By Isla Phillips for Fukuoka Now
Dazaifu, once the seat of regional government, continues to be a hub for international exchange. Appropriately, it is the site of one of the four national museums in Japan. When I arrived in Japan last October, Kyushu National Museum was one of the first places I explored.
It’s a very striking building, designed by the architect Kiyonori Kikutake, that sits amongst the wooded hills and impresses visitors with its indigo glass facade that’s 36.1 m tall.
On my first ever visit, I was given a free guided tour (in English) of the lobby. It was all about the details of the building’s design. From the extremely high-tech facilities, which enhance the visitor’s experience, to its fascinating seismic isolation system, which protects both people and artifacts. I learned, for example, how cedar wood is used within the museum to dampen the effects of an earthquake.
The focus of the museum is on history, unlike the three other national museums which prioritize art. Its displays and explanations allow you to understand the formation of Japanese culture from a wider viewpoint of Asian history, in particular, the exchanges between neighboring China and Korea. The collection includes important artifacts that cover the history of Kyushu from prehistory to the Meiji era. The museum is also home to a number of art pieces that are designated National Treasures and Cultural Properties, including paintings, calligraphy, ancient swords, and metalwork. I think the opportunity to see these pieces set in their historical context really helps if you’re someone (like myself) who only has a rough knowledge of Japanese history.
The cultural exchange exhibition (the permanent exhibition) always has about 800 pieces on display, with 30 to 50 getting changed each month. The exhibition aims to promote the history of Asian cultural exchange, from the emergence of stone tools to the beginnings of European exchanges with Japan. I’ve visited about four times and each time I’ve learned something new. The large exhibition space is divided into five sections, arranged chronologically.
My two favorite objects are at the start of the exhibition: the Jomon period preserved boat because it’s just so big and so old, and the really cool flame-shaped vessel, an example of the style that was only ever made in snowy Niigata. To really enjoy the exhibition, I would recommend picking up the complimentary audio guide, which provides an excellent and interesting commentary in flawless English. I’ve taken all my guests to the museum and everyone has enjoyed being able to learn about Japanese history in such an easy way. Not only the audio guide, but the displays themselves make everything very accessible and captivating. For example, there’s a full-scale reproduction of a royal jar coffin tomb, which lights up in different parts to help you see the artifacts as they would have been when they were excavated.
When I recently took my parents to the museum, we also made time to watch the movie in the adjoining SP Hi-Vision Theater. The ultra high definition made what was already an interesting and beautiful short film even better. We learned about Christianity in the Kyushu region after it was banned in the 16th century, and saw beautiful images of churches designed by Tetsukawa Yosuke, an architect famous for his work on churches in Nagasaki. The theater is open between 10:00 and 16:30, with shows every half hour and up to two films are selected to be played in the theater each month. All the films relate to objects that you’ll then see in the permanent exhibition. For example, our film connected to the 17th-century Spanish painting which depicts three Japanese Christians being martyred. Overall, I would advise setting aside between one to two hours for the cultural exchange exhibition, possibly even more! When I took my parents to visit, we wanted to go to Dazaifu Tenmangu as well, so after a couple of hours in the exhibition, we had a rest with coffee and pastries at the cafe in the lobby.
The museum’s cafe, located in the lobby. It also has a restaurant just outside.
My most recent trip to the museum was to see the current temporary exhibition, “The Buddhist Sculptures of Daiho’onji, Kyoto: Masterpieces by Kaikei and Jokei”. The exhibition ends on Jun. 16 (Sun.) and I would highly recommend a visit. If that has ended by the time you read this, do not worry, there’s always a special exhibit or two on. This exhibit commemorated the 800th anniversary of the founding of Daiho’onji Temple, a famous Kyoto treasure house of Kamakura era sculptures.
Source: Kyushu National Museum,「集合画像」
I don’t know a lot about Buddhist art, but these statues were some of the most beautiful Buddhist sculptures I’ve seen. The exhibition is really well signed and the audio guide (¥520) is worth getting. I learned not just about the statues, but also about the artists and Daiho’onjii Temple. The exhibition space allows you to appreciate a few sculptures at a time. Some of my favorites were the ones with multiple arms, such as the first statue of the exhibition, the Standing Senju Kannon Kosatsu (10th century) and the last statues you see, the Standing Senju Kannon Bosatsu by Higo Jokei (1224), which has 42 arms!
Photography is allowed for all six statues of the Six Manifestations of Avalokitesvara, which is rare. On the left is the Standing Senju Kannon Bosatsu.
I think I like the many-armed statues because of their intricacy. For the same reason, the section of the exhibition that was my favorite was the display of the ten major disciples of Buddha, a set of 13th-century sculptures by Kaikei. Each sculpture has so much individuality, and you can see the immense skill that must have gone into making them.
All of the sculptures that are on show are masterpieces in one way or another, and this is a rare opportunity to see them altogether or to even see them at all. The stunning Seated Shaka Nyorai by Gyokai (13th century), for example, is usually not on public display.
A part of the exhibition that I thought was really great is the section about how different elements of the sculptures are manufactured, such as the eyes or colors. Unlike the rest of the exhibition, which has both English and Japanese, this part is only in Japanese, but fortunately, the audio guide can fill you in or you can get the gist from looking at the displays.
If you enjoy sculpture or learning about art then I would definitely recommend this exhibition and I would really recommend a visit to the Kyushu National Museum in general. It’s right next door to Dazaifu Tenmangu and is easily accessible by Nishitetsu train or bus.
If you have children with you, they’ll be entertained too. The permanent collection has a space designed for children and in the lobby, there’s a fun interactive space called Ajippa. It’s completely free and lets you see, touch and play with objects from an array of Asian countries.
The entrance to Ajippa.
Kyushu National Museum
• 4-7-2 Ishizaka, Dazaifu City, Fukuoka
• Open: 9:30~17:00 (Sun. ~ Thu., last entry 16:30), 9:30~20:00 (Fri. & Sat., last entry 19:30)
• Closed: Mon. (open if hol. then closed next day)
• Admission: Adult ¥430, college student ¥130, free for 18 y.o. and under & over 70 y.o. (ID required)
Dazaifu Liner Bus Tabito
Hakata Bus Terminal → Dazaifu (40 min.) ¥600
Fukuoka Airport International Terminal → Dazaifu (25 min.) ¥500
Nishitetsu Train (from Tenjin)
Tenjin Sta.→ Futsukaichi Sta. (16 min.) → Dazaifu Sta. (5 min.) ¥400
*10 min. walk from Dazaifu Sta.