The Treasure Trove of Sacred Offerings Found on Okinoshima Island (part of the Munakata Shrine in Fukuoka)- my pick for best exhibition of 2014
By Avi Landau
Though in Tokyo there are no museums with permanent collections ranking with those of the likes of The Louvre, The Prado, The Met, The British Museum or Taipei’s Palace Museum, it is still one of the best, or maybe even THE best place in the world for special museum shows and exhibitions. During any given week, a glance at the museum listings will reveal several must-see exhibits at dozens of interesting venues, catering to almost any taste or inclination. The year 2014 was no different. With showings of ALL kinds of art Japanese and foreign, religious and secular, traditional and modern- everything in between, and more it was another busy year for the art-lover.
It wasn`t all a pretty picture, though. On the down side, I endured dangerous overcrowding at such highly publicized extravaganzas as the Hokusai show at the Ueno Royal Museum, the National Treasures exhibition at the National Museum in Ueno, and the Monet: An Eye For Landscapes exhibition at the National Museum of Western Art (also in Ueno),though the dangerously cramped and suffocating conditions vistors had to endure at these shows were more characteristic of Buddhist asceticisms than museum-going.
Still, with the beautiful and reasonably priced exhibition catalogues (which I almost always buy), I was able to savor and study at my own pace the works I had just seen on the train-rides home.
The exhibition which I found most completely satisfying in this past year, though, is not one that many had heard of. It was held in early autumn at the tastefuly designed and excitingly located (with a view of the Imperial Palace: Idemitsu Museum of Arts (which is always worth a visit just for its amazing Pottery Shard Room.*
It was called- The National Treasures of Munakata Shrine (宗像大社の国宝展), and showcased in a very elegently curated exhibition, a small selection of the approximately 80 thousand items found on tiny Okinoshima Island (a part of the Munkata Shrine) which have been designated National Treasures of Japan.
Munakata Shrine (Munakata Taisha, 宗像大社), which surprisingly few Japanese have heard of (even fewer can read the characters used to write its name), is located in present-day Fukuoka Prefecture, on the northern part of the Island of Kyushu (at the point at which the main islands of Japan are closest to the Korean Peninsula).
The shrine as a whole is actually divided into three separate parts. The Main Hall ( agrand structure) which is located on the mainland, near the sea, in what is now Munakata City (about 30 km from Fukuoka). There is another hall (the Nakatsu-Gu) on an island called Oshima, not very far from the mainland- about 12 kilometers. And most importantly for this exhibition, is the third part of the shrine, what is known as the Okitsu-Gu, on tiny Okinoshima Island, separated by 49km of sea from the shrine on the mainland- and only 145 km from Pusan on the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula.
Since the dawn of Japanese history- but especially between the 5th and 9th centuries) that part of Japan (northern Kyushu) played a major role (as a transport hub) in cultural exchanges, trade, diplomacy, and the movement of people between the Japanese Archipelago and the Asian Continent. The Three-Goddesses of Munakata (representing the three parts of the Shrine- and with names too long and difficult to remember), are mentioned in Japan`s earliest written records (the Kojiki, of 712 and the Nihon Shoki, of 720), were believed to be protectors of travellers, maritme transport, and trade.
It was the custom for those making the precarious voyage across the Genkai Sea to make offerings to the Goddesses- and from what could be seen at the exhibition, some made very fine offerings indeed- in the hope that the Goddesses would intervene favorably on their behalf and grant safe passage and successful missions. Many of these tens of thousands of offerings were simply left on Okinoshima Island fully exposed, though others were left under crags in the nooks and crannies of the island`s cliffs and rocks.
Taboos on trespassing the island have helped miraculously protect these treasures for more than 1,000 years (women are still forbidden to step on the island). Surveys carried out by scholars in the 20th century found 80 thousand ritual offerings- that`s right, 80 thousand, and ALL of them, yes ALL, have been designated National Treasures of Japan (though they are all listed together as ONE SINGLE National Treasure!). They are now house in the Treasure Hall of the Munakata Shrine in Munakata City. The only time I actually made my way to Munakata – a long journey from Tsukuba- the Treasure Hall was closed! That made the Tokyo “roadshow” for these pieces, all the sweeter for me!
As I stated earlier, I have selected this exhibiton as the best of 2014 because it was satisfying on so many levels. The Idemitsu Museum itself, so diginified, with pottery shard room* and its fine view of the Imperial Palace (lounge chairs and free tea are provided to let you enjoy it) was not crowded at all when I was there in mid-October- so I was at my leisure to contemplate the mysteries of Japanese spirituality and the origins of the Japanese State.
But most importantly for my decision is that almost each and every one of the amazing treasures I saw that day remain with me- as if forever imprinted onto my minds eye.
* The Shard Room at the Idemitsu Museum has, as you would expect, pottery shards from all over the world kept in drawers through which the visitor can browse. Outside is a view of the Imperial Palace.