You can also get this entire file as a complete PDF (-under 2Megs)

from me directly as well.




The Tokonoma.

The style, season, species of the Bonsai will determine the scroll and accent that is used.
The major part of the discussion on the 3rd of October will be the relationship between
the components of the Tokonoma setting.

The Tokonoma.

A talk given by Craig Coussins 3rd October 2013 to the Bonsai Association of Belgium 


The Tokonoma: An introduction to the history and use

The display in a Tokonoma-

Although there are often sophisticated guidelines as to how such a display is arranged, the display will normally reflect reflect the changing seasons. 

In the Home:

The guest of a Japanese family normally sits in front of the Tokonoma, so that they he can enjoy the display of “art objects" especially prepared for them. These can include Bonsai, Suiseki, Accents such as ceramic, metal, cloisonné, scroll, painting, ikebana, family relic, sword, or something that will help the viewer to reflect, meditate or simply enjoy.

It is not (always) an opportunity to show off such items but to offer something that is both subtle and pleasant.



If displaying a Bonsai then the scroll should try to reflect something that will harmonise with the tree.

The accent should try to harmonise with both the tree and with the scroll. Neither the scroll nor the accent should be more powerful that the central object whether that be the Bonsai or other object.  This is like a frame to a picture being far louder or more powerful that the painting. This is like the pot of a Bonsai being far more powerful or much ‘brighter, louder or bigger than the Bonsai.


In the last two examples the frame of the picture should blend with the painting and not overpower the image and in the Bonsai, the pot should match the tree perfectly.


And so we look onto the Tokonoma where there is neither a central object nor therefore everything harmonises or where there is a central object and everything else is an accessory that also harmonises with the central object.  We then come to what ‘could’ be termed as the ‘feeling’ of wabi sabi. You look at the display and everything both feels right and looks right. It is, in some ways, pleasing, peaceful, gentle, wonderful, happy, and if possible, as perfect as you are able to make the overall image.


Perfection in Japanese art:

We now reach a point where the idea of perfection is quite difficult to comprehend. It depends on whether you follow Zen principles or design principles. In design you should try to make the object or presentation as perfect as possible. This could be structural or it could be beautiful Form over function or function over form. If you manage to achieve both in design then you have understood the point of the objects design.


I am a designer and although Bonsai and the study of Asian Art has been my passion since 1970, I have been a footwear designer in my day job for over 50 years.  For me it has always been function, then form.  And so we arrive at the Tokonoma design. In this case the function is to harmonise the series of objects within the Tokonoma so that it becomes a form that does not detract the viewer or from the view.


The Zen approach:

What is Zen- The word Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the  Chinese word -dʑjen (Chán). The word Chan came from the Sanskrit word dhyāna, (chana) and the rough translation of this means the absorption of the knowledge through meditation. Some people refer to this as enlightenment.


As an aside, the word Bonsai is also derived from the word ‘Puntsai’-Chinese for an arrangement of rocks and shrubs on a tray. This was a popular import from China dating from the later Sung dynasty, around 1300 and up to 1500. The transliteration of that word became Bonsai..


Zen emphasizes the attainment of enlightenment and the personal expression of direct insight in the Buddhist teachings. As such, it de-emphasizes mere knowledge of sutras (Literally it means a thread or line that holds things together - deriving from PIE *siH-/syuH- 'to sew’ -texts that were written down in books of palm leaves sewn together with thread. This distinguishes them from the older sacred Vedas, which until recently were only memorised, never committed to paper.),


Therefore Zen favours direct understanding through zazen (‘seated meditation’; Japanese: 坐禅; simplified Chinese: 坐禅; traditional Chinese: 坐禪; pinyin: zuò chán) is a meditative discipline practitioners perform to calm the body and the mind, and be able to concentrate enough to experience insight into the nature of existence and thereby gain enlightenment through interaction with an accomplished teacher

Traditional Zen art forms include calligraphy, painting, pot making, archery, gardening, flower-arranging, the tea ceremony, swordsmanship, (including  Iaido (居合道 Iaidō or just Iai 居合?)   Poetry (such as haiku) and today even in photography. Of course there is much more.  However, do not be limited by tradition. There are thousands of ways to express yourself creatively, and you can find one that works for you if you give yourself the willingness to let go and drop the critical, self-centred mind.


Zen and understanding the practice of learning.

Bonsai s art: When learning Bonsai or indeed any art form, that ability comes from the teaching, reading or other method that we employ to understand what it is that we wish to do, create or make. For me it was always about understanding perspective and that the front is absolutely NOT the most important part of a Bonsai.. There is a top, a base, a right and left side and a back. All must harmonise with the whole to create the result. Then, and only then can you judge the quality of the Bonsai.

Bonsai is three and even four dimensional. It is sometimes difficult to understand in a demonstration what it is that a bonsai artist does when making a bonsai. In fact, quite often, they do not actually know themselves how it is that they do what they do.  We, as students, have to look for the path that we can see and then follow that route. That is why workshops are a lot better than a demonstration as you are hands on and can collect information on what you are doing and , perhaps, what you are not doing.

And so you come to realise what Zen is saying. It is a state of mind.  An open mind and one ready to learn. To be enlightened.

The technical training of any art—once it is mastered—is expressed in the spontaneous practice of what you have been learning. Making mistakes is part of that learning process. .

