The sky was grey on our last day in Tokyo. We decided to spend the morning at nearby Harajuku (原宿). We moved our suitcase and backpack to the lockers in Shibuya Station (渋谷), and then took the JR Yamanote Line (山手線) one stop over to Harajuku. Despite we had been to Harajuku a few times, we had never ventured beyond the shopping and entertainment areas. This time, we decided to spend a peaceful morning at Meiji Jingu (明治神宮), the Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, the insightful leader who modernized Japan at the end of the 19th century. Built in 1920, the original shrine complex was destroyed during World War Two. The shrine was rebuilt soon after the war. We had seen photographs of the large and lovely torii gates at the forested path of Meiji Shrine. It was interesting to see such massive and traditional wooden structures surrounded by mature trees at the heart of Tokyo, just a stone throw away from all the neon lights of youthful Takeshita Street (竹下通り) and fashionable Omotesandō (表参道). While we were there, some buildings were under renovations for its 100th anniversary in 2020. We took our time to walk around the compound, wrote down our wishes on an ema (wooden plate to hang at the shrine), and enjoyed a peaceful walk in the urban forest.
Before heading back to Shibuya for the Narita Express, we dropped by the roof garden of Tokyu Plaza for breakfast. Most shops had yet opened their doors in Harajuku, and we had another quiet moment in an urban oasis. By the time we returned to Shibuya to pick up our luggage, it finally started to rain. The rain lasted for the entire afternoon. It was still raining heavily when our plane took off at the runway of Narita later that day.
There are a few locker areas at Shibuya Station. We almost went to a wrong locker area to pick up our luggage. Luckily, when we left our luggage we took a photo of the locker area to remind ourselves, and that proved handy at the end.
The timber structure of Harajuku Station is unique in Tokyo. Hopefully this historical building can survive the massive redevelopment of the area prior to the Olympic Games.
We loved the massive torii gate of Meiji Jingu. The natural finish matches perfectly with the surrounding forest.
Sake offering at the Meiji Jingu.
The second large torii gate midway into the path of Meiji Jingu.
Quite a number of buildings at Meiji Jingu were under renovation for 2020.
There were a lot of visitors at the early hours of the day.
The natural appearance of a Japanese timber structure offers the best harmony with the surrounding nature.
Writing the Ema (wooden prayer plates) is always fun.
After hanging our ema, we bid farewell to the peaceful Meiji Jingu.
Time was still early when we walked to Tokyu Plaza. Since the shopping centre had yet opened its doors, we found our way up to the roof garden via an elevator at the side.
The roof garden of Tokyu Plaza is always a great place to hang out. While some were having breakfast like us, there were a few dozing off at the far corners.
Not many visitors were around. We could admire the interesting design of the decking.
Looking down to the intersection of Omotesando and Meiji Jingumae, the popular crossing were almost empty of pedestrians.
The rain hadn’t arrived yet, and we had a relaxing breakfast at the roof garden.
Across Sumida River from Ryogoku and south of touristy Asakusa lies the low key Kuramae (蔵前), a hub for young artists and craftsmen in Tokyo. After visiting two interesting museums in Sumida, we opted for a moment of relaxation just a stone throw away at Kuramae. Like many up and coming neighborhoods, Kuramae contains a rather leisure atmosphere. Without the tourist crowds that we would normally see in other more popular areas of Tokyo, there were still a considerable amount of local visitors in the area. Queues were lined up in front of some of the most popular shops such as Kakimori, the wonderful shop of handmade stationery, fountain pens and anything related to writing. We started off at Camera, a cosy little cafe selling good coffee, snacks, and handmade leather accessories.
We started our brief Kuramae visit at Camera cafe.
We sat by the long counter with coffee and snacks. There were a few racks and shelves of leather accessories on display behind us.
Maito offers a wide range of clothes and accessories made with dyes extracted from nature, such as flowers and tree bark.
The most popular shop in Kuramae we encountered was undoubtedly Kakimori stationery shop. Visitors lined up outside the shop waiting for their turn to put together a custom made notebook with self-selected paper, cover, ribbon, etc.
Inside Kakimori, other visitors were busy checking out the fountain pens, ink, and other writing accessories.
Dandelion Chocolate was another highly popular bean-to-bar chocolate factory originated from San Francisco.
We also spent some time at Koncept, a trendy shop with cool merchandises from all over Japan.
After Kuramae, we took the metro to visit another interesting trendy fashion and design store, the La Kagu. A grand wooden staircase provided a welcoming gesture for all pedestrians and visitors.
