DAY 7 (6/7): THE SUBTLE BEAUTY OF A WARRIOR’S REFUGE, Nomura Samurai House (武家屋敷跡 野村家), Nagamachi Samurai District (長町), Kanazawa (金沢), Ishikawa Prefecture (石川県), Japan, 2018.05.31
We wandered around Nagamachi (長町) on narrow lanes flanked both sides by yellow earth walls. We slowly found our way to Nomura Samurai House and arrived at the house’s forecourt about an hour before its closing time. Once we took off our shoes, we were free to walk around the former samurai house. It was hard to imagine that such a tranquil complex with a picturesque garden and tea house was actually the home of a powerful samurai (warrior official who served the feudal lord) in the Edo Period. In the 16th century, Nomura Denbei Nobusada, an official of the first feudal lord of the Kaga Domain Toshiie Maeda, was assigned with the Nomura Family House. 12 generations had passed until the 19th century when the Nomura lost their property during the Meiji Restoration. It was the historical moment of transition when the samurai system quickly became obsoleted against rapid modernization of Japan. A business man and shipowner named Kubo Hikobei bought the house in mid 20th century. He restored the garden and house and was responsible for several alterations, which included adding a tea house. The focal point of the Nomura Samurai House was undoubtedly the small garden at the back of the house. Stone lanterns, stepping stones, pine trees, a small waterfall, a tranquil water pond, and several curious koi fish form a beautiful picture to welcome visitors and exemplify the essence of traditional Japanese gardens. Journal of Japanese Gardening even claims that the small Nomura garden is one of the top three gardens in the entire nation. While judging beauty is purely subjective to the eye, the layering of natural scenes and careful arrangement of the verandas, pathways, stepping stones and stone bridges would definitely slow down the pace of visitors. Only with patience and a peaceful heart could one fully appreciates the carefully configured beauty of the garden at Nomura.
After a path made of large stepping stones, a humble entrance welcomed all visitors at the entrance garden.
Prominently displayed at the foyer was a samurai armour.
The painted screen doors at the tatami drawing room were quite eye-catching.
Japanese cypress wood, rosewood, ebony, paulownia wood, etc were used for different functions inside the house.
The family altar is lavishly decorated with gold paint and leaves. Kanazawa has been a famous place for gold leaf manufacturing for over 400-years.
The Japanese is almost a synonym to fine craftsmanship. All nails in the Nomura House are carefully kept out of sight.
At the back garden, trees and shrubs of different sizes provide a layered backdrop to the stone lantern.
The boundary of garden and architecture almost disappears. Walking or sitting at the wooden veranda would make one forget all the troubles.
Irregular stepping stones, rectangular stone bridges, and the smooth wooden veranda allow spectators to appreciate the beauty of the garden at his/her own pace.
A plinth like water basic reveals a certain contemporary charm of minimalism. Gentle ripples and the sound of the dripping water create an almost spiritual effect to the visitor experience.
At the end of the veranda, we found our way into another small outdoor space and a stair up to the tea house.
The transitional space between the garden and the stair to the tea house is another masterpiece of landscape design.
Before one reaches the stair up to the tea house, a small water feature reminds visitors of the purity and vitality of water.
The outdoor spaces at Nomura Samurai House are full of beautiful surprises.
A large variety of bamboo, timber and stones have been used to create a rich palette of textures.
Just like many tea houses in Japan, the tiny tea house at Nomura Samurai House is an artwork in itself.
From the tea house, the lush-green vegetation of the garden defines the ambience.
Before leaving Nomura Samurai House, a display bonsai reminded us the beauty of many traditional Japanese art did require tons of patience, techniques, care and imagination to maintain. What might seem to be a simple pot plant was in reality had gone through decades of care and subtle alterations.
