Monthly Archives: June 2009

Iris season at Heian Jingu

Early in my life here in Kyoto, I had an apartment about two blocks east of the main entrance gate to Heian Jingu. In those days, I worked evenings teaching English and each night I would bicycle home, passing by this gate lit up with flood lights that made the orange glow brightly against the inky blue night sky. And every night, as my heart sang with joy in the presence of such majestic beauty, I blessed the day I had chosen to live in Kyoto.
Heian Jingu
Heian Jingu is an imperial Shinto shrine on the east side of Kyoto. Although Shintoism is the oldest Japanese religion, predating Buddhism by several centuries, Heian Jingu is one of the newest religious structures in this city, having only been built in 1885 to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto as the capital of ancient Japan. After passing through the massive gate shown above, one enters the immense courtyard, only a corner of which is shown in the photo below.
courtyard at Heian Jingu
Within the walled enclave of the shrine, it’s easy to loose track of time and place. Inside there are few traces of modern Kyoto or its 1.5 million people bustling about their daily lives; no modern buildings tower above the various halls and shrine buildings that rim the courtyard. Only a few trees and the eastern mountains appear in the distance. I am told that the shrine architecture is intended to replicate the design of Kyoto’s original Imperial palace, destroyed by fire in 1227, and perhaps that accounts for the overwhelming sense of grandeur that permeates the site. The shrine itself honors two emperors: Kammu (737-806), who founded Kyoto in 794, and Komei (1831-66), the last emperor to live out his reign in Kyoto before the capital was moved to Tokyo.

stone lantern by the edge of a pond in Heian Jingu garden Surrounding Heian Jingu on three sides, there are a series of gardens that are considered the finest of those laid out in the Meiji period (1868-1912). As is typical of such gardens, there are weeping cherries that blossom in springtime, irises and water lilies to nourish the soul during summer and a brilliant pageantry of maple leaves changing colors throughout the fall.

This being summer, we are in the height of iris season. Most Japanese irises today are ornamental water irises called hanashobu in Japanese. These grow in shallow marshes and along the edges of ponds and rivers, so the network of artificial riverlets and ponds constructed in the shrine gardens provide a perfect venue for these flowers. The meandering pathways that follow the water ways have been so artfully constructed within a relatively contained space that it is possible to wander along without quite realizing that the path has actually doubled back on itself to form a small circuit that can be repeated again and again with the joy of new observations.

irises by the edge of stream in the garden at Heian Jingu

white irises in the garden at Heian Jingu The romance of the Japanese iris stems from Tales of the Ise, a mid-10th century collection of lyrical prose and poems, which among other stories, recounted a heartsick lover composing poetry to a wild iris (called kakitsubata) in place of his lost love. Thereafter, images of wild irises coupled with zig zag wooden bridges became indelibly linked as a romantic motif that was repeated in Japanese art and literature for the next several centuries with some particularly exquisite examples appearing in the 17th century lacquerware and painted screens by Ogata Korin.

irises in the garden at Heian Jingu Another interpretation of the iris is suggested by the recently published diary of Abbess Kasanoin Jikun. Entitled In Iris Fields: Remembrances and Poetry, the book is a compilation of essays and poems by Abbess Kasanoin Jikun (1910-2006). These irises were the ayame type that bloomed at Daishoji imperial convent where she was cloistered. Being a female child of aristocratic lineage, Kasanoin Jikun was sent to an imperial convent at age 5, designated to be raised to become its abbess. Those who enjoyed Memoirs of a Geisha may find an entirely new set of insights into the life of a Japanese woman trained in an utterly different environment for a totally different task during roughly the same time period. In Iris Fields is a translation of essays and poetry written by the Abbess herself, in which she shares memories of her childhood and stories of her friends and relations as she moved from court to convent during times of tremendous social upheaval in Japan. Those interested in further information about the book should click here.

A day at the Miho

I’ve been working hard of late, busily trying to re-organize large sections of my life. But sometimes you just need to stop for a break. And so when I was invited out recently for a day at the Miho, the seduction of the moment was just to great to refuse.

Miho MuseumOne of the world’s most beautiful museum buildings, the Miho Museum is nestled in the hills of Shiga prefecture about an hour’s drive from Kyoto. Approximately 75% of the building designed by I.M. Pei is actually underground to minimize any disruption to the forested hillside on which it is built, yet the rooftop constructed largely of glass floods the interior with natural light, while the steel crossbeams provide and intricate interplay of shadows across the floors and walls.

Silla goldwork The current exhibit called “Eurasian Winds Toward Silla” focused on archeological treasures from the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla, one of three monarchies that arose on the Korean peninsula around the 3rd century AD. (as shown in the map below) The city of Gyeongju, once the capital of Silla, is now home of the Gyeongju National Museum in Korea, which supplied a collection of artifacts showing the influence of migrating central Asian tribes on the art and culture of the far east.

3 kingdoms of KoreaThe fall of the powerful Han Dynasty in China around 220 AD had allowed nomadic tribes from Central Asia to roam across northern China and subsequently migrate eastward into the Korean peninsula, bringing with them advanced techniques in glassmaking, metal smelting, pottery as well as Mediterranean and European motifs that had an impact on the early culture of Silla. In particular Silla, became known for its intricate goldwork as reflected by the crown shown above and the filligree cap shown below.

Silla goldwork It’s not certain precisely how the crown was worn, but the “duckbill” hanging downward may have formed a visor while the side panels encircled the head. There may have also been some form of cloth head covering that has not survived the centuries. Small pailettes of beaten gold are attached with twisted wires to both sides of the structure, perhaps to emulate feathers or perhaps simply to add shimmering glints of reflected light as the wearer of the crown moved his or her head. The cap on the right is fairly small object and thought to have been cover for long hair that had been twisted into a top knot.

The elegance and skill with which these pieces were fabricated is fairly obvious even in these reproductions and thought to be reminiscent of Scythian goldwork hundreds of years earlier in the region ranging from the Caspian sea to the Baltic coast. As the Scythians were displaced in the around the second century BC, portions of the population moved southward influencing artistic developments in Greece, while other sections of the population migrated eastward across the Asian steppes, bringing their skills to the Pazyrk tribes of Siberia and then downward into China. It was this type of migration, not only of Scythian technology but also that of other Eurasian tribes, that the exhibit attempted to describe through a careful reconstruction and juxtaposition of the archeological evidence.

Silla pottery In addition to goldsmithing, the exhibition explored the development of Silla culture through artifacts that included glassware, goblets and other forms of metal work. The introduction of new forms of kilns allowed higher temperature firing of ceramics and the production of Roman-style glass.

botanical arabesque design from Korea With the rise of the Tang dynasty, Silla was able to form new alliances with the Chinese in order to emerge the victorious conqueror of its immediate neighbors, uniting the Korean peninsula under its rule. And from this powerful new position, unified Silla facilitated the further spread of not only technical processes but also Mediterranean and other east European motifs across two continents to the rim of the Pacific Ocean.