Meeting the Dragons in Japan

On our last visit to Japan in 2010 we arrived the week of spring school break. The weather was glorious but our carefully devised plan to visit the top temples in Kyoto was thwarted by hoards of happy ( albeit sometimes bored ) school children engulfing each place. Parking lots were jammed with buses, and viewing (and moving about the temple gardens in general) was difficult due to the crowds.

Since Kyoto has hundreds of temples and shrines to visit, we quickly shifted gears  and headed off to visit a temple that has a significant history  involving tea and the development of tea drinking in Japan. As compelling as this fact is to us, this temple is NOT prominently featured in the tourist circuit, so we looked forward to a more serene visit.

A few bus rides and a short walk later we arrived at Kennin-ji Temple 建仁寺. This is the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, and we were delighted to see only a handful of people wandering around.

We learned that Kennin-ji was established in 1202 upon the request of Emperor Tsuchimikado 土御門 (r. 1198–1210) and with the Japanese monk Myoan Yosai (Eisai) 明菴榮西 (1141–1215) serving as the founding abbot. Eisai made the voyage to China twice during his lifetime, visiting Mount Tiantai to learn  more fully about Zen Buddhism. He eventually received recognition of his Zen enlightenment, and as  a result, he introduced Rinzai Zen Buddhism to Japan. He also introduced the tradition of drinking tea to Japan. He is recognized as the founder of the tea ceremony because of his efforts to encourage the cultivation and consumption of tea.

There is much about Kennin-ji that impresses,  but for me the unexpected joy of the  ‘road-less-traveled’  moment came when we entered Nenge-dô, the Dharma Hall. Inside of this grand space, a portion of the ceiling features a bold black ink and wash drawing ( suibokuga) titled – Twin Dragons – painted in 2002 by the contemporary artist Junsaku Koizumi. The drawing was commissioned to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the temple’s founding. Usually, dragons depicted on the ceilings of dharma halls are painted within a circle. But this exuberant ink drawing of two dragons roiling about in the cosmos covers a very large amount of un-bordered space in the center of the ceiling.

The striking image features two dragons who appear to be chasing a pearl. One dragon clasps the pearl in its talons; the other looks longingly at it. It is unclear if they are playing with the pearl or engaging in a battle of wills to possess it. The sheer size, boldness and technical expertise of this colossal drawing is mesmerizing. The fluidity of the scene underscores the grace and ease of movement that dragons possess.  It is easy to imagine these creatures swiftly disappearing from sight back into the cloud-filled cosmos with just a powerful gyration of their bodies.

We craned our necks until they hurt and we got slightly dizzy from gazing upwards. But nevertheless it was difficult to leave and re-enter the world of daylight. I was thrilled to be in the hall, and to experience the humbling feeling of being small and vulnerable beneath this colossal drawing. Perhaps that was just the response intended by the artist. I began to imagine what feelings an image like this would have invoked in people who perhaps believed that the cosmos was indeed filled with such magnificent and powerful beings centuries ago.

This drawing measures 11.4m by 15.7m, the size of 108 tatami mats. (In contrast, a classic Japanese tearoom where Chanoyu is conducted is the width of 8 tatami mats). The image is drawn with the finest quality ink on thick traditional Japanese washi paper.  The artist created it on the floor of a gymnasium in an elementary school in Hokkaido and took him just under two years to complete.

For those who visit, Kennin-ji also houses another wonderful piece of dragon art. Un-ryu 雲 龍, a dragon flying in clouds” is an ink painting on four fusumas (sliding partitions). The image was originally painted in the 16th century by Kaihō Yūshō(海北友松 1533-1615 ).


As I was writing this post, I discovered that Junsaku Koizumi passed away on January 9th of this year. Perhaps that was why I began to think about him again. This is his obituary as recorded in the Japan Times.

Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012

Todaiji painter Koizumi dies at 87

Yokohama — Artist Junsaku Koizumi, who painted 40 paper screens of Todaiji, the renowned Buddhist temple in Nara Prefecture, died Monday his family said. He was 87.

Koizumi studied under the famed Kyujin Yamamoto (1900-1986) while attending Tokyo School of Fine Arts, which later became Tokyo University of the Arts.

He won his first award at a 1954 exhibition of new paintings. After he turned 40, he tended to stay away from painters’ circles and was sometimes described as a noble loner. He produced many ink paintings of magnificent and serene landscapes.

Koizumi’s representative works include ceiling paintings at Kenchoji Temple in his native Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, and at Kenninji Temple in Kyoto Prefecture. In 2010, he completed the 40 paper screens at Todaiji, a World Heritage site.

He also created calligraphy work and pottery.


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