Nara to Norwich: A week of celebrations for the Sainsbury Institute’s 25th anniversary

From Monday 20 – Saturday 25 May, the Sainsbury Institute was delighted to bring an ambitious display of information boards, artworks and a 12m replica scroll from the Hase Temple in Japan right to the heart of Norwich. Suspended in full from the ceiling of the Atrium at The Forum, the scroll formed the centrepiece of an exhibition focusing on two of our current major research projects, Nara to Norwich and the Later Prehistoric Norfolk Project.

Sunday 19 May

As The Forum closed to the public late on Sunday evening, the Nara to Norwich project team made their way to the venue for the install of the scroll. Packed into a small, unassuming suitcase, the scroll was unfolded and hoisted to the apex of the ceiling. It depicted the Kannon Bosatsu, bodhisattva of compassion and mercy, and was a replica made using high-resolution scanning of the Edo-period original.

Monday 20 May

The following day, it was all hands on deck as the display boards arrived for the surrounding exhibition. Part focused on the Nara to Norwich project, and provided visitors with a journey through the Silk Roads by exploring pilgrimage routes, archaeological sites and travelling objects across the eastern and western areas of the routes, all plotted onto large-scale NASA maps. The other part of the exhibition explored the Later Prehistoric Norfolk Project, which undertook two seasons of fieldwork in Norfolk and highlighted both the creative responses of those involved in the excavations, as well as the benefits of archaeology for wellbeing and the advantages of involving Japanese archaeologists in UK archaeology to provide a new perspective.

We were also pleased to open a concurrent display in the Cathedral Hostry on the sacred island of Okinoshima, created in collaboration with Miki Okadera and Kousuke Inamori of Fukuoka Prefectural Government. We were delighted to host two displays at prestigious cultural venues in Norwich to begin the celebrations for our 25th anniversary.

Tuesday 21 May

Having arrived late the night before, we were delighted to welcome twelve members of the Karyōbinga Shōmyō Kenkyūkai ensemble to the UK to perform their world-renowned shōmyō, or ritual chanting of the Buddhist sutras, in front of the scroll. The first performance took place at 11:00, with a mix of people who had come specifically to watch the performance but also many members of the local Norwich community who happened to be passing by at the time and were transfixed by the performance.

It was then onto St Peter Mancroft church for a workshop between the Karyōbinga Shōmyō Kenkyūkai group and the musical team from the church, chaired by Professor Fabio Rambelli, Professor of Japanese religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and shō musician. The groups shared notes on each other’s musical traditions, creating a dynamic environment of cross-cultural exchange and appreciation for all involved. A public performance by the two groups was then hosted that evening, with nearly 200 attendees gathering in St Peter Mancroft, an impressive historic church with Norman foundations in the centre of Norwich. Professor Rambelli as well as Professor Ellen Van Goethem (Kyushu University) and Revd Canon Edward Carter (St Peter Mancroft) also gave introductions to help contextualise both traditions for the audience. We received many comments from attendees who noted what a moving evening it had been, with feelings of mutual understanding, respect and unity underpinning the evening’s events.

Wednesday 22 May

On Wednesday, the group was treated to a behind the scenes tour of Norwich Cathedral by Canon Librarian and Vice Dean Revd Dr Peter Doll and Revd Canon Dr Mark Dimond, the Bishop’s Advisor for Interreligious Dialogue. They then moved on to Norwich City Council where they were joined by representatives from the Japan Local Government Centre for an afternoon of discussions about ties between the UK and Japan before moving on to a shōmyō performance at the Forum. After a busy day, the Karyōbinga Shōmyō Kenkyūkai group joined Sainsbury Institute staff for a very enjoyable takeaway at 64 The Close.

Thursday 23 May

No visit to the UK would be complete without a trip to the seaside for some fish and chips, so on Thursday the group headed to North Norfolk. On the way, they visited and performed at the 7th century site of St Felix at North Elmham before heading back to Norwich for another performance, this time covered by ITV Anglia.

Friday 24 May

Friday was another busy day as we hosted three performances at sites across the Sainsbury Centre, including by the female shinto deity in the main gallery space, the current Heart of Truth display, and outside in view of Usagi Kannon by artist Leiko Ikemura. We also welcomed visitors from the Royal Asiatic Society, who visited the Sainsbury Centre before heading to The Forum to view our exhibition and display. The group then moved to the South Asia Collection for a reception, where they were introduced to the collection by founders Philip and Jeannie Millward, and were informed of some of the upcoming and recent research projects at the collection by curator Mansi Rao. This was rounded off by a meal at local restaurant JC Pinto for the project team and colleagues.