Zen art tends to be simple. Without unnecessary complications. Such as creating a stone or gravel garden and instead of leaving that as the result of your creativity you then start to plant flowers, grasses and other distractions. The art of Zen strives for simplicity in its art. Or what you might remember is that ‘less is more’

I read an article on Zen that encapsulates this thought process:

“When you approach a creative act in Zen, don't worry about what you are doing. Don't judge yourself or allow your inner critic to run wild. Art practice is not about the result, it is about the process. Anyone can arrange some flowers. But doing so mindfully, expressing the creativity of your Buddha-nature, turns flower-arranging into a Zen practice. Just quiet your mind, and let yourself go” (Art as Practice

The Design Approach:

Form follows function is a principle associated with design and derives from the architect Louis Sullivan. The American architect, Louis Sullivan, , who admired rationalist thinkers like Horatio Greenough, Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman and Melville, coined the phrase in his article The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered that was published  in 1896

"It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.


So we create a design in the Tokonoma that starts with a function-what is it that we are trying to achieve in the Tokonoma? Is it simply an attractive combination of objects, a meditative visual aid, or just to fill a space. Followed by the form which can be an attractive layout of the area that pleases the eye, to display a principle object such as a Bonsai by illustrating the season using a scroll and or a smaller separate object. Is the form to show your visitors how graceful, intelligent, artistic or just thoughtful place for them to appreciate when visiting you or your exhibition?


It is here that we can see the difference;

Home or Exhibition. What is the difference?


Of course in our homes we can spend time contemplating the display of objects which could include a Bonsai or a Susieki. At home we can make constant changes until we finally achieve an arrangement that we can consider perfect’


However, when we are displaying bonsai at an exhibition it seems that many displays are quickly thrown together with a well displayed Bonsai, great pot and Dai-table while the scroll, if used is either too small or far too large, inappropriate accents and the entire display put together without too much effort. Even in major displays in Japan I have seen such displays. No always but, to be very fair, I just think that people do not have the time to think it out. It should have already been carefully planned prior to the exhibition so that when the Tokonoma is created that the planned design is already done and that it is simply recreated in the exhibition.


In Scotland we had a poet, Robert Burns, who wrote a famous poem: ‘To a Mouse’ from which a q1uote is often used:

 “The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft agley,” which means that despite or best plans these often go wrong.

So, you create your Tokonoma display before you come to the exhibition and then you find that the back wall is too short for a scroll, the table covering is the wrong colour for your display and that the exhibition manager will not allow changes; there is not enough room to properly deliver your carefully planned design or the other Tokonoma displays beside you, near you or even in the same hall are in some elements, identical to yours. You all have the same scroll or same little bronze figure. Nothing is unique and it looks like you all copied the other. Like a lady turning up at a party wearing the same new and fashionable dress that four other ladies are wearing.

And we are back to Zen in a full circle:

The Zen approach is simply to do your best and don’t worry about it. At least you planned the display and if you got it right then it will still look OK.  If only to you and that is the self.

Lao Tzu, in his Tao Te Ching, says "Knowing others is wisdom. Knowing the self is enlightenment. Mastering others requires force. Mastering the self requires strength.

File:Raja Ravi Varma - Sankaracharya.jpg 

(Adi Shankara with disciples)

Adi Shankaracharya, (1848-1906 and who was a Hindu philosopher from Kaladi, Kerala, India who consolidated the doctrine of advaita vedānta ) in his commentary on Bhagavad Gita says "Self-knowledge alone eradicates misery "Self-knowledge alone is the means to the highest bliss. Absolute perfection is the consummation of Self.

What does this say to us?

Well, the spiritual goal of many traditions involves the dissolving of the ego, allowing self-knowledge of one's own true nature to become experienced and enacted in the world.

This is also known as enlightenment, nirvana, presence, and where you are right now. Perhaps this is also a way of saying, ‘try not worry about the little things as, everything is a little thing’.


The Tokonoma as an object in itself:

Tokonoma is an alcove in a traditional Japanese room (washitsu). It is about the size of one, or half a tatami mat, and a step higher than the rest of the room. It is the place to display kakejiku (hanging scrolls), ikebana (flower arrangements), and other art.  It is customary to change the art with the seasons, or to choose it for a specific guest.

As a feature of the Shoin-zukuri (Shoin architectural style) in the Kamakura period (1192-1333), the tokonoma was developed from butsudan (the private altar) in Buddhism. During the Muromachi (1392-1573) and the Azuchi-Momoyama periods (1573-1603), it became a standard built-in feature with a decorative purpose.

The idea that the tokonoma is a sacred space was begun by Buddhist priests, and even today it is strictly forbidden to walk into or sit in the tokonoma. The seat closest to the tokonoma is usually given to the most important guest.

I think that the tokonoma is one of the beauties of  Japanese architecture, and it shows the Japanese spirit of wabi (subtle taste) and sabi (elegant simplicity). Unfortunately, not many modern houses have the tokonoma.


(from website-

Tokonoma in Hiragana-these are copy diagrammes for you.

Tokonoma in Kanji.


An intersting note is that the wordm for Garden in Chinese means book. There can be tokonoma displays in the garden as well. As you wander about a garden you literally turn to a new page in the book.

Expand this


The Tokonoma and what is put inside it


(置物 oki-mono) is a Japanese term meaning "ornament for display; objet d'art; decorative object", typically displayed in a tokonoma "alcove" or butsudan "Buddhist altar" An okimono may be a small Japanese carving, similar to, but larger than netsuke. Unlike netsuke, which had a specific purpose, okimono were purely decorative and were displayed in the tokonoma. During the Meiji period many okimono were made for export to the west.

