MATSUE, Shimane Pref. – Known for its old-world charms as a castle town during the Edo Period, Matsue would seem an unlikely host for a Tiffany art museum, but it pulls this off with an Asian flair that leaves its simplicity unspoiled.
The Louis C. Tiffany Garden Museum seems to open its gateway to the marvels of nature with its boardwalk overlooking the northern bank of the city’s famous landmark, Lake Shinji, capturing the beauty of the prefectural capital’s idyllic calm and lush foliage.
“I suppose it is the innate quietness of the city that fits perfectly with the museum’s ambience and core theme, which is harmony with nature and art,” said Yasumichi Hanagata, a special tourism planner for Matsue, in describing his city, otherwise known as the “Water City.”
The idea of hosting a Tiffany museum was broached by the city in 1997 as it was planning to create a leisure and recreation complex, which would later be known as Matsue Water Village.
At the time, the museum existed as a “temporary” facility in Nagoya since it opened there in 1994. But due to space constraints, museum head and collector Takeo Horiuchi scouted other sites to house what is perhaps one of the world’s “most extensive collections” of the works of reputed U.S. artist and glassmaker Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), said Horiuchi’s son, Takashi.
A regular exhibition of Tiffany works on such a large scale is rare, added Takashi Horiuchi, who is also manager of planning and development at Greco Corp., which oversees the museum.
Had Tiffany lived on 79 more years, he could have seen his legacy of the Favrile glass technique unravel its own magic — separate and unique from the acclaim accorded his father, Charles Tiffany, who made history as founder of one of the world’s most famous lines of jewelry, Tiffany and Co.
The museum contains a leading collection of art nouveau pieces and is home to about 200 Tiffany works, including the highly valued Helen Gould Landscape Window, commonly known as the Deer Window, and the Cobweb Table Lamp. Visitors are treated to the wonders of Tiffany’s artwork, ranging from furniture and vases to jewelry and mosaics.
Tiffany in Matsue is a mismatch, some may protest, but in fact it just takes a trained eye to make sense of it. Tiffany never visited Japan, but he was an avowed collector and lover of things Japanese, and his appreciation for Japan is evident in his artwork.
There is also good reason for the museum to be called a garden museum. With both indoor and outdoor versions, a traditional English-style garden facing Lake Shinji is a work in progress, with new plants being introduced to the delight of frequent visitors.
“My aspiration is to make this the best English garden in Japan,” said head gardener Keith Gott. To accomplish this authenticity, he explained, it is crucial to import plants and garden materials directly from England.
“I think for the past 12 months, the English garden has done remarkably well,” Gott said, adding that Japan’s influence has made the garden more natural, peaceful and harmonious.
The museum has seen more than 300,000 visitors since it opened on April 28, 2001. As it marks its first anniversary soon with a musical soiree, Horiuchi has high hopes the numbers will swell further.
Another public-private venture in the city not far from the museum is Matsue Vogel Park, a bird and flower park, which opened last July.
It is a breathtaking showcase of about 8,000 flowers, such as begonia and fuchsia, and up to 3,000 birds, including pelicans and owls. The park’s sole misfortune was an outbreak of parrot disease in some of its feathered guests, which received media attention recently.
The bird facility, which had been the park’s top attraction, has been shut temporarily but is expected to reopen in time for the upcoming Golden Week holidays.
If that is not enough reason to check out Matsue, visitors can also take a tour of the Shiomi-nawate district, dotted with old samurai residences, as well as a memorial museum and the former home of Matsue’s well-loved visitor and key historical figure, Greece-born writer and educator Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), who is credited with helping to introduce Japan to the Western world through his literature.
Known in Japan as Koizumi Yakumo, Hearn wrote of his love and passion for Japan, particularly his 15-month stay in Matsue, where he came as an English teacher and later wedded a high-ranking samurai’s daughter. His best-known book, “Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan,” published in 1894, captures much of Matsue life.
Facing these residences is the Hori River, through which old-fashioned boat rides pass, offering the thrill of ducking down as the boat’s top is lowered for each low bridge.
On colder days, passengers can be seen huddled under a “kotatsu” Japanese-style fireplace with a coverlet set up on board, as the boat tours the moat around the castle, a replica of the circa 1611 Edo Period fortress.
Matsue is a designated international tourist city and city government statistics put the number of foreign tourists who visited in 1999 at 42,867. The previous year attracted 37,933 and the year before that 25,404. A great many come between April and September, Hanagata said.
Just last year, Matsue opened the Matsue International Tourist Information Office at JR Matsue Station, with three English-speaking staff members, a wide selection of hotel guides and tourist pamphlets in English, Chinese, Korean and French.
Add to that the treat of going out to the middle of Lake Shinji for a sunset view behind the city’s mythic island of Yomegashima, and the joy of relishing the local delicacies, such as “izumo soba” buckwheat noodles and “shijimi” clams, and it does not take long to see why Hearn was smitten with Matsue.
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