The mission I set to myself was to showcase the premodern world inside a museum, which is itself a modern invention.

(Hiroshi Sugimoto)

Living daily in the restless buzz of sounds and constant movement of Tokyo often triggers a yearning for the sheltered mountains or silent seas. Less than a two-hour train ride from the capital, the Atami hot springs resort town in Shizuoka prefecture fulfills such a desire to bathe in both. Many Tokyoites flock to this town for the moderate maritime climate, the breathtaking alpine scenery with a glimpse of Mt. Fuji, and the shining blue ocean. Above all, numerous hot spring hotels abound, perfect for dipping in complete relaxation.

Around 270 meters above sea level, an eye-catching piece of architecture protrudes from a scenic hill overlooking the sea. The MOA Museum of Art, spread on a land of over 5,000 square meters and a floor area of over 13,000 square meters, stands as one of the most outstanding achievements in Japanese museum architecture. Opened in 1982, the museum had undergone a significant renovation from 2016 to 2017 spearheaded by the New Material Research Laboratory, internationally acclaimed contemporary artist Hiroshi Sugimoto and architect Tomoyuki Sakakida. The result revealed the ingenious utilization of traditional materials enhanced with modern structural techniques to achieve an optimal viewing experience of the natural surroundings.

The exterior facade is made from Indian sandstone brought in from Deccan Plateau in India. It extends from the outdoor plaza to the indoor entrance hall in unison with the lobby’s interior finish. The sandstone color and texture also harmonize splendidly with the surrounding trees. To filter abundant natural light into the spacious lobby, the wall-to-wall deep blue tinted atrium window is built eight meters high and thirty-two meters wide. With the aid of the gently sloped ceiling, the spectacular ocean view seen from the huge window is framed exquisitely like a painting.

The most captivating experience in visiting the museum is walking up the escalator passageway, comprised of four escalators, twenty-five to thirty-five meters long each. Each passageway glows with yellow, green and bright blue lit ceilings and walls that seem to capture the visitor inside a mysterious cave. The construction was made possible through the open cut method and reinforced concrete box culverts. Between the left and right escalators, the staircases also shimmer with flickering lights, heightening the suspense of what is about to surprise the visitor on the top landing. At the top of the last escalator awaits an astounding circular hall called the Art Street. Looking up the rippled ceiling spanning about ten meters high, one is mesmerized by the colorful flowing patterns that appear to float like clouds. This is Japan’s largest kaleidoscope projected on a ceiling and was created by award-winning kaleidoscope artists Mitsuru and Yuriko Yoda. The dome spreads about twenty meters in diameter and is constructed from Italian marble stones and 230 cast pieces of glass fiber-reinforced concrete. The walls are wonderfully embellished with marble, and the floor boasts ten varieties of marbled mosaic brought in from Italy, Portugal, India, Iran, Cuba, and Greece —truly, a sight for sore eyes.

The architects and designers envisioned a completely unique concept that would allow the museum’s “new and existing elements to coexist symbiotically, so that the museum could be reborn and yet, retain the history it has built up.” The prominent four-meter-high entrance doors, for example, represent the Japanese craft tradition of urushi or lacquerware created by Living National Treasure artist Kazumi Murose. Its design emanates motifs of the Momoyama period (16th-17th centuries), using contrasting kimono fabrics for the front panels. With its deep red and black lacquer finish, the door escorts the visitor between the present and premodern times.

The galleries also imbue the blend of modern technology and Japanese traditional architectural materials, such as century-old timber, black plaster, and tatami mats. The display cases are modeled after the Japanese traditional alcove known as tokonoma. Kamachi, or the front rail timber, comes from historic cypress known as gyōjasugi found in Oita prefecture. By employing mocked tatami mats with hemp trims and woven sheets of handmade washi paper for the platforms, the display objects could be adequately conserved.

The café restaurant on the lower floor is flanked by glass walls that offer amazing views of the Sagami Bay. It connects to the spaciously landscaped garden covering 236,400 square meters and includes a plum orchard and azalea-covered hill. Nestled in the garden is the Ippaku-an teahouse, styled in sukiya traditional architecture. Designed by the most celebrated teahouse architect Nahiko Emori, the building is equipped with tea ceremony utensils and ryurei lacquer-finished tea tables. Another ancient teahouse Shotei once belonging to samurai official Igi Tadazumi can also be visited. Here, one finds an ancient painting of a woodcutter on the sliding doors. Also not to be missed is the reconstructed final residence of renowned artist Kōrin Ogata, which is designated as an Important Cultural Property. Several ancient stone pagodas in Kunisaki style from Kyushu and classical gates also scatter around the sprawling garden.

The essence of beauty found in the historic past, contemporary materials, exhibited works and picturesque natural sceneries converge magically in this museum site. A journey to Atami may not feel complete without a taste of its grandeur and sublime elegance.