Time Travel: George Vanderbilt’s Visit to Japan

Time travel with us to explore George Vanderbilt’s visit to Japan that began on September 1, 1892.

George Vanderbilt’s visit to Japan

Just as visitors do today, Vanderbilt and his cousin, Clarence Barker, toured countless temples and other cultural sites during their visit to Japan. But they apparently worked in some shopping as well, as Biltmore’s archives indicate.

Ni-o guardians, carved wood. Edo period (1603-1868).

Like most of us, George Vanderbilt purchased souvenirs to remind him of the fascinating places he visited. Unlike us, however, he had a 250-room home under construction with plenty of space for accessories!

Perceptions of other places

Time Travel: George Vanderbilt's Visit to Japan
Nagasaki, Takabato Island. Photo purchased by George Vanderbilt, 1892.

Today, it’s hard to imagine how “foreign” Japan seemed to Americans at the end of the 1800s. The country had been closed to most Westerners for 200 years, only opening somewhat to trade beginning in the 1850s.

In Vanderbilt’s time, Japan was viewed as a place untouched by the west’s industrialization and modernization. Popular literature of the time evoked a far-off land where feudal traditions persisted and its people lived a simpler life.

Netsuke souvenirs from George Vanderbilt's trip to Japan
Carved netsuke, originally used as toggles on kimonos

To many Americans, Japan and its culture was exotic and rooted in tradition, offering a blend of spirituality and aesthetic beauty. To George Vanderbilt, deeply interested in history, the arts, and collecting, the allure must have been irresistible.

A far-east adventure

Invitation to Emperor of Japan's birthday celebration, 1892.
Invitation to Emperor of Japan’s birthday celebration, 1892

The trip itself was an adventure. Vanderbilt and Barker—one of his favorite traveling companions—had just returned from Spain when an invitation arrived to attend the Emperor of Japan’s birthday celebration. Soon after, they packed their trunks and, on September 1, 1892, embarked on the first leg of a 10-week itinerary.

First, they accompanied Biltmore architect Richard Morris Hunt to Chicago to see his preliminary work on the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Photo of George Vanderbilt's cousin Clarence Barker
Clarence Barker, George Vanderbilt’s cousin and frequent travel companion, ca. 1890

From there, the pair continued westward, stopping in Yellowstone National Park at the Mammoth Hot Springs hotel. Upon reaching San Francisco, they boarded ship for the week-long journey to Yokohama to begin their exploration of Japanese culture and customs—and evidently, quite a bit of shopping!

Shopping for souvenirs

Time Travel: George Vanderbilt's Visit to Japan
Ceremonial samurai swords with decorative display stand

Antiques shops and art dealers were obviously part of the itinerary, as Vanderbilt eventually shipped 32 cases of art and decorative objects back to America. Among his purchases were:

  • Satsuma ceramics, including a koro or ceremonial incense burner, for $85—a significant sum 122 years ago
  • Two suits of samurai armor along with spears and swords
  • Netsuke—miniature sculptures originally used as kimono toggles
  • Bronze sculptures
  • Lacquer boxes and sculptures
  • Varied screens and fans
  • Bamboo curtains
  • 1,000 festive paper lanterns

Time travel today at Biltmore

Aerial view of Biltmore House
Aerial view of Biltmore House and the Italian Garden

Although this year has presented some unique travel challenges–especially for large-scale journeys like George Vanderbilt’s visit to Japan, we hope you’ll consider Biltmore in your current and future plans. It’s an excellent place to “time travel” into our storied past!

If you’d prefer to visit without leaving the comfort of home, be sure to enjoy virtual tours of the estate, or indulge in a bit of shopping in our online store.

Featured image: Pagoda at Horinja-Nana. Photo purchased by George Vanderbilt, 1892