Saturday 25 May

As we headed into the last day of the exhibition, the programme had by no means slowed down. The day began with a shōmyō performance at The Forum, drawing one of the biggest crowds as the weekend visitors sheltered from the grey weather outside. It was then down to the Auditorium for an afternoon of stimulating papers and discussions for our symposium on Nara to Norwich. Professor Simon Kaner provided opening remarks, before handing over to Okadera-san who introduced the audience to the heritage of Okinoshima. Professor Katy Cubitt explored the conversion of East Anglia to Christianity in the seventh century in exciting new research, and Professor Richard Bowring provided a compelling comparison with the spread and introduction of Buddhism to Japan. This was rounded off with a lively panel discussion which also brought together Professor Susan Whitfield and Professor Neil Price to discuss commonalities and differences in belief and material culture at the terminuses of the Silk Roads, chaired by Professor Christopher Scull. The Karyōbinga Shōmyō Kenkyūkai group then gave a closing performance, with a moving message of hope and unity for the people of Norwich. We then hosted a reception from our headquarters at 64 The Close to celebrate what had been an unforgettable week of activities and to look forward to what the next 25 years will hold for the Sainsbury Institute.

We have been overwhelmed with the positive comments, feedback and notes that we have received regarding the displays and associated activities which would not have been possible without the generous support of our collaborators and institutions. We are grateful to Kobayashi-san and the Hasedera team for all their hard work in bringing this event together, as well as all members of the Karyōbinga Shōmyō Kenkyūkai group who provided such inspiring performances across the week. Particular thanks also go to the Toshiba International Foundation, the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, the Japan Foundation, and the Nara Visitors Bureau. We would also like to thank the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, The Forum, St Peter Mancroft, Norwich Cathedral, Norwich City Council, the Japan Local Government Centre, the South Asia Collection, the Sainsbury Centre, and all of the many organisations and individuals who helped to make this week such a success. Finally, a sincere thanks goes to all of the individuals who continue to support the Institute through our events, mailing lists, projects and more – we are grateful to all of you and hope you will be able to join us at the next events to celebrate this landmark anniversary.

Olivia Butler
Events and Project Co-ordinator


Want to see more about the week? You can see some of our coverage via our social media channels – Instagram, Facebook and X or follow the links below to see some of the publicity from the week.
NHK Nara – “声明を世界へ” 長谷寺の僧侶らが海外公演 奈良
BBC Radio Norfolk – Nara to Norwich: Celebrating Buddhism and Japan
That’s TV East

A Report on the Kannon Botatsu Scroll and the Hasedera Karyōbinga Shōmyō Kenkyūkai.

By Asha Bardon, (UEA, IJS MA)

The Sainsbury Institute’s Nara to Norwich exhibition (in full: Nara to Norwich: Arts and Beliefs at the Ends of the Silk Roads, AD 500–1000) has been a major success for the department and, to acknowledge that, Sainsbury Institute staff worked with the Forum in Norwich to host not only an exhibition celebrating twenty five years of the department but also two very special exhibits: the Kannon Bosatsu Replica Scroll and the Karyōbinga Shōmyō Kenkyūkai monks, a collective of Shingon monks who are based at Hasedera in Nara Prefecture.

The Forum is a much-loved space in Norwich, both for its centrality but also the wide-open space which made it a perfect place for exhibition, as well as the the Kannon Bosatsu Replica Scroll.

The scroll measures 12 metres and is a digital replica of Hasedera’s own Dai Miei Daigajiku scroll. This scroll was created during the Edo period (1603-1867) as a guide to re-carve the statue of Kannon at the temple. Kannon is a popular Buddhist deity (a bosatsu or boddhisatva) in Japan and Asia who is known as the ‘goddess of mercy’ who is worshiped at many temples across the country, such as Kiyomizudera in Kyoto, the Shikoku Pilgrimage and numerous temples in Tokyo.

Thanks to a time-lapse video put online showing the raising of the scroll within the Forum, and the word of mouth about the event, Sainsbury Institute researchers, former students, alumni, academic colleagues and members of the public, gathered on Tuesday 21st May to visit the exhibition and to listen to the first performance of the Karyōbinga Shōmyō Kenkyūkai.

The Institute had organised not only for the replica scroll but had also flown twelve members of the group to the UK for the event, as well as other performances across Norwich.

The monks began at eleven am, beginning their chant (a performance of shōmyō; a style of traditional Buddhist chanting focusing on religious texts called sutras) as they moved from the left side of the Forum’s atrium before settling just in front of the scrolls and completing their chant. They offered drop-shaped card markers which featured the kanji of Hasedera and an image of the lotus flower blooming, a popular serenity motif in Japan.

The monks then dispersed; their performance would be repeated over several days and times, as well as seeing the monks performing at St Peter Mancroft Church near the forum and other events highlighting their time in Norwich.

Asha Bardon (class of 2023) is an alumni of the MA in Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies with a passion for religious studies. They currently work as a freelance academic researcher and manga editor for a US publisher. More information can be found at www.ashabardon.co.uk.