We arrived at the central gate of the Potala at around 9am. We excitedly looked up at the magnificent icon of Lhasa as we entered the palace ground beyond the first security checkpoint. We found our way towards the main ramp that ascend up to the Potala. Before climbing up, we made a brief stop at a small museum that housed a decent collection of treasures from the palace. Despite its interesting exhibit, we didn’t stay long as we wouldn’t want to miss our time slot for the palace visit. The walk up the main ramp looked easier than it actually was. Because of the 3700m altitude, the climb up the main ramp to the Potala may prove challenging to many tourists who haven’t completely acclimatized to the Tibetan highlands. We took our time walking up to the ticket office near the top palace level. After all the effort of pre-booking and climbing, we finally got a real admission ticket for the Potala. A flight of steps led us up a colourful passage to a open courtyard known as Deyang Shar. After a brief break at Deyang Shar, we walk to the far side of the courtyard and followed other tourists and tour guides up a small set of triple stairs into the White Palace. The Deyang Shar was the final spot of our visit that we were allowed to take photographs.
The first room we arrived at was the throne room of the Dalai Lamas. Walking into the former throne room felt like entering into a scene of Scorsese’s movie Kundun. The visit continued to a series of Dalai Lamas’ former reception rooms, meditation room, study room, etc. After the Dalai Lama’s living quarter in the White Palace, we continued our visit to the Red Palace from the top (3rd floor) down. On our way down the floors and through the chapels and assembly halls, we passed by impressive statues, golden chortens of former Dalai Lamas, mysterious chapels such as Chapel Arya, one of the oldest structures in the Potala built by King Songtsen Gampo. If not the noisy tourists and their rude tour guides were virtually everywhere in the visitor route, our Potala visit would be much more pleasant. One of the highlights was the 12.6m chorten of the 5th Dalai Lama. Gilded with 3.7 kg of gold, the chorten of the 5th Dalai Lama was significantly larger than the other chortens displayed in Chapel of the Holy Born.
In 7th century, King Songtsen Gampo erected his royal palace on the Marpo Ri (Red Hill). A thousand years later, construction of the Potala’s White Palace (Kharpo Podrang) began in 1645 under the order of the 5th Dalai Lama. In late 17th century, the larger Red Palace (Marpo Podrang) was also built to house the funeral chorten of the 5th Dalai Lama. Since then, the Potala has become the residence and final resting place of the Dalai Lamas. In modern days, the Potala was largely spared from the destructing forces of the Red Army during the Cultural Revolution. Extensive renovations took place in the 1990s to restore the palace. Since then, the Potala has been turned into an open air museum that attracts thousands of visitors everyday.
The palace visit took us about 2 hours. We exited the Potala from its back entrance. A prominent walkway zigzagged down the Marpo Ri, leading us to the kora path of pilgrims that surrounded the base of the Potala. We followed the kora path and entered the Zongjiao Lukang Park (宗角祿康公園) north of the palace. Large groups of park users were dancing at different open areas in the park under loud music. We strolled for a bit in the park and then moved on to find a small noodle eatery for lunch.
Unlike the mysterious night scene, the morning view of the Potala was splendid and elegant.
During our visit, we only had access to small parts of the White and Red Palace.
Despite the access and photography restrictions, a visit to the Potala is still a must-do for most tourists in Lhasa.
To reach the ticket office of the Potala, walking up the main ramp is the second major challenge for many tourists (the first challenge being getting up early to queue for the pre-booking.
From the main ramp, we could clearly see the Potala Square (布達拉宮廣場) beyond Beijing Road.
After an exhausting climb to the top, we finally reached the entrance gate and the ticket office.
From the entrance gate, we could see the beautiful landscape outside of the city of Lhasa.
The mural of the heavenly guards and other mythical figures caught the attention of every visitors passed through the entrance gate.
The entrance door was beautifully decorated with colourful details.
After the entrance gate, we passed through a flight of colourful stair up to the entrance courtyard of the White Palace called Deyang Shar.
The Deyang Shar is a pleasant courtyard that serves as the entrance for the White Palace, and the courtyard is also the last spot where visitors are allowed to take photographs during their Potala visit.
The visit of the Potala for all tourists begins with the White Palace.
At the Deyang Shar, groups of tourists began their palace visit via a steep stair.
