Favorite Installation Artists

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Japan - Tokyo, Part 7

Tokyo National Museum

Japanese buildings hold their secrets close.  Viewed from the front, they present a solid facade, a barrier.  Approached slowly and discretely from an angle, they begin to reveal their subtle beauty in successive layers.  Charming icons perch on gleaming tile roof lines that seem to scoop up handfuls of blue sky with each soaring curve.  You will be shown small pieces to savor fully before another another piece can be considered.  And so you must take time to appreciate what is being offered.

Tucked into a garden area between the larger buildings of the museum is the centuries old guard gate of the Ikeda feudal family.  Called Kuromon (Black Gate), it now offers the opportunity to be quiet.  Walk slowly, listen to birdsong, watch cherry blossoms float on the water.  Tokyo bustles outside, but this is not that place.

Will your mind to be still so that you are open to all that you can observe in the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures just across the reflecting pool.  Turn around and enter softly, for inside rests the soul of a people.

(Photo from Tokyo National Museum Brochure)

To create art is to communicate more than an image; the work before you is only the beginning of what is being conveyed.   In this single collection are over 300 pieces from the 6'th and 7'th centuries that use the language of art as metaphors for their aesthetic visions of themselves, their world and their views of life.  Of all the riches available, this is the one that speaks to me.  

(Photo from Tokyo National Museum Brochure)

Lady Maya and the Three Heavenly Beings

According to legend, Lady (Queen) Maya hears that she will bear a son who will be a great king or a visionary leader of all peoples.  She dreams of a good omen, a white elephant, who enters her side and will be reborn into this world of illusion one last time.  The child who would become the Buddha was born in 532BCE.  It was a world changing event.

Next door stands the Hyokeikan Asian Gallery containing archaeological objects from continental Asia. 

It is the home my favorite image of the Buddha.

A harsher light was coming from above, but I worked with my camera to get a softer piece.  This glowing Buddha appears illuminated from within by his own radiance.  Art communicates on many levels, perhaps this Buddha was calling to me.

Just a few steps away lies the Honkan Japanese Gallery, the largest building on the grounds, where the main collection is housed.

My first experience with the Japanese culture was over 35 years ago when I saw an exhibition of antique textiles in Washington, D.C.  It began a lifelong fascination with Japanese quilting and embroidery.  That was when I saw my first kimono.


There is nothing quite as grand as a kimono.  The vibrancy of silk materials combined with the artistry of perfect subject and color selections.  The glitter of judiciously placed silver and gold metallic threads.   Impossibly tiny quilting stitches designed to recall natural elements that resemble ocean waves, clouds or petals to name a few.  The design continues uninterrupted over the folds harmonizing with the drape of the material.  It is a walking masterpiece.

Just down the corridor is an exhibition of painting styles to include hanging scrolls, woodblock prints and folding screens.  Here is a wonderful example.

The Japanese are more interested in their actual lives, rather than an afterlife.  This screen depicting everyday life acted both to arrange space and provide a pleasant scene to observe.  Brighter colors and liberal use of gold leaf made a rich addition to the living areas.

There are so many lights in our world; the light of creativity, the light of illumination and the light that shows us the way like this one leading to the second floor. 

    But there is one light that shines above all others.  It is this.


Writing allows learning to be passed on to future generations, it preserves culture and is literally the field of all our dreams.   Japanese calligraphy evolved into two styles.  Wayo followed the classic Chinese form and was used by the nobility.  Karayo allowed sensibility to be conveyed in the written character.  I am intrigued by a temperament that would appreciate such a distinction.

This is my copy of the Tale of Genji which I have been reading for 30 years.  Written by the Lady Murasaki Shikibu of the Heian court in the 11'th century, it is recognized as the greatest masterpiece of Japanese narrative prose.  It is thought to be the earliest novel in the world.  This picture of day to day courtly life does not follow a plot, rather it is a glimpse into another world, 1500 years ago.  It extends to over 1000 pages, but dipped into a few chapters at a time, it offers an insight into the Japanese character unmatched by any other media.  This version is easy to read and is illustrated with many historic woodblock prints.

I could suggest no better introduction of a people than this work that brims with intelligence, elegance of expression and sophistication.  Consider Prince Genji and a companion as they reflect on mourning.  His companion departs and Genji picks up the fan she unobtrusively left by his side and on which she has written:

"This day, we are told, announces an end to mourning.
How can it be, when there is no end to tears?"

Genji writes an answer on the fan, replaces it where it had lain and takes his leave.  On it he has answered:

"The days are numbered for him who yet must mourn.
And are they numbered, the tears that yet remain?"

Yes, he tells her gently, there is an end to sadness.

In the preceding Tokyo posts, I have tried to touch very lightly on philosophy, religion, art, the military mind, food, temperament, historic precedence and modern day Japan.  It was meant to put the succeeding pieces in some contextual frame and act as a preamble to shorter, less detailed posts.   
(All editorial and photographic rights reserved by Arizona Skies.)
Tokyo National Museum - April 10, 2010


  1. What a lovely post, Linda, peaceful, instructive, reflective and well written. There is so much of the Japanese culture that we do not know and do not appreciate. My first look at the culture was also in the 60s when we went to see Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, then after that – we were in San Francisco – we joined Nichiren’s Buddhism. I have not read the Tale of Gengi but will place it on my list. Friko, a German lady living in the UK had a post on the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon last fall. She said it was written in the 10th century and is like early blogging. Here is the link to that post: http://frikosmusings.blogspot.com/2009/10/pillow-book-of-sei-shonagon.html. She had several last Fall on this Pillow Book. When we went to Thailand and Laos with my daughter we took so many pictures of the Buddha. We also each bought a copper Buddha with different position of his hands. I bought a book in Thailand that gives the explanation for all the position of his hands, like reflection, meditation, questioning, answering, teaching, etc. It is so interesting.

  2. Vagabonde,

    Thank you! I went to Friko's blog and so enjoyed it that I have bookmarked her to explore further. And the Pillow Book entries are wonderful. So elegant and intelligent. That will be one I add to my reading list. One of my favorite hand positions is "boon bestowing". I hope you like my Kamakura post later on. I'll put a picture there just for you.

  3. what do i see unfolding here?

    is there a book being formed?

    i have a feeling....

    linda, your writing and story telling is really good! what a great opening sentence:

    "Japanese buildings hold their secrets close."

    that pulls the reader in immediately. what? what do the buildings do??

    it really is nice that you are back. how many times have i said this now?

    love love
    and then some,

  4. kj,

    You're just too danged smart for my own good! I am getting serious about writing, but no book is intended with the Japanese pieces.

    When a traveler sees a live calligraphy demonstration for example and then snaps a picture and moves on, I am astonished. How can that happen?

    I want to know how the ink in made, how the paper was milled and from what. How and where did the combination of writing utensils end up in those positions in the beautiful writing cases? What is the history behind the characters? That goes on for everything I see in a different culture. Understanding requires effort. It' worth it.

    Thats what all this is about - understanding.

    A lot, and me too. I've missed my blogging buddies so much.

    xoxo cubed