It was such a surreal experience to dress in yukata and hop from one bathhouse to another. The night belonged to the wabi-sabi of aged old timber houses, the rhythmical shadows of latticed screens, the delightful chatters outside liquor stores, the delicate willow reflections under the stone bridges, the vivid and captivating window displays, the youngsters at the dessert shops, the bliss of relaxation and haptic memory of onsen waters upon our skin. It was such a dreamy night for us that would last long in our memories.
For each of our trip to Japan, we often included at least one onsen visit. There were plenty of hot spring options in and around Kyoto, but we opted for one a little further west in Hyōgo Prefecture (兵庫県). While Hyōgo is famous for its night view in Kobe, medieval castle in Himeji and hilltop ruins in Takeda, hot springs at Arima Onsen and Kinosaki Onsen are equally popular for tourists. This time, we picked Kinosaki Onsen (城崎温泉) for its traditional hot spring facilities, picturesque village setting, and proximity to Japan Sea, where the seasonal snow crab harvest (winter only) came as a bonus. Before sunrise, we left our hotel for Kyoto Station. After a quick breakfast at the station, we hopped on the 7:32am Kinosaki Onsen bound limited express train. The ride would take about 2.5 hours, passing through the rural and lush green interiors of Hyogo. On the train, we discussed about how to spend the day before our ryokan check-in time in the afternoon. We thought of getting off a few stops earlier to visit the Museum for Wood Culture (木の殿堂) in the forest of Mikata-gun. But we gave up the idea due to the lack of public transportation options that area. We ended up getting off at Toyooka (豊岡市), one stop before Kinosaki Onsen. At the first glance, the capital of the former Tajima Province (但馬国) didn’t seem to have much to offer except bags. Known as the “City of Bags”, it was said that about 70% of bags produced in Japan came from Toyooka. But we didn’t come for bags. We came to make a brief visit of Izushi (出石), a castle town outside the city that features frequently in tourist brochures.
We stored our backpacks in lockers at the upper level of Toyooka Station, and hopped on a local bus. The bus quickly left the city and sped along Izushi River towards Izushi. We got off at the bus terminus beneath Mount Ariko (有子山), a lush green hill where the castle ruins still stand. After passing by several soba noodle shops, we arrived at the visitor parking lot and a wooden bridge over Taniyama River that seemed to be the entrance of Izushi Castle Ruins (出石城跡). Built in 1604 at the foot of Mount Ariko, the castle was actually the second castle of Izushi. It was indeed a replacement to an earlier complex at the hilltop. We didn’t have time to hike all the way up to check out the ruined foundations of the first castle, but spent time wandering around the grounds of the second castle, where two restored guardhouses offered us a glimpse of its former glory. Standing out vividly against the white castle structures, a series of red torii gates revealed that an Inari Shrine must be nearby. We followed the torii gates uphill until reaching a tree-shaded terrace where stone foxes and lanterns flanked both sides of a short procession route. At the end, a Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari Ōkami (稲荷大神) stood silently under several old pine trees. We carefully walked over the muddy ground covered with fallen leaves to the cliff edge overlooking the town. After spending some time in the shadows of torii gates and old pine trees, it was fascinating to see the open vista of the old town, Izushi River Valley and distant hills further beyond. After the visit of the ruined castle and Shinto shrine, we couldn’t wait to head back down for the most famous product of Izushi – soba noodles.
In a 2008 Guardian article, Sean Dodson chooses his ten favorite independent bookshops around the world. Among his choices, only one is in Asia and it is Keibunsha (恵文社) in Ichijoji, Kyoto. Ichijo-ji (一乗寺), a lovely neighborhood in northern Kyoto, may not be a fixture on every tourist’s list. Most foreigners come for the decent variety of ramen shops. We went because of Keibunsha, but Ichijo-ji turned out to be much more than just ramen diners and a cozy bookshop. With its wooden houses and hilly backdrop, a good wealth of old shops and restaurants, and a handful of temples and shrines, Ichijo-ji exemplifies what most people love about Kyoto, but without the tourist crowds of Higashiyama or Arashiyama. We spent a good few hours in Ichijo-ji, did a short walk near the small temple Shisendō (詩仙堂丈山寺), tasted some delicious dessert at Nakatani wagashi (中谷和菓子), shopped for traditional pickles (おゝみや児島詩仙堂店), lingered in Keibunsha Bookstore, and finished the day with a satisfying bowl of ramen at Takayasu (高安).
