Japanese pilgrimage

One of the most famous and influential figures in Japanese Buddhism is the man known as Kobo Daishi, “great teacher of the Buddhist faith”, or Kukai as he was known in his lifetime. The sect he founded on his return from China is called Shingon. Daishi, “the Saint”, was a poet, a painter and a calligrapher as well as a teacher and a monk. He was born on Shikoku, smallest of the four main islands, in the south of Japan, in 774 and died there in 835. In his honour pilgrims still walk a pilgrimage around the island, a two month journey covering 1600 kilometres, retracing Daishi’s steps as he sought for enlightenment, the pilgrimage of the eighty eight sacred places. For the faithful, Daishi walks with them.

Nihonbashi bridge was the start of any travel from Tokyo, the point where five highways began. At dawn a nobleman and his retinue depart on their business. And here begins Hiroshige’s blue, which always fills me full of hope.

To the north, on Honshu, is Osaka in Kansai region, the setting for Junichiro Tanizaki’s wonderful novel The Makioka Sisters (1948). Pilgrimage forms a part of the story of Yukiko’s search for a husband; the sisters go each year to view the fall of the cherry blossoms, the “light snow” of the book’s Japanese title, a widely used metaphor for the impermanence of this life.

At Kawasaki it is still dawning, and the nobleman’s retinue pass commoners who prostrate themselves as the procession goes by. Servants of the many inns and tea houses go to buy provisions. Life as it was almost 200 years ago.

The woodblock print maker Katsushika Hokusai, generally known simply as Hokusai, lived between 1760 and 1849. He worked in the tradition of ukiyo-e, which portrayed famous geisha, tayu and kabuki actors. Ukiyo-e, story of the floating world, was originally a Buddhist term for human life, which became attached to the ephemeral world of Edo actors, prostitutes and artists. Hokusai travelled on pilgrimage many times, and transformed ukiyo-e into an art of landscape, a change inherited and continued by his younger contemporary Hiroshige. His thirty six views of Mount Fuji made him famous and influenced many artists inside and outside Japan, including many of the Impressionist school in Europe. Hokusai was a follower of Nichiren Buddhism, and for him, as for many others, Mount Fuji had a special significance, representing the secret of eternal life. On his travels Hokusai showed the spare, fragile landscape of Japan, and vivid details of his fellow travellers.

Cerulean, cobalt, sapphire, cyan, there has never been a blue like Hiroshige’s, a product not only of paint but of its union with paper and press. Hiroshige’s work can be seen at http://www.hiroshige.org.uk.

Utagawa Hiroshige lived between 1797 and 1858, and produced thousands of landscape views of famous locations in Japan. In his lifetime tourism was extremely popular, and travellers would buy one of Hiroshige’s books of views to take with them as a guide to their trip, or as a memento after its completion. A great admirer of Hiroshige was Vincent Van Gogh, who owned and copied several of Hiroshige’s prints. Hiroshige retired at the end of his life to a Buddhist monastery. He never made much money from his prints, despite their popularity. Few people can have seen so much of the Japanese landscape, or captured its beauty so unforgettably.

I owe a great debt to Hiroshige. Painting has never made much impact on me and I am still impervious to much of the drawing and painting I have experienced. Perhaps this is because I first saw these works in art book form, and printed art lacks much of the impact of the actual work on canvas. Perhaps coincidentally, the art that means the most to me are the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, the work of Vincent Van Gogh, and Hiroshige’s Fifty-Three Stages of the Tokaido, and these I experienced as travelling exhibitions that came to Australia. Reading art books was no preparation for these exhibitions, and I wasn’t prepared for the visceral impact. I had no previous idea of the power in Leonardo’s drawing, nor of the slap in the face explosiveness of Vincent’s art. Hiroshige’s art is one of balance. His paintings bring harmony and peace to me when I view them. Perhaps because his art was originally in print form I still retain this feeling when looking at reproductions. My pilgrimage to visit these art works was enormously rewarding and has been a big influence in my life.

At Hiratsika a reminder that in Japan the sea is not ever far away, more a part of the land than in any other country. Hiroshige depicts the many colours of the sea, here a shallow inlet surrounding a raised causeway. A reminder of the drifting weeds that float so quickly away (and of the film by Yasujiro Ozu).

Wood block art is a form of printing. Each colour in a painting requires a separate block, cut to show only the lines in that colour, raised above the rest of the surface, and the painting gradually emerges as the paper takes one impression after the other until the composite of images is complete. Despite this labour intensive method, wood block prints were quick and cheap to produce, and became the first popular art in Japan, spreading tales, view books and manga (collections of sketches) throughout the country. This was at a time, the eighteenth century, when the novel was beginning to attract a huge audience in Europe. Wood block prints were a collaborative art, the work primarily of a painter and a wood carver, and they also relied for their effect on the art of the paper maker. The Tokaido (road between Tokyo and Kyoto) prints of Hiroshige I saw were printed on a beautifully textured paper only slightly discoloured with age. The paper was as beautiful as the image impressed on it.

At Yoshiwara the contrast is strong between the sea which ebbs and flows, which gives food and life and takes life away in floods and tidal waves, and Mount Fuji, which is always still, covered in snow, always just present.

Both romantic and realistic, Hiroshige’s paintings show the common man of eighteenth century Japan as part of his natural environment. They also suggest that behind the temporal nature of what we all experience lies something more permanent.

Life as a pilgrimage, a journey we all take, is an ancient concept. We soon forget our starting point, and are not certain yet of our destination. This vividness of journey, lack of permanence, sense of place, intimation of hidden purpose is the great achievement of Hiroshige’s art. Equally important is Hiroshige’s meticulous portrayal of everyday life. His prints of journeys are as entertaining and full of life as The Canterbury Tales or Don Quixote, or anything by Fielding, Sterne or Smollett, authors who created the picaresque novel in England the generation before Hiroshige. Hiroshige’s Tokaido is in many ways an equivalent, a novel without words, a story of eighteenth century Japan with a cast of thousands, a kind of protofilm of that world.

At Yui was the most famous view of the journey. It was originally at the foot of the slope on the shoreline but was moved away from here to a point less subject to flooding higher up the slope. The travellers look at Fuji, the sea is heartbreakingly blue, here a friend not a destructive force.

At Kyoto the capital the lifestyle is much more sedate than at the bustling commercial centre of Tokyo. Nobles stroll, traders offer their goods, the bridge is not the start of a journey but part of a promenade. Kyoto was the centre of the Heian culture that produced Genji Monogatori, but lost its importance at the Restoration of 1869.

In Seba the landscape is like a fairy tale, magical and mysterious. The bargees move on their missions, but the trees look as though they might inspire Arthur Rackham one day. The mysterious light is that of a storm swept dawn. The sea is dark, but still wonderfully blue.

And while that blue exists there is hope for us all.

©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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