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Here and There :

Here and There introduces art, artists, galleries and museums around Japan that non-Japanese readers and first-time visitors may find of particular interest. The writer claims no art expertise, just a subjective viewpoint acquired over many years' residence in Japan.

Yanaka: Art in a Bathhouse
Alan Gleason
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The former Kashiwayu bathhouse, now an art gallery, but with ornate exterior and water tank intact.
A bank of shoeboxes preserved from its public bath days at the entrance to SCAI The Bathhouse.
Yanaka is one of the few neighborhoods left in Tokyo that really feels old. Thanks to its location northeast of Edo Castle, the district was deemed auspicious as a place to build a bulwark against evil spirits, prompting the Shogun to make it home to a high concentration of Buddhist temples and graveyards. The charm seemed to take, because Yanaka miraculously escaped the conflagrations that frequently wiped out much of Edo and later Tokyo, most recently during the Kanto Earthquake and World War II.

The neighborhood is therefore famed for its bygone-era ambience of old houses and narrow alleys. Tourists love it. Artists have always gravitated to Yanaka too: one reason is the proximity of the prestigious Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai), but relatively cheap rents is another. Amazingly, Yanaka has so far escaped the more recent scourge of real estate speculation as well. Today it offers one of the most pleasant and stimulating strolls of any neighborhood in Tokyo.

One of Yanaka's more eye-catching confluences of traditional and modern is SCAI The Bathhouse, an art gallery in a building that not so long ago was still doing business as a public bath. SCAI (pronounced Sky), which stands for Shiraishi Contemporary Art Inc., is the brainchild of Masami Shiraishi, former art director at the late lamented Touko Museum of Contemporary Art. Shiraishi was not necessarily planning to open a gallery in a bathhouse, but when he found that the Kashiwayu was for rent, he immediately saw a link between bathing and art: both galleries and public baths, he reasoned, serve as spaces for communication. The skylights and high ceilings of the Kashiwayu also happen to provide excellent natural light. Open since 1993, SCAI is now a Yanaka landmark, as well as a prominent player in Tokyo's contemporary art scene.

A recent exhibition featured the work of Danish artist Jeppe Hein, whose reflecting surfaces (on mirrors, spheres and other eccentric structures) play entertaining games with the viewer's line of sight. Hein's objects were a perfect match for the bright light and airy space of the gallery. SCAI has consistently championed artists from abroad as well as Japan; this was Hein's second show there.

Another fixture on the Yanaka art circuit also merits mention here, not least because it will close on April 1, 2009 for four years. The Asakura Choso Museum is the former home and atelier of revered sculptor Fumio Asakura (1883-1964). Built in 1935, the complex is a unique amalgamation of Japanese traditional (the home) and art-deco modern (the studio). Unfortunately the powers that be have declared the former -- a delightfully rambling wooden edifice surrounding a tranquil inner garden -- to be an earthquake hazard, and so it must close for renovations. If you are in Tokyo before April 1, a visit is highly recommended. Asakura's sculptures, particularly those of his beloved cats (he allegedly kept over a dozen), are charming enough, but it is the architecture that really makes it worth the trip -- that and the opportunity to stroll the back alleys of Yanaka.
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Light from the high bathhouse skylights suffuses the gallery interior. Jeppe Hein's mirrors reflect different facets of their surroundings with every turn.

Bird's-eye view of the inner garden of the Asakura Choso Museum, soon to be closed for earthquake-proofing.


All photos by Susan Rogers Chikuba;
1 - 4 courtesy of SCAI The Bathhouse
Never mind the corrugated tin faテァade, this century-old storehouse is one of Tokyo's few surviving three-story wooden structures; today it houses the Oguraya gallery.

SCAI The Bathhouse
Kashiwayu-Ato, 6-1-23 Yanaka, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Phone: 03-3821-1144
Open 12:00-7:00, closed Sunday, Monday and holidays
Transportation: 6 minutes walk from Nippori Station on the JR Yamanote Line; 7 minutes walk from Nezu Station on the Metro Chiyoda Line
Asakura Choso Museum
7-18-10 Yanaka, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Phone: 03-3821-4549
Open 9:30-4:30, closed Monday and Friday
Transportation: 5 minutes walk from Nippori Station on the JR Yamanote Line
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Alan Gleason
Alan Gleason is a translator, editor and writer based in Tokyo, where he has lived for 24 years. In addition to writing about the Japanese art scene he has edited and translated works on Japanese theater (from kabuki to the avant-garde) and music (both traditional and contemporary).
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