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.
Designed 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.
The ground floor is dedicated to an introduction of the district of Asakusa.
Glass railing and exposed timber joists wrap around a central atrium.
On the roof terrace of Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center, there are information signage on the railing associated with the view.
At 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.
To 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.
Across the street, the iconic Kaminarimon (雷門) or “Thunder Gate” marks the start of Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り).
Standing 11.7m tal, with its enormous lantern and statues at both sides, Kaminarimon (雷門) is very popular with tourists and locals.
Lined with souvenir and snack stores at both sides, the 250m Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り) is always packed with visitors.
The 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.
A cute white akita dog rests at the courtyard in front of Hozōmon (宝蔵門).
The prominent Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー) can be seen from Sensoji.
Many 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.
The entrance of the Kannondo Main Hall is also decorated with a huge red lantern.
With 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.
Traditional lanterns on the pavement waiting to be hung.
The five-storey pagoda is also another main feature at Sensō-ji (金龍山浅草寺).
At 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.
Near 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.
At 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.
Designed 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).
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.
At the underside of a railway viaduct, the entrance to the “market street” 2k540 expresses a community friendly and low-key atmosphere.
The logo of “2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan” is painted like a road mark on the asphalt floor.
The pre-existing structure and the shop buildings on the market street of 2k540 are painted in white, revealing a coherent environment.
One of the shops at 2k540 manufactures clothing with dyes from the natural world, such as sakura flowers.
Natural 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.
While some shops are housed in minimal white boxes, some are actually set up in the main space in the colonnade.
We stayed longer than what expected strolling around 2k540.
At 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.
Like 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.
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.
The 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.
Before seeing the white and minimalist main museum building, we passe by another interesting piece of architecture, the panel cladded visitor centre.
From the parking lot, a winding pathway led us to the entrance of the main museum building.
We 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.
Once inside, we were immediately captivated by the harmonious relationship between art, architecture and nature.
Walking 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.
Curvilinear glass enclosure of various sizes create a number of naturalistic lightwells or miniature forests.
Walking between two lightwells felt like wandering through two art installations in a forest.
Other than the paintings by Hiroshi Senju, the lightwells of the building were definitely unique art pieces for me.
Back at the main parking lot, the sleek and dark visitor centre expresses a totally different tone.
While the main museum is all about its nature-inspired interior, the visitor centre contrastingly tells a form-driven design story.
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.
Outside 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.
In the town centre of Karuizawa, one of the busiest restaurant is Kawakamian (川上庵), a delightful restaurant specialized in soba buckwheat noodles.
The dining area of Kawakamian (川上庵) was fully occupied when we were there.
At Kawakamian (川上庵), we ended up getting a table at the outdoor terrace.
Duck meat soba noodles of Kawakamian (川上庵).
Tempura vegetable and shrimp with soba at Kawakamian (川上庵).
There 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.
A 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.
Cafes, restaurants, patisserie shops and souvenir stores can be found at the pedestrian high street of Karuizawa.
Dairy products from the area is popular among visitors.
This doll house-like timber house is a popular cafe on the high street.
In the new town centre, we passed by a flea market selling all kinds of old household items in a parking lot.
Halfway 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.
Directly 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.
A water pond in the middle of the outlet offers a pleasant park setting for shoppers.
Right by the pond is the circular restaurant pavilion. The openness and scale of the outlet made me feel like traveling in North America.
Shinkansen bullet train makes the trip from Tokyo to Karuizawa in a little over an hour.
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).
The kaleidoscope-like mall entrance is a decent design to capture the attention of pedestrians.
It’s fun to go through the kaleidoscope-like passageway. Looking out of the entrance feels like standing inside a cave made of mirrors.
The intersection of Meiji Dori (明治道り) and Omotesando Dori (表参道) is busy anytime throughout the day.
After going through the shopping levels, a wooden stairway leads up to the top level of restaurants and cafe, and the lovely roof terrace.
At the roof terrace, a hexagonal decking system provide great seating for shoppers and cafe customers.
After 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.
In 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.
The decking and the roof terrace can also serve as a small performance venue.
From 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.
34 trees and 50+ different types of plants are planted on the terrace on what architect Hiroshi Nakamura describes as a “roof forest”.
At 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).
From 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.
