Japan in March 5 – TOKYO

 

Tokyo – the size, the crush, the kinetic assault – overwhelming!

“From underground to mainstream, Tokyo is a radical jumble of contrasting elements where the new and nostalgic, the most elegant luxury and everyday kitsch, the domestic and exotic, the famous and anonymous all exist side by side.

So sayeth the souvenir mug and plastic folder I buy at the National Art Centre Museum shop in Tokyo.

 

How do I order the myriad of impressions and experiences offered by this city of 13 million people? Let alone the greater Tokyo metro with its estimated population of 35 million! Even chronologically doesn’t work as other impressions cut into the narrative.

Hardly soothing

Hardly soothing

From the 23rd floor of the hotel in Shibuya, across the park you can see  Shinjuku another of the many metro centres

From the 23rd floor of the hotel in Shibuya, across the park you can see Shinjuku another of the many metro centres

 

Savouring rare time alone, I sit in one of the many cafes on the 6th floor of the Shibuya Hikarie building bewildered again by the interminable aisles and arcades of restaurants and cafes that can be found in department stores, in connecting corridors and railway stations.

It is fashion week in Shibuya. This is a place on trend. “The Devil Wore Prada” with Japanese sub-titles is playing on a big screen. The scene is peopled with smart super-groomed 20 somethings eating pastas, salads and French pastries; drinking cappuccinos (@ about $7.50 a cup) and cocktails.

1.000 people are said to cross every time the lights change at this intersection outside Shibuya station

1.000 people are said to cross every time the lights change at this intersection outside Shibuya station

 

It can get lonely in a big city especially when everyone around you has a screen.

 

I was reading a novel about four generations of a Japanese family which described the starvation after two thirds of Tokyo was bombed in WW2. What a contrast/miracle is this super sophisticated internationalised scene I am witnessing. How did this town move from the depths of occupation to what the local Time Out headlines as the greatest city in the world?

Rooftop soccer is the only way to get a fame in a packed urban centre

Rooftop soccer is the only way to get a game in a packed urban centre

 

One day we are at the famed Tsukiji fish markets and to gain access to the inner markets, we have a guide. I asked about the economic miracle. She suggested hard work, the need to save face after the WW2 defeat and strong common national goals had achieved this powerhouse. I am sure there are hundreds of books that I will never read written about it.

I asked her too about what I had observed as a strong French influence (food, wine, fashion). She ascribed it to the craving for luxury during “the bubble period” when people were “turning away from English curry”.

 

The Art Triangle

Rappongi Hills is a mammoth urban development housing the Mori Art Museum inter multi alia. It is a holiday weekend and the crowd is significant. I visit the Andy Warhol retrospective and learn his painterly progress for the first time. The Flowers I saw in Naoshima make sense now. There was also a crowded second-rate pre-Raphaelite exhibition from the Tate. The others visit an exhibition of elctronic media.

Then it is off to the stunning National Arts Centre with its undulating glass façade and inverted cone restaurant on the top floor. I was informed by Cass that the Kazumi Nakamura exhibition was one of the best ever. I was content to wander the architecture – some of the best ever.

The National Arts Centre

The National Arts Centre

 

Inside the National ArtCentre

Inside the National Arts Centre

 

Too much to see; this city would take a busy year; we miss the Suntory Museum of Art but as a compensation a few streets away, found the flower shop in the U GOTO building.

 

Flower shop in the U Goto building

Flower shop in the U Goto building

 

The Tsukiji fish markets and the Ueno zoo – two different days gazing at other creatures dead and alive.

The old fish markets near fashionable Ginza will move soon to make way for the Olympic site so we were lucky to visit this cobble-stoned hive, jumping out of the right of way of the motorised carts that criss-cross the narrow aisles with deliveries.

The last months of the old fish market near Ginza

The last months of the old fish market near Ginza

The wholesale buying is done early before visitors are let in so it was mostly watching the business end of the day- the cutting, packaging etc. The range of exotic fish was less than I had expected.

Slicing the tuna

Slicing the tuna

 

Cooking the oysters

Cooking the oysters

We are told that the markets are getting smaller as the population increases its meat intake but the queues outside the small cafes and stalls in the outer market indicated popularity long into the future.

Some wonderful food in the outer markets

Some wonderful food in the outer markets

 

All zoos are problematic but hey, we had two littlies with us and needed to do more for them. The crush was as bad in the shopping streets. There was a lot of concrete and some dubiously contented animals. The lone polar bear seemed to be making the best of a bad thing while the panda looked even more forlorn. At the end of an hour, our two year old, Gulliver, wisely decided to sleep through the rest of this part of his travels

Shopping

Yep. Until you drop. That’s Tokyo. Where better than Harajuku once famed for the parade of the zanily dressed unconventional fashion sub-culture? There are the High Street shops near the station and the luxury brands along Omote-Sando, said to be the Champs Elysees of Tokyo. As if a memento to the Goth and other sub-cultures of yore, a narrow side street is home to retro shops, the best single origin coffee we found and the odd counter culture victim.

