TOKYO -- In the eighth century, the monk Ganjin famously needed six tries to cross the sea from China to Japan, where he established a new school of Buddhism and became the first abbot of Nara's Toshodaiji temple.
More than a millennium later, a treasure brought with the Chinese monk on that final crossing underwent a similarly harrowing journey -- stymied not by storms or pirates, but by the coronavirus pandemic. The painstaking efforts in a race against the clock to return it safely to the temple from the Shanghai Museum showcased the centuries-old bond between the two countries.
The museum opened an exhibition in December 2019 featuring murals from Toshodaiji painted by 20th-century artist Kaii Higashiyama, as well as items from the temple including a gold reliquary containing bones of the Buddha that has been designated a Japanese National Treasure. The opening ceremony was attended by Myogen Nishiyama, head of the temple, and Yang Zhigang, the museum's curator.
Keen interest in Japan's Buddhist culture brought nearly 10,000 people a day to the Shanghai exhibition at its busiest times, before the coronavirus struck.
The Shanghai Museum was shut in late January even though the exhibition was originally scheduled to continue for three more weeks. The event reopened for 20 days from mid-March, but traffic was lighter after the outbreak. The Toshodaiji exhibition sold a total of about 220,000 tickets.
The pandemic created another problem for the exhibition: With bans blocking people from traveling between China and Japan, how could these cultural treasures be returned to the temple?
The Higashiyama murals, which lacked a high-level official cultural designation, were easier to handle. The two sides communicated online to direct the packing process, and the murals arrived safely in Japan in May.
But National Treasures are more strictly regulated. When one is being transported, a curator from a Japanese national museum must be present for disassembly and packing to observe the process.
Complicating matters further, Toshodaiji needed the reliquary in October for an annual rite in praise of the Buddha. The ceremony has taken place each year without fail for eight centuries, and Nishiyama feared this tradition could be broken during his time.
Spurred by lobbying from the worried temple and the Japanese government, Yang appealed to customs, quarantine and other authorities. Arrangements were made to send the reliquary and other treasures back via a ferry connecting Shanghai, Osaka and Kobe -- the Xin Jian Zhen, which bears Ganjin's Chinese name.
Shipping the relics back by sea was unusual. But Nobuyuki Matsumoto, director of the Nara National Museum, noted that it was not without precedent. A curator from the Nara museum flew into Shanghai, and -- after a two-week quarantine -- work began on the transporting the reliquary.
The crew of the Xin Jian Zhen had not disembarked from the ship in more than half a year to keep the virus from spreading, at the request of authorities. Workers carrying the reliquary on board wore protective gear and avoided contact with crew members. The operation drew the attention of local media.
The treasure arrived at Toshodaiji on Oct. 14 and was unpacked Oct. 18, in time for the start of the rite three days later. The temple sent a message of gratitude praising the altruism of those in Shanghai as well as a valuable book of sutras for the museum's collection.
In response to intense interest in Japanese Buddhist art, many Chinese cities and museums have sent requests to Japanese temples and shrines to exhibit their works. The Toshodaiji operation may serve as a lesson in crisis management should another show go awry.