The sky was grey on our last day in Tokyo. We decided to spend the morning at nearby Harajuku (原宿). We moved our suitcase and backpack to the lockers in Shibuya Station (渋谷), and then took the JR Yamanote Line (山手線) one stop over to Harajuku. Despite we had been to Harajuku a few times, we had never ventured beyond the shopping and entertainment areas. This time, we decided to spend a peaceful morning at Meiji Jingu (明治神宮), the Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, the insightful leader who modernized Japan at the end of the 19th century. Built in 1920, the original shrine complex was destroyed during World War Two. The shrine was rebuilt soon after the war. We had seen photographs of the large and lovely torii gates at the forested path of Meiji Shrine. It was interesting to see such massive and traditional wooden structures surrounded by mature trees at the heart of Tokyo, just a stone throw away from all the neon lights of youthful Takeshita Street (竹下通り) and fashionable Omotesandō (表参道). While we were there, some buildings were under renovations for its 100th anniversary in 2020. We took our time to walk around the compound, wrote down our wishes on an ema (wooden plate to hang at the shrine), and enjoyed a peaceful walk in the urban forest.
Before heading back to Shibuya for the Narita Express, we dropped by the roof garden of Tokyu Plaza for breakfast. Most shops had yet opened their doors in Harajuku, and we had another quiet moment in an urban oasis. By the time we returned to Shibuya to pick up our luggage, it finally started to rain. The rain lasted for the entire afternoon. It was still raining heavily when our plane took off at the runway of Narita later that day.
There are a few locker areas at Shibuya Station. We almost went to a wrong locker area to pick up our luggage. Luckily, when we left our luggage we took a photo of the locker area to remind ourselves, and that proved handy at the end.
The timber structure of Harajuku Station is unique in Tokyo. Hopefully this historical building can survive the massive redevelopment of the area prior to the Olympic Games.
We loved the massive torii gate of Meiji Jingu. The natural finish matches perfectly with the surrounding forest.
Sake offering at the Meiji Jingu.
The second large torii gate midway into the path of Meiji Jingu.
Quite a number of buildings at Meiji Jingu were under renovation for 2020.
There were a lot of visitors at the early hours of the day.
The natural appearance of a Japanese timber structure offers the best harmony with the surrounding nature.
Writing the Ema (wooden prayer plates) is always fun.
After hanging our ema, we bid farewell to the peaceful Meiji Jingu.
Time was still early when we walked to Tokyu Plaza. Since the shopping centre had yet opened its doors, we found our way up to the roof garden via an elevator at the side.
The roof garden of Tokyu Plaza is always a great place to hang out. While some were having breakfast like us, there were a few dozing off at the far corners.
Not many visitors were around. We could admire the interesting design of the decking.
Looking down to the intersection of Omotesando and Meiji Jingumae, the popular crossing were almost empty of pedestrians.
The rain hadn’t arrived yet, and we had a relaxing breakfast at the roof garden.
Across Sumida River from Ryogoku and south of touristy Asakusa lies the low key Kuramae (蔵前), a hub for young artists and craftsmen in Tokyo. After visiting two interesting museums in Sumida, we opted for a moment of relaxation just a stone throw away at Kuramae. Like many up and coming neighborhoods, Kuramae contains a rather leisure atmosphere. Without the tourist crowds that we would normally see in other more popular areas of Tokyo, there were still a considerable amount of local visitors in the area. Queues were lined up in front of some of the most popular shops such as Kakimori, the wonderful shop of handmade stationery, fountain pens and anything related to writing. We started off at Camera, a cosy little cafe selling good coffee, snacks, and handmade leather accessories.
We started our brief Kuramae visit at Camera cafe.
We sat by the long counter with coffee and snacks. There were a few racks and shelves of leather accessories on display behind us.
Maito offers a wide range of clothes and accessories made with dyes extracted from nature, such as flowers and tree bark.
The most popular shop in Kuramae we encountered was undoubtedly Kakimori stationery shop. Visitors lined up outside the shop waiting for their turn to put together a custom made notebook with self-selected paper, cover, ribbon, etc.
