Seeking Buson

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.. Approaching a shaft of light in the winter grey of the Japan Sea at Miyazu, I came across some wild ducks sleeping in a loch. The pine-clad isthmus, Amanohashidate (the Bridge of Heaven), stretched on, pointing towards Buson’s Temple, a rickety shack at the back of the town – Kenshōji 見性寺.

.. At the gate, a sign with a haiku on:

…….. 楠の根を静かにぬらす時雨哉
.. kusu no ne o shizuka ni nurasu shigure kana 
…….. The roots of the camphor
…….. being quietly wet …
…….. passing winter rain

.. With that image in mind, I stepped through into the precincts, soon to be greeted by resident priest, Umeda Jikō, gaunt and smiley.
.. “Have you come for Buson?”, he asked.

.. Shoes off – how cold the floor! Respectfully offering a prayer before the Amida Buddha there, we turned to an improvised display of things from Buson’s time in Miyazu, including two or three remarkable paintings – not haiga, but nanga – of what I took to be Chinese immortals. But which immortals? And why the mysterious plumes of white breath? Do they indicate a type of energy (qi 気) perhaps? Or it is just that the air was cold (seeing one’s breath)? For a moment, I focused in front of my mouth and … sure enough, my breath was visible, too!

.. Buson had come to Miyazu in 1754, aged 39, to stay with his friend, the priest of Kenshōji, Chikkei 竹渓 (barefoot on left in the picture below by Buson). He spent much of the next few years there, participating in a haiku circle, changing his family name from Taniguchi to Yosa (a village by the Bridge of Heaven) and taking a local wife, Tomo, who soon gave birth to a daughter, Kuno. In Miyazu, he also developed his skill as a painter, turning to this profession when he eventually returned to Kyoto. I wondered if the assured brushwork of the paintings in the temple might just be that of a senior painter at the time, with whom he was studying.  One of the paintings has a signature, the second character of which looked like the kei 渓 of Chikkei 竹渓, but the first is not recognizable and is surely not chiku 竹 bamboo.

.. As I left the temple, Jikō turned to me and said, ‘Next time, please stay.’

……………… Puffing out
……………… towards the valley-head moon …
……………… my white breath

P.S. If anyone has an idea who the breathy mountain men are in the pictures, or who might have painted them, please leave a comment below. It didn’t seem as if Jikō himself was sure.

9 Responses to “Seeking Buson”

  1. Maeve OSullivan Says:

    Lovely, thanks for sharing!


  2. What a fascinating piece. Thank you.

  3. Intriguing. Thanks for the post!

  4. As for plumes of white breath — two paintings stand almost in contrast with each other: in the right one the plume beams down on a monk’s head, suggesting perhaps a ray of immortality. In the left picture it is unclear where the white plume ends up, perhaps on a lone fruit somewhere in the treetop? The two pilgrims strike as earthly figures, almost vulgar, and the painting charms with its comical tinge.

  5. Thanks for the comments so far, mainly ‘thanks and likes’, but Branko did try to follow up my admittedly tricky question about the ‘plumes of breath’ or qi, suggesting that one at least might be a beam of light. As the plumes in both paintings emanate from mouths and widen with distance from that point, I think the direction of ‘flow’ must be outwards from the person, don’t you? I’ve a hunch there is a Chinese story somewhere to explain this. Does anyone know it? Happy Valentine’s Day!

  6. Thanks for the Japanese Classic report Tito, and introducing the mystery of the paintings. In addition to the origin, and direction of the “plumes,” I wonder why the characters blowing their “plumes of breath” seem to have an intense expression in their eyes (agitation?). Whereas, the accompanying characters appear to be quiet, or peaceful.

    What size were the paintings? Were they behind glass? Are the squiggly white lines in the first painting part of the art, or the signs of poor care?

    • The paintings are normal to large kakejiku scroll size, say average 80x40cm, but my photos focus in on details and both have a small part unshown here. The left one is framed and behind glass; the right one isn’t. The squiggly lines are insect marks made during a period when these works were carelessly looked after and stored.

  7. Lidia Rozmus Says:

    Thank you very much Tito. It is wonderful story with great pictures and beautiful haiku with the breath in the color of moonlight…
    Lidia (from the Republic of Mole Hill)

  8. I’ve just reread a story that Buson spent 3 years in Miyazu developing his skill as a painter. He left for Kyoto in 1757. At that time he wrote a poem which speaks of his expectations of the achievements that will follow him as a result of his study in Miyazu.

    tail of a wagtail –
    left behind in Hashidate,
    my luggage

    It would be interesting to see the work he did in Miyazu.

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