After the visit we exited the Potala at the back side of the palace.
We walked down a pleasant walkway down the Marpo Ri.
The walkway led us down to the kora path of pilgrims that surrounded the base of the Potala.
Along the kora path there were small shrines for pilgrims.
Near the Zongjiao Lukang Park, we passed by a popular shrine frequented by pilgrims.
We followed the kora path and entered the Zongjiao Lukang Park (宗角祿康公園) north of the palace.
We strolled for a bit in Zongjiao Lukang Park and then moved on to find a small noodle eatery nearby for lunch.
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.
Only 15 minutes of walk separates Nakameguro (中目黒) and Daikanyama (代官山), two pleasant residential neighborhoods close to Shibuya and Ebisu. Last year in 2016, I made my first visit to Daikanyama, and was immediately captivated by its elegance as an upscale residential and shopping area. This time, we ventured further south towards Meguro River into the neighborhood of Nakameguro. While Nakameguro is not as established as Daikanyama, its charm as a hip and lovely residential and shopping area has become quite well known to both the locals and foreign visitors. Our stroll in Nakameguro and Daikanyama began at Higashi-yama Restaurant, where we had a fine lunch. Then we found our way to the Meguro River, a canal like waterway that used to be an awful stream filled with industrial waste before the 1980s. The fate of Nakameguro changed its course after the government cleaned up the river in the late 1980s. Since then the first group of hipsters moved in, and soon trendy cafes, boutiques and residential developments mushroomed along the Meguro River, and gradually transformed the area into one of the most desirable residential neighborhood in Tokyo. We walked along the river and stopped by a number of shops, before heading over to Sarugakucho (猿楽町) of Daikanyama for a revisit of the magnificent T-Site and the nearby boutiques. Literally means “monkey fun town”, Sarugakucho of Daikanyama is a popular spot in Tokyo simply to enjoy life: unique fashion boutiques, coffee shops, bookstores, hair salons, organic vendors, furniture and design shops, etc.
The Meguro River seems like a canal with peaceful and clear water.
As the government cleaned up Meguro River, the character of Nakameguro was completely transformed into a pleasant residential neighborhood and a concentration of interesting shops, cafes and restaurants.
Many shops along Meguro River are catered to serve the immediate community of local residents, such as hair salons.
Or local eateries…
Considered as one of the star attractions in the area, COW Books in Nakameguro has a charming collection of rare and out-of-print books.
Blue Blue, a unique clothing store owned by Seilin & Co. Hollywood Ranch Market selling a wide range of garments that combines traditional indigo dyeing and contemporary fashion.
Over at Daikanyama, shops are more concentrated in a clusters of narrow streets of Sarugakucho near T-Site, the famous Tsutaya Bookstore and its garden of shops. UES Jeans is a small boutique that sells high quality denim. They believe a garment should be fully used till the end of the product’s life. The name “UES” is derived from the word “waste”, with reference to the Japanese habit of reusing old clothes for dust cloths at the end of the garment’s life.
Designed by architect Akihisa Hirata in 2007, Sarugaku is a cluster of six commercial blocks surrounding a valley-like courtyard in a narrow site.
At Sarugakucho, we couldn’t resist to check out Okura (オクラ), one of the most popular boutiques in the area. Under the same mother company as Nakameguro’s Blue Blue, Okura is renowned for their garments that perfectly combine traditional indigo dyeing and tailor techniques with contemporary fashion trends and functions.
Maison Kitsune is another unique boutique in Sarugakucho. Maison Kitsune represents a success story of international collaboration. It is founded by French electornic musician Gildas Loaec and Japanese architect Masaya Kuroki, in an attempt to create a brand under the intertwining influences of music and fashion. “Kitsune” is the Japanese word for “fox”, representing a character of versatility and the power of changing appearance.
Our brief afternoon walk of Daikanyama ended at the T-Site, the garden retail complex behind Tsutaya Bookstore.
Other than Tsutaya Bookstore, the stylish restaurant Ivy Place is the main focus in the T-Site.
At the T-Site, the primary attraction is definitely the Tsutaya Bookstore. It was our second time to visit this beautiful bookstore. Similar to my first visit a year ago, we were delighted to find that every corner of the complex was enjoyed by customers of all sorts.
