Asakura Museum of Sculpture – the legacy of a great 20th century artist

Asakura Fumio (1883-1964) is sometimes called the “Rodin of Japan”, a modern, Western-style sculptor whose work is characterized by true-to-life imagery that was ahead of its time in Japan.  Although born and raised in Oita, Kyushu, he came to Tokyo as a young man to study at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts and then settled in Tokyo’s Yanaka district, where he built a home/studio and taught other would-be sculptors.  Shortly after his death, that home/studio, itself a work of art designed by Asakura, was opened to the public as a gallery-museum.  It is a fascinating place to visit.

From the outside, the museum is quite imposing–a 3-story black concrete structure.  There are a couple of his pieces in the courtyard outside the entrance, perhaps to whet the appetite.  Another of his works looks down on visitors from the roof garden.

But when you step inside, it’s another world.  After shedding your shoes and purchasing a ticket (JPY300), you move from the entry-way to the studio, a large room with high ceilings and lots of natural light, enhanced by the yellow “silk floss” wallpaper.  It would be easy to be creative in this space, which now displays a number of Asakura’s works.

You can rent an audio guide in English for JPY200; there are also friendly and helpful English-speaking docents.

Since photos are not permitted inside the museum, here’s the layout of the building from the museum’s brochure, to at least give you some idea.

asakura-sculpture-museum

Moving from room to room, each offers its own visual astonishments.

Like the studio, the library has high ceilings and is lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases with glass doors.  The reception room still contains its original furnishings, as well as a few displays on Asakura’s life.

After leaving the reception room, you move to the “sukiya-style” living areas of the house, also designed by Asakura.  Every room offers views of the courtyard, creating an air of serenity.  The dominant feature of the courtyard is the spring-fed pond, which is enhanced by a small island and a number of boulders.  The boulders were brought from various parts of Japan and are, in a sense, the ultimate example of “naturalistic realism” as a sculpture genre.

Working your way from room to room around the courtyard you eventually come to the piano room, where a video about Asakura and the house (with English subtitles) plays on a loop.  Asakura was a prolific artist and worked right up until his death at the age of 81.  He had two daughters who each became artists in their own right.

The second and third floors of the house feature traditional Japanese rooms and a few small items from Asakura’s collection, as well as some family photographs.  All the rooms face the courtyard and its peaceful aspect.

The sunrise room on the third floor is a particularly notable for its wall coverings of crushed red agate stone and the ceiling panels of cedar.  The walls of the hallway outside the sunrise room are covered with crushed sea shell, the mother-of-pearl of the shells shimmering when they catch the sunlight.

Yet another distinctive feature of the house is the roof garden atop the studio section.  Apparently Asakura kept a vegetable garden here at one time, but now there are trees and shrubs.  And forever views.

Descending from the roof garden, the last stop on the tour is the light and airy orchid room.  Ordinarily this room contains a number of Asakura’s cat sculptures, but on the day I visited, there was a special display of Asakura’s sculptures of the female form.

It seems cats were one of Asakura’s favorite sculpture subjects.  It is said that in his early days, when he couldn’t afford to hire models, he would roam the Yanaka neighborhood sketching its cats and subsequently turning those sketches into lifelike sculptures.  He also had an unfulfilled ambition to produce a show containing 100 cat sculptures.

Just before you enter the orchid room, notice the pig fountain and water trough, handily located just outside the orchid room to facilitate horticultural endeavors.  While cats may have been Asakura’s favorite subject, he produced a number of sculptures of other animals as well.

The final staircase back to the entrance hall features unique bamboo banisters.

The museum is just a 3-4 minute walk from the west exit of JR Nippori station.  Asakura’s grave is in nearby Yanaka Cemetery.

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