Thu, Oct 31, 2019

SPECIAL FEATURE: Enjoy the autumn foliage of Nara’s wondrous Yamatoji — The Shosoin treasures await you, and more

By Miku Sawano / TSUMUGU Project

We are right in the middle of autumn, when the tree leaves change their color. If you want to enjoy art in Japan, this is the best season for it. It is special this year in that you can enjoy viewing the imperial treasures of the Shosoin Repository — which are usually showcased once a year in Nara, where it is located — also in Tokyo, but why not see the irreplaceable works of art in Nara where they belong? Let’s embark on a trip to the Yamatoji (ancient paths of Yamato) in Nara, where the autumn leaves are absolutely beautiful, to be amused by the fine treasures on display at the Shosoin exhibit before strolling through the back alleys of Kitamachi, a hot spot where new shops open one after another.

Assets showcased in Tokyo and Nara astonish experts

“In both Nara and Tokyo, you will encounter the very best of the first-class treasures. I have been in Nara for 24 years, but the Shosoin exhibition has never been this rich,” said Sakae Naito. Naito is the director and chief curator of the Curatorial Division of the Nara National Museum.

“The 71st Annual Exhibition of Shoso-in Treasures” at the museum will last three days longer than in previous years and is showcasing a total of 41 assets from the repository until Nov. 14.

When Emperor Shomu, who erected the Todaiji temple, passed away in 756, Empress Komyo dedicated her husband’s favorite items to the Great Buddha of the temple. This is the origin of the Shosoin treasures. There were about 9,000 items in all, a great many of which were materials from the temple, administrative documents and items dedicated by the nobles. Today, they are stored in ferro-concrete repositories which are sealed with chokufu, or the seal of the Emperor.

“Sealing the repository with chokufu has been going on for more than 1,200 years. In autumn, when rain is scarce and the air is dry, the kaifu-no-gi ceremony to take the seal off is carried out to open the treasure houses for inspection and research. The Shosoin exhibition is held while the treasure houses are open,” Naito explained.

In principle, the assets that are put on display will not be exhibited again for at least a decade. “You can come to the exhibition several years in a row and still encounter some new treasure. That is what makes the Shosoin exhibition so attractive,” Naito said.

Nara exhibit: Get a feel of the Tenpyo period

In commemoration of the enthronement of the Emperor this year, the Nara exhibition will feature treasures that testify to the founding of Shosoin. Naito directs our attention to the “Lacquered Red Zelkova Cabinet.” The cabinet is made of Japanese zelkova and comes with a set of folding doors. It has been passed down for generations since the time of Emperor Tenmu during the Asuka period (592-710).

“The cabinet was used to store betrothal gifts exchanged between Emperor Shomu and Empress Komyo, letters written about the deceased prince, a belt donned by the emperor among other things cherished by the sovereign. It may well be the most venerable cabinet there is,” said Naito.

Lacquered Red Zelkova Cabinet

All six panels of the “Feather-decorated Screen Panels of Beauties under Trees” are showcased at the exhibition for the first time in 20 years. “The lady’s hair is white because feathers were pasted there. The feathers were of mountain birds and very colorful. It seems they were used to decorate the face and garments,” Naito explained. Almost all the feathers fell off, but the fragments of what remains on the surface indicate the birds were native.”

“Ashes from the Nara period still remain,” said Naito, introducing the “Red sandalwood incense burner with long handle and gold inlay.”

“It uses shitan, valuable wood only available in Southeast Asia and India. The burner was probably made in China,” said Naito. Solidified ashes and scorch marks remain on the burner. “Some experts say it was used on the occasion of Emperor Konin’s funeral in 781. It remains as was. Don’t you feel like history is at hand?”

Red sandalwood incense burner with long handle and gold inlay
Tokyo exhibit: Incense wood that fascinated Nobunaga

The “Shosoin: Essential Treasures of Ancient Japan Passed Down by the Imperial Family” exhibit will be held at the Tokyo National Museum until Nov. 24. It showcases 43 assets often seen in school textbooks including the “Five-stringed biwa lute of shitan with mother-of-pearl inlay” and “Ojakuko,” a piece of agarwood better known as “Ranjatai.”

“The ‘Register of National Treasures,’ one of the items on display, is a list of Shosoin treasures and for us, something like a Bible. This is where the Shosoin treasures begin and so it’s something we very much care for,” said Naito.

Ranjatai was one of the finest incense woods in the country, and samurai warlord Oda Nobunaga is said to have cut off a part of it.

