The art of a great garden

In Atami there are ponds, flowers, paintings . . . and there's a lot of sex

by Adrian Bennett

Give yourself a treat: Follow in the footsteps of famous writers and artists such as the painter Yokoyama Taikan and the writers Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata (author of “The Izu Dancer”). To do so, just hop on a train to the old seaside resort of Atami on the Izu Peninsula just south of Tokyo.

There are a number of attractions to this small town of 40,000. You might want to stay a few nights at a traditional inn and enjoy the natural hot springs, brought to you by eons-old volcanic formations. But two places of particular interest are the garden and buildings of Kiunkaku, and the MOA Museum of Art.

Kiunkaku was built in 1919 as a bessou (country villa) by shipping magnate Shinya Uchida, who later sold it to Kaichiro Nezu, owner of railroads and benefactor of the Nezu Institute of Fine Arts in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. Between the two of them, they produced a fine garden enclosed on four sides by an eclectic set of buildings that hark back to the Edo Period (1603-1867), with accents of Western-style buildings that reflect the tastes of the wealthy in an earlier era. In 1947, the property was converted into a ryokan (Japanese inn). Since 2000 it has been maintained as a cultural asset by the city of Atami and is open to the public.

You enter Kiunkaku through a beautiful, tile-roofed wooden gate flanked by tall trees, reminiscent of some temple gates, which gives a hint of the grandeur you will find within. Just walking through this gate you might easily shed your worldly cares.

The first room visitors see takes them back to the early Edo Period. This is a two-story reception hall in the traditional sukiya style of architecture, whose hallmarks are intimacy and restraint, conveyed by tatami mats, unpainted wood, a tokonoma (alcove), often used to display a hanging scroll and vase of flowers, and openness to the outside. Here, a wall of windows allows a broad view of the garden.

The nice thing about Kiunkaku is that you can enjoy its garden in two ways.

First, step outside. Impressions modulate as you stroll along. Follow the meandering paths down through the lawn and stop by the intriguing rock-lined stream that meanders across halfway down and then widens into a series of small ponds. Azaleas and irises line the stream. A red pine leans gracefully over the path. Koi carp swim lazily about. Follow the path beside the ponds into the protective shelter of the pines thickly planted at the lower end. Circle back up the other side and suddenly encounter a huge, strikingly beautiful rock — half-hidden in the trees. A subtle accent strategically placed.

Then back indoors, walk through the connecting rooms, which provide a series of ever-changing perspectives through tall windows, not unlike viewing a series of slides on a screen.

And the rooms themselves hold their own fascinations. One large room in the Tudor style of Shakespeare’s England has a huge stone fireplace and exposed wooden beams set into white plaster walls. An adjacent room features exquisite paneling of wood inlay in the ceiling and upper walls, and a wood parquet floor — something you might expect to find at, say, Versailles. In another room, the floor is a mosaic of blue and white tiles and the ceiling consists of translucent glass panels with a double border of pink and blue flower patterns, in the Art Deco style of the 1930s.

You can sit in many of these rooms on period furniture and enjoy the garden view, as well as the undoubtedly expensive craftsmanship of the rooms themselves. The luxurious tiled bathroom, with its tall, cathedral-like, semitransparent windows and its bath lined with gold tiles, can only be looked at these days. But what luxury guests must have felt relaxing in that bath!

I always hate to leave Kiunkaku, but on my visit last June, my young artist friend Rie Honma wanted to introduce me to the MOA Museum of Art, which I had not known about. The museum is situated high up in the hills, and was founded by Okada Mokichi (1882-1955), who testified that art must be “true, good and beautiful.”

The Museum opened in 1982, and houses a collection of paintings, calligraphy and ceramics from the Nara Period (710-794) to the 20th century, including a Matisse room. Many of these are Important Cultural Properties. One beautiful pair of folding screens by Ogata Korin (1658-1715) is a National Treasure. Placed together, the screens depict a dark river with gold swirling currents, set in a background of gold and flanked by two plum trees. Unfortunately, in order to preserve the delicate painting and restrict its exposure to light, it is only on view in February. If you happen to miss it, you can purchase a small reproduction at the museum shop.

The museum sponsors events throughout the year, including flower arranging, tea ceremony, Noh performances and an annual International Children’s Art Exhibition.

In addition to the artworks in the galleries, the parklike grounds outside are enticingly lovely. Stone paths take you through moss-covered grounds studded with tall trees. There are two teahouses with tea gardens, as well as the Korin Residence, built from plans drawn up by Korin himself. These buildings offer a nice look at both sukiya style and one of its architectural predecessors, the rather more grand shoin style.

The tea gardens make a nice contrast to Kiunkaku’s garden, being considerably more modest and restrained. But this is just what you expect from a tea garden, which is intended to function as a place of contemplation as you make a transition from the busy outside world to the quiet interior of the teahouse.

The main lobby has floor-to-ceiling windows giving a sweeping view of the harbor far below. The Momoyama restaurant offers both Western and Japanese fare, including beer and sake.

You could easily spend a whole day at either MOA or Kiunkaku. We could give only half a day to each. I plan to return.

If you get tired of great art and beautiful gardens and architecture, and long for a bit of kitsch, Atami offers that too. There is the Hihokan (a sex museum) and a faux 16th-century castle actually built in 1959. Both are lodged high in the hills and can be reached by cable car. Well, the cable car ride sounds like fun, anyway. Good luck!

It takes about one hour from Tokyo Station to Atami Station depending on the type of train. Expect to pay between ¥2,000 and ¥4,000 for a ticket. In Atami, the Yu-Yu Bus starts from Atami Station and travels around Atami’s tourist attractions. Tickets (adult: ¥800). Kiunkaku: www.city.atami.shizuoka.jp.; tel: (0557) 86-3101. Admission: adults, ¥500, high-school students, ¥300. Open 9:30 a.m. to 16:30 p.m. Closed Thursdays unless Thursday is a national holiday. Closed Jan. 6-12 and Dec. 25-31. MOA Museum of Art: www.moaart.or.jp www.moaart.or.jp/english/info/info2.html;Open 9:30 a.m. to 16:30 p.m.; closed Thursdays, except national holidays. Admission: adults, ¥1,600; high-school and college students, ¥800; Children under junior-high-school age, free.