Touring Japan's Autumnal Art Scene

Written by
Masha Slautina
Jan. 25, 2024

Graduate student Maria (Masha) Slautina specializes in Japanese art history. In her doctoral dissertation, she explores the artistic assemblage, or toriawase, in 17th-century Japanese tea practice (chanoyu), conceptualizing it as a transcultural multimedia art form. She does so by analyzing the activities of key figures in the cultural networks of the time, with a particular focus on Kobori Enshū (1579–1647), a prominent tea master, architect, garden designer, painter, poet, and political administrator of his generation.

She spent fall 2023 researching at the University of Tokyo and treats us here to a tour of the Tokyo and Kyoto autumnal art scene.

Autumn in Tokyo and Kyoto

By Masha Slautina

Japanese arts and seasonality have traditionally been closely intertwined. It’s no surprise, therefore, that art exhibitions in Japan have been marked with—and marketed through—a selection of themes and art objects embracing, reflecting, and highlighting seasonal topics.

Autumn and its attributes hold a prominent position in the so-called “classical” art of Yamato-e (literally “Japanese painting”), with vibrant fall foliage as one of its archetypical seasonal motifs.

Persimmon tree orchard

Persimmon tree, a seasonal staple on the Japanese table and in paintings where it enjoys a whole range of symbolism, at the East Imperial Gardens in Tokyo (Photo/Masha Slautina)


The long-established natural imagery with roots in early Japanese poetry and the contemporary museum practice of setting blockbusters during autumnal months amalgamated when the 2023 season culminated in the exhibition “Yamato-e: Traditions of Beauty from the Imperial Court” on view at the Tokyo National Museum from October to December 2023. This impressive event, in four iterations, showed an astonishing array of artworks from across the country spanning some thousand years. It was especially abundant in paintings in different media and formats from the Kamakura to Muromachi periods (twelfth to sixteenth centuries), marked as “the heyday of Yamato-e.”

Given that a similarly extensive exhibition on the topic was last organized some thirty years ago, I was thrilled that my sojourn in Japan as a graduate research student at the University of Tokyo coincided with this show, which I had a chance to leisurely visit several times. The breadth and scale of the exhibition attracted East Asian art historians from all over the world, and I enjoyed the opportunity to visit it with friends and scholars from different backgrounds. Our discussions allowed me to view the artworks through multiple lenses, expanding contexts and perspectives and thus greatly enriching my understanding of the objects on view.

While the Tokyo National Museum is on the list of every visitor to the capital, other collections in the city are perhaps not as well-known. One such collection assembled by an industrialist Gotoh Keita (1882-1959) constitutes the core of the Gotoh Museum set amidst a picturesque garden in Setagaya.

Masha Slautina and Andy Watsky stand on either side of a vase with flower arrangement

Masha Slautina and Professor Andy Watsky at Gotoh Museum (Photo/Masha Slautina)

Together with other masterpieces, such as one of the earliest illustrated handscrolls of the eleventh-century classic The Tale of Genji, the Gotoh Museum houses an impressive assortment of tea utensils, which are central to my research. Its fall exhibition entitled “Old Iga: Exceptional Pottery” or “Daring to Deform: The Art of Iga Ceramics” in its English version, focused on tea ceramics coming from what was previously known as Iga province (now Mie Prefecture) that made their appearance in the late sixteenth-early seventeenth century and stood out for their distorted shapes.

I had a fortunate opportunity to visit the exhibition with my adviser, Professor Andrew Watsky, whose expertise comprises tea culture and ceramics. Strolling through the galleries and discussing—in hushed voices as per requirements of Japanese museum settings—the variations of glazes and shapes of pieces on display was indeed an enlightening experience. We coordinated the visit time to attend a lecture by the former Museum chief curator and one of the foremost tea utensils specialists, Dr. Takeuchi Jun’ichi, who drew illuminating parallels between the Iga pottery and objects from other regions and historical periods, emphasizing the transmediality of some of the forms.

Another less familiar art institution right in the middle of the city is Sannomaru-Shōzōkan, or the Museum of the Imperial Collections, located on the grounds of the East Garden of the Imperial Palace.

Painting of a black rooster and red grapes on a beige background

Itō Jakuchū, Black Rooster and Nandin, ca. 1761 (Photo/Masha Slautina)

Its collection, built around artifacts owned by the imperial family, includes some of Japanese art history’s most famous objects, such as a magnificent screen, “Chinese Guardian Lions” by a sixteenth-century painter, Kano Eitoku, often cited as a vivid manifestation of the opulent Momoyama-period aesthetic or the originals of the set of thirty hanging scrolls “Colorful Realm of Living Beings” by an eighteen-century painter Itō Jakuchū, naturalistic representations of birds, sea creatures, and flowers originally produced for a monastic setting.

