National treasures are often touted as highlights of tourist destinations. In this article, we introduce how the concept of "national treasure" came about and the types of national treasures, and offer guidance for appreciating them.
What Are National Treasures?
They are cultural properties in Japan that the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology designate as having high cultural, historic, or academic value. They are protected and managed by the nation.
The Story Behind the Birth of National Treasures
The concept of "national treasure" was created about 120 years ago. It was introduced in the 1897 Law for the Preservation of Old Shrines and Temples based on the desire to "protect the nation's treasures from destruction, theft and export for the next generation." National Treasures, as they are currently defined, were promulgated in the 1950 Law for the Protection of National Properties.
The Types and Numbers of National Treasures in Japan
There is a variety of types/classifications of national treasures including "fine arts and crafts" such as paintings, sculptures, crafts, and ancient documents and "buildings and structures". As of January 1, 2018, there were 1,110 national treasures. Tokyo has the largest number of national treasures, followed by Kyoto Prefecture and Nara Prefecture. Tokyo National Museum in Tokyo has a particularly large number (87) of national treasures.
Tokyo National Museum
National Treasure Appreication Guide
Following is an introduction to some major national treasures.
Painting: Wind God and Thunder God Screens (by Tawaraya Sotatsu)
Theses screens are the property of the Kennin-ji Temple in Kyoto and are entrusted to Kyoto National Museum. They are believed to have been produced in the 17th century and are considered to be one of the great works of the painter, Tawaraya Sotatsu (birth and death dates unknown). Some highlights of the screens include the expressions of the fierce gods (wind god, thunder god), which are somehow humorous, and the effect of the gold foil background that is not just a decoration, but works as a rich space with a sense of unlimited depth.
The screens are not a part of Kyoto National Museum's ordinary exhibit and are only shown to the public during special exhibitions. Kennin-ji Temple has a replica on display.
This is a famous sculpture in the National Treasure Hall of Kohfukuji Temple. It is a dry-lacquer sculpture that was created during the Nara Period (710 - 794) and is 153.4m high. Ashura is the form that the evil war god, Shura, transformed into after reforming and converting to Buddhism. He is expressed as a "sanmenroppi" with three faces and six arms. Ashura is often depicted with a fierce expression due to his background as the god of war, but the Ashura sculpture in Kohfukuji is distinguished by a beautiful and delicate form with no armor. It is not on permanent exhibit and is displayed to the public in special exhibitions.
Craft: Rakuyaki shirokatamigawari chawan "Fujisan" (by Hon'ami Koetsu)
This is a teacup that the Edo Period (1603 - 1867) artist, Hon'ami Koetsu, is said to have given his daughter as a wedding present. It is currently owned by Sunritz Hattori Museum of Arts but is not on permanent display and is only available to see at a special exhibition that is held once a year. There are various theories about its name "Fujisan" (Mt. Fuji), one of which is that it was designed to evoke a snow capped Mt. Fuji.
Archaeological Artifact: Clay Figurine (Venus of Jomon)
This is a clay figurine that was unearthed in the Tanabatake archaeological site in Nagano Prefecture. Together with the figurine unearthed in the Nishinomae site in Yamagata Prefecture, it is considered to be one of the oldest national treasures. It is thought to be from 4,000 to 5,000 years ago and is a standing statue that is 27cm high. It is believed to represent a pregnant woman due to the protruding breasts and the large stomach and buttocks. It is on permanent exhibit at Togariishi Museum of Jomon Archaeology in Chino City.
Togariishi Museum of Jomon Archaeology Entrance Fee: 500 JPY/adult, 300 JPY/high school student, 200 JPY/elementary and junior high school student
Structure: The Great Buddha Hall (Kondo) of Todaiji
The Great Buddha Hall (Kondo) of Todaiji in Nara Prefecture is famous as "the largest national treasure". It is 57m wide in front, 50.5m deep and 46.8m high, and is said to have been even bigger when it was built. It was originally built in 752 but was twice destroyed by fire. The current hall was built in 1708 and evokes a sense of powerful solemnity.
Entrance fee for Great Buddha Hall, Hokke-do and Kaidan-in: 600 JPY/adult (junior high school age and older), 300 JPY/elementary school student
Each national treasure embodies a story from time immemorial. Many are not usually open to the public in order to protect them, but if you can find the right time, be sure to see them and experience their appeal yourself.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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