I.M. Pei's Shangri-La – Miho Museum

Posted on September 12, 2018 by Toothpicker There have been 0 comments



"The Peach Blossom Land" was a Chinese fable written by poet Tao Yuanming in 421 CE about a fisherman's discovery of a hidden valley - an ethereal utopia where contented people lead an ideal existence in harmony with nature, unaware of the outside world for centuries. It is similar to the mystical and harmonious valley Shangri-La described in the novel "Lost Horizon" by British author James Hilton. Interestingly, human beings have always longed for an utopia like Shangri-La, yet we never seem to be able to live harmoniously with nature, and we have irrefutably destroyed countless of Shangri-Las since human civilisation.

If Shangri-La does exist, what would it look like? Chinese/American architect I.M. Pei created his version in the mountains of Shigaraki about an hour outside of Kyoto. A friend strongly recommended the Miho museum to me years ago, but sadly it was closed for months during my last visit to Kyoto a few years ago. During this trip, I met up with a friend who was spending a few months in Kyoto, and she was keen to return to the museum despite having visited it a few weeks earlier. She told me that the museum's famous cherry blossom was the reason for her to return to the museum, and suggested that we depart early to avoid the crowds. (N.B. the trip to the museum requires a train journey followed by another 50-min bus ride).





It turned out that other visitors had the same idea, so we had to travel with heaps of tourists heading towards the museum. The bus usually departs from the train station at every hour, but due to the unprecedented numbers of visitors, additional buses were deployed to cope with the mass numbers. Several buses full of visitors heading up to Shangri-La was not what I expected, and I doubt Mr Pei would have foresaw this either.




Opened in 1997, the museum was commissioned by the controversial heiress Mihoko Koyama and her daughter Hiroko to house her private collection of Asian and Western art and antiquities. Mihoko Koyama was the founder of the new religion movement Shinji Shumeikai, which is widely regarded as a cult group. From the museum, visitors can see the headquarters of the group and a bell tower, also designed by I.M. Pei in 1989. I am surprised by Mr Pei's decision to work for a suspected cult leader, but I guess nothing is quite black or white in our complex world.







Perhaps Mr Pei was impressed by the site, which is located in a stunning nature reserve. There were many challenges that Mr Pei had to overcome, and one of them was to create harmony between the building and its surrounding environment and topography. And he succeeded this by burying eighty percent of the museum beneath the surface of the mountain. The museum itself is reachable through a tunnel and a suspected bridge, and the sight of the cherry trees is spectacular during the cherry blossom season. It is no wonder that so many tourists would make their way out of Kyoto to visit this museum.




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The museum collection is not huge, but it is remarkable and fascinating. Best of all, it is complemented by the equally impressive architecture that emphasises on natural lighting and geometric forms - elements that is often seen in Mr Pei's works (e.g. Louvre's Pyramid). I think the elegant and understated style resonates with the traditional Japanese aesthetics. Personally, I think this is Mr Pei's masterpiece, and one of the most stunning museums that I have ever visited. It felt like a discovery experience because you are never quite sure what you would encounter next.








After spending some time wandering around the museum, the crowds started to disperse and we were able to enjoy the space more. At lunch time, our stomachs were rumbling and we headed to the restaurant only to be told that lunch had sold out already! The waitress apologised politely and suggested that we go to the cafe near the parking to try our luck. Unsurprisingly, there was a long queue at the cafe and so we ended up buying some bread (not sandwich, but plain bread with no butter or filling) at their bakery as there was nothing else nearby. I was flabbergasted by how ill-prepared the museum was in regards to the high numbers of visitors, and got more agitated when I saw the long line of people waiting for the bus. Packed like sardines for almost an hour, we were transported to the train station, and I felt relieved to finally get away from other tourists.

It was a shame that my visit to the museum was tainted by the overwhelming of numbers of visitors – I think I would have enjoyed it more during the off-peak season. When I remembered my pilgrimage hike in Kumano Kodo just the week before, I realised that I had already found my Shangri-La – it is a tranquil and unspoilt place where nature rules. If men can learn to respect and listen to nature more, then we can see that Shangri-Las are everywhere, and it is not a special place that we have to seek.


This post was posted in Architecture, Travel, Nature, Art, Anything Japanese, Kyoto, Contemporary, Japan and was tagged with art and design exhibitions, Kyoto, contemporary architecture, cherry blossom, Miho museum