Hiroshi Sugimoto’s masterpiece: The Enoura Observatory in Odawara

Japanese rail

Japanese rail

Japanese rail

The cute Nebukawa Station first opened in 1922 but was swept away (along with a train full of passengers) by a landslide a year later. Hundred of people were killed during this disaster, and there is a memorial at the station that commemorates this tragic incident

 

After I left Atami, I took the train to the nearby Nebukawa Station as I had booked a tour to visit The Enoura Observatory, created by contemporary artist and the founder of Odawara Art Foundation, Hiroshi Sugimoto (who was also responsible for the renovations of the MOA in Atami). All visitors have to book the tour online, which includes a free return mini bus rides between the observatory and the train station.

Since it opened in the autumn of 2017, the observatory has been receiving international coverage and praises for its merge of nature, art, history and architecture, and it was highly recommended to me by a Japanese friend.

 

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

 

Like both places I visited earlier in the day, this site occupies a hilltop position that overlooks the Sagami bay. The site comprises a reception area, a gallery space, two outdoor stages, a revived Tensho-an tea ceremony room, a restored Muromachi Period (c. 1338-1573) Meigetsu Gate, and rock gardens featuring various rocks and stones collected from all over Japan by Sugimoto .

At the long gallery space, visitors can view Sugimoto’s photography work titled seascape. The artist has had a long fascination with the sea, and he explained: “my earliest childhood memory is of the sea seen from the window of the Shonan train, running on the old Tokaido line from Atami to Odawara.” And this memory was the inspiration behind the project.

 

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory  Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

 

Drawing ideas from ancient cultures and their relationships with nature, the 100-metre gallery is also a viewing platform where sun ray would reach the gallery space on the morning of the summer solstice.

On the morning of the winter solstice, the optical glass stage would glow as it catches the light on its cut edges. Its auditorium is a full-size recreation of a ruined Roman amphitheater in Ferento in the Lazio region of Italy, with the glass stage designed to look like it is floating on the surface of the sea.

 

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory  Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory  Enoura Observatory

 

The winter solstice also sends light through the 70-metre light-worship metal tunnel to illuminate a large stone at the other end. An aperture has been built into the tunnel to admit light, with a well beneath it. The chisel marks on it suggest that it dates from medieval times. The bottom of the well is covered with pieces of optical glass, where the individual raindrops can be seen as they fall into the well when it rains.

 

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory  Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

 

As you walk around the maze-like site, it is hard not be to awe of what you see or encounter. It gives you a sense of anticipation and appreciation for nature and beauty. Every element here is precisely positioned to lead you somewhere and to make you look. In a way, it is like being ‘manipulated’ to see the nature around you through architecture and landscape design, which is quite ambitious and bold.

 

Enoura Observatory  Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory  Enoura Observatory

Enoura Observatory

 

After spending some time here, it felt quite peaceful and contemplative. I think the project has succeeded in merging nature, architecture and design together harmoniously. It would be wonderful to revisit the site on the days of summer/winter solstice for a more enchanting experience.

 

Kenrokuen – is this the most beautiful landscape garden in Japan?

Kenroku-en

Kasumiga Pond

 

Kenrokuen is considered one of Japan’s three most beautiful landscape gardens alongside Mito’s Kairakuen and Okayama‘s Korakuen. Located in central Kanazawa, the once-private garden covers an area of 11 hectares (almost 25 acres) next to Kanazawa Castle. The original garden named Renchitei is said to have been created by the 5th Maeda lord, Tsunonori Maeda around 1676. The garden was burnt down in 1759, but was restored in 1774, and in 1822 the garden was renamed Kenrokuen. This name can be translated to “garden of six elements”, which refers to the six features mentioned in a classical Chinese poem for a perfect garden: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, flowing water and panoramas. The garden was not opened to the public until 1874, and now it is one of the most popular sightseeing spots in Kanazawa.

 

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

 

There are two main entrances to the vast garden and it costs 310 yen to get in. It is easy to feel disoriented here because of its size, but if you are not in a hurry, you can easily stroll for a few hours while admiring the nature and landscape here.

There are roughly 8,750 trees, and 183 species of plants at this garden. The garden offers something different for every season, but it is particularly popular in spring because of cherry blossom.

 

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en  Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

 

Some of the main features at the garden include the artificial Kasumiga-ike Pond; Yugao-tei tea house on the Hisagoike pond which dates from 1774 and the oldest building in the garden; and a bronze statue of a legendary hero, Yamato Takeru was erected in 1880 to commemorate the deaths of 400 soldiers from Ishikawa Prefecture who died helping to suppress a rebellion in Kyushu. 

 

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en  Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

 

There is also stone with a poem inscribed on it by the haiku poet Matsuo Basho who visited Kanazawa in 1689. The poem reads:

bright red burning
bitter sun…
but autumn in the wind

Since I am no expert in traditional Japanese landscape garden, I can’t say whether this is the most beautiful landscape garden in Japan or not. However, I was very impressed by the ancient pine trees at this garden, and I think they are definitely some of the most beautiful trees I have ever seen. The tallest one is called “Neagarimatsu”, meaning “a pine tree with its roots going up”, is about 15 m in height and it was planted by the 13th lord Nariyasu about 200 years ago. It is an absolutely magnificent and stunning tree (see the third one below).

 

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

 

Although the garden was quite busy during my visit, but due to its size, it was easy to avoid the crowds and enjoy some tranquil spots. The garden also offers a panoramic view of city, so I guess these are all the elements that make this one of the best landscape gardens in Japan.

