Time Travel: George Vanderbilt’s Visit to Japan
All Things Biltmore • 09/15/18
Written By Judy Ross
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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!
Featured image: Pagoda at Horinja-Nana. Photo purchased by George Vanderbilt, 1892