Accent Object

Text Box: This is a Japanese mid Showa period bud vase. It is signed by Shunji who was a well-known artist working in the Seto Area (Aichi Prefecture in Japan) Known as Celadon ware, this beautiful vase comes with the artists signed Kiri Box made for this superb example of Japanese pottery at the highest level. Created in 1960
Kato Shunji (1892-1979) was a celebrated potter in this prefecture. He was designated an Aichi Prefectural Intangible Cultural Property for his outstanding and beautiful Seto creations which included Ko Seto, Oribe and Shina ware. In perfect condition with the artists signed Kiri Box Vintage Japanese Vase, Mino ware, Light green

Text Box: A Jun Chinese porcelain Vase in a uniquely beautiful Jun glaze akin to a Sang le Boeuf (langyao) Glaze
Jun (Wade-Giles: chün) ware was a third style of porcelain used at the Northern Song court. Characterized by a thicker body than Ding or Ru ware, Jun is covered with a turquoise and purple glaze, so thick and viscous looking that it almost seems to be melting off its substantial golden-brown or white body. Not only fine Jun pieces were made but also heavier vessels were created for every day use., Yet both types were appreciated at court of Emperor Huizong. Jun production was cantered at Jun-tai in Yüxian county, Hunan Province.
This design is inspired by Yellow Mountain 'Huang Shan' with mountain Peaks coming through the clouds. The porcelain artiest has made a stunning creation and the mountains at dawn are perfectly captured in this little vase.

Text Box: This is a vintage Japanese vase of the famous maker, Koransha, whose porcelain vase was made about 30 years ago. Yellow and pink Iris are painted on the vase. On the bottom of the vase, the seal of the Koransha porcelain is stamped. Koransha is the designer and artist for this beautiful vase The Koransha porcelain workshop was started by the 8th Eizaemon Fukagawa in 1875.$(KGrHqFHJCsE7BcvggltBOz+R(JO9Q~~60_3.jpg

A suzuribako-calligraphers box. Suitable for display with a Bunjin or Literati Bonsai style

This is a beautiful and unusual 19th century Meiji Suzuribako, a Japanese writing box with ink stone. It has been created in Urushi Lacquer with a sparrow raised on top. The box is in very good condition 
Incised lid decoration; Negoro ware Urushi;
Red on Black Lacquer Writing box with brush-rests, ink-stone & water dropper
Traditional High-quality gloss Urushi Lacquer
For use with Shodo Calligraphy utensils

Suzuri Inkstone
Suiteki Water Dropper, Metal, with stand
Tray with fixed metal brush-rests
2-part box, scalloped edge to lid, Brush and piece of Sumi Ink Stick
Meiji(1840- 1880),Size Box 8.5 x 6.5 x 1.2 inches
Ink-stone 4.9 x 2.5


as an accent or main item within a Tokonoma

Ten Pei

In Japan the use of Ten Pei is very important to create an atmosphere or mood in a display that transports the observer to another place. (Steve Tolley)





The Scroll

Japanese: A kakemono (掛物, "hanging"), more commonly referred to as a kakejiku (掛軸, "hung scroll"), is a Japanese scroll painting or calligraphy mounted usually with silk fabric edges on a flexible backing, so that it can be rolled for storage.

*1(see notes below) Chinese:  (Chinese: 立軸; pinyin: lìzhóu; also called or 掛軸)

As opposed to makimono, which are meant to be unrolled laterally on a flat surface, a kakemono is intended to be hung against a wall as part of the interior decoration of a room. It is traditionally displayed in the tokonoma alcove of a room especially designed for the display of prized objects. When displayed in a chashitsu, or teahouse for the traditional tea ceremony, the choice of the kakemono and its complementary flower arrangement help set the spiritual mood of the ceremony. Often the kakemono used for this will bear calligraphy of a Zen phrase in the hand of a distinguished Zen master.

Displaying the art in such way was befitting for public appreciation and appraisal of the aesthetics of the scrolls in its entirety by the audience. The traditional craft involved in creating such a work is considered an art in itself. Mountings can be divided into a few sections, such as handscrolls, hanging scrolls, album leaves, and screens amongst others.

Hanging scrolls are generally intended to be displayed for short periods of time and are then rolled up to be tied and secured for storage. The hanging scrolls get rotated according to season or occasion, as such works are never intended to be on permanent display. The painting surface of the paper or silk can be mounted with decorative brocade silk borders. In the composition of a hanging scroll, the foreground is usually at the bottom of the scroll while the middle and far distances are at the middle and top respectively.

Some notes on the development of scroll painting over the last 150 years


Styles of Japanese painting


Poetry painting. Abbreviated playful painting, matching equally abbreviated haiku poems. A style often practiced by amateurs. Please look at the Toro (Lantern) Scroll here


This became what was termed as the official painting style of the Japense goverment. Popular in Edo as well as in Kyoto. Kano was based on Chinese styles from the Muromachi period. Painting in the broken-ink technique (hoboku) and adding colour to traditional subjects. Saying that, sumei style (ink paintings) Kano was also popular


Nagasaki, KanÙ and Maruyama-ShijÙ painting styles with a very recognised brush stroke.


Maruyama ’kyo, emphasises the artists study of and response to nature.(Shaseiga).


The Muromachi school originated under the influence of the Chinese Sung and Yang dynasty paintings that were brought to Japan during the later Sung Dynasty with many other art subject matter like Puntsai (Bonsai) and silk clothing and material and later into the 14th century by Zen monks who could make a small income from painting.


Is a painting style influenced by the Chinese (and the Dutch) at Nagasaki.


Also known as Bunjinga, a literati painting style worshipping things Chinese, includes painting and poetry, and prizing amateur status.


This is the 'native' Japanese style developed in the Meiji period by teachers at the newly established academies. Mixed traditional Japanese styles mixed with Western techniques. Marked differences apparent between the Tokyo and Kyoto based Nihonga artists.


A decorative painting style.


A style that is closely related to Maruyama painting, but a little more poetic, less restricted and with a more innovative brush stroke.


This is also known as the Yamato-e style. Official court painting style, specialised in Japanese subjects. There was a general revival of this style in the beginning of the 19th century. Colourful miniature like brushwork with a long tradition of panting hand scrolls (emaki). Known widely as Ukiyo-e which are the paintings of urban life.  These have a particular emphasis on the pleasures of the 'floating world': prostitution, fashion, kabuki, sumo and other recreations .Japan was called the floating world.


