Nara Koen (Nara Park) is famous for several reasons, namely its shika deer and the large Buddha statue which is a prime attraction in the park. But aside from these, and no less worthy of a visit is the Nara National Museum. Viewing this vast collection of Buddhist art is a fitting way to learn some Japanese history in this oh-so-historic city; Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 794 and is one of the most famous of its ancient capitals. So if you’ve got your history hat on and fancy viewing some beautiful artwork, this is the place for you.
A large complex, the museum comprises of an East Wing, West Wing, Conservation Center, Buddhist Sculpture Hall, Ritual Bronzes Gallery and the Buddhist Art Library. There are enough attractions to fill a long afternoon for the dedicated art lover, or if you just fancy popping in for a quick peek after a walk around the park, you can visit the main exhibition in less than an hour.
Aside from the artwork, there is also a museum shop to buy postcards and souvenirs, and a slightly pricey cafe/restaurant with slow service but delicious cheesecake and a beautiful view.
In days gone by, when the ‘Imperial Nara Museum’ was completed in 1894, this was the main building and as such is a culturally important piece of architecture. The style is anything but traditional Japanese – it’s regal and imposing with Roman columns framing the front doorway. This hall is filled with Buddhist statues that mark the history of Japan from the Asuka period through to the Kamakura period. Renovations have meant that this hall has been closed of late but fear not – the work is scheduled to be finished in March/April 2016 and so the hall should be open again soon. If not, you can go next door to the small Ritual Bronzes Gallery with items including Chinese bronze wares from the Yin and Han dynasty.
While the museum often hosts temporary exhibitions, in the west wing (rooms 2 and 3) you can find the general exhibition. Japanese Buddhist Art (dating back to 538 – the Asuka period) is what is on display in these rooms and types of art include paintings, sculptures, decorative temple ornaments, hand scrolls, manuscripts and ritual implements.
From these rooms, some of my favourite pieces include the wonderful sculpture of the priest Gien, whose expressive face is realistic and haunting, and the archaeological piece, the fukubashi, which is part of the base which goes beneath a pagoda – it may sound like it would just be a lump of ancient concrete, but this supporting plinth is intricately decorated with precisely engraved characters shimmering in the golden surface.
This is where you can find the temporary and special exhibitions that change several times throughout the year. At the time of my visit, the current exhibition was called ‘On-Matsuri and the Scared Art of Kasuga’. The exhibition provided details about the popular end-of-year festival which saw its 880th enactment in 2015. Among the other artefacts and relics, some of the most stunning were the decorative scrolls.
Currently running and upcoming exhibitions are the Treasures of Todaiji’s Omizutori Ritual Exhibition from February 6th to March 14th 2016, the Commemorating the Conservation of the Bronze Avatar of Izusan: The Art and History of Izusan Shrine in Atami Exhibition from February 6th to March 14th 2016, and The National Treasure Illustrated Scrolls of the Legends of Shigisan: Treasures of Chogosonshiji Temple and Faith in Bishamontenno Exhibition from April 9th to May 22nd 2016.
If you’re just popping in to grab a coffee from the cafe and don’t have time to see the big exhibitions, head over to the lower level passageway which is right next to the cafe. Admission is free, and the 150 meter-long passageway links up the new East and West Wings to the Nara Buddhist Sculpture Hall in the original building.
The museum is usually open from 9:30 to 5:00, but it often has extended or reduced opening times depending on what’s going on, particularly if they are changing over exhibitions. Opening times vary from 9:00 to 9:30, but as for closing times, depending on what’s going on the museum could be closing at 6:00, 7:00 or 8:30, so check ahead if you’ll be arriving later in the afternoon – details of opening times can be found on the Nara National Museum website (linked below).
Admission prices are as follows: 520 yen for adults, 260 yen for University students, free for those aged 18 and under, free for those over 70 years old and free for handicapped persons. There are discounted prices for groups of 20 or more, and a variety of other offers and discounts. There are a great number of holidays on which admission is free (such as Children’s Day, International Museum Day and Elderly Day, to name a few), discounts for adults who are visiting with children who are under junior high school age, discounts for those visiting after 5:00 when the museum is open later in the evening, and half price admission for (married?) couples visiting the museum on the 22nd of the month from December to June – very random! Entry to the Ritual Bronzes Gallery is also free while the Buddhist Sculpture Hall remains closed.
By the time I had traipsed around the whole of Nara Park, fed the deer and seen every religious relic the grounds had to offer, I wasn’t really in the mood for the Nara National Museum. However, tired and travel-weary though I was, stopping for a coffee in the ‘Half Time Cafe’ below ground gave me enough energy to make it around the exhibitions. The Nara National Museum has a great collection and is fascinating for those interested in Buddhist Art. Nara is one of the cultural capitals of Japan and hosts a wide range of historical and artistic attractions for visitors to enjoy – if these are your favourite things to see on holiday, a trip to the Nara National Museum is a grand choice.