Treasures of the world’s oldest and most visited museum – the Shosoin

Q: What is the Shosoin?

Today the Shosoin (正倉院) Repository refers to the treasure house that belongs to Todai-ji, Nara. It houses the Shosoin treasures.

However, the Shosoin was not a unique building in the eighth century. At that time, every major Buddhist temple and government office had its own storehouse, called a shoso. “Shosoin” (正倉) meant the ”precincts of the shoso” and originally stood for the warehouse area that many of the Buddhist temples and governmental sites in the ages of Nara period and Heian period were known to have.

However, all but the one such building in Todai-ji Temple were lost over time, and today Shosoin Repository of Todaiji is the only one of these still standing. Thus over time, Shosoin also became a proper noun for the only remaining treasure house building at Todai-ji.

Shosoin Repository (Wikipedia)

Shosoin Repository (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Q: What is Shosoin architecture like?

The original Shosoin building is in the azekura log-cabin style, with a raised floor. It lies to the northwest of the Daibutsuden (which houses the Great Buddha).

Set on stone-based pillars a few feet off the ground, insuring the free circulation of air underneath the building, the walls consist of logs laid one on top of the other in log-cabin fashion. The critical feature is that the logs are triangular in cross-section, allowing the air to pass through the walls when the humidity is low in fall and winter, and swelling to keep the moisture out when the weather is oppressively humid in the summer and the June and September rainy seasons. For a time after the new structures were built, the mechanical controls did not seem to work as well as the built-in adaptability of the old storehouse, but now the bugs have been eliminated, officials say.

Today the treasures are no longer housed in the original, log cabin-style storehouse but since 1962 the treasures themselves have occupied two reinforced-concrete structures in the Nara National Museum that were built to house them. Visitors go there to view choice pieces on display by rotation of the 9,000-odd objects that have been catalogued and restored so far … at the annual Shosoin exhibition. The Shosoin exhibition takes place only once a year, for several weeks spanning the end of October and beginning of November (Oct. 25 to Nov. 10 this year) because this is when the artefacts are least likely to be damaged due to the dry autumn air.

Nearly 200 years later, in 950, many more objects that had been in storage in another building of the Todaiji were moved to the Shosoin. Among these are the glass bowls, cups and pitchers from Persia, as well as costumes, masks and musical instruments used in the dances that accompanied the Eye-Opening Ceremony of the Great Buddha in 752, and hundreds of decorative banners dedicated on the first anniversary of the Emperor Shomu’s death.

Shosoin policy does not permit the exhibition of any object more frequently than once every 10 years, in order to protect the fragile colors and materials from damage by exposure to light, changes in humidity and the inevitable trauma of handling. Of the pieces displayed each year, some have been shown before, but a number are prepared for display for the first time.

On very special occasions, a few of these treasures may go to Tokyo or Kyoto to be shown for a short time at one of the National Museums, but they are not permitted to leave Japan for any reason. Thus these annual exhibitions are the only opportunity to see these relics of eighth-century court life.

Q: Why is the Shosoin so special?

Shosoin — is the oldest treasure warehouse with the largest collection of 8th century Silk Road artefacts in existence today. Shosoin today holds around 9000 items, leaving out items that are yet to be classified.

Among the thousands of objects preserved in the Shosoin, are cut-glass bowls, cups and pitchers from Persia, cups of Indian rhinoceros horn, musical instruments made by artisans of Tang China, inlaid with mother-of-pearl from the South Seas and lapis lazuli from Turkey, boxes of persimmon and mulberry wood, crowns of silver and gold, burlap bags and silk brocades, tables and chests of drawers, tax records and population surveys – priceless treasures of the imperial treasure repository of the great temple Todaiji in Nara located in Japan’s first permanent capital.

More significantly for Japan’s heritage,  the Shosoin houses artifacts connected to Emperor Shomu (701-756) and Empress Komyo (701-760), as well as arts and crafts of the Tempyo period of Japanese history. These Shosoin exhibits thus provide a rare glimpse into the daily life of Japan’s imperial court and the sophisticated splendours of an ancient age.

The Shosoin began its existence as part of Todaiji temple, founded by Emperor Shomu. After his death on May 2, 756, at the end of the first forty-nine days of official mourning, prescribed by Buddhist law, his widow, the Empress Komyo, dedicated to the Great Buddha of Todaiji some 600 of her late husband’s personal belongings, in order to insure his happiness in the next world. On three subsequent occasions she dedicated similar objects. This group includes many of the most famous treasures of ancient Japan.