Converted from a 1965 warehouse of a publishing company by renowned architect Kengo Kuma (隈研吾), La Kagu immediately became a retail landmark in at Kagurazaka (神楽坂).
La Kagu is consisted of different lifestyle zones: food, clothing, shelter and knowledge.
After La Kagu, we walked along the high street of Kagurazaka (神楽坂). Kagurazaka (神楽坂) is a traditional Japanese neighborhood with a French twist, thanks to the considerable number of French expats living in the area.
Cafes, restaurants, bakeries and boutiques line up the high street of Kagurazaka (神楽坂).
In a side street, we stopped by a ramen store for dinner.
We ordered our ramen from the machine outside.
The friendly staff then prepared our bowls right in front of us.
No complain could be made by ending the day with a bowl of delicious ramen in a local neighborhood of Tokyo.
After a full day excursion of historical temples and natural scenery in Nikko, we decided to spend the next day to explore another neighborhood in Tokyo. We started the day at the southwest area of Sumida District (墨田区), near the metro station of Ryogoku (両国). Many tourists come to Ryogoku (両国) for sumo (相撲): visit sumo stables to view professional practice, or checked out chanko nabe restaurants for a sumo meal, or even watch a game of sumo wrestling at Ryogoku Kokugikan (Ryogoku Sumo Hall). We, however, came to the area for museum hopping.
Opened in 2016, the Sumida Hokusai Museum is being considered as a novel cultural icon of Sumida. Designed by Kazuyo Sejima (妹島 和世), the sleek architecture houses exhibitions to showcase the life and works of the world famous ukiyo-e (浮世絵) artist Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾 北斎). With his Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (富嶽三十六景), Hokusai is definitely the most iconic figure of ukiyo-e (浮世絵) in the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). Kazuyo Sejima (妹島 和世), the founder of SANAA and a recipient of the Pritzker Prize in architecture with Ryue Nishizawa, is also a generation defining Japanese architect in her own right. From the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, New Museum in New York, Rolex Learning Centre in Lausanne, to Louvre Lens Museum in France, Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA have inspired uncounted architects and designers around the world in the last two decades.
The Midoricho Park (緑町公園) where Sumida Hokusai Museum is erected, is also the birthplace of Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾 北斎).
Sejima’s building immediately became a cultural icon in the rather low key residential neighborhood. The building provides an interesting backdrop for the community play area of Midoricho Park.
The building scale and the facade’s level of reflectiveness express a certain degree of novelty without creating an overwhelming impact to the surrounding context.
The cave like slit at each of the four sides provides a prominent entrance gateway at each side.
The reflectivity of the museum’s metal cladding is right on.
Everything on the facade is clean and minimal.
We walked to the main entrance via one of the triangular opening on the facade.
The facets of the glass panes and the reflections of the outside offer a unique entrance experience.
The detailing of the triangular opening is once again clean and minimal.
The angular aspects of the architecture is carried through into the interior.
The washroom on the ground floor is a cute little cube at the lobby.
Beside Sejima’ architecture, the works of Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾 北斎) were well worth the admission.
The exhibition space is not big. Most of his paintings are hung along the wall. Artifacts such as books and sketches.
The most famous works by Kazuyo Sejima is Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (富嶽三十六景 Fugaku Sanjūroku-kei). A selection of the 36 prints had been put on display.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa is perhaps the most well known image by Katsushika Hokusai.
Some of the final works by Katsushika Hokusai are also on display.
A wax display depicting the studio of Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾 北斎) and his daughter back in the Edo Period.
Outside of the exhibition area, there is a seating area with great views towards the Sky Tree.
We both felt asleep on the train back to Tokyo. The normally popular tourist district of Asakusa (浅草) was largely deserted by the time we walked out Asakusa Station at around 9pm. We didn’t want to return to our hotel yet. We decided to wander around Asakusa, from the world famous Kaminarimon (雷門) of Sensoji (金龍山浅草寺) to the inner streets of dining, shopping and entertainment district of Rokku. Most shops were closed except for some restaurants and street eateries.
The buildings and streetscape around Tobu Asakusa Station reveal the former glory of Asakusa when the district was a foremost area in Tokyo.
Tokyo Skytree and Philippe Starck’s Asahi Beer Hall stood out in the skyline beyond.
Kengo Kuma’s Asakusa Culture and Tourist Centre (淺草文化中心) took on a different appearance under the perfect illumination.
Surrounded by scaffolding, the Kaminarimon (雷門) of Sensoji (金龍山浅草寺) found a moment of peace with the absence of tourists.
The 200m Nakamise (仲見世) Shopping Street closed for the night. Security guards were checking the shopping streets to ensure no visitor stayed behind.
