(from Tokyo Today)

by Blake More

All composite things are impermanent. When a man by wisdom realizes this, he heeds not this world of sorrow. ¾ THE DHAMMAPADA

One of the most impressive historical aspects of Japanese culture, particularly in comparison to the West, seems to be the ease at which its art fused with man and nature to create a inseparable triangle of influence. A person need only contrast the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris with Kyoto's Kiyomizu temple to see how one's beauty completely dominates its environment while the other's remains indebted to it. Furthermore, unlike other cultures, where a clear demarcation between art and its devotees often existed, art in Japan was generally practiced as well as appreciated by its admirers. Thus, it's no wonder that classical Japanese artforms, such as sado (tea ceremony), ikebana (flower arrangement) and bonsai (miniature tree landscapes), became exquisitely weaved into the fabric of daily life.

And, although losing ground to technology and the pulls of accelerated living, the legacy of this union still influences Japan today. Many Japanese, both young and old, continue to practice these classical arts, and others, even if not pursuing anything themselves, can't help but reflect on their inheritance as they kneel on a tatami mat or sit down to seven or eight courses of edible sculpture. Yet, unfortunately, like other sensitive genera that rely upon their surroundings for survival, a few of Japan's formerly treasured artforms are threatening to become extinct. One such endangered species is six hundred year old bonseki, a formerly widespread practice that has now dwindled to an estimated 10,000 followers.

Literally meaning tray-stone, bonseki is the creation of miniature landscapes on rectangular or oval black lacquer trays, each about the depth and width of a typical TV table. Made primarily of sand and stone, bonseki sceneries are like three dimensional paintings that seem to mysteriously pulse with the movements of nature and carry both artist and viewer into an inner depth that belies expression. Stones of all shapes become living mountain ranges or jutting seaside rocks, while as many as nine different grains of sand are used to fill in the details. So, for example, coarser grain becomes a village or the shores of a river, whereas the finer, powder-like sand is used to suggest a distant Mount Fuji or the whirling tide. Bonseki's balance of dark stones and light sand against the smooth black surface of the tray creates a bold contrast, which tends to be more suggestive than explicit, while the artist's careful attention to perspective magnifies each landscape's realism.

But perhaps the most striking aspect of bonseki, and possibly its coup d'etat, is its brief lifespan. Bonseki is designed to reflect and change with nature, so glue or paste is rarely used, meaning each landscape is held together only the artist's placement and the effects of gravity. Because of this, bonseki landscapes are meant to be displayed for only a short period, usually as a tokonoma (alcove) decoration or as an ornament at a special ceremony. However, now that many of Japan's apartments and "mansions" are being built without tokonomas, there is simply no longer a place to put them. And, even if a parcel of display space does survive, the grind of daily living is relegating this serene and meditative creation of beauty for beauty's sake, rather than for marketable return, to the pages of ancient literature.


Paragraphs From The Past

A relative of Japan's other landscape arts, such as bonsai, bonkei (similar to bonseki, only it also uses tiny grasses, trees, and moss), and suiseki (rocks only), bonseki originated as a form of religious expression. In bonseki's infancy, its mountains were said to symbolize either Horaisan, Taoism's supposed island of eternal youth, or the sacred Mt. Shumisen of Buddhism. But, the practice really took root during the Muromachi period (1333-1568), when the transcendental-mysticism of Buddha first landed upon the island. As this new way of thinking mixed with the nature worship of Shinto and the poetic rhapsodizing of the Chinese, it further cemented the belief that things of nature were inextricable from mankind and that they too were endowed with a manlike spirit. As a result, Japanese art, and with it bonseki, emerged as the mirror in which man could reflect his relationship with existence.

The highest incarnation of this awakening was governed by the subdued aesthetics of Zen monks. Their tastes, reduced to the bare essentials of nature, began strongly influencing the Japanese ruling classes and surfaced as a means of spiritual refinement, inner awareness, and enlightenment. As a consequence, bonseki quickly became one of the accepted routes toward a more intimate relationship with the life rhythm of nature.