These included many items used during Great Buddha’s eye-opening ceremony (including the giant paintbrush that the Indian monk Bodhisena used to “open” the original Buddha’s eyes in 752) to the temple.

At the same time, the Empress dedicated 60 types of medicines from the imperial treasuries as a form of prayer for the sick. In the past, the Shosoin has exhibited daily items like medicines and con-tainers or textile medicine bags in which they were kept.

Other daily items like an ivory ruler, marked only with black lines in segments of 5 and 10 divisions but without numerals, shows us the long continuity of tradition in the simplest tools that is passed down since bamboo rulers are still in use today in the traditional arts.

The empress also donated many items that hinted of Silk Road influences or origin such as a Roman glass, a Byzantine cup, an Egyptian chest, an Afghan mace, Indian and Persian styled harps, Persian brocade, Chinese felt rugs modeled on Central and North Asian carpets, over seventy musical instruments, including a koto (shiragi-goto) from the Korean kingdom of Silla, Go and other gameboards, engraved saddles and other military equipment, Buddhist regalia, and calligraphy by Komyo and Shomu.

The Shosoin exhibition has also featured in the past textiles and lacquer pieces decorated with painted or dyed figural representations and musical instruments that are spectacularly decorated, like the four-stringed lute or genkan, made of red sandalwood with a design of parrots and jewels inlaid in mother-of-pearl and amber. The circular leather plectrum-guard was painted with a scene of four figures sitting under a tree.

Since 1994, the Imperial Household Agency’s Office of the Shosoin Treasure House, which is responsible for the administration of the repository, has been producing exact reproduction of ancient Nara textiles. Apart from the appearance and colour, care has been given to reproduce the production and weaving style. The silk is donated each year by Empress Michiko, who personally runs the Momijiyama Imperial Cocoonery at Tokyo Imperial Palace. The Kamakura National Treasure House also holds a fine collection of Japanese art and sculpture.

The story behind the empress’ legacy to Todaiji – donations by a heartbroken dowagess:

Komyo, a Fujiwara similarly to Shomu’s mother, and born in the same year as the emperor, was the first commoner chosen as imperial consort. The couple rarely parted company and Shomu proclaimed that his wife would help during his rule, “My consort shall have affairs to govern.” They appeared to adore each other and Komyo’s lament reflects the crushing grief that compelled her donation:

Alas! Who could have anticipated the dark river of death that separates this world from the next? To our great sorrow, there could be no prolongation of his august life on earth, and the trees have shed their leaves. Time flows on, and nine and forty days have now elapsed; I was unaware of the passage of time, since my grief was growing ever deeper and my sadness even heavier.

“Opening the earth will reveal no sign; and to appeal to heaven brings me no solace. So I desire to give succor to his august spirit by the performance of this good deed, and therefore, for the sake of the late emperor, these various articles which he handled ? girdles, ivory scepters, bows and errows, collection of calligraphy, musical instruments, and the rest, which are in truth rare national treasures ? I donate to the Todaiji as a votive offering to the Vairocana Buddha, various other buddhas, bodhisattvas, and all the saints.”

Q: Why is the Shosoin so little known internationally?

Until the late 19th century, the treasures of the Shosoin lay virtually undisturbed except for rare occasions, when some objects were aired or removed for special examination. Since at least as early as the Heian period (794-1185), the Shosoin has been under imperial seal, contributing to the remarkable state of preservation of so many objects for 1,200 years. Over the past 200 years, curators and conservators have undertaken a systematic examination and repair of Shosoin treasures, the pace of which has accelerated since the end of World War II.

High-ranking priests sealed the Shosoin with ecclesiastical stamps, and Emperor Shomu’s treasures stayed secret for centuries until the Meiji government seized the collection from Todaiji, placing the items under the control of various ministries, most recently to the Ministry of the Imperial Household. After the Second World War, the holdings became national property under the control of the same government-run ministry, which selects some items each year, on a rotational basis, to be exhibited at the Nara National Museum, for the viewing of anyone who comes.

While many of the collection are remainders from the 8th century and are of domestic production, either art or documents, there are also variety of items originating from Tang China. Other material comes from as far as India, Iran, Greece, Rome and Egypt.

With many works dating from the 8th century, the treasures primarily consist of objects owned by Emperor Shomu that were dedicated to the Great Buddha Vairocana by Empress Komyo on the occasion of forty-nine days after his death, following Buddhist customs, in 756.

