Otsu Ginko: Basho & Fenollosa on the Shores of Lake Biwa

The forty-meter Basho-o Ekotobaden 芭蕉翁絵詞伝 scroll exhibition at the Otsu Museum of History turned out to be an absorbing experience for the 8 Hailstone poets who visited it on 14 March. At least 2 more went on their own on separate occasions. It finishes on 11 April, so there is still time. The scroll was commissioned of painter Kano Shoei 狩野正栄 as part of the 100th anniversary of Basho’s death (prior to 1794) and depicts the Master as a young man in Iga-Ueno, on his literary pilgrimages (Matsushima, Ise, Yoshino, etc.), in his retreats (Basho-an, Genjuan, Rakushisha, etc.), as well as his death in Osaka, and his grave at Gichuji Temple 義沖寺, not far from the Museum itself. This was the Life of Basho in meticulous style painting and beautiful calligraphy. Basho’s camellia-wood staff, Yayu’s desk with a crescent moon inset, and many other interesting exhibits augment this landmark exhibition, which shows how Basho became so revered and how his school of haiku 蕉門 was re-envigorated by poets such as Chomu 蝶夢, Kyotai 暁台, and Buson as 100 years were chalked up.

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Afterwards, somewhat exhausted, for a while we rested on benches at the Museum, looking out across Lake Biwa. It was such a beautiful spring day that we decided to go for a stroll towards the northwest, where Tito had found out that there is a tiny dilapidated temple, Homyoin 法明院, in the grounds of which the American orientalist, Ernest Fenollosa, has his grave (Basho’s is at the other end of Otsu). The mountain temple is reached by an overgrown grassy path and a lot of wonky stone steps. When we arrived at the main hall there was no one around. We noticed a can hanging on the gatepost asking for donations upon entry and we duly put in some coins and walked around the unkempt garden, ravaged by wild boars, but with some trees putting out blossom and unfurling new leaves… up a further flight of steps to Fenollosa’s grave. He had done translation work with Ezra Pound more than a century ago, helping us to a better understanding of the beauty of Chinese poetry, and, with Okakura Kenshin, had helped to preserve the artistic heritage of Japan at the precarious time of the Shinbutsu Bunri movement. He saved many Buddhas from destruction, finally becoming a Buddhist himself.

Collecting scraps
of conversation on Basho,
Lake Biwa’s
spring breeze
………. (Akihiko Hayashi)

for us to pass
beneath its wire perch -–
the first swallow!
………. (Tito)

The lake is calm,
with distant yachts —
bursting cherry blossoms
………. (Kyoko Nozaki)

Offering a camellia
to Fenollosa’s tomb ―
bush warblers call
………. (Yaeno Azuchi)

9 responses to “Otsu Ginko: Basho & Fenollosa on the Shores of Lake Biwa

  1. This item in the Icebox was a totally new experience in my life of 89 years. I did not know that Chomu had asked Kano Seiei to paint a life of Basho, nor did I know that Fenollosa was buried in Otsu. I wonder if a picture of his grave could posted so that I could once more think about his life and about his his great contribution to the evaluation of Japanese art. As for Kano Seiei’s paintings, my reaction was rather mixed. Stephen was kind enough to buy a copy of the exhibition brochure for me. At first glance I thought Seiei’s paintings were very beautiful, but on second thoughts I wondered if Kano-ha style of painting was really appropriate for describing the life of Basho. I like Kano-ha paintings in big castles and rich houses, but I could not help thinking that perhaps Seiei’s style of painting was too courtly for Basho. I should very much like to know what other people think about this. Sosui (Nobuyuki Yuasa)

    • Thank you for the comment, Nobuyuki. I believe the artist’s name is pronounced Kano Shoei, by the way. I know what you mean about ‘the courtly’ style, but seeing the real scroll for myself convinced me that in terms of the context (landscape, townscape, clothing, food, etc.) of both Basho’s travels and his sedentary periods, the detailed brushwork gives the modern spectator something of a grandstand view. In other words, it helps us to see details, which I found very interesting. One doesn’t get that through Buson’s haiga style, for example, although the spirit of haiga is much closer to Basho than Kano style is. In the slideshow above, you can pause on a picture by clicking the pause button within the photo frame (hover your mouse to find it). You will also see a photo there of Fenollosa’s grave.

  2. Thank you for this post Tito, and sorry not to have attended in person.

    I’m always surprised how overlooked Fenollosa’s gravesite is, considering his great contribution to promoting Japanese art abroad. I hope you don’t mind my sharing my own visit to the site:

    “We found a small temple with uneven stone stairs and a weathered gate whose thatch was peeling in the corners. The garden beyond was overgrown, and behind it were a series of grave stones dotting the forest floor. To my surprise, I had stumbled upon the final resting place of Ernest Fenollosa. I’d known he was buried somewhere in Shiga, but I hardly expected to find him here behind a seemingly forgotten temple. Next to him were the graves of Tendai convert William Sturges and of James Woods, an early American scholar of the Yoga Sutras. Nearby was a bench offering views of the buildings of Otsu city stacked below. We watched dark storm clouds coming over from the direction of Hiei. When the thunder and lightning began, we rushed through high grass to a small shelter I had spotted through the trees. It turned out to be a bell tower, but oddly, the bell had been removed. The long wooden striker still hung from a rusted chain, but the platform on which we sat was cracked and uneven . The bell seemed to have been taken quite a long time ago. I pictured Nobunaga, in his rush up to burn out the Sohei of Enryaku-ji, had melted the bell down as iron for his guns. The elderly woman in the temple itself later provided the answer. During the Second World War, the bell had indeed been taken to be melted down for munitions, but had never been used. After the war it was to be returned, but as the workmen had not wanted to carry it further up the steep hill, it was taken only as far as neighboring Enman-in temple, who refused to give it back to the proper owner.”

    • Your experience at Homyoin, all those years ago, and our own recent one are very similar – deserted, lonely, but wonderful view. Thanks for adding the bell story, too. It brings to mind another much earlier one, of Benkei’s Bell at nearby Miidera. That bell, too, got moved around the mountain.

      • Benkei certainly had a penchant for bells. There is an event up in Shimane called the Benkei Walk, commemorating the old warrior carrying a temple bell from Daisen-ji to Gakuen-ji. Participants walk those 100km within 24 hours.

        Next autumn’s haiku hike perhaps?

  3. The moody prose descriptions and photos of the gravesites find a lively foil in the manifestations of nature that appear in the haiku. I can feel spring bursting forth.

  4. As usual, I would have loved to be there. Glad it was so enjoyable. I love the four haiku, with the poets finding echoes of themselves in “wind and water.”