Hikone Byobu National Treasure folding screen

The Hikone Castle Museum exhibits the Hikone Byobu folding screen (彦根屏風), a National Treasure, on a regular basis every year. When I saw it in spring 2013, it was being exhibited until May 7, 2013. Shiga Prefecture has only four paintings that are National Treasures, and this is one of them and the only non-religious one. The others are all religious paintings owned by temples like Miidera. (Japan has 158 paintings designated as National Treasures as of this writing.) The byobu shows a pleasure quarters scene in Kyoto. It’s painted on a gold-leaf paper background.

The six-panel byobu is dated to be from the Edo Period’s Kan’ei era (1624-44). It measures 271 cm wide and 94 cm high. Since it was kept by the Ii clan (lord of Hikone Castle) for generations, the screen is nicknamed “Hikone Byobu” even though the painting is not related to Hikone. The byobu’s official name is a mouthful: Shihon Kinjichaku-shoku Fuzoku-zu (紙本金地著色風俗図). The city of Hikone now owns the byobu (since 1997). The Hikone Byobu underwent meticulous repairs for two years and it is exhibited for a few weeks every spring during this time.

The byobu’s National Treasure acclaim is due to the highly skilled and meticulous painting style and the myriad of people, fashion, and objects depicted from that era. Extremely fine lines and dots are painted for the hair, kimono patterns, etc. You’ll need a magnifying glass to see all that intricate detail (although you won’t be able to get that close to the painting). The painted scene is an outstanding snapshot of the people and customs of that time. Thus, it is called a fuzoku-zu (風俗図). With so many little details pictured, you would have to be well-versed in the arts, fashion, customs, and history of that period to fully appreciate what is depicted.

On the left of the byobu, you can see a folding screen with a Chinese-style painting. This is the only prop we see in the background and it indicates that the scene on the left half of the screen is indoors where everyone is sitting close together. The right half of the screen looks like it’s outdoors since the people are standing and one woman is walking her little dog (imported from Europe) even. We see no boundary between the indoors and outdoors, but it is obviously implied.

On the screen’s left half showing the indoor scene, three people are playing the samisen and three people are playing Japanese backgammon called sugoroku (双六). There is also a long tobacco pipe below the backgammon player dressed in black. Tobacco pipes were imported from Spain and Portugal at the time and were very popular in Japan. Their length eventually got shorter in later years.

On the lower right in the indoor scene is a girl writing a love letter with ink and brush. The samisen players, sugoroku players, letter writer, and background folding screen all refer to the Chinese-originated cultural concept of kinkishoga (琴棋書画), meaning stringed instrument (koto), traditional board game, calligraphy, and painting. Being skilled at these four traditional arts was considered a prerequisite of a cultured person. It was common for paintings to depict kinkishoga.

Above the letter writer is a middle-age woman leaning on an arm rest. She is thought to be a Buddhist layman of great knowledge, making her the de facto supervisor there.

The pleasure quarters was for people of taste and culture. It was a leading edge for fashion and we can see various fashion statements in the painting. The people wear a variety of hairstyles. For example, the karawa-mage style (唐輪髷) with the hair stacked up was favored by the courtesans of that day. We also see short-sleeve casual kimono called kosode (小袖) and they also have gold leaf embedded in the material.

On the right side of the byobu, the woman second from the right edge is wearing a kimono with a basho (banana plant) design. It reminds one of a Noh song titled, Basho. (Famous haiku poet Basho named himself after the banana plant.)

When the Hikone Byobu was made in the early Edo Period, it wasn’t for the masses to see. Only the cultural elite would be able to see it and the artist knew this. The artist therefore included little details that only the cultural elite would appreciate and understand. They would have been well-versed in Chinese-style painting, religious paintings, Noh plays, etc.

The painting was designed to be viewed not as a flat painting, but on a folding screen with its characteristic zig-zag panels facing inward or outward. The people were painted to match the respective panel’s angle. If you look closely, you can see that the way the people are facing are indeed enhanced or emphasized by the angle of the panel. Since the painting was not signed, the artist is unknown. However, experts say that the painter likely belonged to the Kano school of Japanese painting. It’s astonishing that the artist did not sign such a masterpiece. I wonder if the artist didn’t sign it because the work was still unfinished (the background looks too empty to me) or maybe there were multiple artists. There are still things about the painting that experts do not know about.

