Adachi Museum of Art: a psycho-emotional journey

Arriving in Japan // Back to Awaji-shima // Kiseki no Hoshi // Trip to Shimane Prefecture // Adachi Museum of Art // Yuushien Garden // Izumo Taisha // Train to Kyoto

Blimey, I feel like I’ve done a lot of things in the last few days. Although, I think it does feel like that when you don’t sleep for 36 hours and then travel around a country, covering over 700km after getting off the plane. You know me: got to make the most of everything.

After a mildly annoying journey- in which multiple things were late and my bag got lost but I did watch three films- I arrived in Japan spaced out and EXCITED. I was surprised to find how comfortable I felt and, even though many things are still alien and confusing, how at home I am here. Kobe Sannomiya bus station particularly feels like home! Which probably isn’t really a very good thing.

I went straight back to Awajiyumebatai and to Kiseki no Hoshi- also strange because it felt distinctly like I’d only left five minutes ago. I met up with Tomoko-san, Tomoya-san and some other staff members, had a good long look around the garden (still crazy & amazing- see instagram for some pics) and then went out for sushi with Tomoko-san and the current British TRIAD Fellows, Josh and Ed. They do NOT love sushi! Which is a shame because Awaji has really fresh fish and we had the most beautiful sea urchin // uni // うに. OK, it does look minging but mmmm. Josh, Ed: I’m very sorry for mocking you both in your time of nausea.

Saturday morning Josh drove the four of us (thank you Josh!) to Shimane Prefecture, to Adachi Museum of Art. We also visited an excellent garden called Yuushien and a very important shrine called Izumo Taisha (some pics on my instagram and the jgs instagram). The latter was particularly amazing because we got there really late- it was dusk, hardly anyone was around and all you could hear were the cicadas and the mysterious music of a monk playing a bamboo flute. After that we ate a LOT of food and I drank a whole TWO beers and a weird impression of a mojito, which is a lot for a jet-lagged me, so I slept well last night. Today I ate all sorts of interesting traditional Japanese things for breakfast before taking the train to Kyoto- ready to start the programme tomorrow morning! Oh further on the food front: I have eaten a lovely range of manju // 饅頭 // Japanese sweets already 🙂

Anyway, to the point: I really want to talk about Adachi Museum of Art, which I have been desperate to visit for several years. It is a private art museum housing a random collection of art and artefacts from the Edo period to now.  However, I don’t think anybody goes there to see the art- only to see the garden, which has been listed as Japan’s no.1 garden every year for the last 14 years by an American journal called Sukiya Living. I’m not sure why they feel the need to rank things, but whatevs- it’s a famous garden. One of the key things to know about it is that you can’t go into it. You can only look at it from a distance, and mostly from behind glass. The idea is that it is a living painting or scroll, presenting the real life version of the depictions in the art museum: what a fabulous idea! I love the concept of forcing people to confront the fact that gardens are artworks by siting one as an exhibit in an art gallery. So I was really keen to visit: to see if it is as beautiful as the photos look, if it feels any different seeing it in real life compared to a photo (since you have to look at it through glass anyway), and if it is affective as ‘living art.’

And I had a super weird experience.

A Satre-style, brain twisting, psychological torrent kind of experience.

So I’m going to try to describe the garden through the prism of my leaking, over-stimulated brain and maybe I’ll then be able to work out what I think in the process. But probably don’t read on if you’re going to visit the garden, since *this contains spoilers.*

We arrived at the museum, paid our tickets and passed through the barriers, down some stairs to an unassuming corridor. I was desperate for a wee so I was hot-footing in the direction I’d been pointed to the toilets when I realised that this unassuming corridor down those institutional stairs was actually the first view of the garden. And wow. First impression is of something shockingly green and clean and perfect, neatly framed through the window and contrasted by the modern, ordinary inside. But I needed the loo, so it had to wait! On my return to the corridor I took some pictures of the garden, had look at the different views. And then I was pretty quickly ready to move on, I didn’t feel that interested. Wait- what?! We’d driven 3.5 hours to get here and I’d been planning on visiting for years so I should bloody well stay and look at it. Why was I bored? The garden is beautiful! Herein begins the brain crisis: I realised how much my experience of visiting and viewing gardens (and probably everything else) is now focused around the act of photography to the extent that I have allowed the taking of a photograph to become the end purpose of my experience, rather than the actual act of looking. How frustrating and horrible and disappointing! I hate people like that! I am like that!

