Ancient Treasures Offer Exotic Taste

SHOSO-IN SPECIAL / Ancient treasures offer exotic taste

The Yomiuri ShimbunNARA — The 69th Annual Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures gives visitors the opportunity to admire many artifacts from the vast collection of the repository in Nara. The collection was begun more than 1,000 years ago, and all the treasures have been preserved in remarkably good condition. Many pieces were made by highly skilled craftspeople and feature details that originated in regions along the Silk Road.

The exhibition will be held at the Nara National Museum from Oct. 28 to Nov. 13. Fifty-eight works, including 10 items to be on show at the annual event for the first time, will be on display.

One of the highlights is "Midori Ruri no Junikyoku Chohai" (Twelve-Lobed Oblong Green Glass Cup). It is believed to have been among the offerings at the consecration ceremony of the Great Buddha statue at Todaiji temple in Nara in 752.



Kondo no Suibyo(Gilt-Bronze Ewer)8.8 centimeters in diameter (upper opening), 11.2 centimeters in diameter (body), 19.0 centimeters high


Hekiji Kingin-e no Hako(Box with Design of Birds and Flowers Painted in Gold and Silver on a Turquoise Ground)27.9 centimeters long, 17.5 centimeters wide, 10.6 centimeters high


Banryuhai no Hakkakukyo(Eight-Lobed Bronze Mirror with Facing Dragons on the Back) 31.7 centimeters in diameter, 0.9 centimeters thick at its brim


Hitsuji Ki Rokechi no Byobu(Screen Panel with a Rokechi Wax-Resist Design of a Ram Under a Tree)163.1 centimeters high, 55.9 centimeters wide


Floral motifs and crouching rabbits adorn the cup’s surface, and its deep green color is reminiscent of the ocean.

This slender and elegant cup, with gently curving sides, was most likely created in China during the Tang dynasty. Similar pieces made of metal have been unearthed in many other areas, such as Eastern Europe and Western Asia.

"Kondo no Suibyo" is an impressive gilt-bronze ewer with a long neck and a spout in the shape of a bird. It is a unique item, with no similar example existing.

The ewer comprises about a dozen parts that are riveted together. The complicated techniques employed in its construction indicate the pride of its craftsmen.

"Urushi-so no Kugo" is a harp with a lacquered sound box. This type of instrument is believed to have originated in ancient Assyria in West Asia. They were played in Japan in ancient times until becoming obsolete after the medieval ages.

Although "Urushi-so no Kugo" is damaged, the harp’s intricate bird and floral motifs can still be seen on its sound box and other parts. A complete reproduction of the item that was made during the Meiji era (1868-1912) will also be on display at the exhibition.

"Hekiji Kingin-e no Hako" is a box believed to have been used to hold offerings to Buddha. It features fascinating decorations, and its surface is painted light blue. Its floral and bird motifs have been gorgeously drawn with pigments made of animal glue mixed with powdered gold or silver.

The Shoso-in exhibition traditionally features items that belonged to Emperor Shomu (701-756) and were dedicated to the Great Buddha statue at Todaiji temple in Nara after his death. These treasures became a core of Shoso-in’s collection and were recorded in Kokka Chinpo Cho, the list of "the nation’s rare treasures," which itself is one of the preserved items at the repository.

Among this year’s exhibits, "Banryuhai no Hakkakukyo" is said to be one of 20 mirrors recorded on the list.

The back of the eight-lobed cast metal mirror bears the image of two dragons, who appear ready to ascend into the sky through trailing clouds, while a knob in the center of the back has the shape of a tortoise sitting on a lotus leaf. These motifs are meticulously depicted in every detail, such as the dragons’ claws and the tortoiseshell, making the work beautiful enough to rival a masterpiece of painting. The back’s design illustrates ancient Chinese concepts related to achieving immortality.

A componential analysis indicates this mirror was likely produced during the Tang dynasty, which means the item was probably brought to Japan by an Imperial envoy to China to be presented to Emperor Shomu.

"Hitsuji Ki Rokechi no Byobu," a screen panel featuring a wax-resistant design, may date from around the time of the emperor’s death. The motif of a ram with curled horns standing under a tree was often used in Sassanian Persia from the third to seventh centuries. The patterns of triangles seen across the animal’s body can also be found on brocade pieces excavated in Turpan in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. It is a precious item indicating how actively along the Silk Road people were trading with one another around that time.

"Kumataka Rokechi no Byobu," another screen panel to be displayed, bears an image of what is believed to be a mountain hawk eagle perched on a rock. Seen on the upper part of this work is a large tree around which a kirin, a mythical Chinese animal, and a wild boar run. This screen has both dynamic and static elements intermingled in one piece.

"Gyoku no Shakuhachi" is a bamboo flute — but one sculpted in marble. The instrument realistically re-creates nodes of bamboo, giving the item a simple but noble air. Interestingly enough, the shakuhachi has five holes on its front, unlike today’s version with four holes.


A show for everyone

In August, the Nara National Museum held its first ever press conference in Tokyo regarding the annual exhibition.

"I hope people not only in the Kansai region [where the museum is located], but also people from other areas and also foreign visitors, come to the exhibition," said Nobuyuki Matsumoto, director of the museum.

The exhibition was launched in 1946 to help bolster people’s spirits in post-war Japan. The inaugural event attracted about 147,000 visitors.