Magnificent Nara court culture highlighted

The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept 12, 2007

Nara, Japan -- The glorious court culture of the Nara period (710-794) will once again be in the public spotlight with 70 items selected from the Shoso-in treasure repository on display at the 59th Annual Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures for about two weeks from Oct. 27.

The treasures actually come from the Tempyo era (729-749) of the Nara period, and the culture of Heijokyo (ancient Nara) can best be captured in a famous poem that appears in the Manyoshu, Japan's oldest anthology of poems:

Ao ni yoshi
Nara no miyako wa
Sakuhana no
Niou ga gotoku
Ima sakarinari

"The capital of Nara flourishes like a beautiful, fragrant flower in bloom"

One exhibition highlight is the Hitsuji Ki Rokechi no Byobu, a standing screen with a wax-resistant-dyed rokechi design. The screen, showing Sassanian Persian influences, bears the images of a ram and other animals. Another folding screen, the Kumataka Rokechi no Byobu, displays a kirin, a mythical Chinese animal.

A woolly Kasen rug on display is the largest of its kind at Shoso-in, measuring 2.72 meters by 1.39 meters. It bears two large floral patterns. Although Japanese at the time did not commonly use rugs, Emperor Shomu (701-756), a collector of exotic items, was said to have greatly enjoyed the Kasen rugs in his possession.

Containers and playthings in the Shoso-in collection also recall the elegance of the culture at the time.

The Kingin Heidatsu no Kawabako, a lacquered hide box with a gold and silver heidatsu decoration, was used to hold offerings to Buddha. A Chinese hoo phoenix is depicted in the center of the lid, surrounded by gold and silver leaves. The lid's sides are decorated with birds holding flowers in their beaks and leaves.

The Sumie no Dankyu bow is a toy designed to shoot balls instead of arrows. Its inner side bears ink paintings depicting the ancient Chinese performing art of sangaku. A man is depicted juggling beanbags while a group of acrobats perform on a pole balanced atop a man's head.

Among musical instruments on display is the wu with 17 small bamboo pipes set in a wooden receptacle. The instrument, which has a black lacquered mouthpiece, resembles the sho, an instrument used for Japanese court music.

The exhibition will, for the first time, display a collection of Shibunritsu Buddhist sutras that detail training commands given to Buddhist priests. Two sets of Shibunritsu sutras have been preserved at Shoso-in.

One, called "Gogankyo," was hand-copied at the command of Empress Komyo (701-760), who wanted a prayer to God sent up for the peaceful rest of her deceased parents. The other, dubbed "Tokyo," probably brought to Japan when Ganjin (688-763), one of the highest-ranking priests in China at the time, came to this country to teach Buddhism.

Today, 1,200 years after their creation, the Shoso-in treasures remain enigmas for people hoping to unlock the secrets behind Japan's ancient history.

Collection dates back to 756

Shoso-in, which is described as the "end of the Silk Road," was originally the treasure house of the Todaiji temple.

From the Nara period to the Heian period (794-1192), central and local government offices and large temples had a storehouse called a "shoso" in which treasures were kept as well as various items collected as tax. A section of such a storehouse was called a "shoso-in."

At one time, there were many shoso-in storehouses, but only the Todaiji temple Shoso-in remains. The first of the Shoso-in treasures was stored there in 756.

Forty-nine days after the death of Emperor Shomu, Empress Komyo dedicated about 650 items related to him to the Great Buddha at Todaiji temple, wishing peace for his departed soul. Buddhist altar items used in the completion ceremony of the Buddha image in 752 were later stored at the Shoso-in.

The Shoso-in now houses about 9,000 items, including documents, stationery items, furniture, musical instruments, toys, Buddhist altar articles, weapons and armor, tableware pieces, clothing and accessories, carpentry tools and medicinal herbs.

The well-preserved condition of the collection's treasures--some dating back 1,200 years and having an international flavor--is a rarity among world artifacts.

If you go

The 59th Annual Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures
Oct. 27-Nov. 12, open daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (until 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays), at
Nara National Museum, a 15-minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station.

Admission: 1,000 yen (900 yen in advance or for groups of 20 or more) for adults; 700 yen (600 yen) for university and high school students; and 400 yen (300 yen) for middle and primary school students. Advance tickets go on sale on Sept. 27.

Organized by Nara National Museum, with support from Nippon Telegraph and Telephone West Corp., Kintetsu Corp., Central Japan Railway Co., Daikin Industries, Ltd., Daiwa Securities Group Inc., Daiwa House Industry Co., Tezukayama Gakuen and Tezukayama University, and Nippon Life Insurance Co. in special cooperation with The Yomiuri Shimbun and in cooperation with NHK's Nara Station and Nara Television Co.

For more information, call Nara National Museum at (0742) 22-7771.

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