High Art

A belief in the elevating influence of art plus one billion dollars yields a stunning new museum on a mountainside in Japan

The most propitious time to visit the Miho Museum Miho Museum, a new and exquisite little temple of art set on a wooded mountaintop near Kyoto, is after several days' sightseeing in the ancient capital. For one effect of wandering from temple to shrine through the streets of the city is that old Kyoto and new Kyoto—the seemingly contradictory worlds of the tea ceremony and the pachinko parlor, the Shinto pantheon and the karaoke club—become more and more difficult to reconcile. The journey to the Miho Museum is the perfect antidote to this creeping cultural indigestion. Climbing the hillside to the northeast of the city, you leave behind the gemu puraza (game plaza) and the hotels with furendorii ruumu (friendly rooms) and, as the narrow road winds beside a racing river, you are reminded of the Shinto tradition of Kami no Yo—Age of the Gods—when man was pure and mountains were the domain of deities who dwelt in every hill and tree. The museum is surrounded by forest, and the trip takes on the air of a pilgrimage, the sort one glimpses in painted scrolls that depict a hilltop temple which travelers with staves look toward expectantly through a declension of trees.

The feeling of a pilgrimage persists when you finally arrive at the Miho, as well it might. For not only is the physical setting of this private museum redolent of things spiritual, so is its short and singular history. In the first half of the 1990s, word spread through the beleaguered world of dealers in antiquities that a major new buyer had appeared on the scene: a Japanese sect, registered as a religion, called Shinji Shumeikai (whose name roughly translates as Divine Love Organization, though it's more generally known as the Shumei Family). This group was headquartered in the Shigaraki mountains 20 miles outside Kyoto. It had only 300,000 members, went the scuttlebutt, but an apparently bottomless bank account, and it wanted nothing but the very best.

Through dealers in New York and London, the Shumei Cultural Foundation started, in the words of one critic, "to hoover up" the most beautiful ancient objects it could find. In 1994 it purchased a 3,000-year-old Assyrian bas-relief for $11.9 million, a record price for an antiquity. It bought major pieces from China, Iran, Afghanistan, Indonesia—it did not seem to matter from where—as well as the falcon-headed statue of an Egyptian deity: Made of silver, gold, and lapis lazuli, it's the only known surviving temple figure of its kind. Market watchers spoke with increasing awe of the hundreds of millions of dollars the sect seemed to have at its disposal, with only one criterion apparent in its acquisitions policy: Beauty at any cost.

Less well known, however, was a second, simultaneous project that the sect had inaugurated: the building of a new home for its fast-growing collection. Located in the middle of a nature preserve across the valley from Shinji Shumeikai's remote mountain headquarters, the museum was designed by I.M. Pei, whose work certainly did not come cheap. But as the building neared completion in 1997, it became clear just how awesomely expensive the Miho—named for Mihoko Koyama, heiress to a textile fortune and founder of Shinji Shumeikai—actually was. A new piece of land had been acquired; a special 219-yard-long access tunnel built before construction could even begin; a whole mountaintop removed—100,000 truckloads of earth—and then put back, in order to meet national park regulations; limestone was imported from France, granite from Sweden; the "first architectural concrete in Japan" was used. In the end, said the museum's own report, an incredible 250,000 people had worked on the building, which cost in all more than $215 million—twice the amount of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

Was the sect an art patron or a prestige seeker? A Maecenas or an Ozymandias? These were the questions asked of the Shumei Cultural Foundation when the museum finally opened its doors 14 months ago. And these are the questions I take up the mountainside on a fine September day as I begin a journey, not only into the lost worlds of old and sometimes forgotten empires but also into a philosophy that equates virtue and beauty.

The approach to the Miho's hilltop island has the feel of a benign initiation, as if Pei were practicing what the Japanese call ma, the unfolding and appreciation of space through time. All you see on first arriving is a modest reception pavilion amid cedar trees, facing a circular courtyard. Opposite it is the rather discrete path (genkan, literally "antechamber") to the museum—a curved walkway lined with lights and weeping cherry trees, which leads to the mouth of a gleaming stainless-steel-lined tunnel cut in another curve into a hill. As you walk through this tunnel, the museum itself gradually comes into view, a compact pavilion rising above terraced steps, with a Chinese-style moon-gate entrance and a slanted, sternly geometric glass-and-steel roof that evokes both temple architecture and local, Irimoya-style hipped eaves. To reach it you have to cross a posttension bridge, stitched to the tunnel mouth with graceful cables and cantilevered out over a deep, narrow gorge.

Even after you've landed—and that's what it feels like—on the circular plaza in front of the steps, you still have no idea what you're about to encounter. In fact, only on passing through the elevated moon gate do you begin to have any sense of scale. Inside, the entrance hall expands into a large, light-filled atrium, crisscrossed by the triangular shadows thrown by the geometrical roof supports; its far wall, a huge, 22-foot-high picture window, looks out over a range of forested hilltops. The foreground is dominated by a tall group of old Akamatsu pines, specially transplanted. Rising beyond a nearby ridge are the steep-pitched roof of the Shumei Family meeting hall (the work of Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers in New York) and a slim, soaring carillon tower designed for the sect by Pei in the late 1980s. The rest of the framed picture is cloudscape, and the serial undulations of wild mountain woodland. It is a classic example of shakkei, the art of creating a garden out of a borrowed view, of treating the landscape as if it were a large painting.

