Japan is a great destination for exotic Asian temples and urban nighttime scenes that make Times Square seem like just another intersection. But when it comes to great museums, one doesn't usually think of Japan, and with good reason: The big national museums seem more like dankly lit bank vaults, guarding Buddhist art treasures too important to be left in the open-air temples in which they were meant to be seen.
But there are other options. Japan is blessed with an enormous number of small, private museums, and the best ones deliver world-class art in spectacular mountain settings. Viewing great works of art in such dramatic locations reminds you of the ancient Japanese concept of shakkei, in which a garden is meticulously placed so as to "borrow" the natural mountain scenery behind it. These museums take that practice one step further, placing the whole complex within the mountain scenery.
How dramatic? The Miho Museum, one hour east of Kyoto, houses a collection of Asian art that would typically be described as stunning except for the fact that the museum's architecture is so amazing that it's hard to focus on the art. Two hours south of Tokyo is the Hakone Open-Air Museum, with a sculpture collection that seems to have sprung out of the grass in the mountains. And a half-day's journey from Tokyo, in the Japan Alps, is the Utsukushi-ga-Hara Open-Air Museum, with hundreds of sculptures spread over a mountaintop high above the clouds.
The Miho Museum is what you get when you approach an architect at the pinnacle of his career--in this case, I. M. Pei--and tell him that money is no object. Opened in 1997, the complex is a blend of 21st-century geometric motifs balanced against gardens and designs that would easily fit into a 600-year-old Zen temple. The Miho houses a collection that draws from around Asia and deep into the past, focusing mainly on Japanese and other East Asian art but reaching as far across time and space as ancient Egypt.
The museum, in the Shigaraki Mountains about an hour's ride from Kyoto, reveals itself slowly. So slowly, in fact, that on my first visit there, I thought the entrance pavilion was the museum. I later discovered that a nearby tunnel burrows straight through the mountain to the main complex. While you half expect Tattoo to guide you on the Fantasy Island-style electric carts that carry most visitors to the complex, it is much more suspenseful to go on foot. As you walk, the tunnel slowly curves to reveal the museum in the distance. It is framed in the light at the end of the tunnel, beyond a stunning suspension bridge that connects the tunnel to the museum entrance. The vast majority of the museum is underground, and you only truly experience its architecture as you continue your journey through the galleries.
The Miho was founded to house the collection of the Shumei family. The clan is at the center of the Shinji Shumeikai, one of many such religious organizations in Japan. Many of the beliefs of the Shumeikai are based on the teachings of Mokichi Okada, a mid-20th-century Japanese philosopher who wrote such passages as, "The role of art is surely to heighten people's emotions, to enrich their lives and to give meaning and enjoyment to their existence." As you wander through the galleries, viewing 8th-century Japanese masks and 12th-century Persian goblets, you can't help but view the Miho Museum as the fulfillment of Okada's writings.
Hakone Open-Air Museum
The Hakone, a silver lining in an overdeveloped, crowded national park on Tokyo's doorstep, takes the idea of an outdoor sculpture park and replicates it on a grand scale. Founded in 1969, the museum is a series of rolling lawns sprinkled with the creations of Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi and dozens of others--the collection is split almost equally between Japanese and Western artists. But the artists' names and individual pieces are outweighed by the sheer pleasure of wandering through the grassy spaces and finding art set up against the trees, art framed by the distant mountains and art lying flat against the green grass.
Besides providing a superb setting for such magnificent art, the outdoors adds to it in subtle ways. Near the entrance to the museum, on opposite sides of the walkway, Barbara Hepworth's "Two Figures" gazes over to Moore's "Two Piece Reclining Figure: Cut," and both look toward the distant ocean beyond the mountains. One cannot help but thrill in the juxtaposition of this pair's art, forever beholding the mountain vistas.
Many nooks and crannies are filled with pieces created for the museum's 30th-anniversary exhibition, "Forms in Nature," which focused on artists exploring nature in all its dimensions--such as a series of spiraling logs that are best seen by descending through the piece itself toward the Niji-no-chaya tea room and then looking back up.
The museum is on the doorstep of Chokoku-no-mori Station on the Hakone Tozan Railway, reached via a series of charming switchbacks, at which the two-car train reverses direction, steadily climbing the mountains. Only two hours from Tokyo, the museum can be easily enjoyed as a day trip. It also can be the centerpiece of a trip to Hakone with a night's stay at a traditional Japanese onsen spa or the famous Fujiya Hotel, with its 19th-century tea and dining rooms. Just be aware that many of the other sights in Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park can be extremely crowded and commercial.
Utsukushi-ga-Hara Open-Air Museum
This museum in the Japan Alps is a sister museum to the Hakone. Opened in 1981, it's a fantasyland of art--more than 400 sculptures covering a 7,000-foot mountain peak. A piece called "Clouds" really does float on the clouds beneath it; "Aspect of Nothingness" is surrounded by nothingness; and you can just imagine how a cubist representation of four faces called "View" relates to its setting.