Tuesday, May 13, 2008



Certain paintings have been so iconic from childhood that a trip to see them qualifies as a pilgrimage. A teenage visit to the Ghent Altarpiece, for example, was thrilling. My meticulously researched essay in 7th grade was about a real painting! Numerous tourists to continental Europe feel this way, of course.

I'd longed to see the famed Heian dynasty painting (710-794) of Kichijoten, goddess of, among other things, beauty, luck, happiness and fertility. It's probably obvious why this painting captured the imagination of the young girl in me; she's pretty. And she has great clothes.

The painting lives in Yakushiji temple in Nara, and Amaterasu-like only comes out of hiding once a year. On one visit to Japan, we'd timed our trip to see her. Then I ate some bad sea cucumber and got sick. I've never eaten sea cucumber again. Japanese people ask me if I eat everything, and I usually say yes, but I won't eat sea cucumber. They find this funny as many of them won't eat it either.

Anyway, imagine my glee to find Kichijoten--the real painting of Kichijoten--waiting for me at the Tokyo National Museum, which is holding a special exhibit of treasures from Yakushiji. The museum was packed. There was a line out the door at least as long as a football field. Fortunately, we arrived early enough to miss the lines. At 5 foot 5 (with a few more inches, thanks to my heels) I towered over the other tourists, who were mostly from Japan. Thus I comfortably breathed fresh air and took in the view.I also scoped out traffic patterns for my mother so we could move against the flow, and get a better view. Truly, it was a puzzle.

At one point, a man at least a foot shorter brazenly walked up and said:

"Are you a gaijin or a Japanese."
I bent down and looked at him. "Truly," I said, "it is a puzzle. What shall we do about this?"

Kichijoten is beautiful. The skill in the brushwork is breathtaking. Like a good Renoir, this piece just breathes a love for the beauty and grace of women and it's hard not to feel happy and safe in her presence. No wonder monks were said to fall in love with her.

It's worth noting how the fleshiness of her face and lines of the painting are generally echoed in Heian dynasty work--and are considered to be the epitome of Japaneseness. (Yes, art historians--I know the painting above is probably a copy. But it is supposedly a copy of what Heian art looked like). Never was Japan more beautiful than when the girls wore long hair and floppy, drapy clothes, and swooned with deep emotion.

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