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Photo Exhibit: Road of Light and Hope
Find Eurasian Relics through National Treasures of Todai-ji Temple

Photo Exhibition “Road of Light and Hope: National Treasures of Todai-jii Temple” has been held at the Japan Information Center, the Consulate General of Japan in Chicago until November 28. It is one of commemorative events to celebrate the 120 anniversary of the Consulate in December and co-organized by Japan Camera Industry Institute and Media Art League.

Taken by Miro Ito, the 41 photos portray the most prominent National Treasures of the Todai-ji Temple including the Great Buddha completed in 752 AD by the emperor Shomu (701-756). The exhibit also features a rare appearance of gigaku masks, which were photographed by Ito probably for the first time in the 1300 years of Todaiji history.

The exhibit aims to show the links in the cultural genesis of the East and the West along the Silk Road, which came to the easternmost terminal, Japan’s capital Heijo-kyo in the eighth century where Todaji was located.

The Silk Road extended through Eurasia all the way from Rome. In the era of Heijo-kyo, the Eurasian continent was ruled by powers ranging from the Tang dynasty under Emperor Xuanzong in the east; the Umayyad dynasty, the Abbasid-Seljuq and Byzantine Empires in the Middle East and Mediterranean; and the Kingdom of the Franks under Charlemagne in the West.

Relics of Hellenistic cultural heritage can be seen in the sculptural masterpieces in Todaiji. Origins of gigaku masks could be traced back to the mask theater of ancient Greece and brought via the “Oasis Silk Road” while intermingled with folklores and local theaters.

The exhibit “Road of Light and Hope” seeks a mutual hope for unity, solidarity, tolerance, and equality among the people of the East and the West through the Eurasian history of interactions amid the continuous conflicts in the world.

Miro Ito majored in the Aesthetics at Keio University and lived in Germany as a researcher. She wanted to build a bridge between the West and the East; however, she could not find what she could do. Then she moved to the U.S. and experienced the tragedy of the September 11 attacks. She strongly felt that she should do something for the world peace, and a flashback suddenly brought a divine will to her mind.

She returned to Japan and began studying Buddhism and Shinto. She was drawn to the work of Prince Shotoku, who adapted Buddhism as the national religion for peace, then she became interested in the Emperor Shomu, who built Todaiji and the Great Buddha to realize the principle of mutual coexistence and co-prosperity for all the living creatures.

Ito said, “I believe that Emperor Shomu’s principle would be an answer for issues in the present days and the future, so I have photographed sculptures in Todaiji for 14 years. I want to spread what Shomu did 1300 years ago. I want to convey it to the young generations in the world. That’s why I continue to exhibit those photos.” She also said when the viewers see the connections between the East and the West, the people could feel closeness that would lead them to have the sense of unity.
The exhibit started at the United Nation’s headquarters and continued at Tashkent in Uzbekistan, Strasbourg in France, and now in Chicago.

Gigaku was promoted by Prince Shotoku 1400 years ago but had been extinct a long time. It used to be a comical dancing theatre, which told stories through performance. It had 14 different characters with 23 different masks. The details are unknown, but a memorandum written by Komano Chikazane briefly described about gigaku.

Kyogen master Mannojo Nomura reproduced gigaku and showed it at 2012 folklore festival in the Smithsonian Museum. The theme of the festival was “Silk Road” and was produced by Yo-Yo Ma. Ito met both people and they became closer.

When the Kyogen master passed away two years later, she published her photo collection including Mannojo Nomura’s gigaku reproduction with his gigaku mask.
Ito showed the book to the director of Todaiji, and he said, “You can photograph authentic gigaku masks in our temple.”
With the Todaiji’s trust of her quality works, she was allowed to photograph many other treasures.

Ito said, “What you need to pursue your mission comes to you spontaneously.” She met ballet dancer Shunso Arai, who had been in the National Theatre Ballet of Brno, Czech Republic and knew about dance both in the West and the East. The two created gigaku ballet, which was consisted of four parts.
Arai performed it at DePaul University, and then a professor of the school wanted to create gigaku dance with his/her students.

Ito said, “I think that it would be better to extend gigaku performance with different ethnic groups such as black, white, and Latinos because there are a variety of faces in gigaku masks.”

Ballet dancer Shunso Arai performs gigaku dance at the photo exhibition.

Miro Ito

The photos below are some of gigaku masks.