Masuda City Tourist Information Center


〒698-0024 17-2 Ekimae-cho Masuda-shi Shimane Japan

雪舟sesshu toyo

Sesshu and his visit to the Ming Dynasty of China

Kiyoshi Miyamoto
(The Former Curator of Sesshu Memorial Museum)    

Sesshu Memorial Museum

Sesshu Toyo(1420-1506) is the great priest painter of Japan, active during the second half of the 15th century.In 1467 Sesshu traveled to Ming China on a trade mission sent by the OUCHI FAMILY.  He created his own particular style of painting based on this prior study in China, and was responsible for perfecting the art of Suibokuga in Japan.  Suibokuga is monochrome painting characterized by the use of black ink(sumi)

Sesshu is the world’s greatest ink painter. In 1956, the World Peace Council held in Vienna, Austria, nominated ten people(1) who had made great contributions to world culture and commemorated them. Sesshu was selected as one of them along with Leonardo da Vinci of Italy.

He came to our town twice during his life-time and his life came to an end at the Tokoji temple in 1506 at the age of eighty-seven.While staying in Masuda, he created spiritual gardens called Sesshu-teien at two temples, which are now designated as places of historical and scenic interest by the government.Furthermore, he painted his masterpieces such as ‘Portrait of Masuda Kanetaka’ and ‘Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons’ in Masuda.In 1989, Masuda City built Sesshu Memorial Museum to commemorate Sesshu’s deep relationship with the town. The museum was opened to the ublic on October 6,1990.

Inside the museum, you can enjoy his works.  Around the building, there are relics symbolic of sesshu’s life such as a Taikian cottage built upon the old foundations of the temple Tokoji-Sesshu’s place of death.

The Home Town Revival Project
Former Japanese Prime Minister, Noboru Takeshita, was one of the founders of the ‘Hometown revival project.The following extract is taken from his congratulatory speech at the opening ceremony of the Nima Sand Museum.

“It is a great honor for me to be introduced as one of the proposers of the hometown revival project on this occasion of the opening ceremony for the magnificent Nima Sand Museum.When I consider how this country has developed, from the postwar period of reconstruction through the rapid-growth period, and how now in 1991 we stand second in the world in terms of GNP, I sincerely believe that this has been the result of the great drive and determination of the Japanese people.I am, however, unfortunately forced to admit that as a people we have yet to attain the rich spiritual feeling we might expect to be attached to the position of being the world’s second most dynamic economy. This is, I believe, because Japan has just come to the end of an era in which we concentrated only on the importance of material goods.

Now that we have again turned our attention to our spiritual lives, I am convinced one of our main interests should )be the revival projects that encourage us to feel the importance of the community, and in particular how rich an experience it was for all of us to have been born and raised in a hometown somewhere.I have been delighted by the reports received from people throughout the country that thanks to the one hundred million yen projects, ‘We have starved to rethink our lives’”
(Taken from the guide book of the Nima Sand Museum)

In 1989, the Takeshita Government began the ‘One hundred million yen project’ to promote the idea of the revival of the hometown. Cities, towns, and villages throughout the country adopted the project.Masuda City acquired one hundred million yen from this hometown revival project to buy a hanging scroll with a picture of ‘The Portrait of Masuda Kanetaka’(government authorized important property).

Portrait of Masuda Kanetaka
This picture was painted in the traditional Japanese-style dating back to the Heian Period(794-1185), at which time Sesshu is believed to have produced his greatest work.The picture is an accurate representation of the graceful figure of Masuda Kanetaka-the 15th Feudal Lord of the Masuda Family who controlled this province from the 12th to the 16th century. 

His combination of elegance with simplicity shows the Lord’s high natural virtue which stirs the viewer’s emotions.  A sense of warmth and beauty transcends through his work.Sesshu’s observance and continuance of traditional Japanese style painting is especially touching to us. When he came to Masuda for the first time, he was sixty years old.  It is believed that he painted the portrait of the lord at that time

Portrait of Masuda Kanetaka

By Sesshu Toyo (Dated 1479, age 60)
Painted in pigment on paper
82.7cm long and 40.9cm wide
The National Important Cultural Property
The model is the 15th Lord of the Masuda family, whose name is Masuda Kanetaka.

In 1989 Masuda City purchased the picture from a descendant of the 15th Lord of Masuda for the price of one hundred million yen($1 million)
The former owner is descended from the 15th Lord of Masuda.

Sesshu’s visit to the Ming Dynasty of China
In 1467, Sesshu traveled to China with a trade mission dispatched by the Ouchi family-semiautonomous lord family who ruled over the western part of the Chugoku region from the 14th to the 16th century.  The Ouchi Family amassed their wealth through trade with China and Korea. 

