Masuda City Tourist Information Center


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

雪舟sesshu toyo

A guide to the museum for foreign visitors

Kiyoshi Miyamoto
(The Former Curator of Sesshu Memorial Museum)   


(1)Sesshu's Biographical Schetch
(2)Catalogue of important works attributed to Sesshu
(3)Sesshu and The Sesshu Memorial Museum
Relative words list

The other day, a youth from America came to our museum and asked me, “Can I see the picture Sesshu painted with his tears?” After a moment’s thought I said: “Sesshu drew a picture on the floor boards with his own tears as you know, but the picture disappeared into the air when the tears dried up.”
Then he smiled and said goodbye with an air of satisfaction.

How did you hear of Sesshu Toyo? Sesshu is considered to be the greatest priest painter of Japan, active during the second half of the fifteenth century.  He was responsible for perfecting the Art of Indian ink drawings in Japan. The tale the American had heard is a famous legend from Sesshu’s boyhood in Hofukuji temple in Iyama.  It is told like this:

Sesshu liked painting from an early age, but not religious studies.  One morning an abbot became so angry that he bound Sesshu with rope to a column in the main hall of the temple, but as the day advanced, and dusk approached the abbot took pity on him.When he reached the room and was to about to cut the ropes, he was surprised at rats under sesshu’s feet about to bite him. He tried to drive them away until he realized that they were just drawings done by Sesshu using his toe and his tear.  Yet the abbot had seen rats running over the temple floor.  After this the abbot acknowledged Sesshu’s skill and did not admonish him for his painting.  He permitted him to draw in his free time.

This tale, so well known among the Japanese, celebrates Sesshu’s great gift as a painter.

Sesshu was born in Bitchu Province (now part of Okayama Prefecture) in 1420 (The Muromachi period).  At an early age his father sent him to the Hojukuji temple near their home, to train as a monk, the cultural centers of Japan were Zen Buddhist monasteries.  It is said that, instead of practicing the sutra chants, he spent almost all of his time drawing. His boyhood legends suggest that he already evinced a precocious artistic bent.

At the age of 12 or 13 his training continued at Shokoku temple in Kyoto, the art center of Japan, where he was formally taught the art of Indian ink drawing by Shubun and other masters. The monk painter Shubun was the most influential artist of his time.  Many famous fifteenth century painters including Noami, Geiami, Soami, Sotan and Jasoku are considered to have been is pupils.

Sesshu visited China and also won fame in there as a painter.  He continued to achieve high standards in ink painting until he died in his 80’s.This great priest painter came to our town twice in his life, and ended his life in Masuda.  His grave stands close to the Sesshu Memorial Museum.

(1)Sesshu's Biographical Schetch

Ashikaga(Muromachi) Period, which was the golden age of arts and letters, and greatly influenced the Japanese culture of later days.  In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang founds the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) in China.  Trade initiated with Ming Dynasty China in 1404 (continued until 1547).

Ashikaga(Muromachi) Period, which was the golden age of arts and letters, and greatly influenced the Japanese culture of later days.  In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang founds the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) in China.  Trade initiated with Ming Dynasty China in 1404 (continued until 1547).

Sesshu born near Soja City in Okayama Pref., The only known facts about him are that the artist’s family name was Oda, and that he was enrolled at about the age of ten at Hofuku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple in his hometown.

1431 (age 12)
Enters Shokoku temple in Kyoto as an alter boy under the head priest: Shunrin Shuto.
After the fashion of the Sung Court in China the ‘Ashikaga Shogun’, (the military leader of Japan from the 14th century,) listed the ranking of the Five Monasteries (Gozan).  Since 1401, Shokoku Temple had stood at the head of the Gozan list for Kyoto.

1451( age 32)
Became a pupil of the famous painter Tensho Shubun, at the Shokoku temple.

