Lady Chiyo and the broken water bucket

Kaga no Chiyo (1703-1775) is widely regarded as one of the greatest female haiku poets. She is perhaps best known for her poem: “A morning glory twined round my bucket – I ask for water”. The overgrown well-bucket is a frequently illustrated subject in Japanese pictorial art. Stevenson* believes that this inspired Yoshitoshi to illustrate…

Gyokuto – Songoku

Jade Rabbit – Sun Wukong Sun Wukong, known in the West as the Monkey King, is the main character in the classical Chinese epic novel “Journey to the West”. In this tale he accompanies the monk Xuanzang on a mission to collect Buddhist sutras from India. Songoku achieved immortality by stealing and eating empress Xi…

Miyajiyama no tsuki

After the Hogen Rebellion in 1156, the courtier Fujiwara no Moronaga (1137-1192) was briefly exiled to the island of Shikoku. That autumn he consoled himself with a visit to Mount Miyaji where, while playing his biwa, a suijin or water goddess appeared.

Ishiyama no tsuki

Ishiyama moon  Lady Murasaki is usually pictured in a violet robe (murasaki may be translated as “violet”, or “purple”, or “lavender”), sitting at her writing table in Ishiyama Temple, and looking out over Lake Biwa under a full moon. Yoshitoshi chooses a similar setting, but substitutes a mountain landscape for the lake. Murasaki Shikibu is…

Ashigarayama no tsuki

Mount Ashigara moon General Minamoto no Yoshimitsu (1056-1127), aka Shinra Saburo, was an accomplished performer on the sho, a short bamboo mouth organ. He is said to have convinced Toyowara Tokiaki, the son of his deceased sho master, to follow in his fathers footsteps. Both men are often depicted sitting opposite, playing a sho duet….

Sesonji no tsuki

Seson temple moon Fujiwara no Yoshitaka (953-974 AD) meditates in the grounds of Seson temple outside Kyoto, to where he had retreated because he didn’t want to overshadow his elder brother. Yoshitaka was a captain of the imperial guards at the Heian court and an accomplished poet. His work can be found in the Ogura…

Nankai no tsuki

Moon of the Southern Sea Kwanyin, the Bodhisattva of mercy and compassion, is known as Kannon in Japan, and as Avalokitesvara in India. Here she is seated in meditation on the island of Potalaka, off the south coast of India.

Joganden no tsuki

Joganden moon The princely courtier Minamoto no Tsunemoto (894-961 AD) was known for his poetry, but was also a skilled archer. One night in 932 near Joganden, a building in the Kyoto palace garden, he supposedly shot a demonic deer that was about to attack the Emperor. He also played an important part in suppressing…

Shizugatake no tsuki

Shizu Peak moon Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) was extremely ambitious. Perhaps he sought compensation for being born in a peasant family. He entered the service of Oda Nobunaga at the age of 21. Rapidly rising, he soon became his army chief. After Nobunaga’s death in 1582, he took part in the succession wars, not least because…

Katadaura no tsuki

Katada Bay moon In a scene from the Kabuki play Katada ochi (Escaping to Katada), Saito Kuranosuke leads his horse along the shores of Lake Biwa. He looks back as if to make sure that they are not being followed. The straw sandals worn by the horse also indicate that this is a journey into secrecy….

Nakamaro views the moon in China

Abe no Nakamaro (701-770) was the son of a high court official, who at the age of 16 was sent to China to study timekeeping and the Chinese calendar. By the whim of fate he remained there until he died. The poem is thought to express his homesickness for Japan: “Now I lift my gaze…

Harano no tsuki

The moon of the moor The Heian governor and musician Fujiwara no Yasumasa (958-1036) charms his outlaw brother Hakamadare Yasusake by playing the flute. The bandit had planned to rob him, but the music was so beautiful he could not draw his sword. In this design, the perspective from behind Yasumasa’s back, rather than looking…