We couldn’t leave Kyoto without exposing ourselves to the glittering elegance of the golden pavilion of Kinkaku-ji. Originally built in the 14th century and turned into a Zen temple in 1408, the natural dark wood pillars and opaque white plaster walls contrast yet complement the glimmering upper stories that take your breath away.
Although it is not possible to enter the building, Shaka Buddha and Yoshimitsu are placed inside, looking out over the pond that lies as a staging mirror in the middle of wildly colored autumn trees.
Surprisingly, there is nothing tacky about the pavilion, it refuses any annotation to discourses on kitsch and art. Furthermore, it isn’t hard to believe that the graceful application of uncountable square gold leaf foils inspired Japan-obsessed Viennese artists and art historians around 1900 to gain interest in the materiality of the so-called gold ground.
That the medieval notion of gold as a substance that prolongs human life still resonates on Japanese menus, persuaded us to be on the safe side. Strolling around in fields of gold we were pretty sure–”no one is luckier than we are!”
Leaving Kyoto for Tokyo on Thursday morning, we looked up in the sky and noted its resemblance to an airy batik silk spreading above our heads. Not the clouds were attached to the blue ground—it was almost like the in-between had been dipped into blue dye, absorbing it to various depths. We did not know we would encounter more outstanding blue-grounded textile creations later in the day.
On the last day of our trip we returned to the place where we started—to the Tokyo National Museum. We came to see the second rotation of the Shōsōin exhibition and were highly rewarded for coming back. It was the renewed textile section that caught most of our attention. Fragments of a patterned Tang dynasty nuki-nishiki silk (weft-faced compound twill), once sewn together into a bag for a biwa lute, stroke us with their vivid colours and the high quality of the weave. The central decorative element karahana, or the Tang rosette, was rendered in nine colours on a clear blue ground. Each flower petal was composed out of five different shades, which not only added depth and volume to the lotus flowers but almost followed the aesthetic principles of buddhist painting.
As we encountered the karahana painted on multilayered gowns underneath the “foreign” armours of the dynamic wooden sculptures of the heavenly guardian deities and on the dry lacquer sculptures of Buddha’s disciples at Kōfukuji, we started to think about material translations in different media. One fascinating object we saw at the Shōsōin exhibition in Nara—the eight-lobed wooden Tang mirror case covered with a karahana-patterned silk—may provoke further thoughts about the relations between actual silk covering a wooden core and its painted replications.
We have seen a number of different material surfaces evoking textile patterns throughout the trip. Painted wood, dry lacquer, but also paper, like the scroll displayed at the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets exhibition in Kyoto, emulating a metallic embroidery or a brocade with its floral decoration applied with mica powder. On the other hand, certain textiles seemed to refer to other materials, for example by resembling hanging metal temple banners through radiant embroidery, or by “becoming” anatomic organs and corporal fluids inside the “true icon” of the Shakyamuni Buddha sculpture at Seiryōji.
Next to the lute cover fragments we saw the karahana motif on a bigger scale, assembled out of multicoloured felt pieces on the kasen rug with a similar deep blue ground. An other blue-grounded textile object was the joku mat for a buddhist offering table with paired ducks on a lotus flower applied with the kyokechi resist dyeing technique. In the vitrine of preserved scraps we even saw tiny fragments of chain stitch embroidery on blue ground. The technical variety presented in the exhibition reminded us to treat the generalizing term for the medium of “textiles” with more caution.
On our last day in Kyoto we spent the morning at Rokuharamitsuji and the Rengeōin (despite the scaffolding) before visiting a special exhibition on the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets at the Kyoto National Museum. In the afternoon, the group split to see sites of individual interest: Kinkakuji, the newly reopened Kobe City Museum, and Fushimi Inari.
Following on the heels of a dynamic seminar on ivory carving (led by Sarah Guérin) the evening before, we were well primed to discuss the sculptural assemblages at the morning temples. Beginning at Rokuharamitsuji, we spent nearly an hour enraptured by the famous statue of Kūya, discussing not only its famous figuration of iconic language, but also the fine details of the carving, the state of preservation, and its relationship to the other sculptures in the single-gallery Treasure Hall.
In contrast to the intimacy of Rokuharamitsuji, the subsequent Sanjūsangendō presented an overwhelming array of sculptures: one thousand “identical” iterations of the Bodhisattva Kannon standing ten rows deep with 500 each flanking the monumental Kannon icon at the center of the long hall. Joining the 1001 Kannon, were twenty-eight attendant deities standing in the first row (along with the Wind and Thunder Gods). A special autumn viewing platform allowed us to gain a new, but ahistorical, perspective on the so-called “sea of Buddha” (as the contemporary artist Sugimoto Hiroshi terms the site in his reframing of the altar as installation).
The morning ended with a visit to see the Satake version of the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets, a two volume set of early thirteenth-century (imaginary) portrait scrolls that were cut apart and sold in 1919. Reunited for the first time in a century, the scrolls were beautifully installed, with each given his or her own pseudo-tokonoma. The group was especially well prepared to view this exhibition, since most had by then acquired monoscopic lenses (gyararī sukōpu), which allowed for close inspection of the detailed lines of the physiognomy. These two temples and one exhibition served as excellent final sites of analysis, since they engaged the primary themes of our week-long seminar discussions: the relationship of physiognomy to mimesis, sculpture to body, calligraphy to pictorial line, and figure to ground.