Q: Why are there so many Silk Road treasures in the Shosoin?

Nara’s founders, the Fujiwaras, modeled their new capital after the T’ang era (619-907) capital Ch’ang-an (now Xian), then the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Despite distance and the slow method of travel, the nobility in Nara and Ch’ang-an stayed in relatively close contact, and both cities reflect the multiculturalism of the Silk Road culture of their time.

The Shosoin treasures include many objects imported from the Asian continent and often show distinct elements of Tang Chinese culture, which greatly influenced Japan at that time, as well as those of Central Asia and the Near East, via the Silk Road. These objects demonstrate how Japanese culture had international influences at that time.

The treasures preserved in the Shosoin reflect not only Japan’s direct relations with the kingdoms of eastern Asia, but, through the Tang empire of China, contact with the arts and riches of Central and Western Asia as well. Many of the exotic objects in the Shosoin are thought to have come through China from the farthest reaches of the Tang empire. In addition to preserving so much of the life of the imperial court in eighth-century Japan, the Shosoin remains one of the most valuable records of trade between East and West along the Silk Road. Persian bowls and pitchers, lutes made in China of exotic materials, Chinese silks that display strong Near Eastern influence are stored side by side with objects crafted in Japan using skills and sometimes materials imported from the continent. Archaeologists and art historians still have their hands full sorting out the origins of many of these treasures.

The Shosoin’s collection of over nine thousand objects naturally reflects the borderless cultures that made up the Silk Roads, which borrowed from each other in multiple directions, creating an ancient intercultural discourse and exchange that reflects not only the travel of goods, but also of faith traditions, music, art, folk stories, and theatrical plots, along the Silk Roads, between Africa, Rome, the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, China, the kingdoms of the Korean peninsula and nascent imperial Japan. The Shosoin collection is thus not just a “Japanese,” but a world heritage collection that breathtakingly makes visible for us these threads of interpenetration in the arts, religion and other cultural forms, that reached the point of fusion in many instances throughout the Silk Roads, reminding us of the commonalities of our shared world heritage.”

Q: Where is the Shosoin?

The world’s oldest museum, the Shosoin Treasure House, Nara-era repository is located in a spot northwest of the Great Buddha Hall at Todaiji temple.

References and sources:

The Shosoin

The origins of gagaku,000things/151.html

“Nara offers a brief glimpse of treasures” by Amada Mayer Stinchechum Sunday, September 14, 1986

Complete list of Shosoin Collection solid objects  ‘Shosoin Tanabetu MOKUROKU’, Nara, Japan.   Shosoin, Japan Imperial Agency site  Japanese text site of the agency offers the selected illustrated list of this collection. It contains many images with Japanese text captions

Recommended Fieldtrip

VISITING THE SHOSOIN EXHIBIT Getting There Nara is easily reached on a day trip from Kyoto. The Kinki Nippon Railroad (Kintetsu) takes 33 or 45 minutes, depending on stops; fare is about $5 and $2.75 respectively. The Japan National Railways takes 70 minutes ($4.60). Both depart frequently from Kyoto Station. Where to Stay Accommodations in Kyoto include the Miyako (771-7111, area code 075), with double rooms from about $120 to $200. A simpler hotel, near the train station, is the Hokke Club (361-1251), with twin rooms with bath about $72.

Combine a visit to the original Shosoin storehouse (only the exterior is on view), with visits to the Nara National Museum, the Nara Prefectural Museum of Art, west of the Todaiji compound (which offers changing exhibitions from the museum and other important collections in the prefecture) and the Neiraku Museum, which is set in a lush walk-through garden of the Meiji period (1868-1912), its notable collection of Korean ceramics and ancient Chinese bronzes has been open to the public since 1969.

Information about acommodations in Nara may be obtained from the Japan National Tourist Organization’s Tourist Information Center in Kyoto across from the station (371-5649) or the Nara City Tourist Information Center at Kintetsu Station (24-4858, area code 0742) or Japan National Railways Station (22-9821). Museums The Shosoin exhibit at the Nara National Museum (22-7771) will be held this year from Oct. 25 to Nov. 10; the museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9 A.M. to 4:30 P.M. Admission to the exhibit, about $4. The Neiraku Museum (22-2173) is open Wednesday through Monday, 10 A.M. to 4:30 P.M. (enter by 4); admission about $3.25. The Nara Prefectural Museum of Art (23-3969) is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. (enter by 4:30); regular admission about $1.30. See Map of Japan showing location of Nara (NYT)


The most popular exhibition in the world Japan Times, Oct. 28, 2011
Staff writer

Once upon a time, more than 1,000 years ago, there was a small island nation ruled over by an emperor and empress. Fascinated by what lay across the sea, the emperor sent out envoys to bring back treasures from afar — glittering glassware, lutes capable of talking with the gods, stunning ceramics and much, much more.

