Kotohira Shrine — popularly known as Konpira-san — is one of the main religious centers on the island of Shikoku. Until three bridges were built during recent decades to connect the island and the mainland — and ruin the previously magical scenery — Shikoku was remote and mysterious, a Shangri-La where time seemed to move at a different pace.

Throughout history, Shikoku has been the destination of generations of pilgrims. Many have followed the steps of the priest Kobo Daishi (aka Kukai, 774-835) to visit the 88 Buddhist temples around the island, while others have toured shrines — especially those housing syncretic deities (Buddhist and Shinto), such as Kotohira.

The shrine has ancient origins, and was much revered by mariners navigating the Inland Sea of Japan. Its main deity, Omononushi-no-Mikoto, has been invoked through the ages to protect sailors, and Kotohira Mountain served as a bearing in often-treacherous waters. The shrine grew in importance during the warring Muromachi Period (1338-1573), and its fortunes improved even more during the peaceful Edo Period (1603-1867), when it enjoyed patronage of both the Imperial and shogunal courts.

Today Kotohira is famous for the 1,368-step climb up to the Inner Shrine and — for survivors of the ascent — the splendid view of the Sanuki Plain and the conical, Fuji-like Mount Iino. Palanquins were traditionally available for the lazy or infirm, but now there is a paved road and they can get to the top by taxi.

Feudal lords and other high-ranking officials were frequent visitors to Kotohira, for whom suitable accommodations were built within the shrine’s vast compound. Leading Kyoto artists were commissioned to decorate these guest quarters in an appropriately grand manner, and a selection of these masterpieces forms the main part of an exhibition showing in Tokyo at The University Art Museum in Ueno Park till Sept. 9 — “The Mural Art of Kotohira Shrine — Okyo, Jakuchu and Gantai.”

The shrine owns some 6,000 cultural properties, few of which to my knowledge have been seen by the public. Those on display comprise a treasure-trove of Edo painting that makes it tempting to imagine what other delights are still hidden away.

The exhibition organizers have succeeded in installing the paintings to best replicate their spatial arrangement as sliding doors and wall murals in the chief priest’s quarters and the rooms of the guest house. The first four rooms are decorated with paintings of — in order — cranes, tigers, Chinese sages and landscapes by the naturalist painter Maruyama Okyo (1733-95). It was certainly worth installing them this way as the visitor can now sense what it is like to be surrounded by the paintings in each room, a feeling that would be lost if they were merely on a museum wall.

It is unfortunate that the Okyo paintings were “improved” by some 19th-century barbarian with a splatter of gold-leaf flakes, but this was the fate of many screens and sliding doors at the time and can now only be regarded as part of their history. Luckily, the original brushwork is more or less intact, and the majestic scale of the paintings undiminished.

Okyo’s tigers display his mastery at depicting their soft fur, but any temptation to cuddle them is dispelled by the menace suggested in their slit-pupiled eyes. One, asleep, has spots instead of stripes, but this is no leopard; at the time, these were thought to be the females of the species, and a similar group can be seen on the sliding door paintings at Nanzenji Temple in Kyoto.

The landscape room is decorated with pines and pavilions in idealized scenery similar to that on some of Okyo’s screen paintings, and with that amazing composition — cliffs and trees going off-frame — that gives the impression of looking through huge windows. It is surprising how large paintings seem perfectly in scale in small rooms, and (carrying the window analogy further) actually make the space seem much larger.

Some sort of yin/yang balance is often seen in Japanese painting, and in this room the comparatively soft landscapes on the sliding doors are balanced by a powerful wall mural of a great waterfall with rocks and old pine trees. Even if there were nothing else on show it would be worth visiting the exhibition just to see this refreshing, cooling masterpiece during the stifling days of summer.

The work of Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800) has been much reappraised recently thanks to the exhibition of Joe Price’s collection at the Tokyo National Museum last year, and this year’s “Jakuchu” show at Shokokuji Temple in Kyoto. From the rooms of the chief priest at Kotohira, we see paintings of different wild flowers — a most extravagant wallpaper — different from anything seen elsewhere by this artist, and proof that Jakuchu was artistically beyond any classification.

More naturalistic, waterside scenes by Kishi Gantai (1785-1865), of willow trees and herons, followed by irises and small birds — all on a gold-leaf background — are on display from the quarters of the chief priest. Again there is a wonderful Japanese sense of composition, revealing just the center part of a tree-trunk, or the tips of hanging branches, which gives the impression that you are looking out of a window. One can only envy the chief priest’s lifestyle on seeing other wall paintings by Gantai — above the shoji screens and just below the ceiling fly flocks of brilliantly colored butterflies on shimmering gold.

A contrast from all the gold — and a more modern style of painting — appears in reception rooms decorated by Murata Tanryo (1872-1940). One of these is lined with sliding doors painted with a scene of mounted hunters pursuing deer on a plain, natural-paper background. A neighboring room with a huge mural shows the summit of Mount Fuji, while its slopes and foothills are painted in ink on the adjacent sliding doors. It is certainly an unusual idea to put the subject of a painting in one room and its background in another.

Most of the displays in this exhibition reveal the paintings unhindered by glass or other protective coverings, which is how they should be seen. Unfortunately, some of the Okyo paintings are behind a transparent protective barrier, under the glare of spotlights, so the first thing you notice is your own reflection.

Fortunately, the photographs in the catalog were taken in situ in Kotohira Shrine. Helpful diagrams show just how the paintings are located in each room of the shrine buildings, and will provide an invaluable reference for any future visit there after the artworks have been reinstalled following their tour.

The essays are in Japanese, together with English translations in the kind of gobbledygook we have come to expect from this country’s institutions of higher education. While endlessly entertaining when seen on T-shirts and shopping bags, this sloppy language is simply not up to standard for a catalog such as this. No Western institution would publish anything in Japanese without employing a competent, native-Japanese proofreader, so why — considering the cost of making this beautifully printed book — did the eminent personages behind this project not hire an educated, native-English-speaker to clean up the text? Okyo, Jakuchu and Gantai deserve better than this.

The exhibition will move back to Kotohira Shrine in autumn before traveling next year to the Mie Prefectural Museum of Art. Then it will head off, for the first time out of Japan, to the Musee Guimet in Paris.

“The Mural Art of Kotohira Shrine — Okyo, Jakuchu and Gantai” runs till Sept. 9 at The University Art Museum, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, 12-8 Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Mon.). For more information, call (050) 5525-2200 or visit www.geidai.ac.jp/museum/

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