Staying the night in Shinjuku provided us the convenience to take the 7am Super Azusa limited express train to Matsumoto (松本) of Nagano Prefecture (長野県). Matsumoto was our entry point into the Japanese Alps. The reliable rail service enabled us to reach Matsumoto at 9:40am, giving us a couple of hours to explore the laid-back mountain city before continuing our journey to “Japanese Yosemite Valley” Kamikochi. After putting our backpacks in the lockers, we stepped out of Matsumoto Station in a fine Saturday morning. A small line of people were waiting for public bus outside the station, but we preferred to cover the small city on foot. We planned to visit Matsumoto Castle, Art Museum and Performing Arts Centre before the 14:30 train/ bus departing for Kamikochi. To avoid the crowd later in the day, we first headed to Matsumoto Castle, the city’s primary attraction. It took us 20 minutes to reach the castle park, a parcel of green space with the moat surrounded Matsumoto Castle as the centerpiece.
12 castles still standing in Japan today. Along with Himeji Castle (姫路城) and Kumamoto Castle (熊本城), Matsumoto Castle or Matsumotojo (松本城) is considered one of the three premiere castles in the country. Built during the Eisho Period of the Warring States Period (戦国時代) by the Toda Clan, Matsumoto Castle is the oldest extant five structures/six story castles in Japan, dating to the late 16th century.
We entered the castle park from the south entrance, and were immediately struck by the beauty of the contrasting black and white castle and its reflection in the moat.
Through the Kuromon Gate (黒門),we entered a nicely maintained courtyard in front of the imposing castle. The five structures of the castle clearly appeared in front of us. They were (right to left) Inui Keep (Inui Kotenshu), Watari Tower (Watariyagura), Great Keep (Dai-Tenshu), Tatsumitsuke Tower (Tatsumi Tsukeyagura), and Tsukimi Tower (Tsukimi Yagura). The Inui Keep, Watari Tower and Great Keep were built in the Warring States Period when defense was the utmost priority. The Tatsumitsuke and Tsukimi Tower (Moon Viewing Tower) were constructed 40 years later in the peaceful Edo era with almost no defense.
Staff in historical costumes posed for tourist photos in front of the castle.
The well maintained timber interior and structure of Matsumoto is a rarity for the surviving Japanese castles. No shoes were allowed during the visit. Visitors were allowed to climb to the top floor in a one-way route.
The Great Keep was built with high level of defense with small slot windows.
115 gun and arrow slots were provided on the structures for defense.
Among with weapons and artifacts, warrior armors were also on display. This typical armor is equipped with a sword, a ramrod for loading bullets on the back, a bullet case on the waist, and an ignition agent case hanging from the shoulder.
Small amount of paintings were on display illustrating the bloody history of the castle during the Warring States Period.
The third floor is a concealed level, and was used as a warehouse and war shelter.
The fourth floor was the living space for the lord.
All stairs were narrow and steep and sometimes slippery. Most visitors took their time to climb and descend each step one by one. The steepest one was between the fourth and the fifth at an angle of 61 degree.
The fifth floor was characterized by the gable windows. This floor was used as a strategy meeting room.
The sixth (top) floor offers nice views to all directions. The view of the Hida Range of the Japanese Alps is particularly lovely.
The Toda Clan of Matsumoto Castle worshiped the 26-day old moon. A small spiritual decoration could be seen in the ceiling of the top floor.
We passed by a photo spot while exiting the castle courtyard.
Below the castle, the castle park offers many pleasant resting spots under shade.
The view of Matsumoto Castle and the moat is spectacular. We walked along the moat to the photogenic red bridge at the far side.
In the water, hungry carps came to the surface whenever someone approached the water.
We were lucky to see the beautiful inhabitant, the swan, in the castle moat.
After taking photos at the red bridge, we walked along the moat back to the park entrance and moved on to our next destination in Matsumoto.
A short metro ride took us to Roppongi (六本木), a business and entertainment district dominated by the high-rise complexes of Roppongi Hills (2003) and Tokyo Midtown (2006). Before the completion of these mixed-use developments, Roppongi was well known for its disco scene since the late 1960’s. In 2014, we visited the area for the first time to explore these complexes and the nearby National Art Center (国立新美術館) in a stormy day. This time, we came specifically to check out the exhibitions at Mori Art Museum and 21_21 Design Sight.
At Roku Roku Plaza of Roppongi Hills, Louise Bourgeois’ famous sculpture “Maman” was given a temporary makeover by Magda Sayeg, the textile artist who was responsible for a wide range of yarn installations in cities around the world.