1462 (age 43)
It was a popular custom among Zen priests to have pseudonyms unconnected with their family name.  So he adopts the pseudonym ‘Sesshu’ because of his admiration of the calligraphy of the noted Ch’u-shih.  This Chinese Zen calligrapher of the early Ming Dynasty was also famous for his poetry and classical scholarship.  His name contains two characters: ‘Snow’ and ‘Boat’; read ‘Setsu’ and ‘Shu’ in Japanese. Ryuko, a commentator of the era, made the following interpretation of the chosen name ‘Snow-boat’, presented to us by Covell, 1941: ‘Snow covers the whole world. It is crystal pure, within and without, and, like the moon, without a speck of dust.  If one observes a boat, it goes southward, northward, eastward, westward-floating in the water.  Always moving, it never stops; only if tied to a pole is it quiet.  If one compares the human mind with these two, snow of undefined purity symbolizes the spiritual substance of truth.  A boat, which is constantly moving but can also be quiet, represents the ebb and flow of the mind.  If you can only master these principles (spiritual truth and mental activity) in your heart, afterwards you will express them with your brush.  Then your work will become greater and greater.  In future days all men will discuss your works and will say, that they are not merely, painted things but spiritual creations….’
The painter came to use the pseudonym Sesshu exclusively because he liked Ryuko’s explanation so much.

1464(age 45)
Stays temporally at Unkoku-an in Kumotani (now part of Yamaguchi Prefecture).  Sesshu builds a studio called Unkoku-an.
1467(age 48)
Onin War(1467-77) breaks out in Kyoto.  Both the Imperial Palace and Shokoku temple were burned within twenty-four hours, along with many masterpieces of art.  Sesshu leaves his studio Unkoku-an for China.
Landing at Ningpo, he entered Tiantong temple to master the art of painting. Ningpo must have been an impressive and welcome sight to Sesshu.  He gained experience and devoted himself to painting. In accordance with the established custom of Zen temples, all priests were seated in the Meditation Hall in order of rank; and at Tiantong, Sesshu was accorded the ‘First Seat’ which was next to the Abbot.  Many monks from Japan came to Tiantong Temple to receive discipline even in his time.  Among these people were Dogen, who became the founder of Soto sect in Japan, and Eisai who became the founder of the Rinzai sect.But it was only Sesshu who given a title among temple’s elite monks.  This distinction pleased Sesshu for an his return he prefaced his signature on a number of paintings with ‘Occupant of the First Seat at T’ien-t’ung.’ After a year, Sesshu and his party went north to Beijing taking several months to travel up the Beijing-Hangchou Canal.

1468(Age 49)
Spends the New Year in Beijing.
Does a wall painting in the building of the Board of Rites in Beijing.  According to Ryoshin’s report;  “The Minister Yo(yao K’uei) ordered the venerable Sesshu to paint on the central room of the Ministry of Rites, Peking. (This room was also known as the Spring Wind Ceremonial Hall, the productiveness of education being reminiscent of spring winds.)  He said, ‘Nowadays, although tribute comes to China from about thirty distant barbarian countries which use strange languages.  I have seen no paintings like Sesshu’s.  Furthermore, as this place is a headquarter directing the examinations, there are no notable men in China who will not come to this hall.  And when they do, they will call the candidates together and will point to the wall and say, “This is the excellent painting of the honorable Japanese priest, Yo Sesshu.”  Even outside barbarians possess such rare skill.  In order to reach this level, why do not you study more diligently at your task?  He was thus praised in great China…..”
This Chinese building destroyed long ago.

1469(age 50)
He returns from China to Japan and he settles down nea r Beppu in Oita Prefecture, Kyushu.  A poem composed by Lu-an Syun Cho states that Sesshu was a devout Zenist.  Covell translates its preface as follows:

Japanese Sesshu Toyo was a born artist.  When he wished to paint the figures of Buddhas , Lohans, and Bodhisattvas, he takes up his brush and they exist, vivid and true to life.  Absolutely without desire for selfish profit, he is impartially accommodating to all who seek him so that people think very well of him, when he previously visited Shu Ming(district), he attained the First Seat at T’ien-t’ung-shal. Here in the capital ahevisited my small rooms. I am well acquainted with his purpose, soI present him with thi poem as a trifle evidence admiration of his deed.

1471(age 52)
Paints ‘Landscape after the manner of Chinese Hsia Kuei’.
Sesshu, at fifty, desired quiet and leisure to immortalize with brush and ink the memories of his trip.  But his exact movements during the next five or six years are obscure.  He probably spent some time around Beppu in Kyushu.

1472(age 53)
Two years after his return from China Sesshu paints ‘Yu-wang-shan-ssu; Chin-shan-ssuTemple'.

1476(age 57)
Paints ‘View of China Waterfall.He built his own studio by Hokai temples in Beppu in Oita, Kyushu.  Sesshu called his new dwelling the “Heaven-Created Painting Pavilion’.  The Onin War in Kyoto came to the end in 1477, after eleven years.