Further understanding of the origin and development of bonseki can be gathered from the many great dry landscape gardens that also appeared during this time. The celebrated rock and sand garden of Kyoto's Ryoanji Temple is sometimes called a "grand-scale bonseki," since its fifteen variously shaped stones and rocks are, in a way, arranged on a tennis-court sized tray of carefully raked white gravel. To the monks who built and worshiped at this garden, the stones spoke the language of Zen thought. Objects of contemplation and meditation, they reminded that everything finite tells of the infinite; thus, by meditating on and becoming one with a stone, a monk could understand life's essence and thereby achieve enlightenment.

By the Edo period (1603-1867), the custom admiring and appreciating the mystery of stones was promoted to the fullfleged title of art. As a result, bonseki became part of the tidal wave of cultural refinement as rich merchants and townspeople began emulating the lifestyle of the aristocracy. Thus, as happened in tea ceremony and many of the other meditative arts, rival bonseki schools, each advocating its own particular set of rules and techniques, sprang up to portion off and educate the masses. Many of these schools have since disappeared, but the most influential schools of the time, the Enzan, Hosokawa, Sekishu, Chikuan, and Hino schools, still remain today.

With the onset of the Meiji era (1868-1912), bonseki experienced a period of standstill as the wealth of the nobility and the samurai further declined and the merchant classes turned their attention to other art forms. But later it returned to favor, particularly among women, since it was considered part of the essential study for refinement. But then, after another gap forced by World War II, bonseki failed to rebound. After the war, it was relegated to a mere luxury pastime and soon, with little time set aside for sentimentality and leisure, the practice drifted into its current haze. Today, it has become so obscure that, not only is it extremely difficult to find a Japanese familiar with bonseki, but it is virtually impossible to find a store selling the tools needed to keep its practice alive.


A Master's Voice

So, in a time when most of bonseki's paraphernalia must be handed down from generation to generation, seventy-six year-old Fusako Yomuan Ohtomo, a six generation Enzan-ryu bonseki master, is doing her best to carry on a family tradition that has lasted over 100 years. Like her mother and grandmother, Fusako learned her skill at her mother's hand. "Bonseki has always been a part of my life. I remember watching her when I was a small child, knowing that some day, I too would become a licensed master teacher."

And that she did. For the last fifty-three years, except for a brief period during the war, she's rarely missed a weekly lesson. Plus, besides teaching these regular classes, she's also hosted over thirty-five years of monthly practice sessions for a lively group of polygenarians, who like her have been doing bonseki since their late teens or early twenties. In this class, Fusako is the master's master, so regardless of how many licenses and years the group has tucked away between them, all look to Fusako for final approval.

A master of Enzan-ryu, which means distant mountain, Fusako says bonseki is easy to learn and it generally takes about thirty minutes to make a finished landscape. "But," inserts one of her students, "not everyone is this fast. It usually takes most people about one hour or more."

Again, unlike her students who's landscapes are generally patterned after one of the many sketches found in the bonseki copybooks called o-tehon, Fusako often creates scenes entirely from her imagination. "I've used so many pattern books, that now I choose from among my many mental sketches." Generally, these compositions express her feeling or mood at the time, which of course always depends upon the season. On this occasion, her vision materialized into a scene echoing with what she called "the expression of Zen" in bonseki.

It was amazing to watch her sure hand transform sand and rocks into a living seaside of yin and yang. The well manipulated contrasts were put together with such quiet vitality that they seemed to correspond to nature's delicate stir. With only a brass spoon and a yamakiri-bane (swan feather), she transformed a mound of fine white sand into a lonely, seemingly forgotten cloud, bringing to mind a phrase sometimes used to voice the sublime connection between Japanese painters and their source. "To produce a stream of wind at the tip of a brush" was precisely what Fusako had done with the tip of a feather. Then, not to be outdone by her own hand, she immediately took a a palm-sized mesh sieve and a nami-bane (serrated "wave" feather) and swiftly began shaping the afternoon calm of an inland sea. And finally, after a few last sweeps to remove stray sand, she lit a incense stick and - voila - her image was consummated.

And just as our moods vary according to the seasons, bonseki also responds to nature's suggestions and inspirations. "Each season, designs change to reflect the feeling outside" explains Fusako. In the summer, she'll add tiny bamboo floats to symbolize raised water levels or spoon on faint weeds that sneak past waterlines. The "silver world" of winter is depicted by draping snow across trees and mountaintops or showing subtle cracks of ice on a frozen river. Birds flying into the scene symbolize the flight from Fall to Winter, whereas those heading away signal Springtime. In February, its often a torii gate, and in the Fall, its usually a full moon hovering over harvest fields and the wet, gauzelike clouds so characteristic of the approaching cold.

