Thursday, May 30, 2013

Japan 2012 - Ginza

Ginza - a place that is probably on every Tokyo visitor's list. This is where you come to admire all the branded stores - Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Armani, Dior, Bulgari, Cartier - the list goes on. It was also here that the trend for iconic flagship stores started - for at one time the Japanese were the biggest patrons of luxury goods in the World and all the luxury brands where clamoring to get a foothold in this market. That mantle has since passed on to the mainland Chinese, but I am sure the Japanese are still not far behind in luxurious consumption judging from the number of LV clutching ladies you see on the streets.

It is not unusual to see a few Tokyoites decked up top to toe in the same brand.

Ginza is perhaps best visited at night when the stores light up and look even more glamourous. One of the most interesting night lighting is at the Matsuya Ginza departmental store.

Though the Ginza main street is where all the action is, to me the small side alleys are more interesting as they feature more obscure brands and shops. And in the small parallel alleyways behind Ginza you will find restaurants and pubs of any ilk that suits your fancy.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Japan 2012 - Tokyo Imperial Palace

I visited the Kyoto Imperial Palace and was really impressed with the elegance of the architecture, so I thought I shouldn't miss the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Like the Kyoto Palace, entrance is free but a reservation need to be made either online or at the Imperial Household Office. On the day, I got out at the wrong subway station and had to walk much longer then expected. To make matters worse, I went to the wrong entrance which was about 1 km from the designated entrance. By the time I got there I was already 30min late, and thought for sure I was going to miss the tour. Luckily the tour hasn't started and they let me in. 

The wrong entrance.

 The right entrance is down there.

Like in Kyoto, there was a video briefing in a large hall before the tour starts. There were around 50 people, about half from China. The tour started with a walk around the outer gardens. It was pleasant enough, but what we really wanted to see was the Palace. That was when we heard the bad news - we weren't going to see the Palace. The Royal Family actually lives there and it is not open to visitors. What a disappointment !

If you are rushed for time, you could probably give the Imperial Palace a miss. Visiting the Palace will take about half a day.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Japan 2012 - First Dinner in Tokyo

After exploring the Asakusa area for a whole day, it was time for dinner. I came across this Izakaya next to the famous Asakusa Dori - the blue rainbow bridge. The place is buzzing with locals enjoying a pint and yakitori. Having a meal at an Izakaya for a non-Japanese can be a bit daunting. There is usually no English menu, and the servers hardly speak any English. I ended up just half-guessing the items on the menu and let my fingers do the talking - then wait and see what happens.

As they were really busy, the order took quite a while to arrive. Surprisingly they even served me an amuse bouche - a skewer of 2 meatballs drizzled in yakitori sauce. Very nice.

The order came as expected - 2 chicken skewers and 1 pork. All very simply seasoned with just salt and a very light marinade. And they were all really flavourful and tender - expertly done. There is nothing better then properly grilled meat - takes us back to our primeval days I guess !

The salad came with 3 dressings. I ended up trying all 3 and they were all very good !

Having a meal at an Izakaya is a very good way of getting to know the local dining scene. On top of that it is usually very tasty and more affordable then having a meal at a restaurant. Something I don't mind doing everyday !

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Japan 2012 - International Library of Children's Literature Tokyo

Perhaps only in Japan would you find an entire library devoted to children's literature. The International Library of Children's Literature (ILCL) is located on the northern side of Ueno Park. It is house in a 3-storey heritage building which was originally the Imperial Library. The extension was designed by renown Japanese Architect Tadao Ando, and in his addition he has tried to preserve the interior and exterior of the existing building as much as possible.

From the main elevation, all you can see of the extension is a glass box which is tilted at a slight angle to the main building. This is the main entrance to the library. This glass box cuts through the building and ends up as the cafe which faces the garden behind.

The new addition is essentially another glass box that stretches along the back facade of the existing building. The new spaces are fully day-lighted, and serve mainly as the circulation space and foyers. What is great about this is that you can actually see and touch the existing facade up close - and appreciate the beauty of the heritage building.

On the whole it is a great example of architectural conservation. But if you are expecting to see Tadao Ando's signature architectural moves you may be disappointed, as the main idea here was to preserve and enhance the existing building - and for that they have done a great job.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Japan 2012 - Ueno Park in Tokyo

Ueno Park is a large public park toward the West of the Asakusa District and on the northern side of Tokyo City. It is a popular cherry blossom viewing spot in Spring, and the park itself is a great place to escape from Tokyo's concrete jungle, but what attracted me there are the buildings and not the trees.

Ueno Park is dotted with an amazing collection of cultural institutions including the Tokyo National Museum, the National Science Museum, the National Museum of Western Art, the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan (Tokyo cultural Hall), etc. If you are a museum lover, you could spend a whole week here.

As you approach the Park from the JR Ueno Station,you will see an interesting building on the left. When you get closer, it begins to look familiar. This building is the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan - and every architect would recognize its design language. It looks like something by the famous Le Corbusier - but it is not actually by him but one of his disciples in Japan - Kunio Maekawa.The assimilation of Corbusier's architectural language is almost complete. This building houses a concert hall that is still used today and beloved for its great acoustics.

Opposite the Bunka Kaikan is a much smaller building - the National Museum of Western Art. This is a building that was actually designed by Le Corbusier - his only realized project in the Far East, and it houses the famous Rodin sculpture - The Thinker. On first look it doesn't really appear very much like Corbusier's other works, and perhaps most people would have passed by it without realizing it was designed by one of the preeminent 20th Century architects. This is actually one of the few museums built based on Corbusier's concept of a "Museum of Unlimited Growth" - a spiral plan that can be added to as and when the need arises.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Japan 2012 - Tenya Tendon Shop

Tenya Tendon is a chain of Japanese fast food restaurants serving the popular Tendon - Japanese rice bowls topped with tempura. Instead of the Tendon, I went for the Tempura Soba set. This was their summer special and it look really tempting in the pictures.

I find that in Japan, often what you see in the photos is what you get. There is no false advertising here.

The tempura is very nice indeed. With a really light and crispy batter, and good quality prawns and ingredients, it could rival much more expensive restaurants.The dipping sauce is also very good - just adding enough flavour without overpowering the tempura.

At 780 yen for the set, it works out to be around RM 23. Very reasonable even compared to eating in Malaysia. You can find Tenya outlets all over Tokyo. The one I went to was in Asakusa.