1478 (age 59)
Sesshu crossed back to Yamaguchi and visited Iwami Province (now part of Masuda).  He made two spiritual gardens at two temples in the town and they are designated as places of historical and scenic interest by the government.  At this time, Europe was experiencing a transition from Byzantine to Renaissance Art before entering the Baroque Period.

1479(age 60)
Paints the ‘Portrait of Masuda Kanetakaa' Government authorized important property.
Masuda Kanetaka, Sesshu’s patron, is the 15th feudal lord of the Masuda Family from Iwami Province.  Sesshu left his residential Unkoku-an in Yamaguchi late in his life with a longing for Masuda because of his respect for the feudal lord Kanetaka and peace through his religious belief of the Zen se

1483(age 64)
Paints the ‘Birds and Flowers of the Flour Seasons’. (Important Natural Cultural Property)  Tradition asserts that the screens were painted in 1483 on the succession of Munekane Masuda to the Masuda inheritance.  Until 1923 they were in the possession of the Masuda family, as a present to the feudal lord, because Iwami Province is the place where Sesshu spent his last years.

1486(age 67)
Paints his masterpiece ‘The Larger Scroll of Landscapes of the Four Seasons’. Registered as a ‘National Treasure’.  The scroll illustrates sceneries in the changing seasons of the year interwoven with versed aspects of the lives of noble and plebeian people.

1495(age 76)
Produces ‘Haboku sansuizu’ (splashed-ink landscape), his most known work and gives it to his pupil, Soen.

1496(age 77)
Paints ‘Priest Hui-k’o Cutting Off His Arm’.

1501(age 82)
Paints ‘View of Ama-no-Hashidate’. (National Treasure, Call. Kyoto National Museum.)

1506(age 87)
Dies at Toko temple in Masuda.
The Sesshu Memorial Museum stands by his grave. The museum features the old form of Japanese ink painting through to Sesshu’s for perfection of the Art in Japan.  He created his own particular style of painting based on his study in China.  We are very proud of Sesshu who created a Japanese style of ink painting which can still be felt in contemporary Japanese art
Sesshu is, we believe, the world’s supreme ink painter.

(2)Catalogue of important works attributed to Sesshu

National Treasures:
National Museum(Tokyo)

Autumn and Winter Landscapes

Two scrolls,  Seal-mark “Toyo”, Ink on paper, 46.3 × 29.3cm

Landscape Known as 'Habokuk Sansui'
Splashed ink painting   Seal-mark “Sesshu”Hanging scroll,
Ink on paper,                149.0 × 33.0cm
Inscription by the artist including statement ‘By Sesshu in 1495 at seventy-six’

The HofuMori Hokokai (Yamaguchi)
Handscroll of Landscape of Four Seasons
Handscroll, Seal-mark  ‘Toyo’ ,  Ink on paper (with slight colouring40.0 × 1807.5cm
Inscription by the artist including statement “Sesshu Toyo, 1486”

Kyoto National Museum (Kyoto)
View of Ama no Hashidate
Hanging scroll,   No signature; no seal, Ink and slight color on paper, 
× 178.2cm

Important Cultural Properties:
Sesshu Memorial Museum (Masuda, shimane)
The Portrrait of Masuda-Kanetaka
Hanging scroll,  Seal-mark “Sesshu”, Painted in 7 colors on paper.
Dated 1479, age 60, 82.8 × 40.9cm
inscription by Chikushin Shutei dated November 15,1497
The mode, Masuda Kanetaka , is the 15th Lord of Masuda Family, who is Sesshu’s patron.  This picture follows a purely Japanese method of painting (the Yamatoe style) in color, brush work, posture and costume.In 1989 we purchased this picture from a descendant of the Masuda family for the price of \100,000,000($1 million).

Agency for Cultural Affairs (Tokyo)    
Birds and Flowers of the four seasons
(Link to emuseum.jp)

A pair of sex-fold screens,No signature,Painted in colors on paper
181.6 × 375.2cm         
Sesshu painted the pictures in celebration of the 17th Feudal Lord Munekane’s succession to the house of the Masuda Family.Until 1923 they were in the possession of the Masuda family.  Lords of Iwami Province where Sesshu spent his last years.