Inside Kakimori, other visitors were busy checking out the fountain pens, ink, and other writing accessories.
Dandelion Chocolate was another highly popular bean-to-bar chocolate factory originated from San Francisco.
We also spent some time at Koncept, a trendy shop with cool merchandises from all over Japan.
After Kuramae, we took the metro to visit another interesting trendy fashion and design store, the La Kagu. A grand wooden staircase provided a welcoming gesture for all pedestrians and visitors.
Converted from a 1965 warehouse of a publishing company by renowned architect Kengo Kuma (隈研吾), La Kagu immediately became a retail landmark in at Kagurazaka (神楽坂).
La Kagu is consisted of different lifestyle zones: food, clothing, shelter and knowledge.
After La Kagu, we walked along the high street of Kagurazaka (神楽坂). Kagurazaka (神楽坂) is a traditional Japanese neighborhood with a French twist, thanks to the considerable number of French expats living in the area.
Cafes, restaurants, bakeries and boutiques line up the high street of Kagurazaka (神楽坂).
In a side street, we stopped by a ramen store for dinner.
We ordered our ramen from the machine outside.
The friendly staff then prepared our bowls right in front of us.
No complain could be made by ending the day with a bowl of delicious ramen in a local neighborhood of Tokyo.
After a full day excursion of historical temples and natural scenery in Nikko, we decided to spend the next day to explore another neighborhood in Tokyo. We started the day at the southwest area of Sumida District (墨田区), near the metro station of Ryogoku (両国). Many tourists come to Ryogoku (両国) for sumo (相撲): visit sumo stables to view professional practice, or checked out chanko nabe restaurants for a sumo meal, or even watch a game of sumo wrestling at Ryogoku Kokugikan (Ryogoku Sumo Hall). We, however, came to the area for museum hopping.
Opened in 2016, the Sumida Hokusai Museum is being considered as a novel cultural icon of Sumida. Designed by Kazuyo Sejima (妹島 和世), the sleek architecture houses exhibitions to showcase the life and works of the world famous ukiyo-e (浮世絵) artist Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾 北斎). With his Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (富嶽三十六景), Hokusai is definitely the most iconic figure of ukiyo-e (浮世絵) in the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). Kazuyo Sejima (妹島 和世), the founder of SANAA and a recipient of the Pritzker Prize in architecture with Ryue Nishizawa, is also a generation defining Japanese architect in her own right. From the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, New Museum in New York, Rolex Learning Centre in Lausanne, to Louvre Lens Museum in France, Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA have inspired uncounted architects and designers around the world in the last two decades.
The Midoricho Park (緑町公園) where Sumida Hokusai Museum is erected, is also the birthplace of Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾 北斎).
Sejima’s building immediately became a cultural icon in the rather low key residential neighborhood. The building provides an interesting backdrop for the community play area of Midoricho Park.
The building scale and the facade’s level of reflectiveness express a certain degree of novelty without creating an overwhelming impact to the surrounding context.
The cave like slit at each of the four sides provides a prominent entrance gateway at each side.
The reflectivity of the museum’s metal cladding is right on.
Everything on the facade is clean and minimal.
We walked to the main entrance via one of the triangular opening on the facade.
The facets of the glass panes and the reflections of the outside offer a unique entrance experience.
The detailing of the triangular opening is once again clean and minimal.
The angular aspects of the architecture is carried through into the interior.
The washroom on the ground floor is a cute little cube at the lobby.
Beside Sejima’ architecture, the works of Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾 北斎) were well worth the admission.
The exhibition space is not big. Most of his paintings are hung along the wall. Artifacts such as books and sketches.
The most famous works by Kazuyo Sejima is Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (富嶽三十六景 Fugaku Sanjūroku-kei). A selection of the 36 prints had been put on display.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa is perhaps the most well known image by Katsushika Hokusai.
Some of the final works by Katsushika Hokusai are also on display.
A wax display depicting the studio of Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾 北斎) and his daughter back in the Edo Period.
Outside of the exhibition area, there is a seating area with great views towards the Sky Tree.
