ultramarinus – beyond the sea

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INNSYOUTEI (韻松亭), Kaiseki in Ueno Park (上野公園), Tokyo, Japan

After leaving our luggage at the hotel, we took the Ginza Line Metro to Asakusa (浅草) to purchase the limited express train tickets for our upcoming Nikko day trip in two days’ time.  Then we decided to begin the day with some leisure time at Ueno Park and its museums after our red-eye flight.  With lush greenery, old trees, historical shrines and several museums, Ueno Park is a good place for a pleasant stroll.  From online research, we came across a beautiful restaurant called Innsyoutei (韻松亭).  Housed in a century-old timber building in the heart of Ueno Park, Innsyoutei serves a causal version of Kyoto kaiseki cuisine made with seasonal ingredients.  We decided to check it out before our museum hopping.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe original timber house of Innsyoutei was built in 1875.  A little over a decade ago, the building underwent a major renovation.  This rustic tea house has long been a landmark in Ueno Park, where visitors would stop for light refreshments.  The renovation maintained the original building layout, but replaced much of the timber structure with materials savaged from other old buildings in Kyoto and Shiga Prefecture.

02The traditional restaurant complex is full of the beauty of Zen.

03Innosyoutei (韻松亭) literally means “rhythm of the pine pavilion”.  This poetic restaurant remains popular with park visitors, especially during hanami (花見) season when the timber house is surrounded by clusters of cherry blossoms.

04Once entered the vestibule, we were immediately greeted by the fragrance of the incense.

05We took off our shoes at the vestibule, and were led to the dining hall on the upper level.

06The wooden stair is accompanied by a beautiful railing made of bamboo.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACovered with tatami floor mat, the dining hall was well lit with natural light coming from the large windows at both ends of the room.  Sitting on zabuton (floor cushions), guests gathered at low tables on the tatami to enjoy their Hana-kago-zen (flower basket meal).

08Outside the large window, we could see lush green everywhere.

09.JPGIt was not hard to imagine the beauty of the space during cherry blossoms when the lush green would be replaced with clusters of pink flowers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe sat down at a low table and ordered our lunch sets with much anticipation.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe appetizers soon arrived.  We were immediately impressed by the presentation and the taste of food.

13We ordered two different set meals of seasonal fish and vegetables.  The food was beautifully arranged and presented like two flower baskets with eye-catching colours.  The dishes were made of various vegetables skillfully prepared to bring out the distinct flavors and textures of the ingredients. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATofu, eggplant, beans, and mushroom might sound simple.  Yet when they were individually prepared with different flavours of sweetness, sourness and saltiness, and were tasted in a certain order of sequence, the experience would become much more complex and sophisticated.  Sometimes, we might not be able to tell what the actual ingredient was just by the look, and would get a pleasant surprise after the first bite. Every of our bite became an opportunity for a pleasant surprise, and was full of anticipation. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA cup of creamy yogurt-like custard beautifully served.

15The meal finished with the traditional delight, a mochi (rice cake) kind of dessert wrapped in a leaf.

16We unwrapped the leaf with high anticipation and were rewarded with a perfect gift to end the wonderful meal.

ARRIVAL IN SHIBUYA, Tokyo 2017

A brief Tokyo holiday in Mid-June 2017 was an ad-hoc decision after consecutive weeks of exhausting overtime work in April and May. With so much to offer as a cosmopolitan, Tokyo is an ideal destination that always delights us in various aspects from design exhibitions, novel fashion, seasonal delicacies to a simple cup of coffee. For five splendid days in the supposedly rainy season, we were fortunate to enjoy three full days of sunshine, and encountered only an hour or two of heavy rain on the last day as we were about to leave the Japanese capital on the Narita Express train.

Famed for its scramble crossing, youthful fashion and glittering neon lights, Shibuya (渋谷) of Tokyo also has a tranquil side lying just a block or two away from its vibrant shopping and entertainment scenes, and that was where we stayed for four nights at the periphery of the 24-hour vibrant actions of Shibuya.  Since the morning when the Narita Express train brought us directly from the airport after our red-eye flight from Hong Kong, we immediately found Shibuya an excellent base within walking distance to the surrounding neighborhoods such as Harajuku (原宿), Aoyama (青山), Ebisu (恵比寿), Daikanyama (代官山) and Nakameguro (中目黒), and a super convenient hub for public transit, where the JR Yamanote Line (山手線) intersects with several other Metro Lines and Private Railway Lines.

