On the Tōhaku trail (part 02)

There was only one must-do thing on my schedule for the first week in Japan.

Yet, as it so often happens when I travel alone through Japan it was but the beginning of a journey within the journey…

On the Tōhaku trail

In the days leading up to my departure for Tokyo, a fellow artist shared news of a particular display. It turns out that for two weeks only, as part of the New Year celebrations, Hasegawa Tōhaku’s “Pine Forest” folding screens, Shōrin or「松林」in Japanese, were out over at the Tokyo National Museum. Over a decade ago, when I first walked through Ueno Park headed towards its halls I was a recent MBA graduate looking to spend some time with the Jōmon pottery displays in the cherry blossom season. This time I return as a practicing ink painter set on admiring, and learning from, the work of an old master. Sometimes I have to pinch myself a little, when I think of my life journey.

When I picked up my very first Japanese art history book, the year before that first visit, I had never dreamed such a thing was even possible. Now here I am, standing outside, two tickets in hand, searching the people crisscrossing the allée in front of me for a familiar face as the afternoon light dips and softens, having persuaded a local colleague from that very same MBA cohort to visit shortly before closing time. It’s a lucky encounter. It has been a while since I read about Tōhaku and the Japanese texts near the displays differ substantially from the English versions. I would not have understood them completely without his help. I took a few detail photos to capture elements that might lend a clue to technique, tools and execution approach. Some of these clues will end up showing up on my art supplies shopping list the following week.

The fascination with the Pine Forest screens

The Pine Forest screens were the first painting to join the National Treasures list, in 1952. That particular honour, being “the first”, lends it a certain additional fascination. Is it really such an obvious choice though? Although Hasegawa Tōhaku did much of his work in Kyoto, the acknowledged historical center of the Japanese painting world, he was not born nor primarily educated there. Surely a Kanō school master could have been an equally appropriate choice. This monochrome landscape has neither particular location nor narrative associations. An illustrated narrative scroll combining a classic of literature, a famous place and polychrome Yamato-style painting could have equally made the cut. It is not the oldest of artworks. Even among screens, a precisely laid-out gold leaf and ink combination would have literally shined brighter. I guess the answer lies perhaps somewhere along that very zone. The one that encompasses all it is not.

The refusal to confine birthplace of great art to a single point of origin, the choice of a fairly ubiquitous, “common” tree rather than a singled out “hero”, the modesty of means preference over opulence and excess detail, the harmony and perfection of nature’s essence, seen and appreciated by human eye and hands. And quiet, so very quiet. Nothing feels quieter, and more in praise of calm presence than this receding view of a misty forest with its single white mountain in the background. The Pine Forest by Tōhaku encompasses all the values that Japanese art has distilled through hundreds of years in a single universal representation. This screen could be recognized as “Japanese” by anyone, as well as emotionally “owned” by any Japanese.

The ink painter’s reaction

I have seen reproductions of this piece countless times. I even wrote briefly about it for the texts displayed at the JICC sumi-e exhibition in 2022, but it is only after standing so close to nearly guess the individual brushstroke dynamic that I can finally organize thoughts through words.

Together with Dave Bull over at Mokuhankan, I speculated that, for a European-born ink painter, “to see Tōhaku’s Pine Forest and die” is probably the easiest analogy to understand one’s reaction.

Once you arrive here, at this place just beyond the glass case, surrounded by dozens of admiring eyes yet feeling quite alone, you are slightly overwhelmed with realisation. The realisation that it will be pointless to search for something more beautiful in ink. And that the power to create something of this effect will always be beyond you, but you might be willing to live and die trying.

Some speculate whether the inspiration for the Pine Forest lies somewhere close to Tōhaku’s birthplace, near Nanao in Ishikawa. There is no way to know for sure, but there is a museum in Nanao which holds more of his works. I will be in Ishikawa a few weeks from now and there is now another must-visit place on my schedule. I am embarking on my own Tōhaku trail.

Headed towards Nanao

On the late morning train connection from Kanazawa, batches of high school students in uniform enter and exit the train every few stops. It is a lively time to travel. The afternoon in Nanao is sunny, but the snow is still piled high nearly everywhere beyond the edges of the path towards the Nanao Art Museum entrance.

The museum is nearly empty on this weekday in the coldest season of the year. On one of the galleries, a staff member enquires about where I come from today. I say Zurich, Switzerland, briefly adding that I am an ink painter looking to see more of Tōhaku’s work in his hometown. She kindly points out the room where his work is on display.

Today, I can see “Sleeping Chen Xiyi” and two other works from the Hasegawa school. As photography of this display is not possible, I am embedding here the full collection link and the museum’s own image of “Sleeping Chen Xiyi”.