Although these can be paintings they are more often calligraphies drawn by Zen priests and laymen

Japanese painting,

How western influences changed fashions affecting scroll art

Sansuiga (landscape painting) is a genre of the picture which developed in China through the early Sung Dynasty and when that arrived in the 19th Century started to be more representative of traditional scenic views. Often hung in homes at certain times of the year, the Landscape painting of China usually had descriptions or poems about the view. However when the art developed in Japan the many views of Japan developed earlier and became extremely popular as woodblock prints which were an inexpensive means of printing that allowed the ordinary person to have some art representation of views of Japan in their own homes. One centre of Woodblock printing was in Kyoto which was a popular tourist destination even for the Japanese well before the west arrived with Commander Perrys Black ships in 1852 and 1854.

Buying a print or a book of prints would be an excellent way for a visitor to take back home a reminder of a wonderful trip. Even today, the Japanese love to travel and instead of buying prints simply take pictures with their cameras of everything and anything that moves or stands still. Art collection and appreciation was no longer one of the pursuits of the ruling classes and Samurai leaders. In the 19th century the art of the great woodblock painters came to the fore in Europe and heralded the inspiration for the growth of what became 'Impressionism'.

Although Japanese art in the western style did not fully open up until a little later in the late 19th century it opened with an almost evangelical move from the population that could afford to gratify their desire for western fashions and ideas. An explosion of a kind of freedom meant that many of the old trades and arts were put to one side in favour of more western ideas. Fortunately the traditional arts were kept by a few and these returned gradually during the early part of the 20th century and it s from this period that many fine scrolls were created for the emerging Western export markets. One of these markets was for the popular oriental type goods for Western homes in Europe and America. The Dutch East India Company through their trade compound in Nagasaki had been exporting these kinds of goods from Japan for almost 200 years and they were quite expensive but now the market was wide open and prices became affordable for some quite wonderful artwork. One modern example of this story of the Japanese coming to terms with the west was in Stephen Sondheim’s opera, Pacific Overtures (1976) which I had worked as fight director for the Japanese Sword scenes in this Opera in 1987 at English National Opera. One song stands out for me and that was ‘A Bowler Hat’ which neatly encapsulates the show's theme, as a Samurai gradually sells out to the Westerners. This was, for me, a masterpiece by Sondheim to crystallise the change that many Japanese went through quite willingly. Not all but enough to drive the way forward.


The word san means yama (mountains), sui means mizu (river), ga means a picture. There is the work which aimed at reproduction of real scenery, but there is also  "created scenery" "image scenery" which constituted scenery elements such as the mountains / trees / rocks / rivers by realism again. Artistic licence. Taking an existing scene and enhancing it in a way that would attract the buyer to place this on the wall of their home. but more than this it was a representation of a spiritual place. Mountains where spirits reigned, hidden valleys full of myths and legends. 


The art of Japan has a powerful  Chinese influence. There was originally no word for  simply "Fukeiga (Fukei=scenery-ga=Picture)". The picture which assumed a representation of natural scenery was simply called "a landscape painting". Originally "Sansuiga (landscape painting)" began as spiritual world expression to be based on a legendary Chinese hermit with miraculous powers of thought.. On the other hand, the Meiji era began, and the words of "scenery" became established with the full-scale introduction of Western paintings. In "Fukeiga (Scenery)",the  eyes of the naturalism or realism assumed a form that was different from a conventional "Sansuiga (landscape painting)" the basis of the landscape scenery style of painting were incorporated, and natural reproduction by a rational technique was aimed at the subject matter of the art work.. However, while taking in such techniques, some of the traditional Japanese landscape painting became based on a sense of beauty of the subject matter rather than the actual image itself. So floating clouds and misty forests, cool waterfalls and scented glades became the holy grail of the Japanese Landscape painter of scrolls.. The scroll therefore does not have to be as detailed as a western landscape but rather an impression, a feeling of what the viewer is looking at. A successful landscape scroll delivers this. The waterfall should make you feel cool and the forest should suggest the smell of damp leaves and birdsong and the mountain should make you feel that you become part of the birds flying below the cold peaks.

Viewing a Japanese landscape scroll relies on the viewer relaxing and becoming one with the scene.


Figurative art

Figurative art has remained largely the same. Modern examples from the early 20th century until the mid-1960’s relied on traditional woodblock prints of detailed costume pink faces with lined eyes and facial features and little or some background. Quite beautiful, these rarer paintings were all about the detail. This detail is shown in the Takasago and Shogun paintings. Originally these were quite simple with some detail. Around the 18th century they started to change and developed into the art from of the woodblock in the mid-19th century. Well why change something that does not need to be changed. Later artists utilized the stylistic approach of the 1850’s to the scrolls of the 1950’s and these were well appreciated by both Japanese and foreign buyers. In some cases, the painting was so well thought of that the artists even made the matching scroll box and inscribed lengthy detail on the inside and the back of the box.


The pine of Tagasako- Jo and UBA

Notes on Takasago:

It represents a scene from a Noh play 
based on the subject of the Eternal Couple from the Legend of Takasago.
Jo and Uba were supposed to have fallen in love when young,
and after living to a very old age their spirits came to abide in pine trees, one on the beach at Takasago in Harima, and the other at Sumiyoshi in Sesshu near Osaka. Their spirits returned on moonlit nights in human form with rakesto continue their work of clearing the pine needles on Takasago Beach.

