The titular kazari (decoration or ornament) as the focus of “Kazari: Decoration in Faith and Festival,” the Miho Museum’s spring exhibition, is intended to restore something of the centrality of its concept of decorative embellishment to Japanese art. While the exhibits are consummate, however, the main title seems faintly peripheral and the subtitle, “Decoration in Faith and Festival,” more significant.
The term “kazari” is thought to have emerged around the eighth century from the word “kazashi,” meaning “to insert in the hair.” It concerned a spring ritual in which flowers were placed in the hair as a way for the wearer to participate in nature’s seasonal rejuvenation. Self-ornamentation was secondary.
In the 19th century, the adoption of Western aesthetic tenets demoted the utilitarian value of Japanese decorative arts to a lesser, secondary rung, in contrast to the “fine arts.” Today, “kazari” endures as a term indicating accessorizing. The exhibition’s strength, however, is in emphasizing the supplementary role of kazari in the transformation of the ordinary.
The time frame of the exhibits is vast, bracketed with eccentrically sculptured Jomon Period (14,000-300 B.C.) pots on the one end and seasonal festival trappings that are still employed today at the other. In between are the treasures that came with the sixth-century introduction of Buddhism to Japan and the following influx of decorative Tang Dynasty Chinese arts that were both adopted and indigenously developed. The Heian Period (794 to 1185) court’s refined splendor, extravagant warrior garb, kimono and interior fittings are abundant.
The show mainly addresses objects that were part of regular religious devotions. “Decoration” such as the animal-and-flower designs introduced to Japan via the Silk Road — seen in the exhibition’s 12th-century “Flat Quiver with Phoenix and Hosoge Floral Design” — transformed ordinary objects, investing them with grandeur. “Adorning” in the Buddhist sense, however, meant not simply outward decoration but accessing a path leading to personal refinement and wisdom.
It is believed that when gods descend to Earth they require conveyance — transportation in carriages on horses or deer, the steeds of the gods. One story tells how in the eighth century, the deity Hachiman was taken from Oita Prefecture to Todaiji Temple in Nara Prefecture in an imperial carriage employing karakura (ceremonial horse trappings). A retinue of nobles escorted the vehicle, while soldiers were mobilized to remove any obstructions. Eating meat or drinking sake was banned, and killing animals in the provinces through which they passed was forbidden. The journey was to assist Emperor Shomu in the building of Todaiji’s Great Buddha statue (originally intended for Shiga Prefecture) and the splendor was comparable to that of an imperial procession.
Such pomp eventually filtered down the social ladder into the lives of the common folk through matsuri (festival) celebrations. Matsuri began as small gatherings of like-minded religious folk, who came together to celebrate from evening to morning. These meetings evolved into daytime outdoor revelry and the associated grandeur. The waking hours required further colorful decoration, leading to our modern-day kazari and seasonal events.
“Kazari: Decoration in Faith and Festival” at the Miho Museum runs until May 15; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,100. Closed Mon. www.miho.or.jp/english
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