The museum fans out irregularly from this central atrium, along corridors lined in honey-colored limestone. In one direction—up stairs, following the shape of the hilltop, and built around a classic rock garden open to the sky—is the North Wing, the home of a collection of Japanese antiquities, many of them connected to the tea ceremony. But the tour de force is the South Wing, dedicated to art from Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, China, and South and West Asia. These softly lit, carpeted galleries are almost entirely buried underground—the roof over them carries underbrush and no fewer than 7,000 trees. But there are also unexpected glimpses out to the gardens and the mountains beyond, as well as occasional skylights—low pagodas of glass and metal—that filter the sunlight through slats of aluminum etched to resemble wood. Although Pei was straitened by environmental ordinances and the overriding need for protection against earthquakes (80 percent of the building was required to be subterranean; none of it could be built more than 43 feet above grade), the effect is of nature and art weaving in and out of one another, harmonious parts of a continuous aesthetic experience.

Though its buried asymmetry is at first a little unsettling, the way the museum unfolds bit by bit, Japanese style, is a considerable pleasure. But what about the art it houses? The Shumei Cultural Foundation is believed to have spent up to a billion dollars over the last eight years acquiring the bulk of the present collection, af- ter Pei gently suggested to Mihoko Koyama that the Japanese tea ceremony objects she had amassed, superb as they were, might not in themselves be enough to tempt visitors to the Miho. Well, all one can say is that it is money formidably well spent. It is true that the Japanese collection in the North Wing is not yet as impressive as the one in the museum in Atami the museum in Atami, which was funded by another religious group—the Reimei Church—from which Shinji Shumeikai is an offshoot. But it does contain any number of extraordinary and culturally important objects, such as a luminous 12th-13th-century Chinese tea bowl—one of the only four of its kind believed to have survived; and a rare eighth-century Japanese dance mask representing an Indian deity who was transmogrified by the Chinese into a guardian of the Buddhist faith.

It is to the South Wing of the Miho, however, that visitors from the West will initially be drawn. For it is here, in a series of galleries meticulously designed for both scrutiny and contemplation, that the most astonishing purchases are on display. In the Egyptian Gallery, quite apart from the falcon-headed deity, there is a life-size and extraordinary lifelike acacia-wood funerary statue of a man named Nakht (now dead for almost 4,000 years). This image must once have stood in his tomb-chapel and is perhaps the finest of the dozen or so such figures known to have survived from the Middle Kingdom period. Nearby is another statue—this one amazingly sensual, even disturbingly modern-looking—of a third-century b.c. Ptolemaic queen, which was probably recarved from a stone figure of the mother of Akhenaten, dating from more than 1,000 years before.

Every one of the South Wing's galleries contains artworks of exactly this stellar quality. In the South-Asian Gallery is the first non-Japanese object bought by the Shumei Cultural Foundation, an 1,800-year-old standing Buddha from Gandhara, near Peshawar in modern Pakistan. It has a very human and at the same time intensely spiritual presence, and at eight feet it's one of the two tallest and most beautiful images of its kind ever discovered. In the Islamic Art section there is the Sanguszko carpet. Produced in a Persian royal workshop in the late 16th or early 17th century, it is perhaps the most sumptuous and complex Islamic carpet ever made. (For 37 years it was on loan to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.) The Miho's Chinese Gallery also has any number of unusual pieces: a frisky, four-foot-high bronze horse from the Eastern Han period, a.d. 25-220, similar to one in the Museum of East Asian Art in Cologne; or an enchantingly relaxed, draped, and braceleted earthenware Court Lady—bought from the London dealer Giuseppe Eskenazi—which may have graced an unidentified Chinese shrine 1,200 years ago.

The common factor in all these pieces is that they are, quite simply, very beautiful—true works of art. This unalloyed beauty, often allied to a strong spiritual element (many of these objects were, after all, grave offerings: the material in pursuit or imitation of the immaterial), is crucial to the Miho's overall purpose. The selection of works is also quite deliberately international: It repeatedly demonstrates the way in which, even in antiquity, trade and migration brought distant peoples and empires together, influencing what they made. The silver contained in the falcon-headed Egyptian cult figure, for example, came from West Asia; its lapis lazuli from what is today Afghanistan. There are any number of further instances in the collection of such cross-cultural borrowings—of materials, themes, styles, philosophies, even of objects themselves. A gorgeous 2,400-year-old gold-and-cloisonné Achaemenid collar with an attached pendant depicting a battle (it was perhaps taken as booty from Persia by one of Alexander the Great's marauding generals) not only shows strong Egyptian influences in both color and technique but is also inscribed on the back in Greek. Achaemenid rhytons, or drinking horns, turn up, as do their Greek counterparts, apparently adaptations of the Persian originals, which were borrowed for use in the worship of Dionysus. And in a third-century a.d. Syrian floor mosaic, Dionysus himself is decked out at some later date with a wound in his side and a communion plate in one hand, in honor of the newly arrived Christian religion.

