It was a cold afternoon in Paris when I first glimpsed architect I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid. His stark glass triangle rose over the historical plaza between ornate stone buildings. It was odd, beautiful and beckoned me forward, to enter and descend below the grand plaza. The greatest gift of all was stepping into a broad gallery flooded from natural light shining in from above. From then on I knew that encountering Pei’s work anywhere would be wonderful but finding it on a remote mountainside on an off the beaten path Kyoto excursion was magical.
The oddest part of the encounter is that the Pei-designed, Miho Museum opened in 1997 but few Western visitors have it on their Japan Itinerary. I would’ve missed it entirely if not for my travel buddy who organized the visit. This is truly off the beaten path Kyoto and almost a full day trip from the center of the city. However, if you love architecture, entering a spiritually significant forest, escaping crowds and the usual touristy spots, it’s well worth it.
It takes a bit of doing to get there. We left our Ryokan not far from the Gion neighborhood and walked to a short breakfast with tall coffees in the Kyoto Train Station. The JR Tokaido Line took us to Ishiyama station and outside we queued up for the Teaisan bus #150 to the museum. All the signs were in English as well as Japanese, which made navigation easy. We rode comfortably for a 50-minute ride from the city, across plains and into the hills.
Out of Kyoto and Into the Mountains
As the bus wound slowly along there was time to admire the scenery. Soon we pulled into a parking lot in front of a low building. This isn’t the museum but a reception area where you can grab a snack, visit a gift shop or sit down to a formal lunch (Check the museum schedule for days and hours for the restaurant during Covid times.) Outside there was a tram spot. The ride is complementary with admission.
Even though a light rain was falling, we chose to walk through the tunnel to the museum proper. Borrowing museum umbrellas, we trekked up a cherry tree lined lane towards a huge circular opening in the mountainside. Inside was a tunnel unlike anything I’ve encountered before. The curving walls glowed a warm silver and the exit only revealed itself as we drew around a slight bend.
The effect was profound. There were few people walking so we could be quiet, watchful, and go at our own pace. The stroll became a walking meditation. If anyone spoke it was in whispers. Even the small trams slipped quietly by powered by their electric motors.
The museum reveal was inspired by the other-worldly utopia described in the Taohua Yuan Ji poem (The Peach Blossom Spring), an ancient Chinese work written by Tao Yuanming. The tale follows a fisherman drawn into a grotto by the scent of blossoming peach trees. As he emerges, he finds an idyllic village of happy inhabitants who welcome him into their homes. The Shangri-La symbolism touched architect Pei as he strove to realize the museum founder, Mihoko Koyama’s vision of a space that would promote beauty, peace and joy through art. The museum is also home to her collection of Japanese art, along with pieces from Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, Western and Southern Asia. The main exhibit changes every year or so, and special exhibits change every few months.
Inspiring Founder, Mihoko Koyama
While Pei gets most of the attention for his famous aesthetics, it’s more amazing to me that this building wouldn’t exist but for the accomplishments and drive of two women, Mihoko Koyama and her daughter, Hiroko Koyama. Mihoko (The museum’s name is drawn from hers,) was born in 1910 to a wealthy family in the textile business. The household was deeply involved in Japanese seasonal events and customs. Perhaps this is where her reverence for nature was first developed.
Mihoko was drawn to the arts and went to the Jiyu Gakuen Girl’s School in Tokyo where she learned of Christian ideals centered on service to humanity, the importance of life-long learning, and independence combined with collaboration. A spiritual teacher, Mokichi Okada, entered her life later. The realm of art, he believed, was the true nature of civilization. His influence led Mihoko to devote herself to a life of faith and eventually she founded the spiritual organization, Shinji Shumeikai. The religion focuses on nature, art, and natural food cultivation.
Savor Off the Beaten Path Kyoto
As I stood in the main hall and looked out across the forest preserve, I noticed an immense white building, whose fluted and flat tower rose above the forest preserve. No other sign of civilization was visible. This is the home of Shumeikai temple whose followers come from around the world to immerse themselves in the sacred space. The rest of us can admire this embodiment of off the beaten path Japan from afar.
Here’s a short video about this off the beaten path Kyoto treasure:
Turning back to the museum halls I began walking slowly from one wing to the other. The art collections are minimal, only 250 pieces are displayed at a time. The choice is in keeping again with the intent to create a contemplative space. I strolled through a pottery showcase, pausing to admire petite Sake pitchers then stopped to notice how an immense Egyptian statue was illuminated by natural light filtering in from a skylight above. A walkway wound around a formal rock garden open to the elements. Room after room opened to new delights.
Before leaving I sat for tea in the café feeling a hushed and deep relaxation. It was time to walk back through the tunnel to meet the bus and journey back into the modern buzz of Kyoto. Read more about off the beaten path Kyoto in this post.
- Reservations are required at this time. Book your tickets before leaving home.
- The hours are 10 am to 5 pm
- Closed Mondays and exhibit changes. Check the schedule when planning to visit.
Getting to the Miho Museum:
- Kyoto Station JR Tokaido Line (local, rapid or special rapid service) to Ishiyama Station. Then follow signs to the Teisan bus #150. The bus leaves from lane #3 and signage is in Japanese and English.
- Taxi from Ishiyama, Seta and Miai Kusatsu JR Stations for a 30 – 40 minute ride.
- Taxi from Shigaraki Kogen Railway Station takes about 20 minutes.
- The drive by car is about 1 hour from central Kyoto.
- Free parking is available at the museum.