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Saturday, April 30, 2005

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Standing still in time and place


For my money, there are two "not-to-miss" sights in the overall Kanto area.

One is the look on the face of my dog, Tofu, when I crack open the door on a winter's morning to let her out into a yard covered by a late night snow. Tofu cannot speak of course, but in this instance her expression alone communicates well enough. It says, ". . . Aw, shit."

While that particular sight is priceless, the other costs only 400 yen. That's the entrance fee to a creaky museum just minutes from Nippori Station in north Tokyo, a place I am fairly in love with. So, as a labor of love, let me now crank out some free advertisement for a sightseeing gem that is neither hidden nor unpolished, just mostly unheard of.

It is the home of 20th century sculptor Fumio Asakura. Which is a name that draws blanks and blinks even from many Japanese. Too bad. For Asakura leaves an impression.

Enough so that he is called the father of Japanese sculpture, as well as Japan's top sculptor of the last century. And perhaps even beyond that -- for local folklore states his mere presence prevented Allied bombers from razing the Yanaka district of Tokyo. Artists around the world, the story goes, lobbied to have the man and his masterpieces spared from the firebombs.

Whether true or not makes no difference. The story shows the esteem for which he is held.

Now, when it comes to Japan, I routinely pretend to know culture, language, politics, education, sports, food, beer, roaches, toilets and women (in no particular order), but I do not pretend to know art. Yet I do know what I like. And I like Asakura.

As proof of how naive I am regarding sculpture, upon hearing the word "statue," my usual response is to turn and shout, "Gesundheit." Yet this little museum is not to be sneezed at.

To start, it is not just a display stage for bronze men and beasts. It is Asakura's self-designed home, and the minute visitors spy the statue (Gesundheit!) perched above the rooftop garden, they must realize this is not a typical Japanese residence. From the winding stairs that lead up from the entranceway through Asakura's working space and on to the trees and other plants on the rooftop, to the cavernous studio just behind the entrance, then on farther to the horseshoe-shaped first and second floors that wrap around a picture-book Japanese garden in the dwelling's center -- this home is a work of art in itself.

With an English library replete with glass casings that stretch to the ceiling, rooms full of wavy Japanese shelving seeming carved from the walls, shapely twists and turns of wood and workmanship everywhere, and plentiful space, air and peace . . . THIS is the home I want to live in. This is the home ANYONE would want to live in. But only one person has: Fumio Asakura.

Born in Oita in 1883, Asakura graduated from what is now the Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1907, and within 10 years was without peer in his field. He taught at his alma mater until 1951 and died in 1963. But -- as with most brilliant artists -- there is still a lot of him left around.

For if you wish to see his sculpture, just keep your eyes peeled. There is an Asakura statue at Tokyo Station. Then three more at Ueno Station. Four at Sensoji. Five at the Kabuki-za. And so on. They are everywhere.

What kind of statues? Well, the variety reaches from chimps to lions to musty professors in robes, but the mainstays are two: Female nudes . . .

"Ah," winks my wife. "Now I see the attraction. I suppose his works are all hands-on, too."

. . . And cats. Tons of cats. Cats, cats and more cats. And -- if the truth be known -- all of these appear to be nude as well.

But far be it for me to judge a man for his cats. Or his nude women. I only know that Asakura's works have something that other statues don't. There is a certain truth about them. Something that is at once bigger than life, yet altogether natural. When you look them in the eye, they look back. Frozen in time and space and on pedestals for all the world to see, they may appear grim, morose or whimsical. But above all . . . they seem real.

Now I suppose in a land of silk screens, arranged flowers, ceremonial tea and breathtaking kimonos, some people might deem Asakura's sculptures not quite Japanese. They might argue that he has stepped away from his own culture and mastered a "Western" form of art.

My answer to this is that I bet most such people have not viewed Asakura's sculptures. For they are as Japanese as Japanese perception itself and as timely as any still photograph preserved from ages past.

Yet as a concession I will grant that there may be more not-to-miss sights inside the Kanto plain other than my dog and the Asakura menagerie, including the charm of Sensoji, the art of Ueno and so on.

But beyond the hustle of the jostling crowds and the hubbub of the clacking trains, I will still hold up the Asakura Choso Museum.

For on the pleasant quiet of a weekday morning it is possible to wander through this wonderful home without meeting any of that one stifling commodity for which Tokyo is most infamous -- other people.

Oh, there are people present . . . as well as cats. But not one moves even a single eyelash. They hold perfectly still as you glide your way around them.

Now that is an experience not to be matched elsewhere in the city. And for 400 yen, it's a steal.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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