TOKYO -- At age 68, the woman wearing the $5,000 kimono and driving the red Mercedes is Japan's most internationally famed woman artist, Toko Shinoda. And she is probably the only artist who uses 500-year-old ink.
Her pictures hang in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the National Museum of the Netherlands at the Hague, and the Haifa Museum in Israel, as well as on the walls of private collectors around the world.
For her first major show in Tokyo in eight years -- more than a dozen paintings and as many lithographs -- her main dealer rented the basement of the Buddhist temple that used to be the family temple of the Tokugawa Shoguns, recently popularized on American TV. Two hundred guests were expected at the opening but 500 came. It was the first exhibition ever held at the famed shrine.
Miss Shinoda's abstract paintings and lithographs owe much to her early training in calligraphy and, she said, nothing to Western art.
'I never studied Western art,' she said in an interview at the Zojoji Temple, where a 100-foot-long mural titled 'Past, Present, Future' that she painted four years ago covers one wall.
She has read the art books and knows about the art of the West, but 'No Western influence has come to me. It's unreasonable for a Japanese to do Western art. It's one thing to do things from the West like natural sciences, like chemistry, but not art.'
Yet she estimates that 70 percent of the people who pay from $300 to $500 for one of her lithographs -- in editions of 20 or sometimes 50 -- are foreigners. So are about half the people who spend up to $25,000 for her paintings.
She has Japanese customers, too. She painted a mural for the Japanese Embassy in Washington, others for a conference hall in Kyoto and a research center in Tokyo.
Miss Shinoda has exhibited often in the United States. She was one of three artists featured in a show that toured five major U.S. cities from April, 1979, until last May titled, 'Three Pioneers of Abstract painting in 20th Century Japan.'
The Zojoji Temple exhibition again drew praise for the artist's use of white space and the feeling of balance. The special black ink called 'sumi' that the artist uses is 300 years old. For the occasional thin line of red, she uses ink 500 years old. The ink comes in dried cakes and is mixed with water.
'About 30 years ago a lot of sumi came from China to Japan and I bought it all,' she said. 'I've been using those supplies ever since and there is enough to last my lifetime.'
'My upbringing was a very traditional one, with relatives living with my parents,' she said. 'In a scholarly atmosphere, I grew up knowing I wanted to make these things, to be an artist.'
She taught calligraphy before and during World War II and soon after began selling the brush-stroked Japanese characters that are works of art. But unlike some critics, she does not believe painting ranks second to calligraphy as art.
'I never wanted to imitate,' she said. 'Even in school I had to do it my way. The characters weren't something made by me. They've been around a long time. But the paintings are original, they're creations.'
Her workshop is filled with brushes, ranging in size from little wider than a needle to as big as a whisk broom. With them she uses broad bold strokes that express her sensations, her feelings about nature rather than nature itself.
'If I have a definite idea, why paint it?' she said. 'It's already understood and accepted. A stand of bamboo is more beautiful than a painting could be. Mount Fuji is more striking than any possible imitation.'
Unlike 99 percent of Japanese women, she always wears a kimono -- no dresses or slacks. Her collection of more than 100 of the traditional garments includes many she designed herself.
Not all cost $5,000, but she explained that the one she wore on one of the exhibition days, 'an informal kimono,' was of a special silk hand-woven by the best weavers on an island where such craftsmanship is the specialty.
She said she hasn't become wealthy from her art, but she can live comfortably, Mercedes included.