Field trip: Ashura (Buddhist sculpture from Kofukuji, Nara period) at the Tokyo National Museum, Ueno

‘Kofukuji’ a towering exhibit

A visit to a historical temple offers an often unique chance to admire magnificent Buddhist statues that have survived for centuries. An exhibition currently on show at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno, Tokyo, offers visitors the experience of a trip to Kofukuji temple in Nara.

The National Treasure Ashura and Masterpieces from Kofukuji, held in connection with next year’s 1,300th anniversary of the temple’s establishment, allows museumgoers to get a closer look at these statues without being blocked by a sheet of glass.

They are even invited to take a 360-degree look at the statue of Ashura, one of the Devas of the Eight Classes that has three faces and six arms. With sad countenances and thin, long arms, Kofukuji’s Ashura is one of the most famous Buddhist statues in Japan.

Ashura, Kofukuji

Ashura, Kofukuji (8th c.)

The series of eight statues was created in 734 under orders from Empress Komyo (701-760), the wife of Emperor Shomu, for the memorial service to mark the first anniversary of her mother’s death. Along with the eight, she also commissioned the creation of statues of the Ten Great Disciples, of which six still remain at the temple today.

The exhibition features the 14 statues on display (some of which will be removed after April 21). This is the first time the temple has allowed all of its national treasures to be shown off temple grounds.

Each of the statues is about 1.5 meters tall, except for a Devas of the Eight Classes statue that has only its upper half remaining. It is magnificent to see these works on display in two rows in one section of the exhibition. Ashura, however, receives his own special exhibition space.

Although the eight gods have features different from those of humans–Karura, for example, has a birdlike head–they generally have humanlike expressions. The six statues from the Ten Great Disciples have appearances closer to human, ranging from young to old.

Shiro Maruyama, the exhibition’s curator, said these works are an opportunity for even the layman to appreciate Buddhist statues.

“These statues were created with the image of human faces and feelings, portraying the ideal form as human,” he said. “Looking at the statues, you can meditate on how old they are or the feelings you associate with them. You can appreciate them in your own way.”

The latter half of the event is allocated to much larger Buddhist statues created during a rebuilding of Kofukuji after a fire in 1180. The temple was frequently damaged by fire.

The statues of the Four Heavenly Kings, each of which is about 2 meters tall, boast muscular bodies with piercing eyes, while the golden pair of Yakuo Bosatsu and Yakujo Bosatsu statues are overwhelming in their 3.6-meter grandeur.

These statues will be enshrined when the temple’s Kondo main hall is rebuilt next year for the first time since it caught fire in the early 18th century.


“The National Treasure Ashura and Masterpieces from Kofukuji,” in Japanese, will run through June 7 at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park, Tokyo, a 10-minute walk from JR Ueno Station’s Park Exit or Uguisudani Station. Open from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., 8 p.m. on Fridays, weekends and national holidays. Closed on Mondays (except for May 4) and May 7. Admission is 1,500 yen for adults, 1,200 yen for university students, 900 yen for high school students and free for younger children. For details, call (03) 5777-8600. The exhibition will also be held at the Kyushu National Museum in Fukuoka Prefecture from July 14 to Sept. 27.

(Apr. 10, 2009)

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