Tokyo National Museum (Tokyo) 
Landscape of the Four Seasons
Four scrollsSignature “Toyo”, Japanese Zen Priest”Painted in ink with slight coloring on silk
149.3 × 75.7cm,   (In Beijing, age49)
Yamaguchi Prefectural Museum of Art (Yamaguchi) 
 Landscape, after the manner of Kou Genkei
Hanging scroll painted in ink with sight coloring on paper    23.6 × 554.5cm

‘Driving an Ox’, after the manner of Li T’ang
Two scrolls,  Signature “Sesshu”   Painted in ink with slight coloring on paper    33.5 × 31.4cm

Herdsmen and Water Buffaloes, after the manner of Li T’ang
Two scrolls,  Signature “Sesshu”   Painted in ink with slight coloring on paper        31.5 × 33.5cm

National Museum
Landscape of Four Seasons
Hanging scroll, Seal-mark “Sesshu”Painted in ink on paper      21.5
× 1151.5cm

Huang Ch’’u-p’ing and his sheep,
after the manner of Liang K’ai
Scroll,  Signature “Sesshu"   Painted in ink on paper       21.5 × 1151.5cm

Bridgestone Museum of Art (Tokyo)
Landscape of Four Seasons
Four scrolls        Painted in ink with slight coloring on silk             70.6 × 44.0cm

Kosetsu Art Museum   (Kobe Hyogo)
Seal mark “Toyo”Scroll      Signature “Sesshu”     Painted in ink on paper  88.5
× 36.9cm

Okayama Prefectural Museum of Art (Okayama)
Landscape, after the manner of Yu-chien
Scroll    Signature “Sesshu” Painted in ink on paper    30.0 × 30.6cm
Yu-chien-a painter in the Southern Song D era.

Private Collection
Landscape, after the manner of Hsia Kuei
Two scrolls       Signature “Sesshu”Painted in ink with slight cloring on paper30.2 × 30.7cm

Sainen temple (Aichi Prefecture)
Priest Eka(Hui-k’o)  Cutting off His Arm
Hanging scroll     Seal-mark “Sesshu”      Painted in ink with slight coloring on paper199.9 × 113.6cm

Private Collection
Bishamonten (Vaisravana, Buddhist guardian god)
Hanging scroll     Signature “Painted by Sesshu”      Seal-mark “Toyo”
Painted in ink on paper          113.6 × 38.9cm

Other famous paintings
Tokyo National Museum  (Tokyo)
Signature “Painted by Sesshu
 Hanging scroll  followed by seal-mark style signature
Painted in ink on paper90.9 × 40.5cm

Maeda Ikutokukai Foundation (Tokyo)
Flower-and –birds   
Signature “Painted by Sesshu at the age of 71”Pair of six-fold screens 
Seal-mark “Sesshu”In colors on paper158.2 × 355.0cm

(3)Sesshu and the Sesshu Memorial Museum
Sesshu came to our town, Masuda, only twice in his life and ended his life at Toko temple here. But as it was burnt down in 1580, any records and ancestral tablets were totally destroyed by fire. He left Unkoku-an in Yamaguchi because of the noble spirit of the feudal lord Kanetaka Masuda. While here, he created two spiritual gardens and painted his masterpieces ‘Portrait of Masuda Kanetaka’ and ‘Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons’- a pair of six-fold screens.

In 1690, 184 years after Sesshu died, a priest called Taiki Shosshuku set up Taiki-an cottage as Sesshu’s mausoleum.  The grave of Sesshu still stands between Taiki-an and our Sesshu Memorial Museum on a hillock.

In 1920, the conservation society for the place of Sesshu’s death was organized with local people and famous modern artists.

The Sesshu Memorial Museum was established in 1990 to commemorate Sesshu’s deep relationship with the town of Masuda. The museum features the old form of Japanese ink painting called sumieor suiboku-ga , which is a monochrome picture painted in Indian ink.Inside the museum, you can enjoy his works.  Around the building, there are relics symbolic of Sesshu’s life such as Taiki-an  cottage built upon the vestiges of Toko Temple, Sesshu’s place of death, and the spring from which Sesshu drew water for painting and making tea.  The statue of Sesshu the Zen priest stands among these landmarks.

  -Graphic descriptions by foreign visitors-

(A traveler from France)
“ I enjoyed visiting Sesshu Memorial Hall and particularly appreciated Sesshu’s landscapes which are known well all over the world. Some priests in France have tried to describe nature through their works but they never reached such an artistic level.  I hope Sesshu’s works will be more and more known in the future and contribute to international culture and peace. 

 (A teacher from the USA)
“Sesshu’s art wonderfully represents the beauty of Japan.  The simplicity in his works expresses many aspects of the landscape. Sesshu’s art seems almost effortless.  The flow of his brush is very soothing.The environment of the museum is also very calm and relaxing.Thank you for the wonderful hospitality.  I will remember my visit here for a long time.”