Jo and Uba are therefore the Gods of Marriage

A word may be said also regarding the curious associations of animals and plants, to which some symbolism originally attached, but which apparently have been repeated very much like the copies of Chinese pictures, out of respect for tradition only. Amongst others will be noted the Quail and Millet, Peacock and Peony, Shishi and Peony, Swallow and Willow, Tiger and Bamboo, Plum Blossom and Moon, Chidori and Waves, Deer and Maple, Boar and Lespedeza, most of which are of frequent occurrence. The Snake is also often shown coiled around a Tortoise sometimes with jewel (Tamo), reminiscent of the Snake and Egg Myth and then associated with Bishamon.

CRANE, Emblem of longevity, attribute of Seiobo, Jurojin, Fukuro ~ . Kujiu, Tobusako, Jofuku, Wasobioye, Oshikio, Yoritomo, Toyu, Jo and UBA, Kohaku. Kaxgai Sennin ; Isetsu ; Kodokwa ; Teireii. Crane, Conch Shell which is the emblem of the Yamabushi

PINE (Matsu).  Emblem of strength, endurance, longevity, because it is believed that its sap turns into amber after a thousand years; the "Sea Pine" is a fossilised wood, almost translucent, pieces of which were much prized as netsuke.

PINE, red and black, emblematic of happy marriage. ,,

TORTOISE. (freely crossed meaning with Turtle) Emblem of Longevity

Birds and Animals:

Birds and animals also remained largely the same as before. Birds are usually depicted in much greater detail and auspicious birds such as Eagles usually have great detail while the crane in both Japan and China holds great significance. Crane paintings seem to have less detail and are more about shape, design and story. Two cranes are depicted together to suggest marriage and are included in mythology paintings such as Takasago

Tsuru: The Japanese Crane

Many classical Japanese folktales and paintings have appeared, featuring the beauty of tsuru in their long necks and legs. They are winter migratory birds that fly to Japan in October from Siberia and Mongolia, returning the following year in March. In Japan they are valued especially as animals symbolizing long life and are often used for festive designs and decorations. Senbazuru (One Thousand Cranes) of origami (folded paper) are sent to the sick to pray for recovery from illness and for long life.  Cranes are also birds that mate for life and as this is such an auspicious behaviour, giving such a scroll to a newly married couple or for a wedding anniversary is a profound and meaningful thing to do.


Paintings on scrolls of animals usually reflect legends, mythology and sometimes actual animals. However, mythology subjects can have cranes and tortoise/turtles.

Text Box:

In some scrolls Yamabushi Tengu, the long nose Goblin, directs the
forest monkeys against the peaceful Tanuki. Monkeys were either thought to be deities, disease infested forest pests or in Chinese Mythology, very high up in the Deity pecking order, The Monkey King is a traditional character from Chinese Opera. Many of these myths found their way into Japan and these were adapted and changed along the way.

The Fox Priest: The Fox who became a Priest:

The traditional Japanese fable tells of an old fox who has grown tired of being hunted.
He disguises himself as an elderly priest named Hakuzosu, known for his love of foxes.
The fox visits a nephew of the priest who is a hunter and tells him of the many virtues of foxes, as well as of the punishments that come to men who take life. Satisfied that he has accomplished his mission, he leaves to return home. On the way, however, he begins to turn back to his true form and loses the capacities of foresight and reason. A baited trap before him is an irresistible temptation and he is caught. Yoshitoshi shows the disguised priest walking among tangled weeds in the moonlight. As he glances over his shoulder,
we are made aware of his true nature by the change which has already occurred in his face...The fable may be:  People may not be what you think they are, but always look on the other side of every story


Tanuki ( or タヌキ?) is the Japanese word for the Japanese raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus). They have been part of Japanese folklore since ancient times. The legendary tanuki is reputed to be mischievous and jolly, a master of disguise and shape shifting, but somewhat gullible and absent-minded.

Tanuki is often mistakenly translated as raccoon or badger.

Statues of tanuki can be found outside many Japanese temples and restaurants, especially noodle shops. These statues often wear big, cone-shaped hats and carry bottles of sake in one hand, and a promissory note or empty purse in the other hand. Tanuki statues always have large bellies. The statues also usually show humorously large testicles, typically hanging down to the floor or ground, although this feature is sometimes omitted in contemporary sculpture.

 November 8 is the date for the Tanuki holiday because the emperor made his famous visit in November and because the tanuki has eight special traits that bring good fortune. The eight traits are: (1) a bamboo hat that protects against trouble, (2) big eyes to perceive the environment and help make good decisions, (3) a sake bottle that represents virtue, (4) a big tail that provides steadiness and strength until success is achieved, (5) over-sized testicles that symbolize financial luck, (6) a promissory note that represents trust, (7) a big belly that symbolizes bold decisiveness, and (8) a friendly smile.
The comical image of the tanuki is thought to have developed during the Kamakura era. The actual wild tanuki has unusually large testicles, a feature that has inspired humorous exaggeration in artistic depictions of the creature. Tanuki may be shown with their testicles flung over their backs like travellers' packs, or using them as drums. As tanuki are also typically depicted as having large bellies, they may be depicted as drumming on their bellies instead of their testicles -- particularly in contemporary art.

A common schoolyard song in Japan (the tune of which can be heard in the arcade game Ponpoko and a variation of which is sung in the Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko) makes explicit reference to the tanuki's anatomy:

Tan Tan Tanuki no kintama wa, 
Kaze mo nai no ni, 
Bura bura 
Roughly translated, this means "Tan-tan-tanuki's testicles, there isn't even any wind but still go swing-swing-swing."It then proceeds to continue for several verses, with many regional variations. It is sung to the melody of an American Baptist hymn called "Shall We Gather At The River?".

