Welcome to Dazaifu Exhibition Hall（大宰府展示館 英語案内）
Welcome to Dazaifu Exhibition Hall 大宰府展示館へようこそ
Dazaifu Exhibition Hall is dedicated to telling the story of Dazaifu. Thirteen centuries ago, Dazaifu was the administrative center of Kyushu, as well as a political, religious, and cultural powerhouse. The city was also Japan’s gateway to the outside world. As Japan was located at the eastern end of the Silk Road—the ancient trade route that connected the East to the West—the culture and goods that flowed through Dazaifu created a spirit of internationalism, sophistication, and scholarship that was rare in Japan at the time.
Dazaifu Exhibition Hall tells the story of Dazaifu’s rich history. Discover how the area’s natural topography was exploited for defensive purposes; look at detailed dioramas of the palatial government offices and notice the distinctive Chinese influence; find out how the colors people wore were connected to their rank and occupation, and learn about the unusually varied cuisine enjoyed by residents of the city. The photo gallery highlights the ongoing excavation process that is revealing much of ancient Dazaifu.
Dazaifu is closely related to the name of the Japanese era beginning in 2019, Reiwa. The naming of Reiwa has its origins in poems crafted at a plum blossom party that took place in Dazaifu in the eighth century.
We hope you enjoy your journey back to the world of ancient Dazaifu.
① Dazaifu Diorama: Natural Defenses 大宰府 再現ジオラマ 自然防衛
Dazaifu was Kyushu’s de-facto political and cultural center between the seventh and twelfth centuries. The city’s location was carefully chosen to take advantage of the topographical features of the area. The diorama shows how the surrounding mountains and landscape formed a natural bottleneck, offering a strong degree of protection from would-be invaders.
Dazaifu’s proximity to mainland Asia made it a major diplomatic hub. The city was the first port of call for foreign delegations who docked in Hakata Bay. However, the government feared that its proximity to the sea rendered the city susceptible to attacks from foreign forces, as in the seventh century the Asian continent was a place of political unrest. Thus, it ordered the building of Mizuki—a defensive wall with an extensive moat that stretched over 1 kilometer—to thwart potential attacks from the coastal plain where the city of Fukuoka is now located. Fortresses were constructed to provide further protection, including Ono Fortress on the top of Mt. Shioji. You can still see the remains of these defenses today.
When visiting dignitaries arrived in Dazaifu, they stayed in a special Guest House. The area outlined in yellow highlights this location. While the visitors were in residence, the Guest House was effectively an extension of their home country—somewhat similar to the case of foreign embassies today.
② Model of the Dazaifu Government Offices 大宰府政庁の模型
This is how the Dazaifu administrative complex would have looked in the tenth century, a time defined by the Silk Road trade and strong ties with China and the Asian continent. Chinese influences can be seen in the aesthetics of the structures and in their symmetry, a common feature of Chinese palaces.
The buildings were painted a bright vermilion, also known as Chinese red. The color carried associations with life and rebirth and was thought to ward off evil. The buildings were constructed following the Chinese philosophical theories of wuxing—a concept based around the interconnection of five phases or five elements—and feng shui. The main administrative hall was built facing south, which offered positive feng shui, and its location at the base of Mt. Shioji offered natural protection.
The roofs of the halls featured onigawara “demon” tiles to scare off evil in a similar fashion to gargoyles on medieval cathedrals in the West. The onigawara on display was excavated in Dazaifu and the open maw and bulging eyes accentuate the creature’s wrathful features. Inside the halls, square and triangular tiles adorned with flower and plant imagery were used for the floors and stairs.
The grounds where the administrative complex once stood are directly outside the Exhibition Hall. While only foundation stones remain today, it was once an expansive and grand complex befitting the powerful and cosmopolitan city of Dazaifu.
