Newsletters  | Mobile

Searching for Nirvana

TWO OF MY FAVORITE MUSEUMS IN TOKYO, both privately owned, are at either end of Omotesando, the glorious "praying way" turned fashionable tree-lined avenue that leads to the Meiji Shrine (built to honor the emperor who opened Japan to the West). If you walk up Omotesando with the shrine to your back you quickly come to the Ota Memorial Museum of Art, devoted entirely to Japanese prints. It is jarring to leave the quiet bamboo-and-paper-screened rooms of the museum, decked with prints of the "floating world" of old Ueno, and reenter the clatter of Omotesando. After it crosses Aoyamadori, another great shopping street, Omotesando narrows abruptly and becomes even more stylish. Here you'll find the boutiques of such designers as Issey Miyake, and buildings that are as interesting as the clothes. The Collezione, designed by Tadao Ando, the current star of Japanese architecture, is a pleasantly disorienting maze of concentric circles and squares made of industrial concrete and glass.

And then, at the top of Omotesando, is the exquisitely calm Nezu Fine Art Museum, where you can find tearooms among carp-filled pools in the surrounding garden. (Kaichiro Nezu himself, the great collector, fell in love with the tea ceremony not in some remote Kyoto temple, but during a 1909 visit to the United States, when he was 50. Sometimes a journey to the West can take you even further into the East.) The Nezu does not shy away from an austere exhibit of, say, 45 tea bowls, but it also owns Ogata Korin's Irises at Yatsuhashi, one of the most popular of all Japanese paintings. If the extensive iris garden at the Meiji Shrine isn't in bloom, Korin's array is a ravishing substitute.

HENRY ADAMS COMPLAINED THAT "not even a tolerable hotel exists" in "beastly Tokyo." But as Japan gradually opened to the West, luxury accommodations for foreigners became part of the closely scripted itineraries of late-19th-century travelers. Baron Okura, one of the Rockefeller-like titans of modern Japan, built the Japanese pavilion at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, giving Chicago architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright their first inkling of authentic Japanese building design. A quarter of a century later Okura signed up Wright to build the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

Wright's Imperial is a striking example of the way in which Western fantasies of Japan, however bizarre, can produce wonderful architecture. Constructed of rough-hewn bricks of volcanic stone, the Imperial looked more like a Mayan temple than a Japanese one. Its massive walls weathered the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which struck on the very day it opened. The hotel moldered on its swampy site near the Emperor's Palace until 1968, when it was finally put out of its misery. Thankfully, the original lobby was saved and moved to the Museum Meiji-Mura outside Nagoya. And Wright's Imperial survives in the many imitations it inspired (including the present-day Hotel Okura, built in 1962), so that however little Wright owed to Japanese architecture, he has become part of its traditions.

A new Imperial Hotel now stands on the site of the old, and one evening I sit in its Old Imperial Bar nibbling on whitebait with Madalena Velasquez. Based in Tokyo, she has a master's degree in medieval art history from Yale and is an expert on Wright's Imperial. The Old Imperial Bar is a little memorial to Wright's genius and incorporates some of the original masonry and a piece of a mural from the lost hotel. Madalena questions the stereotype of the Japanese as inward-looking and xenophobic. "In fact, they're always looking for outside ideas," she contends, pointing to Wright's hotel as an example. "There's an East—West confluence even in the smallest things, such as hashi [the little rests for chopsticks]. The other day I saw a set based on a toreador theme." Carmen in Tokyo—it was something to contemplate as we walked out of the hotel and headed toward the Ginza.

LIKE THE PLAGUE IN THOMAS MANN'S Death in Venice, cholera chased Adams and La Farge from Tokyo and Yokohama up into the mountains. They spent most of the summer in Nikko, 90 miles north of Tokyo, so that's where I go next. Tokyo seems interminable as the train moves north, and the transition, as in Japanese landscape paintings, between flatland and mountains is abrupt. Just as my eyes are growing accustomed to the rice paddies dotted with egrets and stooping farmers wearing indigo-blue trousers, the mountains swoop upward in layers of evergreen and mist.

Still intact a hundred years ago, the old approach to Nikko was a 20-mile double file of giant cryptomeria trees, the redwoods of Japan. From the train window I can see the columns of trees, interrupted now and again by buildings and roads. From the little station in Nikko I walk through the village in drizzling rain to the Nikko Kanaya Hotel, a rustic century-old charmer that resembles the Adirondacks' 19th-century luxury camps.

The Kanaya stands on one side of the Sacred Bridge; on the other side all paths lead to the mountain shrines of Nikko. Built in the 17th century as memorials for the greatest of the Tokugawa warlords (readers of James Clavell's Shogun will know the story), these were the favorite pilgrimage spots of all 19th-century Western travelers in Japan. They never tired of repeating the well-worn saying: "Do not say kekko—'splendid'—until you have seen Nikko." The gaudily ornamented buildings are not to the taste of those inclined to Zen austerity—the arriviste shoguns were into conspicuous display—but the whole ensemble of mountain, shrine, trees, and waterfalls is overwhelming. Even Henry Adams's habitual cynicism was silenced in Nikko. "The place is so well worth seeing that in many ways nothing in Europe rivals it," he wrote to a friend.

I hope to solve the mystery of where Adams and La Farge stayed in Nikko. I ask Taro Kanaya, the great-grandson of a samurai who first invited Western travelers into his house in 1873, to join me over breakfast. An elegant man in an exquisitely understated suit, Kanaya has a Ph.D. in geology from Stanford and taught in American colleges before returning to Japan to run his family's hotel business. His delightful secretary, Miss Isobe, drives us up the hillside to the austere gem of a house, the perfect samurai's abode, where foreigners stayed before the Kanaya Hotel was built. The floors are of tatami and polished dark wood and the ceiling is low, to keep visiting samurai from raising their swords, I am told. As I gaze out on the garden and waterfall from the veranda, I suddenly realize that I know this view, from a La Farge watercolor. I carefully reread Adams's description of their Nikko house, and sure enough, we're standing in it.

Another surprise awaits me back at the Kanaya. The design of the Dacite Bar (as Kanaya the geologist named it) has exactly the same Mayan motifs as did Wright's Imperial. Could this have been a trial run for the Imperial, to see how the stone would look in interior settings?I leave convinced that it is, though scholars have yet to claim the work as Wright's.

I SPEND A COUPLE OF DAYS EXPLORING the shrines and stone paths of Nikko—my favorite is the sacred stable decorated with the three monkeys ("See No Evil" and his brothers). Then I zigzag up the mountain to the old spa town on the shores of Lake Chuzenji. On one hairpin turn I see wild monkeys disporting themselves in the shrubbery just as monkeys are supposed to—mother monkey holding baby, two males tussling, a granddaddy massaging his chest in the dappled sunlight. At sundown, it's easy to imagine the lake as Adams saw it, "buried among green mountains and untouched forests, as wild as any in the Sierras." Five minutes away I come upon the plunging 300-foot ribbon of water called Kegon Falls, its stray rivulets looking like the curling dragons on the Nikko shrines.

That night, sipping sake in the Dacite Bar, my head is still circling up the mountainside as I prepare for my return to Tokyo and the long flight home. My two travelers have led me into the mountains and into the past. Why not get a jump on jet lag and reset my watch now?—a hundred years forward.


Sign Up

Connect With Travel + Leisure
  • Travel+Leisure
  • Tablet
  • Available devices

Already a subscriber?
Get FREE ACCESS to the digital edition