Naito: “At that time, cutting off a part of the Ranjatai seems to have been the ruler’s privilege. The Ashikaga shogunate also received a piece of it. Nobunaga likely gave the pieces he received to the emperor’s envoy and tea masters under his wing. He didn’t cut the pieces off for his own sake.”

Ojakuko (Ranjatai)
Valuable objects cherished for more than a millennium

The Tsumugu Project asked Naito-san to give us tips on how to enjoy viewing the Shosoin treasures.

“To begin with, all you need to do is simply enjoy viewing them as beautiful works of art,” Naito said. The treasures were dedicated to Buddha, so they include not only jewelry but also tableware and administrative documents. “Just by looking at the treasures, you will learn about the life of people in various positions of the time — from the sovereign emperor to low ranking bureaucrats and priests. Like the incense burner, there are many things on display that were left as they were used, which gives you a sense of how people were back then.”

The treasures were kept in airtight karabitsu, or Chinese-style crests, which were stored in raised-floor warehouses. “The chests used at the time did not mold because they had legs and did not touch the floor directly. People came to keep records and inspect the contents and put insect repellent incense inside, thereby carefully protecting the treasures for more than a millennium. If these were excavated items, they wouldn’t have stayed in such a good shape.”

Reflecting on what people have been doing since the ancient past may be a part of the fun of going to the Shosoin exhibition.

If you step outside and walk through Nara Park for about 15 minutes, you will reach the main warehouse of the Shosoin Repository which has long been protecting these treasures. On weekdays, you can enter the premises to view the exterior.

Shosoin Repository
Strolling through the backstreets of Kitamachi

Having enjoyed every bit of the first Shosoin exhibition of the Reiwa era, let’s venture into the mahoroba, or wondrous land, of today.

The area buzzing with new shops is Kitamachi, which spreads on the north side of Kintetsu Nara Station. Due west of the main warehouse of the Shosoin Repository stands the designated national treasure Todaiji Tegaimon gate, a relic from the Nara period (710-794). Go through the gate to find yourself standing at the entrance of Kitamachi. Midori Kurahashi, chief director and editor of nonprofit organization Bunka Sozo Arca, which makes walking maps, gave us a quick tour.

The Todaiji Tegaimon gate, a designated national treasure. Outside the gate is the Kitamachi area. Midori Kurahashi loves the area and has an office there.

Our first stop was Mukaide Shoyu (soy sauce) Brewery, which stood right by the gate. The brewery was established in 1879 and is known for manufacturing soy sauce the old-fashioned way: from steaming soy beans and roasting wheat to naturally fermenting the mixture in wooden barrels.

“During summer, the wooden barrels are stirred every three days,” said the sixth generation owner of the brewery.

Kurahashi recommends “Honzukuri shoyu Hosen koikuchi” (720 milliliters, 864 yen, including tax). “It’s very mild in taste and goes perfectly with any dish.” This and other products can be purchased over the counter.

Soy sauce, dark or light, and ponzu bitter orange vinegar can be purchased at the Mukaide Shoyu Brewery shop

Mukaide Shoyu Brewery
22-1 Tegaicho, Nara city
Tel. 0742-22-2306
Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (No scheduled holidays)

Wander into an alley to find ‘holy ground’

“Would you like to find something unique to buy at an old private house?” Kurahashi took us deep into an alley until we reached a private house annex which was renovated for commercial use.

Furukoto and Kitokito share an old private house annex at the end of an alley

We took our shoes off at the entrance and went upstairs to find Furukoto, a general store run by local editors and illustrators. A stuffed doll of a giant-panda-disguised-as-a-deer character(!) welcomed us.

Furukoto, a general store on the second floor of an old private house annex
Danchino Pankichi, a giant-panda-disguised-as-a-deer character

“This shop is absolutely secluded. You cannot get here unless you get lost in the alleys. People call it the ‘holy ground’ for Nara lovers,” Kurahashi said.

The shop is filled with stationary, bags and interior goods with Nara-esque motifs such as the Manyoshu collection of poems, deer, Shosoin patterns and designs. The merchandise are designed by Nara-loving artists.

Shinobu Arai, a writer as well as one of the shop’s owners, says we should purchase the soon-to-be-released “Nara Tabi Techo” (Nara travel handbook; 2,100 yen, tax included), which gives you ample information on temples and shrines in Nara as well as a saijiki literary calendar. “The handbook is all about traveling in Nara and even gives you detailed information on where you can find coin-operated lockers and sento public baths. It sells well. This year, we will release one in early November,” she said. She says the demand is overwhelming.

