Nara and the Silk Roads

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Cultural Exchange on the Silk Roads: Nara

During autumn 2019 sacred sculptures and ritual objects from Nara will be displayed at the British Museum. To deepen the encounter with these spiritual objects from Nara, Japan House London hosts a series of Shinto and Buddhist experiences on 4 and 5 October.

Nara’s links to Buddhism date back to 500-700 CE, when the area served as the eastern end of the silk road, which brought continental Asian culture, including Buddhism, to Japan. Nara become the centre of Japan’s governance and saw the creation of some of the country’s most significant Buddhist temples and monuments, many of which remain today. Many of these make up the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara – a designated World Heritage Site.

Season Events at Japan House London:

Friday 4 October 2019
Kagura and Shinto: Performance & Talk by Kasuga Taisha and Niukawakami Shrine with Chief Priests Kasannoin Hirotada & Kusaka Yasuhiro

Saturday 5 October 2019
Buddhism and the Way of Tea: Talk by Tōshōdai-ji Abbot Nishiyama Myōgen & Tea Ceremony Demonstration
Reconstructing Buddhist Wooden Sculpture: Talk with Professor Yabuuchi Satoshi
Shōmyō: Japanese Buddhist Sutra Chanting and Talk with Tōdai-ji Abbot Sagawa Fumon

Thursday 24 October 2019
Gagaku: Concert-Lecture by Tenri University Gagaku Music Society Session 1

Friday 25 October 2019
Gagaku: Concert-Lecture by Tenri University Gagaku Music Society Session 2
Nara Ittobori: Wood-carving demonstration by Araki Yoshindo

Saturday 26 October 2019
An Introduction to Gagaku: Workshop with Tenri University Gagaku Music Society Session 1 & 2
Nara Ittobori: Wood-carving demonstration by Araki Yoshindo

Sacred images at the British Museum

From 3 October until 24 November 2019 the British Museum displays a series of sacred images from Nara Prefecture. As part of the exhibition 15 major items, including five designated National Treasures, travel to London for the very first time. Highlights include The Heavenly Kings wooden sculptures, loaned by Tōshōdai-ji Temple, which date back to 700 AD, as well as a gilt bronze sculpture of Bodhisattva of Compassion. The exhibition, titled: Nara: sacred images from early Japan, is available to visit in Asahi Shimbun Display Room 3 and Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries (Room 93).

Origins of Buddhism in Japan

Buddhism was first championed by Prince Shōtoku Taishi (574-622 AD) at Hōryu-ji temple near Nara. During this reign, the nanto rokushu – six schools of Buddhism – were established in Japan.

By 752 CE the Emperor Shōmu had commissioned the large Buddha at Tōdai-ji temple, the largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana in the world, still visited by millions each year.

It was the increasing power of the Buddhist schools and the influence on politics which eventually saw the relocation of the capital to Heian-kyō (Kyoto). From this period onwards Buddhist teachings spread more widely to the general public. Buddhism is still prevalent in Japan today, though perhaps for most can be seen in the habits of daily life, as opposed to dedicated worship. Funeral ceremonies, for example, involve Buddhist rituals, and some Japanese homes have small Buddhist altars for the worship of ancestors.

Buddhist experiences at Japan House London

On Saturday 5 October 2019 Japan House offers exclusive chances to explore the ancient customs and rituals of Buddhist practice. The day kicks off with a talk on Japanese Buddhism in Nara by the Abbot of Tōshōdai-ji and a demonstration of the Japanese tea ceremony. The roots of the tea ceremony, and tea itself, are closely linked to Buddhism, with the first tea thought to have been brought to Japan by monk Eichu. Following this, visitors can explore Buddhist wooden sculptures with Professor Yabuuchi of the University of the Arts Tokyo. Professor Yabuuchi is involved in the restoration of some of Japan’s most important Buddhist temples, focussing on passing his restoration and preservation skills to the next generation. Finally, in the evening on the same date, guests are able to participate in a talk by the Abbot of Tōdai-ji (Tōdai temple) and shōmyō, the meditative chanting of Buddhist monks. Witness a live demonstration, rarely heard outside of Buddhist temples, from monks of Tōdai-ji, Yakushi-ji, Tōshōdai-ji and Saidai-ji.

Shinto – Japan’s indigenous religion

Since ancient times the Japanese have believed in the idea that all natural things – from animals and plants through to mountains – are infused with the divine power of the gods, known as kami. This belief came to be known as Shinto. As a faith it has no doctrine or dogma but is instead defined by a great reverence for nature and Shinto permeates many aspects of Japanese daily life, for example at New Year people visit Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines to wish for good fortune in the coming year. Throughout the year most Japanese towns and villages hold lively Shinto festivals, where participants carry portable shrines or tow decorated floats through the streets as entertainment for the gods. Visitors to Japan are able to see Shinto rituals at play in many aspects of the culture, such as wedding ceremonies sumo, noh and kagura.

Shinto experiences at Japan House

On Friday 4 October Japan House offers visitors a close-up experience with kagura – the sacred dance for kami (Shinto spirits or deities). The performance will see miko (female shrine attendants) from Kasuga Taisha – a major Shinto shrine in Nara – dance in ceremonial costume. Kagura is a dance dedicated to kami which has evolved over time and often portrays elaborate folk tales. The talk explores the intricate relationship between kagura and Shinto. Find out more about the meaning and construct of kagura performances.

Nara items at The Shop

Tea had also arrived in Japan by the 9th century creating the foundation for chadō (the Way of Tea). In the vibrant and cosmopolitan city of Nara, many crafts developed to aid new ways of learning including the creation of brushes and ink, lacquerware and specialist tea utensils. The high-quality production of many of these crafts continues in Nara today. This autumn The Shop at Japan House London has specially curated a range of items from Nara.

On display are blocks of Nara sumi (ink), which is said to have been first made from soot from the temple lanterns at Kōfuku-ji, and Nara fude (calligraphy brushes), a craft said to have been first brought to Japan by Buddhist monk Kūkai, founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. The Shop display also features Akahada-yaki, ceramics specific to Nara which feature milky-white hues and Nara-e (images depicting patterns or scenes from Nara). Alongside this are Nara uchiwa – round fans first made in Nara by a Shinto priest from Kagura Taisha, Nara ittobori – wooden sculptures, utensils for tea ceremony, lacquerware, paper, masks and dolls.


Contributors: Nara Tourism Federation, Japan National Tourism Organisation, Nara Visitor Bureau