JQ Magazine: Philadelphia LOVEs Japan

Stone lantern amidst peonies and azaleas in Shofuso’s roji tea garden. (Therese Stephen)

By Therese Stephen (Iwate-ken, 1996-99) for JQ magazine.

What many people don’t know is that the City of Brotherly Love is in love with Japan, and has been since the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, when the Japanese Pavilion became one of the most popular exhibits of that historic World’s Fair.

When you think of Philadelphia, you probably think of cheesesteaks, the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall or the Rocky steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. What you might not realize is that Philly has many ways for Japanese, and the Japanese-at-heart, to get their Japan fix for a lot less than a roundtrip ticket to Tokyo. So, whether you’re planning a quick weekend getaway or day trip this summer, or if you’re a returning Philly JET looking at your hometown with a new post-JET perspective, read on for Philly’s best Japan picks.

Let’s start with those famous Rocky steps. It’s cheesy and we know it, but everyone who visits Philly has to replay that famous Rocky Balboa moment. So once you’ve run to the top of the steps and done your obligatory fists-in-the-air-pose, head on into the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) and find your way to the East Asian Galleries.

One of the most endearing and exciting things about the PMA are its period rooms. While there are plenty of rooms displaying objects on pedestals or paintings on walls, a few steps through a doorway connecting two galleries will suddenly put you in the middle of an Indian temple or the hall of a Chinese palace. Wander a little further and you’ll find Sunkaraku Tea House, the highlight of the Japanese collection in the East Asian Galleries.

A complete teahouse and accompanying waiting room, Sunkaraku (or “evanescent joys”) was designed by architect and tea master Ogi Rodo and built in Tokyo in 1917. It is one of four structures built by Rodo that still exists today, and the only one outside of Japan. Although you can’t walk through the structure, you can peek through windows and doorways to examine the teahouse, where many financial and political leaders of early 20th century Japan once participated in tea ceremonies.

PMA (www.philamuseum.org): Open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (Open until 8:45 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays.) Admission: $20 adults/$14 students (includes access to the Main Museum Building and the Perelman Building for two consecutive days); pay what you wish all day on the first Sunday of each month and Wednesday evenings after 5:00 p.m. Japanese visitors can ask for a 360-page guide to the museum in Nihongo.

If the view looking into Sunkaraku teahouse from the outside has whetted your appetite for Japanese architecture, then you must make Shofuso Japanese House and Garden in West Fairmount Park the next stop on your Japanese tour of Philly.

After leaving Japan, I found myself going through a fairly typical post-JET period of reverse culture shock. But when I found Shofuso, I knew it would be my Japanese home away from home. I go there to pretend I’m back in Japan for a while when I start feeling nostalgic, but not the bright lights, karaoke-and-dance club Japan. Nope. When I sit on the veranda at Shofuso, I’m transported to my Japanese homestay family’s tatami room where in summer we’d open the sliding doors to the garden and dangle our legs over the edge, enjoying the breeze and zoning out on Okaasan’s tidily kept garden.

Shofuso is an exquisite building designed by Japanese architect Junzo Yoshimura and based on 16th and 17th century Japanese architecture. Its deep, well-shaded verandah looks out over a large, koi-filled pond and Momoyama-style viewing garden designed by Sano Tansai. City noise is masked by the garden’s waterfall and the sound of the breeze blowing through the pines. It’s no coincidence that this collection of buildings—including its teahouse, bathhouse and kitchen—was dubbed Sho-fu-so, or Pine Breeze Villa. Though the structure itself is a piece of art worthy of notice, since 2007 Shofuso has also displayed a permanent installation of 20 modern Nihonga murals painted by world-renowned Japanese artist Hiroshi Senju. His waterfall paintings reflect the colors of Shofuso and match the mood and history of the site.

Initially built to be exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden in New York City from 1954 to 1955, Shofuso was dismantled, moved and then reassembled in Philadelphia’s West Fairmount Park. The spot was chosen because, not long after the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, a Buddhist gate called Nio-mon had been displayed there from 1905 until it burned down in 1955. The closing of the Shofuso exhibit at MoMA and the need to find the house and garden a new home was a fortuitous coincidence for Philadelphia, which had a Japanese structure on this spot almost continuously since 1876.

Shofuso (www.shofuso.com) – Open May to October 3rd; Tuesdays through Fridays, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission: $10 adults/$5 students and seniors; FREE for members. Visit their Web site for information on tea ceremonies and special events. Wear or bring socks to avoid having to wear paper slippers to tour the house. Also, call ahead at (215) 878-5097 before you visit, as a possible strike by city park workers may temporarily close the part of Fairmount Park where Shofuso is located.

There are too many Japanese treasures in Philly to mention in one article, like the unexpected maneki neko waving tirelessly through a window in historic Elfreth’s Alley, or the 102-foot tall Bolt of Lightning: A Memorial to Benjamin Franklin sculpture by Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi at Monument Plaza. But for tips on Japanese restaurants, shops or spots where Philly locals can keep up with their Japanese hobbies, click the “Resources” link at the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia Web site at www.jasgp.org.

Visitors to Philadelphia can get around easily on the Philly PHLASH bus (www.phillyphlash.com). An economical, hop-on hop-off bus ($5 for an all-day pass or $2 per ride), it stops near all the major Philly tourist attractions including the PMA (stop #11) and Memorial Hall/Please Touch Museum (stop #13, just a short walk from Shofuso). The route runs near the Suburban and Market East rail stations.

Finally, for Japanese tourists, a look at the Japanese translation of “The Constitutional Walking Tour of Philadelphia” can help with planning a tour of Philadelphia’s historic district – http://www.theconstitutional.com/selfguided/tour.php?lid=12. See you this summer!

For more information, go to www.visitphilly.com.