DAY 7 (3/7): POETICS OF ARCHITECTURE, D T Suzuki Museum (鈴木大拙館), Kanazawa (金沢), Ishikawa Prefecture (石川県), Japan, 2018.05.31
In counter to a globalized world where International Style architecture can be erected anywhere in the world without connections with the regional culture and landscape, architectural historian Kenneth Frampton suggests Critical Regionalism as an alternative approach that integrates Modernist design with regional essence. From Kenzo Tange to Tadao Ando and Kengo Kuma, the beauty of traditional Japanese architecture have made a strong presence in modern architectural designs in Japan. Located just a block southeast of SANAA’s 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, the D T Suzuki Museum is an elegant piece of modern architecture that contains deep roots in the beauty of Japanese Zen traditions. Famous for designing a number of museums in Japan and, the most well known of all, the new wing of New York’s MOMA, architect Yoshio Taniguchi (谷口吉生) completed this small museum in 2011 to commemorate the life and works of Suzuki Daisetz Teitaro (1870-1966), an influential Zen Buddhist philosopher who was largely responsible for introducing Japanese Zen Buddhism to the West.
Famous for the spatial qualities and fine detailing, Yoshio Taniguchi’s D T Suzuki Museum goes much beyond a sleek building that houses a collection of artefacts. From the humble entrance to a hallway guided by a slit of light, from a cozy exhibition hall that tells the story of the zen master to a small library of Suzuki’s works for visitor’s better understanding on the philosophy of Zen, and from a courtyard of a rugged stone wall and tranquil mirror pool for visitors’ self reflection to a spiritual pavilion surrounded by water for self contemplation, a visit to the D T Suzuki Museum offers an inspiring journey designated for the beauty of spiritual enlightenment, Zen Buddhism and life itself. Though small in scale, the experience and beauty of D T Suzuki Museum provided us much more food for thought than many catchy and sleek designs that spark a few minutes of wow effect and then nothing more.
Reference to traditional Japanese houses and Modernist architecture, a band of vertical strips conceal the humble entrance and glazed reception lobby.
A square abstract pattern of lines and strokes define the logo of the D T Suzuki Museum.
After obtaining our tickets, we followed a hallway with skirting light into the exhibition space.
In the middle of the hallway, an angular glazed corner allowed us to have a peek into the modern zen garden outside.
No photography was allowed in the exhibition and library areas. After the exhibit, the journey took us out to the courtyard of mirror pond and the contemplation pavilion with its paper-thin roof.
We sat on a wooden bench in front of a stone wall for quite some time to feel the breeze and take in the atmosphere and let the beauty of the courtyard to sink into our hearts.
Water ripples was generated automatically from time to time in the pool, serving as a visual massage to further calm down our mind.
Every elements in the complex are minimal, light and elegant, as if the world has been striped of every excessive and undesirable element with only the essence left behind.
Refined detailing of the pool railing showed us the architect’s careful attention to minimize excessive lines and connection hardware throughout the complex.
At four corners of the pavilion, rainwater chains were provided along with beautiful water feature of small water droplets forming tiny ripples in the pool.
The pavilion for contemplation can be reached from all four sides. With indirect lighting from the overhead oculus and the four openings each framing a garden view, one can stay, meditate and make peace with him/herself in the pavilion for a long time.
The courtyard wasn’t very big, but it was full of interesting design details and magnificent spots to appreciate order of zen architecture.
The edge of the pool is carefully treated with a perimeter band of pebble stones.
From the garden lookout, the pavilion and its reflection appear perfect in geometry under the shade of the willow tree.
The essence of minimalist architecture is evident from the limited number of lines and elements in the design.
Less doesn’t mean lacking: unique features in the museum garden offer touches of design sophistication to enhance user experience at different spots throughout the journey.
For many tourists, D T Suzuki Museum has provided one of the most pleasant surprises and inspiring moments in their Kanazawa experience. We couldn’t agree more.
DAY 6 (4/6): RAINY AFTERNOON IN AINOKURA (相倉), Gokayama (五箇山), Nanto (南砺市), Toyama Prefecture (富山県), Japan, 2018.05.30
45 minutes of bus ride took us deeper into the valley of Gokayama (五箇山) in Toyama Prefecture. Our destination was Ainokura (相倉), one of the three villages with Gassho-zukuri houses inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Rain continued to pour down when we get off at Ainokuraguchi (相倉口) bus stop. We had no choice but to brave the elements and walk uphill into the village from the country highway. It took about 5 minutes to reach the village parking lot, and another 5 minutes to reach our guesthouse. After checking in, we rested a bit until the rain subsided a little.