In addition to seasonal changes, other annual events and customs are often represented in bonseki. For special occasions, such as New Years or wedding ceremonies, specific designs meant to symbolize longevity are often created. Similarly, bonseki with a more explicit religious significance are often displayed as ornaments for funerals and other solemn religious services. But regardless of how or where its exhibited, first and foremost, a bonseki design must feel like the ocassion its meant to depict.


Passing The Tray

Fusako is lucky to have another generation following her lead. Fusae Ohtomo, the wife of Fusako's son, who incidentally happens to be a Buddhist priest of the Jodo Shinshu sect, is fast becoming a qualified master. "Like most people, I had never heard of bonseki. Then I got married and discovered that my mother-in-law was a master." Both hope to keep bonseki in the family through Fusae's daughter Hiroe who's now in America on a homestay, but they also realize that bonseki can't compete with the vigorous, "where will it get me" attitude that prevails today. "The younger generation likes quick success, which you can't get with bonseki. It takes many years to develop a great skill," admits Fusae.

Tamae Katayama, the sixty-year-old baby of the master practice group, understands this generation gap all too well. "I've been practicing bonseki since I was 25, just like my mother and my grandmother. But, my daughters won't continue the tradition, they are very active, and bonseki takes too much calm and quiet." Eighty-two-year-old, Saiko Yoneda, also a third generation master, is more resolute, "my daughter prefers painting, I guess it's more permanent."

But, unlike the children of masters, most people, both young and old, never get the opportunity to decide for themselves. Like everyone else asked, twenty-three-year-old Sumi Sanda, an art history major at Tokyo University, had never heard of bonseki. After hearing about its process as well as its impermanence, she decided that bonseki is still an important artform: "Nothing that we make is forever, even western paintings loose their color and become very different from what the artist first saw. I believe art is the moment it is seen."

Unfortunately, others weren't quite so introspective. After apprehending the "you can't keep it" clause, one seventeen-year-old high school senior answers without pause, "I don't want to erase the art that I make, so I would never do it." Another is more apologetic, "Many people live in cities now, so even though they may realize the need for nature and trees in their minds, they cannot do so in their actions. Everyone now must go someplace else to find nature. But since there is little time to do this, art and nature are no longer an essential part of everyday life in Japan."

Then, in the words of one particularly wooden salariman, "If it doesn't last, why do it?" To master's Fusako and Saiko, the answer is obvious, although, like the artform itself, each offers a very personal version. For Fusako, "The scenes are quiet, so my mind feels the same, calm and peaceful, never rushed." Saiko, who herself began playing with scenery some sixty-two years ago, breaks into her customary smile and says, "I like seeing bonseki in nature. Whenever I travel I'm always inspired to make new designs."

Sadly enough, in a time when people tend to walk the road of money and fame rather than follow the path of the spiritual sublime, bonseki seems destined to fade into the reminisces of art history. Nonetheless, Fusako and her group aren't discouraged. Nor are they willing to roll over and let modern living bury their artform. Contends Fusako, "People need to understand that bonseki is just like nature. If your driving and see a landscape once, it stays in your memory. When you go back the next year, it looks different, but always, it's just as beautiful."

In her final demonstration, Fusako verified this deeply rooted philosophy as she also underscored her unbounded mastery of bonseki. Her every motion was met with a concert of oohs and ahhs as a cascading view of spring took shape before our eyes. Finally, she put down her feather and turned her creation toward the delighted murmur. Then, with barely a pause, she reached for its central rock, but sensing our distress, she smiled analgesically and, with a twinkle, simply replied, "Easy to make, easy to break."

If anyone is interested in learning more about bonseki, please contact Fusako Yomuan Ohtomo, Enzan-ryu bonseki master, 1-13-8 Mukogaoka, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113; 03-811-0472. Classes are held every Wednesday and students are welcome to borrow equipment and materials.


Online Learning Resources
Japanese Buddhist Meditation
Meditation Perth
Early Japanese Culture

go BACK for more articles

or go