The Odawara Art Foundation’s stunning Enoura Observatory only opened to the public in late 2017, but in that short time has drawn such enthusiastic recommendations that I was eager to see it for myself. I wasn’t disappointed. At Enoura, situated in the Hakone mountains along the coast between Odawara and Atami, architect Hiroshi Sugimoto has created an artistic treat for the eyes and mind in a sprawling citrus grove overlooking the sea.

Despite its peaceful rural location, I found Enoura Observatory to be extremely accessible as a day trip from Tokyo. Since I was travelling by public transport I had booked a seat on the Observatory’s free shuttle bus, which runs from Nebukawa station and is scheduled to coincide with timed entry to the site. To enable visitors to fully appreciate the area, numbers are limited and during my 1pm slot I shared the site with a maximum of 15 other visitors, a rare treat of near-solitude on a beautiful spring Saturday.

Enoura Observatory is the brainchild of Hiroshi Sugimoto, a leading photographer and architect whose work I have seen on the art island of Naoshima, amongst other places. Although he now designs buildings, Sugimoto does not have formal training as an architect, and instead works with qualified architects to realize his creative visions. On experiencing his work, I felt that this blurring of professional boundaries comes across strongly, as Enoura seems to sit somewhere in between what we usually categorize as art, architecture, sculpture and antiquarianism.

After arriving at the site and being greeted in the stylish glass Welcome Centre, I equipped myself with a map and brochure, both available in flawless English. There are currently no food or drink facilities at Enoura (other than a vending machine), but I was shown the areas in which I could eat my packed lunch. After a quick snack of a delicious, locally-grown mikan I had bought from a stall at Nebukawa station, I set out to discover the 35 art works on display. Some of the structures are large, such as a metal tunnel which runs beneath the site and juts out over the hillside directly towards the sea.

Hiroshi Sugimoto's Enoura Observatory Worship Tunnel

The Winter Solstice Light Worship Tunnel juts out across the bay, its rust colour contrasting with the surrounding countryside.

Others, such as a cornerstone taken from the 7th-century Kawaradera temple in Nara prefecture, seemed unassuming until I took a closer look at the information and discovered its long history.

Sugimoto has designed the entire site holistically and I was particularly impressed by decorative touches such as the beautifully raked gravel, arranged in clean, even lines and concentric circles. These kind of subtle features, which seemingly extend to the careful selection and placement of almost every stone, unobtrusively enhance the serene beauty of the site, which is in itself a work of art.

I soon discovered that Sugimoto has a keen interest in traditional Japanese building materials and techniques, and has incorporated stone of various types that he has found all over Japan into the Enoura experience. He has created a ”floating bridge”’ using local Nebukawa stone, and I was amused to learn that the roof of his ”Listen to the Rain” tea-house is made from the rusty, corrugated iron roof taken from a nearby barn. I was fortunate to visit on a dry day, but it was easy to imagine the atmospheric sound of rain pounding on the roof adding to the meditative experience of the tea ceremony.

Enoura Observatory floating bridge

The stones on this ‘floating bridge’ are carefully nestled on a bed of moss, allowing for an interesting walking experience across the site.

Coming from Europe, where it is not uncommon to see historic stone structures, I am sometimes disappointed by Japan’s lack of material history (due to the Japanese tradition of building in wood, few structures have survived the course of time) and I was intrigued to see examples of a stone bridge from ancient capital city of Fujiwara-kyo (c.700AD) and a stone, 13-storey pagoda from the medieval Kamakura period.

Enoura Observatory stone pagoda

A 13-story stone pagoda from Uchiyama Eikyu-ji Temple.

As impressive as these individual structures are, however, Edoura Observatory is far more than the sum of its parts. A helpful guide explained how the whole site was designed to be in sympathy with the rhythm of the seasons. At certain pivotal points in the year, such as the summer and winter solstices and spring equinox, the sun’s rays align with the architecture to create a feeling of perfect harmony between the site and the natural world.

Enoura Observatory glass stage

The glass stage is supported by attractive wooden stilts descending down the hillside, creating the impression that the stage is floating on the sea behind. Apparently the stage glows when it catches the morning sun on the Winter Solstice.

Since my visit did not coincide with one of these rare occasions, I contented myself with imagining I was crouching around the specially-constructed fire pit on a cold winter night, waiting for sunrise to start the show.

Nature is not the only actor in the dramatic space Sugimoto has created at Enoura. The site also includes two stages, one made of glass that appears to float on the sea, and another specially designed for Noh drama and made from stone quarried during the Edo period.

Enoura Observatory circular stage

Showing Sugimoto’s love of using materials he has collected from all over Japan, this circular stage is paved with stones from the Kyoto tramway. Chisel marks on the stones around the entrance to the Sun-Worship Tunnel have chisel marks showing they were quarried in the Edo era.

Enoura Observatory stage

The impressive stone stage is designed according to the proportions of traditional Noh drama. The bridgeway leading to the stage is a single 23-ton stone slab that Sugimoto came across in Fukushima.

The theatrical potential of Enoura Observatory is something I will be sure to investigate further when making another visit. While there is no schedule of events as yet, I hope that full use will be made of this extraordinary and atmospheric place in future.

Only an hour by train from Tokyo, a trip to the Observatory allows visitors not only to experience an extraordinary blend of art, design and architecture but to immerse themselves in a tranquil and atmospheric escape from the modern world.

Enoura Observatory :

Address: 362-1 Enoura, Odawara, Kanagawa, Japan

Phone : 0465-42-9170 (reservations are not accepted by phone)

Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays

Odawara Art Foundation :