On the observation deck of Mori Tower, we had a good view of the surrounding area. The wavy facade of Kisho Kurokawa’s National Art Center stood out at the forefront.
To mark its 15th anniversary, the Mori Art Museum was hosting an exhibition on Japanese architecture on the 53rd floor of Mori Tower.
“Japan in Architecture: Genealogies of Its Transformation” presented the essence of modern Japanese architecture in 9 sections: 1) Possibilities of Wood, 2) Transcendent Aesthetics, 3) Roofs of Tranquility, 4) Crafts as Architecture, 5) Linked Spaces, 6) Hybrid Architecture, 7) Forms of Living Together, 8) Japan Discovered, and 9) Living with Nature.
In each section, the topics were presented with physical models, design installations, architectural drawings, project photos, hand sketches, etc. Photography was not allowed for most displays.
A causal seating area offered further reading on Japanese architecture.
A one-to-one model of a Japanese tea house offered visitors a chance to see the essence of traditional minimalist architecture.
This large wooden model of what looked like a traditional Japanese home was in fact the Tange House designed by architectural maestro Kenzo Tange (丹下健三). Built in 1953, the Tange House presented a fusion of traditional style and customs of modern living.
Towards the end of the exhibition, there was an eye-catching multi-media show made with 3D projections.
After a good taste of Japanese architecture at Mori, we walked a few blocks north to 21_21 Design Sight, a small design museum at Hinokicho Park (檜町公園) in Tokyo Midtown.
With the beautiful terracotta cladding, the 20-acre Tokyo Midtown is an elegant and highly recognizable high-rise complex.
With glass canopies and shade trees, the outdoor areas of Tokyo Midtown exemplify a role model of livable city.
Last time when we came to 21_21 Design Sight, the facility was closed for exhibition installation. This time, a photography show “New Planet Photo City – William Klein and Photographers Living in the 22nd Century” was held, and we were able to see the show as well as the building designed by Tadao Ando.
Despite its small scale, Ando’s 21_21 Design Sight was an interesting attraction for design enthusiasts.
Curated by photographic critic and art historian Toshiharu Ito, the show began with a video presentation of William Klein’s photographs on the 20th century urbanity, and then contemporary photography on city and people by various Asian photographers.
Ando’s signature fair faced concrete provided a beautiful backdrop for light and shadow.
Outside 21_21 Design Sight, the afternoon sun was soft and relaxing.
We sat on a bench in Hinokicho Park (檜町公園) to take a brief rest, and decided to follow Google Map for a 25-minute walk to Aoyama (青山). Time was getting a little late and we weren’t sure if we could still make it to see Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum (岡本太郎記念館), the former home of renounced artist Taro Okamoto. We left Tokyo Midtown and walked west from Nogizaka Station (乃木坂駅), passed by the peaceful Aoyama Cemetery (青山霊園), and reached the fabulous Nezu Museum (根津美術館) in Aoyama at around 4:15pm. From Nezu, it was only a block from Taro Okamoto’s former residence, and we had about 1.5 hour to visit the house, its exhibitions and cafe. Time was a little tight and we were quite tired due to the midnight flight. We decided to leave the museum until next time in town.
Instead, we opted for Cafe Kitsuné at a side street off the fashionable Omotesando (表参道), where the creative talents of world famous fashion designers and architects converged into high-end fashion boutiques. Associated with Kitsuné, a French electronic music record and fashion label (Kitsuné Maison) created by Gildas Loaec, Masaya Kuroki and company Abake, Cafe Kitsuné is a little gem in Aoyama for anyone who loves coffee and design.
The nice coffee from Japan’s first Slayer coffee machine and the stylish interior made the visit worthwhile.
Due to the fact that this world-largest fish market is running out of space for future development, and that the site of the existing Inner Wholesale Market is sitting on prime real estate land, the Tsukiji Inner Market or Jonai Shijo (築地中央卸売市場) is scheduled to be relocated to Toyosu (豊洲) in this October. Handling over 2000 tons of seafood per day and employed over 60,000 staff, relocating the Tsukiji Inner Market is no small feat. Not catered for public visitors and tourists, the wholesale area is not an ideal place to wander around. No tourists are allowed before 11am according to the rules, and there is a limited number of quota for watching the famous tuna auction before dawn. Outside of the wholesale area, a few small lanes of restaurants are extremely popular with tourists. There are about two dozens of small sushi restaurants serving fresh fish just a stone throw away from the wholesale area. No wonder the most popular restaurants such as Sushi Dai (寿司大) and Daiwa Sushi (大和寿司) are infamously known for the long queues, with some bloggers mentioning in the range of one to three hours of wait.