Not sure if this was counter-culture or old fashioned exhibitionism

Not sure if this was counter-culture or old fashioned exhibitionism

These young women and the baby were looking zany for their shopping

Shopping isn't all about clothes. Tokyo has wide music sub-cultures

Shopping isn’t all about clothes. Tokyo has many music sub-cultures

Showing the fashion victim side, different queues of up to half a kilometre long stretched outside the new cronut shop, Max Brenner’s chocolate bar and what appeared to be a traditional restaurant.

Queueing for chocolate. I understand that.

Queueing for chocolate. I understand that.

 

You can get cranky shopping, especially if the killer heels are hurting

You can get cranky shopping, especially if the killer heels are hurting

On the street

The scale is huge but it is the  people on the street who give a city its tone, its vibrancy or lack of. Tokyo centres are all vibrancy – busy, sometimes colourful and always something to see. There are too many photos to choose from!

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This busker was from Texas. Aged 50, married to a Japanese, he had lost his job and this was the alternative

 

Speaks for itself

Speaks for itself

 

Flashes of the  past

Flashes of the past

 

Buskers in the plaza

Buskers in the plaza

Even travellers from the Land of Oz can be found

Even travellers from the Land of Oz 

 

Food

A good gelato is a good gelato anywhere in the world, any weather

A good gelato is a good gelato anywhere in the world, any weather

You can’t go past the basement level of the big department stores. Choice upon beautifully presented choice – sushi that might have come out of a French kitchen; pastries from master chefs; salads; noodles; seaweeds.

There was a small restaurant where the cook had trained in Lyon and we were able to order the yakatori in French; there was sushi in a restaurant said to have invented the California roll (though obviously not called that). None of the eating in Tokyo was high end but that’s one of the things about Tokyo. The small places, the ramen bars, the basement take-away are all of a satisfying quality.

Great sushi

Great sushi

 

Even better ramen

Even better ramen

 

After all the good food, any wonder this appealed

 

As the other side of the souvenir mug says:

The cutting edge image mix we present is a product of our ability to see beyond existing attitudes and create a new editorial process that reflects the imagination, energy and chaotic beauty that make up today’s Tokyo and its attitude to art and design

 

THAT’S TOKYO    –     IMAGINATION, ENERGY AND CHAOTIC BEAUTY

 

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March in Japan 4 – TAKAYAMA

Takayama – a time capsule from the Edo period

A few days in the mountains. Glimpses from the train through the drizzling mist indicate spectacular scenery as the train winds its way upward through forests and alongside clear streams. Snow is still on the ground.

The preserved streets of the old centre are busy with Japanese tourists even in this weather. I imagine the crush of summer. Like all tourist area, it has a huge range of foods and confections for sale. The local Hida Beef is especially famous. we however, as well as more delicious udon had the only non- Japanese meal of the trip here – Japanese pizza.

The preserved wooden house/shop lined street convey all the charm and simple elegance I associate with traditional architecture.

A street in the preserved Edo town

A streetscape  in the preserved Edo town

Kusakabe House  a merchant’s home which was rebuilt in 1880 is described as having many feature of late Edo period, namely as described:

  • An overall two-story design with stairwells, all made of Japanese Cypress (Hinoki).
  • Exposed heavy beams and pillars.
  • A gently slanting roof with moderate eaves.
  • Slender latticework on the windows.
  • A dark brown paint finish made from soot.

Was it Roosevelt who they say, offered to buy this house?

 

Kusakabe Heritage House rebuilt in 1880 - architecture of the Edo period when the Shogun ruled

Kusakabe Heritage House rebuilt in 1880 – architecture of the Edo period when the Shogun ruled

The dark heavy beams of the house

The dark heavy beams of the house

 

At the Kusakabe Heritage House, our little one met up with a racoon.

At the Kusakabe Heritage House, our little one met up with a racoon.

 

Snow in the garden of the old  17th century majestrate's house

Snow in the garden of the old 17th century magistrate’s house

hard to  imagine these sketches of torture in the prison of the house when all around has that elegant serenity of the architecture

Hard to imagine these sketches of torture in the prison room of the house when all around has that elegant serenity of the architecture

 

The hotel, Takayama Ouan, is one of the few high-rise buildings at the edge of the old town. It has an onsen (traditional hot bath) on the top (13th) floor. The hotel blends western and ryokan elements with tatami (straw) mats throughout so shoes are left in lobby lockers.

The hot spring bath affords a view of the town and the mountains that surround it. There are separate baths for men and women as well as three private baths that can be used for 30 minutes on a first come, first served basis. Bliss.

The morning market and the old town

Older women sell hand made good luck monkeys, pickles and apples displayed simply and minimally at the morning market.

Morning market

Morning market

Apple seller at the morning market

Apple seller at the morning market

Then it is on to wander the streets of seventeenth century wooden houses.

Cafe in a courtyard. probably packed in summer

Cafe in a courtyard. probably packed in summer

Modern touches abound…not a surprise really!