Sandwiched between dense forests on a hill and the Sho River (庄川) that runs in a deep valley, Ainokura is a situated on a narrow plain surrounded by forests and mountains. With about about 30 preserved gassho-zukuri houses, the 450-year old village remains a quiet rural community with about 90 inhabitants as of 1994. The region around Ainokura was nearly impenetrable until 1925, when a road was built through the surrounding forests. Once a stronghold of silkworm production before the 1950s, the village has since become a self-sufficient rural community filled with rice paddies and flower fields. Today, a few houses are open to visitors as museums or guesthouses, but most of the village remain private, unlike Ogimachi of Shirakawa-go where most houses have been converted into tourism-related uses. The view of Ainokura from the adjacent hill may be less dramatic than the one from the Shiroyama Observatory Deck at Ogimachi, yet wandering in the remote village of Gokayama offers a much more tranquil and delightful experience as if going back in time.The rain was at times heavy as we entered Ainokura in mid afternoon.
Mist and clouds lingered around the surrounding mountains of Ainokura as we entered the village.
After a five minute walk from Ainokuraguchi (相倉口) bus stop, we reached the main parking lot of the village and a small visitor centre.
Rice paddies of different sizes and shapes filled up all the spaces between village homes.
Most gassho-zukuri houses remain as private homes of villagers.
One of the gassho-zukuri houses at the village centre is turned into a souvenir shop.
On a high ground at the village centre stands the Jinushi Shrine (地主神社), a Shinto shrine in the shade of tall trees.
Adjacent to the Jinushi Shrine (地主神社), a stepped path leads to a stone monument to commemorate the visit of a royal prince.
Sonen-ji Temple (相念寺) is a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple at the heart of Ainokura.
Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (浄土真宗) is a school of Pure Land Buddhism. It is the most popular branch of Buddhism in Japan.
The Sonen-ji Temple (相念寺) building was completed in 1859.
In Ainokura, there are several designated viewpoints, mostly on the slope or farming terraces right by the village.
We walked up to a few farming terraces to look for a desirable viewpoint for the village’s overview.
Some viewpoints required us to walk further uphill into the dense forest adjacent to Ainokura.
We followed a series of signs to reach the highest viewpoint uphill. The walk took about 15 minutes on a narrow paved road.
From the openings between trees, we could enjoy beautiful birdeye’s views of Ainokura.
From above, we could truly appreciated the thatched roofs of Ainokura, which are steeper than the ones in Shirakawa-go due to the heavier snowfall in Gokayama.
We truly sensed the remoteness of Ainokura with its surrounding mountains.
We wandered around Ainokura between periods of rain, but we didn’t entered any museums.
At the end of the village near our guesthouse, a downhill road led us to a large piece of mirror-like rice paddy. Sunlight was fading, reminding us that dinner was about to start at our guesthouse.
The illuminated Gassho-zukuri village houses blanketed in thick layer of snow make a fairy tale like postcard scenery have attracted visitors from close and afar, making Shirakawa-go an extremely popular tourist attraction at specific winter weekends. Situated in the remote snow county of the Japanese Alps, gassho rural regions such as Shirakawa-go (白川郷) and Gokayama (五箇山) have been historically isolated from the outside world. A unique rural lifestyle and special vernacular architecture have been developed in the past few centuries to tackle the snowy and wet climate of the mountains. Gassho-zukuri (合掌造り集落), which literally means “hands in prayer”, refers to the exceptionally steep thatch roofs of the regional farmhouses due to the heavy snowfall of the area. These steep roofs have become a unique symbol of the region. In 1995, three of these remote Gassho-zukuri villages: Ogimachi in Shirakawa-go (荻町), Suganuma (菅沼) and Ainokura (相倉) in Gokayama were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Due to its proximity to Hida-Takayama, most visitors opt for a day trip (or half-day trip) to visit Shirakawa-go. Few would venture farther into Gokayama and even less so would stay the night at one of the mountain villages. In recent years, a number of the centuries old Gassho-zukuri farmhouses have been transformed into guesthouses, allowing visitors to experience the villages’ unique beauty and tranquility after the departure of the daytrippers. Being the largest and most accessible Gassho-zukuri village, Ogimachi of Shirakawa-go is the most developed in terms of its tourist facilities. A number of its old farmhouses have been converted into museums, restaurants and souvenir shops. There is even an area called Gasshozukuri Minkaen Outdoor Museum, where historical farmhouses have been relocated and grouped into an open air museum. Taking the 8:25am bus from Takayama, we arrived at Shirakawa-go bus station in about an hour. When we arrived at one of Japan’s most picturesque farming village, steady rain kept on coming down with no end in sight. We stored our backpacks in a locker at the bus station, picked up a village map and bought a transparent umbrella from the tourist office, and off we went to explore touristy yet charming Ogimachi of Shirakawa-go.
