• by Kay Itoi
  • Special to The Japan Times


The Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine in Kyushu is a peaceful, tranquillity-filled spot detached from the bustle of big cities like Fukuoka, a half-hour drive away. It has been a place of worship since it was built on the grave of Michizane Sugawara, a beloved high-ranking Heian Period official who died in exile there more than 1,000 years ago. But a young priest is giving the centuries-old shrine a new face by mixing traditions and contemporary art.

The Dazaifu Tenmangu Museum has dozens of mostly historic items from the shrine’s 50,000-piece art, antiques and book collection, which includes one National Treasure and 1,385 Important Cultural Properties. But a small gallery inside the museum has been, since March 3, showing a new installation titled “unify,” with photos by Maiko Haruki (b. 1974). It is the third exhibition of the shrine’s new contemporary art program, the brainchild of the vice chief priest Nobuhiro Nishitakatsuji, 26.

While studying art history at the University of Tokyo before he enrolled in the graduate studies program to study Shinto at Kokuga- kuin University, Nishitakatsuji organized art exhibitions at the university’s museums. Enthralled with Tokyo’s budding art scene, when he returned home to Kyushu to serve the shrine two years ago, he brought his penchant for the cutting-edge art home.

“I thought we could create something that reflects ‘the present’ of this historic place,” he tells The Japan Times, “and also something that we could pass on to the future generations.”

The young priest counts an event his great-great-grandfather organized more than 130 years ago as another source of inspiration. The 36th chief priest held the Dazaifu Expo in 1873, 1874 and 1875 at the 400-year-old house where the Nishitakatsujis still reside. Back then, the concept of an exhibition was foreign to the Japanese as the joy of viewing fine art had been reserved for the privileged class.

“He thought art should be open to the public and I agree with it,” says Nishitakatsuji. “[Now] visitors can see both ancient Japan and cutting-edge culture here.”

In the gallery, two to five unframed large prints of Haruki’s photos, shot at the shrine, have been connected to make 15 strips that hang from the ceiling like banners, spaced randomly as if they are trees in a forest. Haruki, whose work will be included in the Roppongi Crossing survey at Mori Art Museum this fall, strove to re-create in the gallery the woody landscape of Dazaifu Tenmangu, which is surrounded by forests and covered with giant camphor trees and 6,000 plum trees.

“The kind of landscape we have here — particularly the woods — is close to the hearts of the Japanese people,” says Nobuyoshi Nishita- katsuji, Nobuhiro’s father and the 39th and current chief priest.

The viewer is invited to go into the installation area and duck under or look at the photographs up close as if you were going deep into the woods. Underneath the photos, flower artist Takeshi Saka- mura, who designed the installation, has placed a wooden sculpture made of a few decades-old fallen trees found in the mountains behind the shrine. In the scarcely lit gallery, a camellia, attached to the top wooden piece, is illuminated, and the contrast of the sculpture’s organic surfaces with the sharpness of the prints produces a compelling tension.

Haruki spent two weeks at Dazaifu Tenmangu earlier this year, taking photos of the shrine’s buildings, trees, worshippers and giant rocks in the surrounding mountains. In her trademark dark photographs, the objects appear all black, looking like shadows of the elegantly curved roof of the main shrine or blossoming plum flowers. Their only colors are a bit of piercing blue sky.

At first, Haruki “was overwhelmed by” Dazaifu Tenmangu, which is, with 6.5 million visitors a year, one of Japan’s most revered shrines. The first few days, she took photos “to flatter Dazaifu Tenmangu, to make it look beautiful.” But in time, she regained control: “I was able to take pictures that were for myself.”

For the art program’s inauguration a year ago, Nishitakatsuji invited Katsuhiko Hibino, whose 102 drawings and paintings filled the gallery from April to July. While he showed mostly old works, for the second installment from November through December, London-based artist Jun Hasegawa was commissioned to create paintings based on the Dazaifu Ten- mangu’s landscapes and visitors. Haruki, too, took photographs especially for the show. Nishitaka- tsuji hopes to build a unique contemporary collection this way.

Walking about the shrine’s large premises, one is struck by the numerous living traditions. Traditional festivals are held throughout the year. Priests and maidens, dressed in hakama (traditional pleated skirts), stroll around. Worshippers follow formal steps to purify themselves before they pray. And somehow, contemporary art blends in nicely — Michizane Sugawara himself was a cultured man and deified as the Shinto god of scholarship after his death.

“We think (having contemporary art at the shrine) is wonderful,” says the elder Nishitakatsuji. “It is important to hand a tradition down from one generation to another, but it is equally important to think of a way to serve that suits the time we live in.”

The shrine has benefited from the presence of the Kyushu National Museum, which opened next door in October 2005 and quickly became one of the area’s most popular destinations. Museum goers come to the shrine, and worshippers visit the museum, even ones who have little interest in art. The elder Nishi- takatsuji says that foreign worshippers, namely from China, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, grew tenfold in the last decade.

Although Dazaifu Tenmangu represents very Japanese traditions, the young Nishitakatsuji might take foreign interest into consideration when planning future art shows. “Eventually, we may show foreign artists, too,” he says, “or organize group exhibitions with both Japanese and international artists.” That would certainly reflect “the present” of the shrine, and of Japanese society.

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