Born in Bicchu Province (now part of Soja City in Okayama Prefecture), Sesshu went to Kyoto in his early years, becoming a monk at Shokokuji Temple.There he acted as attendant to the head priest Shunrin Shuto(1430-1465) and studied painting with the monk-painter Tensho Shubun, who was at that time recognized as a famous painter and highly appreciated teacher by his contemporaries.Sesshu’s life is a mystery from his teenage years until the age of forty and nothing is known of his works before he left for China.It would appear that he gave his whole mind to that study of Zen and was absorbed in his painting of water-ink pictures.Having being brought over from China in the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), ink painting was at the height of its popularity in Sesshu’s time.

While studying at the temple SHOKOKUJI, for many years he had the desire to see masters at the birthplace of ink painting in China.At that time, the Ouchi Family traded with the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) as stated above.  Sesshu moved to Suo-no- Kuni (in what is now the southern part of Yamaguchi Pref.) with the wish to travel aboard on Ouchi ship.In Yamaguchi, he waited for some time before leaving for China, sojourning at a hermitage called Unkoku-an.One day, the 29th lord, Masahiro Ouchi, visited Sesshu at the Unkoku-an.

Sesshu: For what reason or another, you have come here to see me?

Lord: Well, I’ll soon send a mission to the Ming dynasty according to my father’s will.

Sesshu: To China!

Lord: Yes. Father wanted you to go to China. Could you join us on one of the missions?

Sesshu: Thank you very much, my lord. Please let me go on board your ship.  It has long been my dream to personally study traditional paintings of Chinese masters at their birthplace.

Such being the case, Sesshu went to China in 1467, when he was forty-eight years old.  The party landed at the port of Ningbo three weeks after leaving Hakata, Kyushu.Landing at Ningbo, Sesshu entered Tiantong Temple at the foot of Taibai Mount.  He gained experience and devoted himself to painting.  He was soon appointed the top position among the Zen monks of the temple.

Zen or Zenshu is the name of one of the denomations of Buddhism reached our country in 538 via China and Korea.Currently the number of Buddhist sects in Japan is 13 including 3 Zen sects.  The purpose of the Zen sect is to meditate in order to eliminate all delusion and awaken to the truth.  One of the practices used to acquire serenity of the mind is ‘zazen’, which means to sit in silent meditation.Zen existed in India before the year A.D.. and it was later spread by priests including Bodhidarma, who is believed to have continued meditating in a sitting posture for 9 years.In the first half of the 6th century, Indian Bodhidharma introduced Zen to China, and after studying in China, Japanese priests like Eisai and Dogen Brought the Zen Buddhism to Japan in 12th and 13th centuries. The existing Zen sects in Japan are the Soto sect, the Rinzai sect, and Obaku sect.Eisai(1141-1215) introduced the Rinzai Buddhism from China.  He became the founder of the Rinzai sect in Japan.Dogen(1200-1253) introduced the teachings of the Soto sect of Zen  Buddhism from China and become the founder of the Soto sect in Japan.These two priests had a teacher – student relationship.  Both of them practiced at Tiantong Temple in Ningbo, China.

The Shokokuji Temple where Sesshu practiced in his youth is the head temple of the Rinzai sect and is number two of the five great Zen temples of Kyoto. Sesshu was a monk of the Rinzai sect which was brought to Japan by Eisai.Zen originated in China.  But its growth occurred in Japan, it was Japanese priests who turned Zen into a systematic training of the mind to reveal the mysteries of life.

After his sojourn in Ninbo, Sesshu started Zen practice at Tiantong Temple.  The temple is one of the five great temples of Zen Buddhism in China, whose orgin traces to A.D. 300.Tiantong Zen Temple bestowed upon Sesshu the title of ‘First Meditation monk of Siming Tiantong Temple.’  This is the top seat among all the monks.Many monks from Japan came up to Tiantong Temple to receive training.  Among these people were Dogen and Eisai.  But it was only Sesshu that was given the title of the top position.Judging from the farewell poetry which Chunchou, the high priest of the Daxinglong Temple in Beijing, presented to Sesshu, we can understand that the title was given to Sesshu as a man of profound scholarship.  Sesshu devoted himself solely to gaining experience as a zen monk and composing insightful poems.

