On tour of Japan's art scene from Tokyo to Naoshima, Paula de la Cruz finds work that is edible, floral, visual, and much more.
JAPAN — Hidden behind a sparse, bright-white living room, all chrome and white leather, is a small artist’s studio packed to the ceiling with rolls of paper. I’m sitting on the floor receiving careful instructions from Takafumi Asakura, an ink-wash artist working and living in Tokyo, on how to draw with black ink using a bamboo pen. Asakura is known for his large screens depicting fantastic landscapes of dragons and foggy mountains, painted in intricate detail with black ink over aluminum paper. His work honors the ancient art of suibokuga, ink-wash painting, with modern technique and themes. We talk while I attempt and fail to make anything artful with the black blotches coming out of the bamboo pen.
A Private Tour of Refined Japanese Arts
Thankfully, we quickly move onto wagashi, sweet Japanese confections, and tea he had prepared for me. When Japan started trading sugar with China during the Edo period, the country developed a sweet tooth, and the result are these small delicacies of rice and bean paste and fruit, shaped and colored according to the seasons.
“One of the best places to experience wagashi,” I learn from Sophie Richard, a French art curator and author of The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums, “is the Yamatane Museum of Art.” This strikes me as odd until she also explains that every wagashi tells a story through the way it is decorated, which makes a museum an appropriate setting.
Richard guides and organizes private art journeys for the bespoke tour operator Cazanove + Loyd and had arranged my art tutorial with Asakura. Today, she’s set up a t with Takahashi Minako, Yamatane’s chief curator, who led me and my husband on a private viewing of the latest exhibition. After the tour, we have a tasting of the 30 wagashi pieces inspired by the paintings in the show, each confection an exquisite capsule of the larger stories depicted on the canvases. Little balls of red bean paste with pink and white flakes represent a painting of Mount Fuji, imposing above clouds and cherry blossoms. Some are shaped like chrysanthemums. Others are adorned with all the reds of autumn. My favorite wagashi is a half-moon shape made from peach jelly, with suspended beans and coconut flakes representing a foggy nighttime landscape. My tongue changes colors (I feel like the snake in The Jungle Book), and I feel a slight sugar rush.
I use the energy to window-shop at Prada and Issey Miyake on my walk across Aoyama, one of the best shopping neighborhoods in Tokyo, to Sogetsu Foundation for a class in ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. It’s spring, and flowers dominate the urban landscape — both in the form of real petals and spun sugar.
My ikebana teacher, speaking through a translator, instructs me on the principles of cutting the shin, soe, and hikae, the three principal stems in a Sogetsu arrangement. First, my teacher corrects my posture, because when I slouch my perspective is wrong. “In ikebana,” she explains, “one is arranging flowers, but also creating space.” It is onto that space that we project our thoughts on nature and life. So no downward pointing buds, as they signify death.
Proud of my arrangement of yellow daisies, I retire to my luxurious suite at Imperial Hotel for a bubble bath, followed by a dinner of kobe beef at the hotel’s restaurant, Kamon. The Imperial is an oasis of unpretentious elegance and calmness, and its location near the best shopping in Ginza and Chiyoda Park cannot be beat. My husband joins me at the bar, freshly bruised from a judo lesson arranged by the concierge. He reminds me with great excitement that he used to be a brown belt. I smile and order sake, preferring not to remind him that his golden judo days were more than thirty years ago.
The next day, under a lead sky and heavy rain, I embark on my next Richard-arranged appointment to meet the chef of Yakumo Saryo, an invitation-only restaurant in Tokyo for a tea ceremony. The tea room is quiet, though not in a forced way, a large Western-style square table occupying most of the room. A large tetsubin (Japanese cast iron kettle) is kept at the exact temperature required for green tea at one edge of the table. Everything in the room is highlighted by a soft light coming through a picture window that perfectly frames a flowering plum in the entrance courtyard. The restaurant is involved in restarting tea plantations in areas of Japan that are losing their tea tradition to larger producers.
From Tokyo to Naoshima
The following morning, I take the fast train from Tokyo to Naoshima island. I spot a few manicured tea farms along the way, trying to imagine how I can emulate them on my New York terrace.
In the 1960s, when Mitsubishi was the main employer of Naoshima residents, the population was 8,000. The company left, and today there are only 3,000 residents. But the community is thriving in new and artful ways. Soichiro Fukutake, the head of Benesse Holdings, the publishing company that owns Berlitz Academy among many others, decided Naoshima should be the home for his extensive modern art collection. He commissioned Pritzker Prize-winning architect Andō Tadao to build three museums on the island: museum and hotel Benesse House in 1992, Chichu Art Museum in 2004, and Lee Ufan Museum in 2010.
There are massive installations at each gallery — by Lee Ufan at his namesake building, Hiroshi Sugimoto at Benesse, and Walter De Maria at Chichu — but the sites are an expanding universe with new installations and art houses opening almost every year. The five waterlily Monets, displayed in natural light at Chichu, are worth the journey alone.
Despite being built with massive slabs of concrete, all three structures are partially underground, resulting in minimal impact on the landscape. Andō's emphasis on the role of natural light and shadows is evident in the large openings in the roofs, originally used to pour concrete for the walls and left unclosed. I’m reminded of the oculus of the Pantheon.
In the center of the island is the village of Honmura, where abandoned antique houses have been restored and entrusted to individual artists to use as capsules for their work. My favorite is an experiment in darkness by James Turrell. Elderly local fishermen or farmers open their homes to visitors who want to experience life in a working farm. These lodges, called minpaku, are a great source of income for retirees.
I finished the day at Naoshima Bath, the village bathhouse-cum-installation created by artist Shinro Ohtake. Residents and art lovers convene here, mostly around the arrival and departure times of the mainland-bound ferries. A giant elephant sculpture stands on a wall, dividing the men’s and women’s quarters. I look at it and imagine it’s there on safari, observing all the H. sapiens, soaking and chatting happily in the white-tiled water hole.