Modern touches abound…not a surprise really!

parking the car is hard everywhere these days

A few streets away from the heritage area, I note that parking the car is hard everywhere these days

From bears to barred doors

We are travelling with 2 littlies so it is time to focus on what they might like….a teddy bear museum. Yep, living kitsch but luckily it is a short walk from a supposedly, most splendid museum  – the Hida Takayama Museum of Art. Michelin has apparently given 2 stars for its collection of Art Deco and Nouveau items but alas all we could see were in the museum shop which was open briefly after closing hours.

 

The river runs through the town

The river runs through the town

 

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A house on the edge of the town centre

 

And not a bad comment on the river of life

And not a bad Takayama comment on the river of life

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March in Japan 3 – NAOSHIMA

Naoshima – an art island in the Seto Inland Sea

My comments are simply to record my superficial impressions  and to trigger memories. This place is so unique, it is worth anyone interested doing more reading about it.

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Pumpkin by the brilliant avant-garde octogenarian artist, Yayoi Kusama.. In my New York blog there is an image of her in the Louis Vuitton window when she collaborated with them..

A benefactor financed it and self-taught architectural genius Tadao Ando designed the three monumental buildings that house 3 distinct art museums on this island. Much of the art is in the landscape outside the museums.

Keen to see everything

Keen to see everything

Three perfect blocks

Three perfect blocks

 

The grand museum buildings are designed to stand alone in nature surrounded by mountains and sea; each houses different collections. Benesee House Museum has an international collection, my favourite being Jonathan Borofsky’s Three Chattering Men.

The Chichu Museum has a small collection including 3 Monets which were large but not his best. I was overwhelmed by the almost religious respect the museum expected for its works, shoes off, only a few admitted at any time. The queue for the James Turrell took half an hour.

The third museum of polished concrete half underground evoked the pyramids in its solidity, scale and serenity; it was built specifically to house the work of the Korean artist Lee Ufan.

Entrance to the Lee Ufan Museum

Entrance to the Lee Ufan Museum

 

In the small fishing village nearby the art ethos is spreading with a project to transform some old wooden houses, enabling artists to turn the spaces themselves into artworks. From an over ground/underground glass staircase at a shrine to a sensory deprivation experience inside one house, the whole visit is a treat. The Ando museum is housed in the village.

The Ando museum

The Ando museum

 

The overground part of the glass staircase; a tunnel leads to the underground half.

The overground part of the glass staircase; a tunnel leads to the underground half.

At the apple counter in a Kyoto bookshop, I had told (via a translation App) the girl helping that I was off to Naoshima. When I returned for the Ipad a few hours later, I found a photocopy about the Turrell sensory deprivation installation with a note saying it was her favorite place. Such thoughtfulness!

I understand why such an installation would appeal in a population of more than 127 million people.

Could this be an early blooming cherry blossom? were we that lucky?

Could this be the one and only early blooming cherry blossom in out trip? Were we that lucky?

The rest of the family stayed in a yurt by the seashore 5 minutes away from my grand lodgings. One night in a weirdly deserted street near there we found a small restaurant run by a man and wife who cooked the best Okonomiyaki I have ever had. The real deal!

I stayed in the very grand Benesse House designed by the master himself. Consistent with the ethos of reflection and grandeur there is no TV and the wifi is elusive.

Art is scattered throughout the hotel; this chap was near the lift.

Art is scattered throughout the hotel; this chap was near the lift.

 

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The moving scissors stand outside Benesse House

This chap guards the gift shop

This chap guards the gift shop

 

What better place I thought to have a Japanese degustation.

In the Museum restaurant I sat gazing at a truly beautiful seascape in the dying light. Had I known I would have about faced as there were 4 Andy Warhol Flowers paintings on the wall behind. The meal was disappointing in contrast.

Course 1 was the standout!. Arch shell and scallion dressed in a sour miso sauce, pink shrimp with motomi miso, conger ell rolled in kelp, omlet, salmon rolled in turnip, horse bean, kumquat compote, dried mullet roe with radish and lily bulb shaped like petals.

Course 1 was the standout!. Arch shell and scallion dressed in a sour miso sauce, pink shrimp with motomi miso, conger ell rolled in kelp, omlet, salmon rolled in turnip, horse bean, kumquat compote, dried mullet roe with radish and lily bulb shaped like petals.

 

Beside the fishing village where the art transformation is happening, the old port has its charms too.

Houses at the port

Houses at the port

Social obligations to meet.

Social obligations to meet.

 

This house seemed a little out of character. Someone forgot to take the Xmas display down.

This house seemed a little out of character. Someone forgot to take the Xmas display down

The onset (public bath house) in Miyanour is  a piece of art by Shinro Ohtake who has several other art installations in the area .

The onset (public bath house) in Miyanour is a piece of art by Shinro Ohtake who has several other art installations in the area .

And here is the last art you see. what a wonderful part of the world!

Here is the last art you see as the ferry pulls out. What a wonderful part of the world!

 

 

 

 

 

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