It was only a few years ago that the great sculptor, Ishikawa Uncho (1814-1883), rose to national prominence. Now he is called the Michelangelo of Echigo (Echigo is a former name of Niigata Prefecture). Last Saturday, I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to join in a tour to see some of his greatest works displayed at Honjoji Temple, the Head Temple of the Hokke Sect located in Sanjo City. Many of his masterpieces are possessed by some of other notable temples and shrines across Echigo.
Uncho, as he is usually called, was born in Zoshigaya, Edo (now Tokyo). However, his great artisanal skills were well known and he accepted an invitation by Sanjo’s Uchiyama Matazo to come to Echigo. Further cementing his relationship to the area, he was later adopted at the age of 32 into the Sakai family, one of the more prominent families of Sanjo City at that time. However, it is often said by locals that the real reason he moved to Sanjo is that it sufficiently provided him with “good sake and chisels for life.” All of Niigata Prefecture is known for the quality sake produced within its environs while Sanjo is famous for hardware and ironmongery.
It is also reported that he worked only when he was in the mood and felt that the tools were of sufficient quality. According to a pamphlet provided by the temple: Unless he was happy, he never touched his chisels.
The pamphlet also noted that he only used a single piece of wood for each of his creations, yet each piece has many layers often carved deep into the wood. According to critics, his works are both bold in style and filled with delicate details.
Honjoji Temple’s exhibition contains several of Uncho’s masterpieces. Among many, I was especially impressed by his carvings of animals and the ornate carvings of gods, animals and mythical creatures he did on the temple’s transoms (a transverse beams or bars in the frame of the entrance to the temple), which were created out of single pieces of wood.
The animal sculptures shown below are a monkey, a turtle, and an ox. They look so real that I expected them to move and run away at any moment!
Also, you can find such animals as elephants, lions, carp, and dragons on the transoms. As well, Uncho’s carvings are observable on some of the existing gates and pavilions still in use today.