 

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

Kenroku-en

 

 

Japan’s sacred mountain – Koyasan

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Danjo Garan Temple complex

 

For a long time, I have been wanting to visit Mount Koya or Koyansan, a sacred mountain in the Wakayama region. It is the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism ( a Chinese-influenced esoteric sect), introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai. Located in the lush Koya-Ryujin Quasi-National Park, the monastic site has 117 temples and 52 of them offer temple lodgings or Shukubo to the public.

Unfortunately, the scenic cable car was out of service for a few months due to a disruptive typhoon last winter, so I had to take a train from Osaka, followed by two bus rides to reach the mountain. Yet the fine weather upon arrival made it all worthwhile. Sunny blue sky was not what I had expected ( I think I was misled by all the misty and snowy photos online), but I could hardly complain about this!

After much online research, I decided to spend the night at Saizen-in, a small temple with 24 guest rooms and a rock garden created by Mirei Shigemori, a notable modern garden and landscape designer.

 

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Saizen-in

 

I have stayed at a temple in Kyoto before, but the self-catering accommodation was located in a new building within the grounds, so I didn’t feel like I was staying at a temple at all. At Saizen-in, the Japanese-style tatami rooms have modern amenities like a flatscreen TV (which I was surprised to see), wifi, a safe and an under-table heater for my feet (which i loved). And like most Japanese-style accommodations, the toilets (very clean) and bath are shared among the same sex.

After checking in, I left the temple and headed towards the town centre to grab some lunch, followed by a visit to the Kongobuji temple. The organic vegetarian set lunch at Bon On Shya Cafe and art gallery was delicious and satisfying, and I especially loved the strong coffee and tofu cheesecake.

 

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Top row: Bon On Shya cafe and gallery

 

Originally constructed in 1593 and rebuilt in 1861, Kongobuji temple is head temple of Shingon Buddhism, hence the temple is Koyasan’s main tourist attraction. The temple contains many nature-inspired sliding screen doors painted by the famous painted Kano Tanyu (1602-1674) from the Kyoto Kano school. The temple’s Banryutei Rock Garden is the largest rock garden in Japan. Built in 1984, its large rocks from Shikoku, the birthplace of Kobo Daishi, represent a pair of dragons emerging from a sea of clouds.

 

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Kongobuji temple and its rock garden

 

Besides Kongobuji temple, the most popular attraction at Koyasan is undoubtedly Okunoin, Japan’s largest and most prestigious cemetery. It is the resting place of the founder of Koyasan, Kobo Daishi, and more than 200,000 Buddhist monks who are said to be waiting for the resurrection of the Future Buddha, Maitreya. There are regular night tours of the cemetery, but I think it would be too creepy, so I wasn’t too keen on this idea.

What struck me most as I walked through the 2km-long cemetery was the ancient cedar trees. I think these tress help to make the place less eerie. Apart from monks, many historically important figures are also buried here, and you can tell by their massive tombstones. The path leads towards Kobo Daishi‘s mausoleum, located behind Torodo Hall, which is filled with 10,000 lanterns. This is a pilgrimage site, so phones/photos are strictly forbidden.

 

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Okunoin cemetery

 

Everything was within my expectations until I strolled towards the newer looking part of the cemetery… I first spotted a tombstone for the Panasonic Corp, followed by a coffee cup and saucer-shaped stone for UCC Ueshima Coffee Co. Yet the most bizarre one has to be a rocket for the aerospace firm, Shin Meiwa Kogyo. Is this most sought-after cemetery in Japan? Definitely. If you were a ‘nobody’ in this lifetime, then getting a spot here would probably elevate you to a ‘somebody’. It seems like status still matters in the afterlife!

 

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After the long hours spent strolling around the cemetery, I took a bus back to Saizen-in before dinner time. The delicate and seasonal vegetarian/vegan dinner was served inside my room, and it was served by a friendly monk/lay person (not entirely sure if he is a monk because he worn non-monk clothing and doesn’t have a shaved head) who could speak quite good English. I asked him about the famous rock garden, and he told me that the room that faces the garden is occupied and so it is not available for viewing. However, he said he could try to arrange for me to see it after breakfast the next morning when the guests have checked out.

 

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Vegetarian dinner at Saizen-in

 

The following morning, I got up early to attend the morning prayer and sutra chanting. I have been practicing zazen (sitting meditation) and studying mostly Zen Buddhism for the last few years, but I am not familiar with Shingon Buddhism and their rituals, so the session was a new experience for me. I also followed other Japanese guests and queued up to offer incense, which is considered a standard Buddhist tradition that takes place in many parts of Asia.

 

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Breakfast

 

After breakfast, I went to see the friendly monk/lay person from last night and he told me to follow him. It turned out that a group of Japanese women have booked the garden room, but they gave him permission to let me in and admire the gardens! The three gardens were planted by Mirei Shigemori in the Showa period, and it is designated as a registered monument of the country in 2010. Each garden represents a rich “Koyasan” of water, and the flow of water is tied in three gardens.

After we left the room, he led me upstairs to show me a different view of the garden, then he ook out his phone and enthusiastically shared with me photos that he has taken during different seasons. I felt very moved by his kind gesture.

 

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The rock gardens designed by Mirei Shigemori

 

Before leaving the mountain, I went out for a short stroll to enjoy another day of blue sky and warm temperature. It was a serene morning with few visitors and cars – it was a huge contrast from Osaka where I had stayed earlier. I felt great and was a bit sad to leave this behind.

 

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After checking out, I wanted to ask the receptionist if I could see the monk/lay person before I leave, and luckily, he was just walking down the corridor. I thanked him for everything and we chatted a little before I headed off. I don’t think my stay would have been the same if I didn’t encounter him. I probably would have enjoyed it anyway, but I think it was his hospitality that made the stay even more memorable.

 

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