.During the Kamakura and Muromachi eras, some stories began to include more sinister tanuki. The Otogizoshi story of "Kachi-kachi Yama" features a tanuki that clubs an old lady to death and serves her to her unknowing husband as "old lady soup," an ironic twist on the folkloric recipe known as "tanuki soup." Other stories report tanuki as being harmless and productive members of society. Several shrines have stories of past priests who were tanuki in disguise. Shapeshifting tanuki are sometimes believed to be tsukumogami, a transformation of the souls of household goods that were used for one hundred years or more.

A popular tale known as Bunbuku chagama is about a tanuki who fooled a monk by transforming into a tea-kettle. Another is about a tanuki who tricked a hunter by disguising his arms as tree boughs, until he spread both arms at the same time and fell off the tree. Tanuki are said to cheat merchants with leaves they have magically disguised as paper money. Some stories describe tanuki as using leaves as part of their own shape-shifting magic.

In metalworking, tanuki skins were often used for thinning gold. As a result, tanuki became associated with precious metals and metalwork. Small tanuki statues were marketed as front yard decoration and good luck charm for bringing in prosperity. Also, this is why tanuki is described as having large kintama (
金玉 lit. gold ball, means a testicle in Japanese slang).

kakemono (掛物, "hanging"), more commonly referred to as a kakejiku (掛軸, "hung scroll"), is a Japanese scroll painting or calligraphy mounted usually with silk fabric edges on a flexible backing, so that it can be rolled for storage.


As opposed to makimono, which are meant to be unrolled laterally on a flat surface, a kakemono is intended to be hung against a wall as part of the interior decoration of a room. It is traditionally displayed in the tokonoma alcove of a room especially designed for the display of prized objects. When displayed in a chashitsu, or teahouse for the traditional tea ceremony, the choice of the kakemono and its complementary flower arrangement help set the spiritual mood of the ceremony. Often the kakemonoused for this will bear calligraphy of a Zen phrase in the hand of a distinguished Zen master.

In contrast to byōbu (folding screen) or shohekiga (wall paintings), kakemono can be easily and quickly changed to match the season or occasion.

The kakemono was introduced to Japan during the Heian period, primarily for displaying Buddhist images for religious veneration, or as a vehicle to display calligraphy or poetry. From the Muromachi period,landscapes, flower and bird paintings, portraiture, and poetry became the favourite themes.

If the width is shorter than the height, it is called a vertical work (竪物 tatemono) or Standing Scroll (立軸tatejiku) if the width is longer than the height, it is called a horizontal work (横物yokomono) or horizontal scroll (横軸 yokojiku).

The "Maruhyousou" style of kakejiku has four distinct named sections. The top section is called the "ten" heaven. The bottom is the "chi" earth with the "hashira" pillars supporting the heaven and earth on the sides. The maruhyousou style, (not pictured above) also contains a section of "ichimonji" made from "kinran" gold thread.On observation, the Ten is longer than the Chi. This is due to the fact that in the past, Kakemono were viewed from a kneeling (seiza) position and provided perspective to the "Honshi" main work. This tradition carries on to modern times.

There is a cylindrical rod called jikugi (軸木) at the bottom, which becomes the axis or center of the rolled scroll. The end knobs on this rod are in themselves called jiku, and are used as grasps when rolling and unrolling the scroll. Other parts of the scroll include the "jikubo" referenced above as the jikugi. The top half moon shaped wood rod is named the "hassou" to which the "kan" or metal loops are inserted in order to tie the "kakehimo" hanging thread. Attached to the jikubo are the "jikusaki", the term used for the end knobs, which can be inexpensive and made of plastic or relatively decorative pieces made of ceramic or lacquered wood. Additional decorative wood or ceramic pieces are called "fuchin" and come with multicolored tassels. The variation in the kakehimo, jikusaki and fuchin make each scroll more original and unique

Text from my website;

Other sources were used in the compilation of this text. recently restored 19th century short scroll of an incredible landscape by Raisho Nakajima painted in 1850. With specially made box in antique Kimono silk from the same period box 16x45 inches

Raisho Nakajima - 1796-1871      

Raisho Nakajima was born in Otsu and was a pupil of Watanabe Nangaku and later of Maruyama Ozui. He was a late Edo exponent of the Maruyama manner. Kano Bairei and Kawabata Gyokusho were his pupils.

Shintsudo, Shumbunsai, Toko (Haiku name) were also names that he used

*1-Notes on Chinese Scrolls styles

Yisebiao (一色裱, one color mount)

·        Ersebiao (二色裱, two color mount)

·        Sansebiao (三色裱, three color mount)

·        Xuanhezhuang (宣和裝, Xuanhe style; also called 宋式裱, Song type mount)

Besides the previous styles of hanging scroll mountings, there are a few additional ways to format the hanging scroll.

·        Hall paintings (中堂畫)

Hall paintings are intended to be the centrepiece in the main hall. It's usually quite a large hanging scroll that serves as a focal point in an interior and often has a complicated subject.

·      Four hanging scrolls (四條屏)

These hanging scrolls were developed from screen paintings. It features several narrow and long hanging scrolls and is usually hung next to each other on a wall, but can also be hung on its own. The subjects have related themes, such as the flowers of the four seasons, the Four Gentlemen (orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum, and plum blossom), the Four Beauties (ladies renowned for their beauty).

·        Panoramic screen (通景屏)

The panoramic screen consists of several hanging scrolls that have continuous images, in which part of subject continues further in another scroll. These hanging scrolls cover large areas of a wall and usually do not have a border in between.

