Tucked away behind the main museums in Ueno, the Tokyo University Art Museum may not be on most people’s radar, but it is definitely one of the city’s top museums in terms of curatorial quality. Whenever I go there, I am always delighted by the effort that has been taken to arrange exhibits and to make the exhibition experience as enlightening and attractive as possible.
This is the case with the museum’s latest show, “The National Treasure Butto (Buddha Head) of Yakushi Nyorai and Masterpieces from Kohfukuji.” This provides a temporary home to a number of stunning artefacts from one of Japan’s most famous temples, which is now undergoing extensive renovation, including the rebuilding of its “Central Golden Hall,” where most of these objects come from.
The show is also a successor to the 2009 exhibition “National Treasure ASHURA and Masterpieces from Kohfukuji,” but this time, emphasis is on showing other aspects of the temple’s collection.
The first part of the exhibition is not particularly exciting, as its purpose seems mainly to educate. The centerpiece here is an impressive “Seated Miroku (Maitreya) with One Leg Pendant” (Kamakura Period, 13th century), a gold and incense-soot-covered wooden statue of a supposed “future Buddha.”
The other exhibits are less spectacular. These include faded and rather dull portraits of temple worthies, manuscripts, lineage charts and printing blocks for Buddhist texts. They are all very old, dating from between the 8th and 15th centuries.
From little details — for example, the gold characters on indigo-dyed paper from the scroll of the “Jo-yuishiki ron” (Heian Period, 12th century), an important text for the Hosso school of Buddhism — one gradually gets an unmistakable sense that the temple featured here was definitely a cut above others.
This note of subtle sophistication and exquisite but not-too-showy detail is also evident in the “Seated Miroku” itself, with its gentle asymmetry, as well as the little angels suspended from the ceiling of the lacquered shrine box that used to house it, another decorative touch that you chance upon.
The reason for Kohfukuji’s finesse and quality was its connection to the extremely noble and powerful Fujiwara clan, starting in 669 AD, when Kagami-no-Okimi, the wife of the statesman Fujiwara-no-Kamatari, established a temple on the family estate to pray (unsuccessfully) for her husband’s recovery from illness.
Over the succeeding years, the temple moved a couple of times until 710, when it settled in its present location in Nara Prefecture. It continued to benefit from the patronage of the Fujiwara clan, as well as emperors and empresses, many of whom were related to the clan, ensuring it continued as a class act.
Quietly impressive so far, the show really picks up in the second half, located in a large, high-ceilinged hall. Here the big guns are brought out. The centerpiece is the very large and very old “Butto (Buddha Head) of Yakushi Nyorai (Bhaisajyaguru).” This work, depicting “the Buddha of healing and medicine,” was cast in gilt bronze in 685 and measures almost a meter in height. Even more remarkably, it was lost for 500 years after a fire destroyed the rest of the statue and the Eastern Golden Hall, where it was housed, in Japan’s turbulent 15th century.
In view of the fact that it was poorly looked after in the past, it is fitting that, at this exhibition, it is “protected” by statues of the “Twelve Heavenly Generals.” These date from the 13th century, and show a remarkable variety of posture and decoration, with scowling faces, furrowed brows and tufts of hair rising up like flames. This last detail has been enhanced well by the curators, who have chosen to light these beautifully carved works from below, so that not only are their features thrown into sharp relief, but their shadows also adorn the high ceiling.
This arrangement creates a sense of awe and majesty entirely in keeping with what is a sacred object to many. The Butto is in remarkably good condition, except for the missing left ear and damage at the back, where a portion of the head is missing. A video presentation deals with the story of its creation and subsequent history.
For a site that has invoked divine protection and favor, Kohfukuji has had a rather checkered history, with various natural and man-made disasters. The current reconstruction work is the culmination of efforts to restore the temple complex following a catastrophic fire that destroyed many of the temple buildings in 1707. With this excellently organized show, we can at least be sure that these national treasures will be safe here for the time being.
“The National Treasure Butto (Buddha Head) of Yakushi Nyorai and Masterpieces from Kohfukuji” at the Tokyo University Art Museum runs till Nov. 24; 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; ¥1,500. Closed Mon. www.geidai.ac.jp