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Stumbling Into the Ancient Art of Bonseki
Miniature landscapes created with just a whisk of a feather
David Michael Weber (crossfire)     Print Article 
Published 2005-12-08 12:50 (KST)   
Mt. Fuji as depicted on a Bonseki Tray
©2005 D.Weber
One of the things I love about Tokyo is exploring the nooks and crannies of this enormous megalopolis. One can find all sorts of hidden treasures from quaint old style houses, serene temples and shrines, golden buddhas, and cultural art exhibits. I was wandering the back streets between Nippori and Ueno with my mother who was visiting me for a week. Near to Ueno Park, we stumbled across a temporary art exhibition displaying the old traditional art of Bonseki.

The sun peeks over the mountains in a Bonseki scene
©2005 D.Weber
Bonseki is the ancient art of creating landscapes on black lacquer trays using white sand, pebbles, and small rocks. From this seeming debris exquisite scenery comes to life in the form of mountains, seashores, and gardens. Small delicate tools are used in Bonseki such as feathers, small flax brooms, sifters, spoons and wood wedges. The trays are either oval or rectangular, measuring about 60 by 35 centimeters in size. Oval trays have a low rim while rectangular ones are flat.

A snowy forest
©2005 D.Weber
Small stones are used to represent mountains, shore lines or rocky islands that waves break upon. Miniature structures, usually of painted copper, are sometimes added to the work to make houses, temples, bridges, and the like.

A river side scene
©2005 D.Weber
The origins of Bonseki are unclear but it is believed Emperor Temmu, who reigned in the mid-7th Century, made use of Bonseki techniques to describe natural objects and landscapes. It is also believed that a number of gardens in Kyoto were planned and designed with the use of Bonseki as a type of temporary blueprint.

A Bonseki artist at work
©2005 D.Weber
Under the ascetic Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1443-1490), Bonseki became popular among members of the aristocracy. A century later, Sen-no-Rikyu, the famed master of the Tea Ceremony, practiced Bonseki and one of his students, Hosokawa Sansai, set up a school dedicated to Bonseki with established techniques.

Mt Fuji and its reflection in a lake
©2005 D.Weber
The Edo Period (1603-1867) saw many Bonseki schools set up as it gained in popularity. Bonseki was particularly popular with many ladies of the Shogunate court in old Tokyo.

A Rectangle Bonseki Tray depicting Miyajima Shrine
©2005 D.Weber
With the restoration of Imperial rule, Bonseki declined sharply as more emphasis was placed on modernity and Western culture.

Bonseki Mountains
©2005 D.Weber
In recent times, Bonseki has seen some revival as new groups continue to improve upon the Hosokawa techniques, while preserving its traditional elegance. One such group is the Tokyo Kuyo-Kai of the Hosokawa School. The Tokyo Kuyo-Kai is a group of students of the late headmasters of the Hosokawa school.

Bonseki birds flying over the ocean
©2005 D.Weber
Part of the beauty of Bonseki lies in its fragile, transient existence. One wisp of a feather and a mountain becomes a river or a falling star becomes a crashing wave or a soaring bird. One bump or sneeze and a whole landscape is obliterated. Sometimes, by using special methods, a Bonseki scene can be preserved. This is called either Bonga ("Tray Picture") or Suna-e ("Sand Picture").

However the object of Bonseki is not the completion of the scene itself, nor its preservation. As the Tokyo Kuyo-Kai group states: "The importance of Bonseki is the peaceful feeling and satisfaction you derive from creating a Bonseki scene and not the result of the work."

Falling stars raining down from the heavens
©2005 D.Weber
©2005 OhmyNews
A native Tennesseean, David M. Weber is currently at the grammatical grindstone cranking out gerunds, dangling modifiers and perfecting tenses as an English teacher in Japan. In his travels, he has hiked the Inca Trail, been mugged in Mexico City, broke his leg in Switzerland, attempted to bike through Mexico and failed, climbed Pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, drank great quantities of beer at Oktoberfest and gambled at Monte Carlo.
Other articles by reporter David Michael Weber

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