While modern day Xian is often claimed to be the "terminus of the Silk Road," the Japanese rightly insist that the sands of the caravan routes really stopped at Nara. From Persian instruments and dances from Kucha to Buddhist scriptures brought by monks from China and Cambodia-- all this and more found its way to Japan during the 7th-8th century. And thanks to an almost obsessive antiquarianism, Japan today holds some of the most important and best preserved artistic treasures from that early period of Silk Road history. And not just art objects, but believe it or not, Central Asian music and dances that originated during Tang Silk Road times still exist in Japan much as they were over 1000 years ago. Just like the perfectly preserved roman glass goblets that can be seen in Japanese museums today, the Japanese Imperial Household has preserved some of this music and dance for a millenium. (For more read this post on Kuchean Dancers and the Sogdian whirl).
Considering this thousand year-long fascination, it should come as no surprise that Japan still finds itself in the gripes of what is called its modern "Silk Road Boom." (For more on the Japanese approach to the Silk Road, see my post Silk Road Reflections). The general public for the past three decades just cannot seem to get enough of silk road history and there have been many large-scale, overwhelmingly popular documentaries, a seemingly unending stream of publications and countless museum exhibitions which draw large crowds. Of the museum exhibitions, the annual Shosoin Exhibition held in Nara is the most famous. This year marked the 61st annual exhibition and I wonder if it would pretty much take that long for a person going every year to see the collection in its entirity? For more on this exhibition, see my fellow Silk Road intriguer Jean's post on it for Kyoto Journal here.
NHK Special: The Silk Road. People say-- and wikipedia concurs-- that what really kicked off Japan's "silk road boom" was the legendary NHK video series: The Silk Road. Production began on the three-volume series in 1979. The first volume was a joint-production between NHK and China's CCTV-- the first-ever joint Sino-Japanese film production in history. The series was conceived immediately after diplomatic relations were restored between China and Japan in 1972. At that time the Chinese Premier Chou Enlai gave a press conference for Japanese reporters in which he challenged them to introduce China to the world. Not surprisingly, the theme of the Silk Road was brought forward and thus began the first-ever modern filming in Western China by the outside world. It took some seven years of planning but in 1979 production was started which had the dual aim of both introducing China to the world, but more importantly to trace the way that Japan was itself connected to the rest of the world via Silk Road history.
The show remains a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. I mean, even 30 years ago, NHK is NHK: public television at its best. Of course, TV has come a long way in 30 years. Instead of digital high definition, the filming can be shakey at times and everything is obviously dated: from the famous 1970s opening song with its psychedelic shots of a 12 arm goddess moving to the rhythm of Kitaro's new age synthesizer to the journalist who heads out with a portable box-like audio recorder and microphone--it is from a different time and space!
China has changed a lot. In the filming, you see rural images that could have been taken a 1000 years ago. And, even in Xian, everyone is in gray Mao jackets and red caps, bicycles everywhere. Party officials ride through the crowded streets like hornets in their motorcycle side-cars. Its like those communist-era ballets that you see-- you can hardly believe your eyes.
I cannot locate the figures now, but the program had an astronomical budget and was funded almost entirely by NHK and included original research and many publications to accompany the series.
20% of the Japanese TV audience were said to have watched the series, which had very significant guest appearances by Shiba Ryotaro and Inoue Yasushi. There have been complaints about the English version that the content was "spotty" but the fact is the content was not spotty from a Japanese language point of view. I have not seen the program in English-- nor will I. The Japanese version is a masterpiece.
The first 12-volume series was so popular that the public demanded a second volume. And, so NHK went on alone (without their Chinese partners)-- all the way to Rome in 18 more volumes! This was filmed in 1983-4 and includes important filming of the Iraqi marshland people whose way of life have vanished.
--It was Kitaro's music for the Silk Road series that brought him international acclaim. Here it is!
Monkey. Like in China, the story Journey to the West 西遊記 is incredibly popular in Japan. A drama series based on the Chinese novel called Monkey was aired from 1978-9 and then a second series from 1979-80. The series was extremely popular. It's opening narration was especially impressive and this has retained for the later remakes of the series. Like Kitaro for NHK, the soundtrack for the series Monkey by the popular band Godiego was also a huge success-- especially popular were the songs Gandhara and Monkey Majik.
In 2000,Ikuo Hirayama created his monumental mural, Series of Paintings of Western Regions in the Age of the Great Tang Dynasty in the Xuanzang Pavilion which stands behind Yakushi Temple in Nara. The Temple has been associated with the great Chinese Silk Road monk Xuanzang from its very beginnings in the 7th century, and Hirayama was asked to mark the millenium by making a series of paintings of the monk's journey on the pavilion walls.
100 Year Anniversary of Otani Expedition. 2003 marked the (infamous?) Otani expedition to Central Asia. Along with the other "foreign devils on the silk road" like Aurel Stein, Sven Hedit, Pelliot and Von Le Coq, Kozui Otani led several archaelogical expeditions into Central Asia from which he brought back an astonishing amount of art works and important cultural properties. For more see my Post The Otani Mission. To mark the 100 year anniversary,a silk road symposium was held by Ryukoku University on silk road cultures and modern scientific research. the Mainichi Shinbum also had ran a very popular series of articles about the mission and the called 『阿弥陀が来た道―百年目の大谷探検隊』 ("The Road that Amida Traveled: 100 years since the Otani Mission"), which was then published as a book.
Saiyuki was re-made again in 2006 starring Shingo Katori. This series was the basis for the 2007 movie, also starring (you guessed it) Shingo. Movie trailer here and music here!
2005 New NHK Silk Road Special. In 2005, to celebrate NHK's 80th anniversary a New NHK Silk Road series was produced with the basic aim of re-visiting volume one of the original series to compare how much had changed in 25 years.
2007 NHK Special: The New Silk Road. A seven-part series, subtitled "Travels in Turbulent Lands," this latest edition was markedly different from the earlier series as it was mainly concerned with war and strife in Central Asia and the Arabia peninsula. Whereas the earlier documentaries were produced with the aim of showing common threads that bind the Japanese to other cultures as far away as Afganistan, this latest series was highlighting the tragic elements of more recent history.
Important Digital Archiving work related to Silk Road:
2010 will mark the 1300 year anniversary of the founding of Nara, and to help mark the monumental ocassion, mayors from cities that are located along the Silk Road are being invited to visit.