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Feudal arts and architecture



Zen arts flourished during the Muromachi era (1333-1573) and close links with China once again dominated cultural life. The Ashikaga shoguns, now headquartered in Kyoto alongside the imperial court, indulged their love of the arts and landscape gardening in grand style. While many of Kyoto's Muromachi palaces and temples were destroyed during the late-fifteenth-century Onin Wars, two magnificent monuments still survive in the Kinkaku-ji and Gingaku-ji, the Golden and Silver pavilions. Built as country villas for the shoguns, both these buildings are modest in scale and combine simplicity of design with luxuriousness of finish - particularly the gold-leaf exterior of Kinkaku-ji. The Japanese style of domestic architecture was thus adapted to the requirements and tastes of the military elite.

Some of the most notable emblems of the power and wealth of the feudal lords (daimyo) were their castles. These reached their apogee in the sixteenth century as the warlords jockeyed for power. The castles were large in scale, surrounded by moats and elaborate defence works, and were constructed of wood on top of monumental stone foundations. Though obviously built for defence, their uncompromising solidity is offset by multistorey watchtowers looking like so many layers of an elaborate wedding cake with their fanciful, multiple roofs. Himeji-jo (White Egret Castle), west of Osaka, is an outstanding example of Japan's unique style of castle architecture.

Under the patronage of the feudal hierarchy, Japanese art reached its most opulent during the Momoyama era (1573-1600). The scale of feudal architecture created a new demand for decorative screen paintings, which were used to adorn every storey and were either fixed on walls, fusuma or folding screens (byobu). From the late sixteenth century, the Kyoto-based Kano School of artists came to dominate official taste. Their screens combined the bright colours and decorative boldness of Yamato-e with the more subtle compositional features of suiboku-ga. Subjects were mainly drawn from nature and from Japanese history and legend, while the extensive use of gold leaf added a shimmering brightness to the dark interior spaces of the great Momoyama castles, palaces and temples. Kano Eitoku and his grandson, Kano Tan'yu, were the school's most famous exponents and their works can still be seen in Kyoto's Daitoku-ji and Nijo-jo. This latter is the only surviving palace from the Momoyama era. Originally part of a castle complex, its sweeping roof lines and intricately carved and ornamented gables show a lavishness and boldness of style appropriate to its subsequent use as the Tokugawa shoguns' Kyoto base.

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