Unique Japan Tours in Architecture, Art, Design and Culture by Robert Day Travel
The June 2012 Japan Architecture Tour was yet another successful tour. Despite this one only concentrating on the Tokyo area, there was so much to see and so many great exhibitions to visit. It was a small group compared to previous tours with two cheerful architecture students from Australia, eager to complement their architectural studies at Uni and a graphic artist and university professor from Florida, our first international participant. It was a great time of the year for floral displays in Japan too with irises, hydrangeas and azaleas in bloom, including some in bonsai form. As usual there was a good number of cultural experiences mixed in with traditional and contemporary architecture and some fantastic art and architecture exhibitions. When combined with some architectural discovery wanderings through the backstreets of Tokyo, this all added up to a very enjoyable and enriching Japan Architecture Tour. The tour was with the perfect mix of architecture, art and Japanese culture and we are looking forward to an equally successful September 2012 Japan Architecture Tour. Here are a few highlights of the June Japan Architecture Tour.
Day 1 Highlights – Kanda, Ryogoku, Sumo Training, Omotesando, Bonsai, Kuramae and a Japanese festival.
Our first stop was the Edo-Tokyo Museum (Kiyonori Kikutake) following a brief stroll through the streets of Kanda. This museum features exhibits from the Edo Period, the old name for Tokyo, when the Shoguns ruled Japan. It was a great way for the group to learn a little about the history of Tokyo and Japan. We then traveled to Harajuku and walked through Meiji Shrine. One of the most important shrines in Tokyo, it honours the memory of Emperor Meiji who ruled following the Edo Period from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s. There is always something interesting to see and this time we saw a Japanese wedding and an excellent display of bonsai plants. Just around the corner is the National Gymnasium (Kenzo Tange) built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. It’s a great backdrop for the rockabilly dance troupes just across the street. We then strolled along Omotesando past some of excellent examples of contemporary architecture such as Dior Building (SANAA), TODS Building (Toyo Ito) and Prada Building (Hertzog & de Meuron) and ended up at the Nezu Museum (Kengo Kuma). This museum houses many ancient Asian treasures and also has a beautiful and tranquil Japanese garden. It is an oasis amongst the bustle of Tokyo and a nice way to escape the heat. We had afternoon tea with my Japanese friends and then it was off to Kuramae to see the Torigo Matsuri. This is a traditional Japanese festival in which hundreds of locals carry the heaviest portable shrine in Tokyo (about 3500kg) through the streets for good luck and prosperity. What a treat!
Day 2 Highlights – Tsukudajima, Roppongi, Cezanne exhibition, 21-21 Design Sight, 1980’s bubble economy building mini tour, Shibuya.
One of the advantages of joining my Japan Architecture Tours is being able to visit parts of Tokyo that tourists wouldn’t normally find such as Tsukudajima. It’s an old fishing village that over the years has been swallowed up by the burgeoning Tokyo metropolis and somewhat of a forgotten part of Tokyo dating back to the Edo period. Many of the tiny row houses are hundreds of years old and have survived countless earthquakes, fires and the bombings of WW2. We then moved to Roppongi to the National Art Center Tokyo (Kisho Kurokawa) for the Cezanne, Paris – Provence exhibition. I love this building and it’s always a pleasure to visit it. Just around the corner is the 21-21 Design Site (Tadao Ando). We saw a great exhibition featuring traditional manufacturing industries and practices of the Tohoku region of northern Japan. We then embarked of a mini tour of strange buildings built during the Japanese bubble economy period of the 1980s. These included Unhex Nani-Nani (Philippe Starck), Aoyama Technical College (Makoto Sei Watanabe), the Shibuya Koban (Edward Suzuki) and Cinema Rise (Atsushi Kitagawara). We ended the day with wander though the bustling streets of Shibuya.
Day 3 Highlights – Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku skyscraper district, Ikebukuro, Jiyu Gakuen School, Asakusa, Ginza.
