The concept of depicting the native landscape arose in the later Heian period, about the same time that Song period literature spawned pictorialization of multiple views of selected geographical locations in China. Early paintings of the subject have regrettably been lost, although documents record the existence, usually as folding screens, of scenic sites and sets of paintings illustrating important monthly events held at particular locations. Seasonal references were important to the compositions. In Japan, noteworthy geographical settings are intrinsically tied to the forces of nature that shaped them and then lent them their particular historical character. The fragile but enduring and fundamental relationship between man and the environment is a key element of classical Japanese painting, related to but often apart from the realm of religious imagery. Even during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when foreign subject matter, ideas, and modes of expression came to the fore, an understanding and appreciation of native ideals fostered the continued production of literature and painting incorporating indigenous subject matter.
These byøbu vividly portray activities and events along the shores of Lake Biwa, located just over the Higashiyama (Eastern Hills) from Kyoto. Rich in fertile rice plains to the east, the lake also occupied an impor-tant strategic location, guarding access to the capital. The route along its western shore was used by traders and pilgrims going south to Nara. The shores of Lake Biwa and the hilly slopes leading into the surrounding moun-tains and countryside provided settings for numerous Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, and, of course, villages. The colorful screens here are traditionally attributed to Kano Einø, who is best known as the creator of the earliest history of Japanese painting. Actually, they may be convincingly dated to the first half of the seventeenth century, before Einø's period of activity, but close in time to another anonymous genre byøbu of distinction in the collection, Horse Race at the Kamo Shrine . Both compositions offer deftly composed bird's-eye views of verdant landscapes rendered with richly toned hues of thick mineral pigments. The detailing of foliage and emphasis on its size, shape, and placement in advancing a visual reading of the composition from right to left link these paintings.
These screens eschew Western perspective as the viewer proceeds from the impressive Shinto shrine set deep in one of the mountain villages (right screen), through villages set along the shoreline, past rice fields where a hunting party advances, ending in the left screen whose entire six panels present the Ishiyama-dera compound. Visitors approach on foot, on horseback, but predominantly by boat along the lake's western shore toward the temple.
The blossoming cherry trees surrounding the temple precinct, especially its outer courtyard, proclaim the season to be late March-early April, and a pattern of billowing gold-foil clouds simultaneously obfuscates and then reveals select topographical features. An established convention of yamato-e since the later Heian era, these luminous, schematized forms bring focus and a framing structure to such genre compositions. Their usefulness in helping propel the eye toward places of note becomes apparent in the disclosure of various parts of the temple compound: its elevations, enclosures, and spacings, particularly around the huge well-known blue-green boulders purported to have been transported from China. The temple's fame, however, lies in its past as the friendly domicile for Murasaki Shikibu, the eleventh-century author of The Tale of Genji, Japan's literary masterpiece.