Kyoto is at its most brilliant and beautiful in autumn, with its World Heritage scenery colored in red and golden leaves. This year, it’s also a time when visitors have the rare opportunity to learn about the essence of Kyoto culture at the Kyoto National Museum.
After five years of construction, the Heisei Chishinkan, a new wing of the Kyoto National Museum designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, opened to the public on Sept. 13. To celebrate this new era in its 117-year history, the museum is presenting “Kyoto: Splendors of the Ancient Capital,” an exhibition of hundreds of works to be shown in two installments (Part I until Oct. 13 and Part II from Oct. 15 to Nov. 16).
“The exhibition showcases the most significant masterpieces from the museum’s collections of paintings, calligraphy, sculpture, decorative arts and archaeological artifacts,” says Hideo Yamamoto, one of the museum’s curators. “Out of 12,000 works in storage, we carefully selected 400, including 62 National Treasures and more than 122 Important Cultural Properties. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see such a rich line up of treasures of Japanese art at a single venue.”
Organized by genre, the exhibition allows visitors to choose their route and explore both the museum and its treasures. The sculpture gallery on the ground floor, filled with Buddhist statues, is a particularly breathtaking experience. Among the highlights of the Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) period sculptures are the enormous “Seated Dainichi Nyorai,” which has relaxed carving in the style favored by courtiers, and its attendant figure “Seated Fudo Myoo” — both from Kongo-ji temple in Osaka.
All these works have been carefully lit and positioned in Taniguchi’s serene space, which in its simplicity complements the sculptures and allows visitors to appreciate details in a way that would be difficult in their original darkened temple settings.
In contrast, the upper floor welcomes visitors with a dazzling array of paintings from masters of the Momoyama Period (1573-1615), such as Kano Eitoku (1543-1590) and his rival Hasegawa Tohaku (1539-1610).
“The Momoyama Period saw the most splendid flowering of Japanese painting that the genre ever experienced,” says Yamamoto on the selection of works. “The grand scale and dynamic expression found in such paintings reflect the spirit of the times — the expansive, lavish atmosphere that developed under the rule of warlords Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), and the energy that resonated throughout that golden age.”
Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years during the Heian Period, and it has been a fountainhead of Japanese culture throughout history. This exhibition serves as a comprehensive introduction from which visitors can continue to explore the multi-layered history and culture of the city.
“Kyoto: Splendors of the Ancient Capital” at the Heisei Chishinkan Wing of the Kyoto National Museum runs till Nov. 16; open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.); ¥1,500. Closed Mon. www.kyohaku.go.jp