On Top of a Mountain, All Covered in Trees

Posted by on Dec 17, 2011 in Shiga, Travel Volunteer Journey | One Comment
On Top of a Mountain, All Covered in Trees

Art collectors aren’t unique to Japan, nor are world class exhibitions of art. But one thing I’ve never encountered before is the desire to take these rare, extremely valuable items away from major cities and move them out to obscure, rural locations. That, I think, is quite peculiar to Japan.

We first found this sort of thing in Towada, away back up in Aomori prefecture. I wrote at the time that Towada was a totally ordinary, functional little city, that would have been completely unremarkable if it wasn’t for the world class collection of modern art that spilled out from the Towada Art Centre and into the street.

The same thing happened at the island of Naoshima, which was just “another rock in the water” until the Benesse Corporation spent millions on curating an astounding collection of fine art and housing it in galleries with award-winning designs. A few weeks after that, it was a dazzling array of China, this time just hanging out the back of a hotel in Kagoshima.

Today in little Shiga prefecture we were once again confounded, this time by the Miho Museum, up in the hills just south of Otsu. Founded in the mid 90s by Mihoko Koyama, it differs from the other collections we’ve seen in that it’s a collection of some incredibly old, important archaeological artefacts, the likes of which you ordinarily find in the British Museum or a Smithsonian. Instead, the 2,500 piece collection – of which about only 10% is ever on show – is found far out in the countryside, on top of a mountain in perfect seclusion.

That means things like a 3,500 year old solid silver horus that was so precious it was only worshipped by the Pharaohs themselves are today on display for anyone who manages to find the museum. It is one of the jewels of the Egyptian section, but it is a junior piece when compared to some of the reliefs that go back to 2700BC.

Elsewhere there are necklaces from ancient Persia, Greek statues and Roman artworks. Another of the stars is a 2.5m standing Buddha found in Pakistan, thought to be half of the total of such examples anywhere in the world.

Of course a truly outstanding collection doesn’t come cheap – the total value is estimated to be over $1 billion. Thankfully, as the heiress to a fortune of the Toyobo textiles empire, the eccentric Koyama had that kind of cash to spend. So at the age of 80 she packed her bags and travelled the world to curate her mountain marvel, hiring the equally eccentric, multi award-winning architect I.M. Pei to build her version of Shangri-La.

It sounds like an awful lot of work for a pair of octogenarians, but Koyama, as the founder of the cult/religion of Shumei, had a great responsibility to dedicate herself to high art. “Throughout history, art has touched the part of the human spirit that exists above the struggle for survival and beyond the sphere of reason. It can put humankind in touch with the best qualities of human nature,” reads their doctrine. They literally worship the stuff.

Some of their other beliefs may seem a little sketchy (especially the “healing with light” stuff) but so far as organised religions go, having a deep love of art, beauty and nature aren’t such bad founding principles. Especially if they produce results like the Miho Museum.










1 Comment

  1. Kavey
    December 18, 2011

    Beautiful building.
    And perhaps there’s something to be said for having to make such an effort to go and view these special relics… sometimes one sees the crowds of tourists wandering through the Louvre or British Museum, ticking off the greats within the collections, without any real interest or understanding or appreciation…