The Curator's Trail: In this series, we are traveling some of the world's greatest museums and galleries through the eyes and minds of a specialist team of Cabana Curators, asking them one question: if you only had an hour to spare, what would you see? This week, art historian and Japanese art expert, Sophie Richard, visits the Tokyo National Museum.



Tokyo National Museum 

The Tokyo National Museum consists of six buildings dotted around a park, which together form one of the largest art museums in the country. It is home to the world’s finest collection of Japanese art as well as artefacts from the rest of Asia, and it is also here that some of Japan’s blockbuster exhibitions are held.

My visit today takes me first to the Japanese Gallery (called the Honkan), which gives an excellent overview of Japanese art from ancient times to the early 20th century and features representative works in almost all categories. These are displayed on a rotating basis: textiles, prints and paintings change every four to six weeks, for instance, and exhibits regularly switch to match seasonal themes. Therefore, each and every visit to the museum brings new discoveries.

I then walk to the nearby Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, a handsome and serene building designed by the architect, Yoshio Taniguchi. Its slender cubic form is reflected in pools of water that lead me to the entrance, and once inside the display is remarkably elegant. On view, an outstanding group of objects from the 7th and 8th centuries, the period immediately following the arrival of Buddhism in Japan, which were donated in 1878 to the Imperial Household for safekeeping by the Horyuji Temple in Nara. A stunningly beautiful and contemplative space, it is a museum I always return to.

Read on to discover my edit of ten notable works that were on show when I visited the Tokyo National Museum. Do check the Museum's website for up-to-date information on exhibits if you are planning a trip yourself.


Kimono with Fringed Pink, the Moon, Flowing Water and Carp

Meiji era, 19th-20th century; plain-weave silk crepe

The kimono’s splendid purple hue combined with its see-through lightness and bold decoration stopped me in my tracks. All the motifs, from the willow to the flowers and the carps, indicate this is a summer garment.



Women and Wisteria Trellis

by Chōbunsai Eishi; Edo period, 18th century; woodblock print

The artist, Chōbunsai Eishi, was born into a Samurai family in the direct service of the shogun. He specialised in images of elegant, slender beauties and was one of Utamaro’s main rivals.



Water Jar with a Landscape

by Ninsei; Edo period, 17th century; stoneware with underglaze brown

Ninsei was a renowned potter, active in Kyoto. This work is especially poignant because it broke during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, an event that is being remembered in numerous museums in Japan on this anniversary year. Note the cracked surface and how it was repaired with gold lacquer according to the kintsugi technique.



Writing Box with a Bean Plant and Rabbit

attributed to Nagata Yūji; Edo period, 19th century; lacquered wood with maki-e and mother-of-pearl inlay

The motifs on this gorgeous writing box are depicted using the maki-e technique of decoration that involves sprinkling gold, silver or other metal powders onto still-wet lacquer. The artist, Nagata Yūji, was active in Kyoto and greatly admired for his bold approach to lacquer work, which included the use of different metals and textures, however little is known about him or his life.



Mountain Valley in Spring

by Matsubayashi Keigetsu; Showa era, 1935; color on silk; Gift of the artist

This extraordinarily vivid and stunning landscape, brushed in vibrant colours on silk, has an almost hallucinatory power. The pair of paintings (pictured above and below), represents the emblematic format of the Japanese folding screen.



Below: Set of dishes with Egrets

Imari ware; Edo period, 17th century; porcelain with underglaze blue

Japanese dishes come in sets of five, thought to be an auspicious number since it cannot be divided. I particularly enjoyed the striking contrast between the egrets, meticulously silhouetted with cobalt pigment, and the dark background that was coated using iron glaze.




by Mitsutani Kunishiro; Meiji era, 1910; oil on canvas; Gift of Mrs. Mitsutani Ume

Depicting an intimate subject, Upstairs is a delightful example of the Western style of painting that developed in the Meiji period as Japan brought aspects of Western civilisation into the country. In the realm of art, this included techniques such as perspective and the use of oil paint.



Seated Bosatsu (Bodhisattva) with One Leg Pendent

Asuka period, 606 or 666; gilt bronze; Important Cultural Property; Gallery of Horyuji Treasures

The sculpture’s small size indicates that it was used for private worship, and indeed an inscription on the pedestal informs us someone had it made in memory of his deceased wife. I find its graceful and natural posture incredibly moving.



Gigaku Mask: ‘Suikoju’

Asuka period, 7th century; painted camphor wood; Important Cultural Property; Gallery of Horyuji Treasures

This mask forms part of a unique group of artefacts that were used during performances held in the grounds of Buddhist temples. Like all Japanese masks, it is made of wood and covers most of the head, allowing for only very small eyeholes. 




by Hayashi Jikko; Edo period, 19th century; ink on paper

The artist, Hayashi Jikko, was known for his eccentric style. Here, with the slightest of brushstrokes, he masterfully captured the sinuous, flickering fish emerging from the muddy depths of a river.



Sophie Richard is a London-based art historian and curator, and the author of two books on Japanese art and museums. Her first was published in 2014 and her second, The art lovers’ guide to Japanese museums, in 2019.


With thanks to the Tokyo National Museum:


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