This time, we didn’t enter the wholesale area of the Inner Market. We didn’t want to stand in the way of the busy staff.
We walked to the lanes of eateries and sushi bars to hunt for a place for breakfast.
Japanese grilled omelette or tamagoyaki (玉子焼き) could also be found in the Inner Market area.
In 2014, we came to the Inner Market in early morning and had a bowl of chirashi for breakfast.
Other than chirashi and sushi, there were also other options such as curry and tempura.
The line for Sushi Dai went all the way to the other side of the building out onto the adjacent lane. It seemed like a two hour wait at least.
This time, we picked Daiwa Sushi (大和寿司). Daiwa Sushi occupies two stores so we thought the queue wouldn’t be too long. We wouldn’t mind queuing for a while to have a chance to taste the fresh nigirizushi or hand pressed sushi (握り寿司) from Tsukiji Market.
At the door of Daiwa Sushi, a staff was responsible to monitor the queue and direct the entering customers when seats became available in the restaurant.
Through the window, we could see a senior itamae (chef) and his apprentices busy preparing nigirizushi for customers.
We ended up queuing for a little over an hour before finding ourselves sitting at the bar seats of Daiwa Sushi.
The interior was down to earth. We sat by the corner right by a photo depicting the catch of a huge tuna.
There was only one nigirizushi (握り寿司) set option to order. Nothing fancy about the sushi, but the freshness of the fish and the vibrant market atmosphere made all the wait worthwhile.
After the sushi breakfast, we hopped to Aiyo Cafe next door for a cup of coffee.
The interior of Aiyo revealed a strong vintage atmosphere.
The entire shop seemed frozen in time since mid 20th century.
The staff were very friendly and spoke some English.
We had a good time exchange a few words with them while taking a short coffee break. After all, we were a little sleepy after the red-eye flight.
At another lane there were restaurants that offered Western cuisine. We thought of trying but were too full after the sushi breakfast.
We walked by an interesting sliding door panel leaning against a low wall outside the row of restaurants that offered Western food. Was the move to Toyosu already underway for some restaurant owners we did not know.
Judging from the mini figure that actually moved continuously as if devouring a bowl of delicious noodles, the door might belong to a ramen restaurant. After the sushi and coffee, we decided to move on to Roppongi for a dose of design culture.
Walking out of Tsukiji Metro Station, our attention immediately fell to the monumental Tsukiji Honganji Temple (築地本願寺) across the street. Design in mixed styles including Indian Buddhist, Islamic and Hindu, as well as Western Neoclassical influences, architect and Tokyo University professor Chuta Ito intended to steer away from the traditional East Asian timber architectural traditions. Instead, he traveled to India numerous times to visit temples, and brought home design touches from the birthplace of Buddhism. The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed the temple’s predecessor. The current Honganji Temple was built in the 1930s, and soon became a prominent Jodo Shinshu (浄土真宗) temple in Tokyo. We climbed the main stair and entered the main hall through an elegant doorway with beautiful stain-glass transom windows overhead. We were surprised to see a full house of audience in the cathedral-like main hall (even with an organ). Apparently there was a concert going on. A female vocalist was performing some kind of Western opera inside the temple.
The unique facade of Tsukiji Honganji Temple hardly revealed its true identity of to us.
The elegant stain glass transom over the doorway depict the Buddhist icon of lotus flowers.
There was a concert inside the main hall of Tsukiji Honganji Temple.
The architecture of Tsukiji Honganji Temple presents the trend of cultural fusion back in early 20th century.
Across the street adjacent to the Tsukiji Honganji Temple, we picked a small lane leading into Tsukiji Jogai Shijo (築地場外市場) or the Outer Market. Encompassing a few blocks adjacent to the Tsukiji Jonai Shijo or the Inner Market, the Outer Market is a popular tourism attraction. Catered for the public, small shops selling all kinds of culinary-related goods from dried seafood to kitchen knives and food stalls offering a wide range of snacks such as sushi and grilled egg, the pedestrianized lanes of the Outer Market is truly a foodie’s paradise. On this piece of reclaimed land (Tsukiji literally means reclaimed land), the eateries and shops of the Outer Market had long been providing a diverse range of food to the people of Tokyo since the Showa Era (1926-1989). The entire Tsukiji Market was in fact a consequence of the Great Kanto Earthquake, which devastated Central Tokyo in 1923 including the Nihonbashi Fish Market. The fish market was relocated to Tsukiji and began to operate in 1935 as one of the three major markets in the city. Already the largest wholesale seafood market in the world, the Tsukiji Market is running out of space for further development. Work of relocating the market has been undergoing for sometime. After several delays, it seems that the market is really moving to its new home in Toyosu (豊洲) this October. But that didn’t affect the bustling Outer Market as these few blocks of shops and eateries (and the loads of tourists) would likely to stay even after the move.
