asahi beer oyamazaki art villa museum



About a month ago I made my second visit to the Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art, which is an architectural treasure and also a very interesting and very intimate museum.  The museum is located in the Yamazaki area of Kyoto Prefecture at the base of Tennozan Hill, which is famous as the location of the Battle of Yamazaki.  I personally like to imagine the battle as a contest between Hideyoshi and Mitsuhide over an especially rare bottle of The Yamazaki, but unfortunately it had to do with much more mundane matters such as the death of Oda Nobunaga and Hideyoshi’s eventual consolidation of power over all the areas in Japan formerly under Nobunaga’s control.


The main building was designed by Shotaro Kaga as a kind of country retreat in the first part of the 20th century.  The building was built in the style of a British country house (Tudor Gothic, apparently), but incorporates some Japanese and Chinese architectural elements as well.  The building reminds me quite a bit of some of Bernard Maybeck’s Arts and Crafts style buildings in Berkeley, especially the First Church of Christ Scientist.  Though the source of stylistic inspiration might be different for the two buildings, there are still quite a few features that resonate strongly including the use of ceramic tiles for the roofing, the beautiful leaded glass windows, the emphasis on hand-crafted artisanal construction techniques, and Maybeck’s adoption of a wooden roof-post system that looks like it could have come straight out of Japanese temple architecture.

It’s really no surprise that there should be an Arts and Crafts connection, since a large part of the Yamazaki Villa Museum is dedicated to a wonderful collection of Mingei Movement crafts (primarily ceramics).  Most of pieces come from Tamesaburo Yamamoto’s personal collection, and include works by Kanjiro Kawai, Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach, Keisuke Serizawa, Tatsuaki Kuroda, and Shiko Munakata.

Who was Tamesaburo Yamamoto, and what’s his connection to the Yamazaki Villa Museum?  Yamamoto, it turns out, was the first president of Asahi Breweries, Inc., and was a good friend of Shotaro Kaga, who was involved with the founding of the Nikka Whisky distillery.  Kaga eventually gave his shares in Nikka Whisky to Yamamoto (Nikka is now owned by Asahi), so it makes sense that Yamamoto would donate his collection to the museum that was once the summer home of an old friend.  It’s a bit of an irony, of course, that the Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art just happens to be located in the same neighborhood as the Yamazaki whisky distillery, which just happens to be owned by Asahi’s arch rival, Suntory.


This is a view from one of the second-story balconies that overlook the beautiful gardens that surround the Oyamazaki Villa.  This lily pond has a particular resonance because it mirrors the prize possessions of the museum collection — a series of Monet’s Water Lilies paintings.  These paintings (I think there are three of them) are prominently displayed in a contemporary wing of the museum designed by Ando Tadao.  This wing — really a separate building — is called the Underground Jewelry Box and consists of a sunken, round room with no windows that is approached via a set of descending concrete stairs set within a long, thin, hallway-like structure.  As you descend, the concrete walls on either side begin to tower over you and then you enter into the soft, round space of the Jewelery Box.  In addition to the Monet paintings, the collection also contains works by Degas, Renoir, van Gogh, Roualt, Picasso, Modigliani, Miró, Jiacometti, Moore, Noguchi, and more.

On the other side of the main building is Tadao’s Dream Box, a square room (built of concrete, naturally) designed as a display space for special exhibitions.  The Dream box is located at the end of a corridor that originally led to Shotaro Kaga’s orchid conservatory.

veranda view

There is a large verandah on the second floor with a view that looks out across the valley.  On a nice day you can watch trains and cars in the distance, and see the river sparkling as it glides through the valley.  Conveniently, there is also a café located on the second floor so you can get coffee and cakes and relax outside with the view.

a cautionary tale

If you decide to venture out into the area of the verandah that’s not protected by the roof, however, do make sure to watch out for falling bird cakes.

At this point you might be wondering what the interior of the museum looks like.  It’s quite wonderful — all dark wood, beautiful tilework, intricate carvings, lovely leaded glass windows and the like.  Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to take photographs inside the structure itself, so you’ll just have to take it on trust that the interior looks precisely like what the interior of a building like this should look like.

And there are vintage mechanical clocks.  One of the clocks on the second floor is a musical clock that plays something by Mahler (I think I’m remembering that correctly) at set times during the day.  There is an enormous metal plate that you can see through the glass window of the clock in question that looks like a cross between an LP and a music box scroll.  Essentially it’s a metal record covered in tines that spins its tunes when the time is right.

My favorite clock, however, is an antique “flying pendulum” clock that sits in a nook next to the staircase between the first and second floors.  Although it’s not the same clock, the mechanism is identical to the mechanism you can see at work in the video above.  There a hand-wound spring that powers the clock and the flying pendulum mechanism regulates the speed of the movement of the hands.  It’s a devilishly ingenious mechanism, and quite hypnotic, though apparently not particularly accurate when it comes to keeping time.  Here’s a bit from Wikipedia:

The flying pendulum clock was invented and patented in 1883 by Adler Christian Clausen and J. C. Slafter in Minneapolis.   The clock was later called the Ignatz Flying pendulum clock after a character in the Krazy Kat comic.  It has been called “the craziest clock in the world” due to the motion of the escapement.

noguchi historical odyssey

One of the main reasons we visited the museum this time around was to catch the Tetsuya Noguchi exhibition being held there (unfortunately past its sell-by date).  Noguchi makes miniature figures of samurai (some of them quite large) that have cartoonishly realistic faces — sort of like mini Ron Mueck sculptures — and incredibly intricate, hand-crafted armor and accessories.  These figures are often whimsical, and very often ask the question of what might have happened had samurai style continued into the present, uninterrupted.  Pieces with names like “Shoulder Bag and Sneaker and Samurai” and “Portrait of an Armored Warrior Taking the Field by Bicycle” give a pretty good idea of how these pieces work.  One of Noguchi’s more famous pieces is a set of Chanel-branded samurai armor that combines the idea of contemporary branding with the history of feudal patronage.  Noguchi’s own exquisitely hand-crafted works (often using traditional materials and techniques, such as lacquer) are also commentaries on the intersection between traditional craft styles that grew up in pre-capitalist economic formations and their role withing contemporary structures of capitalist production; the melding of both pop and craft elements, two traditions that have always sat uneasily beside the pretensions of high art, expresses perfectly the meeting of pre-industrial artisinal technique and the vertiginous comic-book plasticity of contemporary consumer culture.

lord of dark rabbit land

In the grounds surrounding the Villa can be found this sculpture of a giant hare by Barry Flanagan.  The Oyamazaki Villa website refers to the sculpture as “lovely,” but in fact I think there’s something quite horrifying about this rabbit, large and looming and constantly staring/glaring at the museum.  Much more like something from Donnie Darko, or perhaps an iteration of the Black Rabbit of Inle, than a lovely, harmless, bunny.

the wizard's lair

My favorite structure at the Oyamazaki Villa is this tower, which also happens to be the first structure that was built at the site.  Called the Seika-ro, this tower was used by Shotaro Kago to supervise the construction of the Villa itself.  It looks like a wizard’s tower, and it’s exactly the kind of structure that I would love to spend years using as a writing studio, the next best thing to buying a lighthouse to use as a writing retreat.


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