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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road

Nara Gate

Treasure House

The Shosoin

On the third day of the new year in 758, a ceremonial object from Tang China was used in a ritual in Nara to honor the god of the silkworm. This object, which like so many others from Tang China was adapted by the Japanese for a special purpose, is now in the Shosoin, the imperial storehouse in Nara, Japan. Constructed of cypress, the Shosoin, which means "storehouse," sits inside the Todaiji Temple compound in Nara just northwest of the Great Buddha.

Emperor Shomu commissioned the building of the Todaiji Temple and the Shosoin. He wanted a place to hold many things, including the gifts that were brought back to him and earlier emperors by the diplomatic missions sent to Tang China. When the emperor died in 756, his widow donated objects to the Todaiji Temple. Attached to the index of objects is her comment: "The list given above contains treasures that have been handled by the late emperor and articles that served him in the palace. These objects remind me of the bygone days, and the sight of them causes me bitter grief."

And what is in the Shosoin? It is like a time capsule housing the treasures of the Silk Road. Inside are a stemmed blue glass cup from the Roman Empire, a chest from Egypt, a harp from near Baghdad, a four-stringed lute from Iran, a five-stringed lute from India, carpets from western China, a rhinoceros horn bowl from Champa (today central Vietnam). In addition, it holds ritual objects used in China and brought to the Japanese court for its own purposes; objects made in Japan that reflect Japanese imitation and innovation of Tang Chinese objects; and archives, temple furnishings, and ceremonial dress. One could say that the Shosoin is the eastern terminus of the Silk Road.

Click to enlarge and view captions

Click image to enlarge and view captions

  • Silk: The building technique and materials used in constructing the Shosoin have preserved its treasures remarkably well. Inside are intact silks and textile arts from the 8th century whose techniques disappeared and were revived only centuries later. There is virtually no other place where such intact textiles can be found.
  • Music: Among its treasures, the Shosoin has an unparalleled collection of musical instruments from Iran and China, including lutes, mouth organs, and harps.
  • Art: The Shosoin serves as a museum of Persian motifs that traveled the Silk Road through Central Asia into Tang China and eventually to Nara, Japan. These include animals, trees, birds, and lion hunting.
  • Religion: Buddhism flourished in Nara, eventually becoming a major political force. Among the riches of the Shosoin are religious texts and archives as well as splendid ritual gowns and ceremonial objects. Even after the capital moved to Kyoto and the power of the temples and monasteries in Nara waned, the objects remained well preserved and cared for.