A Place of Their Own

It is astonishing to find that in a nation where culture is so publicly revered, an ancient tradition could persist seemingly in isolation, in a world hidden from view. Such is the case with a devout group of Buddhist nuns who for more than a millennium have endowed and maintained a suite of imperial temple-convents in Kyoto and Nara. Built between the seventh and nineteenth centuries, these buildings were virtual jewel boxes filled with extraordinary works of art and literature. When young women—the daughters of Japan’s highest ranking nobility—took the tonsure and established these institutions, they brought with them, as if a dowry to a marriage, superb furnishings and garments, libraries of books, secular and religious scrolls, paintings, screens, lacquerware, utensils for the spiritual disciplines of tea and flower arrangement, and multitudinous other works of art. The vast wealth of the convents was such that they became known as bikuni gosho, or “nuns’ palaces.” While being places of spiritual discipline, the convents also functioned as small courts where the language of imperial circles was maintained and the cultural traditions of court women—the arts of poetry, music, calligraphy, and painting—were cultivated and practiced in their purest form

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