Toyo Sesshu
Born: 1420
Died: 1506
Place of Birth: Akahama. Bitchu province
Place of Death: Unknown
Japanese name: 雪舟, 等楊
Famous Paintings: Long Scroll of Landscapes
View of Ama-no-Hashidate

Toyo Sesshu was the most prominent Japanese master of ink and wash painting. He was born into the Oda family, then brought up and educated to become a Rinzai Zen Buddhist priest.


Sesshu was born in Akahama, a settlement in Bitchu Province, which is now part of western Okayama Prefecture. His family name was Oda, but his original name is unknown. He received the name Toyo in 1431, when he was enrolled at the Hofuku-ji, a Zen temple in Soja. Kano Eino's History of Japanese Painting, a 17th century source, contains a well-known anecdote about the young Sesshu: apparently the future painter did not study Zen with enough dedication, preferring instead to spend his time drawing. Once, he was punished for disobedience and tied to a pillar in the hall of the temple. After a while, a priest came to see him and jumped up with surprise there was a mouse very close to Sesshu's foot. However, it was actually a picture which Sesshū had painted with his tears. Although the story is famous, its authenticity is questionable. At any rate, during his early studies Sesshu would have received instruction not only in religion, but also calligraphy and painting.

Around 1440 Sesshu left Bitchu for Kyoto. He lived as a monk at Shokoku-ji, a famous Zen temple. There, Sesshu studied Zen under Suto Shunrin, a famous Zen master, and painting under Shubun Tensho, the most highly regarded Japanese painter of the time. Shubun's style, like that of most Japanese Zen painters, was inspired by Chinese Song Dynasty painters such as Xia Gui, Guo Xi, and others. There are no surviving works by Sesshu from this time, but even his late work shows similar influences. Sesshu spent some 20 years in Kyoto, and then left for Yamaguchi Prefecture to become chief priest of Unkoku temple. It was around this time that he started calling himself Sesshu.

Visiting ChinaEdit

Yamaguchi was where many Japanese expeditions to China started, and perhaps Sesshu's choice of the city was dictated by a wish to visit that country. He secured an invitation from Ouchi family, the lords of Yamaguchi and one of the most powerful families in Japan, and joined a trading trip; in 1468 he landed in Southern China. His duties were to buy Chinese works of art for wealthy Japanese patrons, and to visit and study at Chinese Zen temples. Although the artist himself was disappointed in the art of Ming dynasty, which deviated very far from Song models, he was very taken with Chinese nature and temples. He was quickly recognized as an important painter, and a contemporary source indicates that he may have received a commission from the Imperial Palace at Beijing. Whether this is true, or whether he accepted is unknown; the best surviving works of the period are four landscape scrolls currently in the collection of Tokyo National Museum.

Sesshu stayed in China until 1469. Because of the Onin War, he could not stay in Yamaguchi, and settled instead in Oita Prefecture in Kyushu, where he built a studio, Tenkai Zuga-ro. He occupied himself with painting and teaching, and frequently made trips to various areas of Japan. On one of such trips, in 1478, Sesshu went to Masuda, Shimane, on invitation from Masuda Kanetaka, the lord of Iwami Province. The painter entered the Sukanji, made two Zen gardens there, and painted the portrait of Kanetaka, and The Birds and Flowers of Four Seasons.

Returning to JapanEdit

The Birds and Flowers of Four Seasons

The Birds and Flowers of Four Seasons by Toyo Sesshu

In 1486 Sesshu came back to Yamaguchi. Many of his extant works date from the last years of his life, including Landscape of the Four Seasons, Haboku-Sansui (1495), and others. One such work, View of Ama-no-Hashidate, is a bird's eye view of a famous sandbar in Tango Province. To paint it, the artist, who was already well into his eighties, had to climb a tall mountain, so evidently he was still in good health.


In 1506, he died, aged 87. A single self-portrait of Sesshū is known through a later copy made by a follower.


  • Landscape of the Four Seasons, four landscape scrolls
  • Landscapes of Autumn and Winter, two hanging scrolls
  • Short Scroll of Landscapes
  • Long Scroll of Landscapes
  • Haboku-Sansui, "splashed-ink" technique scroll
  • View of Ama-no-Hashidate
  • Portrait of Masuda Kanetaka
  • Huike Offering His Arm to Bodhidharma
  • Flowers and Birds, pair of sixfold screens