News photo
Off his face: A mask depicting the character of the “drunken Persian king” used in the 7th- and 8th-century theatrical art of gigaku, and a pair of short swords (below). NARA NATIONAL MUSIUM / SHOSOIN
News photo

All was well until one day the aging emperor became sick and died. Grief-stricken and surrounded by her husband’s treasures, each of which triggered memories of their happy times together, the empress made a decision. She would pack up the mementos and send them all away to a temple, where her beloved would be commemorated for millennia.

A nice bedtime story? Perhaps, but it’s also historical fact. And the treasures — collected by Emperor Shomu and then dedicated en masse to the Todaiji Temple in Nara by his wife, Empress Komyo, in 756 C.E. — exist to this day. From Oct. 29 through Nov. 14, some 62 of them will go on display at Nara National Museum. And if past experience is anything to go by, for those 17 days the exhibition of the Shosoin treasures, as they are known, will attract an average of 15,000 people per day, making it by far the most popular exhibition in Japan and, arguably, the world.

Empress Komyo’s donation to Todaiji — which is famous for its giant statue of Buddha, which was in fact commissioned by her husband — consisted of more than 600 pieces from as far away as China, India, Persia and possibly beyond, and those were soon added to from other collections. In order to house what became a trove of 9,000 items, a wooden storeroom some 300 sq. meters in area was built on Todaiji grounds sometime before 759. And there the treasures stayed for over a millennium — somehow remaining almost unscathed by the ravages of war, tempests, earthquakes and the simple passage of time.

“We were told in school that the secret of the collection’s posterity lay in the design of the storeroom itself,” Kenichi Yuyama, the director of Nara National Museum, tells The Japan Times. “We were told that the wooden logs that make up its external walls contracted in the winter, thus providing ventilation during the dry months and expanded in the summer, thus keeping the storeroom protected from humidity in the hot months. But the fact is that it is airtight all year round.”

These days though, Yuyama continues, it is generally accepted that the key to the treasures’ longevity lies in the status of their owner.

“For most of that time, they were under the direct control of the Imperial family. That meant, to take them out of the storeroom, you had to actually obtain the seal of the current Emperor,” he says.

The Emperor wasn’t easy with his seal. The first time a significant number of the objects was displayed in Tokyo, Yuyama points out, was in 1940, when an exhibition of some 140 pieces was created to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the Empire.

“My aunt said she saw them then as a student,” Yuyama says. “Apparently more than 400,000 people went to the exhibition.”

But it wasn’t long before the collection was on the move again — albeit a much shorter journey. Toward the end of World War II, as fears grew that the wooden storeroom might be bombed by the Allies, it was decided to move its contents to the nearby Nara National Museum, which had a state-of-the-art concrete storeroom.

After the war, the public asked for the collection to be put on display before it was returned to the storeroom — and thus the first large-scale Shosoin exhibition was held, in 1946.

News photo
A cut above: One of the highlights of this year’s Shosoin exhibition is this Chinese-style sword with gilded silver fittings and inlay, which was owned by the 8th-century Emperor Shomu. NARA NATIONAL MUSIUM / SHOSOIN

“Japan had lost the war, lost its confidence and was, as a nation, utterly dejected. The show reminded the people what a wonderful culture the country had,” Yuyama says, adding that some 150,000 people attended.

The collection was ultimately moved back to the wooden storeroom at Todaiji — and then to a new, dedicated concrete facility. Since then, for about three weeks every autumn, when the storeroom is traditionally opened for maintenance and conservation, a selection of roughly 60 items has been put on display at the Nara National Museum. This year’s is the 63rd such show.

Yuyama says it is the Office of the Shosoin Treasure House, within the Imperial Household Agency, that chooses which treasures will be displayed. “Each time, a handful of the most famous treasures are included — but they rotate them so any one will only be shown once every decade or so, and each year they also include 10 or so pieces that have never been displayed before,” he explains.

One of this year’s highlights is thekingindenso no karatachi, which translates as a “Chinese-style sword with gilded silver fittings and inlay.” The 99-cm ceremonial weapon, the sheath of which is in lacquerware decorated with colored glass and crystal, was kept in the North Room of the storeroom, meaning that it was one of the original pieces dedicated by Empress Komyo.

