Asian Adventures

Where to go, especially in Japan and Bhutan

As jubilados (Spanish for retirees) many cultural and political factors influence our choice of travel destinations

Pumpkins. Mushrooms. Persimmons. Mmmm…

Late autumn ripens my memories of Japan.

To the night Lynn, Ward, Magellan and I, dressed in kimonos, ate kaiseki at Ryokan Kurashiki. “Dishes of October, The feast to do the sight of autumn colors,” served by a kindly Japanese woman in the autumn of her life who Ward nicknamed “Ryokan Mommy.”

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Cherry blossoms in Japan

More than three decades ago when we lived in Calgary, Magellan and I thought we’d go to Japan in the spring for the sakura (桜), the Japanese word for cherry blossoms derived from saku , which means to bloom. I even studied Japanese in anticipation. For some reason that I don’t recall, we didn’t go. How foolish we were to even think we had to travel that far for hanami—viewing cherry blossoms—you only need to go as far west as Vancouver, which now has its own Sakura Festival every April. Since April is also National Poetry Month, we’ve curated a collection of our favourite sakura haikus, adding Spice’s own attempt as well.

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“You’ve got to come hear this,” I said, phoning Magellan and asking him to meet me at the Power Plant to hear Forty Part Motet as soon as his meeting was over. I was happy to spend an extra hour listening to the art (yes, listening) until he arrived.

It was in Toronto in 2004, the first time we experienced the work of Janet Cardiff and her partner in life and art, Georges Bures Miller—I’ll tell you more about our jubilado experience with their art in a minute.

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Husband Bridge

At this time in autumn twenty-five moons ago, we were bashing around on the “living husband-and-wife bridges” in Japan’s most secluded wilderness in a “wild monkey cart.”

Needs explaining doesn’t it?

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Paro Tshechu

Although we followed Namgyel’s guidance and arrived early to get to a good seat at the country’s largest and most popular cultural festival, throngs of Bhutanese and small groups of tourists were already crowding into Paro Dzong ahead of us.

Bedazzling. We’d seen photos of the elaborate pageantry at the Paro Tshechu and Namgyel had told us that the Bhutanese from all walks of life in the region come dressed in their finest traditional ghos and kiras and best jewelery. Still, we were blinded by the brilliance of patterns and colours. A kaleidoscope of vermilion reds, regal purples, saffron yellows and turquoise blues—outdazzled, we soon saw, by the exotic costumes, headdresses and masks of the festival dancers in this cultural extravaganza.

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Quietly, our stockinged feet touch the cool, grey floor.

Like a water droplet at the moment of landing, this concrete shell elongates. Pillarless. Seamless. Edgeless. There is no boundary between floor and ceiling.

An inclusive space. For a single, solitary artwork.

The silence is profound.

There are no cameras.

Talking is prohibited; even children’s voices hush to whispers.

Mindfully, reverentially, a minimum number of individuals quietly share this absorbing experience. For the set time we are given.

In tranquility, we humble our gaze.

From miniscule silvery pools of water, droplets dart, sporadically.

Others wriggle randomly into pale, thin streams.

Droplets pause in meditative stillness.

Springing from underground, water, from caps concealed as marbled balls of white

and from overhead, elliptical oculi let in the elements.

Spotlit by the sun, beads of water, gleaming like mercury, spurt furtively into rivulets.

An aperture reveals a sky of blue, a delicate ribbon, dotted with dewdrops, floating, hypnotically.

Clouds shadow by.

In the silence of this ephemeral space, the soft flutter of wings. The rustle of leaves. The murmur of insects. The slight sound of the wind. The gentle breath of the sea. Amplified, echoed.

Instinctively, we shift our gaze, alter our footsteps around the mesmerizing elements of water transforming, ponding lightly into puddles and patterns.

The congregated sit. Letting the moments still, like shiny surfaces of water.

