The Wright Stuff, in the Japanese Heartland
Published in The New York Times
April 2, 2006
Visiting the Meiji Mura Museum
INSIDE St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, a Gothic-style building from the 1890's, a middle-aged man with a heavy Brooklyn accent introduces a swing band from Xaverian High School in Bay Ridge. And then a group of teenage musicians, in white shirts and black pants, plays "In the Mood." The crowd sways to the music. For a moment, I forget I'm in Japan.
The introducer, Anthony Bianchi, is a city councilman in Inuyama, a suburb of Nagoya, Japan's fourth-largest city. Mr. Bianchi grew up in Bensonhurst, attended Xaverian, married a Japanese woman and ran for office in her hometown. He had helped sponsor the students' visit.
For a traveler from New York, encountering the Brooklyn contingent is surprising, but no more surprising than the setting. The cathedral is one of about 70 Western-style buildings scattered around a wooded park near Inuyama. The buildings showcase the Meiji Era, from 1868 to 1912, when Japan was heavily influenced by the West.
The buildings were brought to the Meiji Mura (Meiji Village) museum in the 1960's, when rapid development throughout Japan threatened the few important structures that had survived World War II. Their savior was Yoshiro Taniguchi, the architect of the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo (and father of Yoshio Taniguchi, who designed the newest incarnation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York). The elder Taniguchi persuaded a classmate — a railroad magnate — to donate land and help him transport the buildings to the park, which opened in 1965. Western-style streetcars and steam locomotives ply the hilly site. The museum is an easy one-hour train-and-bus trip from the center of Nagoya.
But it isn't to admire the locomotives and schoolhouses (or the barber shops, breweries and telephone exchanges) that I have made the journey. What makes the Meiji Mura so vital to architecture lovers is the presence of the front of the Imperial Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for downtown Tokyo in 1923.
The Imperial was, according to architectural historians, one of Wright's most innovative buildings. The influence of Japanese artists on Wright's work was already substantial, and here he was exploring the links between eastern and western sensibilities. The hotel was legendary for surviving the great Kanto earthquake of September 1923, which leveled much of Tokyo. Wright, who had devised a unique, earthquake-resistant structure, received a telegram from the hotelier announcing, "Hotel stands undamaged as monument of your genius" — which he promptly circulated to American newspapers.
For Wright, the building was more than a chance to try out ideas for earthquake-proofing. According to Jack Quinan, a professor of architectural history at the State University of New York, Buffalo, Wright went to Japan when his reputation in the United States was in tatters. (First Wright left his wife and children, then his mistress was murdered by a servant.) When the hotel survived the earthquake, Professor Quinan said, "Wright got a terrific blast of publicity." The building "saved his career" — allowing him to go on to design such buildings as the Guggenheim Museum in New York and Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.
Unfortunately, the Imperial Hotel was torn down in the late 1960's to make way for a high-rise. In architecture circles, the destruction of the Imperial is considered a loss almost as great as the demolition of Pennsylvania Station in New York in the same decade.
So it is with astonishment that, after leaving the cathedral, I turn a corner to see the entrance to the Imperial, behind a reflecting pool containing several sculptures that I recognize as Wright's. As I get closer, I see people streaming into the lobby. But "lobby" hardly describes what I encounter when I follow them. The building contains three floors of interlocking spaces. Not only is the arrangement of the rooms dazzlingly intricate, but also every surface is carved, stamped or embossed with Wright-designed patterns. In Wright's best buildings, each piece is a microcosm of the whole. Here, the building blocks — green volcanic rock, pierced terra cotta and yellow brick — echo the geometry of the larger structure.
At a mezzanine cafe overlooking the main lobby space, dozens of Wright-designed chairs with hexagonal backs are arranged around small tables, and it's possible to pretend you're in Tokyo half a century ago. (I order tea and chocolate cake.) In the back of the lobby, curtains cover walls where hallways to the guest rooms would have been. But if you don't make the mistake I do — peeking behind the curtains — the illusion is complete.
Most of Wright's other great buildings — including those, like Fallingwater, that are no longer used — are maintained in their original locations. To preservationists, the idea of separating a building from its intended site is anathema. But saving the hotel in an architecture park — allowing future generations to understand its interlocking forms, which cannot be appreciated from photos — was better than letting the bulldozers win.
Though I've come to see Wright's masterpiece, I am drawn in by the other Meiji Mura attractions, which are grouped into village-like settings. Several of the buildings, I learn, are not just Western-style, but Western: an assembly hall for Japanese immigrants, erected in Hilo, Hawaii, in 1869, and the Seattle home of a Japanese family, built in 1907, are here. Every building in the park has a sign in both Japanese and English that gives its history. There are also theaters in which plays are performed, and a variety of restaurants, serving — yes — Western-influenced Japanese food. One of them, moved to the museum from Kobe, is said to be the first Japanese restaurant to serve what is now called Kobe beef.
It is a sunny Sunday afternoon, and the park is crowded with Japanese families, some of them picnicking on blankets. In fact, except for the Xaverian students and their escorts, I don't see a single Westerner for hours. That's fitting: this is a place for Japanese to explore their country's fascination with the West. But as I discover at the Meiji Mura museum, the fascination is mutual.
If You Go
Information about the Meiji Mura Museum is at www.meijimura.com. The park is closed Dec. 31 and Mondays in December, January and February. Admission is 1,600 yen, or about $14, at 114 yen to the dollar.
To get to Meiji Mura from downtown Nagoya, take a train from the Meitetsu Nagoya Station to Inuyama (trains make the 30-minute trip throughout the day). Outside the small station in Inuyama, board a bus marked Meiji Mura, which will drop you right outside the park. It's easy to reverse the route on the way back. Inuyama's other big tourist attraction is the 500-year-old Inuyama Castle, overlooking the Kiso River.
In Nagoya, I stayed at the Nagoya Marriott Associa (1-1-4, Meieki, Nakamura-ku, 81-52 584-1111; www.associa.com/english/nma), an 800-room hotel loaded with amenities (the health club alone is the size of some hotels). A standard double is 28,000 yen. Happily, the Meitetsu Station is next door.
Nagoya is within three hours of Japan's two main airports — Kansai (off Osaka) and Narita (near Tokyo). Its own international airport, Centrair, opened in 2005.