I went to see this byobu a year ago during Golden Week. I went without reading up about it, so I was unable to fully appreciate the byobu’s artistic and cultural value when I saw it. It was only after I did some reading when I was able to appreciate this rare National Treasure. I’m happy to now share with you what I’ve learned about this fascinating byobu. You should appreciate it for what it’s really worth. A little knowledge (and language) goes a long way.

The Hikone Castle Museum is next to the ticket booth to enter Hikone Castle, a short walk from JR Hikone Station. Open 8:30 am to 5 pm (enter by 4:30 pm). Admission is 500 yen for adults (cheaper if you also buy a ticket to enter Hikone Castle).

Related posts at shiga-ken.com:

Hikone Castle photos – Over 280 photos of Hikone castle.


About Hikone – Overview of the city of Hikone.

Goggle map of Hikone – Main sights listed.


Hikone Castle video – Comprehensive 34-min. video about the castle, its history, Genkyuen Garden, and autumn castle festivals.

Hina-matsuri doll festivals in Shiga 2013

Hina dolls in Gokasho. Click image to see more photos.

Hina-matsuri dolls (雛祭りの雛人形) are being displayed at various locations in Shiga to celebrate Girl’s Day on March 3.

On the weekend of Feb. 23-24, 2013, Gokasho in Higashi-Omi is having a unique event of live hina dolls called Ningen Hina-matsuri (にんげん雛まつり). Yes, they are real girls, ten of them, dressed as Hina dolls. They will appear twice on both the 23rd and 24th at 10:00 am to 11:30 am and at 1:30 pm to 3 pm at the Omi-shonin merchant home of Tonomura Shigeru (外村繁邸).

Gokasho, Higashi-Omi: Normal hina ningyo dolls are also displayed in the Omi-shonin merchant homes and museums. They are on display until March 20 (9 am to 4:30 pm) in the former residences of Tonomura Uhee (外村 宇兵衛), Tonomura Shigeru (外村 繁), Nakae Jungoro (中江 準五郎), and Fujii Hikoshiro (藤井 彦四郎邸). The homes are large, stately Japanese-style mansions. Must-see for architecture buffs. Buy a single 600 yen ticket and you can enter all the homes. Closest train station is Ohmi Railways Gokasho Station. Google Map

Omi-Hachiman: Former Ban family residence (旧伴家住宅) until March 17, 2013 (closed Mon.). Omi merchant home which also served as a girls school and public library until 1997. Spacious room with a large display of Hina dolls. The former Nishikawa Residence (Kyu-Nishikawa-ke Jutaku 旧西川家住) also has doll display. This is a large Omi merchant home designated as an Important Cultural Property. The Kawara Roof Tile Museum and some shops in central Omi-Hachiman will also have hina doll displays. Google Map

Hino: Omi Hino Merchant House (近江日野商人館) until March 10, 2013. The former home of Hino merchant Yamanaka Hyouemon was donated to the town in 1981. Now a museum exhibiting the history and artifacts of the Hino merchants. Admission 300 yen. Another place is Hino Machikado Kan-okan (日野まちかど感応館) which is a former home along Hino’s main road. It is also a tourist information office. Free admission. Some shops and homes in central Hino will also have hina doll displays. Google Map

Enjoy Girl’s Day!

Japanese hina-matsuri map: http://www.omi-syonin.com/htm03/index.html#page=1

Seian University of Art and Design

Eye-catching outdoor art at Seian Univ. of Art and Design. They are gazing at Lake Biwa.

I recently visited Seian University of Art and Design in western Otsu (near Ogoto Onsen Station on the JR Kosei Line) for the first time. (In Japanese. the university is called Seian Zokei Daigaku 成安造形大学.) I was impressed with their slogan of being an “Art Museum on Campus.”

It is indeed like an art museum with numerous galleries on campus open to the public. I visited of few of the galleries and found out that the university holds a major art exhibition in spring and fall. Right now, painter Brian Williams is showing at the university’s Gallery Art Site until Dec. 1, 2012. Most of the time, the galleries show work by the students. They undergo a screening to get an exhibition slot, so you can bet that the quality is high.

When you arrive at the university, get a campus map of the galleries. There are a few outdoor pieces as well (see photos).