Today was such a big day. I really couldn’t believe just how much we saw and just how far we walked. Firstly we found the wonderful little Reflection of Mineral house (Atelier Tekuto) and then walked through the Shinjuku skyscraper district on our way to Shinjuku station. It’s the busiest train station in the world handling more that 2 million passengers a day. It was then off to Ikebukuro to visit the Jiyu Gakuen School by Frank Lloyd Wright, one of only three remaining Wright buildings in Japan. After a delicious MOS Burger lunch we set off for Asakusa. Philippe Starck’s Asahi Beer Building continued the 80s weird building theme of yesterday, and the Tokyo Sky Tree was just visible through the rain mist. Asakusa is famous for the Kaminarimon Gate and Sensoji Temple, however the latest addition to Asakusa is the new Tourist Information Center by Kengo Kuma. What a nice building. Despite all of what we had seen so far, there was still more. Leaving Asakusa we headed for Ginza, one of Tokyo’s centres for contemporary architecture. Some of the great examples include Mikimoto 2 (Toyo Ito), Maison Hermes (Renzo Piano), the San-Ai Dream Center and Nicholas Hayak Center (Shigeru Ban). What a day!
Day 4 Highlights – Tokyo University, Nezu, Nezu Shrine, Sendagi, Yasuda House, Ueno, National Museum of Western Art.
It was another huge day with even more walking than yesterday. Commencing at Tokyo University, we met up with Ryan Moroney, a previous Japan Architecture Tourist and now student at Tokyo University. Ryan gave us a tour of Fukutake Hall (Tadao Ando) as well as the Architecture School which he now attends. The messy undergrad studio brought back memories for us all. We then walked to Nezu Shrine, a famous shrine in Tokyo dating from the Edo Period. A quick coffee break and we were off on foot again to Sendagi in search of the historic Yasuda House. Wandering through the meandering backstreets, we stumbled across Sudo Park, a charming little oasis amongst the extreme urbanism of Tokyo. The Yasuda House was built in 1918 and recently underwent a lengthy restoration period. The house is now operated and managed by the Japan National Trust. It is a fine example of Taisho Era architecture, a nice combination of refined Japanese simplicity and European flair. Such a wonderful house now able to be enjoyed by the public. Our next stop was the National Museum of Western Art design by Le Corbusier, home to the outstanding Matsukata Collection of Western Art from the 17th – 20th centuries. We also saw the “Renaissance to Rococo: Four Centuries of European Drawing, Painting and Sculpture” exhibition from the collections of The National Museums of Berlin. A snack on a panda pork bun and a brief shopping expedition to the Ueno markets to finish off an exhausting, yet thoroughly enjoyable day. It’s hard to believe that we could see so much.
Day 5 Highlights – Mitaka, Ghibli Museum, Nogizaka, Gallery MA, Roppongi, Roppongi Hills Sky Deck, Marunouchi.
I had not visited The Ghibli Museum at Mitaka before so it was a new experience for me and a first for the Japan Architecture Tours. We arrived early and waiting patiently in line with the hundreds of other people. The museum as a very sensory experience with movie screenings, cartoon cells displays and recreated scenes from Ghibli Studio productions. We made the not so short walk back to Mitaka and headed to Gallery MA at Nogizaka for the exhibition of the architectural works of Korean/Japanese architect Jun Itami. As is always the case with Gallery MA, the exhibition was excellent, with many drawings and models on display. We strolled through the streets of Roppongi to the huge Roppongi Hills development. Completed in 2005, Roppongi Hills is one of the largest urban renewal and consolidation projects in Tokyo. It features a 52 level office tower, high-rise apartment buildings, townhouses, a shopping centre, cinema complex and TV studio. At the top of the Mori Tower is the Tokyo City View and Mori Art Museum. It was such a nice, sunny day, that we decided to go all the way to Sky Deck on the rooftop. From here we had an excellent view of Tokyo, however it just wasn’t clear enough to see Mt Fuji. Marunouchi was the next stop where we checked out the new JP Tower and redeveloped Central Post Office Building, one of Japan’s first buildings of the “Modern Movement”. We also checked on the progress of the ongoing restoration of the Tokyo Station Building (Tatsuno Kingo). Much of the building was destroyed during WW2 and it was hastily rebuilt following the end of the war, however not in it’s original form. Over the past several years, the station building has been undergoing restoration to it’s original form to reinstate the third level and domed roofs.
