To appreciate Brussels you have to look heavenwards. The skyline of the Belgian capital is dotted with pinnacles. Medieval towers and the steeples of churches and cathedrals reach the clouds. Among all the Gothic Modernist and art nouveau marvels, there stands out a building that appears to have been uprooted from its place of origin and transplanted here.
A Japanese tower 40 metres high stands out against the grey Brussels sky. The Belgian king Leopold II bought it from another country: not Japan but France.
The Paris world’s fair of 1900 stunned everyone with its constructions. It didn’t have an Eiffel Tower (that was opened in 1889) but it presented other iconic buildings like the Orsay train station (today the Orsay Museum), the Petit Palais, the Grand Palais and the Alexander III bridge. But what most impressed the Belgian monarch were a Japanese tower and a Chinese pavilion.
He bought them and moved them to Laeken, on the outskirts to Brussels. Today the tower, the pavilion and the Museum of Japanese Art make up the fascinating Museum of the Far East. They are inside a park and surrounded by trees. When spring comes and the almond trees flower, visitors almost think they really are in the East.
The Japanese Tower was erected without using nails, according to traditional techniques. It houses that part of the collection of the Museum of the Far East dedicated to Japanese decorative porcelain. It was opened in 1905 following a large celebration in the park. Since then, it has become part of the Belgian landscape.
The Chinese Pavilion is lower but equally impressive. It follows the traditional Chinese aesthetic: heavier, strident and golden. Together they make up something different and well worth seeing.
The buildings have been closed to the public for an indefinite period, but their charm resides in the architectural whole, and the peace of the park. Just for that it’s worth a visit.