(An assistant English teacher from England)
“To be honest, I had never heard of the name Sesshu Toyo until I visited some friends in this Masuda.  While we were at their house, we heard the very interesting tale of Sesshu and the mouse.  As a result, we all came to visit this memorial hall.When you enter the building there is a very tranquil, peaceful atmosphere that perhaps enhances Sesshu’s art, and adds a very special ‘Zen’ spirit.  The overall effect was very refreshing.  My only disappointment was that the picture of the mouse was not on exhibition!”

(An American professor at a Women’s College)
“My first impression of Sesshu’s work-even without knowing his history- was that it is very Zen.  The simplicity of his use of line and color to depict nature is wonderful. This museum, and especially the garden, is a good place for contemplation.  I thoroughly enjoyed looking at his works.”

(A landscape gardener from Germay)
“For me as landscape gardener, Sesshu is very interesting.  European Art is full of color, but Sesshu mostly used just ink.  And with a few strokes he can move the heart more than most European pictures. He must have had a close relationship to nature.  You can also see it in his garden.  I love the dry Japanese gardens that do not use water and express landscapes only with rocks and the sand. “

In conclusion Covell writes;
・・・・it has long been believed that Sesshu journeyed to Iwami Province (now Masuda area) over which the Masuda family ruled, and stayed first at Ikoji temple designing a garden there, and then at Taiki-an(Tokoji temple).  Sesshu’s choice of this hermitage as his last home is explained by a passage from Taiki-an ki:
“After returning from China, the Zen teacher Sesshu saw this region and said,  ‘It is like Shosho(Hsiao and Hsiang Rivers ) and Dotei(Lake Tung-t’ing).’  Finally he stayed herre until his death.  Thus it is known throughout the world for its beautiful scenery, and poets and painters visit here and are always composing poems・・・・.”

English Revisor
Kathryn Davies: Assistant English Teacher            Masuda Senior High School

Relative words list

Suibokuga are pictures paited in Indian ink.After being brought over from China in the Kamakura Period(1185-1333) by Zen monks, ink painting was at the height of its popularity in the Muromachi period.  The shading of the ink color expresses depth and variety; and the subjects are frequently human figures, animals, landscapes, plants and trees.
Suiboku-ga in Japan came to perfection with the painter priest Sesshu.  After learning the art of ink painting at its source in China, he created his own particular style of painting.

Muromachi Period(1333-1568)
A period of cultural achievement and social disorder, lasting from 1333, when forces led by Ashikaga Takauji destroyed the Kamakura Shogunate, until 1568, when Oda Nobunaga captured the capital of Kyoto.Named for the district of Kyoto in which the Shogun residence was situated, it is also commonly known as the Ashikaga period after the family that held the position of shogun from 1338 to 1573.    Zen Buddhism developed rapidly under the patronage of the Ashikaga Shogunate.  The Gozan network of the Rinzai sect covered Japan and gave training in meditation and the arts to the sons of provincial warriors, Chinese priests such as Issan Ichinei introduced to Japan not only Zen practices and Buddhist texts but also Neo-Confucian political thought and Chinese poetry and painting.Chinese ink-painting was carried outside Zen cloisters by Sesshu.

Sesshu’s residence in Yamaguchi. His temple studio, Unkoku-an, whichi still stands in Yamaguchi is a building erected by a later admirer of Sesshu who collected all the old timbers and other remains possible from the original Unkoku-ji.  The existing Unkoku-an was rebuilt in1881.  The building is situated a mile outside the city of Yamaguchi.

Zenshu(Zen sect)
Zenshu is one sect of Buddhism. In the first half of the sixth century, Indian Bodhidharma introduced Zen to China and in Kamakura Period(1185-1333)  people like Eisai and Dogen brought it from China to Japan.
Zen has rendered a strong influence on the way of the warrior, as well as the traditional culture like the tea ceremony, and on every aspect of the lives of the Japanese people.
Because of truth, according to the Zen teaching, goes beyond verbal expression, enlightenment can be realized only through sitting in meditation and training in calming the self.
The purpose of the Zen sect is to meditate in order to eliminate hesitation or delusion and awaken to the truth.One of the practices used to acquire serenity of mind is zazen, which means to sit in silent meditation.The existing Zen sects in Japan are the Rinzai sect and Soto sect. 


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