Shoso-in Exhibition Treasures

“Kingin Denso no Karatachi” decorated with crystal, glass and gold lacquer with metal arabesque designs (Photos courtesy of Nara National Museum)

SHOSO-IN TREASURES SPECIAL / Unveiling treasures of ancient Japan : National

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The 63rd Annual Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures will be held from Oct. 29 to Nov. 14 at the Nara National Museum. In thefollowing, we offer our readers a glimpse of the rare treasures that will be on display.

NARA–Visitors to the Shoso-in treasures exhibition will no doubt find beauty and pleasure in its exhibits, which include elaborately designed swords and priest robes that emit the essence of design from the periods they were crafted in.

Sixty-two pieces from the large collection of the Shoso-in storehouse in Nara, which are mainly associated with Emperor Shomu (701-756) and Todaiji temple in Nara, will be exhibited this year. Seventeen of them have never been before publicly shown.

“Kingin Denso no Karatachi” (99.9 centimeters long) Photos courtesy of Nara National Museum

Visitors will be enchanted by swords decorated with silver and gold made using a technique similar to that used for makie lacquerware, and also priest robes made of several pieces of cloth and fine silken threads. These ancient items manifest the wisdom of the skilled craftsmen who painstakingly made them.

“Kingin Denso no Karatachi” decorated with crystal, glass and gold lacquer with metal arabesque designs

One prominent treasure of the collection is the gorgeous sword Kingin Denso no Karatachi. Its sheath, decorated using the makkinru technique, which uses makie-like methods, depicts beasts and birds, clouds and arabesque patterns. Makkinru craftsmen paint objects with coarse flour gold then coat a fine lacquered layer on top; grinding designs into the lacquer exposes the vivid gold color underneath.

“Kokka Chinpo Cho,” a list of Shoso-in items treasured by Emperor Shomu that, upon his death, were dedicated to the Great Buddha statue at Todaiji temple by Empress Komyo (701-760), suggests Kingin Denso no Karatachi came from China’s Tang dynasty (618-907).

Upon the occurrence of the Fujiwara no Nakamaro rebellion in 764, 100 swords associated with Emperor Shomu were removed from the Shoso-in storehouse and used as weapons. Only three have been found, including Kingin Denso no Karatachi.

In 2010, two ancient swords discovered buried under the pedestal of the Great Buddha statue at Todaiji temple about a century ago were confirmed as Yo no Hoken and In no Hoken. The discovery of the swords, missing for about 1,250 years, heightens the possibility that others from Shoso-in could be found.

One question stirs the imagination: Why were items decorated using methods so similar to the makie technique–widely believed to be originally Japanese–apparently used to make Chinese objects?

Above: “Shichijo Shokusei Juhishoku no Kesa”(1.39 meters long, 2.45 meters wide), made of seven silk patchwork sections (Photos courtesy of Nara National Museum)

Shichijo Shokusei Juhishoku no Kesa, a quilted priest robe made of seven mottled strips and adorned with beautiful arabesque patterns, is believed to have been used by Emperor Shomu after he devoted himself to Buddhism.

Kesa robes are made from pieces of cloth that Buddhist followers donated to temples, and are characterized by silken threads and elaborate tapestries.

Shichijo Shokusei Juhishoku no Kesa is listed in the opening part of “Kokka Chinpo Cho,” which hints of Empress Komyo’s fondness of the robe.

The face of “Koge Bachiru no Shaku” (30.2 centimeters long, 3 cnetimeters wide), carved red-stained ivory depicting flowers and birds

The exhibit Koge Bachiru no Shaku (red-stained ivory measuring ruler) exemplifies the ancient bachiru technique of carving designs into red-stained ivory. Records tell us that each year during China’s Tang dynasty, subordinate warriors would present such a ruler to the emperor. Koge Bachiru no Shaku suggests similar ceremonies might have occurred at the imperial court of Heijokyo, currently in Nara Prefecture, which was established as the capital of Japan in 710.

It’s easy to get excited when gazing upon these beautiful treasures, whose craftsmanship emotionally appeals to us in ways that transcend time.


The star of the show

NARA–The treasure drawing the most attention at this year’s Annual Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures at the Nara National Museum is Ojukuko, a piece of agarwood, better known as Ranjatai, which will displayed for the first time in 14 years. The three kanji that represent Ojukuko contain another three characters that represent Todaiji temple.

Slips of paper pasted on “Ojukuko,” or Ranjatai, bear the names of influential people at that time (Courtesy of Nara National Museum)

Ojukuko, 1.56 meters long and weighing 11.6 kilograms, is an aromatic wood called jinko in Japanese. Although believed to be indigenous to mountainous areas in central Laos and Vietnam, many details–including how it came to be treasured in Shoso-in–remain unclear.

When it is burned, resin in the wood emits a unique smell. Small chips are cut from it and burned for fragrance.

The piece had been a symbol of elegance and power adored by powerful people throughout history.

Slips of paper pasted on the wood bear the names of Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-1490), the eighth shogun of the Muromachi shogunate; warlord Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582); and Emperor Meiji (1852-1912), indicating they had a chip cut from the piece.



— Exhibition period: Oct. 29 to Nov. 14 (open daily)

— Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (until 7 p.m. on Fridays, weekends and Nov. 3.) Entrance is permitted until 30 minutes before closing time.

