The tea bowl of the Zen monk Ryokan

September 2008, Izumozaki, Japan.

French version

On my way back from Sado island, before getting onto the fast train to Tokyo, at Niigata station, I decide to make a detour to Izumozaki, the city of Ryokan, the monk who is famous for his travels and calligraphies.
On board of  a local train I ride along the coast to the south. With me a book that tells the story of the life of the monk. A coincidence maybe, that book which arrived from France by Post just before I left and was slipped at the last moment in my suitcase. Close to two hours by train with one train transfer to reach a tiny station. No taxi and nowhere  to leave a suitcase!
Finally I end up catching a bus to the museum.
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As expected the calligraphies are extraordinary, the result of  diligent practice and a free and confident mind. The man was certainly exceptional, his calligraphies are inimitable. Writing goes on and on on pages that do not seem to exist for anything else. Our western paper, formats, horizontal writing, all this sounds so terribly wrong, writing is something else. Coincidence again, I find here a Japanese version of the book that I carry with me and that I just finished reading in the train.


Ryokan alone in his hermitage, the floor traversed by a bamboo shoot. How to make a way out of the hut for the bamboo shoot to grow? A hole in the roof, setting fire to the hermitage in the process!
After ten years spent away from his village, from his family he had found none remaining when he returned.

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While he virtually did not possess anything one says he was very fond of his bowl, the famous alms bowl, the one item among the eight that a monk can own, the one which symbolizes both the transmission of knowledge and the exchange with the outside world. I could find a replica of this bowl in the little town museum.
Ryokan was also very fond of little balls made with fabrics he sewed himself to play with the children while in the street. Statues and paintings show a tall, thin man with a smiling face and often surrounded by children.

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The memorial is located at the center of the little town, down by the sea, facing the island of Sado. From the road above the town one can see glistening roofs and aligned houses, an ocher alley between wooden houses painted in brown. The sea is just behind, a blue strip that mixes off with the sky. The statue faces the sea, it is impressive. From a man of simple appearance emanates a great strength.


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As I head to the bus stop to return to the station, children challenge me, on their way back from school they make a lot of noise. They hurry home to get rid of their school bags, tell me to wait and rush back to play ball. Pending the arrival of the bus we play together. Too bad I cannot stay I would certainly make a lot of progress in Japanese with them but I’m not ready yet to move into a mountain hermitage. I remember a painting I saw at the Museum of Yamadera. It shows the poet Matsuo Basho, alone on the road, a stranger to the life of the village he only passes through, I do not like this image, it shows too much solitude. I prefer the one of Ryokan playing with the children.

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Coincidence again, today, at Izumozaki I played with children.






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