Ogata Gekko (active 1874 - 1897) The Flowers of Japan: Sakura-ga-ike Lake, 1896. Oban.
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This very fine woodblock print commemorates the apparition of the Dragon King to a holy man, Honen (1133 - 1212) at lake Sakura-ga-ike. These lakes in the mountains, often with attendant hot streams or caves are frequently associated with the appearance of dragons and deities. In the case of dragons, I assume the coils of smoke must make some association with legend.
Genku Honin was an historic figure, he preached an extreme form of Buddhist salvation called Nembutsu, alienating many traditional Buddhists. His mission was very like Christ’s - he preached that the lowliest had the same rights and access to salvation as the highest and the holiest and like Christ, he was condemned by a jealous priesthood. It was presumably during his exile that he encountered the Dragon King near the lake at Sakura-ga-ike. Some accounts have him visiting the hole of the dragon and summoning its spirit…
Who arose out of the ground, wearing a robe and a cap, and disappeared after having been worshipped by the priest. The latter built a temple on the spot. People prayed for rain and when the Dragon King lent a willing ear to the prayers, a dark cloud hung over the hole. The cloud spread over the area and the rain came down. (The Dragon in China and Japan, M de Visser)
This story of a Buddhist erecting a shrine at a Shinto site is probably typical of religious conversion at the time, this print a late reminder of such things. Of course, with these Gekko prints, the quality of the printing is quite outstanding. When holding these beautiful things it is hard to imagine that these delicate, fleeting designs are produced from simple, unyielding blocks of hardwood. Gekko shows the priest kneeling towards the apparition of the Dragon King, who rises from the misty surface of the lake. This is the second print in a large series that Gekko executed. Colour and impression are outstanding, the print is in excellent condition and is on original Japanese album paper.
A copy of this print is in the British Museum collection, London.