The Rock Garden that makes use of ancient stones found throughout Japan

Opening last October after more than a decade of preparation, the Enoura Observatory is an installation of gallery spaces, performance stages, a traditional teahouse, two ancient gates and many, yet-more ancient stones, constructed in the words of the founder ‘as a forum for disseminating art and culture both within Japan and to the world’.

The project has been assembled on an idyllic site of citrus groves and native forest, backed by the Hakone Mountains and overlooking Sagami Bay, not far from the Tokyo/Yokohama conurbation. Perhaps tied in with a visit to the MOA Museum in nearby Atami – its new galleries also designed by Sugimoto – it would be difficult to imagine a more pleasant cultural excursion for a day out of town.

Hiroshi Sugimoto and Architectural Design Projects

Long famous for his photographs of sea-horizons, old cinema interiors and museum dioramas, Hiroshi Sugimoto has also branched out into architectural design projects as well as the production of Japanese performing arts. He has become noted as a master of wa-fu modaan – that minimalist style inspired by traditional Japanese arts and using fine materials, that we recognise as simply peerless, refined taste.

This is a taste that we much associate with the world of the Tea Ceremony – monochrome rustic tea-bowls, unfinished wood, bare tatami mats etc. –  while often overlooking the equally profound cultural influence of Shinto that dates from prehistoric times and is still a vital part of Japanese life today. In shrines around the country, we see the beauty of worn wood and stone combined in a style that seems ageless, perfectly complimentary and at home with surrounding nature and underscoring a profound reverence for myriad kami – those indefinable deities, spirits, or supernatural forces that somehow effect human lives for better or worse. There is nothing new about what we now consider as minimalist taste.

The Enoura Observatory

The Enoura Observatory is Sugimoto’s most ambitious endeavour to date where, in addition to gaming with line, form and texture, he considers the majestic yet subtle changes brought about by light, the summer and winter solstices, and by time itself. Just a year or two younger than myself, he realises that little of Enoura’s material structure is likely to change dramatically during the rest of his life, but likes to imagine visitors to the site, thousands of years in the future when the wood and steel components will have long disappeared, wandering around the stone remains and pondering their meaning and purpose.

Sugimoto is an Avid Stone-hunter

Sugimoto is an avid stone-hunter and has accumulated exceptional examples from all over the country. Many of these have already been employed by man at some time or other in history and so picturing the millennia of these stones’ past and future adds another dimension to how the site can be perceived and appreciated in the present.

While we are familiar with the evolution of man’s art and culture so far, Sugimoto claims that ‘Today, as we stand at a critical point in our evolution, art has lost its onetime clarity of purpose. What should art today express? We cannot answer this question simply, but what we can do is return to the wellspring of human consciousness, explore its sources, and chart the course it has followed thus far’.

Odawara Art Foundation

Elaborating that this is the mission of the Odawara Art Foundation founded by himself to own and manage the site, Sugimoto further explains: ‘At the dawn of history, when the ancients first gained self-awareness, their first step was to search for and identify the place they occupied within the vastness of the starry firmament. This search for meaning and identity was also the primal force behind art’.

Visitors are allowed a couple of hours to consider this concept while wandering around the spacious site, starting at a reception building where visitors are given maps and an explanatory guide. Here windows all round look out to the surrounding mountains and citrus farms, but the highlight is a massive table made of Yakusugi cedar-wood harvested from trees over a thousand years old, found only on Yakushima Island to the South of Kagoshima.

Wood from the Daikan-ji Temple on Mt Koya

The old wood is of a golden-straw colour with a matt surface, wavy grain, and holes here and there that no doubt housed generations of tunnelling insects. This huge piece of wood is supported by, and perforated at one end, by an ancient stone water-basin originally from the Daikan-ji temple on Mt Koya, looking like a volcano emerging from a vast plain.

Celebrating the Solstices

Two structures on the site have been made to celebrate the solstices: that which captures the first rays of the sun in mid-summer is a 100-metre long gallery with a wall built of Oya stone, facing an opposite wall of glass windows and a garden of stones beyond. This beautiful lava-and-ash rock is found only in a small area near Utsunomiya to the north of Tokyo and was used by Frank Lloyd Wright to build the old, sadly-demolished Imperial Hotel. (At least you can now see the lobby, reconstructed and preserved, at the Meiji Mura near Nagoya.) At present this gallery is displaying a series of Sugimoto’s monochrome photographs of meditative ocean horizons framed in what looks like soft grey lead that serve as a prelude to a truly inspiring view over the Pacific Ocean itself from the far end balcony.

The Mid-Winter Sunrise

To celebrate the mid-winter sunrise is a 70-metre long tunnel of CorTen steel – an alloy developed in America that weathers to look like rust but stabilises with a surface clean enough not to stain hands or shirts that might come in contact. This metal tube is much narrower than the summer gallery, and ends abruptly with a view to the ocean from a different angle of some 60 degrees or so, but no viewing balcony is provided here, and a simple stone tied with straw placed on the floor a few metres before the tunnel’s open end in mid-air provides a traditional Japanese warning to go no further.