Postcards (170 yen ea., tax included) with illustrations of Empress Komyo, Emperor Jito and other women of the Nara period and other commodities by illustrator Yasuko Uemura, another one of the shop’s owners

On the first floor of the annex, there is Kitokito, a specialty shop handling plates, cups and bowls. Owner Takako Okamoto opened the shop eight years ago to make designer tableware more easily accessible.

“Tea cups are 2,000 yen or higher. A lot of these can be used in microwave ovens. The artists are either in their 30s or 40s and some of them are from Nara. I prefer vessels with soft tones. I visit my favorite artists often to purchase them.

Takako Okamoto, right, makes recommendations to Kurahashi.

Some of the young artists reside in the Kitamachi area. One such artist, Osamu Sakamoto, makes lacquer-ware using pop colors such as red, yellow and blue.

“I use bright colors to make my customers feel happy. Also, the smooth texture, a distinctive feature of lacquer, gives you a comfortable feeling,” said Sakamoto.

His works include cups (3,700 yen ea., tax excluded) and small dishes (2,800 yen ea., tax excluded), most of which are suitable for everyday use. Kurahashi loves to wear a brooch (3,000 yen or higher) she purchased here.

Osamu Sakamoto’s mixes lacquer with paint to color his zelkova vessels and applies his own drying technique to come up with unique colors.

2nd Floor, 61-2 Higashi-Kanenagacho, Nara city
Tel. 0742-26-3755
Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Closed Tue. – Fri.)

61-2 Higashi-Kanenagacho, Nara city
Tel. 0742-26-8102
Open 11 a.m to 6 p.m. (Closed on Thursdays)

Urushi no Irodori (Workshop of Osamu Sakamoto)
2-1 Zoshicho, Nara city
Tel. 0742-22-2953
*Send an email to before visiting the workshop.

Sweets dating back to the time of Kentoshi

Feeling a bit tired after a long walk? Well then, how about some sweets?

To the south of the Tegaimon gate, there is the Senjyuan Yoshimune Nara Sohonten. The tea shop up-front serves warabi mochi bracken-starch dumplings and shaved ice, among other things. The shop’s specialty is “Nama (fresh) warabi mochi” (648 yen, tax included), which is made from a recipe based on ancient documents collected by the late owner. It uses kansho sweet potato starch from Kagoshima Prefecture and domestically produced genuine warabi flour. Have a bite to savor the springy texture.

Nama warabi mochi

For gifts, Kurahashi suggested we go to Manmando Michinori near Kintetsu Nara Station for their “Buto manju” (216 yen ea., tax included). The dumpling is like a bean paste doughnut and made to resemble the “Buto” of the Kasuga Taisha grand shrine, which is an offering to the gods. Allegedly, it dates back to the time when Japanese envoys to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) brought back Chinese confectionery to Japan.

Kurahashi loves “Bisho,” which are dry sweets made from Wasanbon sugar (1,188 yen per box, tax included). They come in boxes adorned with camellia drawings. “When I’m done with the sweets I use the boxes, too, because they’re cute,” she said.

Buto manju

●Senjyuan Yoshimune Nara Sohonten
39-1 Oshiagecho, Nara city
Tel.  0742-23-3003
Open 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. (closed only on Jan. 1)
Tea shop open 10 a.m – 5 p.m. (Last order at 4:30 p.m., closed on Wednesdays and occasionally on other days)

Manmando Michinori
34 Hashimotocho, Nara city
Tel. 0742-22-2044
Open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thurs.
(Closed irregularly on Thursdays)

Where the twain shall meet

Kitamachi is where old machiya (traditional townhouses) are seen here and there, and where residents exchange greetings. Shop owners and others in the area launched effort to vitalize the area about seven years ago, and as a result, new shops have sprung up. A one-day “Tengaiichi” flea market is planned for Nov. 3.

Two ancient mausoleums – where Emperor Shomu and Empress Komyo rest in peace – stand side by side in the area, too. It can be said the area is perfect for a stroll after having viewed the Shosoin treasures.

The streets of Nara is where the new and the old meet, and blend into each other. Eternity is felt there. Why not take a stroll and wander into the alleys to meet new people?

*Prices indicated here are as of September 2019.



Related articles

Cookies on the TSUMUGU web portal

We use cookies to personalize content and ads, analyze access and for other reasons in order to improve user convenience.