Sunday, December 27, 2009

Armchair Traveling: Japan at the Met

When I enter the Asian wing of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum, I am transported to a realm like no other.  I turn one way and arrive in a land of bamboo and cranes, or another and travel with philosophers on their long, slow journeys to sit and draw and write and talk.

My connecting points with Japan and its art are scattered:  there is, of course, Van Gogh, who painted gnarly, flowering branches like those he’d seen in Japanese prints.  At home, on our hi-fi, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly could be heard along with Mel Torme.  And there was that Marlon Brando movie, Teahouse of the August Moon.

When I was small, my grandparents had visitors from Japan.  We wore kimonos, and we ate a Japanese version of egg fu yung, which became a favorite dish.  

We received cards from relatives depicting Japanese scenes:  from an uncle stationed there, a Christmas card of women in kimonos, their parasols lifted against a snowy day; from my grandparents, three travelers with umbrellas struggling in the wind and rain.

Imperfect though these experiences may have been as informants, they were my introduction to Japan, and to its art.  While I don’t know what I’d think of Japanese-style egg fu yung today, I’ve never lost interest in the art.  This is not to say I'm knowledgeable about it.  I’m not, but I can’t let that matter.  I use the instruments I have:  my eyes and my time and whatever notions might occur to me as I look.

On this visit, a warrior and shaman are the first to greet me, their mouths and eyes defined by oval holes.  Whether I look through them, or they through me, I don’t know.

I follow a formation of geese on their flight across a field of gold; I see a crane, its beak tilted skyward, its tongue a flick of red; I see a rooster on a branch, perched above its hen.  These are scenes I know.

One heron stands on a single leg near a willow tree, the other extends its neck in a sinuous curve.  I know these poses, the shape of that willow’s leaf.

I am transfixed by scrolls of silk with mountains expressed in delicate clouds of ink.  I, too, have seen what moonlight does to a view.

The canister, the cups, the plate with its images of jars; the white silk kimono and the paper fan decorated with bamboo:  these are objects, or something like them, that I’ve worn or used.   

When I leave, I walk up Fifth Avenue and trace a delicate lace of branches silhouetted against buildings beyond; I watch geese bend and waddle toward open water in the icy Harlem Meer.  I would not have looked at either, if at all, in the same way before.

Japanese art captures what we know, but changes how we see.

 “5,000 Years of Japanese Art:  Treasures from the Packard Collection” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through June 6, 2010.


  1. I am inspired by your piece to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I'm lucky enough to be in that city again. If Japanese art "captures what we know, but changes how we see", then I want to enrich my life with this experience.

  2. You have more Japanese connections than you realize. Grandma and Grandpa S. traveled to Japan when you were very young to visit your uncle Bob, who was serving in the Air Force and was stationed in Japan for several years.

    Grandpa G. accompanied great uncle George to Japan. Grandpa G. brought me Tabi socks, the ones with a split for the big toe so they could be worn with Zoris, a.k.a., flip flops. I still have a pair.

    Grandma and Grandpa S. met the Japanese couple during their tour of Japan and they became friends. Grandma and Grandpa brought silk kimonos from Japan for you two girls. The Japanese woman showed us how to properly tie the Obi scarves according to Japanese custom.

  3. Thank you for another lovely post. When I was a child I would pore over a collection of Japanese stamps a friend of my parents brought back for me; it was my main introduction to some of that culture's marvellous design.

  4. Thank you for adding your wonderful recollection as a comment to this post. I encourage other readers to take a look at your blog, wrack line at to view your beautiful work.

  5. While waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square, Hawaii Standard Time, I kept thinking about your eloquently written description of the Japanese art exhibit. I was viewing our display of Utagawa Hiroshieges series (1858) "Thirty-sex views of Mount Fuji" that Gill retrieved from calendar at a yard sale (score!) then framed and hung in our living room.

    As I read your literary contributions, my sense of being is changing as I find a fresh way to view my world as well as immediate surroundings.

    For example, I do not know that I would have made the connection of Van Gogh’s trees resembling the Japanese art you viewed at the Metropolitan Museum. It is doubtful I would have crossed the literary musings of Ann Carson therefore missing out on her piece “Economy of the Unlost”. Her essay is challenging for me yet I look forward to another few pages to witness her historical discussion concerning the economics of poets.

    RC, I look forward to each new contribution to your blog (great idea) and admire the discipline and talent you have honed to write so brilliantly!


  6. Have enjoyed your comments! As for "Economy of the Unlost," since you were reading it, I thought I'd best give it another try. I have completed it, but don't think I've retained too much, so it's at my side-table for another go at some point (though we shall see . . .).

    Happy New Year!


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