In Tokyo, it’s almost a ritual for every visitor to cross the iconic Shibuya(渋谷) Crossing on the way to a department store, or to search for cosplayers in the narrow Takeshita (竹下通) of Harajuku (原宿), or to admire the high fashion and sleek architecture along Omotesando (表参道). Despite it is only the distance of one station apart from each other, the urban scenery and shopping culture around the station of Shibuya, Harajuku and Omotesando are actually quite different. Geographically, Shibuya is a special ward in Tokyo that encompasses some of the most important commercial and shopping districts in the city, such as Daikanyama, Ebisu, Harajuku, Omotosando, and Sendagaya. Spending an afternoon wandering in this vibrant area is a movable feast of style.
Shibuya Hikarie (渋谷ヒカリエ), the iconic monument at the heart of Shibuya, is a mixed use high-rise tower with multiple functions, including office, theatre, auditorium, galleries and museum, dining facilities, and department store.
The railway station of Shibuya (渋谷) is the fourth busiest communter railway station in Japan (and the world).
Pedestrians rush out the Shibuya Station, wait for the traffic lights to turn and then scramble to radiate in all directions. The famous Shibuya Crossing has become an icon for Tokyo. Uncounted promotional videos, TV shows and movies such as Lost in Translation have made the Shibuya Crossing immortal as part of Tokyo’s identity.
A stop north of Shibuya (渋谷) along the Yamanote Line (山手線) brings us to Harajuku (原宿). Built in 1906, the timber structure of Harajuku is the oldest wooden railway station in Tokyo. Construction of a new station building is underway in time for 2020’s Tokyo Olympics. The fate of the original timber building has yet been determined.
Very popular with teenage shoppers, the pedestrian Takeshita Street (竹下通) is the destination to find cute merchandises aimed for the young generation.
Takeshita Street (竹下通) is full of cafes, eateries, small shops, and of course young shoppers.
The side streets in Harajuku (原宿) are lined with small shops and boutiques, each carries its own style of decorations and identity.
Made in Okayama, the small and cozy Full Count denim is one of my favorite shop in the area. They were the first Japanese denim company to use Zimbabwean cotton.
It was impossible not to revisit Omotesando (表参道) when I was in the area. Completed in 2004, SANAA’s Dior Omotesando (ディオール表参道店) looked as cool as ever. Last time I came in 2014 the building was covered in scaffolding.
Diagonally across Omotesando (表参道) from SANAA’s Dior, Tadao Ando’s Omotesando Hills, a long and narrow shopping centre, was flooded with a rainbow of LED lights.
Controversially, Ando’s Omotesando Hills in Aoyama (青山) has replaced the former Bauhaus inspired Dojunkai Aoyama Apartments built in 1927. A small section of the former apartment has been reconstructed as part of Omotesando Hills.
Cladded with a weaving system of aluminium, Takenaka’s Stella McCartney on Omotesando (表参道) is a small architectural gem across the street from Herzog de Meuron’s Prada.
Built in 2003, Herzog de Meuron’s Prada Aoyama (青山) is perhaps the most well known architecture on Omotesando (表参道) .
After over a decade, the glazing system of Herzog de Meuron’s Prada Aoyama (青山) still matches the essence of contemporary design.
Further into Aoyama, we reached the Spiral Building on Aoyama Dori. Completed in 1985, Fumihiko Maki’s building was named after its large spiral ramp. The complex houses a design shop and cafe, as well as exhibitions.
Sit against the window on the upper level of the Spiral Building and look at the urban scenery outside along Aoyama Dori is peaceful and relaxing.
The new star at Softbank Omotesando (ソフトバンク表参道) near Harajuku Station was the humanoid robots called Pepper.
In a sleek white appearance and the ability to interact with users, the Pepper humanoid robots were fun to play with. As population aging emerges as a huge issue in Japan, humanoid robots may soon become a household necessity in the future.
Named by some books and magazines as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, the T-Site by Tsutaya Books is the biggest attraction in the affluent neighborhood of Daikanyama (代官山). Designed by Tokyo firm Klein Dytham Architecture in collaboration with communication and graphic designer Kenya Hara and designer Tomoko Ikegai, the T-Site is an architectural gem in Tokyo. A web-like facade system resembles a layer of white lace wrapping the three box-like buildings. Intended to create a “Library in the Woods”, the three bookstore buildings is connected by a 55m “Magazine Street” on the ground floor and surrounded by lush green vegetation. A cafe is provided on the ground floor with views of the outdoor greenery. A more upscale lounge is located on the upper level surrounded by bookshelves holding different series of architectural and design magazines. Other than books, stationery merchandise are also impeccably displayed under atmospheric lighting. While we were there, T-Site was full of shoppers. Compared to many bookstores around the world struggling to survive in today’s digital era, T-Site is certainly a great success story.
