There is no finer way to begin one’s excursion in Japan than at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park. It is always the first stop on my Japan itinerary. This huge complex of museums will tax the resources of even the hardiest museumgoers, each exhibit is a treasurehouse that could take a lifetime of study to fully comprehend, and there are three buildings full of exhibits.

I intended to begin my visit as I always do, purchasing sushi at the vendors near Ueno station for a lunchtime picnic, to fortify myself for the exertions of the museum. Unfortunately, the sushi vendors are all closed for reconstruction, so a beer and a few sticks of yakitori will have to suffice. As I sat in front of the museum, relaxing and munching away, I was surprised to hear three different groups of Japanese ladies stroll past, declaring “it’s just like America!” Nothing could have surprised me more than such a declaration, I could not comprehend how they could think such a thing. Perhaps it was the presence of foreigners in the park? Even my own presence? But finally one group of women pointed a finger towards a group of pine trees, apparently they evoked an image of America.

I finished my picnic and walked over to a water fountain to rinse off the sticky yakitori sauce, I turned the knob but no water came out. I turned the knob the other direction, and suddenly a column of water shot out, to a height of 20 feet. From behind me, I heard the sound of dozens of girls giggling, a huge tour group of women were walking together towards the museum, arriving unseen behind me, just in time to watch my little spectacle. I finished rinsing my fingers, and with some regret, I realized my picnic had delayed me enough to put me behind the largest crowds at the exhibits.

And there is the biggest problem with Japanese museums: the people who go to see them. Japanese museumgoers are the worst museumgoers in the world. They crush together, pushing up against the glass walls that protect the exhibits from the crowds. They wear big floppy hats and fan themselves with the museum programs, blocking the view of the exhibits. They stand and stare at long scrolls, walking slowly down the cases to insure that nobody else can go past, they carefully inspect every character, in the deluded belief that they can actually read 10th century Chinese. They crowd around the display cards, paying more attention to the description of the art object than the object itself.

My sister once told me some very sensible advice about such museums, she said that when faced with an embarrassment of riches, one cannot see everything, or the really great art objects will fail to make an impression. Our memories of great works are diluted with thousands of impressions of lesser works. You must focus on the objects you really want to see, and pass by the rest without tarrying. It is better to have a few strong memories of great works, than to leave the museum with a mass of muddled memories that all merge together.

And so this is how I approached the Tokyo National Museum, and I will focus on a few highlights. The big blockbuster show was a display of shingon mandalas from Mount Koya. Many of these objects are designated as Culturally Significant Objects, as one can observe by the red legend in the corners of the display cards. I cannot begin to explain the practices of esoteric shingon except by means of a simple metaphor, it is a meditative practice analogous to solving a 9×9 Rubik’s Cube in your head, and every facet of the little cubes is colored, and you have to align all the colors, even those facing the interior of the big cube. It is a recipe for madness, a massive misinterpretation of buddhism. Oh well, every religion must have its fringe crazies.

One of the strangest objects in the show was a long scroll of purple paper with writing in black ink. There were many such scrolls in this exhibit, but this one was annotated in the strangest way, it had white dots placed on top of each kanji character. There was no pattern in the white dots that I could discern, they were placed at various positions on top of the kanji, and occasionally a white kanji character was written aside the black text as an annotation, so these markings were obviously intended as an aid to the priests that read the scrolls. My educated guess is that the dots corresponded to the 9 quadrants of the shingon mandala, and were intended to remind the reader of what meditative image should be evoked as each kanji was read. My guess is probably incorrect, but life is too short to investigate such arcane matters, unless one is a priest at Mount Koyo.

But let us avert our attention from the overcrowded blockbuster exhibit, and turn to the galleries, where we can stroll in a more leisurely fashion without the jostling crowds. Each gallery contains the finest examples of Japanese art, and in considerable quantity. Here is a gallery of lacquerware, the finest collection in the world, not just one gallery, but three full galleries. Here is a collection of fine hair combs produced in the Edo era, they are in perfect condition despite their age, each one is cut with the finest teeth that would be difficult to produce even with modern technology, and there is not just one comb, there are 30 identical combs. Here is a collection of ancient paintings on silk, they are so old and faded that the images can hardly be seen, but they are all remounted in fresh silk brocade frames, just as they have been periodically restored into new frames every hundred years or so. Here is a huge gallery of Chinese bronze dating back to the Sung dynasty, oh dear, this collection isn’t nearly as good as the Art Institute of Chicago. Oh well, one cannot have everything, and this is Japan, not China, so what did you expect? Here is a huge gallery of tea vessels, each object is intended for solitary contemplation during the tea ceremony, but in such quantity, they lose their impact by sheer weight of numbers. How can one experience the sublime, when the quiet whisper of a million objects combines into a deafening shout? Let us retire from these galleries, and seek a sharper focus.

I am always fascinated by evidence of the collision between Eastern and Western cultures, and there was a nice example in an exhibit of early medical textbooks illustrating the latest knowledge obtained from Dutch doctors. Another nearby gallery shows objects produced in the 15th century for Jesuit priests, one famous object is a christian altarpiece in lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl in a distinctively Japanese style. Nothing could more vividly demonstrate the incongruity of importing christianity to Asia, a region where the predominant religions (as well as lacquerware techniques) predate christianity by several millennium.

My particular favorite exhibit was a group of rubbings of inscriptions on Chinese stone monuments. These monuments were intended for use as a source for reproduction by taking impressions on paper, in a sense, they are the first printing presses. And some of these particular rubbings date back to 300 B.C. and are widely known as the prototypes for all kanji characters. Let me reiterate, these monuments date back thousands of years and were quite old and worn when the impressions in this exhibit were made, the rubbings are relatively modern at merely 2300 years old. It is relatively common to see these images reproduced today in kanji copybooks, and indeed, some of the stones were carved specifically to mass produce examples of finely written kanji for others to copy. But it can be heartbreaking to see such an exhibit, when some of the paper objects are mere fragments, with burned edges. We cannot possibly know what else was lost, surely there was far more to this artwork than the few square inches of unburnt paper we see today.

And as the evening approaches, I myself am feeling a little burnt at the edges. My feet are blistered, my back is aching from hauling my bag over my shoulder, I should have checked it in a coin locker. It is time to limp back to my hotel, this has been far more amusement than any one body can bear.

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