Despite the pandemic

by | Mar 11, 2021 | Suiseki | 0 comments

Despite the pandemic

by Wil in Japan
“The 8th Japan Suiseki Exhibition”

(Posizionando il mouse sul testo si sovrappone la traduzione in italiano)

Though the situation was uncertain until only one week before, the 8th Japan Suiseki Exhibition opened as originally scheduled on February 14th, 2021. Soft restrictions applied to restaurants and bars throughout the city, but public museums were allowed to remain open according to their regular schedules. As a precaution, temperatures were taken at the entrance, hand sanitizer was provided, and masks were required at all times while in the exhibition venue, but importantly, the show went on.

As expected, attendance was a fraction of the usual, with no visitors from outside of Japan and very few from outside of the greater Tokyo area for that matter, but there was a great sense of joy and relief in the air amongst those who did attend, as it was likely the first opportunity since last February’s exhibition for many of these old friends to meet and enjoy stones together face to face. Fearing a poor performance, the Nippon Suiseki Association made extra efforts to encourage participation, and much to our delight, the show had over 170 entries – a new record for the exhibition series, despite the pandemic.  So, with masks on, the tape was cut and the show began

The centerpiece of this year’s exhibition was the well-known Kamuikotan stone named “Takachiho” from the Nyogakuan Collection.

Its history is elucidated in both the exhibition catalogue and the bilingual Japanese/English publication, Suiseki – An Art Created by Nature – The Nyogakuan Collection of Japanese Viewing Stones (2005). It is perhaps one of the most revered stones from Hokkaido in the Japanese suiseki world, and one of only a few with a demonstrable prewar history.

Also in the special entry section was a Sajigawa stone resembling a recumbent bull from the Ukigaya family collection in Chiba Prefecture. As a couple, Ukigayas have long been patrons of the Nippon Suiseki Association, and though the husband passed away in recent years, Mrs. Ukigaya continues to enthusiastically participate in exhibitions like this still today.

Sajigawa stone resembling a recumbent bull from the Ukigaya family collection

Near the special entries on an off-set table of its own was the annual display by the Hosokawa Bonseki School.  Every year since the third installment of this series, the head of the Hosokawa school has been invited as a special guest to create a display and share their art with the suiseki community.  This year, using a number of old bonseki that have been passed down within their tradition, they created the scene of a lakeside temple complex, named “The Temple Ishiyamadera off Lake Biwa”.  The sensitive placement of each stone and miniature bronze, and the delicate rendering of various designs in fine white sand was indeed a wonder to behold.

“The Temple Ishiyamadera off Lake Biwa”  by Hosokawa bonseki school

Rather than having a separate section displaying important accessories like suiban, doban, and display stands, last year the Nippon Suiseki Association decided to focus an area of the show on stones from a specific place, in that case stones of the Tamagawa that flows by Tokyo.  This year too, we intended to organize such an area-specific sub-section of the exhibition, though the uncertainty caused by the pandemic interfered and the idea was put on hold.  In its place, twelve important stones from the privately owned Jizaian Collection were featured. This section featured well-known stones on both daiza and suiban, such as this famous Ibigawa waterfall stone:

Ibigawa waterfall stone 

and a mountain stream Iyo stone beautifully displayed in a lobed suiban:

Of special interest was also a two-tiered display of historical stones, contrasting traditional Chinese and Japanese display styles.  On the upper tier, a well-published antique Chinese stone on a traditional wooden stand named “Mount Emei” after the famous mountain in Sichuan Province; on the lower tier a Kifune bonseki with a wonderful patina displayed on a silk mat named “Nunobiki” after a famous waterfall in Hyogo Prefecture.

Though not visible to viewers during the exhibition, the bottom of this bonseki was cut and lacquered, which is a traditional technique commonly employed to protect the lacquered trays used in bonseki displays from being scratched by the rough bottoms of stones. Stones like this are incredibly rare, and highly prized by collectors in the suiseki world today.

The tokonoma displays featured the usual variety of seasonal themes, and two displays in particular make for an interesting contrast.

One is an atmospheric nighttime display, featuring a desolate island off in the sea below a moon slightly obscured by clouds, with a single bird in flight above.

Senbutsu ishi in tokonoma display

Many Senbutsu ishi like this stone have wriggling surface textures and a greyish brown coloration, which in this case matches well with the sea-dragon design and polished bronze coloration of the doban by Harada Houn.

