Sparrow and Finch Gardening Nezu Museum in Tokyo, with its deep mountains and mysterious valleys

Nezu Museum in Tokyo, with its deep mountains and mysterious valleys

This series pays tribute to the artists we would love to visit and see when travel restrictions are lifted.

Between the street and the Nezu museumGen Jin Mei Shu Guan, in Minami-Aoyama Tokyo, an elegant line of bamboo grows. You are led to the museum’s entrance by the softly murmuring foliage, which is located along the side of its building, under the overarching eaves.

When it snows in the capital during the winter, snow masses slide down the roof and line the ground below this bamboo path, giving the appearance of a mountain range with white peaks.

The Nezu Museum and Garden is located on the estate of the Nezu Family and houses the extraordinary collection pre-modern East Asian Treasures that businessman and philanthropist Nezu Kachiro (1860-1940) gathered.

Nezu Museum, main entrance (c)

In 1945, an air raid destroyed the original house built in 1906. After decades of successive reconstructions, it was decided to carry out a major renovation in order to restore Nezu’s vision.

Kuma Kengo, a renowned Japanese architect, redesigned the building of the museum with traditional Japanese architectural elements and a modern finish. The museum reopened its doors in 2009.

Read more: If I could go anywhere: A World through the Eyes of botanical artist Marianne North at Kew Gardens.

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 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 am particularly interested in museums with gardens, no matter how small. From Kettle’s Yard to Alvar Aalto House/Studio to Musee Nissim de Camondo in Paris, I am drawn to them for their intimacy and personalities that are often missing in large, formal museums.

Kengo Kuma discusses his design principles for the Nezu Museum Tokyo.

The atmosphere is calm and gentle.

The Nezu collection contains over 7,400 items, including many that are classified as Important Cultural Property (ICP) or National Treasure. The LED lighting fixtures are programmed to mimic sunrise in some galleries and diffused light from paper lanterns in others.

Displays that are carefully planned protect objects from damaging, harsh light and create a calm, gentle atmosphere. The collection of each object also allows for a generous amount of space, which makes it easier to immerse yourself in the ritual.

Read more: If I could go anywhere: Japanese art island Chichu, a meditation and an education.

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.

The museum’s entrance hall. (c) Nezu Museum

Each time I turn, I get the feeling that I’m activating Kuma’s architectural vision, which is to create a space that works in harmony with its surroundings and not one that is imposed on it. This building is in harmony with the landscape. The garden is a seamless continuation of the experience.

When I think of living with objects and the natural world, I remember the 1955 short film by Charles and Ray Eames. House: After Five Year’s Living. The film is made entirely from 35mm slides and shows their modernist home in California’s Pacific Palisades neighbourhood. The building is interspersed with objects, artifacts, and images from nature, like pine needles and silhouettes of eucalyptus trees. Like Kuma, the emphasis is on warmth and texture, paired with cool stone and steel.


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