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Collecting Japan: Q&A with Veljko Dujin, Curator of Collections at Morikami

Morikami’s Curator of Collections, Veljko Dujin, recently traveled to Japan in search of interesting artwork, little-known details of the life of Japan’s most famous nun, and the regionally favored cookie at every stop along the way. From May 1 through 19, Veljko hit Kyoto, Tokyo, Okayama, Kurashiki, Osaka, Nishinomiya, Nagoya, and Seto. Here’s what we learned about his whirlwind journey:

What was the primary purpose of your trip?

I set out to research Otagaki Rengetsu, a painter, calligrapher and ceramicist, and arguably the most famous nun in Japanese history. She lived from the late 1700s to the late 1800s. We’re hosting an exhibit of her work beginning in January 2015, so I wanted to find pieces of her work to add to our collection.

What were you able to find out about her?

I visited the temple where she spent much of her youth, Jinko-in, and Chion-in, where she spent her last years. After a mountainous half hour climb guided only by a hand-drawn map from the local monks, I was able to find her grave. One of her students planted a small cherry tree next to it close to 100 years ago. Today, its shade and blooms stretch over dozens of the surrounding gravestones. It was a very moving scene for me.

Describe a Japanese temple – how is it different than what probably comes to mind for most of our readers?

Unlike a church or synagogue, Japanese temples are more like campuses. There are halls to house the statues of the deities the temple is dedicated to, living quarters for the abbots, a tea house or two, often a library, and in the case of a Zen temple, a meditation hall. Lastly, every temple has a few beautiful gardens.

Besides Rengetsu’s work, what type of pieces were you looking for, and what did you find?

I traveled to Japan with Riva Lee Asbell, a prolific collector of Zen art who has promised her entire collection to Morikami. In Kyoto in particular we visited dozens of art dealers. The city’s famous Shinmonzen Street is home to over 60 antique galleries, each one specializing in objects from tea ceremony utensils to prints and paintings. A handful of dealers specialize in Zen art, and we visited all of them. Riva and I found some two dozen pieces that we feel enhance our collection including scrolls, ceramics, framed calligraphy, and hand painted books by renowned Buddhist priests, some whose work was displayed in our recent exhibit Zenmi: A Taste of Zen.

What do you consider when choosing a piece?

You can look at antiquing in Kyoto as a treasure hunt; a great object can appear anytime and often where you expect it the least. There are a few things we look at when considering a piece: its historical significance, the artist, whether it fits into our collection, and what the piece can add to the collection as a whole. Price is naturally an important factor as well. Most importantly, though, the collector and museum staff need to like the piece.

You obviously made time to visit some museums – as a curator, how might your museum experience differ from the average visitor?

I visited many museums, in Kyoto, Tokyo, Kurashiki, Okayama, Nagoya and Seto. As a curator, I approach a museum visit with more in mind than just looking at artwork. I am always looking for inspiration on how we can improve the Morikami exhibition layout and design, lighting, labels, and even security. However, the art on display is always the most important part of any museum visit. On this trip, my favorite exhibit was the “Grand Exhibition of Sacred Treasures from Shinto Shrines” at the Tokyo National Museum. Visiting this exhibit was a rare opportunity to see treasures – from religious art to great swords, armor and textiles – held in shrines throughout Japan. Many of these objects are designated National Treasures and thus seldom seen.

This trip was not all work and no play – what were some personal highlights?

I saw a handful of important temples for the first time, including Sengaku-ji in Tokyo, where the 47 ronin are buried. I met with abbots in temples in Kyoto and Okayama, including Harada Shodo Roshi, who spoke at Morikami during the Zenmi exhibit. I even joined monks in sitting zazen (meditation) style! As much as I enjoyed it my right leg was less than thrilled. I regained full control of it after a day or two. I also met with the family of one of my favorite potters, Suzuki Seisei, in Seto. It was truly a treat to visit the studio where he worked and see many of his pieces on display in his home.

What would our readers find most surprising?

I guess it would be the cleanliness and order in Japan. Everyone is patiently waiting in line, whether for a train or to buy something at a kiosk. Even the trains are pristine; a crew comes in to clean each time the train reaches its final stop on the line. These 10 minute cleanings are actually factored into the daily train schedule.

What do you make sure you bring home each time you visit?

Gifts! Or in Japanese, omiyage. It’s  my personal tradition to at least bring home cookies for friends and coworkers from wherever I visit, regardless of how long I’m away.

What’s your favorite thing to eat in Japan that you can’t find in the states?

That’s a difficult question, but I’d have to say Firefly Squid. They’re no more than two inches long and they actually glow under water. You eat them like you’d eat any squid, but I like them best either raw or fried tempura style.

For our readers who have never been, why visit Japan?

Japan is a truly magical place: a superb blend of ancient tradition and cutting-edge technological progress. The food is delicious, whether you dine in a fancy restaurant or hit up a street vendor; everywhere you look there is a temple, shrine, or a beautiful old house, usually next to an equally beautiful example of contemporary architecture. Everyone should experience the cleanliness, order, and the politeness of its people.

Want more Morikami? Check out our summer E-news for more from the staff and the Morikami family!

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