·        Couplet (對聯)

A couplet is two hanging scrolls placed side by side or accompanying a scroll in the middle. These are with poetic calligraphy in vertical writing. This style came to popularity during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)


The Accent plant

There is much written on accent plants. However, in the west this has overtaking the accent object in many western eyes. Kusamono (literally "grass thing") and shitakusa (literally "undergrass") are a potted collection of plants designed to either be viewed in accompaniment with bonsai, or alone. Normally the term kusamonois used when the planting is displayed as the centre of attention, while the term shitakusa is used for plantings that accompany bonsai displays. In contrast to underplantings (which are potted in with the bonsai), kusamono and shitakusa are displayed separately in special pots, driftwood, or even stones.

 (Bonsai Society of San Francisco)   Brian Albright (Pot and Hosta)

Salzburg Bonsai Society exhibited the following in 2015:

Plants used are typically moss, grass, lichen, small flowers, bamboo, or bulbs that may heighten the beauty or reflect a certain season. While traditionally in Japan, plants gathered from mountains contributed to the bulk of companion plantings, modern use has extended to more creative and artistic design.

Reflecting the season it has become a hobby in its own right and many people keep small pots of accent plants including myself. Hostas are a popular herbaceous plant used in Bonsai display. I have a preference for miniature Hosta and other flowering plants. I also like moss and miniature ferns. However, these are sometimes abused as an accent accompaniments to Bonsai. I have seen brightly coloured pots of plants that have no reasonable place in the design of a Bonsai Tokonoma setting.  I understand that the display of a seasonal plant with a seasonal scroll could be carefully harmonised. When you bring in a Bonsai then that accent plant needs to reflect something of the Bonsai if the Bonsai is the main player in the Tokonoma setting.

There are many fine pot makers creating suitable Kusamono pots for this purport. It is important to also consider the match between plant and pot, sometimes the pot is too bright or garish and while a fine pot such a bright coloured glazes can make the setting of the Tokonoma look imbalanced.


Miniature Allium-Craig Coussins/Robert Porch

An interesting link is here:

Kusamono designed by Young Choe-Korea

Hosta variegate — 'Cat's Eye' Dwarf hosta

Ophiopogon chingii — Twisted mondo grass




William Valavanis-Art Of Bonsai Blog



The history of ikebana (living flowers) is extremely fascinating because it tells us a lot about aspects of Japanese culture and how the different thought patterns can be seen in art. Ikebana is also known by the name ofkado (way of flowers) and in modern Japan it is abundantly clear that ikebana remains popular.

The history of ikebana is extremely fascinating because it highlights the importance of this art form in Japan. In the sixth century (the oldest school of ikebana dates from the fifteenth century) it is apparent that the religious angle of ikebana was of major importance. Therefore, in this period ikebana was a ritual offering which took place in Buddhist temples.


Ikebana also changed dramatically in the fifteenth century because of Ashikaga Yoshimasa who was the Muromachi shogun. Ashikaga Yoshimasa was born in 1436 and died in 1490 but he revolutionized the art form of ikebana. This applies to his love of simplicity therefore within the new small houses being built the area called tokonoma became important. The reason behind this is that the tokonoma area was a place for flower arrangements and art pieces, which would create a nice ambience.


At the same time the rules of ikebana became more moderate and not so rigid.


Moribana in the 1890s created a new form of ikebana and on the Ohararyu website at the bottom of this article it states that this style was “Originated by the First Headmaster Unshin Ohara, this is ikebana where materials are arranged as if they are piled up in low flat containers with a wide surface area of water. It includes the Colour Scheme Moribana, which expresses beauty of colour, and the Landscape Moribana, in which the beauty of natural scenery is represented. In Moribana, as in Advanced Hana-isho, there are three principal stems – the Subject, the Secondary, and the Object. These stems form the basic framework of various styles. Intermediaries called Filler stems are freely added to the principal stems.”

The history of ikebana is very intriguing and if people want to learn more about ikebana and study more deeply, then the web-links below are designed to help. This is the Belgian chapter of the Ohara School of Ikebana.


Deschamps and Walker


Bonsai in the Tokonoma


KawabiSanTokonoma-PeterFoele at Gingko Bonsai, Belgium

The style , season, species of the Bonsai will determine the scroll and accent that is used. The major part of the discussion on the 3rd of October will be the relationship between the components of the Tokonoma setting.

 Craig with Japanese Bonsai Master, Kunio Kobayashi, who was featured in one of Craig’s Bonsai Books, Bonsai Masterclass.




When planning a Tokonoma with a Bonsai it is a good idea to discuss with your friends how they see, view or think about the setting. This is what we will be doing this evening.




The relationship between scroll and Bonsai


The style of Bonsai, the season, the amount of space that you have, will all determine the Bonsai. The size must fit within the space that you have available of course. I would like to discuss four examples of each


Because the tree overhangs the pot and in a full cascade can hang a great deal lower that the base of the pot, it is best to use a very low accent. Otherwise the accent will be fighting the degree of cascade. . A very low dish, a slab of moss, a flat shaped Susieki is enough.

The scroll should reflect that the cascade of the tree could be seen to be hanging from a cliff, mountain or a hill. The scroll should illustrate this .If the tree is a flowering tree and in bloom, then using a calligraphy scroll with a haiku, proverb or something that reflects the beauty of the bloom/blossom/flowers will be suitable.

The Dai will be a tall stand of course but be careful not to make this too heavy. The tree should be on a dai, a table with thin legs and the dai should never overpower the Bonsai.





The literati or Bunjin style of Bonsai is generally slim and elegant. Named after the learned scholars style of painting trees in the landscape, Sansui, this style has developed for many years and most trees are made from Juniper and from Pine.

When displaying the tree is harmonised with a suitable scroll that would reflect a specific point of the landscape without featuring a tree. Hills, , Sun, Moon, Beach. These are all acceptable in the display of Literati.


The accent item would be a grass, or a moss clump/mound a lonely figure, or, and to reflect the ‘literati’ element, a A suzuribako-calligraphers box, painting brush, sueti (water dropper) ink stick, brush washer or an attractive ink stone.