Just outside the bus station, we had our first peek of the rural charm of Shirakawa-go. Rhythmical rain drops rippled across the flooded paddy field of lush green rice seedlings.
Despite the rain, we were delighted to enter the tranquil world of Ogimachi.
It was 9:20am. Not too many tourists were around. We stopped by the pond of waterlilies in front of Wada Residence, one of the largest gassho style house in the village.
Ogimachi has a extensive network of irrigation channels. Visitors may occasionally find carps in the water.
A row of cute scarecrows offer an amusing background for photos, and a friendly reminder of Ogimachi’s rural past.
Straw from farm crops are harvested in the autumn, dried as a snow fence around the gassho style house, and used to repair the thatched roof in the spring or autumn. Due to the need of a large labour force, neighbors in the village would come over to help on repairing the thatched roof.
Many gassho style houses, including the Yamaainoie Residence (山峡の家), have been converted into cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops or guesthouses.
The small gassho style house serves as a charming little cafe with splendid views of rice patties.
The entrance of the cafe is decorated with plant pots, wood lattice and a “thinker” statue.
In 1961, the construction of Miboro Dam at Sho River in Takayama was completed. several villages and shrines were submerged, along with about half of the surviving Gassho-zukuri houses.
Today, the biggest concentration of Gassho-zukuri houses are found in Ogimachi, Ainokura, and Suganuma. Important structures, such as the Myozen-ji Temple in Ogimachi, have become rare survivors from the bygone period.
Thatched roof repair works can still be seen in Ogimachi of Shirakawa-go.
The steep angle of the thatched roof of the Gassho-zukuri houses help to prevent snow accumulation, though people, especially outside visitors, have to be cautious of the falling snow below the roof.
A number of Gassho-zukuri houses in Ogimachi of Shirakawa-go have been turned into guesthouses.
Fire hydrants are important in the farming village because of the combustibility of the Gassho-zukuri houses.
Because of the rain, the mountains beyond Ogimachi were covered in beautiful mist while we were there.
Newer houses in a distinct architectural style can also be found in the village.
Due to the unique appearance of the Gassho-zukuri houses and it natural setting, Ogimachi of Shirakawa-go is often considered one of the most picturesque farming village in Japan.
DAY 5 (4/5): YOSHIJIMA HOUSE (吉島家住宅), Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山), Gifu Prefecture (岐阜県), Japan, 2018.05.29
Other than the Hida beef and sake, the other two places we planned to visit in Takayama were the Miyagawa Morning Market (宮川朝市) and Yoshijima House (吉島家住宅). According to guidebooks, for anyone who are interested in architecture and design, Yoshijima House is a must-go in Takayama. The Yoshijima House has been published in various design magazines and is considered an excellent example of machiya or traditional townhouse architecture of the Hida region. Built in 1907 by master carpenter Nishida Isaburo (西田伊三郎), the student of the fourth Mizuma Sagami (水間相模), the timber house of Yoshijima exemplifies the supreme craftsmanship of the traditional Hida carpentry. Today, the house is designated as a national important cultural property and a popular tourist attraction. From Sanmachi Suji (三町筋) or the old town, Yoshijima House is just a few blocks to the north beyond a water channel.
The sugitama (杉玉) outside of Yoshijima House reveals its original identity as a well known sake breweries in Takayama.
From outside, a traditional outer wall conceals the inner garden of the Yoshijima House.
Beyond the entrance vestibule, we entered into a large and airy hall. The middle part of the hall with hard flooring indicated where the sake shop was once situated, whereas the raised tatami areas belonged to the living spaces of the Yoshijima family.
We were told by the museum staff to take the wooden stair and visit the upper level first.
On the upper level, we walked through a series of tatami spaces. These spaces were used by the children of the family back in the old days.
