Friday, July 30, 2010

Den-emon, Rescuer of the Ryoanji Treasures

"The Ryōan-ji garden is famous for its simplicity. The longer you sit, the more the garden fascinates. The fifteen rocks are placed so that, when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above), only fourteen of the boulders are visible at one time. It is traditionally said that only through attaining enlightenment would one be able to view the fifteenth boulder." (Source)

With the 1994 UNESCO designation, Ryoanji should have been one of the most visited temples in Kyoto. I worry that visitors cannot find space to sit and meditate among the crowds. I heard it is one of the few temples that accommodates blind visitors, allowing them to touch the rocks and stones.

Can any visitor imagine that this same temple went through a dark period lingering on the brink of collapse? Probably not. The slogan of the Meiji Restoration (1868) was "Restore the Monarchy" and anything related to the cultural habits and institutions from the Tokugawa era was either neglected and/or destroyed. Buddhism did not escape. There was a rage unchecked and many temples were demolished or left to decay.

Ryoanji apparently did everything to survive, selling a hoard of treasures, including 71 slide door paintings of the abbott from the 17th century, which overlooks the dry garden of 15 rocks.

The rescuer of the paintings was Den-emon Itoh (1861-1947), the coal mining king of Chikuho, now the city of Iizuka in Fukuoka Prefecture. Den-emon, helped his father Den-roku succeed in developing a coal mining enterprise and used that as a foothold to serve as a congressman in the early 1900's.

Portrait of Den-emon Itoh
from the old Iizuka Chamber of Commerce magazine

The arranged marriage to Akiko Yanagiwara (1885-1967), later known by her pen name Byakuren, came in l911, for political reasons, after Den-emon lost his first wife. In 1933, Den-emon, in commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the construction of Osaka Castle, exhibited the 71 slide door paintings of Ryoanji at the so-called Kii Palace, inside the Osaka Castle compound (destroyed by fire in 1947 during the GHQ occupation). It was known publicly that the Ryoanji treasure was the possession of Den-emon.

It was the last showing of the Ryoanji treasures as a complete unit. The death of Den-emon Ito and the misfortunes as a consequence of the arranged marriage scattered the collection.

The Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAM) toured Tokyo, Kobe, Yamanashi, Shizuoka and Fukuoka since Sept 2009 with its "Luminous Jewels Masterpieces". I attended the exhibit at the Fukuoka Art Museum on the last day (July 19, 2010) to see a Kano School "A Game of Go", from the Four Elegant Accomplishments, once owned by Den-emon and now part of the SAM collection. They were originally inside Ryoanji Temple’s abbot's room, directly facing the zen garden.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York reportedly owns the "Flying Liezi”, from the Chinese immortals, which was in the central room of the abbot also directly facing the Ryoanji zen garden.

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