Outdoor art at Seian Univ. of Art and Design. Cafeteria Yui (made of scrap wood) is nearby.

Seian Univ. art3

One of the galleries at Seian University of Art and Design. This is sculpture by Hiromu Okuda (奥田博士), a Shiga-born artist

Seian University of Art and Design is Shiga’s sole art university. It’s a small university with about 800 students or 200 students per class from freshman to senior. It offers five programs/faculties and over half of the students belong to the Illustration Program (includes manga). Not so many belong to the FIne Art Program (painting, sculpture, etc.).

They also accept and have a small number of international students, mostly from Asian countries (one is an American from Chicago). International students must be conversant in Japanese. They undergo an interview in Japanese and the university decides whether their Japanese is good enough. They don’t need to take/pass a Japanese proficiency test nor be proficient at reading/writing Japanese.

The university also strives to take an active part in the local community and be an active contributor to the local community. For example, they recently published a well-illustrated brochure created by students to introduce eateries along the Kosei train line near the university.

The university also has a pleasant cafeteria called “Yui” near the lake shore where you can have lunch. The campus is lucky to have views of Lake Biwa. I wish all the students at Seian University of Art and Design the best for a bright career. Web site: http://www.seian.ac.jp/ Google map: http://goo.gl/maps/pEOdj

Omi gods and buddhas religious art exhibition in Tokyo

Went to Mitsui Memorial Museum in Nihonbashi, Tokyo to see an exhibition of religious art from Shiga Prefecture. It was excellent. Buddha statues, mandalas, bells, scrolls, etc., from many of the major Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Shiga were displayed, including two National Treasures and many Important Cultural Properties. Many of these things we normally cannot see even when we visit the temple/shrine. The exhibition ends on Nov. 25, 2012. Admission is 1,200 yen for adults. English captions are provided.

Some images of the pieces exhibited: http://www.mitsui-museum.jp/exhibition/index.html

English info: http://www.mitsui-museum.jp/english/english.html

Sotoen pottery center in Shigaraki

Earlier this month in August 2012, I revisited Shigaraki in Koka, Shiga Prefecture. I went with a large group and we visited a pottery center called Sotoen (宗陶苑). Shigaraki has a number of private pottery centers and Sotoen is one of the largest. It is in a ceramic park-like area with all kinds of pottery pieces large and small spread over a wide area. All for sale. Sotoen also boasts Japan’s oldest noborigama kiln dating from the Edo Period.

Talk about a photo op with Shigaraki pottery, especially the tanuki raccoon dog. The giant tanuki is priced as much as 700,000 yen. The building on the right has the pottery classroom on the 2nd floor.

Before having a bento lunch at Sotoen, a veteran potter gave a talk about Shigaraki pottery which has a 1,200-year history. Shigaraki ware was especially favored for the tea ceremony. It is also very strong, suited for large pieces and outdoor pieces.

Sotoen’s main attraction is this noborigama or sloping kiln. Japan’s oldest noborigama. The bottom chamber is the furnace where they burn many bundles of wood for seven days and nights. Sotoen’s noborigama kiln is 15 meters wide, 30 meters long, and 3.5 meters high. It has eleven chambers going up a slope. The heat from the furnace at the bottom chamber rises and seeps into all the chambers above. 登り窯

A noborigama chamber. The chambers get larger toward the top of the noborigama kiln. It takes 40-50 days to fill the kiln, and 7-10 days to fire.

Another highlight of Sotoen is the pottery lesson for beginners. They have this huge pottery classroom. First, an instructor demonstrated the basics of pottery making with a block of clay. Easy enough for anyone to make a simple bowl or cup. They offer a 90-min. class three times a day. It costs around 1,500 to 2,100 yen for an 800-gram block of clay, basic instructions, and firing in a kiln. Reservations required. Web site: http://www.shigarakiyaki.co.jp/

First, they teach you to make a flat round base of clay placed on the turntable. Then you make short ropes of clay which you lay around the edge of the base. Make more clay ropes and one by one you lay them around on top. Smooth out the sides and the top edge with a wet cloth. After maybe 20-30 min., my little bowl. I have to wait until autumn to see my fired bowl (photo below).

Sotoen is accessible by taxi from Shigaraki Station. See map below.

View Koka, Shiga Prefecture in a larger map

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