if there is one single thing that can be said to be iconic of japan, among the neon flooded nightscapes of osaka or tokyo, the geisha and zen gardens of kyoto, it must be mt. fuji, and its most immediately recognisable representation, the ukiyo‑e woodblock print , ‘great wave off kanagawa’ by the master of japanese woodblock printing, hokusai.
strange then, that until a couple of years ago there was no permanent museum or gallery specifically devoted to one of the capital’s most renowned sons. that omission has been remedied since 2016 in the sumida ward of tokyo, a district closely associated with the traditional side of tokyo. both the monumental tokyo edo museum, and the great sumo tournament venue or kokugikan are located nearby, as is the more in-your-face tokyo skytree. hokusai spent most of his long and productive life in and around the sumida area, so it is fitting that the museum should be located here although it is unlikely that the great master would recognise the area now, with its modest apartment blocks and offices.
the architect chosen for the design of the museum was kazuyo sejima a founding partner of the SANAA practice. among the partnership’s key works are the 21st century museum of contemporary art in kanazawa adjacent to one of japan’s most beautiful gardens, kenrokuen. in 2009, the partners were invited to build the british serpentine gallery’s annual summer pavilion in hyde park. unlike some of the other pavilions this temporary structure of polished metal roofs mirroring the surrounding trees seemed to melt into its background. it was described by the director of the serpentine, julia peyton-jones as ‘strange and gorgeous’.
the sumida hokusai museum manages to achieve a striking intervention without bombast, and provides a focus for its surrounding community, as well as the increasing numbers of visitors.