It is reported that Sesshu depicted scenery of China and took the pictures to Japan.  These pictures are called ‘Scenic views in China’.They are:--

People from several areas, Scenic Places in China, Landscape of the four seasons, Yu-wang-shan-ssu; Chin-shan-ssu Temple

I am sure that Sesshu painted many pictures wherever he went.  But the only pictures we can see now are those painted in the regions of Huazhong and Huanon.Observing these paintings, we can understand that Sesshu sketched with spectacular vision deeply impressed with the vastness of the Chinese Nature.The picture-‘Seonic Places in China’ is a scroll 735.7 cm long(24.5 feet).  Sesshu depicted the vast sight between Ningbo and Zhenjiang along the shore of the Yangzhe River.  He used the same route on his way to and from Ningbo in China. His painting reveals that his return course from Beijing followed the route of Yangzhou, Xhenjigang, Suzhou, Toihu Lake, Hangzhou, Shaoxing and Ningbo. At the end of the scroll, we can see a detailed depiction of the streets of Ningbo,- town walls surrounding the town, outer waterways and ships floating on them.Sesshu started to practice and study painting in China in the town of Nimgbo.  His visit to Ming was of the greatest importance to his future as a painter.Prof. S. Hasumi wrote in his book, “Sesshu’s long travels from Ninhgbo to Beijing made him feel the vastness of the Chinese Nature and gave him a first –hand knowledge of the country and its people.  Also he had plenty of opportunities to study the paintings of Chinese traditional masters and he became aware of the powerful and realistic style of the classic Chinese paintings.”

While in China, Sesshu did a wall painting in the building of the board of Rites in Beijing and made many village and nature sketches. One day, two priests were talking in front of Sesshu’s picture.

“This is a landscape Sesshu painted, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it’s really splendid!”

“This is a landscape of our country, China. I’m afraid that Sesshu will not be able to paint Chinese landscapes after going back to his country, Japan

Hearing this, Sesshu said to them. “Yes, I will.  I paint what I have in my mind.  So I can paint any landscapes anywhere I am.”

Sesshu came to see Xihu Lake in Hangzhou and thought, “How glorious! Seeing this lake has long been my cherished desire.  Temples surrounding the lake look magnificent.  But this is, indeed, a spiritual training place for me.  I’m a monk. My eyes must not be dazzled with the beauty of Xihu Lake.  This is the hallowed ground where human purity and noble spirit assemble.” Xihu Lake, Sesshu was so struck with admiration for is in the town of Hangzhou.  This city is the capital of the Zhejiang Province, which has a history of more than 2,200 years.The town became Hangzhou when an emperor of Sui built a vast a vast canal through Beijing. It was at the height of its prosperity in the 13th century.In those days, an Italian traveler- Marco Polo(1254-1324) admired Hangzhou as the most beautiful and wealthy city in the world. The city, along with Suzhou developed into one of the greatest scenic spots in China. Sesshu must have made sketches of Xihu Lake, but noe of them are left.  Shugetsu, Sesshu’s student, painted ‘Xihu Lake.(official government property)  There are  also many pictures remaining of Xihu Lake painted by artists of the Unkoku school who followed Sesshu’s style.

Sesshu thought :–“It’s three years since I came to China to search for new ink paintings.  I couldn’t meet my teacher but I found many pictures.  Pictures to me represent many aspects of Nature, such as the living figure and scenery.  Painting pictures doesn’t mean only copying from Nature as it is, but entering into the will of Nature.  The fact is really important but the truth of its heart is more important. My heart is set on painting pictures that can tell the truth of Nature to the spectators.  I will start my new life from now”.  In 1469 Sesshu left China for Japan.

Prof. Hasumi said, “He created a Japanese style of ink painting the influence of which can still be felt in contemporary Japanese art.  He stands out as monumental figure not merely in his capacity as representative of the Muromachi period but also as founder of modern Japanese painting in its early stage.”

  March 30, 1997                    


Ten people commemorated by the World Peace Council in Vienna, 1856
Kalidasa: The late 300s-the early 400s the treat poet of India perfected Sunskrit literature.
Sesshu Toyo: 1420-1506, the Zen priest painter of Japan. Perfected ink painting.
Leonardo da Vinci: 1452-1519, the supreme painter of the Renaissance Period in ItalyBenjamin Franklin: 1706-1790, the great scientist of America
Wolfgang A.Mozart: 1756-1791, the great composer of Austria
Heinrich Heine: 1797-1856, the famous poet
Fedor Mikhailovich Dostoevskii: 0821-1881, The universal eminent writer of Russia

Henrik Ibsen: 1828-1906, The great playwright of Norway(founder of the modern play)
George Bernard Shaw: the Great playwrite of England Nobel laureate in 1925.Pierre Curie; 1859-1906 The physicist of France , Nobel laureate among with Mrs.Curie.