In a November evening in 2012, we attended an architectural lecture at University of Toronto by Ryue Nishizawa (西沢立衛), one of the two principals of the world acclaimed architectural firm SANAA. In that lecture, he talked about several of his projects, including his recent projects (back then), the minimal Louvre Gallery in Lens of France and the sculptural teardrop of Teshima Art Museum (豊島美術館). At about the same time, he also finished an art gallery in Karuizawa, famous for the undulating gallery floor that resembles the natural terrain and the curvilinear glass enclosure of landscaped lightwells. Hiroshi Senju Museum of Karuizawa (軽井沢千住博美術館) was the main reason for our Karuizawa day trip out of Tokyo. Hiroshi Senju (千住博) is a Japanese painting known for his large scale waterfall paintings. He was the first Asian artist to receive a Honorable Mention at the Venice Biennale in 1995. Admiring Hiroshi Senju’s landscape paintings in Ryue Nishizawa’s landscape inspired architecture is like seeing art in a minimalist manmade forest in Karuizawa.
The museum is located out of the tourist area of Karuizawa. After getting off at the nearest bus stop, we walked a bit along a country road to reach the museum. A unique white sign greeted us at the museum forecourt.
Before seeing the white and minimalist main museum building, we passe by another interesting piece of architecture, the panel cladded visitor centre.
From the parking lot, a winding pathway led us to the entrance of the main museum building.
We entered the main exhibition space through the transparent entrance vestibule. From outside, it was impossible to imagine what surprises lie ahead in front of us.
Once inside, we were immediately captivated by the harmonious relationship between art, architecture and nature.
Walking on the gently sloping floor of the museum as if strolling on the pre-existing natural terrain of the site. Even the seating matches the curvilinear forested lightwells inside the exhibition space.
Curvilinear glass enclosure of various sizes create a number of naturalistic lightwells or miniature forests.
Walking between two lightwells felt like wandering through two art installations in a forest.
Other than the paintings by Hiroshi Senju, the lightwells of the building were definitely unique art pieces for me.
Back at the main parking lot, the sleek and dark visitor centre expresses a totally different tone.
While the main museum is all about its nature-inspired interior, the visitor centre contrastingly tells a form-driven design story.
At the foot of Mt. Asama, Honshu’s most active volcano, stands a mountain resort town that first captivated the attention of Westerners in late 19th century. Since then, it grew into a summer resort for many Tokyo residents, including the royal family. In the 1970s, John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent several summers at Karuizawa for retreat. Today, the shinkansen bullet train takes a little over an hour to connect Karuizawa and Tokyo, a rather convenient day trip for visitors who want to take a break from the bustling scenes of the Japanese capital. Visitors come for the natural scenery, the Westernized old town, the interesting galleries, the large shopping outlet right by the railway station, or just a breathe of cool air and peaceful atmosphere to escape the summer heat in urban Tokyo.
Outside the railway station, the tranquil air of the countryside offers a big contrast from the dense and intense urban scene of Tokyo. On the south side stands the large shopping outlet, and the north side rows of pitched roof houses and streets leading into the old town centre. It’s about a half hour walk from the railway station to the town centre.
In the town centre of Karuizawa, one of the busiest restaurant is Kawakamian (川上庵), a delightful restaurant specialized in soba buckwheat noodles.
The dining area of Kawakamian (川上庵) was fully occupied when we were there.
At Kawakamian (川上庵), we ended up getting a table at the outdoor terrace.
Duck meat soba noodles of Kawakamian (川上庵).
Tempura vegetable and shrimp with soba at Kawakamian (川上庵).
There are a few patisserie shops in Karuizawa. Gateau des Clochette (ガトゥ・デ・クロシェット) is a popular one with tourists.
A row of old timber houses at the high street of Karuizawa (旧軽井沢銀座通り) reveals the former European atmosphere of the town.
Cafes, restaurants, patisserie shops and souvenir stores can be found at the pedestrian high street of Karuizawa.
Dairy products from the area is popular among visitors.
This doll house-like timber house is a popular cafe on the high street.
In the new town centre, we passed by a flea market selling all kinds of old household items in a parking lot.
Halfway between the old town and the railway station, the Karuizawa New Art Museum (軽井沢ニューアートミュージアム) offers tourists and the local community a pleasant stop for art exhibitions.
Directly south of the railway station is the large retail outlet frequented by tourists. The environment of the outlet is completely different than the high street of the old town.
A water pond in the middle of the outlet offers a pleasant park setting for shoppers.
Right by the pond is the circular restaurant pavilion. The openness and scale of the outlet made me feel like traveling in North America.
Shinkansen bullet train makes the trip from Tokyo to Karuizawa in a little over an hour.