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  • Writer's pictureAmy Couling

Miyako Exhibition: The Virtual Tour

Miyako means capital.

Long before Tokyo was the capital city of Japan, Kyoto, otherwise known as Heian-kyō ‘peaceful capital’, was the imperial capital during and after the Heian Period (794 - 1185) for one thousand years.

The Heian Period was a classical era known for its peace and prosperity and it was the peak of imperial court life. Art, literature and poetry flourished and uniquely Japanese scripts for writing were invented with the decline of Chinese influence. It is fondly remembered as Japan's Golden Age that greatly influenced the country's culture.

Kyoto is now known as the cultural capital of Japan with its traditional machiya architecture and over two thousand Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples within the city. Traditional professions and ways of making kimono, arts and crafts can still be observed there today. The city is at the intersection of traditional Japanese culture and modern life.

Miyako is also the first kanji character that spells Kyoto, Amy’s Japanese hometown. It has been ten years since she has lived in the city and five years since she was last able to visit.

These new works were made under the themes of longing to go back to places that are dear to us, but physically not being able to because of the ongoing pandemic. The aching of the heart that misses family and friends abroad and yearns to be back in a specific place or second home.

This exhibition is a topical reminder of the emotional cost of the pandemic and not being able to be with the people and places that we love, but with the hope that we may be reunited soon.

Kyoko | 京子

2020, gouache on paper, 148 x 210mm

The colour purple was known as a colour of nobility in Japan, especially in the time of the Fujiwara clan in the Heian Period of Kyoto.

The Fujiwaras were a powerful aristocratic family who gained their power at court by marrying their daughters to the emperor or other members of the imperial family. They were so politically powerful that they essentially ran the country behind a puppet emperor.

The ‘fuji’ in their name means wisteria, which was the flower on their kamon (family crest). This reinstated the importance of the colour purple to society at the time. A lot of Japanese surnames still have the wisteria kanji in their names today, which may mean they were once part of the Fujiwara clan.

Kyoko’s name combines the kanji of miyako and ko, meaning ‘child of the capital’ or ‘child of Kyoto’, as the city uses the same kanji character.

Ken Mitsu Aoi | 剣三つ葵

2021, gouache on paper, 148 x 210mm

This is the Yoshikawa kamon (family crest) of Amy’s family. The design is called ken mitsu aoi which means ‘three swords three aoi’. The aoi (hollyhock) leaves have particular significance in Kyoto, where during the Heian Period the leaves were believed to protect against natural disasters. One of the three great festivals in Kyoto is called the Aoi Festival and it uses the leaf as decorations and part of the sacred offerings which is still celebrated today.

There are also cleverly hidden symbols within the main kamon design - a fact that Amy’s mother Yoko only discovered last year after reading old family documents.

The three sacred treasures called sanshu no jingi are represented within the kamon: the sword (valour), the mirror (wisdom) and the jewel (benevolence). These legendary items were written about in many myths and legends. They are now known as the Imperial Regalia of Japan but the general public do not know what they actually look like or where they are secured.

The honke (main house) where the Yoshikawa family originated from was located in Toyama. They were kannushi (priests) of the Shinto shrine named Hiyoshi and the three sacred treasures were intrinsically linked to the Shinto religion. Yoko always wondered why the sword was in her family kamon as they were not a samurai family, and she finally understood the real reason.

Haruka | 春果

2021, gouache on paper, 148 x 210mm

Haruka's name means 'spring fruit' in Japanese. Amy was inspired by the colours of the Japanese hand pressed letter set she has with charming lemon motifs on the letterheads matched with periwinkle blue envelopes. Haruka also has spring flowers on her kimono, including sakura (cherry blossoms), botan (peonies) along with temari (the traditional craft of embroidered hand balls).

Fushimi Inari Taisha | 伏見稲荷大社

2020, gouache on paper, 210 x 148mm

Fushimi Inari Taisha is a famous Shinto shrine located in the Fushimi Ward of Kyoto. It is the head shrine of the kami (god) Inari, who is the kami of rice and agriculture.

The shrine is at the base of the Inari mountain (233m) and it is most well known for the over one thousand vermilion coloured torii gates that wind their way up the many trails of the mountain. Each torii gate was donated by a Japanese company, as Inari was also known as a patron of business. There are over 32,000 sub shrines of Inari throughout Japan.

Painted here is the main gate of Fushimi Inari Shrine at the base of the mountain. Kitsune (foxes) are known as the messengers of Inari, and they flank the main gates. They are sometimes depicted with a jewel or a rice granary key in their mouths.

Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of Amy’s favourite places in Kyoto. Walking up the mountain under the many torii gates has such a spiritual beauty, and it feels like you are walking into another world. The trick to avoiding the crowds of tourists at the base is to climb your way to the top of the mountain, where most tourists don’t venture as far.

Ichou (Murasaki) | イチョウ (紫)

2020, gouache on paper, 148 x 210mm

Amy was inspired by autumn and the huge golden ginkgo trees in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens for this piece, which in turn reminded her of the ginkgo trees lining the streets of Kyoto.