— Admission: 1,000 yen for adults, 700 yen for high school and university students, and 400 yen for primary and middle school students. Prices are 900 yen, 600 yen and 300 yen, respectively, for groups of 20 or more, or for advance tickets. Advance tickets will be sold from late September to Oct. 28. Tickets purchased at the museum 90 minutes or less before closing are 700 yen, 500 yen and 200 yen, respectively.

— Organizer: Nara National Museum

— Supporters: NTT West Corp., Kintetsu Corp., Central Japan Railway Co., West Japan Railway Co., Daikin Industries, Ltd., Daiwa House Industry Co., Tezukayama Gakuen and Tezukayama University, and Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Co., with special cooperation from The Yomiuri Shimbun.

(Sep. 22, 2011)


Exhibition highlights imaginary world

The Yomiuri Shimbun

OSAKA–The rich and elaborate culture of the Nara period (710-794) will be seen once again with 69 items selected from the Shoso-in treasure repository on display at the 60th Annual Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures from Oct. 25 to Nov. 10.

A highlight of this year’s exhibition is a work of rich imagination and sophisticated artistry, the “Shitan Mokuga no Sugoroku Kyoku” game board covered with shitan (red sandalwood). A mythical flying bird with a human figure on its back is depicted on the side of the game board.

The game board, with ivory and antler inlay in the form of arabesques, flowers and flying birds, is believed to have been brought from the Tang dynasty (early 7th century to early 10th century) in China, by Kentoshi, official Japanese delegates to the country.

The mythical bird and human figure seem to represent exchanges between the East and West via the Silk Road.

The techniques used to inlay these materials on the board has developed into those used for mosaic crafts today.

Mythical birds are also depicted in “Sansui Jinbutsu Choju Hai no Enkyo,” a round cupronickel mirror decorated on its back with a scene of fishermen on a boat and waterfowl with horns and rabbitlike ears frolicking among the waves.

Other items include “Kurogaki no Ryomen Zushi,” a cabinet of black persimmon wood with a front and back door, a convenient invention from ancient times.

Among the treasures on display cherished by Emperor Shomu is “Kokucho no Shakuhachi,” a bamboo flute with decorative engraving.

The 43.7-centimeter-long, 2.3 centimeter-diameter flute is engraved with images of four women picking flowers or playing the biwa lute, and designs of flowers, butterflies and birds.

The intricate design over the length of the instrument’s surface is said to have been popular when Wu Zetian, a Chinese empress regnant between the late 7th century and early 8th century. The design also reflects the elegant daily lives of the court ladies.

“Hei Raden Hai no Hakkaku Kyo,” an eight-lobed bronze mirror decorated on the back with mother-of-pearl inlay, bears the image of Hosoge, a mythical flower. On the mirror’s base, which is embedded with turquoise, the flowers are shaped by mother-of-pearl inlay of Yakogai, a kind of green turban shell, and red amber. The mirror was also cherished by Emperor Shomu.

The engraving techniques on these items allow for lines that are as fine as a strand of hair.

The 60th Annual Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures
  • Oct. 25-Nov. 10, open daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (until 7 p.m. on Fridays,weekends and holidays), at the Nara National Museum, a 15-minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station.
  • Admission: 1,000 yen (900 yen in advance or in groups of 20 or more) for adults; 700 yen (600 yen) for university and high school students; 400 yen (300 yen) for middle and primary school students.Advance ickets are on sale.
  • Organized by the Nara National Museum with support from NTT West Corp., Kintetsu Corp., Central Japan Railway Co., Daikin Industries, Ltd., Daiwa House Industry Co., Tezukayama Gakuen and Tezukayama University in special cooperation with The Yomiuri Shimbun and in cooperation with NHK’s Nara Station, Nara Television Co., Nippon Kodo Co. and the Buddhist Art Foundation.

Shitan Mokuga no Sugoroku Kyoku

Shitan Mokuga no Sugoroku Kyoku, a game board, is said to have been used by the nobles in Tenpyo era (729-749) of the Nara period and bears a design of a mythical flying bird with a human figure on its back.

Kurogaki no Ryomen Zushi

Kurogaki no Ryomen Zushi

Kurogaki no Ryomen Zushi, made of persimmon wood, can be opened from front and back.

Kokucho no Shakuhachi

The top side, right, and bottom side of Kokucho no Shakuhachi

The top side, right, and bottom side of Kokucho no Shakuhachi

Hei Raden Hai no Hakkaku Kyo

Hei Raden Hai no Hakkaku Kyo, an eight-lobed bronze mirror, has a flower pattern that looks like fireworks bursting in the sky.

Shoso-in and Emperor Shomu

Shoso-in, a repository located on the premises of Todaiji temple in Nara, originally belonged to the temple, but is now managed by the Imperial Household Agency.

The treasures stored at the repository include more than 600 items related to Emperor Shomu (701-756), who founded the temple and had the Great Buddha built to bring Buddhist teachings to people who had suffered drought, earthquakes, hunger and epidemics.

Because of the emperor’s devotion to the Buddha, the empress dedicated the items he cherished to the temple’s Great Buddha 49 days after his death in 756.

Although the temple buildings were damaged in several fires over its 1,250-year history, the repository has survived intact.

In addition to the items related to the emperor, the repository houses utensils used for an eye-opening ceremony for the Great Buddha and other items for Buddhist rituals. Also among the stored items are daily necessities, such as mirrors and folding screens, weapons, musical instruments and ancient game boards.

Nara was a hub for East and West trading along the Silk Road, which linked western Asia with the Mediterranean world, so some of the treasures were brought from other nations.

(Yomiuri, Sep. 26 2008)

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