In this series, we pay homage to the art we want to visit – and hope to see once the travel restrictions are lifted.
A nimble row of bamboo grows between the street and the grounds of the Nezu 根 津 子術館 Museum in Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo. The softly murmuring greenery leads you gently along the side of the museum, under its eaves, to the entrance.
During the winter months, when there is snowfall in the capital, masses of snow slide from the roof to line the ground at the foot of this bamboo, creating the illusion of a white-topped mountain range on the path.
There are numerous transportation and ephemeral scenes at the Nezu Museum and Garden, located on the private estate of the Nezu family and home to the extraordinary collection of pre-modern East Asian treasures amassed by the businessman. and philanthropist Nezu Kaichirō (1860-1940).
The original house, built in 1906, was destroyed in an air raid in 1945. After successive reconstructions over the decades, the decision was made to undertake a large-scale renovation to restore Nezu’s vision .
Famous Japanese architect Kuma Kengo redesigned the museum building with elements found in traditional Japanese residential architecture and a contemporary finish. It reopened in 2009.
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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 the outside world. Buddhist sculptural pieces are exhibited facing inward: they cast a friendly glance on visitors whose gaze naturally derives from the interior garden. While 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; yet small. From Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, England, to the Alvar Aalto House / Studio in Helsinki, to the Nissim Museum in Camondo, Paris, I seek them out for the intimacy and personality that sometimes lacks in large formal spaces in museums.
A soft and calm atmosphere
The Nezu collection has more than 7,400 objects, many of which are classified as an important cultural property or national treasure. In some galleries, LED lights are programmed and adjusted to resemble sunrise; in others, to imitate the diffused light of a paper lantern.
These carefully considered aspects of the display serve to protect objects from harsh, possibly damaging light, and to generate a soft and calm atmosphere. Each object also benefits from a luxurious space, which makes it easier to absorb yourself in the ritual of close observation.
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We might be invited to contemplate a small but sturdy 16th-century jewel-shaped ceramic incense vessel. Or to see the pair of 19th-century six-fold screens created by Suzuki Kiitsu: Mountain Streams in Summer and Autumn – so modern and bright that water seems to flow through and out of the panels.
At every turn, I have the impression of activating Kuma’s architectural vision of designing a space united with the landscape, not imposed. It is a building that works in harmony with its environment. Entering the garden offers a seamless continuum of this experience.
Thinking about life with objects and nature, I remember 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 California’s Pacific Palisades neighborhood. Objects and artefacts intersect with the building itself; table decorations and images of nature such as pine needles or the silhouette of a eucalyptus. Much like Kuma’s approach, the emphasis is on the texture and warmth associated with steel and cold stone.
Four types of tea rooms
The garden of the Nezu Museum includes a series of panoramic views and four types of tea rooms framed by the delicate architecture of maple trees and other foliage. The variations of greens are pleasantly overwhelming, an irresistible and gentle embrace as you stroll the winding paths of this vast, multi-faceted estate occupying 17,000 square meters of metropolitan Tokyo.
The original provision 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 variation and the life of a mountainside are manifested in small and delicate ways: trimmed hedges, rocks covered with moss. Glimpses of the pond through a veil of evergreen trees can reveal a momentary flicker of sunlight or cloud reflection.
In the spirit of the tea-drinking ritual, the museum’s café, also designed by Kuma, sits at the end of a stone path bordered by a low, winding hedge of pink azaleas. I have a long list of favorite museum cafes. This one is in the upper level. A glass tea room nestled among the trees, it serves a deliciously refreshing matcha.
uji’s new tea
I can pick up the gasoline
how the elders came to worship him.
-Ōtagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875)
The Nezu Museum is a cultural retreat offering restorative experiences through art, artifacts and its captivating garden. I look forward to our reunion once the borders open again.