Although it was in the month of December and already winter when she visited the city last, Amy was surprised to see the golden ginkgo trees still in full swing along the streets of Kawaramachi.

The title of this piece is Ginkgo (Purple) because Amy also painted a sister painting with a green circle background titled Ginkgo (Green). The matching green piece was previously bought and now lives in Japan.

The colour purple was known as a colour of nobility in Japan, especially in the time of the Fujiwara clan in the Heian Period of Kyoto, when it was the capital city for over a thousand years.

Ebisuya | 戎屋

2022, gouache on paper, 210 x 148mm

Artist’s Collection

Amy’s great grandfather Shūsuke Yoshikawa first opened his business in Kyoto in 1924. He named his shop Ebisu-ya after one of the seven lucky gods called Ebisu. His shop sold dyes, chemicals and tools handmade by artisans to be used for the traditional dyeing of fabric for kimono, noren (shop awnings) and furoshiki (wrapping cloths).

Ebisuya sold these wares to local workshops not only in Kyoto, but across the country. Shūsuke travelled by night train around Japan to gain new clients by personally visiting them at their workshops and factories.

Although the shop moved several times around Kyoto due to the war and other circumstances, the Ebisuya that Amy grew up with was located on the busy corner of Karasuma and Ebisugawa in central Kyoto, captured here in this painting. It was a small and ancient house that served as the shop and store room as well as the family living quarters.

Amy’s uncle Shūhei inherited the business after Amy’s grandparents passed but he has since retired and moved away to another area of Kyoto. Even though the shop is long gone, Ebisuya is still vivid in Amy’s memories.

Yoko | 洋子

2022, gouache on paper, 297 x 420mm

This is a portrait that Amy painted of her Mum, Yoko. She is wearing the kimono that Amy made as a part of her San Sedai Three Generations series. The motifs were screen printed by hand onto the cotton broadcloth fabric and they represented Yoko's early life of growing up in the Shōwa Period of Japan.

Ohinasama | お雛様

2021, gouache on paper, 280 x 500mm

The 3rd of March is known as Hinamatsuri or Girls’ Day in Japan. It is a day to celebrate the healthy growth and happiness of girls across the country. Ornamental dolls called hina ningyō are lovingly displayed in homes that have daughters.

The dolls are displayed on a red, tiered platform called hina dan, with a descending hierarchy. The dolls representing the emperor and empress are placed on the top tier and their court retinue are on the tiers below. They are all dressed in the imperial court kimono of the Heian Period.

The empress doll is known as the ohinasama, and she is wearing a jūnihitoe kimono, which was the most formal and elaborate kimono which she and other noble women wore at court. The jūnihitoe means twelve layers of unlined silk kimono called hitoe.

The different coloured kimono layers were carefully put together to represent the colours of the season. You could see the combined layers of colour best at the neck or sleeves of the woman, and the discerning nobles of the court would be able to tell her refined taste (or not) based on the harmonious visual relationship of the kimono layers.

It was no mean feat for women to wear all of those layers, as it could weigh up to 15kg at a time. The innermost undergarment worn back then was called a kosode, which would eventually become what we know today as the everyday kimono.

Saki | 咲希

2021, gouache on paper, 200 x 200mm

Inspired by the magnificent magnolia tree outside Amy’s bedroom window, Saki is an ode to spring and to better, warmer times ahead.

Saki’s hair is up in a nihongami style, which means a traditional Japanese hairstyle. With traditional hair accessories like combs and kanzashi hair ornaments intact. This hairstyle was hardened and shaped with wax and made to last a week. This would necessitate the use of a takamakura (special pillow raised off the floor) to keep the hairstyle in shape even while sleeping.

Although these hairstyles were a common sight in the Edo period of Japan, they are now uncommon for everyday styling except for maiko (apprentice geisha), geisha and brides. The sight of this nihongami style brings back nostalgic feelings for Japanese people and can most often be seen in TV dramas set in the Edo period.

The kanji characters in Saki’s name means ‘blooming miracle’. As she gazes into the distance, is she reminiscing on the past or is she looking towards the future?

Tsubaki | 椿

2021, gouache on paper, 148 x 210mm

Tsubaki was painted during the nationwide snap lockdown that Aotearoa New Zealand had due to the Omicron outbreak in August 2021. The red camellia flowers are a beloved winter motif in Japanese culture and it also happens to be one of Kyoto city's symbols. Amy's parents have both red and white camellias in their garden and they always brighten up the winter months. The tsubaki is also one of Amy and her mother's favourite flowers.

Tamayo | 珠世

2021, gouache on paper, 148 x 210mm

Lady Tamayo was a character from the famous Japanese animation series Kimetsu no Yaiba (Demon Slayer) which was very popular in Japan and overseas. Whilst being a demon herself, Lady Tamayo had a noble mission to study demon blood in order to find the cure for turning demons back into humans. The series was set in the Taisho Era (1912 - 1926) of Japan, and most of the characters wore kimono, with Lady Tamayo's being one of Amy's favourites.