Today, Japanese Buddhists mostly aspire to be reborn in the Pure Land – a Buddhist heaven – rather than attaining Nirvana which is considered too difficult a task for a lifetime. At Uji, a small town next to Kyoto, the Pure Land touches earth. In the middle of the 11th century, at about the time when Pure Land Buddhism came to the fore in Japan, the nobleman Fujiwara no Yorimichi built here a temple called Byōdōin which is a precise imitation of the Pure Land, in the way it is described in the Visualization Sutra (Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra). The sutra tells us how the Buddha helps aspirants to the Pure Land to reach the heaven by means of a a meditation practice. This practice is based on the visualization of the Pure Land. Also, the recitation of the name of the Buddha Amitabha (Amida in Japanese), the Buddha who resides over the Pure Land, is crucial.
For most of our group, today’s highlight probably were the wooden sculptures of boddhisattvas, carved by the workshop of the famous Heian sculptor Jōchō, which formed the retinue of the Buddha Amitabha in the central hall of Byōdōin. One thing to note is that the Pure Land was definitely imagined as a place full of music! The boddhisattvas play flutes, drums, cymbals, lutes and a host of other instruments which make us aware that hardly any of us has a clear idea of what classical Japanese music actually sounds like.
The idea that heaven must culminate in heavenly music strikes us as pretty familiar. Less obvious we find the central role chanting plays on the worshippers’ path towards the Pure Land, and more generally in many Japanese Buddhist schools. Everyone can attain rebirth in the Pure Land, the Visualization Sutra says, as long as one is mindful of Amitabha and chants his name. We have done it ourselves a few days ago when we stayed overnight on Mount Koya at a temple partaining to the Shingon school and started the morning with chanting: “Na-Mu-A-Mi-Da-Butsu” (“Adoration for Amitabha Buddha”).
A forefather of this practice is the monk Kūya, a famous sculpture of whom we visit in the museum of the small temple of Rokuharamitsuji. The sculpture, created by Kōshō (died 1237), shows how Kūya travelled in the 10th century around Japan and spread the practice of nenbutsu (recollection of the Buddha) by reciting his name. From his mouth exit six images of the Buddha, mounted on a thin wire. Each figure of the Buddha stands for one of the six mōra Na-Mu-A-Mi-Da-Butsu. In Japanese, words are not broken up in syllables, but in signs. All of these mōra are chanted at the same length which makes for a very rhythmic chanting practice. In the sculpture of Kūya, a sound becomes an icon. Incantation and visualization are one.
When a member of the staff of the museum of the Rokuharamitsuji temple tells us the history of the temple, the importance of nenbutsu for many different schools of Japanese Buddhism becomes clear: Kūya founded the temple in 951 and left it unaffiliated. Only later the temple became associated with the “esoteric” Buddhist school Tendai. Today, however, the temple pertains to another esoteric sect, Shingon, the same that we came across on Mount Koya. Throughout the temple’s history, the memory of Kūya as well as his sculpture were preserved. Kūya, best known as an identification figure of Pure Land Buddhism, left in fact a mark on many Buddhist practices.
On the morning of our seventh day in Japan, we entered the visual space of Prince Shotoku once again. While our memory drifts off into the perspectival construction of the painted silk panels we encountered at the beginning of our trip in Tokyo, suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of the famous „moss garden“ at Saihōji. As far as the eye can see, the micro cosmos of the garden unfolds as a stunning landscape, renewing itself with every step we take. With its shifting scales and textures, we walk through real and imagined representations of space and time.
That landscape and poetry are not to be separated, became stunningly visible by looking at the dry landscape or „stone garden“ at the same site. After our shared experience of copying Sutra verses with a black ink calligraphy brush in the Zen temple that also belongs to the Saihōji complex, we were able to draw our own lines between the practice of mark making in scripture as well as in the practice of landscaping. While moss, stone, bark and water create their worlds of representation, textures produced by lines and washes in numerous configurations generate their very own pictorial spaces on plane surfaces.
Very different landscaping strategies are revealed at the gardens of Tenryūji. Although the term shakkei (借景) doesn’t appear before the 17th century, it helps us to understand the principle of embedding surrounding features into the view of the garden as a landscape. The performed austerity of the created landscape finds an apogee in the view of the pond, framed by its autumn leaves and inhabited by cranes.
After a refreshing walk through a nearby bamboo forest and a lunch assorted of local delicacies, we were prepared to encounter the temple of Seiryōji with its remarkably puzzling Buddha sculpture. Believed to have been produced in 10th-century China, the wooden artifact became a true icon and set stylistic standards for centuries to come. Guided by the displayed replicas of small objects that were found inside the body of the figure in 1953, our discussion intensified around questions of representation and replica, hidden presence and outside perception.
While the small tea houses in today’s Zen gardens functioned as spaces for aesthetic discourses during the medieval period, we ended our day at its contemporary equivalent in central Kyoto. Moss green cups of matcha formed the backdrop to discuss, synthesize and conclude yet another perfect day.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.