HoMA Select

Tomioka Tessai, Stone in the Shape of Mount Fuji

Renowned storyteller Lopaka Kapanui is known throughout the islands for his expertise in local Hawaiian legends. We asked Kapanui to share his thoughts about Hawai‘i’s rocks, and how he interprets the Mount Fuji stone on view in the Among Friends: Collaboration in Japanese Art exhibition on view through January 23, 2022.

“Aia nō ke akua i ka pōhaku.”
(In the stone, indeed, is a god.)

–Lopaka Kapanui

Many believe that Hawai‘i is a place of powerful energy, manifested in the land and, especially, in its rocks. According to Kapanui:

“Some pōhaku have godly beings living in them, like a manō (shark), or a moʻo (lizard). Rocks like these, imbued with gods, ʻaumakua, and shapeshifters, each come with their own protocol…if you don’t want to bear the weight of the rock, make a sincere offering, ask its permission, and announce your intention. It will go willingly and as light as a feather. Move it against its will, and treat it with disrespect, and disaster will follow.”

East Asia has its own legends, and rocks known as “strange stones” have been treasured for centuries, even though most are made of a common material: limestone. Only stones weathered into unusual shapes, penetrated by wind and water—especially the water of Lake Tai in southern China—over countless ages, qualify for this auspicious designation. Such stones are thought to capture natural forces as well as embody universal energy, or qi.

Historically, the finest Chinese stones were ranked, given official awards, and obsessively collected. A twelfth-century emperor gathered such massive stones for his garden that canals had to be widened and thousands of laborers conscripted to haul the heavy barges. Legend has it that some stones, unwilling to serve, obstinately sank the barges. When the emperor later lost his court to foreign invaders, historians did not interpret this as a mere coincidence. As a result, these stones were admired for resisting the emperor and remain famous today.

The strange stone concept spread to Japan, and while prized stones there had different characteristics, scholars such as Tomioka Tessai were aware of continental precedents. Mount Fuji was already the national symbol of Japan when Tessai owned Stone in the Shape of Mt. Fuji, but it was not only the outer resemblance to the great volcano that gave it value. Tessai viewed this mountain in miniature as the “true form” of Mount Fuji, a magical talisman that held within its small shape the powerful volcanic energy, the qi, that brought forth the islands of Japan from the ocean’s womb.

In a superb example of artistic collaboration, Tessai invited the prominent younger artist Tanaka Hakuin to design a silk storage bag for the stone with two inscriptions and charming landscape paintings. In addition, he invited Hakuin and his colleague, Tajika Chikuson, together with the controversial young scholar–artist Hashimoto Kansetsu, to complete paintings of Mount Fuji in a small album intended to accompany the stone. Finally, Tessai himself inscribed a miniature screen that would have been placed behind the stone when it was displayed. The interactions surrounding Stone in the Shape of Mount Fuji provide a fascinating window into social connections between some of the most prominent Japanese artists of the early twentieth century.

Stone in the Shape of Mount Fuji takes on a new significance in Hawai‘i. As Kapanui states, “I would address it as a cousin and treat it as such. For how wonderous is the power, majesty, and beauty that the Mount Fuji stone exudes. Indeed, it is a relative of ours!”



Tomioka Tessai (1836–1924)
Stone in the Shape of Mount Fuji
Japan, Meiji period (1868–1912), 1911
Stone with quartz markings
Gift of Drs. Edmund and Julie Lewis in Honor of Stephen Little, 2002 (12289.1–4)