The approach to the entrance of the T-Site resembles a short walk to a garden pavilion.
The web-like facade system resembles a layer of lace fabric made of uncounted “T”.
Outdoor spaces between the three bookstore buildings serve as garden courtyards, offering pleasant green views for the interior.
Covered with vertical strips of highly reflective stainless steel, the bridge linking the bookstore buildings appears like a sculptural feature of the architecture.
The vertical strips of the bridge match perfectly well with the lace-like wall cladding.
The shadows of the strips offer an interesting experience while crossing the bridge from one building to the other.
The green view outside and the reflected scenery on the strips create a compelling imagery like an abstract painting.
Seating in the bookstore offer various pleasant spots for visitors to enjoy a moment of peaceful reading.
There is a garden behind the three bookstore buildings. A cluster of interesting shops scatter in the garden, including a camera shop, organic eateries and lifestyle stores.
The T-Site garden is full of planting.
Outdoor sculpture can also be found in the garden as well.
We couldn’t resist but get a bowl of organic vegetable soup from an vending truck.
Often regarded as the Brooklyn of Tokyo, the highly fashionable and pleasant Daikanyama (代官山) is much more than just an affluent urban neighborhood. Just a short walk south of the world’s busiest intersection Shibuya (渋谷) crossing, Daikanyama is a totally different world: Sleek cafes or sleepy bistros with a few tables, stylish boutiques and intimate denim shops housed in traditional timber houses, lovely design, camera and music shops, and the exquisite T Site, the flagship bookstore by Tsutaya Books. A brief stroll in Daikanyama shall make one to contemplate on the way of living and the question on what’s the most desirable lifestyle one possible lead.
From Ebisu (恵比寿) Station, we found our way into a series of lanes heading towards Daikanyama (代官山).
We weren’t in a hurry and preferred to wander in the quiet residential streets. With its bohemian atmosphere, Daikanyama (代官山) is a great place to visit on foot.
In this affluent neighborhood, some of the houses and shops are interestingly designed according to the character of the owner. Judging from the exterior appearance of the architecture, one might make a fine guess on what kind of person the owner could be.
The neighborhood is sleepy, clean, quiet and relaxing. We finally made our way back out to the beautiful Kyu Yamate Dori (旧山手通り), a tree lined avenue dotted with greenery, boutiques and foreign embassies.
Buildings along Kyu Yamate Dori (旧山手通り) are quite low key. This highly reflective building facade introduces the colour palette from the blue sky and white clouds.
Some owner prefers to dress up the ild building with street art.
The Kyu Yamate Dori (旧山手通り) is a full of lush green vegetation.
Full of pleasant courtyards and atmospheric cafe, Hillside Terrace (ヒルサイドテラス) is an intimate shopping complex off the Kyu Yamate Dori (旧山手通り).
Maison Kitsune, a fashion boutique with the Parisian mood, occupies a former timber house.
We loved Okura (オクラ), a intimate boutique selling various kinds of clothing and denim made from traditional dyeing process.
Tenoha Daikanyama is a cool courtyard complex with a fantastic lifestyle shop, Italian restaurant and bar, and an Italian cafe.
All shops and restaurants at Tenoha open out to the central courtyard where visitors can enjoy the sun in a garden setting.
The Italian restaurant has a large open kitchen and a proper pizza oven, and big windows out to the central courtyard.
Another interesting retail cluster in Daikanyama is Logroad. Logroad is a 220m pathway of shops and restaurants converted from a former railway track.
The scale at Log Road is intimate. The entire place is relaxing as if arriving at a wooden cottage away from the city.
Greenery is everywhere in Log Road. There aren’t too many shops, but the atmosphere is quite laid back.
The architecture is boxes cladded with vertical timber sidings.
The path of Log Road extends out to a roof terrace at one end, overlooking the surrounding residential neighborhood.