Our Tokyo journey 2017 began in Shibuya, in the midst of magnificent urban dynamic where the stylish young generation flock to the trendy fashion shops, where the locals gather around the statue of Hachikō (the loyal Akita dog (秋田犬) that continued to stay in front of Shibuya Station to wait for its owner for nine years after the owner’s death) to meet their friends, and where exciting tourists would stand in the flock of people at the scramble crossing for selfies in between traffic lights.  A slight drawback on staying in Shibuya was the intense construction works surrounding the station due to the upcoming Olympics Games.  With the new additions of commercial towers, underground shopping streets, and a beautiful new railway station, we anticipate a dramatic transformation of Shibuya before 2020. The current hoarding around construction sites, temporary walkways and directional signs enhance the maze-like character of this world’s fourth busiest railway station.  After all, we came to Tokyo to experience its magnificent urban vibrancy and dynamic cultures, and we were more than happy to call Shibuya home for five fantastic days.

01Even during a weekday morning, the scramble crossing of Shibuya is still teemed with pedestrians.
02The advertisement billboard of Kis-My-Ft2, the seven-member Japanese boy band, was the first thing we saw as we stepped out Shibuya Station after the two-hour Narita Express train ride.
03The wall of Shibuya Railway Station is decorated with relief of Hachikō (the loyal Akita dog (秋田犬) that continued to stay in front of Shibuya Station to wait for its owner for nine years after the owner’s death).  The bronze Hachikō statue nearby is a popular meeting place for the locals.
04Our hotel Sakura Fleur Aoyama was five minute walk away from Shibuya Station.
05We passed by the concourse of Shibuya Hikarie (渋谷ヒカリエ) every time we walked between Shibuya Station and our hotel.  Shibuya Hikarie is a mixed use tower comprised of offices, theatre, exhibition spaces and retail.
06We also frequented the footbridge between Shibuya Hikarie and the station.
07In the evening, the plaza in front of Shibuya Station is full of life.
08While most come to meet up with friends for shopping or dining, some Shibuya visitors would go beyond and come dressed in costumes.  We saw a young man dressed up as if Finn (played by John Boyega) in the Star Wars.
09In front of the station plaza is the iconic scramble crossing surrounded by LED advertisement screens and neon lights.
10In front of Shibuya Station Plaza, a couple on a bicycle stopped at the crossing.
11Every few minutes, a change of traffic lights would allow pedestrians to pour onto the tarmac crossing from all directions.  In midst of the crowds, there were always people (often tourists) standing still to take photographs of themselves and friends in the sea of people.
12Some selfie takers were quite serious and creative about their Shibuya Crossing photo.
13The vivid colours of advertisement screens and billbroads at Shibuya Crossing were often complemented with visitors dressed in outstanding outfits.
14The legendary Shibuya 109 was once the hub of youth fashion and styles.
15The iconic Shibuya Hikarie (second building from the left) may soon to be covered with new commercial towers.
16On the 11th floor of Shibuya Hikarie there is a sky lobby that allows visitors to have a birdeye’s view of central Shibuya.
17view of the scramble crossing from the sky lobby at Shibuya Hikarie.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn Shibuya Hikarie, a display model of Shibuya of the near future clearly shows the upcoming additions (highlighted with internal lighting) to the already lively area.
19Near Shibuya Station, narrow Yokocho dining alleyways are some of the hidden gems in Shibuya.
20A few blocks away from the railway station and crossing, Shibuya has another side of low key tranquility.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust a few minutes walk from the vibrant scramble crossing, wandering in the peaceful streets of Shibuya almost felt like an otherworldly experience.

