On our last day in Kyoto we spent the morning at Rokuharamitsuji and the Rengeōin (despite the scaffolding) before visiting a special exhibition on the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets at the Kyoto National Museum. In the afternoon, the group split to see sites of individual interest: Kinkakuji, the newly reopened Kobe City Museum, and Fushimi Inari.
Following on the heels of a dynamic seminar on ivory carving (led by Sarah Guérin) the evening before, we were well primed to discuss the sculptural assemblages at the morning temples. Beginning at Rokuharamitsuji, we spent nearly an hour enraptured by the famous statue of Kūya, discussing not only its famous figuration of iconic language, but also the fine details of the carving, the state of preservation, and its relationship to the other sculptures in the single-gallery Treasure Hall.
In contrast to the intimacy of Rokuharamitsuji, the subsequent Sanjūsangendō presented an overwhelming array of sculptures: one thousand “identical” iterations of the Bodhisattva Kannon standing ten rows deep with 500 each flanking the monumental Kannon icon at the center of the long hall. Joining the 1001 Kannon, were twenty-eight attendant deities standing in the first row (along with the Wind and Thunder Gods). A special autumn viewing platform allowed us to gain a new, but ahistorical, perspective on the so-called “sea of Buddha” (as the contemporary artist Sugimoto Hiroshi terms the site in his reframing of the altar as installation).
The morning ended with a visit to see the Satake version of the Thirty-Six Immortal Poets, a two volume set of early thirteenth-century (imaginary) portrait scrolls that were cut apart and sold in 1919. Reunited for the first time in a century, the scrolls were beautifully installed, with each given his or her own pseudo-tokonoma. The group was especially well prepared to view this exhibition, since most had by then acquired monoscopic lenses (gyararī sukōpu), which allowed for close inspection of the detailed lines of the physiognomy. These two temples and one exhibition served as excellent final sites of analysis, since they engaged the primary themes of our week-long seminar discussions: the relationship of physiognomy to mimesis, sculpture to body, calligraphy to pictorial line, and figure to ground.
In this ten-day trip, we will visit many of the most important religious and metropolitan sites of “classical” and “early medieval” Japan (ca. 700 – 1300). We begin in Nara, the capital of Japan from 710-784. Here we will visit the large temple complex Tōdaiji (with its monumental bronze icon of the Buddha Vairocana), the treasure hall of the temple Kōfukuji (famed for its sculptures), and the Shinto shrine of Kasuga Taisha. We will also visit the important collections of Buddhist art and ritual implements at the Nara National Museum.
The trip is deliberately timed to make possible a visit to a special, two-week-long exhibition of artifacts from the Shōsōin Repository (an eighth-century collection of luxury objects, many of which came to Japan via trade with the continent). This annual exhibition, in its 70th year, consistently ranks as one of the most heavily trafficked exhibitions in the world, a testament both to the enduring appeal of such objects and their central place in Japanese museum culture.
From Nara we will travel to the sacred Mount Kōya, founded by the eighth-century polymath Kūkai. There we will visit the Hall of Numinous Treasures (Reihōkan), hike the necropolis and temple grounds, and stay overnight at a subtemple on the mountain. The next morning, we will make our way from Mount Kōya to deep within the mountains of the Kii Peninsula. Here we will join the Kumano Kodō, a series of medieval pilgrimage routes that snake through the mountains connecting three important Shinto shrines (the Kumano Sanzan). It is, along with Santiago de Compostela, one of two pilgrimage routes inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. After a hike to the main shrine of Kumano, we will spend a night at a hot spring before traveling to the last two of the shrines, ending with the Shinto goshintai of Nachi Falls.
Following these two days in the rural Kii Peninsula, we will return to Kyoto by train in order to spend a few days visiting key sites in the premodern capital of Japan. Among the destinations are the Hall of Thirty-Three Bays, Kiyomizudera, Rokuharamitsuji, Seiryōji (home of the legendary “first” icon of the Buddha), and the Byōdōin. We end with a return trip back to Tokyo to see the second rotation of the Shōsōin Exhibition there, a perfect bookend to the journey. Days are also punctuated by occasional two-to-three-hour seminars during which we can reflect on what we have seen and workshop our ongoing research projects.