Shortly after I enter the room, another staff member approaches. Although he is politely apologetic that only one work from the master is currently on display for someone traveling from afar, I am more than happy to focus just on the one. The broken ink tree reminiscent of Sesshū, the dynamic attire brushwork, the delicate soft lines on the facial expression. It is a wonderful painting. And the other works in the gallery too are well worth the trip.

A Swiss connection

He offers some more detailed explanation of what they have on display, comparing the three works, which I am really grateful for. Then he effusively comments on the great scholarship conducted by Katharina Epprecht for the special Tōhaku exhibition in Zurich, recalling the time she spent in Nanao. This exhibition was over a decade ago, but his enthusiasm is such, it is as if she had left only last week. Clearly Swiss scholarship left a lasting impression here.

I believe this was the first major retrospective of Tōhaku’s work in the West, and the exhibition catalogue is still a wonderful learning resource. Here too I struck a little luck. I wasn’t in Zurich back when this exhibition happened, and the catalogue has long ago gone out of print, but a friend and supporter kindly gifted me his late mother’s pristine copy. I studied the book long enough that I can follow enough of the staff member’s thoughts, conveyed to me in Japanese. He reminds me to watch the video about the master’s life by the museum entrance.

A special discovery

I sit through the video before leaving. It is mostly a condensed version of knowledge and painting images I have come across before, but somewhere in the middle is a new piece of information. The Hasegawa family grave is still here, in a temple near Nanao. I check the directions on my smartphone. It’s a 20 minute walk to the Yamanotera cluster of temples. If I leave right now I can still make it before the sun sets. This trail is not over just yet.

Tōhaku’s influence

Before we head over to Yamanotera though, it’s probably time to clarify how this relates to my own work. Since I had promised you this series would be about how my Japan travels relate to my creative process. Tōhaku has been a broadly influential figure in ink painting in Japan, but there is no such thing as a direct, unbroken legacy line back to his school anymore. The Hasegawa school was small, and fairly short-lived from what I understand.

But the school of ink painting I am associated with, led by Kobayashi Tōhun, claims two artists as its major influences – Hasegawa Tōhaku and Sesshū Tōyō. Although the kanji choice varies, senior artists in this school will carry a “Tō” at some stage in their artist name. I feel it is a huge responsibility to aspire to such a name. Not just to attempt to understand the technique, but to honor this legacy with what one creates.

Personally, I regularly go back to the catalogue referred to above when tackling a new nature scene. In 2021, when I painted a large landscape with cranes (see images in this post) I did a number of small and large studies throughout the course of a full year. One of my main starting points were Tōhaku’s cranes. Without Tōhaku’s work, mine – however lacking it might be – would not exist.

This year I am returning to Kanazawa in Ishikawa searching for the missing three views on my “Eight Views of Kanazawa” project. When I came across the resting place information here in Nanao, I felt it both a duty and a wish to show a little respect and huge appreciation at his resting place.

Sunset at Yamanotera

The Yamanotera area is a peaceful walking ground surrounded by tall trees, also camellia bushes by the temples’ entrances. With the golden hour upon the snowed fields, birds become more active again and there are pleasant sounds at every turn of the winding hill road up to Honenji, the home temple of the Hasegawa family. It is not easy to avoid the temptation of climbing up to the multiple temples along the path. Unfortunately there is not enough light left for that full tour today. Let’s stick to our main road.

A moment of silence at Honenji

Snow is piled even higher at Honenji, someone is currently clearing the inclined driveway. It is impossible to reach the last steps of the temple, only the inner lights and a small statue are visible, but I can get through well enough to the tombstone area, through the ankle-deep snow. I’m not sure which is the right place, so I search the stone engravings hoping to find the right characters. It doesn’t take long. His artist name is quite prominent on the family grave.

I spend some time just listening and breathing the atmosphere of the place. The golden glow of the tall cedar canopies, the sound of a swaying bamboo patch rustling in the distance, a single bird calling from a different perching corner every now and then. A temple atop of a small hill not too far from the ocean. A single light source shining from within the temple, hovering above the snow. I am not quite sure how my scroll will look like, or how long it will take, but I do know this one thing. Today, I found “Evening Bell”. Yet another thing to thank Tōhaku for.

Let’s talk about trains

On the way back down the moon is already up. I barely make the last bus into town, gazing up so frequently to the blue sky above the sunset-coloured clouds by the train track crossing. Which reminds me, shall we finally talk about trains next time around?

A month in Japan 2023 (part 01)

On the “Snow Country” train (part 03)

Meeting friends, old and new (part 04)

On 2023 goals (part 05)


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