SENSOJI (浅草寺) & SKYTREE, Tokyo (東京), Japan

On the last day in Tokyo, we decided to pay a visit to Tokyo’s oldest and most popular Buddhist temple, the Sensoji (金龍山浅草寺) and Kengo Kuma (隈 研吾)’s Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center right across the street from the iconic Kaminarimon (雷門).  Sensoji was definitely the busiest attraction we visited in Tokyo.  Everywhere in the temple ground was filled with people, from the souvenir shop lined Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り) to the Kannondo Main Hall.

After the temple and Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center, we had a little bit of time left before heading to the airport.  We took the metro to check out the nearby Skytree, the tallest structure in Japan.  We didn’t go up to the observation deck of the tower, but instead wandered around at the shopping area and the outdoor terrace, where a group of tourists crowded in a small Calbee shop picking the colourful packs of special edition potato chips.

Soon enough, we returned to Shinjuku and boarded an Narita Express to the airport.

1Designed by Kengo Kuma (隈 研吾), the eight storey Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center is an architectural gem across the street from the Sensoji.  With exhibition and activity spaces stacked vertically, each floor of the building has a distinct function.

2The ground floor is dedicated to an introduction of the district of Asakusa.

3Glass railing and exposed timber joists wrap around a central atrium.

4On the roof terrace of Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center, there are information signage on the railing associated with the view.

5At two metro stops to the east, the 634m Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー) stands out at the background, while the wavy golden feature of the Asahi Beer Hall dominates the foreground.  Designed by famous designer Philippe Starck, the golden feature is meant to represent the burning heart of Asahi beer.

6To the north, the view from Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center is dominated by the Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り), the procession route of Sensoji.

7Across the street, the iconic Kaminarimon (雷門) or “Thunder Gate” marks the start of Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り).

8Standing 11.7m tal, with its enormous lantern and statues at both sides, Kaminarimon (雷門) is very popular with tourists and locals.

9Lined with souvenir and snack stores at both sides, the 250m Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り) is always packed with visitors.

10The Hozōmon (宝蔵門) of Sensō-ji (金龍山浅草寺) features three large lanterns, with the 3.75m tall chochin (提灯) hang in the middle.

11A cute white akita dog rests at the courtyard in front of Hozōmon (宝蔵門).

12The prominent Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー) can be seen from Sensoji.

13Many visitors would gather close to the big incense burner in the central courtyard and cover themselves with the smoke, due to a traditional belief that the smoke can improve their thinking and make them smarter.

DSC_3221The entrance of the Kannondo Main Hall is also decorated with a huge red lantern.

14With 30 million of visitors per year, the Sensō-ji (金龍山浅草寺) is one of the most visited religious site in the world.

15Traditional lanterns on the pavement waiting to be hung.

16The five-storey pagoda is also another main feature at Sensō-ji (金龍山浅草寺).

17At the main ground of Sensō-ji (金龍山浅草寺), there are a row of food vendors selling all kinds of Japanese snacks.

18Near Sensō-ji, the famous Azumabashi (吾妻橋) is a popular spot to photograph the Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー) and Asahi Beer Hall.

19At the base of Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー), a series of outdoor terraces provide a pleasant approach to the tower.

20Designed by Nikken Sekkei, the 634m Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー) is the second tallest structure in the world just behind Burj Khalifa (830m).

CRAFT MARKET UNDER THE VIADUCT, 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan, Tokyo, Japan

When most people hear Akihabara (秋葉原) they would immediately think of electronic shops.  One railway stop to its north, Okachimachi (御徒町) is known for its wholesale stores selling jewelry and ornaments.  Since 2010, between the two stations emerged a new hotspot dedicated to everything that is made by the artisan hands.  Situated under the railway viaduct, this hidden gem offers an alternative shopping scene for anyone who admires the skillful hands of devoted Japanese craftsmen.  Merchandises range from umbrellas, shoes, housewares, jewelry, leather products, naturally dyed clothing, artworks, souvenirs, etc.  The name “2k540” is a reference in railway’s terms, which refers to the 2.54km distance from Tokyo Station.  “Aki-Oka” refers to Akihabara and Okachimachi, indicating the craft market is situated between the two stations.

9At the underside of a railway viaduct, the entrance to the “market street” 2k540 expresses a community friendly and low-key atmosphere.

