10 Days of Design Hunting in Japan

What Wendy Goodman loved in Tokyo, Kyoto, and the Benesse Art Site Naoshima.

Photo: Wendy Goodman
Photo: Wendy Goodman

When the opportunity arose to visit Japan — Tokyo, Kyoto, and the Benesse Art Site Naoshima — for ten days with family and friends, I jumped.

Tokyo at your feet! Where to begin? We opted to walk off jet lag along the paths of Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens, where the extraordinary variety of trees are cared for like newborn babies, many with wrapped trunks and vulnerable branches supported by bamboo stakes. This moss-covered island, Uchi-Niwa, is on the site of a former ancient guesthouse; the gardens were originally built in 1629 by the Mito branch of the Tokugawa clan. Photo: Wendy Goodman
The minute you leave the street and enter the Nezu museum, designed by Kengo Kuma, the entrance walkway (seen here) allows you to decompress as you stroll through an allée of bamboo. The Nezu is a jewel featuring premodern Japanese and Asian art. I loved it so much I went back three times. The small café within the museum’s garden offers delicious treats. Photo: Wendy Goodman
This moss goddess resides in the Nezu’s garden. The pathways wind through deep foliage as you happen upon teahouses, stone ruins, and statues of gods and goddesses. Photo: Wendy Goodman
Omotesando, the famous shopping boulevard in the Harajuku area, boasts spectacular buildings housing iconic fashion labels. Herzog & de Meuron designed the Prada store, seen here, with a glass façade that shows how glass façades can be really beautiful and interesting! I shopped in my imagination, never setting foot inside — much safer. Photo: Wendy Goodman
In a garden teahouse I spied a table with natural bark legs and bamboo inlay within the highly polished surface that I thought perfectly embodied the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi  (the art of the imperfect). I read somewhere that sabi can be interpreted as “waning and beautiful loneliness.” Photo: Wendy Goodman
On a clear day you can see forever from the top of the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills. You can also have a snack in the museum café and daydream while looking out over the endless landscape of Tokyo, before you hit the gift shop and the Mori Arts Center Gallery and Mori Art Museum. I saw a scroll that told the story of the tiny Princess Kaguya of the moon people, who was discovered in a bamboo plant by a bamboo cutter. The Japanese emperor, Mikado, fell in love with her and tried to keep her with him on Earth. Photo: Wendy Goodman
The Tokyo National Museum holds boundless treasures, including this scroll painting of a woman wrapped in a cable-knit shawl with hair as fine as spun silk. The paintbrush used to paint this image must have been one hair thick. Photo: Wendy Goodman
A meal anywhere in Japan is an aesthetic thunderbolt. No matter how simple the fare, nothing is spontaneously thrown on a plate; every detail is considered. The choice of plate depends on the shape, texture, and color of the food being served, and the arrangement of the ingredients becomes a work of edible art. Here, the green leaf is precisely tucked under the cucumber resting on the tofu. I didn’t want to eat this, it was so beautiful, but once I did, I only wanted more. Photo: Wendy Goodman
Kyoto holds hidden treasures that you must seek out. We met Kichizaemon and his wife, Fujiko, who held a tea ceremony in their house before we went to see his studio and raku museum. Kichizaemon is a 15th-generation raku master. We were served tea in rare ceramic raku bowls made by his father and other masters. Photo: Wendy Goodman
In Kyoto we stayed at the Yuzuya hotel, a classic ryokan offering Japanese décor with futons rolled out on the floor at night to sleep on, and a bathing room featuring a traditional soaking tub, seen here. There was also a large communal soaking tub downstairs that everyone swore by. The futon was exceedingly comfortable, like sleeping on a cloud. Photo: Wendy Goodman
We went to Katsura Imperial Villa, the mountain retreat built in 1615 by the first patriarch of the imperial Hachijo family. It’s about a 25-minute drive from Kyoto. Our tour was set for 10:10 in the morning, and that is when it began, on the dot (punctuality is key in Japan). We toured the garden with its different teahouses, each designed to be enjoyed during a specific season of the year. My favorite was the main house of the Shokintei. The handles on the sliding screens were changed for each season. Photo: Wendy Goodman
Kyoto is filled with temples and temple gardens. I died and went to heaven when I discovered this stone path over a waterway in the gardens of Nanzen-ji. You can walk and walk and feel you are in another century. Photo: Wendy Goodman
Once we arrived at the Asakura Chouso Museum in Kyoto, we discovered, alas, that it was closed, but that led to other adventures. Still, this is a private house museum I wish I had seen. The sculptor Fumio Asakura (1883–1964) lived and worked here, and the design of the house, built in 1935, was his own. There is also a wonderful garden within. If you have the chance, don’t miss it! Photo: Wendy Goodman
The façade of Saiundo Fujimoto, a legendary “Japanese-style painting” store on a quiet street in Kyoto, is unassuming, but if you like special paints, papers, brushes, and pigments, this little shop is a must. Balthus bought his paints and brushes here, and in the past the owner used to grind up diamonds and other gemstones to make pigments. Everywhere you look (notice the giant white brush hanging on the right) there is something special. Photo: Wendy Goodman
You have to let out a great sigh to even begin to describe the architecture and art wonders discovered on a trip to the Benesse Art Site Naoshima! Here, the tearoom and gift shop of the Teshima Art Museum, which is the combined vision of artist Rei Naito and architect Ryue Nishizawa. The museum itself is shaped like a drop of water, and to enter it can only be described as a magical, otherworldly experience. The Benesse Art Site is the collective name for installations on three islands in the Seto Inland Sea: Naoshima, Teshima, and Inujima. It is the vision of the patron, the late Tetsuhiko Fukutake, and his son, Soichiro. Photo: Wendy Goodman
The view from Naoshima looking out over the Seto Inland Sea. If you have a bucket list, a visit here might top everything you thought you wanted to see. Photo: Wendy Goodman
10 Days of Design Hunting in Japan