Near and far: Shiga
Ishiyamadera and the Miho Museum, Shiga
Traveling east toward Lake Biwa from Kyoto, urban congestion
quickly vanishes and the train passes through green canyons and
peaceful towns. This is the way to Shiga prefecture: the eastern
limit of Kansai's rail network and an ideal daytrip out of the big city.
At Ishiyamadera, a mountainside Buddhist complex with a
commanding view of Japan's largest lake, you can peer into the
room where Murasaki Shikibu laboured on The Tale of Genji.
A short trip from there, deep into Shiga's mountains, the IM Peidesigned
Miho Museum is a work of art in itself — a meditation
on Eastern art and spirituality, cast in hidden temples of shimmering
glass and limestone.
The Setagawa River, often filled with rowing crews, accompanies
the short walk south from Ishiyamadera station to the temple complex.
The entrance gate (¥500) yields to a shaded lane and a sheer
rocky bluff, atop of which stands the Tahoto, or treasure tower
(a national treasure built 750 years ago, it appears on ¥4 stamps).
The surrounding forest features a wealth of seasonal flowers and
hiking trails — one of which leads to the Lake Biwa overlook.
But the big attraction is the temple's connection to Genji's author.
Experts agree that she stayed at the temple in 1004. The poet and
novelist Shimazaki Toson also stayed here during the Meiji era.
If Ishiyamdera is a mountain retreat, then the Miho Museum is
a mountain exile in the middle of nowhere.
The Miho museum, a bus ride from Ishiyamadera, is located amid
a nature preserve and is virtually invisible from the approach. After
purchasing a ticket at the visitor center and passing through a huge
winding tunnel, IM Pei's geometric glass roofs come dramatically
into view. Rising parallel to the mountain range, the gate-like structure
is a state of the art take on Far East architecture, replete with
a Zen-like circular portal. Pei, who also designed the pyramid at the
Louvre in Paris and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art
in Washington, DC, has said that he consciously designed the building
to blend with nature.
While the museum's exterior reflects its serenity by design, its
ancient content is dazzling. Shumei began compiling its collection
of European, Middle Eastern and Asian art in the 1990s after Pei
suggested the collection be international and has amassed a significant
horde since then. The standout pieces include a massive
2nd Century standing Buddha from Pakistan as well as an Egyptian
figurine of the god Horus that is more than 3,000 years old.