Why did I realise what I have become right then and there? Maybe because there were a lot of people around me taking photos too, but I think because this garden really facilitates that kind of shallow experience. The literal framing of the garden through windows forces you to engage with it as a 2-D object. As a photograph. Which is boring. So you just take a photo and move along.

An unassuming corridor and a beautiful garden trapped behind glass. Or are we trapped? Does the garden really exist? Is this all a dream?

But I stayed a little longer, and now that I was examining the garden, mostly thinking: “this is genius!”. It is genius. The design is genius. The garden has been constructed so that there are hidden views everywhere. At the start of my journey in the corridor, I was right next to a waterfall and bridge and a whole load of things I couldn’t see until I walked around to the next viewing point. I think that this kind of set-view construction, with constant hide-and-reveal is just bloody genius. And the garden is beautiful. But I started to get kind of angry in that corridor, because I could see so many tempting things (paths leading you off to a building, a bridge over the gravel, stepping stones) in the distant vistas of the garden, and I knew I couldn’t get anywhere near them. What cruel teasing! Plus, I was feeling pretty disappointed in myself for having become such a modern only-consuming-no-thinking robot brain. So, time to move along.

I passed through a corridor of stunning objects, all also stuck behind glass. I walked through here pretty quickly and disinterestedly, until I forced myself to slow down again, to look at some exquisite writing boxes and furniture. At this point I realised the (frankly pretty obvious) fact that glass separating people from precious objects has more of an effect than just keeping the objects preserved. It somehow makes me unable to connect with them or understand that they are amazing and full of history and the wondrous skill of humanity. If you put it on a table in front of me, then I think I would feel the majesty of it. That’s weird. Why is my brain so affected by glass? Am I crazy?!

Japanese museum curation is very old fashioned. Objects behind glass are automatically boring.  The NT is right. Sigh.

At the end of the corridor is- gloriously- a door to the outside! I was shocked by what a sweet relief it was to get outside, and how much I was altered by being in the same air as the garden. This really confirmed my initial experience in the corridor. The glass prevents all of the precious interactions with the garden: no sound, no scent, no breeze, no warmth from the sun. From those windows, it could just be a really good digital image. Suddenly, I wasn’t so cross anymore, and I liked the garden a lot more. I moved along the path, past a pathway to a tea house, some gorgeous rock work, a lovely waterfall and back around to the patch I had been looking at before. I noticed that that the building is designed well enough so that the viewing windows where I had been standing before weren’t too obtrusive, and that I was now, from only a short distance from my original point, seeing a completely different view. The garden is very successful in creating multiple totally separate ‘paintings,’ as was intended.

Path to the Tea House. This viewing window has no glass. Marvellous. 
Stone and stand at the water’s edge










At this point I started to wonder if the glass viewing windows and the No Entry to the garden policy was actually a trick. The garden is so immaculately maintained and so intricately designed, they must have known what they were doing, right? Perhaps, I thought, the experience of being forced to experience a garden from behind glass in a hermetically sealed box is, itself, a piece of art. Perhaps this whole thing is a performance art piece, wherein the garden functions as an intervention- by continually contrasting a deliberately sanitised presentation of the garden with a true, natural interaction, it forces us to examine out sanitised modern experience of the natural world. Maybe, but… I don’t think so.

I moved back inside to the main viewing room- where there is a huge three sided window opening onto the garden. I was now very determined not to take a picture until I’d spent a decent amount of time looking at the damn thing first (this is my new resolution). This view point is the one in all the famous photos of the garden, and yet again I thought- this is genius. Look at this:

Apologies for the weird colouring: this photo was taken through the glass

This bit of the garden is only made of five things: pines, azaleas, rocks, grass, sand. So simple, and yet- such wonderful textures and contrast and form and use of perspective. You can really see here how the garden (which is tiny and surrounded by houses and farmland and a road) melds with the mountain landscape so it feels massive. But despite the genius, I felt despondent and disconnected. The garden is immaculate. Astonishingly immaculate. It is also framed beautifully by the windows. Overall, the design and execution are very successful. However, standing for ten minutes in this room really started to make me question the success of this project.