The current rotating exhibition under the sweeping title “The Aesthetics of the Imperial Court: Beauty Passed Down through the Ages,” which unfolds over almost eight months starting from November 2023, shows a selection of such treasures. It is set to commemorate thirty years of the foundation of the Museum, as well as five years of the enthronement and thirty years of marriage anniversaries of the Emperor and Empress. Moreover, it marks a change in the status of the Museum, from October 2023 passing from under the wing of the Imperial Household Agency that manages Imperial possessions to becoming part of the National Institutes for Cultural Heritage, a body that governs national museums (good news for those of us who hold an ICOM membership—the entrance is free and without queue!).

The display is divided into two sections: one room showcases art from the Imperial collection, while the other features more recent artifacts connected to the Imperial family. Unusually, for most Japanese museums, photography is permitted in the room displaying older art, an opportunity that many visitors seize.

I, too, zoomed my eyes and sometimes my camera into the details of the artworks on view. Taking notice of almost palpable details such as the slightly raised dots rendering the fleshiness of Jakuchū’s rooster’s comb and wattle or the delicate snow-laying strokes on the mountain landscapes of the early fourteenth-century pictorial scroll Illustrated Miracles of the Kasuga Deity, once again reinstated to me the meaningfulness of the unhurried act of close contemplation. After visiting the exhibition, I walked around the East Imperial Gardens, an extensive green area dating back to the Edo period when it was part of the Edo Castle, enjoying the unusually mild November weather. In the orchard, I spotted trees with ripe persimmons, a seasonal staple on the Japanese table and in paintings where it enjoys a whole range of symbolisms, with two of five growing species planted personally by the Emperors.

View through a window at a gravel scape surrounded by gardens

Dry landscape garden at Konchi-in (Photo Masha Slautina)

While art and nature typically inspire and complement each other, in Kyoto, where I spent a week in late November, they almost competed. Even those who enjoy the autumn foliage in the old capital regularly agreed that this time, it was exceptionally beautiful!

Luckily, many of the places I was set to visit required spending time outdoors. Katsura Imperial Villa on the bank of the Katsura River in the western Kyoto neighborhood and Shugakuin Imperial Villa in the eastern hills offered outstanding garden vistas, including examples of shakkei or “borrowed scenery,” a garden design technique that incorporates distant views into the garden and architectural compositions. Both places boast outstanding examples of the vernacular and tea architecture.

Places inside Kyoto, such as the Jotenkaku Museum on the grounds of the Shōkoku-ji temple showing the works by Itō Jakuchū and Maruyama Okyō or the Konchi-in, a sub-temple of the Nanzen-ji Zen temple complex, featuring a famous “Crane and Turtle” dry landscape garden, a historic tea house, as well as important pictorial works such as a sliding door by a sixteenth-century painter Hasegawa Tōhaku still preserved in situ, also involved walking through their adjacent gardens, sparing me the tough choice between the two much-anticipated spectacles.

Red maple trees bend over a pathway, with a branch of red leaves highlighted in the foreground

Jotenkaku Museum grounds (Photo/Masha Slautina)

Late November was not only the best time to admire the flamboyant Kyoto maples but also to catch multiple exhibitions on the topic of tea culture, as strongly predicated on the seasonal changes as the rest of the traditional Japanese art. An exhibition showing a variety of bowls used for tea over the centuries at the Nomura Art Museum and an autumn selection of tea utensils at the Kitamura Museum were other highlights of my trip.

Ginkgo trees line a street covered in its yellow leaves

Tokyo University campus (Photo/Masha Slautina)

Finally, I was fortunate to catch the last iteration of the exceptional exhibition showing the treasures of the Kyoto Zen temple complex Tōfuku-ji, which included a vast array of temple-related documents and artifacts. Intimate objects such as the death calligraphy by Tōfuku-ji founder Enni (1202-1280) were on view along with the monumental masterpieces by its house painter and luminary Kissan Minchō (1352-1431).

This short overview cannot possibly do justice to either Tokyo or Kyoto’s autumnal art scene. I barely scratched the surface, mentioning only a small part of what was going on in both places. In the final effort to transmit some of the autumn splendors I experienced, I conclude my essay with a photograph of the ginkgo trees turned yellow that transformed the campus of the University of Tokyo for a couple of weeks, adding a touch of magic to its usual ambiance of academic rigor.