Archive for May, 2010

Nikko Tour

May 16, 2010

We decided to reprint the entire account of the Nikko tour [originally published in V. 2, n. 9/2], of which the honorably mentioned haibun [see v. 3, no. 4 below] forms the second part.  Our haiku poet-in-residence had reworked the original haibun, improving on them we hope, so what is below will be slightly different.   We also discovered after publishing the original account that November 25, the day the Grand Tour set out on its journey to Nikko, is the anniversary of Basho’s death, which in haiku circles is associated with the seasonal phenomenon of wintry rain.

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[The following article originally appeared in slightly different form in Tokyo Tree, Vol. 2, No. 9/2, June 13, 2009.]   Travel Diary:  Nikko. We’ve mentioned in a previous issue the 17th century haiku poet Basho.  He is also famous for his travelogues, in which poetic essays describing his experiences on the road, called haibun, are interspersed with haiku expressing the same or related experience in pithier terms.  Here is an example, excerpted from Basho’s The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa in The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Harmondsworth, England:  Penguin Books, 1966, p. 81).

I threw away quite a number of things, for I believed in travelling light.  There were certain things, however, I had to carry on my back–such as a raincoat, an overcoat, an inkstone, a brush, writing paper, medicine, a lunch basket–and these constituted quite a load for me.  I made such slow progress that I felt deeply depressed as I walked along with faltering steps, giving as much power as I could to my trembling knees.

Tired of walking

I put up at an inn,

Embraced comfortably

By wisteria flowers.

Inspired by Basho, we have written (or, to put it more accurately, attempted to write) the Nikko segment of the Grand Tour Diary in haibun form.

Nikko Tour 1:  “Following in the Master’s Footsteps…”

November 25:  Departing Asakusa Station under cloudy skies, our train sweeps northward to the Prefecture of Tochigi, passing snow-capped Tsukuba to our east, and after an easy transfer at Shimoimaichi Station, brings us to our destination, Nikko.  We expect to find it full of fellow travelers.  Is it because the threat of rain hangs in the clouds above us, and a nip is in the air, or had perchance the latest travel magazine recommended somewhere else?  For on this day, there seems to be no one here but us.

We leave the station and head up Rte. 119 toward the Kanaya Hotel, dragging our luggage behind us.  Had not the guidebooks said the hotel was but a 15-minute walk from here?

Up the hill we trudge

and trudge, taking not fifteen

but forty minutes.


Tired of walking, we come at last to the entrance to our hotel.  Before us rises a steep cobbled drive.  Encouraging each other, we struggle onward and upward to the courtyard of the grand old hotel.  A kindly concierge rushes out to welcome us, despite our bedraggled appearance, and shows us to our room in the Annex.  Its view of the garden scattered with red maple leaves, its nostalgic decor, its up-to-date bathroom with high-tech toilet seat, all embrace us comfortably.

But outside beckons, so we set out to explore.  Behind the hotel we find the entrance to a trail up Daikoku Mountain.  To aid our trembling knees, we help ourselves to bamboo walking sticks decorated with bells, and thus equipped for the steep climb, ascend the wooded hill.   We pause to rest and worship in front of a small shrine, and descend the other side, where we come upon an outdoor swimming pool and skating rink, neither one in use.

On the surface

of a deserted pool only

a tree’s reflection


We return to the hotel, having met no one on our walk but the various gods and spirits of Daikoku Mountain.

Nikko Tour 2:  “After a Night of Cold Rain”

A cold rain falls all night in Nikko, but we are fast asleep in our enveloping room at the Kanaya Hotel, oblivious to the outside world.  The date is November 25.

In the morning the clouds begin to disperse, and the sun to come out.  Unable to afford the hotel dining room, we go out in search of breakfast elsewhere.  Finding none, we turn our steps toward Toshogu.   The air is misty and crisp at the same time, the ground damp beneath our feet.

