Monday 15 November 2021

Travel: The Deep Mountains and Mysterious Valleys of Tokyo’s Nezu Museum

Mountain Stream in Autumn by Suzuki Kiitsu, Edo Period, 19th century. Cover picture: Kemari, Japanese Football Game under Cherry Blossom, Moyoyama Period, 17th century. Both at the Nezu Museum, Tokyo.
A nimble row of bamboo grows between the street and the grounds of the Nezu Museum in Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo. The softly murmuring greenery gently ushers you along the side of the museum, beneath its overarching eaves, to the entrance, writes Olivia Meehan 

Bamboo lines the entrance to the museum in Tokyo,
designed by renowned architect Kengo Kuma
IN the winter months, when there is snowfall in the capital, masses of snow slide off the roof to line the ground at the bottom of this bamboo, creating the illusion of a white-peaked mountain range on the path. 

There are many such transporting and transient scenes to be found at the Nezu Museum and Garden, located on the private estate of the Nezu family and housing the extraordinary collection of pre-modern East Asian treasures amassed by businessman and philanthropist Nezu Kaichirō (1860-1940). 

The original house, built in 1906, was destroyed in an air raid in 1945. Following successive reconstructions over the decades, the decision was made to undertake a large scale renovation to restore Nezu’s vision. The renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma redesigned the museum building with elements found in traditional Japanese residential architecture and a contemporary finish. It reopened in 2009. 

On the private estate of the Nezu family, the museum houses an extraordinary collection of pre-modern East Asian treasures 

Light floods into the foyer of the museum 
created by Kengo Kuma
The foyer opens to full length windows overlooking the garden, a modern take on the traditional Japanese idea of creating an invisible threshold from the inside to outside world. 

Buddhist sculptural pieces are displayed facing inwards: they cast a friendly eye on visitors whose gaze naturally drifts from the garden inside. 

Though not specifically a house museum, the atmosphere here has the intimate characteristics of a private home. 

I have a deep interest in museums that were once someone’s home, especially those with gardens; however small. From Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, England to the Alvar Aalto House/Studio in Helsinki, to the Musée Nissim de Camondo, Paris, I seek them out for the intimacy and personality sometimes missing from large, formal museum spaces.  

Though not specifically a house museum, the atmosphere here has the intimate characteristics of a private home

Autumn foliage at Tetsuta, ink and colour on gold-foil
paper, one of a pair of screens. 
Japan, Edo Period,17th century. 
Nezu Museum
There are over 7,400 objects in the Nezu collection, many of which are classified as Important Cultural Property or national treasure. In some galleries, the LED light fittings are programmed and adjusted to resemble sunrise; in others, to imitate the diffused light from a paper lantern. 

These carefully considered aspects of display serve to protect the objects from harsh, possibly damaging light, and generate a gentle, calm atmosphere. Each object is also afforded a luxurious amount of room, making it easier to become absorbed in the ritual of close observation. We might be invited to contemplate a small but robust 16th century, jewel-shaped ceramic incense container. 

Or to behold the pair of 19th century, six-fold screens created by Suzuki Kiitsu: Mountain Streams in Summer and Autumn  ~ so modern and bright the water appears to flow across and off the panels. At each turn, I feel as if I am activating Kuma’s architectural vision of designing a space at one with the landscape, not imposed upon it. This is a building that works in harmony with its surroundings. 

There are over 7,400 objects in the Nezu collection, many classified as national treasures

Buddhist statue engulfed by the greenery
of the Nezu Museum's gardens in Tokyo
Stepping into the garden offers a seamless continuum of this experience. As I think about living with objects and nature, I recall the brilliant short film made by husband and wife design team Charles and Ray Eames in 1955: House: After Five Years of Living.
Composed entirely of 35mm slides, the film details their modernist family home in the Californian neighbourhood of Pacific Palisades. Intersecting with the building itself are objects and artefacts; table settings and images of nature such as pine needles or the silhouette of a eucalyptus tree. Just like Kuma’s approach, emphasis is placed on texture and warmth coupled with steel, and cool stone.

The garden of the Nezu Museum comprises a series of panoramic views and four types of tea-houses framed by the delicate architecture of maple trees and other foliage. The variant greens are pleasantly overwhelming, an irresistible and gentle embrace as you wander the winding pathways of this vast and multifaceted estate occupying 17,000 square metres of metropolitan Tokyo. 

The initial layout reflected the shinzan-yūkoku garden style, translated as “deep mountains and mysterious valleys”, and over the years it has been carefully restored to reflect the tastes of Nezu. 

The garden of the Nezu Museum has panoramic views and tea-houses framed by maple trees and other foliage

Mountain Stream in Summer by Suzuki Kiitsu
Japan, Edio Period, 19th century
Ink and colour on gold-foil paper
Nezu Museum
The variation and life of a mountainside appears in small and delicate ways: pruned hedges, rocks covered in moss. Glimpses of the pond through a veil of evergreen trees might reveal a momentary sparkle of sun glitter or the reflection of clouds. 

In the spirit of the ritual of tea drinking, the museum’s cafe, also designed by Kuma, sits at the end of a stone path lined with a low, snaking hedge of pink azalea. 

I have a long list of favourite museum cafés. This one is in the top tier. A glass tea-house nestled amongst the trees, it serves a deliciously refreshing matcha. 

Drinking fragrant 
new tea from Uji 
I can scoop up the essence 
and understand 
how the ancients came to adore it. 

~ Ōtagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875) 

The Nezu Museum is a cultural retreat offering restorative experiences through art, objects and its captivating garden. 

 The Nezu Museum is located at Chome-5-1 Minamiaoyama, Minato City, Tokyo 107-0062, Japan and is open from 10am~5pm from Tuesday ~ Sunday.

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