A 15th century Jade Brush washer





Chokkan-Formal upright



Suitable accents can be a Spring flowering decorated pot such as this Shippo Yaki Cloisonne vase by Ando Jubei, Japan.


In summer we are looking at one of two subjects. Perhaps we reflect the heat of summer with a warm colour in the accent or in the Tokonoma. Using a cloisonné or ceramic vase, a wood or jade figure or a item that states a summer subject. The scroll can be a hot sun or a green forest if we are not using a Bonsai. If we are using Bonsai in the Tokonoma we can use a scroll with a setting sun, a morning landscape or a Bijen, a beautiful lady in a bright Kimono.


The other subject for summer can actually be a winter scroll to cool us down Winter scrolls are popular in Summer when it gets too hot. We would only exhibit an evergreen species such as Pine ( Matsu) or Juniper(shimpaku) , Cryptomeria(Sugi)

Cooling scroll subjects will also include Taki, waterfall scrolls.  

Autumn and Winter

Photographs by Craig Coussins

Autumn is a popular Bonsai display season. The leaves are brown and you can start to see the fine ramification on deciduous trees. . The scroll can be a rising or setting sun, a figure scroll, a Bijen (kimono lady) or a distant mountain view. It is one of the seasons when you can also show an autumn forest scroll which creates a 3d effect when displaying Bonsai.

The accents could be a late flowering plant such as Hosta, or a smaller shohin or Mame Malus Bonsai as an accent.


This is the season to show deciduous trees with fine ramification. (Detailed twig structure). Outstanding Pines and Junipers. The scroll should be a winter scroll and the accent can be either a warm item such as a bright Vase, a cool item such as a small mountain Susieki or something simple like a beautiful tea cup-a hint to warm you from the inside.



The relationship between Bonsai and Accent object





The Table-Dai for Bonsai and for Accent.

The table (Dai/Shoku) depends on the size of the Bonsai or item that you wish to display. It gives the completion of the subject, There is one big thing to remember., If the table-Dai is very loud, colourful and a beautiful item in its own right, you may find that it will overpower the Bonsai or the Tokonoma setting. Let is say we have three or five items in the Tokonoma.

The design of the Tokonoma: the act of putting things in a sequential arrangement;

The Scroll, Bonsai, accent then we have the dai for the Bonsai and the dai for the accent. And then we bring in a dai for the accent as well. That means that we now have six items in the Tokonoma and that would not be acceptable. Odd numbers are preferable. Purely from the viewing of the Tokonoma. The heights are different and all should work in harmony with each other. In the setting above you have four items but adding a scroll makes this five and therefore acceptable for viewing.

Extracted and edited from a paper he produced in 2005, Will Heath tried to explain why we use odd numbers. Although this is an extract, it is fairly comprehensive.

Why do odd numbers work best for forests? This is a tough one in all art forms, take the book, "Drawing For Dummies" for example, it states in the chapter, "Focusing on the Elements of Composition in Drawing" that "Placing an odd number of objects into a grouping (rather than an even number) makes a composition more artistically pleasing. Balancing three objects on one side of a composition and five on the other is much more interesting than a static arrangement of four on either side." In fact this chapter ( could very well be written about designing bonsai.

There are many reasons for the odd numbered trees in a forest "rule." Some say it is a Japanese idea "Within the East Asian artistic tradition, China has been the acknowledged teacher and Japan the devoted student. Nevertheless, Japanese arts developed their own style, which can be clearly differentiated from the Chinese. The monumental, symmetrically balanced, rational approach of Chinese art forms became miniaturized, irregular, and subtly suggestive in Japanese hands. Miniature rock gardens, diminutive plants (bonsai), and flower arrangements, in which the selected few represented a garden, were the favourite pursuits of refined aristocrats for a millennium, and they have remained a part of contemporary cultural life. 

The diagonal, reflecting a natural flow, rather than the fixed triangle became the favoured structural device, whether in painting, architectural or garden design, dance steps, or musical notations. Odd numbers replace even numbers in the regularity of a Chinese master pattern, and a pull to one side allows a motif to turn the corner of a three-dimensional object, thus giving continuity and motion that is lacking in a static frontal design."

The Japanese connection is an important one as we have been influenced by Guiding Thoughts in Japanese Aesthetics "Guiding Thoughts in Japanese Aesthetics Shizen (naturalness, absence of pretence) - Gardens (and arguably any aesthetic object) should be natural. Design with the intention of making your creation look as though it had grown that way by itself. If you have obviously man-made objects involved, do not try to disguise them. (ex. Cement mortar or brick looks better untouched than painted.) Choose simple objects which will fit in with the natural surroundings.

Odd Numbers - When placing elements in a composition, use odd numbers such as one, three, and five. This will better result in a sense of natural asymmetry."

Yet this goes beyond the Japanese, as I pointed out earlier, great artists such as Monet, Van Gogh, and such all recognized that odd numbers were more visually pleasing than even numbers and their works reflect this.

(Will Heath 2005-2007  -

I understand that asymmetry is preferable in a smaller number of objects such as placed into a Tokonoma . It does not matter in a Yosue where a larger forest may well have even numbers of trees but if these are not noticeable and become part of the whole then it does not matter. The asymmetrical element in the Tokonoma is something that we, as humans, find more acceptable the asymmetrical arraignment. However, I should add this. This acceptance of the asymmetrical only seems to arrive when we start to understand design and structure, angles, triangles and placement of objects in a small space such as a Tokonoma. In other words it should be pleasing to the eye. Your eye.

This article is not comprehensive but it should give room for discussion and perhaps invite you to think carefully about the Tokonoma and its use in the home and in a Bonsai Exhibition.

©Craig Coussins