Shosoin exhibition highlights imaginary world

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


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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