1The logo of “2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan” is painted like a road mark on the asphalt floor.

2The pre-existing structure and the shop buildings on the market street of 2k540 are painted in white, revealing a coherent environment.

6One of the shops at 2k540 manufactures clothing with dyes from the natural world, such as sakura flowers.

3Natural light spills in from the gap above the stores and the artificial uplights at the column bases create a poetic atmosphere as if walking in the nave of a cathedral.

4While some shops are housed in minimal white boxes, some are actually set up in the main space in the colonnade.

5We stayed longer than what expected strolling around 2k540.

8At the end of the market street stands a larger store called Japan Department Store, a shop that sells household items and souvenirs from different areas across Japan.

10Like many big cities around the world, creative industries have given different urban spaces, such as old factory buildings and underside of railway viaducts, a second life to thrive.

 

ART, ARCHITECTURE + NATURE, Hiroshi Senju Museum (千住博美術館), Karuizawa (軽井沢) , Japan

In a November evening in 2012, we attended an architectural lecture at University of Toronto by Ryue Nishizawa (西沢立衛), one of the two principals of the world acclaimed architectural firm SANAA.  In that lecture, he talked about several of his projects, including his recent projects (back then), the minimal Louvre Gallery in Lens of France and the sculptural teardrop of Teshima Art Museum (豊島美術館).  At about the same time, he also finished an art gallery in Karuizawa, famous for the undulating gallery floor that resembles the natural terrain and the curvilinear glass enclosure of landscaped lightwells.  Hiroshi Senju Museum of Karuizawa (軽井沢千住博美術館) was the main reason for our Karuizawa day trip out of Tokyo.  Hiroshi Senju (千住博) is a Japanese painting known for his large scale waterfall paintings.  He was the first Asian artist to receive a Honorable Mention at the Venice Biennale in 1995.  Admiring Hiroshi Senju’s landscape paintings in Ryue Nishizawa’s landscape inspired architecture is like seeing art in a minimalist manmade forest in Karuizawa.

1The museum is located out of the tourist area of Karuizawa.  After getting off at the nearest bus stop, we walked a bit along a country road to reach the museum.  A unique white sign greeted us at the museum forecourt.

2Before seeing the white and minimalist main museum building, we passe by another interesting piece of architecture, the panel cladded visitor centre.

3From the parking lot, a winding pathway led us to the entrance of the main museum building.

6We entered the main exhibition space through the transparent entrance vestibule.  From outside, it was impossible to imagine what surprises lie ahead in front of us.

7Once inside, we were immediately captivated by the harmonious relationship between art, architecture and nature.

8Walking on the gently sloping floor of the museum as if strolling on the pre-existing natural terrain of the site.  Even the seating matches the curvilinear forested lightwells inside the exhibition space.

10 Curvilinear glass enclosure of various sizes create a number of naturalistic lightwells or miniature forests.

11Walking between two lightwells felt like wandering through two art installations in a forest.

12Other than the paintings by Hiroshi Senju, the lightwells of the building were definitely unique art pieces for me.

13Back at the main parking lot, the sleek and dark visitor centre expresses a totally different tone.

14While the main museum is all about its nature-inspired interior, the visitor centre contrastingly tells a form-driven design story.

 

 

WESTERN RESORT IN THE ORIENT, Karuizawa (軽井沢), Japan

At the foot of Mt. Asama, Honshu’s most active volcano, stands a mountain resort town that first captivated the attention of Westerners in late 19th century.  Since then, it grew into a summer resort for many Tokyo residents, including the royal family.  In the 1970s, John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent several summers at Karuizawa for retreat.  Today, the shinkansen bullet train takes a little over an hour to connect Karuizawa and Tokyo, a rather convenient day trip for visitors who want to take a break from the bustling scenes of the Japanese capital.  Visitors come for the natural scenery, the Westernized old town, the interesting galleries, the large shopping outlet right by the railway station, or just a breathe of cool air and peaceful atmosphere to escape the summer heat in urban Tokyo.

