The first Emperor of Japan ascended the throne perhaps 1,600 years ago, and after his direct descendent, the present Emperor, inherited the office 12 years ago, he donated 6,000 heirlooms to the nation. Nearly 200 are being exhibited together for the first time at the Heiseikan galleries in Ueno.

Approaching the bright new building past a bubbling stream prepares us for something special. "Treasures of the Imperial Collections" lives up to its name; here is some of the finest art in Japan. Exhibits range from tomb relics of the Yayoi Period to oil paintings of the 20th century, yet this rich diversity shows a remarkable continuity of tradition.

Throughout the centuries, waves of foreign influence have washed up on these shores. Each has made its mark, but Japanese artistry is still unique, and it is fascinating to trace motifs and sensibilities through the ages. For example, the bronze dotaku bells of purely Japanese design have been silent for perhaps 2,000 years, and we can only conjecture about their ritual use. But the patina reveals an abstract design of flowing water, appropriate for an island nation and rites of purification. Such stylized waves appear many times in the exhibits, as they still do on many everyday textiles, pottery and paper.