gate and rock landscape marking the tomb of a twelfth-century empress consort patron, evidence of this subtemple’s own textured history.

Once settled in, we headed to the Reihōkan, Koyasan’s primary space for public exhibitions. Gathering around wooden sculpture, dual-world mandalas, an annotated pictorial inventory, and a set of miniature wooden pagodas, we discussed and debated sculptural naturalism, gilding techniques, the relationship between visualization and visuality, the production of multiples, and iconography on the move from Central Asia to Japan.

Crossing Kōyasan’s primary east-west road, we entered the central temple precinct, pausing to “turn the wheel of dharma” by pushing, carousel-style, a rotating sutra repository. Congregating before a much larger pagoda, the Konpon Daitō, resplendent in vermillion, red, and white, we discussed its complex synthesis of rounded and square architectural idioms.

After a refined vegetarian banquet back at Fudōin (and a very special birthday celebration), the less jetlagged among us took a nighttime walk through the mountain’s sprawling, densely layered graveyard. The route ends at the Okuonin, the mausoleum of Kōyasan’s own founder, Kūkai (744–835), where he is believed to sit in meditative concentration, now a perpetually hidden and quasi-animate Buddhist icon.

Nara by Sarah Guérin

Our only day in verdant Nara, the first extant capital of Japan, offered a compelling overview of sites and sculpture from the eighth century to the twelfth, and beyond. We began at the Fujiwara family shrine of Kasuga, walking through the deer-inhabited parks to arrive at the site on the outskirts of the ancient city, just before the primeval forest into which no one can now enter. Vermillion stained gates marked the end of our ascent, where we heard morning chants. The Shinto shrine was an apt place to start, as it is a site where the dieties are manifested in objects other than iconic sculpture – one such site was a massive, gnarled tree, marked as sacred with a rope belt and paper ornaments.

Beginning with these aniconic embodiments of the Kami deities laid the foundation for thinking about the forms and media used for the iconic figures created for the Buddhist pantheon. Our day in Nara was exceptionally full because of the special openings of temple sculpture collections to celebrate the imperial coronation in the last weeks, so we were able to see, to ponder, and to discuss a large number of the true masterpieces of early Japanese sculpture.

The 16 meter tall bronze Buddha of Toda-ji, glimmering in the bright sun, was an exception, not the rule. As impressive as he was, bursting out of his special Great Buddha Hall built around him, it was the life-size scuptures in wood, clay and lacquer that kept us transfixed throughout the day, at Todai-ji (including the rarely-opened Hokkedo), Kofuku-ji, and the Kofuku-ji treasure hall.

The dry lacquer sculptures at the treasure hall, essentially thin bodies of lacquered textiles with a wood and wire armature, were light, delicate, and waif-like – and it was hard to say where this was due to medium, due to the iconography of the asectic disciples, or to their slim profile to fit the whole group upon platform. I have to say, that these lacquers contrast strongly with the more-corpulent gilt lacquer of Kuse Kannon, though on a solid wooden core, that I had seen earlier at Hōryū-ji (with his chubby cheeks and fleshy red lips). But it is the expressions of the learned elderly men depicted in these figures that holds attention, their furrowed brows, down-turned eyes, and sometimes slightly smiling lips, like they are hiding a delicious secret. Kris remarked that the hollowness of the dry lacquers, paired with these carefully rendered (if not also closely observed) facial expressions, leads to an impression of deep interiority here. The figures seem to enjoy a veritable interior life.

While it might seem improbable to skip over the contemporary Nara-period clay Four Divine Kings of the Todai-ji Hokkedo, the verisimilitude of their foreign armour and the ferocious expressions appropriately protecting the Buddha, it was the question of interiority that kept resurfacing in our discussions. This was brought to the fore when we were joined by Mary Lewine, who is currently working at the Nara National Museum, but whose dissertation is on a late Heian “stuffed“ sculpture. The question of why materials were included in the cavities of wooden sculptures of the later Heian and Kamakura periods, and what role they played was brought up again and again. Kris noted that it was the shift in sculptural process to wooden (polychromed) sculpture, and the need to hollow out the wood to prevent cracking, and the development of a piecemeal, assembled figural sculpture that left spaces in the figures for such insertions. The insertion of devotional materials, sutras, or relics compared to the contemporary practice of inserting extremely mimetic rock-crystal eyeballs into the sculpture. In the morning, Kris aptly critiqued the notion (deeply occidentalizing) of animation. Rather, as Mary explained, these extra-sculptural materials are better conceived as offerings to the deity, or petitions, materials that further knit the deity figured to the patron or community that commissioned, and/or worshipped it.

However, the seated Six Patriarchs of the Hossō school, at Kōfuku-ji from the late Heian period, by the sculptor Kōkei, sitting quietly in the dusk-like light of the hall, their eyes glinting within their wizended faces, the flash of a glance, for me were profoundly present.

Tokyo by Beate Fricke

A memorable, mind-changing, and particularly enjoyable first day started at the Gallery of the Horyuji Treasures. The spectacular building is housing objects that were given reluctantly by the temples to the national museum, previously stored in the temples’ treasure storage. Relocating 150 sacred objects into the museum – and keeping the larger and prominently visible cult objects on the temple grounds – was not a purely voluntary move by the temples facing financial difficulties.

The display of small gilded bronzes, boxed each in a glass cube, solitary, at a safe distance, and illuminated directly from below and indirectly from above, these little boddhisattvas seem to be lost in time. As if each would silently claim to be the prime object, but all being prime objects in a Kublerian sense, bearing distinctively foreign but yet ambiguous ethnic traces of a distant origin on the mainlands. These smaller bronzes are now gazing all towards the entrance, facing their detached mandorlas neatly lined up at the opposing wall.

