High on a hill above the Tenryu River, located midway between Tokyo and Kyoto, sits one of Japan's most remarkable art museums, well worth a short detour by travelers between the two cities. Built in 1998 by the city of Tenryu (now absorbed into its larger neighbor to the south, Hamamatsu) to house the work of the renowned Nihonga painter whose name it bears, the Akino Fuku Museum is both home to a unique body of work and itself an architectural masterpiece.
Born in Futamata, an old castle town on the banks of the Tenryu, Akino Fuku (1908-2001) first gained notoriety before World War II as a prizewinning female artist, a rarity in the hoary Nihonga tradition. However, the work for which she is best known came later in life, after she was invited at age 53 to teach Nihonga at a university in India. Falling in love with the Indian landscape, particularly its vast grasslands and deserts, its temples and peasant huts, Akino devoted the rest of her life to painting these very un-Japanese scenes with the Nihonga palette of natural mineral pigments. The results are breathtaking and make one wish that more Nihonga masters would travel abroad. Akino went on to paint in Afghanistan, Nepal, Cambodia, and Africa; she was still producing powerful, increasingly abstract landscapes at the ripe old age of 92, a year before her death.
When Akino's hometown decided to build a museum to house her work, it wisely commissioned the iconoclastic architect Terunobu Fujimori, whose own imaginative use of natural materials has been drolly dubbed "yaban-garde," yaban meaning "barbaric" or "wild."Inspired, he says, by the strong lines and colors of Akino窶冱 work, but no doubt also by her subject matter, Fujimori created a hilltop edifice of stucco and wood that seems part Rajasthan fortress, part Orissa mud house.
Inside, visitors remove their shoes and are invited to sit on the stone floors and gaze at leisure upon the landscapes covering the cool earthen walls. Rarely will one find a gallery that resonates with, and even amplifies, the art it displays as effectively as Fujimori's building does.