Senbutsu stone in a doban by Harada Houn

Though doban by this famous craftsman have attracted much attention by Western collectors in recent years, it is important to recognize the characteristics that distinguish authentic works from later reproductions. The best way to learn this, of course, is to look at and study well-recognized works of the finest quality, which may be difficult without visiting Japan to see exhibitions like this, but quality pictures, they say, can be worth a thousand words. This particular design is one that Houn often employed, and the sharp, detailed lines of the decorative pattern and flawless consistency of the thickness of the rim speak to a quality cast that later attempts by less skilled craftsman never achieved. This is a true masterpiece of its type, and the dark coloration and stern simplicity of the display stand brings a final element of consistency to the brooding atmosphere of the scene.

As if its mirror reflection, a colorful daytime display presents a scene of just the opposite intention; an inversion of both form and content. The sun hovers over a clear blue sea, bathing a mountainous island below in bright red light.

Sado akadama ishi in tokonoma display

The color of the sun in the hanging scroll and the blue pigment used to render the sea perfectly complement the coloration of the Sado akadama ishi and glaze of the refreshingly cool-feeling suiban, making for a perfect match. The decorative openwork of the stand adds a further sense of flare to the already showy and colorful display, which might be best suited to the New Year, a wedding, or some other auspicious, celebratory occasion.

Sado akadama ishi in a refreshingly cool-feeling suiban

The yin-yang balance observable between these two displays makes for an interesting study on many levels.

Another important note for discussion observable in this exhibition is the ongoing debate surrounding natural vs. enhanced stones. As has been widely written about in the past, the Chinese tradition has been far more forthcoming in acknowledging not only that such work is done, but in some cases is even required to improve a stone. Offering a stone a helping hand to bring out the best of its natural features has not been historically objected to in that particular practice, and examples of such stones from China were on display.

Enhanced Chinese stone

The Japanese tradition, however, has most certainly not always presented such a clear picture. Different teachings have long existed side-by-side, leaving enthusiasts to choose which practice they prefer, and while for some the issue is black and white, there is no denying a vast grey area in between. Which is not to say that the distinction has been left vague in all cases, but rather that many Japanese collectors appreciate both natural and enhanced stones, and that the views one might hear on the subject vary from person to person in such a dramatic manner that it is impossible to say which is “right” or “wrong”. Nor should the enhancement of stones be viewed cynically as a phenomenon driven purely by the economic forces of supply and demand in the market of any given time in Japanese history. Long before the so-called “stone boom” of the 1960s and 70s that saw a rapid increase in the popularity of stone appreciation in Japan, stones were being enhanced for a variety of both pragmatic and aesthetic reasons.

Chrysanthemum stones present one area where this phenomenon is quite clearly visible. The technical aspects and varying extents to which Japanese chrysanthemum stones have been enhanced over the years is most thoroughly discussed in the book Chrysanthemum Stones: The Story of Stone Flowers by Thomas S. Elias and Hiromi Nakaoji (2010), and examples are almost always to be found in Japanese suiseki exhibitions. This year was no exception, and two particular entries exemplify different types commonly encountered.

One was a small kawazure, or “river worn” stone in its natural state. Left untouched, it has a fairly dry-feeling surface, and the petals of the flower remain flush with the surrounding material.

A natural Chrysanthemum stone in display

In contrast was an incredibly large stone that could not be moved without the efforts of at least three strong individuals, the flowers of which are so clearly defined and distinct from the surrounding matrix that there is no doubt the natural form of the petals was carved around to make them more explicit and recognizable.

An enhanced Chrysanthemum stone in display

Regardless of one’s own preferences, the point is that even at what may be considered Japan’s premier suiseki exhibition, such stones are readily accepted and prominently displayed.

With over 20 entries from abroad, this year’s exhibition was regarded by all as a great success, despite the ongoing pandemic and limited attendance.

As the Nippon Suiseki Association works to finalize the catalogue detailing the entire show, I hope this little review helps inspire discussion and offer encouragement to those of you hoping to organize exhibitions moving forward this year, as we hopefully round the corner of what has been a most trying time for all.

Wil in Japan


Shakkei Group thanks a very special correspondent, who accompanied us on a virtual visit among the suiseki exhibited at the Japan Suiseki Exhibition, an edition closed to the presence of the Western world of enthusiasts, to whom we are giving the version in the original language, of this reportage, available in Italian also, in the Italiansuiseki website, at the page Nonostante la pandemia

Shakkei Group ringrazia un inviato molto speciale, che ci ha accompagnato in una visita virtuale tra i suiseki esposti alla Japan Suiseki Exhibition, edizione chiusa alla presenza del mondo occidentale degli appassionati, a cui stiamo regalando la versione in lingua originale, di questo reportage, disponibile anche in italiano, nel sito Italiansuiseki, alla pagina Nonostante la pandemia

Daniela Schifano

Passioni: i suiseki, i gatti, tutto ciò che è giapponese tranne il sushi. Leggere, scrivere, studiare, divulgare, viaggiare.

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