There are enough greenery and public furniture at Log Road to offer an intimate garden setting for most visitors.
There are a handful of cities around the world that I have often found reasons to revisit. In Spring 2016, my mother and I had a brief getaway trip to Tokyo (東京). We shopped, visited galleries, wandered in different neighborhoods, had a self-served grilled oyster dinner, and hopped on a bullet train to Karuizawa (軽井沢) for a day excursion. In Tokyo, we chose to stay at Shinjuku (新宿), one of the city’s major commercial, administrative and transportation hub whose railway station is renowned as the busiest station in the world with 3.64 million passengers passing through each day.
Japanese office workers have been known for their high level of work related stress. A daily routine of an office worker begins from the moment when he or she squeezes into a commuter train bounded for the city centre. After an intense day of office work in an orderly and hierarchical environment, as night falls upon a totally opposite world awaits to unwind the mental tension of office workers. It is a world of colours, neon lights, chaos and desires, presenting the perfect counterbalance for the rigid real world during the day. Shinjuku encompasses both ends on the balance: a busy administrative and commercial district by day, and the world famous red light district, shopping paradise and dining wonderland by night. For any visitor, Shinjuku serves well as a springboard to obtain an introduce about the two faces of Tokyo’s urbanity.
West Shinjuku, the commercial heart and home of Tokyo’s metropolitan government, is cool, tidy and orderly.
Design to reference a cocoon, the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower is a highrise educational building by Tange Associates. Tange Associates was founded by Paul Noritaka Tange, the son of Kenzo Tange (丹下健三), one of the most influential Japanese architect of the 20th Century.
The concrete tower of one of Japan’s top three insurer, Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Credit Corporation, presents the typically unsympathetic appearance of the modernist architecture in West Shinjuku.
Designed by Kenzo Tange and opened in 1991, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (東京都庁舎) is home to the metropolitan government of Tokyo.
A series of bronze statues are erected along the colonnade flanking the civic square in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (東京都庁舎).
While the towers of Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (東京都庁舎) resemble a Gothic cathedral, the square in front reminded me of a Classical colonnade.
Many buildings in the commercial and civic centre of Shinjuku are finished with either light grey, beige or silver materials, offering a rather monotonous and coherent cityscape for visitors.
At night, much of the commercial and municipal centre of Shinjuku is deserted, except groups of young dancers who come to practice their dance moves in front of the reflective glass curtain walls.
It is a totally different story just a stone throw away at the east side of Shinjuku Station, where neon lights and large LCD billboards begin to dominate the streetscape as soon as the sun sets.
In the area of Kabukicho (歌舞伎町), narrow alleyways are lit up by all sort of neon signage and restaurant shopfronts. The streets get even more crowded as the clock clicks closer to midnight.
Entrance of the popular Sakura Dori of Kabukicho (歌舞伎町さくら通り) is decorated by a atmospheric gateway and colourful signage.
Nightclubs and restaurants are everywhere as far as the eye can see. In order to thrive in such a highly competitive entertainment district, venues sometimes would opt for some sort of creative gimmicks such as the Robot Restaurant, where real robots and humans dressed in robotic costumes would go on stage for performances.
With the mighty Godzilla head perched over the podium roof, the tall and slender Shinjuku Toho Building (新宿東宝ビル) is a visual icon on the high street of Kabukicho (歌舞伎町).
Landing on a restaurant for dinner in Kabukicho (歌舞伎町) can be tricky as there are just too many choices.
The iconic neon gateway of Kabukicho Ichibangai (歌舞伎町一番街), the “Sleepless Town” (眠らない街) of the Japanese capital, is itself an urban monument.
It wasn’t until the reconstruction after World War II that Kabukicho (歌舞伎町) has gradually became today’s “Sleepless Town” (眠らない街). The name Kabukicho (歌舞伎町) was first used in 1948, after attempts to bring a Kabuki theatre into this new entertainment area of postwar Tokyo.
Outside Kabukicho, the Yasukuni Dori (靖国通り) is an important shopping and entertainment avenue of the city.
Looking back at the gateway of Kabukicho Ichibangai (歌舞伎町一番街) from Yasukuni Dori (靖国通り), the vivid neon lights of the vibrant urban scenery has undoubtedly inspired the imagination of any visitor, as if standing in the futuristic science fiction movie set of Blade Runner.