Imagine removing the entire top portion of a mountain, building an art museum on the flat land, and then replacing the top of the mountain onto the museum. That’s exactly what I.M. Pei did to create the Miho Museum in the Shigaraki mountains outside of Kyoto, Japan. Mihoko Koyama, heir to the Toyobo textile business, and her daughter, Hiroko Koyama, commissioned Pei to design a museum to display their collection of Asian and Western art.
As we left the parking lot, we entered a chrome tunnel which reflected the foliage of the season. For us, it was autumn leaves. We came upon the museum only as we completed the path through the winding circular tunnel, and across a bridge that spanned two mountain ridges. Suddenly, the museum appeared, wedged into the mountain like it had grown there. Pei described this trek as the one a wanderer comes upon as he discovers Shangri-La.
Three-quarters of the art museum building is situated underground. The roof is designed of glass and steel, while the rest of the museum is beige French limestone – the same material used by Pei in the reception hall of the Louvre. Daylight filters in through aluminum louvers which have been digitized to evoke the grain, texture and warmth of local cypress woods, thus merging technology and tradition, western and eastern cultures, interior and exterior spaces.
There are over 2000 pieces in the Miho art collection, of which 250 are on display at any one time. Many of the works have traveled for exhibition at other prestigious museums including L.A.C.M.A. and The MET. When Miho Koyama started the project, her vision was to pursue beauty through art and appreciation of nature, and that in building architectural masterpieces in remote locations, she was restoring the Earth’s balance. This philosophy led her to also begin a religious movement in Japan, which is called Shinji Shumeikai, and now has over 300,000 followers.
After our museum tour, we stopped along the road for a traditional Japanese lunch at a local restaurant, and found it quite a feat to sit on tatami mats cross-legged for over an hour. On our way back to the hotel, we sniffed some tea growing on the hillside. What a day!