The simplicity of design details and building materials express a sense of minimalism that is still dominating Japanese architectural design.
Occasional design elaborations such as the painted cupboard panels provide a touch of artistic beauty and focus.
Level difference is being used as a means to define two separated spaces.
The wood stairs are beautiful but a little steep.
Small architectural details throughout the building highlight the level of family status and quality of the carpentry.
The ground floor of Yoshijima House reveals the flexibility of partitioning in a traditional Japanese house. All rooms are interconnected with sliding doors, allowing utmost freedom for space planning.
There is no specific function for each 6-tatami room. When a table is set up in the tatami room then it will become a dining room. And when bedding is arranged, the same room will be transformed into a bedroom.
When all sliding panels are removed, the ground floor will become one large space for special uses.
Like many Japanese houses, a courtyard flanked with verandas provides pleasant semi-outdoor spaces for the house users.
During our visit, artworks and magazines about the Yoshijima House were on displayed at the former sake making and storage area, where beautiful jazz music was playing in the background.
The most famous feature of the Yoshijima House is the prominent posts and beams at the main hall. The spaces with the charcoal brazier set were used as living and dining room for the family.
The high windows allow light to create a pleasant ambience at the main hall.
The beauty of wood is essential to the interiors of the house. The wood beams and posts are covered with thin layer of lacquer, and have been periodically polished with cloth by the family since completion.
The antique clock on the wall reminded us the Meiji Era at the turning of the 20th century when Japan opened its doors to welcome Western technologies and knowledge and went through a rapid process of modernization.
With a population of less than 250,000, peaceful Matsumoto (松本市) is renowned for its beautiful mountain views, in particular the Hida Mountains to the west. Coming from Tokyo, we could immediately sense the relaxing air of the mountain city as we stepped out the train station. We spent 5 hours in Matsumoto, visiting the castle, art museum, and performing arts centre. All three sites were within walking distance from the train station, and we were able to cover everything on foot. Near the castle, we passed by small weekend markets where vendors were selling snacks, handicrafts, straw hats, accessories, local produces, artworks, etc. Our brief stay in Matsumoto provided us a moment of transition between busy Tokyo and tranquil Kamikochi (上高地) in the Japanese Alps.
At 09:40 we arrived at Matsumoto Station (松本駅) by JR East’s Super Azusa.
It was Saturday morning. Most shops near the station had yet open their doors except this sake store. Sake, the popular Japanese rice wine, is in fact quite famous in Nagano Prefecture, where clean water, good sake rice and cool weather can be found.
With red polka dots all over, the Town Sneaker bus is undoubtedly designed by Yayoi Kusama (草間彌生), the world renowned artist from Matsumoto. This inner city loop service is a convenient way for tourists to get around the city.
In front of the newly opened Shinmai Media Garden, a lively street market captured our attention. Designed by Toyo Ito, Shinmai Media Garden is a shopping centre with an interesting trade mix, including a local beer restaurant, cultural workshops, rooftop cafe, restaurants, apple cider shop, lifestyle store, small exhibition spaces, etc.
At the street market, we could find different local products from handicrafts to snacks.
Even doughnuts were made with local ingredients.
Straw broom (houki) of Matsumoto (松本箒) is a famous traditional handicraft of the city since the late Edo Period 150 years ago.
This minimalist building right by the Metoba River is a small retail complex with a barber shop, restaurants, and fashion boutiques.
Behind the retail complex stands the Matsumoto Timepiece Museum, which hosts a collection of timepieces donated by Chikazo Honda and other local citizens.
Nawate Dori, also called Kaeru Machi or “Frog Street”, is a small street near the castle famous for its traditional shops. Frog sculptures can be found along Nawate Dori. Made by students of Tokyo University for Arts, this sculpture of frog samurai is one the most impressive.
Some say the abundance of frog sculptures at Nawate Dori is a result from the typhoon incident in 1959, which flooded the area and forced the original Kajika frogs of the Metoba River leaving for higher ground and never returned. The frog sculptures have since become replacements to retain the original spirit of the place.
The streets of Matsumoto were full of surprises.
The abundance of nice boutiques and delightful cafes at downtown Matsumoto reveals the youthful energy and desire for a cozy lifestyle.
