The great hall of Byodo-in houses a statue of the Amitabha Buddha, and on the walls around it are hung fifty-two bodhisattvas. Some of the bodhisattvas are depicted in dance, while others hold instruments or other possessions. Each rests on a cloud. Like stylistic flourishes, the clouds blossom, bunched in floral curls with tails that trail like soft-serve ice cream pulled from the machine. They are full of character and, I would argue, more emotive than the figures that sit on them.
For some reason, the bodhisattvas remind me of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. There are no clouds in the latter, which I realize upon reinspection, but the stylization is there: the white-limned waves that lap at the shell on which Venus stands; her hair, untamed, flowing. Then there is the suggestion of being carried forth on wind. Venus herself appears impassive, while around her zephyrs sweep fabric into fluttering ribbons.
If I were an art historian, this is the sort of subject that would interest me. Comparisons across genres, across civilizations, evoked by a single visual gesture. Perhaps I am the only person for whom this connection resonates, eleventh-century Japanese statuettes and a fifteenth-century Renaissance painting, but it is representative of the force that drives me: a desire to find echoes across the world.
You will have seen this building before, even if you do not immediately recognize it; the eleventh-century Byodo-in Temple is immortalized on the obverse side of the Japanese 10-yen coin. Get tickets for a tour of the inside of the Phoenix Hall to see the impressive Buddha statue and the original paintings on the walls. The museum, included in the price of admission, offers a closer look at many of the smaller bodhisattva statues. After a visit, treat yourself to matcha-flavored dessert, for which the city of Uji is famous.
Renge-116 Uji, Kyoto Prefecture
Mon-Sun: 08:30-17:30 (museum: 09:00-17:00)
0774 21 2861
Garden and museum: 600 JPY; inside of Phoenix Hall: additional 300 JPY