This will be the first time the sword, which was owned and perhaps even held by Emperor Shomu himself more than 12 centuries ago, will have been included in the Shosoin show since 1990.

Another highlight, Yuyama explains, will be a large piece of aromatic wood known as Ojukuko, from the Middle Room — meaning it came under the control of the Imperial family in the mid-Heian Period (794-1185). Measuring 1.5 meters in length, the wood is thought to be agarwood, a dark resinous heartwood that results when certain Southeast Asian trees become infected with mold.

So valued was the scent of this particular log that there are records of pieces being cut off by successive Ashikaga Shoguns during the Muromachi Period (14th-16th centuries), as well as by 16th-century warlord Oda Nobunaga and the Emperor Meiji during his reign from 1868 to 1912.

Like all the exhibits at the show, the wood will be exhibited within an airtight case, so visitors unfortunately won’t be able to smell it. But, as Yuyama told a Tokyo audience recently, “One envies the curator who will open the box after the show is finished.”

Other highlights will be three wooden masks that were used in gigaku, a form of dance drama that was imported from China in the 7th century and practiced at the Imperial court and in temples throughout the Nara Period (710 — 784). The masks, two of which have never been exhibited before, are considered some of the oldest masks of any kind in existence in the world.

There will also be many paper documents, including an 8th-century map of the Todaiji Temple complex. The map includes a drawing of the hall that houses the giant Buddha — looking surprisingly similar to how it looks now, despite being rebuilt at least twice.

Many items of fabric are included in the Shosoin collection, too, and this year a tie-dyed jacket decorated with bold diagonal blue stripes that was worn by court officials in the Nara Period will be displayed.

Yuyama explains that the Office of the Shosoin Treasure House is constantly conducting research projects into the various items in its collection. Himself a specialist in paper objects, Yuyama took part in a four-year research project that concluded last year. “We discovered for the first time that the plant kujin(Sophora flavescens), which is a well-known Chinese traditional medicinal plant, had been used in Nara Period paper manufacture,” he says.

Such research often focuses on attempts to determine just how the objects in the collection were made — and that research, in turn, often involves recreating the objects as realistically as possible. This year, results of research into the karatachi sword were published.

Lacquerware artist and living national treasure Kazumi Murose led the research, recreating the sheath to determine, in particular, whether the variously sized gold specks visible on its lacquered surface were alluvial gold or gold filings. In the most recent Bulletin of the Office of the Shosoin Treasure House, published earlier this year, he reported that it was “clearly” the latter.

News photo
Pattern recognition: A tie-dyed jacket decorated with bold diagonal blue and red stripes that was worn by officials of the Todaiji construction bureau in the Nara Period (710 – 784). NARA NATIONAL MUSIUM / SHOSOIN

Murose’s task was made easier by the fact that the Shosoin collection also includes a metal file that itself dates back to the Nara Period. Hence it was by making a file similar to the ones used when the sword was made that he was able to identify the gold specks as filings.

The variety and sheer number of objects in the Shosoin collection is one of the key reasons for its value.

“There are so many different types of things — from crafts, to paper items, dyed fabrics — there is no other collection that has such concentrations of these objects,” Yuyama says.

“As a researcher, it is an absolutely essential resource for understanding Asian history. You could never get tired of looking at it.”

The only problem is that having objects from such a rare collection displayed for just three weeks each year can result in huge crowds.

Every year, the Shosoin show tops rankings of average visitor numbers for exhibitions held in Japan, and if it was included in the U.K.-based Art Newspaper’s rankings for shows held around the world it would easily top them, too.

Yuyama suggests Oct. 31 — the first Monday after opening — as the day least likely to be crowded. Miss that and this stunning collection might have to remain the stuff of bedtime stories, at least for another year.

“The 63rd Annual Exhibition of Shosoin Treasures” will be open daily at Nara National Museum from Oct. 29 through Nov.14. General admission is ¥1,000. For further information, see

2 responses to “Treasures of the world’s oldest and most visited museum – the Shosoin

  1. Shreedevi Nair-Pal

    It has been my dream for a very long time to visit this museum. But since most of these treasures are rarely accessible to the public, do you have pictures of all the objects in this museum? That way those of us who would love to see them will at least know what they look like.
    With best wishes
    ,Shreedevi Nair Pal

  2. Pingback: 10 Budaya Jepang yang Unik Dan Menakjubkan |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s