Exquisite offerings

June 5, 2010

Set back a little from the bustling crowds of Sannenzaka is an unprepossessing building which houses some of the most superb examples of Japanese craftsmanship ever produced: the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum. It’s the first museum to hold as its permanent collection metalwork, cloisonné, lacquer and Satsuma ware created for the Meiji Era International Expositions.

1867 was the final year of the Edo period. The new Meiji government wanted to show the world its power and ability in the industrial arts so works were created for the international expositions in Paris and Vienna. Few of these works remain in Japan. In fact, Director of the museum, Masayuki Murata, first came across Meiji art in New York City. He began collecting about 20 years ago and these works form the basis of this museum. As so many of these pieces were bought by foreigners, Japanese people have few chances to see works from this period. The artefacts represent artisans both from the Imperial Household as well as complete unknowns and Murata believes they show a ‘world of transcendent technical finesse that no one can now produce’.

Pages from the museum catalogue

There are censers the height of people; intricate cloisonné incense burners; lacquer furniture rich with gold leaf laid over black; vases dripping in cherry blossom, chrysanthemums, peonies and wisteria; ceremonial sword hilts and scabbards decorated with reeds and butterflies; boxes covered with spiders webs spun with gold; lids topped with insects made of silver; and human figures flying on cranes that spiral around a pair of Satsuma vases. Gods, demons and mythical beasts abound but the scenes of nature are just as spellbinding. One of the most splendid pieces is a folding screen, unsigned, with a design of wild geese and reeds. The geese are inlaid with ivory, bone and stag horn, the feathers illuminated with mother-of-pearl.

Satsuma ware from the museum catalogue

If you visit one museum while you are in Kyoto, get to this one.

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