Japan: Pola Museum, Hakone

Just as Musashino Art Library, Pola Museum of Art is a wonderful display of aesthetics with purpose, a building with meaning, where the container and the contents are equally breathtaking.

Pola Museum is designed as art container, indeed, and it's designed as well to live in the forest, in the Hakone hills, surrounded by trees and undergrowth. The building was commissioned by an art lover to an architect lover of art, Yasuda Koichi. Patron of the arts and artist connected perfectly.

Banner at the access walkway of Pola Museum
Banner at the access walkway of Pola Museum | Source
Floating torii, Hakone Shrine, Ashi Lake
Floating torii, Hakone Shrine, Ashi Lake | Source

Hakone

Hakone is a very popular tourist destination in Japan, especially for Tokyo dwellers. The region is full of hotels, ryokans, museums, hot springs, gardens, and other less sophisticated tourist attractions, such as the pirate ship at Ashi Lake, or the Sounzan Cable Car or Hakone Ropeway.

As a matter of fact, if you were to prepare a trip to Japan, you'll likely find multiple recommendations to visit Hakone, with explicit instructions to get the famous Hakone Free Pass, which provides access to almost all attractions plus all public transportation.

Floating torii, Hakone Shrine by Ashi Lake
Floating torii, Hakone Shrine by Ashi Lake | Source

Given the multitude of tourist attractions in Hakone, generally visitors plan to stay over 2 or 3 days. However, we were only interested in visiting Pola Museum, for its unique architectural value. The visit took us the best part of a day, but we could also fit the Ashi Lake to witness the splendor of the floating torii of Hakone Shrine.

How to get there

Tokyo and Hakone district
Tokyo and Hakone district | Source

USEFUL TIP for the transfer to Gora

Everyone that arrives in Hakone-Yumoto has the unique goal to get onto the Gora train. The lines are long, and many travelers are there with luggage for the overnight stay, so the train travels full to capacity. Just as you set foot in Hakone-Yumoto Station, do not trouble yourself with a ticket to Gora, just get in line.

You will be able to pay for the trip upon exit at Gora Station, where the ever present fare adjustment mechanism used in Japan is also available without any qualms whatsoever. Once in Gora Station, hand over your Japan Railways tickets from Tokyo, and they will tell you how much you owe, 390 yen apiece.

Route from Tokyo:

  • From Tokyo, take the Odakyu Limited Express "Romancecar" directly to Hakone-Yumoto. That takes 90 minutes, and costs 1150 yen (April 2013).
  • From Hakone-Yumoto, take the little train to Gora. That's a 40 minute ride at 390 yen.
    Please note: Many touristy webs will describe this cute train ride as romantic and spectacular. I'm sure it would be if it weren't for the 7 bodies per square meter in the train. All things considered , in my opinion, this is a necessary evil one has to go through to get where you're going.
  • Once in Gora, at about 100 meters or 300 feet from the train station, you will find the Tozan bus line. Take the S Purple line in bus stop #2. The bus ride to Pola Museum is about 10 or 12 minutes, through winding roads across the forest. The ride is 290 yen.

Hyperdia provides detailed timetables and cost of trips.

Bus stop upon arrival. Exactly 4 of us got off here. Incidentally, what do you think of this fabulous marquee? Obviously designed by the Museum to be in sync with it.
Bus stop upon arrival. Exactly 4 of us got off here. Incidentally, what do you think of this fabulous marquee? Obviously designed by the Museum to be in sync with it. | Source

As you realize, this isn't the Moma at 53rd St, New York, nor the British Museum next to Oxford Street in London. Not really difficult to access by any stretch, but distant enough that it will keep the hordes away.

At any rate, that's how it was in April, once in the museum we overlapped with 30 other visitors at most. Some of the interior photos we took demonstrate that the space was pretty much to ourselves.

The Concept

What you can see of the Pola Museum at ground level. The rest is underground.
What you can see of the Pola Museum at ground level. The rest is underground. | Source
Section of Pola Museum, clearly shows that most of the building is underground.
Section of Pola Museum, clearly shows that most of the building is underground. | Source

The building was envisioned as a "symbiosis between Hakone's natural beauty and the works of art". In this spirit, the majority of the structures are located underground, to both harmonize with the surrounding natural environment and to appear as if imbedded in the depths of the forest scenery. Similarly, the lighting used in the galleries employs the most advanced fiber optic technology to allow each work of art to be seen at its best. We hope that visitors to this new museum will enjoy this world of beauty woven from superb art works, nature's lush greenery, and a light-filled architectural space.
Adapted from Pola Museum Official Website

The Museum's website perfectly explains the concept in its About the Museum section, which you can see extracted and adapted on the right.

