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Japan’s finest museums, gardens and festivals

Japan’s finest museums, gardens and festivals

From ancient castles to witty modern art, Japan will delight culture vultures. Sarah Birke picks her favourites

From ancient castles to witty modern art, Japan will delight culture vultures. Sarah Birke picks her favourites

Sarah Birke | Japan Travel Supplement 2018

Naoshima and Teshima
The laid-back islands of Japan’s Inland Sea, reached by boat and best explored by bike, host the Benesse Art Site Naoshima, one of the world’s most impressive collections of modern art. It’s hard to imagine a more glorious marriage of nature, art and architecture. There are outdoor artworks, such as Yayoi Kusama’s giant yellow “Pumpkin” (below, left), installations in abandoned houses and a handful of museums. Many of the buildings on Naoshima, designed by Tadao Ando, are works of art in themselves. Openings let in natural light, rooms are custom-made for their exhibits and façades work in harmony with the terrain. The highlight of Naoshima is, without doubt, the Chichu Art Museum. Mostly underground, its collection includes a vast room housing five of Monet’s water-lily paintings, and a walk-in installation by James Turrell that plays with perceptions of depth. The Teshima Art Museum is also unmissable. The concept is simple – light, the breeze and water, plus the silence observed by visitors who pad round in slippers – but the impact is both playful and profound.

D.T. Suzuki Museum, Kanazawa
Buddhism has made its global mark in myriad ways, from influencing the Beat culture in America to spawning legions of meditators around the world. Yet D.T. Suzuki, the Buddhist philosopher responsible for first introducing Zen to the West, is barely known outside Japan. The small museum (above, right) dedicated to him in his hometown of Kanazawa in the mountainous west explains his importance, with exhibits that detail his life – much of it spent abroad – and display his translation of Buddhist tomes and his essays. Yoshio Taniguchi designed the museum to embody the serenity associated with Zen. Its simple lines, white walls, open spaces, shimmering water and well-positioned benches encourage visitors to stop and contemplate. And once you’re fully relaxed, head back into Kanazawa to check out the Anish Kapoor work in the 21st Century Contemporary Art Museum, and then to Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s most exquisite gardens.

Adachi Museum of Art
The founder of this museum and designer of these gardens in western Japan, Zenko Adachi, believed that “a Japanese garden is also a living painting”. The 165,000 square metres of grounds that surround the art galleries are certainly picture perfect. The six gardens, considered among the best in the country, are prime examples of traditional horticulture. Their primary aim is not to display beauty – as Western gardens do – but to embody Japanese philosophy and aesthetics. Each one is different. The Dry Landscape Garden has tall bushes and rocks that complement the surrounding mountains. There is a typical Japanese moss garden and a striking, white-gravel area dotted with pine trees, while a pond and a waterfall provide spaces for reflection. Each season brings new colours and light. Visitors can drink in the view from two, well-situated teahouses – and the contemporary art, including works by Yokoyama Taikan, is worth a look, too.

Matsumoto Castle
The six storeys of Matsumoto Castle (main image) look like stacked temples, each topped with a roof that sweeps up at its ends like a groomed moustache. Unusually – in a country with plenty of splendid castles – it has black façades (which give rise to its nickname: “the crow castle”) and a red bridge across the large moat that protects it from the surrounding plain. It was built in the centre of Japan’s main island of Honshu during the 16th century, when powerful daimyos, or feudal lords, waged war against one another. The setting makes this magnificent building, designated one of Japan’s National Treasures, more awe-inspiring: in spring, pink cherry-tree blossoms encircle the building, while in winter its backdrop is the dramatic snow-capped peaks of the Japanese Alps. The town of Matsumoto also has an old merchant area, called Nakamachi-dori, which is worth exploring, while just outside there are walking trails, hot springs and post stations lining the Nakasendo way, the path that linked Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo period.

Sumo wrestling
On tournament days, Tokyo’s Ryogoku stadium smells of sweat, baby powder and hair oil. The crowd whoops, claps and cheers. In a small sandy square in the centre, huge fleshy men with pomaded hair and padded g-strings preen and stomp their feet. These are Japan’s sporting superstars: sumo wrestlers (above, left). The fighting itself is only part of the performance, a few minutes of locking, writhing bodies as one large man tries to push his opponent outside the ring or to force him to touch the floor with anything other than the sole of a foot. The rest of the drama comes between bouts, when the fighters carry out rituals designed to seek the favour of the gods of Shinto, Japan’s native religion. They drink sacred water and throw salt in the ring. There are six “grand” annual tournaments – in Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka and Nagoya. At other times of the year visitors with advanced bookings can watch dawn-time training sessions at sumo stables, where the men live, eat (a lot; there is no weight limit) and train together.

Festival hunting
Kyoto is festooned with colour and noise throughout July as it puts on Japan’s most famous festival, the Gion Matsuri (above, right). Colourful, intricately decorated and lantern-lit floats process along streets lined with spectators dressed in traditional garb. Like many of Japan’s festivals, its origin is religious, stemming from the ninth century, when citizens gathered to pray to the gods for the former capital’s deliverance from a plague. Today, the festival is as much about eating street snacks, drinking sake and making merry; it’s a good opportunity to see normally demure people turn into rambunctious partygoers. Gion Matsuri is just one of hundreds of festivals in towns and villages, big and small, marking everything from the first snow to the first rice harvest. One of the oddest is the fertility festival in Komaki, near Nagoya, in which men tote a 2.5-metre wooden penis through the streets from shrine to shrine.