Some lay, gazing out an oculus, observing the universe beyond

It is serene, surreal

We meditate on the elusive

Bokei (母型), the name of this artwork, was realized by a creative collaboration uniting the talents of the artist Rei Naito and Pritzker-Prize winning architect Ryue Nishizawa. For Rei Naito, Bokei (which translates [inadequately I think] as matrix) and colour are “always and simultaneously continuing to begin, and continuing to emerge.” Like all of us, as people. She has been quoted as saying, “Man is reborn moment after moment, newborn each time.” When asked how she came up with the idea for this, “a room of her own,” Rei said, “For me, creation is all about gaining real insights into the world we live in through things like this. By asking oneself, What kind of place is the earth?” In an interview with a curator at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, Rei Naito said:

At the Teshima Art Museum, there are no boundaries between nature and art. They are one. You never know what will happen from one moment to the next. That is all. It tells us something about being alive. It’s different for everyone, but when I go in there, it is as if I were entering for the first time. The fact that I made it has nothing to do with it. How can I describe Matrix? It amazes and purifies. When there, I feel what I can only call fondness for the people who may be either looking intently or vaguely standing around.

Designed specifically to house only Bokei, the Teshima Art Museum is a zen fusion of environment, art and architecture. Nestled into the earth at the northern tip of the small island of Teshima on a hillside covered with terraced rice fields overlooking Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, we shared this extraordinary experience with Lynn and Ward.

The Teshima Art Museum is a linear concrete shell with no interior supports, an organic space whose waterdrop shape measures 40 metres by 60 metres. With its fluctuating ceiling height, its fullness at only 4.5 metres, the concrete shell appears to be part of the exterior landscape sloping to the sea, its oculus as ancient for observing the elements as Rome’s Pantheon. “Our idea was that the curved drop-like from would create a powerful environment in harmony with the undulating landforms around it,” writes architect Ryue Nishizawa. Open to the environment, the free-curving structure has large apertures on the surface of the shell to let in light, rain and fresh air. In addition, a dome-like structure houses the Museum shop and café.

To reach the Museum, we looped through a path that curves around a hill through open fields and a light forest overlooking the sea before narrowing toward the Museum’s entrance. The ticket you purchase is for a specific entrance time. You are allowed a limited time inside “in which nature, art and architecture coming together with such limitless harmony, conjures an infinite array of impressions with the passage of seasons and the flow of time.”

Magellan, who in high school thought about being an architect before studying engineering, was naturally intrigued by the structural challenge. The Museum’s architect Ryue Nishizawa wrote, “A space that equals nine tennis courts, has no supporting columns, and is only 4.5 meters high would normally collapse. The minimum is 10 to 15 meters, but then you lose the visual impact!” HIs solution? He had specialist Mutsuro Sasaki rewrite the software technology for the structural calculations so there would be no straight lines in the entire design.

We also wondered about the construction. A video explains how soil was mounded and coated with mortar in the shape of the shell. Then double-iron reinforcing frames for the concrete were assembled on the mound. It took 22 hours in the middle of winter for 120 concrete mixers to pour the concrete over the mound to a thickness of 25 centimetres. The concrete needed five weeks to dry. Then workers spent another six weeks digging out the soil from inside the new concrete shell. Planning started in 2004. The Teshima Art Museum, part of Benesse Art Site Naoshima, opened on October 17, 2010, with these words from Kayo Tokuda, the Museum’s curator at the time.

Our wish is that Teshima Art Museum becomes a place of hope for the future that speaks to our minds and spirits.

Do you know the word “ekphrasis?” It’s the verbal representation of visual art, what I’ve tried to do here, but in writing. And it’s impossible.

Promise us one thing. If you are ever in Japan, gift yourself a visit to the intangible boundary between art, architecture and nature at the Teshima Art Museum.


Rei Naito was born in Hiroshima Prefecture in 1961.  She gained prominence with One Place on the Earth for the Japanese Pavilion at the 47th Venice Biennale in 1997. Her other permanent installation is entitled Being Given (Kinza Art House Project on Naoshima, 2001). She’s had numerous exhibitions in Japan and overseas, and her works are in the collections of the Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Israel Museum and the National Museum of Art in Osaka.

The architect Ryue Nishizawa was born in 1966 in Kanagawa Prefecture. He and Kazuyo Sejima cofounded the architectural firm SANAA, which is in Tokyo. Together, they were awarded the Pritzker Prize 2010—Ryue is the youngest person ever to receive it.

You can find out more about the Teshima Art Museum here.

The feature image is from

Teshima Art Museum from JA+U on Vimeo.