The Pola Museum of Art opened in September 2002 to contain a wide range of works, primarily Japanese and European, and an impressive collection of ceramics.

Living next door to Prado Museum, Thyssen Museum, and Reina Sofia Contemporary Art Museum, we weren't really interested in the contents, but I'll admit to having been surprised by some Picassos, a few Monet's, Gaugin's and Matisse's, a Van Gogh, a couple of Dali's, Miro's… among a wide range of Japanese painters.

Perspective of the access walkway, and the contention wall that drives down to host most of the building.
Perspective of the access walkway, and the contention wall that drives down to host most of the building. | Source

In all, it hosts more than 9,500 works "assembled over some forty years by the late owner of the Pola Orbis Group, Suzuki Tsuneshi (1930-2000)". Suzuki Tsuneshi was a successful entrepreneur who loved art and started collecting it just as soon as his finances allowed. The ceramic collection is of special interest, there are Ming vases to boot. Just the cost of that, plus one or two of the Picassos, would probably pay for the building twice over.

Building and Land, Respect for Each Other

Aerial view of Pola Museum by day
Aerial view of Pola Museum by day | Source
Cafe at Pola Museum. Can you appreciate the huge optic fiber covered wall, the glass wall to the forest and the natural light that seeps through.
Cafe at Pola Museum. Can you appreciate the huge optic fiber covered wall, the glass wall to the forest and the natural light that seeps through. | Source
Cafe au naturel. Light abounds.
Cafe au naturel. Light abounds. | Source

The Pola Museum is a massive concrete and glass structure built on the belly of a mountain hill. Only the upper part of the structure, the ceiling so to speak, is visible from ground level. This glass ceiling is what sheds light over the interior.The rest is caved in, with the purpose not to disrupt the environment, and at the same time be part of it. What you see is not what you really get, at the Pola Museum.

The building is perfectly attuned to the environment. The design is such that 'light and air" are the words that come to mind to describe it. Ironically, museums of any denominations need everything but natural light, as the lightning needed to display works of art is always perfectly orchestrated with latest generation LEDs and what not.

Stairways to the lower levels, uninterrupted light.
Stairways to the lower levels, uninterrupted light. | Source

The structure features concrete and glass for the exterior, and optic fiber for the interior. The optic fiber panes achieve an effect of lightness, of zenith light, which is compounded by the extraordinary amounts of sun shining through the glass ceilings.

This is the lowest level in the building, totally underground, but check out the amount of natural light it receives
This is the lowest level in the building, totally underground, but check out the amount of natural light it receives | Source

It is ample, spacious, just as tranquil in the common areas as it is within the actual galleries displaying art. Being inside, among all those sun rays reflecting off all surfaces, is spectacular enough, but one has got to see a bird's eye photo to understand the majestic nature of the concept, to realize that this is no common place building.

Nature

Nature promenade, access
Nature promenade, access | Source
Photo taken from the ground level, captures one floor down featuring the cafe, and the roof of the structure, all grassy, is clearly visible through the glass.
Photo taken from the ground level, captures one floor down featuring the cafe, and the roof of the structure, all grassy, is clearly visible through the glass. | Source

Because the Pola Museum really means to feel at one with nature, the Pola Orbis Group donated almost 13 hectare, that's 32 acre to Kanagawa prefecture, the Hakone district, as "Green Trust". They are actively working on the natural forest regeneration of Hakone.

Surrounding the museum there is a nature promenade spanning 600 meters, that's about 2000 feet, around the building itself and the surrounding beech forest. On a sunny day, it is the nicest stroll. It's for free too, you don't need to access the museum (1,800 yen) to enjoy this route.

Aerial view of Pola Museum at dusk

This is actually a postcard we bought at the museum shop, which I photographed with my cell.
This is actually a postcard we bought at the museum shop, which I photographed with my cell. | Source

Pola seeks to contribute to the prosperity and advancement of society through its work in the world of health and beauty", and beauty they achieve aplenty.

Main access at Pola Museum
Main access at Pola Museum | Source

Imagine

Imagine being in a touristy area, with thousands of visitors strolling around and taking photos nonstop.

Imagine that you are one of them, trying to get from here to there and trying to snap your photos as unobtrusively as you can.

Imagine that, all of a sudden, you step into a parallel universe of light, calm, nature, and peace, where there are almost no other tourists, hardly any trace of humanity, just you and the trees and the light.

That is exactly what Pola Museum achieves in Hakone.

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