長沢芦雪 《龍図・虎図襖》より《虎図襖》 1786年 無量寺 串本応挙芦雪館蔵 重要文化財  後期展示

Five events to keep an eye on at the Japan Cultural Expo – with Jun Aoki

The world-renowned architect zooms in on design, architecture and Kyoto in picking his favourite events at this massive festival of arts and culture

Written by Time Out. Paid for by Japan Cultural Expo

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A comprehensive celebration of Japanese arts and culture that’s part of the lead-up to next year’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the ongoing Japan Cultural Expo features everything from art exhibitions to performing arts events taking place throughout the country. The expo offers something for everyone, but the vast number of happenings held under its umbrella can make choosing what to see a bit challenging. In this series, we’re checking in with six experts to get an insider’s take on the Japan Cultural Expo events that definitely shouldn’t be missed.

Our second curator is architect Jun Aoki, noted for his work with Louis Vuitton and the man behind the redesign of the recently reopened Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art, where he also serves as director. Aoki’s five picks focus on the twin themes of architecture and Kyoto, which he approaches from the perspective of nature. ‘I feel like the air in Japan is moist, which makes things that are far away appear blurry,’ he says. ‘I think that’s characteristic of nature in this country and something that’s reflected in our architecture, which often relies on asymmetric shapes. I think asymmetry is produced by things appearing and disappearing in the air, which has a sense of depth and impedes the pursuit of symmetry. For me, air is the basis of Japanese aesthetics.’ Find out how Aoki’s theory translates to practice at the five events below.

Japanese Architecture: Traditional Skills and Natural Materials
Japanese Architecture: Traditional Skills and Natural Materials
Photo: 長寿寺本堂 1/10模型 1987年 国立歴史民俗博物館蔵(原建物:鎌倉時代前期/国宝)

Japanese Architecture: Traditional Skills and Natural Materials

Art Multiple venues

Taking on the history of Japanese architecture from antiquity to the present, this ambitious Tokyo exhibition provides a comprehensive introduction to its field. Intricate architectural models are employed to highlight the characteristics of various building styles, particularly Japan’s traditional wooden architecture, and visitors are treated to in-depth explanations of building techniques and materials.

‘Traditionally, most Japanese buildings were made of wood, and the techniques involved in their construction are really interesting,’ says Jun Aoki. ‘Each type of tree is different: hinoki cypress is soft and easy to manipulate, while zelkova is hard and sturdy. The former is often used for beams and the latter for columns – every tree has its own role. Procuring enough wood to construct something takes effort, too, especially if you’re sourcing precious types to build a teahouse or something.’

‘The intricacy of Japanese architecture is another point of interest. Take the soriyane roof, which has a slight concave curve. You need to combine special rafters cut up into parallelogram shapes cross-sectionally with a beam prepared exclusively for this purpose to make the structure work. This kind of time-consuming labor, in which a lot of attention is paid to small details, is characteristic of architecture in this country and something I hope the exhibition will highlight.’ 

250 Years of Kyoto Art Masterpieces
250 Years of Kyoto Art Masterpieces
Photo: 八木一夫《ザムザ氏の散歩》1954年 通期展示

250 Years of Kyoto Art Masterpieces

Kyoto’s Kyocera Museum of Art spotlights the ancient capital’s artistic heritage from the Edo period (1603-1868) to the present with this exhibition. Works by the likes of Soga Shohaku (whose “Immortals” unfortunately ended its display period on November 15), Asai Chu, Kazuo Yagi and Miwa Yanagi can now be admired all at once, as the display – originally planned as a three-part event – was converted into a single large showcase due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘Kyoto is a city of museums, each with its own mission. The Kyoto National Museum focuses on everything up to the 18th century, whereas the Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art highlights art created from the 19th century onward. This exhibition is a great example of that focus.

‘Nihonga (traditional Japanese) painting as it’s understood in Kyoto is slightly different from the Nihonga of Tokyo. The genre itself was invented in Tokyo to distinguish Japanese painting from its Western equivalent and to establish the former’s artistic value, but in Kyoto traditional painting was always more connected to daily life. Keeping that in mind should make the exhibition appear more interesting.’

Note: This exhibition ended its run on December 6.

工藝2020 ー自然と美のかたちー
工藝2020 ー自然と美のかたちー
奥田小由女 《海から天空へ》2018年 個人蔵

Kogei 2020 – The Art of Crafting Beauty from Nature

Traditional Japanese crafts, or kogei, are explored from every angle at the Tokyo National Museum, where the exhibits focus especially on nature and natural beauty. On display are a total of 82 works by artists practicing a wide range of techniques, along with multilingual explanations of the artistic media represented, including pottery, dyed textiles, lacquerware and bamboo crafts.

‘In Japan, crafts aren’t really “art” in the Western sense of something mainly for abstract appreciation, but items created to serve a purpose in daily life. I think we should be proud of our crafts, which were unfortunately relegated to a lower level after the introduction of Western ideas of art in the Meiji era (1868-1912).

‘For me, Japanese artistry is revealed in daily life, in actions such as the tea ceremony. Exhibiting kogei is great because looking at crafts helps people understand art in a different context and leads to new discoveries.’

Note: This exhibition ended its run on November 15.

Momoyama: Artistic Visions in a Turbulent Century
Momoyama: Artistic Visions in a Turbulent Century
Photo: Momoyama: Artistic Visions in a Turbulent Century

Momoyama: Artistic Visions in a Turbulent Century

The Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573–1603) was a turbulent time, one that saw warlord-led clans battle for supremacy throughout Japan, but it was also an era of great artistic flourishing. This exhibition highlights some of the most important masterpieces of the period, including the folding screen paintings ‘Chinese Lions’ by Kano Eitoku, ‘Scenes in and around the Capital (Funaki Version)’ by Iwasa Matabei and ‘Maple Trees’ by Hasegawa Tohaku. Note that tickets are available only in advance and for specific time slots, and may sell out.

‘“Scenes in and around the Capital” is a masterpiece of the Kano school, created in a time that for many marked one of the greatest periods of achievement in Japanese art history. Being able to view some of the finest work from that era is notable in itself.

‘The basis of modern-day Japanese aesthetics was formed during the Edo period, so the understanding of beauty that existed in the earlier Momoyama period is, in a way, a thing of the past. It’s interesting being able to view art from that period through the lens of our modern-day sensibilities.’

Note: This exhibition ended its run on November 29.

青木淳 プロフィール
Photo: Masakazu Yoshiba


Jun Aoki

Born in Yokohama in 1956, Jun Aoki holds a master’s degree from the University of Tokyo’s Department of Architecture. He established Jun Aoki & Associates in 1991 (reorganised as AS in 2020) and has worked on projects including the Mamihara Bridge in Kumamoto, the Fukushima Lagoon Museum, Louis Vuitton Omotesando and the Aomori Museum of Art. Aoki is active across a broad range of genres, including architectural design for public and commercial buildings as well as private houses, and art installations. He was the principal architect (along with Tezzo Nishizawa) working on the renovation of the Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art, and was appointed director of that museum in April 2019. Aoki also serves as a professor at the Tokyo University of the Arts Department of Architecture.

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