welcome to the tokyo national museum


After stopping by Rinno-ji, I visited the Tokyo National Museum, which is a must see if you are in Tokyo. It reminds me of a Japanese version of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a place you could literally spend years of your life exploring fully. There were two exhibits in particular that were totally jaw dropping, though every room had its share of totally stunning exhibits. In the Heiseikan building there is currently an exhaustive exhibition of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy that seems to span the entire history of the art. Called Twin Peaks, this exhibit was unbelievably popular and people were being allowed inside in waves of 40-person groups and given an allotment of two hours. I’ve honestly never seen an art exhibit so packed — not even the van Gogh 100-year retrospective in Amsterdam! I suppose it’s probably always this packed in front of the “Mona Lisa,” and there was definitely a huge crowd in front of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” when I saw it, but this is one of the few times where I’ve been to an exhibition that was packed wall to wall with people. Which was unfortunate because, as I wrote in my notebook at the time, “The herd does not lend itself to calligraphy.” Really, there were so many people that it was difficult to concentrate on anything, and so eventually I gave up and just let the exhibit wash over me as I passed on through. It was nice to see actual examples of seal script and clerical script, and the wide varieties of cursive and semi-cursive, but after about twenty minutes I just had to get out. However, if I wouldn’t have gone to the special exhibit, I would have missed the incredible side exhibit, which was a collection of work by modern calligraphers. This work was totally stunning and there were very few people there so there was time to let consciousness attach to the work. After this I walked through several galleries in the museum, including a gallery dedicated to Ainu art, and I was just about to leave when I ran into an exhibit titled Outlandish Buddhist Paintings from the Edo Period. This exhibit showcased the work of Kano Kazunobu, which was incredibly outrageous. There were a number of wall hangings from his “Five Hundred Arhats” series, all of them depicting wild-looking ascetics descending from the heavens with enormous eyebrows and long, twisted fingernails to vanquish karmic evils. There were halos, phoenixes, psychedelic peacocks, white tigers, mutant Shishi covered with eyes and horns, arhats carrying an enormous bell across the sea in “Heading to the Dragon King’s Palace,” and so on. Honestly one of the most mind-blowing exhibits I’ve seen in ages, and precisely the converse of the quiet minimalism of so much modern calligraphy.


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