An Art Museum and So Much More

On a recent trip to Japan, we had the great fortune to visit the Itchiku Kubota Art Museum in the Yamanashi region near Mount Fuji. We had been out for a drive to enjoy the fall colors but when we turned up the road toward the museum parking area, everyone in the car gasped at the stunning scenery up the drive. Japanese maples, clothed in bright red leaves, lined the drive in such brilliance that it almost seemed unreal. If you were looking for a scene to illustrate the word “breathtaking,” this would be it.

The magic continued on entering the museum grounds. Like most Shinto shrines, a gate marks the entrance through which all must pass. At this museum, passing through the gate puts you directly into a natural forest setting with a stream and fern-filled grottoes lining the pathway to the building. Sculptures that double as seating provide places to sit and absorb the calm of the forest around you. Arriving at the museum door is not the jarring contrast often seen when architects build monuments to their own sense of style. Instead, the building seems to arise out of nature and encompass it, using natural materials that complement the surroundings. Limestone and thousand year old cedar trees form the basic structure of the building and walkways around it.

Inside, the facility contains a unique space in which to view a video about the life and work of the artist. Though I’m not usually a fan of videos in interpretive settings, this one intrigued me for the entire twenty minutes duration and helped me to better understand the art and the artist. Itchiku devoted his life to rediscovering and enhancing the ancient art of tsujigahana, a technique of tie-dying silk to produce subtle effects using color and texture. His work is nothing short of astounding. It is wearable textile art at its best, blending natural scenes evoking the landscapes of Japan with the grace and beauty of traditional kimono. The display inside the main room of the museum changes seasonally, but always features only Itchiku’s work. His vision for the kimono and the museum itself are what drove his designs and you can see his passion for the process and for the natural world in every nuance of both.

The museum includes a café and a tearoom, each of which is situated to take advantage of dramatic, yet serene natural views. The grounds include winding paths through the forest leading around and through streams, ponds, and a cave shrine. Walking about the museum and grounds, you have little sense of whether you are inside or outside. It’s a masterful expression of a central theme, reminding us that nature is both around us and within us – quieting the spirit is all that’s needed to feel the connection.

From a technical planning standpoint, this is the quintessential example of design balance – where interpretive media, architecture, and the site itself are juxtaposed in perfect harmony. From a tourism viewpoint, this is the only must-see art museum I’ve ever seen.

Exiting the building affords the opportunity to pass through the gift shop where a reminder of the experience can be purchased. For me, the memory of this place will always reside in a blood-red maple leaf, and the cool blues of the sky that surrounds Mount Fuji forever captured on a kimono so beautiful it brings tears to the eyes – reminders that nature lives in all of us, whether we choose to live in harmony with nature or not. The connection is inescapable.

– Lisa Brochu

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