We come to the Sacred Bridge across the Daiya River.  It costs ¥300 to cross it, but there is no exit on the other side.  We choose instead the profane bridge next to it because it costs nothing and goes somewhere.  When we reach the entrance to the shrine grounds, we feel in the presence of something old and vast.  Above us soar ancient trees, whose rain-sodden branches the sun is just beginning to penetrate.

No coffee yet but

sunlight pours instead through cedar trees,

and mists arise


A shrine maiden in vermilion hakama is sweeping the wide stone steps that lead up into the inner precincts.  We are among the first visitors of the day, soon followed by a group of schoolchildren in yellow hats.  They cluster near the torii and listen to their teacher’s history lesson.

Without a guide

our boy races through the gate

to sacred ground


The steps take us past prayer halls and washing troughs, treasure houses and souvenir stands, all decorated with gold leaf or elaborate, colorful carvings of fantastic dragons and guardian gods, flowers, cats, monkeys and imaginary elephants.

The wooden clappers

crack–and then from somewhere comes

the dragon’s answer.


Nikko Tour 3:  “Absence and Presence”

The bus goes zig zag

zig zag up the road to what

we don’t yet know

The bus stops and lets us out into cold fresh air, sunlight reflecting off new-fallen snow, and a wide blue sky.  We pad through the snow to the lake.  Deer have been here before us, perhaps at dawn, to drink at the water’s edge and return to the mountain.

Here on this still shore

footprints and droppings of deer

left in pristine snow



If Toshogu is rising mists and ornate mysteries, Chuzenji is simple clarity at its illuminated best.  The water of the lake shines blue and clear, the mountainsides around the lake etched sharply against the sky.  We pass two young women making a tiny snowman.  Later they find us again and give the snowman to our boys.  We give up all our plans, surrendering to the scenery and the moment.

If only things could

always be so crystal clear:

Lake Chuzenji!


The boys want to find monkeys, so we leave the shore and walk behind the shops in search of them.  We come upon a parking lot as big as a football field.  Not a single car is parked in it today.  We tramp through a wooded hillside above the lot, looking for monkeys.

Beside a blue lake

an empty parking lot

no monkeys either


It’s time to catch our train back to Tokyo.

The bus goes zig zag

zig zag back down the hill to

what we used to know





Ono Chikkyo: Artist of the Non-Spectacular

May 12, 2010

ART SEEN. At one end of the ticket is printed a copy of a painting.  In the right foreground is a luminous green willow tree, and beyond it stretch rows of evenly spaced rice seedlings.  The water in the paddy reflects white cumuli floating upside down in a calm blue heaven.  There is no human figure in the picture.

The artist is Ono Chikkyo (1889-1979), whose works, more than 170 of them, were on display this past March and April at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.  The picture on the ticket is an illustration of a poem by the haiku poet Basho, which reads in English:  “They planted/an entire paddy/ere I moved from the willow tree.”

I could say the same about this exhibit.  Usually when I visit an art museum, I wander around looking for three or four works that I find especially appealing and focus on them alone rather than trying to take in everything.  But the Ono works seemed to demand that you look at all of them in order to understand just one of them even better.  Many of them held me at the spot in front of them, exerting a quiet magnetic force from which it was hard to break away.

Ono Chikkyo was a nihonga artist, which means he painted in the traditional Japanese style, using special techniques, materials and subject matter.  I am not an expert on the techniques or how they differ from those used in so-called “western art,” but it is clear that the subject matter is the natural world and the daily living of humans that is woven into and part of that natural world.  In Ono’s paintings trees and mountains and water abound, as well as light and color, which shift, deepen, or fade with the changing seasons.  The human presence is small, and sometimes hard to detect at first, a tiny figure in a vast rural  landscape:  a man bent over tilling his vegetable patch with a hoe, a woman standing and gazing at a view, someone tending to farm animals.  It is not the individual features of the people which are important but their stances and locations within the wider natural scene.

