Seeking Shangri-la

Telling tales ... the Miho Museum's design is inspired by a Chinese story.
Telling tales ... the Miho Museum's design is inspired by a Chinese story. 

Tony Begbie takes in an architectural and cultural spectacle set in dense forest near Kyoto.

The ancient city of Kyoto is one of historic distractions - golden temples, landscaped gardens, koi-filled lakes and white-faced geisha. A short journey away, in remote, heavily wooded mountains, is a more contemporary distraction that is not to be missed.

The Miho Museum is an architectural and cultural masterpiece that straddles a mountain top just a few kilometres away. Designed by the Chinese-born American architect I.M. Pei, now aged 92, the building is as much a star exhibit as the exquisite pieces it contains.

The museum is nestled in the Shigaraki Mountains, north of Kyoto, and opened to the public in November 1997. It was founded by the late Mihoko Koyama (after whom it is named) to house her family's collection of art treasures. She belonged to the religious group Shinji Shumeikai, which believes ''art and beauty have the power to nourish and refine the soul''.

Pei, architect of the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, faced the challenge of the local authority's insistence that the mountain environment be protected in the design and during construction.

In devising his solution to such complex problems, Pei turned to his Chinese roots. He recalled an old Chinese tale, Peach Blossom Spring by Tao Yuan Ming, about a fisherman who loses his way and discovers a grove of blossoming peach trees. At the end of the grove, he finds a small cave at the foot of a mountain. Inside the cave, he follows a narrow pathway towards the light and finally stumbles out into a peaceful Shangri-la. Thanks to Pei's inspiration, that is what visitors experience on their arrival at the Miho Museum.

You don't see it at first. You walk, as the fisherman did, through an avenue of peach trees and into the mouth of a tunnel lined with shining stainless steel. At the end of the tunnel, you cross an elegant 120-metre bridge cantilevered over a heavily wooded ravine, then walk past a paved piazza to a sweeping flight of stairs into the museum. There it is, a glass-and-steel vision based on classic Japanese design. Shangri-la indeed.

Eighty per cent of the museum's 45,000-square-metre space lies underground, preserving the magnificent natural setting. When construction was complete, the earth was replaced on top and replanted with carefully selected native vegetation. There is no feeling of being underground, however. Luminous, open spaces surround you. Pure mountain light washes walls of beige French limestone. Innovative stainless-steel framing on large sloping glass skylights casts geometric shadows on the walls and floor.

Panoramic views to surrounding mountains are artfully framed by Akamatsu pines. The structure, with its two levels and two separate 1000-square-metre exhibition wings, embodies the disciplines that were called for in its design; the museum had to stand in nature and at the same time be a part of it.

Mihoko's extraordinary art collection is here; more than 2000 pieces worth close to $1 billion. It includes a fresco from Pompeii; Egyptian treasures, including a statue of Nakht crafted from acacia wood, with eyes and nipples in inlaid ebony; a rare and surprisingly slimmed-down Buddha from Pakistan; and rare pieces from China, Japan, Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. In truth, however, the museum - this mountaintop Shangri-la - is the most splendid exhibit of all.

There's a cafe here, where you can sit under massive bamboo plantings, look out to the mountains and sip plum juice. There's a souvenir shop selling high-quality memorabilia and fine books. And there's a video room where you can watch the project come to life.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

From Kyoto, take a train to Ishyama (15 minutes), then a bus to the Miho Museum (50 minutes). Open 10am-5pm Tue-Sun, mid-March to early June, July 20 to mid-August and September to mid-December. Admission is ¥1000 ($13) for adults. See miho.jp and visitjapan.jp.

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