0Outside the railway station, the tranquil air of the countryside offers a big contrast from the dense and intense urban scene of Tokyo.  On the south side stands the large shopping outlet, and the north side rows of pitched roof houses and streets leading into the old town centre.  It’s about a half hour walk from the railway station to the town centre.

1In the town centre of Karuizawa, one of the busiest restaurant is Kawakamian (川上庵), a delightful restaurant specialized in soba buckwheat noodles.

2The dining area of Kawakamian (川上庵) was fully occupied when we were there.

4At Kawakamian (川上庵), we ended up getting a table at the outdoor terrace.

5Duck meat soba noodles of Kawakamian (川上庵).

6Tempura vegetable and shrimp with soba at Kawakamian (川上庵).

7There are a few patisserie shops in Karuizawa.  Gateau des Clochette (ガトゥ・デ・クロシェット) is a popular one with tourists.

8A row of old timber houses at the high street of Karuizawa (旧軽井沢銀座通り) reveals the former European atmosphere of the town.

9Cafes, restaurants, patisserie shops and souvenir stores can be found at the pedestrian high street of Karuizawa.

10Dairy products from the area is popular among visitors.

11This doll house-like timber house is a popular cafe on the high street.

12In the new town centre, we passed by a flea market selling all kinds of old household items in a parking lot.

13Halfway between the old town and the railway station, the  Karuizawa New Art Museum (軽井沢ニューアートミュージアム) offers tourists and the local community a pleasant stop for art exhibitions.

14Directly south of the railway station is the large retail outlet frequented by tourists.  The environment of the outlet is completely different than the high street of the old town.

15A water pond in the middle of the outlet offers a pleasant park setting for shoppers.

16Right by the pond is the circular restaurant pavilion.  The openness and scale of the outlet made me feel like traveling in North America.

17Shinkansen bullet train makes the trip from Tokyo to Karuizawa in a little over an hour.

URBAN OASIS, Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku (原宿), Tokyo (東京), Japan

Perched above the northeast intersection of Meiji Dori (明治道り) and Omotesando Dori (表参道), a charming little oasis is hidden atop the shopping centre Tokyu Plaza.  From street level, the gleaming mall entrance resembles a giant kaleidoscope with a myriad of mirrors wrapping a set of grand escalators and stair, like a glittering passageway heading up into the building.  Looking overhead, clusters of greenery stick out from the roof parapet, revealing the lovely rooftop terrace above the shopping levels.  What the local design firm Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP gives visitors is a pleasant surprise on the roof, a little roof garden of trees and plantings, seating and stepped platforms, overlooking the busy urban streets at the heart of Harajuku (原宿).

1The kaleidoscope-like mall entrance is a decent design to capture the attention of pedestrians.

2It’s fun to go through the kaleidoscope-like passageway.  Looking out of the entrance feels like standing inside a cave made of mirrors.

3The intersection of Meiji Dori (明治道り) and Omotesando Dori (表参道) is busy anytime throughout the day.

4After going through the shopping levels, a wooden stairway leads up to the top level of restaurants and cafe, and the lovely roof terrace.

5At the roof terrace, a hexagonal decking system provide great seating for shoppers and cafe customers.

DSC_3061After a long day of shopping and walking, many visitors choose to take a brief stop at this pleasant roof terrace at the top of Tokyu Plaza.

6

DSC_3087In the middle, a raised planter surrounded by a counter and high chairs is actually part of the skylight providing natural light for the level below.

7The decking and the roof terrace can also serve as a small performance venue.

8From the relaxing rooftop, the busy street scene below seems like a distant world.  While pedestrians rush across the streets, visitors of the roof terrace rest in harmony with a manmade nature several storeys above.

934 trees and 50+ different types of plants are planted on the terrace on what architect Hiroshi Nakamura describes as a “roof forest”.

DSC_3096At the lower levels, smaller balconies also provide spaces for relaxation with a close encounter with the zelkova trees that line the sidewalk of Omotesandō (表参道), the traditional procession route of Meiji Shrine (明治神宮).

IMG_5916From the street, the Tokyu Plaza Omotesandō look like an interesting piece of modern architecture with a light and transparent base and a solid upper part that supports the greenery at the top.