No matter in Rome, Buenos Aires or Hong Kong, taking morning walks is always one of our most enjoyable ways to appreciate a city. With an ever-present tranquility, elegance and otherworldliness, Kyoto is perfect for a morning stroll, especially to appreciate the beautiful tones of aged timber, indigo shingles and seasonal vegetation all under the crisp air of surrounding mountains. And what’s best to start a morning walk? For us, it’s a cup of good coffee. Tucked in a corner of an almost unnoticeable parking lot a block away from Nishiki Market (錦市場), a tiny coffee shop successfully captured our attention with its rich aroma and lovely ambience. Housed in an old machiya house, Weekenders Coffee provokes memories of a traditional kissaten (喫茶店) where writers and intellectuals in the old days gathered for a cup of tea or coffee. Opened since 2005, Weekenders was one of the first espresso shops in Kyoto. At Weekenders, a few customers may gather at the forecourt sipping coffee while resting the eyes upon a tiny Japanese garden. This was exactly what we did: sitting in front of the coffee shop at 7:30 in the morning, sniffing in fresh morning air and coffee aroma, and being enchanted with the pleasure of life.
At Nishiki Market, pickle vendors and fishmongers were busy setting up their stores. Laughter and giggles could be heard behind the counter of a tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled omelette) shop, where a team of staff were busy making omelettes for the day. It was still way too early to taste the food and shop for grocery at the iconic 400-year-old market. Unlike the crowded scenes during our 2016 visit, this time we almost had Nishiki all by ourselves. At the eastern end of where the market met Teramachi Shopping Street, we were once again attracted by the lanterns of Nishiki-Tenmangu Shrine (錦天満宮) just like in 2016. Headed north from the shrine, we entered the arcade of Teramachi Shopping Street (寺町通商店街), a famous destination for both locals and tourists.
Literally means “Temple Town Street”, Teramachi (寺町通) has much more to offer than a covered arcade both sides flanked by shops. In 1590, 80 or so Buddhist temples from the area were relocated to Teramachi. It was Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉), the powerful daimyo (feudal lord) or de facto ruler of Japan, who ordered the move during Sengoku period (戦国時代) in the late 16th century. In the subsequent centuries, stores selling books, Buddhist rosaries, medicine, stationery, handicrafts and clothing flourished and gradually developed into the present arcades. Today, in the midst of shops, restaurants, and entertainment facilities, places of worship and even small graveyards maintain a strong presence at Teramachi, with temple entrances open right next to boutiques and stores. While most shops on Teramachi and the adjacent Shinkyogoku Shopping Street (新京極商店街) had yet opened for business, we took the opportunity to do some temple hopping while window shopping at the same time.
18th June 2021 was the deadline for developers to bid for the latest waterfront site in Central, between Jardine House and Central Ferry Pier. With an estimated value at around USD 5 – 7.1 billion, the 47,970 sq.m site encompasses a piece of reclaimed land and the iconic General Post Office at Connaught Place. Completed in 1976, the fourth generation postal headquarters has been a prominent fixture in the city’s evolving skyline for 45 years. Despite efforts from conservationists, the building would inevitably be replaced by another glassy skyscraper in the near future. While few people see the modernist post office as an architectural masterpiece, many Hongkongers have expressed their resentment about the potential loss in the business district. With its horizontal features, modular brise soleil, and concrete vaults, the General Post Office is a decent example of modernist architecture in Hong Kong, the design movement that first emerged in the West between the World Wars. Using modern construction methods and materials like steel, reinforced concrete and glass, Modernism rose to become the dominant architectural style after WWII. In Hong Kong, the Modernist style in the city is often referred to as the “Bauhaus style”.
Founded by German architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus was probably the most famous and avant-garde design and art school between the world wars (1919 – 1933). From art to graphic design, architecture to interiors, typography to industrial design, influences of the Bauhaus have been an omnipresence in our lives. Commonly known as International Style, the minimalist and rationalist approach of the Bauhaus reflect the rapid modernization of the 20th century. To envision Modernism, architectural masters like Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, or Mies van de Rohe might be looking for a novel design methodology and architectural tectonics that define the functionalism and aesthetics of the Modern Age. By the time Modernism has arrived to Postwar Hong Kong, the style was quickly adopted due to pragmatic reasons such as construction speed, design modularity, minimal detailing, and versatile functionality. Modernist apartment blocks, office towers, factories, schools, sport centres, parking garages, market complexes, and government buildings flourished across the city to cope with the population and economic boom, replacing earlier colonial structures and pre-war tenement buildings.
As Hong Kong further developed into one of Asia’s most prominent financial hubs in the 1980’s, the architectural world has already entered the age of Post-Modernism. Some notable Modernist buildings such as Gropius’ Bauhaus in Dessau, Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa’s City of Brasilia, Le Corbusier’s various projects in Europe, Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, etc. have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, but many more Modernist buildings have become subjects of demolition and redevelopment. Modernist architecture has yet been widely recognized as a precious heritage, nor have them been well loved by the public. Many have already been torn down in Hong Kong in the past three decades. In recent years, this attitude has finally come to a twist. The potential demolition of buildings like the General Post Office have raised public awareness of the modern heritage. This is a realization of what heritage and cultural legacy really are in the making of a diverse urban culture and defining the zeitgeist of an era.