We both felt asleep on the train back to Tokyo. The normally popular tourist district of Asakusa (浅草) was largely deserted by the time we walked out Asakusa Station at around 9pm. We didn’t want to return to our hotel yet. We decided to wander around Asakusa, from the world famous Kaminarimon (雷門) of Sensoji (金龍山浅草寺) to the inner streets of dining, shopping and entertainment district of Rokku. Most shops were closed except for some restaurants and street eateries.
The buildings and streetscape around Tobu Asakusa Station reveal the former glory of Asakusa when the district was a foremost area in Tokyo.
Tokyo Skytree and Philippe Starck’s Asahi Beer Hall stood out in the skyline beyond.
Kengo Kuma’s Asakusa Culture and Tourist Centre (淺草文化中心) took on a different appearance under the perfect illumination.
Surrounded by scaffolding, the Kaminarimon (雷門) of Sensoji (金龍山浅草寺) found a moment of peace with the absence of tourists.
The 200m Nakamise (仲見世) Shopping Street closed for the night. Security guards were checking the shopping streets to ensure no visitor stayed behind.
From Nakamise (仲見世), we entered a side street (雷門柳小路) into the grid network of small streets of restaurants, cafes, and bars.
Orange Street (オレンジ通り), a street famous for its orange paint lies at the centre of the dining and entertainment area of Asakusa.
The Rokku area of Asakusa was once the biggest entertainment district in Japan before WWII. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), Asakusa lies outside the city wall and was a red light and theatre district. During the prewar years of the 20th century, theatres and cinemas dominated the Rokku area. Much of Asakusa was destroyed during the war. Today, the entertainment district of Asakusa was only a shadow of its past.
Some restaurants in the area still maintains the atmosphere of the prewar days.
In contrast to the spirituality and history of Sensoji Temple just a few blocks away, the Rox Dome is a popular indoor batting stadium.
The atmospheric Dempoin Dori (傳法院通) offers a glimpse of the former theatre and entertainment district.
Not many pedestrians were around at Dempoin Dori. However some of the restaurants were still open. The traditional shopfronts reminded visitors the appearance of the lively high street during the prewar years.
Despite its decline in the postwar years, Asakusa remains an interesting place to stroll around and get a feel of Tokyo’s history and its vibrant dining scenes.
Today, the Rokku area is still a focus of dining and entertainment experience, with outdoor eateries here and there near the junction of Don Quijote Department Store.
Most shops were closed for the night, but the street-side eateries were still quite lively when we were there.
The junction in front of Don Quijote Department Store was brightly lit up by neon lights of theatres and shops.
Apart from the street eateries and traditional shops, there are also covered arcades in the area providing another alternative shopping experience.
After strolling for an hour or so, we headed back to Asakusa Station and took the metro back to Shibuya. Passing by the narrow alleyways near the station, the Tokyo Skytree across Sumida River could be clearly seen at the street end, revealing a new chapter of shopping and entertainment just a stone throw away from Asakusa.
The sky wasn’t as clear as the morning when we arrived at Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖). In our Nikko day trip from Tokyo, Lake Chuzenji was our last destination of the day. The scenery of Lake Chuzenji is dominated by the magnificent Mount Nantai (男体山 or 二荒山), an active stratovolcano that had erupted 7000 years ago. If visiting in the autumn, we can take the Tobu bus up to the lookout of Mount Hangetsuyama (半月山) to enjoy a fantastic view of the conical volcano and its perfection reflection in the lake. Since the bus only operates in the autumn months and we didn’t want to hire a car just for the lookout, we decided to enjoy Lake Chuzenji by doing a short walk along the southeastern shore to the former British and Italian Embassies.
From the bus station, it was only a five minute walk to the shore of Lake Chuzenji.
We walked along the southeastern shore of Lake Chuzenji and passed by many swan pedal boats.
Soon we reached the entrance of Chuzenji Temple (中禅寺), the Buddhist temple that gave the name to Lake Chuzenji.
Another short walk from Chuzenji Temple brought us to our destination of the afternoon, the former Italian Embassy. Designed by American architect Antonin Raymond, the villa was built in 1928 as the summer villa for the Italian Embassy in the past. Antonin Raymond cladded the entire building with Japanese cedar bark, a local material from the area.
