Mitsui Memorial Museum
The year 2015 is particularly special for the Mitsui Memorial Museum. This year we celebrate both the 50th anniversary of the establishment of our parent organization Mitsui Bunko as a foundation, and the 10th anniversary of our museum’s opening. We are extremely pleased to present the special exhibition Zaō Gongen and the Secret Treasures of Shugendō in honor of this double anniversary.
Shugendō, renowned for its yamabushi (ascetic hermits) wielding their pilgrim staffs and blowing into conch shells, is based on the belief that enlightenment comes after living a harsh, solitary and austere life in the mountains. This uniquely Japanese religion is an ancient belief system that is a fusion of Shintō, Buddhist, Taoist and ancient Chinese divination beliefs. During the Heian period, large numbers of aristocrats and other high-ranking individuals made pilgrimages to Kimpusen, Nara prefecture, where Shugendō began. There, numerous festivals and rites were conducted, which in turn led to the spread of these beliefs to other mountainous regions throughout Japan. In spite of this growth, religious rites conducted on Kimpusen itself remained the central presence in Japan’s Shugen beliefs. This exhibition features the display of items related to Kimpusen Shugen, including those handed down at the sacred, main Shugen temple Kimpusenji, and ranges across the diverse media of Buddhist sculptures, mandala, and items excavated from sutra mound burials, such as sutra containers, sutra boxes, mirrors with figural images and kakebotoke (pendent plaques).
Early in Shugendō history Mitokusan Sanbutsu-ji, located in Tottori prefecture and renowned for its Heian period National Treasure Nageire-dō hall constructed on top of a cliff, became a focal point for regional Shugendō mountain worship. Today the temple is home to an unparalleled number of Zaō Gongen images. This exhibition displays a variety of these cultural properties, including Heian period Zaō Gongen images, along with sculptures of other deities and komainu (guardian lion-dogs).
Through its display of materials from both Kimpusen and Sanbutsu-ji, this exhibition surveys the “heavenly realms of the Buddhas and Shintō deities,” clarifying both the spirit of Shugendō forged amidst nature and the important cultural heritage handed down to us from the Heian period onwards. We hope that visitors will gain an overview of the fascinating history and nationwide spread of cultural exchange based on Shugendō.