The glass panel separating the Enoura Observatory’s gallery from Sagami Bay erupts in an orange glow. It’s the summer solstice and the sun rises in perfect alignment with the long, narrow gallery designed by Japanese contemporary artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. The fiery spectacle, a cornerstone of this extraordinary project which intertwines art and nature, illuminates Sugimoto’s famous black-and-white seascapes photography series, which lines the wall and leads you to the edge of the water.
Opened in 2017, the expansive facility, nestled in the Enoura district of Odawara along the outermost edge of the Hakone Mountains in Kanagawa Prefecture, is home to many of Sugimoto’s works and is managed by the Odawara Art Foundation, which he established in 2009.
As we stand alongside a long wooden table supported by a massive stone, Odawara Art Foundation Director Haruko Hoyle starts our tour by explaining how the observatory has grown. The striking table was designed by Sugimoto using 1,000-year-old cedar saved from Yakushima, a small island south of Kyushu, in Kagoshima Prefecture, whose ancient forest was designated a World Heritage Site in 1993. The stone was once a washbasin at a temple on Mount Koya and has been crafted into a leg for the table. The design reflects the mission of Sugimoto’s New Material Research Laboratory, which the artist set up in 2008 with architect Tomoyuki Sakakida, to preserve traditional methods of craftsmanship as well as traditional materials.
Stones play a major part in the Enoura Observatory concept. Sugimoto, who has made New York City his home since 1974, was in Japan during the pandemic and could not get back to New York for three years, Hoyle explains. “So, he kept buying more stones and developing this site.” The result is inspiring. A variety of stones from around Japan, each with an interesting history and connection to the country’s past, are preserved on 9,500 square meters of a former citrus grove.
Exploring the observatory is a contemplative experience—and that’s by design. “[Sugimoto] didn’t want people to just stay inside, looking at his artwork, so he developed this concept,” Hoyle says. “People can come here, get away from their busy life, and contemplate where they came from, where they are going, and their ideal relationship with nature.”
The architectural alignment that allows the summer solstice spectacle is an example of this intentional reconnection with nature. So is the design of a 70-meter-long tunnel of stone and rusted corten steel which runs underneath the gallery and creates a similar view of the winter solstice. A light well at its center provides a refuge for contemplation. This reflection on how ancient people looked to the sky and built astronomical markers, such as Stonehenge in England, is part of Sugimoto’s philosophy.
Another reflection on Japan’s past, and a reprieve from modern life, can be found in the Uchoten teahouse, the style of which was inspired by that of a national treasure in Kyoto and designed by 16th-century tea master Sen no Rikyu. But Sugimoto gave the small space a local touch.
“As this was an abandoned citrus grove, there was a small storage [shed] which was used for harvesting,” Hoyle explains. “He took the corrugated tin roof off very carefully and placed it on top of the teahouse. Today, when it rains, you hear the ‘ton, ton, ton’ sound of the falling drops, so he named it Uchoten, ‘rain-listen-heaven’.”
The room is aligned with the equinox. “On that morning,” Hoyle says, “we open the door and take the scroll down. The sun shines through the entrance and the alcove becomes pink.”
It’s yet another example of the precision with which Sugimoto has created a loving and visionary tribute not only to nature and art but to nature as art. It’s well worth a trip to Odawara to traverse the tunnel, stroll through the groves, and sense the pulse of history presented in unexpected ways.
An hour from Tokyo, hidden in a forested valley behind Jochi-ji Temple in Kita-Kamakura, is a quaint little tea house that time forgot.
Built in 1934 by journalist Tai Sekiguchi, Houan is home to three tea rooms—one an eight-tatami space that accommodates eight to 10 people and a smaller room of four mats which looks out onto the garden behind the house.
Houan was designed by Bunzo Yamaguchi, one of the leaders of Japan’s modernist architectural movement, and is an example of the sukiya style of Japanese architecture, which dates back to the Momoyama Period (1573–1600). Based on a natural aesthetic and rustic simplicity, sukiya is intended to exist in harmony with the surroundings; and Houan certainly does.
But as Yukiyo Matsuzaki, planner at Kyoto-based travel experience company Mitate, Ltd. and founder of Kamakura Mind explains, “Yamaguchi studied modernist architecture in Germany, so Houan is a fusion of traditional Japanese and modernist styles which creates a unique tea house.”
We explore the house on arrival with Matsuzaki and Southi Yokoyama, a professor of the Omotesenke school of tea ceremony. Yokoyama shares about the connection green tea has to the area, and some of its roles in Japanese history.
“Kamakura had a lot of Zen temples and many people practiced Zen meditation, so they used green tea as a sort of stimulate to keep awake during meditation,” she explains. And on a fiercer note, she adds, green tea was a favorite of samurai warriors before going into battle.
We turn our attention to the main space and the tokonoma, the alcove commonly found in Japanese-style rooms, or washitsu. In the space is a kakejiku (hanging scroll) with calligraphy showing Zen words appropriate for the season, and alongside an ikebana flower arrangement. In recognition of the sacred nature of the tearoom, we bow to each and carefully read the inscription.
As we prepare to take part in the tea ceremony, we learn the proper way to wash our hands in the tsukubai (washbasin) outside before entering the tea house.
Hands cleansed, we take our positions, kneeling on the tatami, and Yokoyama explains each step of the ceremony. (Don’t worry, if kneeling for an extended period isn’t your style, Houan can provide chairs.)
Having watched the master prepare the tea, it’s now time to learn the proper way to drink and to show appreciation, as well as to savor the delectable wagashi (Japanese sweet) which accompanies the tea to take away the bitterness. I’ve eaten more wagashi than I can count in my many years in Japan, but this morsel, crafted by local artisan Kuu, is easily one of the most delicious I’ve ever tasted, with a splash of citrus that is eye opening.
When the time comes to drink, admiring the beauty of the bowl is a key part of the experience. I take a close look at the playful yet restrained craftsmanship as I gently rotate the cup in my hands. Finally, I sip the tea and gently slice the wagashi in half. Savoring these flavors through the silent steps of this centuries-old tradition is a momentary escape into tranquility.
A mix of historical perspective and cultural immersion, our hour-long visit to Houan made for a particularly peaceful and memorable morning in this beautiful city that served as Japan’s capital for almost 150 years.
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