Matsumoto has a decent student population with its universities, junior colleges, secondary and elementary schools.
At 14:45, we hopped on the Alpico Kotsu’s Kamikochi Line at platform No. 7 at the station. The 14.4km train ride took us as far as Shin Shimashima (新島々駅) in half an hour, from where we switched to the Kamikochi bound bus for the final leg of the journey.
At Matsumoto Station, we picked up two bento boxes from a convenient store. They were tasty and decent looking, perfect for a relaxing train ride.
As soon as we stepped out of Shin Shimashima Station (新島々駅), we could see the bus parked outside. It was a smooth transfer as we boarded the direct bus for Kamikochi.
On the way to Kamikochi, we often passed by picturesque rice paddies.
The bus ride took about 60 minutes through mountain valleys and small villages. All we could hope for was pleasant weather in Kamikochi, where we would make day hikes to explore the mountains.
Two years ago in April 2016, Pritzker Prize winner Toyo Ito (伊東豊雄) came to Hong Kong for a public lecture. His recently completed Taichung Metropolitan Opera House was the main focus on that day, but Ito also introduced some of his earlier works, including the Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre (まつもと市民芸術館). With its spatial fluidity and random windows on the curving outer walls, the Matsumoto project has strongly imprinted onto our memory. Completed in 2004, the Matsumoto Performing Arts Center is consisted of two performance halls: the great hall (1800 seats) and the smaller hall (240 seats), rehearsal studios, supporting facilities, a cafe, and a reception lobby, all connected by a ribbon-like foyer and a splendid staircase, allowing visitors to freely flow through different spaces. The performing arts centre was famous not only for its aesthetics, but also its quality as a community theatre, providing a great place for both the audience and performers. This, to a great extent, was the fruitful result from close collaborations during the design process between architect Toyo Ito and stage director-actor Kazuyoshi Kushida.
Despite our limited time in the city, we just couldn’t leave Matsumoto without checking out Ito’s building. We were eager to have a firsthand experience of the fluid spatial experience, check out the delicate construction detailing, and admire the lovely finish materials. The performance halls were closed for the public, but we could still freely wander in the common areas, from the grand entrance staircase to the lovely roof garden.
The Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre is just a few minutes walk from Matsumoto City Museum of Art.
From outside, the Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre bends along a side street to the dark grey fly tower.
The expression of fluidity seems to be the coherent design language of the building. Patterns of flowing water appears on some metal panels near the building entrance.
The magical experience of the architecture begins right from the dramatic entry into the entrance lobby and grand staircase.
A moving walkway along the beautiful outer wall of random openings, where diffused natural light is allowed to enter the interior.
In a magazine interview, Toyo Ito describes the curved facade with windows of sparkling pattern can give the impression of being random and natural rather than geometrically based.
From a distance, the facade of random windows appears like a translucent screen of sparkling gemstones.
During daytime, the foyer serves as a indoor public space. The public is free to enter and climb the stair to the upper foyer.
A screen of translucent glass serves as a balustrade for the upper foyer.
On the upper foyer, there is a large glazed wall allowing visitors to take in the view of greenery outside.
The curvature of the outer walls extends all the way to the back foyer of the grand hall. While the outer wall are defined by the random windows, the walls of the performance halls in the foyer are cladded by dark metal panels.
On the upper foyer, there are several two groups of organic shaped seating under spotlight.
Between the grand and smaller halls, the foyer offers a pleasant space for pre-function activities under the carefully designed ambient lighting.
There is a causal cafe at the end of the foyer next to the smaller hall. The adjacent glass elevator provides a convenient way to access the above roof garden.
The flat roof is covered entirely by vegetation. Both the lawn and the continuous bench along the railing offer pleasant seating to the public.
The roof garden ends at a dance rehearsal studio and the fly tower of the grand hall.
From the roof garden, visitors can enjoy the skyline of Matsumoto and the scenery of Hida Mountains (Northern Japanese Alps) beyond.
After touring the roof garden and upper foyer, we descended back to the ground floor.
We were delighted to have make it to see Ito’s great piece of architecture. From the performing arts centre, it was a 15-minute walk back to Matsumoto Station for us to embark into the countryside of the Northern Japanese Alps.