Shiki | 四季

2019, gouache on paper, 420 x 594mm

Artist’s Collection

Shiki means four seasons in Japanese. The seasons in Japan are distinct and the changing of the seasons has always been a culturally important factor in daily life. Many festivals are observed in each season and kimono patterns and the traditional tea ceremony incorporate motifs of flora and fauna of the current season.

Shiki has flowers that bloom in different seasons on her kimono; such as ume (plum) blossoms and irises in spring, peonies and hollyhocks in summer, chrysanthemums and maple leaves in autumn and red camellias and bamboo leaves in winter.

This painting came second place in Womankind magazine’s inaugural Art and Illustration Award in 2019.

Tsuyu | 梅雨

2021, gouache on paper, 420 x 594mm

Tsuyu means rainy season in Japanese and it could be called Japan’s fifth season as it is a significant weather event there every year. The rainy season occurs within the months of May, June and July amidst the summer heat and humidity.

The kanji for the word tsuyu in Japanese combines the characters of ume (梅) ‘plum’ and ame (雨) ‘rain’ together. The reason for this is said to be that in the olden days in Japan, people would know the rainy season was going to start once the ume fruit were ripe on the trees during May and June. The ōgi folding fan in the painting is one that Amy’s mother owns, and it depicts ume flowers on it.

Ajisai (hydrangea) flowers thrive in the rainy season, blooming in beautiful gradients of blues, purples, whites and pinks. They are a native flower to Japan and the colours of the flowers can change depending on the acidity of the soil they grow in.

This painting was made for the Curate Me exhibition at PG Gallery in 2021. It was inspired by Gretchen Albrecht’s Changes/Span in the Ara Art Collection.

Maiko (Fukunae) | 舞妓 (ふく苗)

2022, gouache on paper, 105 x 148mm

A maiko is an apprentice geisha, who is in training to learn traditional Japanese dance, music and performance. Maiko are typically aged between fifteen to twenty years old and they live and train in their resident tea house.

Maiko are a symbol of Kyoto nowadays and you can sometimes spot them walking the streets of Gion and Pontochō, which are famous old town areas where maiko and geisha live and work.

Maiko have to get their hair done in a traditional Japanese style called nihongami, with a lot of hair accessories in place representing the current season. They wear special kimono which are bright and youthful and they put white makeup on their face and neck.

This painting is based on a real maiko called Fukunae (who has since retired from her maiko role) and Amy saw her perform at a cultural event in Kyoto.

Yaezakura | 八重桜

2021, gouache on paper, 105 x 148mm

Yaezakura is a type of sakura (cherry blossom) where each flower has many layered petals, giving it a puffy, cute look. It typically blooms late spring and it is usually the last sakura type to flower.

An excerpt from Wabi Sabi: The Art of Everyday Life by Diane Durston, 2006

(Excerpt used with permission from the author)

A cold morning in January. Sliding open the wood-slatted door, the first thing to catch the eye in the dark interior is a tiny vase with a single perfect camellia bud, a reminder that there is light at the end of winter’s tunnel—an elegant nod to the changing season, lest we in our hurry forget.

Stepping inside, the house is somehow quiet, though the old shop opens right onto a busy street. The entry hall has a concrete floor where shoes are left behind when the invitation comes to step up into the genkan, a small tatami mat room where the Yoshikawa family conducts business and greets their guests.

Mrs. Yoshikawa appears, smiling a welcome and bowing profusely, a symbol of respect. You feel like an honored guest, as does everyone who crosses the threshold of the Yoshikawa home. The family sells dye pigments to artisans in the kimono trade. The shop is in the house and vice versa. The room is cramped, and she apologizes for the inconvenience.

There is nothing in the room except worn paper doors and a battle-scarred wooden corner post polished smooth by the hands of four generations of hardworking merchants. Mrs. Yoshikawa gestures graciously to be seated on the floor cushions she has prepared for the occasion. Though her house is simple and worn, it is spotlessly clean.

“A cup of tea?” she offers. No one who knows her would refuse. Mrs. Yoshikawa is famous for what she refers to as her “only vice.” She pours two cups of tea from a simple red clay pot. Although she is a frugal person, she manages to save a bit extra each month to support her habit of drinking the finest green tea in the world. It is a simple pleasure, and she always finds the time to share a cup of her sweetly fragrant gyokuro tea—and the warmth of her hospitality—with a special friend.

American author Diane Durston wrote many books about Kyoto, one of the most famous being her book titled Old Kyoto. Amy’s mother Yoko helped Diane navigate Kyoto shops when she was writing her books and they are still friends today. This excerpt from her book Wabi Sabi describes Diane’s personal encounter with Amy’s obāchan (grandmother) in Kyoto.

17 May - 5 June 2022

Miyako Exhibition

Shops 9 - 10, Cathedral Junction

Ōtautahi Christchurch

MIYAKO had the generous support of the Christchurch Creative Communities Scheme

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