The I.M. Pei-designed Miho Museum (ミホミュージアム) is one of the architectural highlights of the Kansai region, although it’s only open for a few months every year – exact dates vary; check the website for details. Located in a rural, mountainous part of Shiga Prefecture, which is best known for its Shigaraki pottery, the museum provides an unlikely setting for an incredible collection of artworks belonging to Koyama Mihoko and her daughter Hiroko. Koyama is the head of one of Japan’s so-called “new religions”, Shinki Shumeikai, founded in 1970, which has an estimated 300,000 followers worldwide, hundreds of whom live and work here at the museum. The central tenet of Shinki Shumeikai’s philosophy is that spiritual fulfilment lies in art and nature, hence the setting.
From the entrance and restaurant (serving excellent, if pricey, organic vegetarian cuisine), access to the museum proper is on an electric shuttle bus through a tunnel that opens onto a beautiful valley spanned by a 120m-high bridge; alternatively, you can walk – it takes about fifteen minutes on foot. Opposite is a series of tetrahedrons, which is all that can be seen of the museum, as most of it is actually built inside the mountainside due to planning restrictions. Inside, a continually shifting pattern of light and shadow is created by the innovative use of skylights, pyramid-shaped wall lights and ever-so-slightly uneven corridors which look out – through windows fitted with aluminium screens – onto bamboo gardens and tranquil green landscapes.
The museum has two wings. The north wing houses Japanese art, including priceless porcelain, scrolls, screens and Buddhist relics; the south wing has antiquities from the rest of the world, including jewellery, frescoes, textiles and statues produced by a range of civilizations, from ancient Egyptian to classical Chinese. Among the numerous treasures are a three-thousand-year-old silver-and-gold cult figure of a falcon-headed deity from Egypt’s 19th dynasty, a limestone Assyrian relief unearthed in Nimrud and the splendid Sanguszko Carpet from Iran. Each artwork is labelled in English and Japanese and there are explanatory leaflets in some of the galleries, but the overall effect is one of art that is meant to be experienced for its intrinsic beauty rather than its historical or cultural import.
There are tours available to the museum but it is better (and very much cheaper) to get there by yourself. From JR Kyoto Station, take a local train on the JR Biwako line (for Nagahama or Maibara) two stops to JR Ishiyama Station (every 10–15min; 13min; ¥230). Buses (50min; ¥800), run by the Teisan Bus Company, leave for the museum from outside Ishiyama Station’s south exit. On weekdays, buses leave at ten minutes past the hour between 9.10am and 1.10pm. If you miss the last bus, you’ll have to take a taxi, which is quite expensive (¥6000). On Saturdays, Sundays and national holidays, the weekday timetable is supplemented by buses at 9.50am and 2.55pm.