The third boast of Nara is the Shōsōin, one of the most wonderful museums the world can show. The Shōsōin and the Hōryūji (an hour's drive away) constitute the twin wonders of Japan's archæological treasures. Indeed, the Shōsōin is not only the treasure-house of the Imperial Household, but deserves to be the treasure-house of the world. As the years pass, its wonder grows, and each year adds new discoveries in the value of this, or in the significance of that particular exhibit.
This storehouse contains personal belongings of the Emperor Shōmu, which were in 756 dedicated to the Buddha of the Tōdaiji by his widow, and have remained there, intact, until this day. They include manuscripts, pictures, ornaments, weapons, musical instruments, utensils, and various articles which had been used in the dedication ceremonies of the Great Buddha, so that together they provide a picture of life at the court in the 8th century. Remarkable among them are objects of foreign influence. There are vessels of glass and pottery, metal work, lacquer and textiles, several of which were either brought from central Asia or Persia or Greece or are reproductions of things from those regions. . . . At the same time there are many beautiful objects which were undoubtedly produced in Japan, and these all go to prove that by the 8th century the Japanese had arrived at a mature craftsmanship, and could henceforward in the arts progress upon lines of their own, as in the ensuing period they plainly did."
It may be that in the 8th century there reigned in the whole of Eastern Asia a sort of international freedom of intercourse, or what one might call a celestial absence of nationalism, at least on the part of the citizens of great capitals throughout the East. Men were divided perhaps into the civilized and the barbarous, and the different parts of the East were known not by such names as Japan, Korea, China or India, but by the names of the cities, of the epochs or of the rulers of the land. There was apparently no tariff wall, nor passport system, nor yet any naturalization law. People were free to come and go, bound only by the law of hospitality, subject to the risks of travel and the unwritten code of personal respectability. There was then no such anti-alien prejudice or nationalist pride which has since developed. As in the middle ages Roman Catholicism bound the European states in common ties of religion and culture, so in the 8th century, the Buddhist religion and the common adoration of arts and culture seemed to bind the whole of the Asiatic capitals as in a bond of international or super-national intercourse. There is no doubt that the Buddhist religion, which was introduced into Japan by Korean missionaries and immigrants, came by way of central Asia, China and Korea. But how these extraordinary articles in the Shōsōin bearing the designs of Persia and Greece came to Japan nobody as yet has been able to trace, and it is still the wonder of wonders that these relics of a period of free artistic and religious intercourse among the nations of eastern Asia should be preserved in the hills of Yamato. It is a notable fact, the importance of which is being realized in an ever-increasing degree, that nowhere else are kept intact so many relics and treasures of antiquity, among which may be found the key to the secrets of the ancient East. The only regrettable thing is that it is not open to the general public, as its exhibits are shown for only two weeks every autumn when they are given an airing.