Its August 2010, Japans hottest summer on record, Im sitting in a train car, no A/C, sweat rolling through every crevice of my body, and I have a destination but no direction. I think this is the right train...though it was my girlfriend, Doren, who at the train station screamed, THIS IS IT! and pushed me on without hesitation. The train took off.
Dor and I are now rummaging through every map, every scribbled-on scrap of paper and every direction we have written down, trying to find the right train stop. The train keeps rolling through the Niigata countryside, getting ever closer to, or further from, our destination.
A Japanese gentleman in the seat to my left sees our frantic rummaging and, like every other Japanese person we have encountered on this trip, heroically comes to our rescue, where are you trying to go?
The ADA Nature Aquarium Gallery, I respond hopefully, almost inquisitively.
A pause and a smile. Ah, Mr. Amano, he says, I have met Mr. Amano. He lives near me.
I brighten. Really?
He is a very famous man in Japan, the man says and proceeds to tell me of Mr. Amanos presentation of the Primitive Cedar Tree in Sado to the G8 Working Lunch held in 2008 in Hokkaido, Japan.
When did you meet him? I ask.
He came to visit my winery two years ago, he said, and pulls out a local magazine, opening it to the first page. This is Mr. Amano, he points to a small picture of Mr. Amano surrounded by gorgeous photographs of the Sado coastline. He then flips the page and points to a picture of a man standing inside a wine cellar, and this is me. You can have the magazine, they are free, he hands it to me. Anyway, you should get off at Maki.
All I can do is stare pop-eyed and belch a Thank You!
The man, Mr. Takashi Honda, owner of the Fermier winery, got off at the next stop leaving Dor and I to again marvel at the incredible kindness of strangers.
Having properly disembarked from the train at Maki we decide to grab a cab to avoid the absurd heat. I climb into the cab and the cabbie turns toward me as if asking, where to? I oblige, ADA Nature Aquarium Gallery? He stares back at me like Im speaking another language (oh, wait!). I then point to what I believe to be the Japanese translation.
Ah, sakanaya, Japanese for fish store.
Hai! I respond, and were off.
The view from the cab is rice fields and industrial warehouses. After five minutes of driving Dor taps my shoulder, did you see that modern-looking building?
No, I say, and the cabbie takes a hair-raising right turn.
I think thats where were headed, she says and a slight shiver begins to build at the base of my neck.
When I decided to travel to Japan, the decision was initially based on little more than my unrequited desire to see the ADA Nature Aquarium Gallery and Sensei Amanos work first hand. I of course found other reasons but the ADA NA Gallery remained paramount.
Now, as we pull up to the front entrance, all the world is swept away and in its place sits a present, gift-wrapped in concrete, glass and steel. I honestly dont remember how many yen I threw at the cab driver, only the feeling as I strode through the swinging-glass front doors to be greeted by an eight-foot wide artisanal masterpiece. Like St. Peter at the gates of heaven, it welcomed me with open arms.
The wall adjacent to the Nature Aquarium Gallery entrance is inset with a nature aquarium of breathtaking elegance.
It is a classic V shaped layout comprised of massive and beautifully smooth Hakkai stone and a maddening array of aquatic plants including Glossostigma elatinoides, Sagittaria subulata, Cryptocoryne crispatula var. balansae, Valasernia americana, and Aponogeton madagascariensis, among others.
This masterful work serves as an eloquent and fitting frame for the myriad Amano styled nature aquariums that can be viewed through the negative space of the valley layout.
The entryway to the ADA building leads around a corner to a hallway, which stretches the entire length of the ADA building and out into a courtyard. The right wall of this hallway is of floor to ceiling glass and on the other side, the Nature Aquarium Gallery.
Upon entry, each aquarium beckons with majestic allure, each one imbued with its own kami, each one a living, breathing work of art. Surprising still is the complete lack of any auditory disturbance once inside. Where some would see fit to supplement the publics viewing experience with music or ambient nature noise, here, only the subtle babble of water can be divined among the background of silence.
