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Book review: The Art Lover's Guide to Japanese Museums, by Sophie Richard

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 12:35pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 April, 2014, 6:52pm

The Art Lover's Guide to Japanese Museums
by Sophie Richard
Japan Society
4 stars

Julian Ryall

Japan has some of the world's most fabulously stocked museums, many dating from the heady days of the nation's postwar economic miracle, when powerful companies and wealthy philanthropists wanted to share the works of international artists with the Japanese public.

Those days may be over for many of Japan's companies, but the art remains to be enjoyed. And it is more than complemented by works by world-famous Japanese artists.

For the foreign visitor, the twin hurdles of the language barrier and simply not knowing that some of the gems exist has long been a problem. But that is far less of a concern with the release of The Art Lover's Guide to Japanese Museums, by London-based art historian Sophie Richard.

Of the more than 5,600 museums that dot the country - including such unique institutions as those dedicated to noodles, handbags, Santa Claus, manga and even "sewage science" - one-fifth focuses on art and Richard has selected 50 of her favourites. While the over-arching theme of the book is art, she has stretched that definition to include museums dedicated to photography, traditional costumes, objects used in the tea ceremony, and even a garden that houses a number of buildings designated as important cultural properties.

Cleverly designed and laid out, the book - which is divided into five geographical regions - has a section that explains the basics of getting the most out of Japanese art, whether it be scrolls of calligraphy, sculptures of religious subjects, fans, ukiyo-e woodblock prints, folk craft or the modern art movement of artists such as Yayoi Kusama.

Details such as opening hours, access and website address are provided for each institution, as well as high-resolution images of some of the most eye-catching exhibits - although Richard warns that Japanese museums frequently rotate their collections in order to display their extensive inventories and to protect delicate and ageing items.

Richard has also wisely chosen not to provide copious amounts of information on museums that might be considered the largest and most influential, primarily because details in English on those institutions are already widely available.

That permits her to focus on the lesser-known gems, such as the Kyu Asakura House, the home of a politician that survived the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake and the firebombing of Tokyo during the war, and is today an oasis of traditional design and greenery in one of the hippest parts of the city.

Clematis no Oka, in Shizuoka Prefecture, is another must-see, along with Kyoto's Raku Museum, dedicated to the tea bowls crafted by the same family for 15 generations.

Sankeien Garden, in the suburbs of Yokohama, is the former estate of a wealthy silk merchant: the 175,000-square-metre gardens are dotted with 17 buildings designated as important cultural assets, ranging from a 15th-century pagoda to a thatched tearoom dating from 1917.