The beholder today is standing in the gap between formerly joined parts of venerated statues made in the 7th century, like in a virtual orchestra pit, a position raising the question what does ornament mean, what ornamentation? Their mute choral seemed to chant that nothing should be displayed without being contextualized.

Their context today forms an upbeat in the dark cube with a clear choreography leading to the upper room. There we have had the very rare occasion of seeing the Illuminated Biography of Prince Shotoku.

The five panels on display had previously been housed in a hall dedicated to the pictorial biography of Shōtoku. Painted on silk, they tell a richly illustrated story of a princely life, yet the order is neither chronologically nor topologically at first sight. Starting at the right, we enter the picture, moving towards the left. But we are encountering obstacles, the lines revealing the perspectival construction of each architectural element drawn with flying-off roofs, drawn in the Heian-period, illuminating a rather distant past. Later on, this will be a prominent feature of illuminations of the Genji tales in manuscripts or on screens. These lines pointing all towards the upper right reject our eyes’ movement towards the left, and push back our initial current of reading. But do we want to be read pictorially into a picture? Why this opposite movement, if the primary sources of these times in East and West describe looking at a picture as “entering” it, as walking mentally through the depicted space and time?

We count five different systems of representation, coexisting and overlapping here – 1. perspectival representation for the architectural forms, 2. movement of the people, 3. nature, 4. the overarching horizon building the stage for this Simultanbild, and 5. the little cartouches describing the scenes in writing.

After queuing in the burning sun in front of the Heiseikan building, we entered the special Shōsōin exhibition, the treasures preserved through the imperial family. Because of the incoronation of the new emperor the show has two parts, and stunning objects, a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with objects usually stored in 206 chests in Nara. The open lock greeted us at the entrance, followed by breath-taking objects, such as a five-string lute, the dragon-headed ewer, red and blue painted ivory pieces, folding screens with calligraphy formed by pheasant feathers sewn to the panels, incense burners and incense with pieces only taken off every now or then as an extraordinary imperial honor.

But the true highlight was a series of eye-opening revelations by Kris Kersey, illuminating Japan’s history in the Honkan building on the Tokyo National Museum Campus with a focus on the Nara-period to the collapsing of the Heian regime. Listening to him, one wants to be able to understand immediately each layer he unfolds mentally in front of our inner eyes, gliding over paper with embedded vines and phoenixes made with mica-powder pattern, and be able to read every word of those poems, using the paper format like a stage with the golden cut, arranging thoughts and letters, with their bodies and gestures dancing over the sheet’s surfaces, drawn by the quill gliding over the structured paper made in the 7th century. Gold and silver sprinkles, script systems, existing parallel next to each other until the 19th century.

Afterwards we strolled along more profane objects, the shell-matching game with a box decorated with the Genji-tales, admiring the shadows in perspective in the golden era of multiple color-plate printing from the late Edo-period, and concluding with thoughts how one could re-write the history of netsuke, from a hobby-horsian view (Gombrich), or like Camille, as reminiscence of an other-wise unrecorded yet relevant past of the profane everyday world.

Japan 2019: Research-trip together with Kristopher Kersey (UCLA)

In this ten-day trip, we will visit many of the most important religious and metropolitan sites of “classical” and “early medieval” Japan (ca. 700 – 1300). We begin in Nara, the capital of Japan from 710-784. Here we will visit the large temple complex Tōdaiji (with its monumental bronze icon of the Buddha Vairocana), the treasure hall of the temple Kōfukuji (famed for its sculptures), and the Shinto shrine of Kasuga Taisha. We will also visit the important collections of Buddhist art and ritual implements at the Nara National Museum.

The trip is deliberately timed to make possible a visit to a special, two-week-long exhibition of artifacts from the Shōsōin Repository (an eighth-century collection of luxury objects, many of which came to Japan via trade with the continent). This annual exhibition, in its 70th year, consistently ranks as one of the most heavily trafficked exhibitions in the world, a testament both to the enduring appeal of such objects and their central place in Japanese museum culture.

From Nara we will travel to the sacred Mount Kōya, founded by the eighth-century polymath Kūkai. There we will visit the Hall of Numinous Treasures (Reihōkan), hike the necropolis and temple grounds, and stay overnight at a subtemple on the mountain. The next morning, we will make our way from Mount Kōya to deep within the mountains of the Kii Peninsula. Here we will join the Kumano Kodō, a series of medieval pilgrimage routes that snake through the mountains connecting three important Shinto shrines (the Kumano Sanzan). It is, along with Santiago de Compostela, one of two pilgrimage routes inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. After a hike to the main shrine of Kumano, we will spend a night at a hot spring before traveling to the last two of the shrines, ending with the Shinto goshintai of Nachi Falls.

Following these two days in the rural Kii Peninsula, we will return to Kyoto by train in order to spend a few days visiting key sites in the premodern capital of Japan. Among the destinations are the Hall of Thirty-Three Bays, Kiyomizudera, Rokuharamitsuji, Seiryōji (home of the legendary “first” icon of the Buddha), and the Byōdōin. We end with a return trip back to Tokyo to see the second rotation of the Shōsōin Exhibition there, a perfect bookend to the journey. Days are also punctuated by occasional two-to-three-hour seminars during which we can reflect on what we have seen and workshop our ongoing research projects.

En route to Nara
Fuji!