The first of the nature aquaria I encounter is emblematic of the style that Mr. Amano is so well known for. A verdant, grass-like, foreground carpet of bright green Lilaeopsis brasiliensis contrasts with the center weighted mid-ground forest of reddish-brown cryptycoryne wendtii, microsorum pteropus v. narrow leaf, and Bolbitis heudelotii.
Rising from this mélange of mid-ground plants, the arms of a single piece of driftwood divide out of the center, branching across both sides of the layout, sheltering the underlying growth, each arm of wood covered in a fuzz of well-manicured moss.
I move down the row of aquaria, studying each in admiration and amazement. The first row of aquaria is arranged along the shared glass wall and leads toward two black wooden tables at the back of the gallery, which are strewn with Amano paraphernalia. To the left of the tables stands an emerald landscape of wabikusa style aquascapes.
However, the most striking of the surrounding display is on the opposite side of the tables.
Truly unlike any nature aquarium I have seen before, this alien landscape can best be compared to those magazine images of the Sado coastline. The black stones in this scape grow preternaturally out of the white sand substrate like monolithic basalt islands. Each stone is covered, from base to tip, in moss and the spaces in-between are accented with Hydrocotyle sibthorpioides, and Riccia fluitan. The backdrop of the composition is further accented with twining strands of Eleocharis sp. The tank is populated with a prodigious cloud of cardinal tetras, in addition to the token Caridinia japonica, making this nature aquarium a picture of unique inspiration.
It bears mentioning that an equally striking sight is the awe-inspiring array of cameras and equipment stored in the back of the gallery, next to the photography backdrop ostensibly used for shooting aquaria. Everything from large-format bellows style cameras to lights and tripods are stored in cabinets and on shelves.
Having made my way to the back of the Nature Aquarium Gallery, I ask to use the bathroom. As I head down the outside hall and behind the Nature Aquarium Gallery, just before I arrive at the bathroom, I find a collection of stainless steel industrial refrigerators.
What could he possibly keep in there?
My interest piqued, I quietly open the door to a fridge crammed full of large format Fujifilm. Takashi Amano shoots film! I suppose part of me should understand this intuitively from the fact that the man uses large format cameras almost exclusively for his major landscapes, but it nevertheless surprises me to no end.
I continue to peruse the remaining aquaria. Two tanks in particular strike me as uniquely appealing. Juxtaposed next to one another, one a hill style layout and the other a wedge style, the two form a unique complement.
The hill styled aquarium caught my attention initially because of the steep grade of the substrate slope and the well-manicured foreground of Glossostigma elatinoides. The closely cropped foreground lawn has yellowed in parts, lending (in my opinion) a more natural feel to this layout.
Additionally, the plant arrangement is unquestionably novel because it utilizes larger plants in the foreground that are traditionally placed in the background. A large foreground tuft of Eleocharis sp. has in some places grown to the entire height of the tank, and Bolbitis are attached intermittently to two pieces of driftwood placed in the front corners of the tank.
The wedge style layout is similarly eye catching, but because of the complementing shapes of the Glossostigma elatinoides foreground and the Anubias nana v. petite background. Adding to the visual complexity of this layout is a piece of knotty, branching root-wood that stretches from the top rear of the tank to the opposite foreground corner at the bottom of the aquarium. The root-wood almost elicits images of a Floridian mangrove but for the dark stone used in the background, which impresses a more temperate climate on the scape.
Having made my final rounds through the Nature Aquarium Gallery I call a cab and take a few final mental notes. After Dor and I move out to the ADA lobby entrance, I snap a few more pictures and wait for the cab to arrive.
Amid all the beauty and novelty and natural wonder, my one realization was that each and every work in the ADA Nature Aquarium Gallery is born of collaboration collaboration of man and nature, absence and presence, mind and body, spirit and soul and no greater lesson could be taken away.
My experience now just a collaboration of memory, I get in the cab and ride silently back to the train station.