The Romantic Wisteria in Japanese Art and Landscape

Posted on | February 10, 2012 | 1 Comment

    Wisteria, or fuji in Japanese, is a popular motif in Japanese art used to decorate a wide variety of art forms from pottery to paintings.  Wisteria blooms during May and June and its strikingly beautiful blossoms have always been appreciated for their color and shape.
     The practice of hanami (flower viewing) is many centuries old, dating back to the Nara Period (710–794) when plum blossoms (ume) were the first to be admired.  Flower viewing parties were soon held for cherry blossoms as well.  By the Heian Era (794–1192), wisteria viewing parties also became popular largely due to the fact that wisteria was the symbol of the ruling Fujiwara clan. Fujiwara no Shoshi (who became empress to Emperor Ichijo in 1000) was nicknamed “Fujitsubo” because of the wisteria in her courtyard. (Wisteria was frequently planted in the inner palace where the emperor’s consorts and ladies-in-waiting lived.)  In The Tale of Genji, Genji’s first and lifelong love was named Fujitsubo by author Lady Murasaki, lady-in-waiting to the real Lady Fujitsubo.
     A Kabuki dance called “Fuji Musume” (Wisteria Maiden) is thought to have originated from one of the famous art paintings sold at Otsu, a stop on the old Tokaido Road from Tokyo to Kyoto.  When the dance begins, a young maiden wearing an ornate, long-sleeved kimono decorated with wisteria steps out of a painting and tries to attract the attention of a would-be lover. Her efforts, however, go unnoticed and in the last scene of the dance she returns heartbroken to her painting. The Wisteria Maiden holding a branch of wisteria blossoms often appears in paintings.
     Historically, the sight of the purple wisteria has always comforted followers of Buddhism because it was believed that Amida Buddha would descend on a purple cloud to guide them to the Western Paradise.  One sect of Buddhism uses wisteria on its crest.
     Here in the West, one often sees wisteria trained to grow on a wall or arbor, but in Japan wisteria grows wild and can be seen twining up and around through trees in the mountains.  Interestingly, the Japanese wisteria grows clockwise, while the Chinese wisteria grows counterclockwise.
     Kameido Tenjin, a shrine in Tokyo made famous in a woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), remains to this day one of the loveliest places to view wisteria in bloom. Although hanami has became synonymous with cherry blossom viewing, wisteria, with its clouds of purple blossoms, still remains a sight to be admired and celebrated in art.

Wisteria Maiden

Kameido Tenjin

Wisteria and Pond

Japanese Kites As Decorative Art

Posted on | May 31, 2011 | No Comments

Made of bamboo frames and washi (handmade rice paper) and painted with bright colored dyes and sumi (black ink), Japanese kites (tako) appear throughout Japan. The word tako is written with two characters—one meaning wind and one meaning cloth. The popularity of kite flying in Japan can be inferred from a word in the Japanese vocabulary tako kichi, which means “kite crazy.”

It was during the Edo period (1603 – 1867), when Japan was closed to foreigners, that most of the beautiful Japanese kites we know today were developed—each region having its own unique shape or style. They are decorated with characters from Japanese folklore and mythology, or have some religious or symbolic meaning. Traditionally, kites are flown on New Year’s Day, Children’s Day (May 5, once known as Boys’ Day), and at religious festivals. At the Harvest Festival, kites flown with stalks of rice attached are a symbolic offering of thanks for a good crop. Some kites, decorated with the face of a demon, act as a talisman against evil.

Congratulation kites are still presented to first-born sons. With their paintings of folk heroes or gods, these kites are believed to protect and guide a newborn into adulthood. Fukusuke, a large headed dwarf associated with good luck, is among the many designs used, while kites with a crane or tortoise represent long life. But the most popular design of this genre is perhaps Kintaro, or Golden Boy. As the folk tale goes, Kintaro, raised in the forest by bears, grew up to be very wise and strong. Kintaro is often painted with a carp, another symbol of strength, as it must swim upstream against the current to lay its eggs.

The Edo kite (Edo is the former name of Tokyo) is one of the best-known Japanese kites. Edo kites are multi-bridled and rectangular in shape with elaborate, detailed paintings of famous warriors, Kabuki actors, geisha, or scenes from historical battles or folk stories. They are painted in the ukiyo-e style like the very popular woodblock prints of the mid-eighteenth century.

Hamamatsu, in Shizuoka Prefecture, is noted for its rokkaku or hexagon-shaped kites, and is home to one of the most famous kite festivals in Japan.  On May 5 (Boys’ Day) each year, with over 2 million spectators watching, kite teams battle against each other to keep their own rokkaku kite in the air without being cut down by another team’s kite lines.

Shimonoseki, famous for its fugu or globefish, is where the humorous fugu kite originated. The hata, or diamond-shaped fighter kite, originated in Nagasaki.

From Nagoya come the koryu or “old style” abu (horsefly), semi (cicada), and hachi (bee) kites. These are all equipped with a hummer that buzzes in the wind like a real insect.

Also of note is the yakko dako. A yakko was a lowly servant of a daimyo or nobleman and one of his jobs was to clear the roads and force the populace to kneel when his master’s entourage passed by. The size and shape of a yakko dako depends on the area of Japan where it is made, but it is easily recognized by the wide sleeves that catch the wind and act as stabilizers instead of a tail. Some yakko dako are also called hibuse (fire prevention) and are believed to protect against fire, an ever-present danger in old Japan where an overturned lamp or uncontrolled cooking fire could easily raze an entire neighborhood of paper-and-wood built houses. Symbolically, the yakko dako cuts through the wind and reduces its power to fan the flames of destruction.

