Miho Museum – a controversy or Shangri La

Miho Museum – a controversy or Shangri La

25th May 2019 0 By livinguktaiwan

I wrote the first part about the Miho Musuem near Kyoto in Japan over three months ago.  The intention was to write part two very soon after that.  Today we’re going to the museum’s main building, to see if it is a controversy or Shangri La.



In my last post about Miho Museum, we walked from the front entrance of the museum, via a tunnel to the other side of the mountain. The main museum building is on the other side of the mountain.  This time we’re going on a tour of the Miho museum’s main building. In case you forgot what tunnel looked like, here’s a little reminder of I. M. Pei’s ingenuity.

A tunnel through time and space

A tunnel through time and space



After coming out through the tunnel, I saw the main museum building in front of me.  It was nestled next to the red maple leaves that were just starting to bud in autumn. My first impression of the builiding was that it was a mixed bag of shapes. The square front door with the round window, the geometric shaped roof with square panes in the front.  It looked odd, yet it all fitted together so harmoniously.

I walked across the short bridge to the front of the building and looked back towards the mountain that I had just come through.  This was totally two worlds from with the other side of the mountain.   This side of the museum was hidden away from the rest of the world.  A Shangri La as envisaged by I. M. Pei.


A tunnel through time and space

Inside the musuem, I looked upwards and outwards.   The building was designed so that it blended in with the mountains and nature.  The roof top was made of glass supported by steel structures and the side facing the main entrance and full length windows looking across to the mountains ahead.  This allowed the maximum natural light to flow into the museum.  Coupled with the limestone walls, this was probably as natural an indoor building as you could get.

A tunnel through time and space



You may wonder, who would build a museum in the middle of the mountain, away from everything and everyone? Miho Museum is a private museum founded by a lady called Koyama Mihoko, hence the museum name.  She’s one of the richest lady in Japan.  In 1970 Koyama Mihoko founded Shinji Shūmeikai, a new religious movement.  The movement beliefs in the pursuit of beauty through art, appreciation of nature, and that they can restore the Earth’s balance by building architectural masterpieces in remote locations (Source : Wikipedia).  In the photo below, you will see two buildings outside the window.  The one on the left is the Bell Tower and the other one is the headquarters for Shinji Shūmeikai, also designed by I. M. Pei.

The controversy with these buildings are not the buildings themselves.  But rather why and who they were built for.  Some have claimed that the Shinji Shūmeikai is a cult, and we all know how that can split conversations at the dinner table depending on which side of the fence you are on.

The other controversy surrounding the Miho museum relates to the collections. All the artefacts inside the museum are from Koyama Mihoko’s private collection. Koyama Mihoko had been collecting Japanese tea-ceremony objects for forty years.  When she asked I. M. Pei to design the Miho Museum to display her collection, he agreed on the condition that she expand her collection to appeal to a wider audience.  Thus she went on a shopping spree over the next six years.

Her new acquisitions weren’t just paintings and collections that a normal wealthy person would acquire.  They include some really significant items such as a Greek Hercules statue from the 3rd/4th century BC, an Egyptian statue of a Goddess from the 3rd century BC, and a piece of 8th century BC limestone carving from the Neo-Assyrian Empire from Iraq, to name but a few.  The source of some of the collections are questionable and lack provenance.  That is to say their source or historical ownership is unclear, and may have previously been looted or traded illegally in the past.


Apart from the collections, there are a few special exhibitions every year.  When I visited, there was an exhibition on chasaku.  If you don’t know what they are,  a look at the photo below and see if you can guess what it is.

This object, which looks like a ear pick, is a chashaku and is used to scoop tea leaves during the tea cermony.  I have seen them before but I never realised they were an art in themselves.   The exhibition must have displayed hundreds of them, many dating back to hundred of years old.  They are hand made by the tea masters, mainly carved from a single piece of bamboo and carefully moulded into their unique shape.  It was very interesting to read about the history of chashaku, but after about half an hour, and no disrespect to the exhibition, I think seeing one is no different from seeing hundreds of chashuku.


Despite all the controversies surrounding the Miho Museum, one cannot deny it’s beauty.  It blends the natural landscape with modern archictecture bringing a shangri la to real life.  A controversy or Shangri La?  What do you think?


Recently, the architect for the Miho Museum I. M. Pei  passed away at the age of 102. This post is dedicated to him and his works.