③ Color and Hierarchy in Dazaifu 大宰府の色と位階
Color was deeply symbolic in ancient Japan. Government officials wore certain colors based on their occupation and rank. The governor-general wore light purple, similar to the figure seen in the display. Those in other occupations also wore status-specific colors. Rank was also extremely important. It determined the eligibility for specific jobs in the bureaucracy as well as the right to wear designated colors. You can still see signs of this hierarchical system today in shrines across Japan, including at nearby Dazaifu Tenmangu and Kamado Shrine, where priests wear specific colors based on their rank.
Belts were imbued with significance too. The ornate belt seen on the left in the display cabinet would have contrasted with plainer belts worn by lower-ranking officials. Ironically, these belts were worn beneath the clothing and therefore out of sight.
The flat wooden tablets are mokkan. These were used for a variety of purposes, such as recording information about taxable goods. Mokkan were also eco-friendly. When no longer required, the thin layer of wood with writing on it would be shaved off with a sharp knife and the tablets re-used. This was a valuable feature at a time when paper was expensive and a scarce commodity.
In the middle of the display, you can see an inkstone and a reproduction of an ink stick made from pine soot. The soot was kneaded together with glue and then fashioned into the boat-like shape seen here. It is possible that scribes of the day used writing equipment like this to record some of the poetry found in the Man’yoshu—a large and culturally important anthology of poetry from across Japan, including verse composed in Dazaifu.
④ Diorama of Eighth-century Dazaifu ８世紀の大宰府のジオラマ
This diorama depicts how the compact yet powerful city of Dazaifu was laid out in the eighth century. Dazaifu literally translates as “Great Government Administrative Headquarters,” and the city was a vital foreign trade hub, military stronghold, and government administrative center. However, Dazaifu was not devoted solely to politics. It also played an important role in Japanese culture and religion.
At the far right of the diorama you will find Kanzeonji Temple as it used to look when it was an immense complex and the leading Buddhist temple in Kyushu. A handsome five-story pagoda once stood on the grounds, but this was destroyed along with numerous other buildings by natural disasters, and only a few structures (none of them original) remain today.
A school adjacent to the temple educated boys from northern Kyushu, and these young scholars went on to become government officials stationed on the island. To this day, Dazaifu is considered a center of scholarship. Millions of high school students make pilgrimages to Dazaifu Tenmangu every year to pray to Tenjin—the spirit of scholar and politician Sugawara Michizane (845–903) who was enshrined there and regarded as the deity of learning. Students pray for his blessing and for success in their exams.
The government offices were located at the foot of Mt. Shioji and benefitted from the natural protection of the mountain and Mizuki, the defensive wall and moat. This administrative center was a palatial complex with grand vermilion-painted structures and was modeled on Heijo-kyo, the imperial court and palace located in modern-day Nara. This diorama gives an idea of the scale of Dazaifu in the eighth century, but ongoing excavations are revealing more about the scale and history of this ancient city.
⑤ Revisiting Ancient Dazaifu 古代大宰府を再訪
Dazaifu was once a key center of government administration and international diplomacy. The area had strong cultural links with the Asian mainland and was a hub of new ideas and cultural developments. However, as control of the country fell into the hands of samurai and feudal lords in the twelfth century, the city’s influence waned. Excavations over the past five decades have revealed the scale of ancient Dazaifu, and archaeological digs and aerial photos provide a much clearer idea of Dazaifu’s former design and organization.
After sites are excavated, they are filled-in and covered with grass to protect the remains, and the area is marked to show what lies beneath. This post-excavation process has the dual role of preserving the natural landscape and highlighting the history of the area. A few examples of the finds are deliberately left visible, such as this drainage ditch. The ditch dates to the early eighth century and has been preserved in its original location. The walls of the Exhibition Hall were built around it.
The museum works closely with the local community, listening to concerns and ensuring the ongoing excavation work does not disrupt residents. It involves local residents in volunteer projects to help preserve and convey information about Dazaifu’s rich heritage and role in Japanese history.
⑥ Plum Blossoms and Poetry 梅花と詩
This diorama depicts a plum blossom party held at the official residence of Dazaifu Governor-General Otomo Tabito (dressed in purple) in 730. Government officials gathered under the plum trees—introduced from China and considered a rarity at the time—to eat, drink, and compose improvised verse together.
