In Chikuma City's Kuwabara district, along the old Zenkoji Kaido road that still has some resemblance of its time as a waystation on the old road to the big Zenkoji in Nagano City, is Kaigan-ji Temple. Kaigan-ji has a zazen room, and every once in a while I go there for 5am Zazen meditation. This morning, I took both of our sons. After the meditation, we went inside the temple's main building, and were startled to see a huge 2.1 x 2.7 meter painting of a dragon on the wall.
It turns out Kaigan-ji is presenting a special display of one of the test paintings for the even larger one made for Kenchou-ji Temple in Kamakura in celebration of the 750th anniversary of that temple's founding. This 'Unryu-zu' (dragon ceiling painting) was made by Mr. Koizumi Junsaku, Japan's premier painter of unryu-zu.
According to the explanatory literature, Kenchou-ji is like the grand-daddy of Buddhist temples in Eastern Japan. It is on par with the major Kyoto temples of Daitoku-ji, Myoshin-ji, Toufuku-ji, Shokoku-ji and Nanzen-ji. All of those temples have 'unryu-zu' paintings of dragons on the ceilings. Kenchou-ji never had one, so in honor of its 750th birthday the temple called on Koizumi-san.
Koizumi-san went to Kyoto and made the rounds to study the dragon paintings there. The one that most impressed him was Daitoku-ji's. While the others were painted directly on to the ceiling panels, Daitoku-ji's was a watercolor drawn on paper using sumi ink. The finished painting was then applied to the ceiling.
For Kenchou-ji's unryu-zu painting, Koizumi-san decided to use that technique. But first, he had to make a 'shoshita-zu' test version to get the scale and balance right. The painting on display here at Kaigan-ji is that shosita-zu. Despite being a 'test', it is a masterpiece in and of its own right, with a size that is nothing but impressive. You can get the full effect of the dragon's strength and vitality as it seems to jump right out of the painting towards you.
Kaigan-ji's display of Koizumi-san's work is a unique chance to see a painting of this magnitude so close. The temple is a short 15 minute drive from Kamesei. Perhaps we could go and see it together the next time we go for 5am zazen.