Day 6 Highlights – Yushima, Iwasaki House, Saitama Architects Association, Koshigaya Laketown, Kondo Architects Office, Yoshi’s New House, Shabu-shabu Dinner
Traditionally as part of the Japan Architecture Tours, we spend a day with the Saitama Architects Association and today was the day. We met Yoshi Takeuchi at the Kyu Iwasaki-tei. It’s the former estate of the Iwasaki family, founders the Mitsubishi zaibatsu, famous for shipbuilding, banking, insurance, automobile and aircraft manufacturing. Just a few of it’s many business activities. The compound originally comprised more than 20 structures. Today only three survive, namely a traditional “shoin” Japanese building which was the main residence of the Iwasaki family, a Western-style two-storey guesthouse and a billiard hall both of which were designed by British architect Josiah Conder . The Western-style guesthouse was completed in 1896 and is an example of some of the finest Western architecture in Japan. The gold-embossed wallpaper throughout is a most spectacular feature. Leaving this wonderful “time capsule” from the 19th Century we travelled with Yoshi to a 21st Century “master planned” township called Koshigaya Laketown which featuring one of the largest shopping malls in Japan. Here we met up with another from the Saitama Architects Association, my former boss Toshi Kondo. Following a delicious tempura lunch we headed to Mr Kondo’s office. Not much has changed in the 20 years since I worked there. Higashi Kawaguchi has changed a lot though. There are many new apartment buildings including a rather ugly one where my house used to be. We then left Kondo Kikaku Sekkei to what turned out to be the highlight of the day and one of the highlights of the whole tour. On that last Japan Architecture Tour, Yoshi showed us designs for his new house and today we were able to visit his house just before he and his family moved in. We walked along the streets past many plain and boring houses in the new subdivision when all of a sudden we encountered Yoshi’s house. What a surprise! It stood out from the surrounding mediocrity like a beacon. A wonderful 3-storey off-form concrete triangular shaped house on a 100sqm block of land featuring Oya stone floors on the ground level and Japanese cedar walls throughout. Oya stone was what Frank Lloyd Wright used for the Imperial Hotel and Yamamura House. What a wonderful and clever design on such a small block. We loved Yoshi’s explanation about the techniques he employed to create an illusion of space in such a small house. The day was topped off with a shabu-shabu dinner with Mr Kondo, Mr Takeuchi and Mr Tanaka from the Saitama Architects Association and of course my good friend Mr Nojima
Day 7 Highlights – Shimbashi, Nakagin Capsule Building, Shiodome, Bridgestone Museum of Art, Imperial Palace.
Our last day of the tour started at the first train station in Japan, well, a replica at least, of Shimbashi Station. A short stroll and we were at the Nakagin Capsule Building by Kisho Kurokawa. Kurokawa was one of the leading figures of the Metabolist Movement of Japanese Architects in the 1960s and 1970s. Widely reported to be demolished, it will be such a pity to see this iconic building lost. What a shame there isn’t a wealthy Japanese industrialist willing to buy it and save it from demolition. Following this we visited the Bridgestone Museum for a 60th Anniversary exhibition entitled “Bridgestone Museum of Art at Sixty: You’ve Got to See These Paintings”. The exhibition featured the works of many of the masters from the 19th and 20th century. Finally we walked, in the rain, to the Imperial Palace for the obligatory photo in front of Niju Bashi Bridge and then back to the comfort of a dry restaurant where we discussed some of the great things that we saw and wonderful experiences that we had on the June Japan Architecture Tour. Everybody said that the tour exceeded their expectations and are keen to join us again on another Japan Architecture Tour in the future.