This party has deep significance for Japanese culture. Thirty-two poems composed at this gathering can be found in the Man’yoshu (the oldest extant anthology of Japanese poetry, dating to the eighth century). The Reiwa era (2019–) was so named after modern-day Japanese government officials and historians were inspired by the kanji characters contained within the preface to these poems in the Man’yoshu.
The seventh to twelfth centuries were a golden period in Dazaifu’s history. During this time, Dazaifu government officials had a keen understanding and appreciation of foreign cultures due to the city’s proximity to the Asian mainland and frequent interaction with other kingdoms. They were skilled in diplomacy and the military arts but were also expected to be accomplished poets. The plum blossom partygoers would have used their skills to improvise poems on such subjects as the blossoms, the weather, and the prevailing atmosphere of the gathering. An official scribe recorded the verses as they were recited.
The Hakata Ningyo dolls in this tableau are very fine examples of pottery unique to Fukuoka. If you look closely, you can see plum blossoms in the sake cups and in the attendees’ hair. Note that the officials are wearing different colored garments indicative of their status.
Plum trees have a special significance in Dazaifu. The grounds of Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine are full of plum trees, including the fabled “flying” plum tree, tobiume. Legend tells the story of the plum tree of a Kyoto garden that uprooted itself and flew from Kyoto to Dazaifu to be close to Sugawara Michizane after the statesman and scholar was exiled from the city.
Who was Sugawara Michizane?
Sugawara Michizane (845–903) was a scholar and politician. After his death, his spirit was deified and enshrined at Dazaifu Tenmangu as Tenjin. He is known as a guardian of learning, culture, and the arts. Michizane had a particular liking for plum trees.
⑦ Dazaifu Food Culture 大宰府の食文化
Mokkan wooden tablets give us valuable insight into the food culture of eighth-century Dazaifu. Based on the information inscribed on tablets excavated in Dazaifu and Nara, the ancient capital, we have a good idea about what was consumed during this time.
Foodstuffs, similar to the ones displayed here, were likely served at the “plum blossom party” in early 730. High-ranking officials were served the rich and varied spread on the left, while the more modest fare on the right was for lower-ranking participants.
The menu for the most important guests included dried cuts of pheasant and salmon; ayu (sweetfish) sushi; abalone steamed in sake; various types of pickles; sea bream, squid, and other types of sashimi; and kusamochi, a traditional spring confection made from sweetened, pounded rice and the leaves of Japanese mugwort. Similar foodstuffs can still be found in Japanese teishoku (set meal) restaurants today.
A few guests can be seen raising sake cups in the party diorama. Sake played a pivotal role at the party—as it does today at hanami parties celebrating cherry blossoms—and likely helped fuel the creativity of the guests as they crafted their poetry.
Reiwa—the dawn of an era 「令和」－時代の始まり
In Japan, a new era is born whenever an incoming emperor ascends the Chrysanthemum Throne. The Reiwa era began in May 2019, but the roots of its name are linked to the famous plum blossom party depicted in the diorama. Thirty-two poems composed at the party, along with a descriptive preface, appear in the Man’yoshu—the oldest extant collection of classical Japanese poetry. The two kanji characters that make up the era name, “Rei” and “Wa,” are taken from the preface. The meaning of the second character, “wa,” is unambiguous: “tranquility” or “harmony.” The first character, “rei,” typically means “command” or “order” in modern Japanese, but in the Man’yoshu passage in question, it means “beautiful,” “fine,” or perhaps “auspicious.” The poem begins as follows:
It was the fine (rei) month of the advent of spring
The air was clear and gentle (wa) breezes were blowing….
Arguably, this passage seeks to capture the buoyant mood of not just the flowering of the plum trees but contemporary society as the author sees it. It is perhaps significant that the verses were written in Dazaifu, an area known for welcoming foreign cultures. In this sense, the nuance behind the characters for Reiwa offers a positive take on Japanese society and the future, hinting at an ethos of optimism, strong international relations, globalization, and appreciation for different cultures.
This English-language text was created by the Japan Tourism Agency.
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