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BUDDHA UNVEILED

Like many of her compatriots, Tokyo housewife Sachi Takeda describes herself as an "otera [temple] maniac" --a fan of the panels, sculpture and other religious-inspired artwork that can be found in Buddhist shrines in Japan. "Looking at somber pictures and sculptures makes me feel very serene and helps me forget my busy, messy everyday life," she says.

She had to put aside this hobby five years ago when she started having children--there just wasn't time to trek out to the old capitals of Kyoto and Nara in the west, where temples tend to be. So she's delighted that some of the country's best temple artwork is coming to her. From Jan. 20 to Feb. 29, the Tokyo National Museum will host "Treasures of a Great Zen Temple: The Nanzenji," which will showcase seven centuries of rarely seen antiques from Kyoto: exquisite ink paintings, portraits of leading monks and vivid pictures of mysterious-looking tigers on golden sliding doors. (The show moves on to the Kyoto National Museum from April 6 to May 16.) "It's like a dream," says Takeda.

The Nanzenji exhibit is just the latest among a growing number of major exhibitions of Buddhist-temple art. Most are planned to coincide with anniversaries (the Nanzenji founder, Cloistered Emperor Kameyama, died 700 years ago). But recently the temples have also begun making an effort to reach out to the public. The result is a boon to art lovers. "I have never seen such a surge of exhibitions that focus on collections of particular temples," says Yumio Watanabe, a senior project officer at the newspaper Asahi Shimbun.

That's particularly good news, given that the temples control perhaps half of all nationally protected cultural properties in Japan. While most of the artwork owned by samurai, or warriors, was burned with their castles or lost in the market long ago, the ones inside shrines survived for the most part intact. These include portrait sculptures of prominent monks, as well as paintings on scrolls, screens and sliding doors. From ancient times through the Edo period (1603-1867), powerful men had their official painters decorate temples. The Kano school, with its vivid colors and depictions of unique animals, dominated the art scene for 300 years.

Temples, though, aren't always the best places to see art. Rooms aren't lit, and visitors often can't get within several meters of paintings, making it hard to tell whether you're looking at a tiger or a tree. "Viewing these items up close, with lots of light in the room, is possible only in a museum show," says Hideaki Kunigo, a curator at the Tokyo National Museum.

Japanese monks weren't just religious leaders; they were masters of literature and arts as well as advisers on foreign trade and policies. The Nanzenji collection reflects these diverse roles. A hanging scroll named "Arbor Hidden in Ravine" (1413) is an ink drawing depicting a hut near a mountain, accompanied by poems written by different monks. It's perhaps the best work of the shigajiku style, popular in the 15th century, which combines pictures and poems. The temple also piled up many fine Chinese art objects as gifts and donations--among them a pair of silk hanging scrolls from the Southern Sung dynasty of the 11th and 12th centuries called "Autumn and Winter Landscapes." Both works have been declared national treasures.

The highlights of the Nanzenji exhibit, however, are the paintings on fusuma, or paper sliding doors. They include four panels featuring funky-looking cats, red peonies and green pine trees over a mesmerizing golden background. The colors are so vivid they look freshly painted. The panels "Musk Cats and Peonies," painted by Eitoku Kano, the leading artist of the 16th century, decorate the temple's central hall.

Art historians, to whom the centuries-old, fragile items are often inaccessible, are thrilled. "The most appealing element of curating [temple shows] is that we get a chance to closely examine what the temples own," says Hideo Yamamoto, a senior curator of the Kyoto National Museum, which is co-organizing the Nanzenji show with the Tokyo National Museum. The show has yielded one colorful discovery. In a room that housed a portrait sculpture of Cloistered Emperor Kameyama, the monks removed what they thought was an old canopy that had hung collecting dust for as long as anybody could remember. When they removed the dirt, they found that the canopy was in fact a lampshade made of 150,000 rainbow-colored glass beads that may have come originally from the Ming dynasty.

By many accounts, temple museum shows have been drawing big audiences. A 2002 show called "Ultimate Todaiji," which marked the 1,250th anniversary of the 15-meter Buddha in the temple in Nara, attracted 420,000 visitors--the biggest exhibit ever held at the Nara National Museum. Last year an exhibition on Nichiren, a 13th-century monk, and an exhibit of artworks from the Kyoto temple Nishi Hongwanji each attracted more than 150,000 visitors to the Tokyo National Museum. Even with the recent spate of shows, though, experts say there's more art hidden away in temples. That means more shows to come, to the delight of otera fans everywhere.