Higashiyama Gomotsu and its significance

Since we here in Austria are currently forced to stay at home due to the coronavirus crisis, our tea club (Urasenke Tankokai Austria) is meeting via Skype every Saturday morning for a lecture of our teacher’s wife who is a specialist on Japanese culture, especially on tea.

In the past view weeks, we have been hearing about Higashiyama Gomotsu (or gyomotsu, 東山御物), which in English is called the “Higashiyama treasure”. Today, I want to sum up what we have learned about this treasure and its significance for Japanese tea culture.

Have you ever visited Jishō-ji (慈照寺), better known under the name Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺) or Silver Pavilion? It is located at Higashiyama, the eastern mountain in Kyōto. Since the Silver Pavilion and Higashiyama Gomotsu represent the essence of culture and arts of their era, it was also called “Higashiyama culture”. The treasure consisted of one collection of cultural objects compiled under the eight Ashikaga Shōgun, Yoshimasa (足利義政, 1436-1490), who wished to spend his retirement at his villa enjoying cultural activities such as tea ceremony. After his death in 1490, the villa became a temple; this date also marks the end of Higashiyama culture.

The Silver Pavilion represents a clear antithesis to the Golden Pavilion, which was built by the third Ashikaga Shōgun, Yoshimitsu (足利 義満, 1358-1408). It represents warrior-class as well as Chinese-influenced culture, and therefore very pompous and ornate. By contrast, Jishō-ji’s simple and calm design shows us the beginning of a path that Japanese tea soon embarks on and that will ultimately lead to the idea of wabi (侘) or also known as wabi-sabi (侘寂) aesthetics. Wabi stands for imperfection and simplicity and it is strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism.

In his villa, Yoshimasa had a tea room installed which was called dōjinsai (同仁斎) which is the oldest existing example of the shoin-zukuri (書院造り, “reading room”) tea room and the oldest tea room which is only four and a half tatami big (四畳半茶室). Shoin-zukuri rooms which typically have an alcove and tatami floor are the architectural style that can be seen in Japanese palaces (You can read more about shoin-zukuri here).

Jishō-ji (photo taken by the author)

Yoshimasas art evaluators

In his villa, arts soon flourished and Yoshimasa began to categorize his collection of art objects. The collection consists of karamono (唐物), Chinese objects such as paintings, ceramics, lacquerware, etc. that had been collected over the years by the Ashikaga shōguns.

Yoshimasa had cultural advisors, called dōbōshū (同朋衆) who assisted him in selecting, displaying, maintaining, and rating items for his collection. One central figure was Nōami (能阿弥, 1397–1471). Nōami derived from a warrior family but had chosen to be an artist, staying in the service of Ashikaga Yoshinori and later Yoshimasa. He was a talented renga poet (連歌, collaborative poetry) and painter and he had an eye for art, which made him the shōgun’s most talented art evaluator. He was also famous for his curation on the Higashiyama Gomotsu and writing the Kundaikan so-u chō-ki (kun stands for the feudal lord, daikan for his residence, chōki means record and it is assumed that so-u, meaning “left and right”, indicates that two parts of the book originally existed, on the left and right side of a notebook) in cooperation with other dōbōshū. In this book, the dōbōshū wrote down their evaluations of each item in a ranking system and established guidelines on how to decorate a room with these objects. They also made a note of the financial value of the items so they could be sold if Yoshimasa should one day experience financial difficulties.

According to the Yamanoue Sōji-ki (the records of Yamanoue Sōji, a book on tea written by a disciple of Sen no Rikyū), Nōami introduced Yoshimasa to a Buddhist priest and tea master called Murata Jukō (Or Shukō, 村田珠光, 1423–1502). However, it is disputed among researchers whether Yoshimasa and Jukō have actually really met. Jukō is known for his idea that tea should be in accordance with Zen and therefore was the first tea master to start the path of wabi-cha (侘茶) and chanoyu (tea ceremony). Having tea in accordance with Zen means that the method of preparing tea became simpler, and this was also the first step away from the Chinese and towards a new “Japanese” way of preparing tea (I will cover Jukōs tea in another blog entry soon). However, Yoshimasa enjoyed the art of tea, and the utensils back were still mostly from China which was highly admired for its arts – and of course, the utensils Yoshimasa was using were part of the Higashiyama Gomotsu.

Contents of the art collection

Scrolls with ink paintings, brought to Japan from China and showing landscapes, natural themes like plants, birds, fruits or sweets, made up a major part of the Higashiyama Gomotsu. One example that can be viewed on the internet is this scroll with plum trees and a bird ( 梅花小禽図). It is now a cultural heritage and belongs to the Gotoh Museum (五島美術館) in Tōkyō. More paintings with landscapes in different seasons from the collection can be viewed on Wikipedia as well.

One highly famous tea utensil is a chaire (茶入れ), a tea caddy for thick matcha called koicha (濃茶), which bears the name hatsuhana-katatsuki (初花肩衝) or in short hatsuhana, which means “first flower/blossom”. Katatsuki stands for a type of tea caddy whose upper part looks like a shoulder (kata). It is said that hatsuhana received its name because its elegance reminded Yoshimasa of flowers (or blossoms) in spring. Jukō evaluated it as dai-meibutsu (大名物, “very famous item”) and today it is regarded as cultural heritage. A photo of hatsuhanacan be seen on this page.

As for chawan (tea cups), Yōhen tenmoku chawan is another example for a dai-meibutsu of the collection which I already covered in a blog entry last year.

Unfortunately, the treasure itself scattered to various parts of the country and today the individual items are stored in museums and collections all over Japan. The last big exhibition on Higashiyama Gomotsu took place in 2014 at the Mitsui Memorial Museum in Tōkyō; you can get a glimpse of the exhibition here.

Unfortunately, I missed out on my chance to visit the exhibition last time – let’s hope, that there will be another opportunity to see the Higashiyama Gomotsu in the near future!




Internet Museum Office「特別展 東山御物の美━足利将軍家の至宝━」(『Internet Museum』)https://www.museum.or.jp/modules/topics/?action=view&id=540 (2020年04月15日確認)。

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