Not all Modernist buildings are designated for demolition in Hong Kong. Some have been preserved and revitalized with new uses and appearances, such as the Murray Building (美利大廈) on Cotton Tree Road. The 1969 government office tower was recently converted into a 5-star hotel by architect Norman Foster. Such adaptive reuse of the Modernist building is a convincing way to preserve memories and manage urban changes while retaining the essence of the original architecture.
In 2017, the 4th generation Union Church (佑寧堂) at 22A Kennedy Road, a 68-year Grade III listed historical building, was brutally torn down for a highly controversial real estate redevelopment. Despite efforts from conservation groups, architects, politicians, church members, media, and local community groups, the government refused to list the church as a Grade I historical building, and the Union Church refuses to back down from the project. The upcoming 22-storey mixed use building, which includes a new worshiping space and 45 luxurious apartments split between real estate developer Henderson Land Development (恒基兆業地產) and Union Church, exemplifies another bitter defeat of architectural heritage conservation in Hong Kong. Perhaps no government in 1890 (the time when Union Church acquired the site) could predict how insanely expensive land prices would become in a hundred years’ time, especially in the affluent Mid-Levels district. The original reasoning for letting missionaries to acquire land at relatively low cost may no longer be justified. Today, this has become a convenient tool for any religious institution to secure commercial profit by selling its own properties. Union Church is not the first such case and certainly won’t be the last either.
The scene of a lonely Gothic Revival church encircled by highrise apartments or commercial towers ten times its height is not uncommon in Hong Kong. Well known for its high urban density, many neighborhoods in Hong Kong appear like monotonous forests of highrise buildings. Engulfed in glittering reflections of curtain wall glazing, old churches in the city have become precious features. Each architectural detail is full of history, collective memories, and a melancholic beauty. Well worth checking out, several churches in the Mid-Levels represent some of the oldest surviving structures in Hong Kong. Churches were some of the first permanent buildings constructed after the British arrived in 1841. The 180-year heritage of church architecture tells the story of Christianity in Hong Kong, which is as old as the city itself. Early missionaries, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, built churches and used Hong Kong as their base to spread the gospel in China and beyond. They also set up local charity networks, schools and hospitals, at a time when the colonial government had little interest in lives of the locals. Today, about 1.2 million Hongkongers or roughly 16% of the population are Christians. While churches and their affiliated institutions continue to thrive, some churches, like the Union on Kennedy Road, have reached the dilemma on how to compete and expand in the era of tremendous commercialism and sky-high property value. Each big decision a church makes may lead to the daunting risk of losing a part of Hong Kong’s architectural heritage. Every time a historical church is being torn down and moved into one of the city’s 9000+ highrise buildings, it represents one irreplaceable loss for not just today’s Hongkongers, but for the next generations to come.
Linking a number of tourist attractions like Tai Kwun, PMQ and Man Mo Temple, Hollywood Road is always popular for tourists in Hong Kong. While tourists come for the historical attractions, many locals, on the other hand, come to Hollywood Road for food and drinks. South of Hollywood Road, the narrow Staunton Street (士丹頓街) was once home to wet market vendors, trading offices, family-run stores and small Buddhist convents (庵堂). In fact, Staunton Street was once nicknamed the Street of Buddhist Nuns (師姑街). After the Central – Mid Levels Escalators opened to the public in 1993 and brought an influx of pedestrians from the business district downhill, Staunton Street and the adjacent Elgin Street(伊利近街) have quietly undergone a dramatic transformation. Expatriates started to move into the area. Old shops and Buddhist convents were gradually replaced by bars, pubs, restaurants, comedy clubs, cafes, and wine shops. In 1996, Thomas Goetz, a restaurant owner from Elgin Street, came up with the acronym “SoHo” (蘇豪) for this new entertainment and dining area of Central, referring to the location “South of Hollywood Road”. From then on, the Staunton Street that I used to go as a child to get fresh grocery and pay ritualistic respect to my grandfather at a small Buddhist convent has silently disappeared. Today, SoHo would remain sleepy most of the day, and then bursts into life after sunset. The yell of market vendors and pungent incense smoke have been replaced by causal giggles and laughter, and the smell of beer.
Further away from the Central – Mid Levels Escalators and less than 150m northwest of the buzzing SoHo, Gough Street (歌賦街), Kau U Fong (九如坊) and Aberdeen Street (鴨巴甸街) offer a much more laid-back and tranquil ambience. Once home to family run shops and small printing presses, these sleepy back streets have become a hipper cousin of the nearby SoHo. Known as NoHo for “North of Hollywood Road”, this area is particular attractive to locals who come for the foodie scene: Chinese cuisine, dai pai dong dishes, beef brisket noodles, Japanese ramen, sushi, Western fine dining, unadon, Vietnamese pho, hand-drip cafes, bubble tea, chocolate, etc. Despite its abundance of dining options, the shops here remain small and peaceful. Compared to its noisier neighbour, NoHo is much more low key, as if deliberately staying away from the public limelight. Here visitors would enjoy a sense of discovery and intimacy that is hard to find anywhere else in Central.