“The nature which I take as my subject is not that of a special place, but an innocent-looking water surface or field, and the clouds and trees that one looks up to,” Ono wrote.  He found much of his subject matter in his native Okayama Prefecture, located in western Japan on the coast of the Seto Inland Sea.  The prefecture is heavily forested, mountainous in the north, with rivers running to the sea, all providing suitable material for Ono’s concentration on the “non-special.”  (He was born in the city of Kasaoka, which maintains the Kasaoka Ono Chikkyo Art Museum, where most of the works on display at the Tokyo venue can be seen when not on tour.)

In an early work, “A Day in Late Winter” (1910), a path winds through a field surrounded by soft hills scattered here and there with trees.  On each side of the path an evergreen tree rises up over everything else.  In the distance the hills culminate in a snow-capped peak.  Blending into the landscape like one of the smaller trees, and making its way toward you between the two taller trees, is a human figure carrying a heavy load on his back.  The entire scene is rendered in dark shades of brown and green, with the exception of the white snow on the distant mountain and the splash of yellow on the human figure’s back.  The human is dwarfed by the height of the trees and the distant peak, yet is very much of the scene, not walking through it but in it.

In another work, “Winter Day Album” (1928), a white hut sits in the middle of withered fields under a gray sky.  Greenish blue evergreens form a shelter behind it, and the fields themselves are a jumble of soft, undulating shapes and colors:  green, pink, brown, gray.  A small white path winds in and out of the fields and past the hut.  A woman in an orange coat stands on this path, with one hand in a pocket of the coat and the other held at her mouth.  She is too small to see what she is doing.  Is she eating something?  Did she set out on a walk to the village and then suddenly realize she had forgotten to bring her wallet?  Possibly she just has a bag slung over one shoulder.  She looks lost in thought, unaware of the important role she plays in bringing a spark of warmth to the landscape that is just beginning to stir and stretch itself out of its winter sleep.

Nihonga uses different paints from western-style oil-painting or even watercolor, though nihonga paints are water-based.  The pigments are for the most part made from natural ingredients like rocks, shells, coral and semi-precious stones, which are ground into powders.  The resulting palette is different from that found in western paintings.  In Ono’s works the colors are muted and matte, yet rich in depth and variation. [See this issue’s Found Object section.]

Ono also wrote that “if you become open-minded, nature comes closer.”  His later works seem to reflect this idea as his palette becomes deeper, more vibrant, and he begins to focus on smaller things, framing a more limited and close-up view:  the vertical lines of tree trunks standing in snow, the pattern of white-capped waves rolling into an inlet, the reflection of sunset light on water surfaces.

My favorites are a series of trees which Ono began in the mid-60s and continued into the last decade of his life; views of a field, a river, clouds or sky at sunset, or so you think at first until you realize you are looking at the field or sky through the branches of a foregrounded tree.  These trees are painted with intricate care and detail, as if the artist were determined not to leave out even the most minute ramification of a branch.  The background is no less important now—-indeed, many of them are rendered in vivid pinks and oranges—-but you begin to wonder about all the other scenes in your life that you may have looked at, while failing to see what was immediately in front of you, framing them.

Ono Chikkyo teaches you to look at the “non-spectacular” natural world around you with new eyes.  And then, when you pause on the way home from work or in the middle of an arduous outdoor task to take a closer look at your surroundings, you might be startled to find yourself standing in the middle of one of his paintings.

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FOUND OBJECTS: Earlier this year I went with some friends to Nihonbashi, Tokyo’s financial district, where we visited a small art gallery.  Wandering through the side streets, we came upon a shop selling nihonga supplies.  Nearly one whole wall consisted of glass cabinets full of paint powders.

Yubendo sells not only nihonga paints, but also brushes (including a natural bristle cosmetic brush for $60) and attractive little souvenirs made from Japanese paper, as well as the paper itself.  For 400 yen you can also buy a “dream bag” full of colorful remnants of paper used to make the souvenirs. [Yubendo, 1-6-6 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo]

PHOTO GALLERY: Our Tree photographer was so impressed with the postcard reproductions I brought home with me from the Ono exhibit that she tried paying more attention to tree branches in the foreground as well as the small-scale presence of humans in the midst of nature in the photos she took of the recent cherry blossom bash at Zenpukuji Pond.