This brand of aesthetic ecumenism is the second essential element in the Miho's choice of antiquities and is of a piece with its hiring of a Chinese-American architect. As I learn in conversation with one of the curators, members of Shinji Shumeikai see themselves, first and foremost, as citizens of the world. They also believe in the preservation of the environment and organic methods of agriculture. But above all they set out to promote, maximize, and enshrine beauty in their lives—and especially the beauty of art. "It would be no exaggeration," wrote Mokichi Okada, the spiritual mentor to Mihoko Koyama, "to call the heaven on earth we have as an ideal 'The world of Art,' for . . . it is in art that Beauty finds its true expression."

I am, of course, no authority on Shinji Shumeikai, which is not technically a religion (since it apparently requires no conversion experience) but is registered as such and therefore pays no taxes. (A brief visit to its headquarters across the valley reveals little: beautiful gardens, some fine buildings and sculpture, and a feeling that the world is being prayed for there in an atmosphere of rather more regimentation than the West is comfortable with.) But the Miho enterprise is not to be compared with something like the notorious record-setting purchase of a Van Gogh sunflower painting by a Japanese insurance company. The Shinji Shumeikai is a great deal more serious and scholarly than that, even if its theology sounds New-Agey to Western ears. In fact, if I do have a criticism, it's that the Miho is slightly too reverential toward the works it contains, a little too much like . . . well, a church.

About the artworks themselves, I have to confess, I was initially somewhat skeptical. For almost all of them are what Japanese art dealers call ubu (literally, "unexposed"): pieces that are surfacing in the art world for the very first time. Almost none of them, apart from the Sanguszko carpet and the Assyrian bas-relief, which was rediscovered in an English boys' school, has any provenance; and since many of them come from places of war or violent change, like Iran, Afghanistan, and China, one has to assume that they left their countries of origin in highly unofficial ways. (Buying and selling such objects is not illegal in the West, but they exist, if you like, under a cloud.) But as I look at them, I begin to think that their presence here is the least of all possible evils. For the foundation has been ruthless in weeding out all fakes (eight were exposed) and equally sedulous in establishing everything that can be found out about the pieces that remain (the Miho's handsome catalogs are models of comprehensiveness and clarity). It has made its possessions available to art historians for detailed study, and has given the rest of us the chance to see them under conditions that invest them with a very special kind of presence. Much better this kind of care, I come to believe, than that they should be smashed or lost or forgotten.

I spend the better part of two days at the Miho Museum. (Both its restaurant and tearoom are excellent.) Just before I finally leave, one of the attendants—who all seem to be Shumei Family members—bows and says, "Gokuosama desu," a salutation that includes the idea: "Thank you for coming so far." I bow in return and say, "It's been a very great pleasure." If I had more Japanese, I'd look back at I.M. Pei's templelike entrance and, thinking of the extraordinary works behind its facade, add: "It's not every day that art requires a pilgrimage well worth making."

Where To Stay

Undoubtedly Kyoto's best Western-style hotel—I.M. Pei stayed here when working on the Miho—the large and rambling Miyako is set on a hillside with fine views over the city and its shrines and temples. The rooms and suites are spacious and comfortable, though furnished in that slightly disconcerting Japanese manner that applies cheerful pastel colors to a kind of 1960s minimalist decor. The Miyako also has a beautiful traditional Japanese guesthouse, Kasui-en, which offers all the enchantment of an authentic ryokan without loss of the hotel's regular—and impeccable—service. $155-$690. Sanjo Keage, Kyoto 605; 81-75-771-7111; fax 81-75-751-2490. www.miyakohotel.co.jp

This is perhaps the finest—and to Americans certainly the most famous—ryokan in all Japan. (Everyone from Marlon Brando to Truman Capote has stayed here.) Located in the heart of the city, this 300-year-old establishment (the present building dates from 1850) is an irresistible labyrinth of twisting passageways and sliding screens, silent rooms and sequestered gardens. The rooms on the ground floor have blissfully peaceful verandas—and usually a months-long reservations list. $284-$731. Fuyacho, Oike-Sagaru, Nakagyo-ku; 81-75-221-5566. www.ryokan.or.jp

Miho Museum, 300, Momodani, Shigaraki, Shiga 529-1814, Japan; 81-748-82-3411; fax 81-748-82-3414. A taxi from Kyoto to the museum, including wait time and return, costs about $162. Or take the train from Kyoto Central Station to Ishiyama ($1.90), and then the bus marked Miho Museum ($6.50). Open March 15-June 10, parts of July and Aug., and Sept. 1-Dec. 15. Tues.-Fri. and Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Items from the Miho Museum collection will be on show for the first time in Europe at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, June-Oct. 1999. www.miho.or.jp

Jo Durden-Smith profiled ballerina Darcey Bussell for the last issue.