To us, Tsutaya and the T-Site represents an ideal venue to spend a Sunday afternoon.
It was getting dark as we left Daikanyama. We leisurely walked back to our hotel in Shibuya to take a little break before dinner.
After Ebisu, our next stop was Higashi-yama Restaurant in Nakameguro (中目黒). In a quiet residential street in Higashi-yama 15 minutes walk from Nakameguro Station, Higashi-yama Restaurant was well hidden from the street. We came across this restaurant from our online research. We were attracted by the minimalist food presentation and the atmospheric interior setting. We reserved a table for lunch through their website two weeks prior to our departure. After the traditional Kaiseki experience at Ueno Park the day before, we were hoping that Higashi-yama would offer us a contemporary interpretation of Japanese cuisine. “A detached house located in Higashi-yama, Meguro-ku, Tokyo, away from the clamor of the city, and be a place where people meet and discuss what matters most to them, a place where new communication is born.” According to the description on their website, the story of this tranquil spot in Tokyo’s Higashi-yama where people come and chat and enjoy modern Japanese food all began in 1998. Our experience of Higashi-yama began at a narrow stairway off the street.
A flight of steps led us away from a residential street up to a hidden courtyard.
Well hidden from the street, the entrance courtyard offers a serene buffer between the street and the restaurant. The courtyard served well to decant our souls of hastiness and calm down our hearts (as we were almost late for the booking).
The interior of the restaurant is simple and unpretentious, with traditional Japanese dark timber millwork in a bright and simple setting.
A tall shelf displaying wine and sake anchors one corner of the interior.
Wood is such an important material in Japanese culture, from table, chopsticks to chopstick holders.
The appetizer consisted of eight ingredients fresh to the season.
Both the taste and the beautiful presentation of the food matched with the overall ambience of the restaurant.
One of the main dish we ordered was the grilled snapper.
The other main we chose was the tempura seasonal ingredients.
After the tasty appetizers and main dishes, we were led by the staff downstairs via a beautiful and modern stair.
The water feature by the stairwell seems like a contemporary interpretation of a chōzubachi water basin in front of a zen tea house.
We were led to a comfortable sitting area for dessert.
Mocha pudding and mango ice-cream came went well with hot Japanese tea.
An interesting copper sculpture was mounted on the wall over our head.
Opposite to our sitting area, a staff was preparing tea and chatting with another customer by a high counter.
After dessert, we paid the bill and were led to exit the building through a copper door directly back to the street. Overall, Higashi-yama Restaurant offered us a fine experience, with good food to satisfy our taste-buds and a zen and minimalist environment to sooth our souls.
On the second day, we decided to stay close to the area around Shibuya. We hopped on the Yamanote Line and went one stop over to Ebisu (恵比寿). Known as the God of Fishermen and Luck, Ebisu is a popular divinity in Japanese mythology. It was then used by Japan Beer Brewery Company to come up with the brand of Yebisu Beer back in 1890. Established their production facilities near Meguro, Yebisu Beer is one of the oldest beer brand in Japan. In the modern era, the train station and the surrounding community was named after the brewery as Ebisu. In 1988, the beer brewery were moved to a new location. The original brewery site at Ebisu was then transformed into a commercial complex consisted of office towers, retail, and museums known as the Yebisu Garden Place. The Western architectural style create a unique atmosphere, attracting young couples and the local community to dine, shop and relax.
Many tourists go to Yebisu Garden Place to visit the Museum of Yebisu Beer. We came specifically to visit Tokyo Photographic Art Museum (TOP Museum). Opened in 1995, the museum is known as the only public museum in Japan dedicated to photography. The museum has recently gone through two years of extensive renovations. Three wall display of world famous photographs marked the museum entrance at the end of a colonnade. Three exhibitions were on and we opted to see them all. The first one was “20 Year Anniversary TOP Collection: Scrolling Through Heisei Part 1”, a selection of works taken by Japanese photographers during the present Heisei era (平成). The second was Museum Bhavan by Dayanita Singh, a renowned female photographer who captures the various faces and colours of the magnificently complicated Indian society. The third was World Press Photo 17, the annual award event to compliment a selection of works by the world’s photojournalists in the past year.
The Yebisu Garden Place offers a lot of pleasant public spaces for the community of Ebisu.