From Nakamise (仲見世), we entered a side street (雷門柳小路) into the grid network of small streets of restaurants, cafes, and bars.
Orange Street (オレンジ通り), a street famous for its orange paint lies at the centre of the dining and entertainment area of Asakusa.
The Rokku area of Asakusa was once the biggest entertainment district in Japan before WWII. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), Asakusa lies outside the city wall and was a red light and theatre district. During the prewar years of the 20th century, theatres and cinemas dominated the Rokku area. Much of Asakusa was destroyed during the war. Today, the entertainment district of Asakusa was only a shadow of its past.
Some restaurants in the area still maintains the atmosphere of the prewar days.
In contrast to the spirituality and history of Sensoji Temple just a few blocks away, the Rox Dome is a popular indoor batting stadium.
The atmospheric Dempoin Dori (傳法院通) offers a glimpse of the former theatre and entertainment district.
Not many pedestrians were around at Dempoin Dori. However some of the restaurants were still open. The traditional shopfronts reminded visitors the appearance of the lively high street during the prewar years.
Despite its decline in the postwar years, Asakusa remains an interesting place to stroll around and get a feel of Tokyo’s history and its vibrant dining scenes.
Today, the Rokku area is still a focus of dining and entertainment experience, with outdoor eateries here and there near the junction of Don Quijote Department Store.
Most shops were closed for the night, but the street-side eateries were still quite lively when we were there.
The junction in front of Don Quijote Department Store was brightly lit up by neon lights of theatres and shops.
Apart from the street eateries and traditional shops, there are also covered arcades in the area providing another alternative shopping experience.
After strolling for an hour or so, we headed back to Asakusa Station and took the metro back to Shibuya. Passing by the narrow alleyways near the station, the Tokyo Skytree across Sumida River could be clearly seen at the street end, revealing a new chapter of shopping and entertainment just a stone throw away from Asakusa.
140km north of Tokyo, Nikko (日光) is one of the most popular excursion destination out of the Japanese capital. Dotted with onsen villages, ancient cedar forests, scenic waterfalls, turquoise lakes and lush green mountains, the magnificent piece of landscape is also the final resting place of Tokugawa Iayasu (徳川家康), the founding shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate from 1600 until Meiji Restoration in 1868. The Shinto mausoleums of Tokugawa Iayasu and his grandson Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川家光) in Nikko are part of “Shrines and Temples of Nikkō” inscribed in the UNESCO’s World Heritage in 1999. These historical sites draw huge crowds of visitors daily to the otherwise sleepy hilltown of Nikko.
There were so much to do and see in Nikko but we could only do a very long day trip this time. We booked the earliest direct train, Tobu Railway’s Revaty Limited Express leaving Tokyo’s Asakusa Station at 06:30, and the last return train leaving Nikko at 19:18, leaving us about 11 hours in Nikko. We also got the Nikko All Area Pass, which covered our local bus fares in the Nikko and Chuzenji Lake area and discount on the Tobu train tickets. We planned to check out the shrines and temples in the morning, and then visit the scenic Chuzenji Lake (中禅寺湖) and Kegon no taki (華厳の滝, Kegon Waterfall) in the afternoon. As soon as the Revaty train pulled into Nikko Station at around 08:20, we were excited to see the beautiful weather.
Our journey to Nikko began from Tobu Asakusa Station (浅草駅), a monumental terminal building constructed in 1931.
In order to take the 6:30 Revaty Limited Express, we had no choice but to get up early and left Shibuya at about 5:30.
The train arrived in Nikko at around 08:20. We hopped onto a Tobu bus in front of Nikko Station for the nearby temple and shrine area. Attempting to avoid the crowds later in the day, we decided to first visit Toshogu Shrine (東照宮), the single most popular attraction in Nikko.
Toshogu Shrine is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for 250 years until Meiji Restoration in 1867. Because of its historical significance, the shrine is highly popular among local Japanese. After a short walk along the procession route, we entered through Ishidorii (Stone Torii Gate), a beautiful timber gateway erected by the powerful feudal lord Kuroda Nagamasa, into the shrine complex.
Despite our early arrival, the Toshogu Shrine was already full of student groups and tourists. We passed by a group of students below the Gojunoto (Five-Story Pagoda) as we entered the complex.
We entered the central complex through Omotemon Gate (Front Gate) or Nio Gate that is guarded by a pair of Nio (仁王) guardians.
Once entered the forecourt, we could already appreciate the meticulous relief carvings and vivid architecture features on the Sanjinko (Three Sacred Storehouses). Toshogu presents quite a contrast compared with most other Shinto shrines that are usually minimalist in design and natural in colour tones.