Street vendors appeared blocks away from the Tsukiji Market just outside the Metro Station.
A large fish painted on the building facade probably reminds tourists the direction of the market.
A relatively new market called “Tsuki Waza” will remain at Tsukiji even after the relocation of Tsukiji Inner Market.
The Tsukiji Outer Market is consisted of a few pedestrianized streets of shops and restaurants.
Katsuobushi (鰹節) is the dried, fermented and smoked skipjack tuna or bonito flakes commonly seen in Japanese cuisine.
Akiyama Shouten (秋山商店) specializes in katsuobushi. We couldn’t resist but got ourselves 500g of the flakes.
There are many small shops with all kinds of dried seafood and seaweed.
While it only occupies a few blocks, one can easily get disoriented in Tsukiji Outer Market.
Apart from the small shops, there are also indoor shopping arcades of food stalls.
We ended up get our first snacks from a street BBQ vendor.
Apart from seafood, spices can also be found in the Outer Market.
Tamagoyaki (玉子焼き) or grilled omelette is another popular snacks available at Tsukiji.
We saw about four to five stalls specialized in tamagoyaki. We tried two of them and they both tasted good.
After free tasting of black beans from Kyoto region we ended up get a pack home.
After all, tuna is still the king in Tsukiji. Quite a long queue of people were waiting for fresh tuna sashimi in front of this shop.
New indoor shopping arcades have been established in recent years at the Outer Market, perhaps as a gesture of confidence for the future of Tsukiji after the relocation of the wholesale Inner Market later this year.
In June 2017, we made a 5-day trip to Tokyo for a short getaway. Last time, we spent most of the time in the bustling capital, with only a full day excursion to visit the World Heritage temples and Alpine scenery of Nikko. A year had passed. In late May 2018, we embarked on another Japanese journey to explore parts of Chubu Region (中部地方), the central region of Honshu (本州) between Kantō Region (関東地方) and Kansai Region (関西地方). The journey took us to the Prefecture of Nagano (長野県), Gifu (岐阜県), Toyama (富山県), and Ishikawa (石川県). We picked Kamikochi (上高地), a picturesque hiker’s hub in the Japanese Alps, and the charming city of Kanazawa (金沢) as main destinations, stopping by Matsumoto (松本), Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉), Takayama (高山), Shirakawago (白川郷) and Gokayama (五箇山) along the way. We planned for five days in the city and five in the countryside, aiming for a balance between cosmopolitan and nature fascinations. It turned out to be a delightful and diverse experience with mouth-watering seafood, refreshing Alpine hiking, invigorating hot-springs, romantic Gassho-style villages, cozy morning markets, and a magical floating lantern festival.
Once again, our journey began in an early morning in Tokyo (東京), after our red-eye flight landed at Haneda International Airport (羽田空港) a little after 6am. At the airport, we first went to pick up our railway tickets and seat reservations at the JR office. It was convenient to make online reservations to ensure seat availability on trains of our desired schedule, but that didn’t save us from queuing for an hour before we reached the JR counter and finalized our purchases. We then braved the rush hour taking the Tokyo Monorail to Hamamatsuchō (浜松町駅), and switched to the JR Yamanote Line (山手線) to Shinjuku to drop off our backpacks at the hotel. After all the sweat of moving through the jammed platforms, cramped train cars and busy streets of Shinjuku (新宿) with our backpacks, time was perfect for a hearty breakfast to kick start our first day. We decided to take the Marunouchi Metro Line to revisit Tsukiji Market (築地市場), the legendary fish market that was about to be relocated later this year.
Our journey took us from Tokyo (東京) to parts of the Chubu Region (中部地方), staying overnight at Kamikochi (上高地), Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉), Takayama (高山), Gokayama (五箇山), and Kanazawa (金沢), and passed by Matsumoto (松本) and Shirakawago (白川郷) along the way.
Our plane flew over the iconic Mount Fuji (富士山) before landing at Haneda International Airport of Tokyo.
We hopped on the Tokyo Monorail from Haneda Airport to Hamamatsuchō (浜松町駅). The train was soon packed with morning commuters after a few stops.
We arrived at the packed Hamamatsuchō Station (浜松町駅) and switched to JR’s Yamanote Line (山手線) heading for Shinjuku (新宿).
It was such a relief after dropping off our backpacks at the hotel in Shinjuku (新宿) and ventured out to Tsukiji Market (築地市場) for a seafood breakfast.
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.