Catfish and Gourd Futokoromono with NBTHK Hozon Tosogu - Kyo-Kinko School
Futokoromono decorated with gourd and catfish. With NBTHK Hozon Tosogu, attributed to Kyo-Kinko School.
In Japanese mythology giant catfish is responsible for causing earthquakes, just by moving its huge body. Kadori Myojin is a god responsible for calming it down. He is doing that by rubbing gourd against the giant body of the catfish. This interpretation of catfish and gourd seems to be most popular in western publications.
However there is one more interoperation and this one is more common in Japanese publications. Zen Buddhism has a practice called Koan, it raises a simple but challenging question which results in multiple answers, for example "How to capture a catfish with a gourd".
This particular one was asked by Ashikaga Yoshimichi, the fourth Shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate. It brought answers from 31 leading Zen monks. Catching a slippery catfish fish with an unsuitable utensil such as a smooth and rounded gourd would be so difficult as to be almost impossible, but illustrates the impossibility of using logical rationalisation to understand Zen. It can be viewed as Zen humour, or as a koan, designed to provoke the viewer into new ways of thinking or seeing.
In other words If one is not a zen practitioner, this theme's meaning is to force people to think and find original answers and new approaches.
In modern Japan phrase "Gourd and catfish" is used to expres something elusive.
Menuki are made of shakudo with gold iroe eyes.
Kozuka is made of shibuichi. Catfish is made of shakudo with gold and silver iroe.