The list goes on and on. But whatever the region of Japan they comes from, whatever their size or shape, Japanese kites are more than toys; they are works of art that fly.

Japanese Kite Tako Wall Hanging

Japanese Yakko Kite Wall Hanging

Mitsui Store at Suruga-Machi by Hokusai

The Dragon as a Motif in Japanese Art

Posted on | September 6, 2010 | No Comments

The dragon or ryu is probably the most famous of mythical creatures.  It represents the Yang of the universe.  The dragon motif came from western Asia, its origins derived from a snake cult.  Ironically, though represented as a fiery being, the dragon is actually a rain deity associated with water and possesses the power to send rains for a good harvest or to create devastating storms and floods.

In China, the dragon is considered to be one of the four divine guardians of the cardinal points (shishin).  It represents spring, east, wood, and the colors blue and green. Dragons are also said to be shape-shifters and may even assume human form.  Although powerful, they are rarely depicted as malevolent; instead, they are considered benevolent and bring wealth and good fortune.

In Japan, the symbolism of the four divine guardians was supplanted by the Shitenno (Four Heavenly Kings) of Buddhism.  The dragon became identified with Ryujin, the king of the sea, who appears wearing a dragon headdress or with a dragon coiled around him.  Because a dragon can live in both air and water, it is believed to offer protection from fire.  Edo-era firemen often tattooed themselves with dragons or wore padded jackets with dragons embroidered in the linings next to their skin for protection.

In Japanese art, the dragon is never totally visible.  It is partly hidden by swirling clouds or storm waves because its form is so terrifying that “no mortal may look upon its entire body and live.”  The dragon is also closely associated with cosmic forces.  At the spring equinox, it rises into the heavens among the clouds, thunder, and lightning; at the autumn equinox, it descends into the sea with the “tide-ruling jewels” of ebb and flood.  Dragons may be seen in pursuit of this jewel, fighting for its possession, or grasping it with their claws.  This mystical jewel or tama was adopted by the Buddhist religion and came to symbolize omnipotence through asceticism.  It is also attributed to have the power to grant all wishes.  The jewel, which at first is flaming, liquefies and then crystallizes into a beautiful luminous sphere, symbol of the origin of our planet, Earth.

A dragon swirling through the clouds in the sky (unryu) is one of many auspicious designs that symbolize the authority of the Emperor.  Interestingly enough, the imperial dragon, representing the Chinese Emperor, is depicted with five claws or talons while in Japanese art the dragon has only four.

Dragon with Tama for sale on Etsy

Imperial Dragon for sale on Etsy

Dragon and Lightning on sale at Etsy

Twelve Animal Signs of the Japanese/Chinese Oriental Zodiac

Posted on | August 1, 2010 | 5 Comments

The twelve animals of the Japanese zodiac (Juni Shi) were introduced into Japan from China. According to Chinese legend, the Jade Emperor chose the animals that would become the twelve zodiac signs as they arrived before him to show their respects. The rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, cock, dog, and boar appeared in that order.

In Japan, the tradition of naming years after animals is said to come directly from a Buddhist legend. Buddha called all the animals of the world together to honor him, but only twelve appeared; each was given a year in the order of its arrival as a reward for faithfulness.  The legend also says that the ox was actually first to arrive, but the rat, having hitched a ride on the ox’s back, leaped ahead of the ox and presented itself to Buddha first.

There are variations of this story from both the Japanese and Chinese perspectives. Most people wonder why the dog and not the cat was included as one of the twelve years. In one Chinese version of the story, the Jade Emperor put the rat in charge of extending the imperial invitation for the animals to assemble.  Although the cat was a good friend of the rat at the time, the rat forgot to invite him; thus the cat became the rat’s natural enemy.

Whichever legend you’d like to believe, all twelve animals of the Oriental zodiac are considered lucky.  It is also thought that you can tell a lot about a person by what zodiac year they were born in, very similar to the Western idea of astrological signs.  Once you know someone’s animal year, you can also calculate their age, unless they either look twelve years older or younger than their chronological years!

Click here to link to another website for more information on the Japanese zodiac and find the animal sign and personality traits associated to your birth year.

Japanese Oriental Zodiac Wall Hanging

Available on my Japanesque Accents Etsy Store

The Dragonfly (Tombo) as a Motif in Japanese Art

Posted on | July 17, 2010 | 4 Comments

According to legend, Jinmu, the first divine emperor of Japan, stood on the top of a mountain surveying all of Yamato (the old name for Japan) and remarked that the land resembled the shape of a ring of tombo (dragonflies) in flight.  It is from this phrase that Yamato also became known as Akitsushima, akitsu being another reading of the character for tombo, and shima meaning island.  Tombo is perhaps the oldest design in Japan and has been found on the oldest discovered primitive pottery.

Tombo are also known as kachimushi or “victory insects.”  Besides having such a strong name, tombo are quick to attack and catch other small insects in midair. For these reasons, tombo became a motif favored among the warrior classes. Tombo designs appeared on military implements such as arrow quivers in hopes that arrows would fly straight and fast like the insect. Tombo are often combined in designs with arrows as well as with iris, the straight sword-like leaves of the iris representing a fast sword.

In modern Japan, the tombo has acquired a more natsukashii (nostalgic) image of the long ago days of childhood and chasing dragonflies through the rice paddies.  Although they are seen in abundance in early summer, tombo have become associated with the autumn and are often represented flying among the autumn grasses in Japanese art.  A folk belief persists that the tombo is the steed of departed ancestors who return to visit their families during the summer festival of Obon.

Dragonfly and Cricket Quilted Wall Hanging

Dragonfly and Cricket Quilted Wall Hanging

Available for purchase on my Etsy Store

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