Two traditional red brick buildings mark the entrance plaza of Yebisu Garden Place.
Many people arrived at Yebisu Garden Place about the same time as we did, probably going to work.
We arrived at Yebisu Garden Place in the morning at around 9am. We had breakfast at one of the cafe near the entrance of Yebisu Garden Place.
The interior of the cafe was causal and sleek.
Across from the cafe, the Yebisu Beer Museum offers visitors a glimpse of the history of Japanese beer. While a Mitsukoshi department store occupies the opposite side of the entrance square.
A barrel vault atrium and a gentle ramp frame the central axis of Yebisu Garden Place, with the Chateau Restaurant Joël Robuchon at the terminus.
We then walked under the canopy to the airy Central Square.
The design of Yebisu Garden Place is dominated by classical layout and axial arrangement.
Classical architectural elements include the colonnades that appear in a number of locations in the complex.
At the Central Square, there were benches painted with playful patterns that marked the 20th anniversary of the complex.
Yebisu Garden Place is frequented with locals. We saw a few who came dressed in traditional garments.
The Chateau Restaurant Joël Robuchon is a famous luxurious venue in the area of Ebisu.
Our main reason coming to Yebisu Garden Place was the TOP Museum (Tokyo Photographic Art Museum), formerly known as the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.
The entrance colonnade of the TOP Museum offers visitors a pleasant approach.
Shōji Ueda (植田正治)’s Sand Dune and My Wife III (妻のいる砂丘風景III) , an iconic Robert Capa’s D-Day shots, and Robert Doisneau’s Le baiser de l’hotel de ville (Kiss by the Hotel de Ville) provide a dramatic setting for the museum entrance.
We stayed at the museum for about two hours, seeing three exhibitions including “20 Year Anniversary TOP Collection: Scrolling Through Heisei Part 1”, Dayanita Singh’s Museum Bhavan, and World Press Photo 17. The TOP Museum is a fantastic cultural institution for anyone who love photography. It offers temporary exhibitions on four levels of museum spaces.
After Ueno Park, we still have time to visit another place before our 18:30 dinner reservation back in Shibuya. West from Ueno, we took the metro to the residential neighborhood of Sekiguchi in Bunkyo District. We stepped into the peaceful residential streets of Sekiguchi, and used Google Map to find our way to St. Mary’s Cathedral, the seat of Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Tokyo. Apart from its religious significance, the cathedral building is also a masterpiece of modernist architecture designed by renowned Japanese architect Kenzo Tange (丹下健三). The cathedral was completed in 1964, about the same time as Kenzo Tange’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium for the 1964 Olympics.
The peaceful residential streets of Sekiguchi led us toward’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.
Cladded with stainless steel, Kenzo Tange’s St. Mary’s Cathedral replaces its Gothic and wooden predecessor that was destroyed during the Second World War.
Kenzo Tange’s version of the cathedral was much simpler than a traditional Gothic church. The essence of the building is expressed through the combination of geometry, lines, shades, and reflections.
On a plan in the form of a cross, Kenzo Tange extruded eight hyperbolic parabolas upwards to form this unique piece of architecture.
When seen from above, the cathedral and its skylights would appear exactly in the shape of the cross.
Reaching 61.68m, the bell tower is separated from the main church building.
The interior of St. Mary’s Cathedral should be a huge surprise for any first time visitors. The concrete structural shell is fully exposed, providing a minimalist interior where light and shades play the role to create a spiritual atmosphere.
Benches inside St. Mary’s Cathedral face toward the main altar, behind which stands the tall window extending all the way to the ceiling, then runs across the ceiling to the opposite end of the building.
The spiral stair behind the seating is a neat feature that goes up the largest organ in Japan.
The large organ was manufactured by Italian company Mascioni. We were lucky to experience its beautiful sound when staff were practicing the organ when we were there.
After a fantastic architectural treat at St. Mary’s Cathedral, we made a short walk in the neighborhood to Zoshigaya Metro Station (雑司が谷駅) for the Fukutoshin Metro back to Shibuya.
On our way, we passed through the peaceful residential neighborhood of Mejirodai (目白台).
The afternoon sunlight of the early summer day was brilliant. The half-hour walk was pleasant and we hardly saw other tourists along the way.