I could really feel the lack of human presence upon viewing the garden- it felt so sterile and alien to me, regardless of how beautiful it is. All gardens have a purpose and this garden is designed to be a piece of visual art. However, in many sections, it is deliberately designed to look like a garden that people walk through. There are bridges and buildings, paths leading off into the distance. There lies the first issue: you know that no one ever has or will walk along those paths (except the gardeners) and they probably lead to nowhere. Obviously the emptiness and trickery are necessary to create the scene. If it’s supposed to look exactly like a traditional scroll painting or equivalent, you can’t have lines of tourists traipsing through: there were no plastic umbrellas or sunglasses in the Edo Period! But those paintings are representations of real places where people really did go and this is not a reproduction of anything, as far as I’m aware. So it feels a little hollow.

I think that this wouldn’t be a problem so much, if it wasn’t for the glass. The main viewing room looks like this:

Main garden viewing room

Gardens are a different form of art to painting or sculpture, one which all senses are required to experience, including time. Unfortunately, in this situation all but one of your senses is irrelevant. So why have the glass? There’s no art in this room- there’s actually nothing in it except people and benches. Even though we can’t walk in it, I think that breathing the same air as the garden and feeling the same breeze on your cheek that is rustling the pine needles over there would make all the difference. Without even that small amount of human-nature interaction, your experience of the garden is rendered fake and it becomes a pastiche of traditional art, instead of a living version of it. After all, how can you have the sense of a living version of a precious painting, if the living version is just as boxed up as the painting? In fact, the effect is of reducing the garden [*controversy alert!*] to lesser forms of art- like painting or sculpture- which only stimulate one or two senses at most, and are static objects.

But, I also don’t know whether that removing the glass would make it so obvious that the garden has been created to represent a piece of art- or indeed how I would create a garden in such a way as to force people to see it as art. I have some ideas but I’m sure that there are lots of people who have others- and who disagree with my analysis. If so, I’d love to hear!


I continued around the garden route, alternating between being impressed, amazed and in love, to kind of disappointed or confused. Particularly when I walked down an outdoor section of corridor which had horrible strip lights sent in a boarded ceiling!  Yuk. Spirit of Place, people! This was a further issue for me: the spaces that you stand in to view the garden are frequently quite… meh. See photos above for what are very ordinary looking rooms. Josh said he thought it felt like an airport departure lounge and I think that just about nails it. You may say I am an overly sensitive aesthete (I am), but I do feel it would improve the impression if the viewing areas were a little more special. But then this may actually be a cultural issue, since almost all of the Japanese museums and galleries I’ve been to (excepting the modern art galleries) have a very old-fashioned airport lounge kind of feel. Perhaps this is a specifically Western problem concerning our tastes.

Oh dear I’ve just read this back and it’s sounds quite dire! If I’ve given you the impression that this garden is sad or unenjoyable- then please let me correct myself. It is amazingly beautiful, I really enjoyed visiting and it is 100% worth travelling a long way to see. Here are a few shots to counter-balance my navel gazing and moaning 😉


There are very few gardens that have made me think as much as this one, so it was worth it for that alone. Although it didn’t move my heart, it is also a fabulous study in design technique and I would really like to go back again to spend more time staring at it, thinking about it- and to see it in other seasons. I think my concluding thoughts, still a little cloudy, are:

  1. I need to put my f*&^ing iPhone down and remember how to look at things properly
  2. If you separate me from outside I get quite cross
  3. Gardens are not like wild nature: they are human spaces by definition. Just as they are initially designed and created by humans, they rely on real human interaction for their spirit, and if you remove people from them you are left with a collection of pleasingly arranged parts.
  4. Let’s think up a way to make people realise that gardens are the highest form of fine art!


P.S. The art in the museum is interesting too!

One thought on “Adachi Museum of Art: a psycho-emotional journey

  1. Reading this brought my visit to the Adache Museum Garden back very strongly, and I agree with you absolutely. What a relief it was to actually get taking the best image became more important…and a sense of frustration. Travelling with my sister, who loves to draw, we settled in the cafe with an elegant pot if tea and our sketchbooks, which somehow made what we were looking at more real. Did you wander down into the village and look at the front garden? They wrre interesting too. That was where we saw a large rustic lantern which we have copied into the Japanese Garden in Harrogate using local rocks.


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