Creating a museum as a sacred, powerful place

The Japan Times/July 27, 2002
By Angela Jeffs

Asked what it is like to be a goddess, Hiroko Koyama laughs. Of course she's not really a goddess, she says, "but if some of our congregation believe me and my mother to be so blessed, well, there's not much we can do about it." Now that Mihoko Koyama (known as Kaishusama, the first president) is growing frail, Hiroko finds herself responsible for the organization her mother founded in 1970.

Shinji Shumeikai (from the characters for "god" and "excellent light") is one of 600 or more religious groups or sects in Japan. Breaking away some 20 years ago from the Mokichi Okada Association (MOA), based in Kanagawa Prefecture, SS now claims 300,000 followers worldwide.

MOA has a stunning museum built into a hillside behind Atami. The Shumei family wanted to go one better, and by God, they have.

Travel out of Kyoto toward Lake Biwa, then climb into the Shigaraki mountains. It's easy to assume the first building you arrive at to be the Miho Museum, but no, it's just the welcome center. A fleet of electric trucks ferry an average of 650 visitors a day through a tunnel across a suspension bridge that seemingly floats above a deep gorge, and there it is: Shangri-La.

I meet Hiroko Koyama, now president of Shinji Shumeikai, and chairwoman of the Board of Trustees of the Shumei Culture Foundation, in an anteroom.

She begins: "As a young woman my mother attended the Freedom School in Tokyo, where teaching was Christian-inspired. She met the spiritual philosopher Mokichi Okada in 1941." Okada believed the role of art was to heighten people's emotions, enrich their lives, give meaning and enjoyment to their existence.

"After moving here, we thought to build a memorial gallery to share my mother's collection of tea ceremony utensils. Then we were lucky enough to have the world-famous architect I.M. Pei design our bell tower at Shinji Shumeikai International in Misono."

Hiroko and her mother were so thrilled with the result, they asked Pei to design the memorial gallery. His reaction was surprising: "Of course, the shell of the museum is important, but the content should be international." "His suggestion coincided with Okada's teaching: that man should transcend groups and boundaries to become citizens of the world."

Soon after commissioning Pei, Hiroko purchased an impressive second century standing Gandhara Buddha from Central Asia, and a delightful first century Roman fresco of a garden scene from Pompeii. These became the linchpins of the international collection. "As in the tea ceremony, each individual work of art represents the height of refinement of a particular era and culture."

The museum, which opened to the public in 1997, is breathtaking. Pei took a Tang Dynasty poem, "Peach Blossom Spring," for inspiration. He wanted visitors to feel they were stumbling across a lost paradise, providing continual elements of surprise.

He removed a mountaintop, constructed 80 percent of the 45,000-sq.-meter building within for amazing views from inside out and then restored the environment so that exterior visual secrecy was maintained. He also used the very best materials, welding ancient crafts with modern technology -- the interior lined with French limestone, floors studded with ancient mosaics and living trees, window blinds replicating slivers of wood for the loveliest natural filtered light.

As for the collection housed within the Miho Museum, Hiroko says there are around 2,000 items to date, each purchased with the same criterion: "Spiritual power. Historic interest is never enough."

It was her dream -- and her mother's dream -- to create a place of reflection. "With Pei's design we have done our best to stay true to the spirit of the site. Mountaintops have always been places of contemplation. We aim to build on this spiritual aspect in the collection."

She is well qualified for such a mission. Born in Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture, Hiroko went to school in Kyoto and studied aesthetics. "I rely on dealers to brings items to my attention. The Gandhara was in a warehouse in Switzerland. Now I'm only interested in the most wonderful things." If one object is representative of the collection, she believes it to be the figure of a falcon-headed deity. "Egyptians worshipped the falcon as a god. I can feel the power they revered."

Right now much of her energy is directed toward supporting her mother. Yet the needs of Shinji Shumeikai are great, with days of prayer all over Japan, and members praying to ancestors on the first day and first Sunday of every month. The needs of young people are important, and there are summer camps for the challenged.

"I guess we are what is called these days a 'superreligion.' This means we are very open, that anything and everything is OK. We just need to keep praying to keep our gods' teaching as pure as possible."

"Interface" is another big word in contemporary religious vocabulary. "I first heard it in America. A philanthropist has given land in Colorado to religious groups, provided they interface with one another and the community. We opened a study center there May 18." Yet the first time Hiroko visited the 8-hectare site, it thundered, poured with rain for 10 minutes, then stopped just as suddenly, with an amazing sky.

Spirit works in mysterious ways. As a staff member at the Miho Museum remarks, "The whole place emanates power."

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