In most of the tunnel it is rather dark – and that is on a sunny day – except in one spot where a single overhead aperture admits light from above over an ancient stone-well set in the floor and containing chunks of glass that look like ice. One thinks of James Turrell’s explorations of time and space here, especially his framed views of the sky, and it is easy to imagine how this would all appear in rainfall, or – even though much rarer in this part of Japan – a winter snowfall.

Next to this steel tube a stage has been constructed of optical glass that, even though supported by a cedar-wooden frame, seems to float in mid-air and as it too reflects the sky, seems to extend to the ocean beyond. The stage is viewed from a fan-shaped construction of stepped-stone seating copied on a smaller scale from the famous Roman amphitheatre that can still be seen in Ferento, in the outskirts of Viterbo north of Rome. Here however, the area at the bottom of the stepped seating and before the glass stage – normally the realm of actors – has been used to make a small dry garden of two slabs of rock nestled in pebbles which bring to mind those at the Daitoku-ji complex of Zen temples in Kyoto.

The Solstice Tubes

While these two solstice tubes form the main bones of the site, it is the abundance of details, each needing time to contemplate, that make roaming around the site such a delight. One soon realises that the permitted two hours is not nearly long enough to even absorb the history of the many components, let alone to sit quietly and get lost in flights of imagination, and we can only do our best in the time available.

The Tea Ceremony and Enoura Observatory

The Tea Ceremony is central to understanding Japanese culture and a teahouse named ‘Uchoten’ (Listen to the Rain), has been built with dimensions the same as the famous Taian teahouse said to have been designed by Sen no Rikyu – that master of codifying the Tea Ceremony as art born of poverty – and has been constructed of local materials including a roof of old corrugated iron scavenged from a local barn. This building is aligned with the first rays of sunrise during the spring and autumn equinoxes so that the interior becomes briefly illuminated, while a glass step before the entrance would appear to glow.

Sugimoto is intrigued by glass and its reaction with light almost as much as he is by stone and its play with water, and here we are reminded of the glass steps he designed some years ago for the Go-O Shrine on Naoshima Island, looking like those blocks of ice they deliver to the Ginza bars at nightfall, and descending into a subterranean cave like the burial-chamber of an ancient tumulus.

Torii Gate at Enoura Observatory

Facing the Uchoten entrance – and framing the equinox sunrises – a torii gate of huge stone slabs harkens to an ancient form of those entrances to shrines that mark the portal between our world and that of the kami, while underfoot there is another great slab of stone – the lid of an old sarcophagus found near Nara and dating from the Tumulus period (250-538).

The Great Stones

Great stones abound, each with their own history but grouped here at Enoura in various assemblages for the first time. A circular stage is centred by a round stone of a type used to support temple pillars, surrounded by radiations of paving stones recycled from the Kyoto tramway system, that in turn is surrounded by large stones once destined for the Edo Castle construction during the early 17th century. These basalt volcanic rocks are characterised by rows of holes made for splitting into manoeuvrable lumps and can still be seen here and there around the Northeast coast of Izu. As all the perfect ones were no doubt shipped to Edo at the time, it is presumed that those remaining are the mistakes:  either of unsuitable shape or that fell off en route to the boat.

Stone Stage at the Enoura Observatory

Another stone stage is constructed with dimensions we see in a Noh stage of rocks excavated during the preparation of the site, approached by a massive bridge of a single, 23-ton slab of stone that Sugimoto found in Fukushima Prefecture – this is spectacularly cracked through from end to end like a bolt of lightning. Both of these stages are carefully located to catch the first rays of either a solstice or equinox sunrise and provide ideal venues for performances of celebration or worship.

The Enoura Observatory is an extraordinary achievement, the result not only of Sugimoto’s rich imagination and dreams, but also his ability to get things done in this land where what is simple becomes complicated, and what is already complicated can get much, much more so. (Apparently his business associate architect Tomoyuki Sakakida steers projects through the bureaucratic minefields.) Nevertheless, abundant potential remains for further enrichment and enhancement of a visiting Enoura experience.

These are early days but at the moment the site is restrained by limited access times during the day when the light is the least interesting, as well as ticket-buying hurdles – particularly if you do not have one of the four credit cards designated for payment. I would love to witness the solstice sunrise, both summer and winter, see masked dances on the glass stage with the lights of fishing boats in the distance, and the full moon over Sagami Bay on those warm nights of early autumn.

The site lends itself to what would surely be memorable events – Noh performances by firelight, Buto dance theatre, Shakuhachi concerts – and many other dramatic spectacles both ancient and modern in which Japan excels. Logistical objections abound,I know, but sweep these aside and just make it happen. Enoura will come alive. This is a place for night as well as day, to be seen under moonlight and stars, its beauty enhanced by shadows.


Odawara Art Foundation, 362-1 Enoura, OdawaraKanagawa-Ken, odawara-af.com. Entrance is limited to 30 people at a time with three entrance times daily during the warmer months from April to October, and two entrances daily for the rest of the year. The facility is closed each Tuesday and Wednesday.

Entrance to the Enoura Observatory is by reservation only through the foundation’s website.

A shuttle bus operates from the Nebukawa Station on the JR Tokkaido Line. Alternatively, it is easy to get a taxi from Manazuru Station on the same line. There is parking at the observatory but it is advised to reserve a place in advance.