At the forecourt, the Shinkyu-Sha, the sacred horse stable, houses a real horse. This comes from the tradition made by early emperors who would donate to the Kibune Shrine in Kyoto either a white horse to stop the rain in a rainy year, or a black horse to welcome the rain in a dry year.
The front facade of the Shinkyu-Sha, the sacred horse stable, featues the Sanzaru (Three Wise Monkeys) on eight frieze panels depicting ordinary lives of people. The most famous panel is undoubtedly the adorable “See No Evil, Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil”.
Beyond a large tori and a flight of steps is the Yomeimon Gate (陽明門), the gate of setting sunlight.
With 500 beautiful wooden carvings, the Yomeimon Gate (陽明門) is considered by many the most impressive gate in Japan.
The impressive Yomeimon Gate represents the Main Gate of the Imperial Court in the entire complex.
As far as the legend goes, Yomeimon Gate is also called the “Gate of the Setting Sun” because visitor can gaze upon it all day without getting tired.
Impressive decorations at the gate includes a golden lion housed in a niche.
And a lot more that depict anecdotes, legends, wise people, sages, etc.
Another famous feature at Toshogu is Nemurineko, the tiny carving of the sleeping cat on the beam of a hallway. A work by master carver Hidari Jingorou, the napping cat under the warm sun is a depiction “Nikko”, which literally means “sunlight”. It marks the entry point of the path that ultimately leads to the final resting place of Tokugawa Iayasu (徳川家康) on the hill.
Taking the earliest direct train from Tokyo and came to Toshogu immediately upon arrival, we thought we could enjoy a bit of peaceful time at the highly popular shrine before the tourist groups came. That totally didn’t happen as the shrine was already full of student groups when we arrived. Walking up to visit the mausoleum of Tokugawa Iayasu (徳川家康) was not a peaceful journey at all.
Just a few minutes of short walk led us to the hill platform of the mausoleum. Compared to the shrine buildings downhill, the mausoleum carries a more harmonic relationship with the natural surroundings.
The bronze urn on the hill contains the remains of Tokugawa Iayasu (徳川家康), the most powerful shogun of Japan before the modern era.
The calligraphic sign Tōshō Dai-Gongen (東照大権現) near the mausoleum is attributed to Emperor Go-Mizunoo (後水尾天皇) from the 17th century.
The curved archway of Karamon Gate (唐門) symbolizes the authority of the Gohonsha Main Shrine Hall behind. Despite the renovation scaffolding, we were able to enter the hall as a group to have a peek of the space where events and festivals would be held annually.
Small alleyways of tiny izayaka (居酒屋) and eateries situated a block or two away from train stations, yokocho can be found in many districts in Tokyo. From 6pm to sunrise, yokochos offer a relaxing venue for drinks and snacks after work. We knew it would be chaotic, cramped, noisy, and messy, but we loved to have a yokocho (橫丁) experience during our Tokyo stay. We picked Ebisu Yokocho, a popular indoor alleyway just a block away from Ebisu Station. Since 1998, Ebisu Yokocho has successfully converted the declining Yamashita shopping centre into a popular venue for food and drinks. Just like other yokocho, eateries in Ebisu Yokocho serve different Japanese cuisine, from sashimi to yakitori. As soon as we entered the covered alleyway, we were overwhelmed by the smell of cigarette, sake and grilled meat in the air. Entering from the relatively dark and empty street, the warm and crowded yokocho felt like a completely different world. We were lucky to find a table available at one of the eateries. The food wasn’t as cheap as we thought, but the experience of enjoying beer and small dishes of Japanese food in a crowded alleyway was pretty interesting.
The main street entrance of Ebisu Yokocho is just a block away from Ebisu Station (恵比寿駅).
It was about 20:00 when we arrived at Ebisu Yokocho. It was still early in the night but the place was already quite packed.
Most visitors were locals, but there were also some foreign tourists enjoying the local cuisine and sake. There is however no English menu at the eateries and most staff don’t speak English.
Most yokochos in Tokyo are outdoor. Ebisu Yokocho on the other hand was established in the former Yamashita Shopping Centre.
Many visitors seemed to be groups of colleagues having a break after work.
The yokocho was cramped and noisy, but the atmosphere was energetic and fun.
There are two other entrances from side streets into Ebisu Yokocho.
Slot window and a wall mural illustrating the floor plan of Ebisu Yokocho.
Colourful neon signage of the eateries.
A man walked by the colourful side entrance of Ebisu Yokocho.