Today, the building becomes a museum for the public.
The Viewing Hallway on the ground level allowed a magnificent panorama view of the lake.
There are three bedrooms on the upper floor. The decor is simple and elegant.
After touring the Italian Embassy Villa, we walked down to the landscaped area by the shore.
A timber jetty outside the Italian Embassy Villa brought us closer to the lake.
From the jetty, we could see the sacred Mount Nantai (男体山 or 二荒山). The lake was extremely peaceful with super clear water.
We walked back towards the starting point of our short walk. Soon, we reached the jetty of another old western villa, the former British Embassy Villa.
Similar to the Italian Embassy Villa, maximizing the panoramic views of the lake seemed to be the main concept of the house design.
The viewing hallway of the British Embassy Villa was equally impressive with the beautiful scenery of the lake.
After the embassy villas, we walked slowly back to the village of Chuzenji where we got off the bus.
We were way too early to see the fall colours, but instead we saw some beautiful flowers along the way.
We also saw several people recreational fishing in the lake.
Back to Nikko town, we still had about an hour’s time before our train departed for Tokyo. We dropped by Komekichi Kozushi, a small sushi restaurant just a stone throw from the train station, for a quick and decent dinner.
The father and son owners of Komekichi Kozushi were quite serious about the correct way to eat sushi. The food was very delicious and we highly recommend Komekichi Kozushi to any Nikko visitor.
After dinner, the sky was getting dark, and we could see the dramatic silhouette of Mount Nantai backed with vivid skies.
As we stepped into Nikko Tobu Railway Station, our one-day visit of Nikko was coming to an end. We hopped on the limited express train for Asakusa Tokyo.
Apart from the UNESCO World Heritage temples and shrines, Nikko is also well known for its natural scenery. The bus ride from Nikko to Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖) took about 40 minutes. The journey passed through the town of Nikko along the river. After about half an hour, the bus began to climb up the Irohazaka Winding Roads (いろは坂) west of Nikko. As the bus zigzagged up the 48 turns of Irohazaka Winding Roads (いろは坂), we decided to get off one stop before Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖) at Akechidaira Ropeway Station to visit the Akechidaira Lookout. Akechidaira (明智平) can be reached by a two-hour uphill hike from Lake Chuzenji, or a 3-minute gondola ride. Akechidaira offers an spectacular overview of three iconic scenic features of Nikko: Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖), Mount Nantai (男体山), and Kegon Waterfall (華厳滝). We stayed at the lookout for about 15 minutes to appreciate the peaceful scenery, then took the ropeway back down and continued the last bit of our bus journey to Lake Chuzenji. From the bus station, we followed the road signs to the nearby lookout of Kegon Waterfall (華厳滝). Almost 100m in height, Kegon Waterfall (華厳滝) is the most spectacular waterfall in Nikko, and one of the most famous falls in the entire Japan.
We hopped off the bus at the ropeway station below Akechidaira (明智平) Plateau. Unfortunately the weather was not as beautiful as earlier in the morning.
The Akechidaira Ropeway was first operated in 1933.
The lookout is about 86m above the ropeway station.
The ropeway ride took about three minutes.
During the Autumn, Akechidaira (明智平) is a highly popular spot to see the fall colours.
The lookout offers an almost 360 degrees view of the surrounding scenery.
Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖) lies right in front of us at the lookout.
In front of Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖) and at the foot of Mount Nantai (男体山), we could see the beautiful Kegon Waterfall (華厳滝).
Unfortunately the top of Mount Nantai (男体山) was hidden behind the clouds.
We stayed at the lookout for about 15 minutes. There wasn’t too many people and we had a brief and peaceful time to admire the scenery.
Then we took the ropeway back down to the station, and hopped on the next bus for Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖).
The most important sight near the bus station of Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖) is undoubtedly Kegon Waterfall (華厳滝).
With a drop of almost 100m, Kegon Waterfall (華厳滝) is an impressive waterfall. It serves as the only exit for Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖).