JAPAN PART III: TOKYO


Much like Toronto, Tokyo is a city of neighbourhoods. In fact, I think you could argue Tokyo is really the prime definition of that term. Quick research will net you neighbourhoods like Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ginza, Akihabara, Roppongi, Ueno amongst others. A little bit more and you'll probably start seeing Shimokitazawa, Kichijoji, Nakameguro, Daikanyama, Koenji... The list goes on.

If you've read Murakami, you'll probably have seen these names tossed around as well. His characters are often put up in these neighbourhoods and he describes them with great detail atmosphere. One thing Murakami also gets right is the distinct feel of each of those neighbourhoods as they are all different in their own right. You can't really go wrong when exploring all the neighbourhoods of Tokyo and you might as well randomly pick a few to explore.

Unfortunately we weren't there for long so we only got a chance to visit a few of the main ones. That said, they are usually the ones with the highest turnover in terms of businesses and buildings being torn down and rebuilt. If you've ever visited a big metropolis multiple times over a few years, you start to get a sense of something I can only describe as a "peculiar familiarity". Walking down streets that you've walked before, but each time with a new shop at the corner or mall by the station - it's a half-baked familiarity, but it's wonderful. This isn't exclusive to Tokyo by any means, but it is certainly a city where rapid changes to both obvious or unnoticed streetscapes and neighbourhoods can occur . 


 
 

 

ALONG THE SUMIDA RIVER

In all my previous trips to Tokyo, I'd only ever stayed in the Shinjuku area. It's probably the most convenient just because of the sheer number of connections and transportation options within reach. This time, however, we chose to stay in the Kuramae neighbourhood. Kuramae is a small area along the Sumida river within close proximity to the more popular Asakusa neighbourhood. It's known for housing many older factories turned artisan studios and is going through a bit of a surge with the Tokyo Skytree being nearby.

In Kuramae, we stayed at Nui Hostel & Bar Lounge. It was a pretty sweet hostel (the space was formerly a toy factory) and the bar/café downstairs was awesome. Most nights upon returning to the hostel, I would make a stop at the bar for a beer and chat with fellow travellers or locals. Much like many other things in Japan, Nui struck a perfect balance with how the space and business itself was multi-purpose and functional for different uses. Apart from the nightcaps, we would stop by the same space in the morning for an expertly brewed pour over (or aeropress if you prefer) and to review our travel plans for the day. Most of the staff spoke fluent English with many of them having studied or worked in North America before. This place had some really good vibes and I would definitely recommend it if you're looking for something a little off the beaten path.

Outside Nui. Nice big windows let lots of ambient light in through the front and into their lounge and café space. The hostel offers bike rentals to its guests for pretty affordable rates. Interestingly, there are lots of bikers in the Asakusa and Kuramae area but we didn't see nearly as many in other places. 

Inside the first floor of Nui where we spent many mornings and evenings mingling and meeting other travellers. The man in the foreground, along with his girlfriend (not pictured) were travelling from Montreal.

We went out for a walk and decided to walk to Ueno. Incredible how the streets here are so free of trash and litter flying around. It really lives up to what people say about how Japan is so clean. Combined with all the white buildings lining the street, it's a pretty sterile scene.

We went out for a walk and decided to walk to Ueno. Incredible how the streets here are so free of trash and litter flying around. It really lives up to what people say about how Japan is so clean. Combined with all the white buildings lining the street, it's a pretty sterile scene.

The street leading into the Senso-ji in Asakusa. Pictured here is Nakamise-dori which is lined with shops selling snacks and souvenirs. In the distance you can see Kengo Kuma's Asakusa Culture & Tourism Center.

On the inner grounds of the temple you will find tourists and locals alike. The smoke coming from the incense is thought to be good luck and visitors will often waft the smoke over themselves to receive the blessing. I guess the question is, what if you waft the smoke straight into your lungs? Blessing or curse?

The Asakusa Culture & Tourism Center by Kengo Kuma and Associates. Signature wood-cladding for a building that seems to resemble houses stacked atop one another. The details on the inside of the building were quite interesting as well.

After leaving the Senso-ji, we made our way through the neighbourhood towards Ueno Park. We stumbled upon this building sandwiched between two more modern buildings (something not uncommon in Tokyo). Now that I'm writing this up, I've done some research and it turns out this is an okonomiyaki shop and a pretty highly rated one at that. F!#@. I guess there's always next time.

Guess it was the time of day but there were an awful lot of senior citizens out while we were walking. This corner seemed to be the local stop for cigarettes and drinks.

Stopping by the local shop for a quick chat.

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We made it to Ameyoko (short for Ameya-Yokocho) which is an interesting street that runs along and underneath the train tracks near the JR Ueno station. There's a variety of shops but all with a generally budget-friendly consumer in mind. We were probably still a bit early for the lunch crowd to move through the area but there were still some specific shops that were at capacity. At certain parts along the tracks, you can go underneath and cross to the other side. Most of the aforementioned busy shops were located there.

The JR Ueno station exit right across from the entrance to Ueno Park. Ueno Park is one of the primary parks and public spaces in Tokyo. Inside the park, you will find a concert hall, a couple of national museums, shrines and temples, as well as a zoo. During the cherry blossom season, Ueno Park gets incredibly busy as many of the paths are lined with cherry blossoms and the daytime drinking parties underneath them. Even outside of the springtime, the park can be quite busy during all times of the day. The spaces are so multifunctional and multi-purposed, and the park's level of utilization really shows it.

One of the paths inside Ueno park that lead to the Ueno Toshogu Shinto Shrine. The JR Ueno station adjacent to the park is another major hub for transportation and so it's not uncommon to see people carrying their suitcases around the park. 

The Ueno Toshogu Shinto shrine in all it's golden glory. it's just one of the many shrines and temples scattered throughout the park.

Shortly afterwards, we were on our way to our next stop waiting for the Yamanote train inside Ueno station.

Always on time. The trains in Japan are known for being accurate to the minute and we can certainly attest to it. On the train platforms, orderly lines naturally form once the trains arrive without much need for direction or coordination from attendants.

A train arrives for the opposite platform. The Yamanote line is perhaps the most well known line in Tokyo, if not Japan. It travels in a loop and visits most of the major transportation hubs in Tokyo. Riding around the whole loop on this train takes approximately an hour and is actually a pretty good tour of Tokyo should you decide to get off and on at the different stations.

We ended up in Harajuku in the middle of the afternoon. Decided to go for a walk up and down the iconic Aoyama-dori to check out some of the shops. Streets were full of people, tourists and locals alike. 

There's a sense of style you don't really get anywhere else with how the Japanese dress. You'll often see very understated pieces put together to create very relaxed looks. Silhouettes and patterning isn't all about slim and skinny and there's often a nod towards functionality.

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Luxury brands and trees line Omotesando in one of the most iconic views around Tokyo. Traffic jams going in one direction heading from Aoyama towards Harajuku.

Omotesando Hills by Tadao Ando

Had to try Blue Bottle in Japan. It was alright, I think I had some better coffee elsewhere but still quite good. Lines were not long at all but finding a seat in this crowded cafe was a bit difficult.

 

 

SITTING ON SILVER

It's more than likely that you go to Tokyo to get a taste of the big city life in Asia. Tokyo's definitely a prime choice because it basically never sleeps. Bars and clubs are open through the night so that if you miss the last train home, you might as well just party until the first train leaves the next morning at 5AM. Walking down the streets in the heart of Tokyo, you will be flanked on both sides by big tall buildings of commercial and residential use (though exactly where you are in Tokyo will dictate the proportion of this combination). It's not only true in Tokyo, but something that may be unusual to North Americans is that restaurants and shops might also be set up on the upper floors of buildings and not just the ground floor. Such is the density and demand for space that it is wholly viable for shops to set up above street level.

When you arrive in Ginza, this is especially true. Tall buildings form canyons of luxury here as you walk past the flagship store after flagship store for everyone's favourite French and Italian designers. Shopping is great here if you've got the money. Otherwise you'll be just like me and end up window shopping at Itoya, the stationery store. Yeah. I couldn't afford to buy paper. OK well, I mean, I could... But would anyone without a fat paycheque pony up $50 on a few sheets of paper?

Luxe. In Japan, luxe is serious. "Shit's expensive, man". That's probably something you'll hear from your friends who visit Japan. Perhaps it's the mass overconsumption we experience in North America, but there's no such thing in Japan. Least not something you could generalize the people or culture with. You order the just-right amount (or what you think is the right amount) and if you're still hungry... Well, you incrementally order more or you might just go home slightly hungry and regardless, you'll still have a pretty big hole in your pocket. Like many other things in Japan, it's about the experience. The idea of quantity (and that more is better) or measurable metrics are far from the idea that they are trying to drive home.

Actually, nevermind. I forgot about one exception. Nomihodai. I guess if you've ever spent any time in Japan working or know people who have worked there, there's one thing that the Japanese love to do and that is drink. Nomihodai? It's all you can drink. Unfortunately I've only ever heard about this from friends who are from Japan or who have worked there so I can't really tell you much else about it (drinking isn't really Karen's thing).

That wasn't really to do with Ginza in particular but I guess my attempt to bring it full circle is that despite the world-class level of luxury in Ginza and the extreme levels of moderation in Japanese culture, there are still small exceptions such as all you can drink options that you'll find in Ginza and all over Japan, really. 

Streets of Ginza. In the upper left of the photo you can see the iconic Ginza clock tower on top of Wako. Prada opposite GU. Just thinking about how much one purchase at Prada could buy at GU... 

If not for the shiny glass facades of a lot of the newer buildings, the streets of Ginza might be perpetually in the shadows. Alright I guess that's a bit unfair as it makes it sound like Ginza's the seedy underbelly of Tokyo... Actually, is it?

OK this isn't actually in Ginza. It's technically Kyobashi which is just a few blocks away. We were here for Tempura Fukamachi. I noticed this small looking cargo van and had to get a snap of it.

Taxi for comparison. Yeah. That van was f@%#ing small.

Only suits here. We arrived at an odd time as the lunch hour rush hadn't really started yet so the streets weren't as crowded. We got here a bit too early for our reservation so wandered around a bit.

Eventually, Karen found a pharmacy / beauty products store and I was stationed outside for a good few minutes snapping photos of the passersby.

Wandering around after our tempura lunch (sorry no photos). Found this back alley behind some office buildings. Typical vending machine, smoking, talking on the phone spot. I can't recall very well now but I think there's a quick, cheap lunch spot in the photo here as well.

 

 

DEPARTURE

The last couple of days in Japan felt really sped up for us. I wasn't able to shoot as much, in part because of burnout from shooting so much for the days prior, and also because we were so busy trying to get from place to place that I wasn't really able to get into a nice groove or rhythm. Frankly, we probably tried to do too much while in Tokyo. Hopping on train after train to get from here to there, it got pretty hectic. On the other hand, there was so much that we didn't do either. There were a bunch of neighbourhoods and places that we didn't make it to but that's probably more than likely the case with anyone who visits Tokyo. 

Unsurprisingly, I could probably never get sick of vacations to Japan. Living and working there is understandably a whole other beast of which I'm not inclined to try, but being on holiday in Japan is certainly one of the most pleasurable things I've experienced. Despite not being able to see everything we wanted, I think we took solace in the fact that we will find ourselves back there again one day.

Since my last trip to Japan, I've learned to really appreciate architecture and spaces and I really wanted to try and make it one of the focal points of the trip. Though that wasn't really the case, we were able to visit 21 21 Design Sight, a collaboration between Tadao Ando and Issey Miyake in Roppongi. 

Signs in Roppongi. Confusing traffic signs, the ubiquitous blue karaoke sign, and Konami all the way in the background.

A shot of the Tokyo Tower and skyline in the background from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku the night before we left to return home.


 

Nui Hostel & Bar Lounge was a great place to stay for us. I spoke about it quite a bit above so there's not much more to say. The company that runs Nui also has a number of similar hostels in Kyoto and Tokyo all with the same general direction and vibe. Citan is their newest location and was under construction when we visited but is open now. If it's anything like Nui, I'd definitely try staying there the next time I'm in Tokyo.