On my 50th birthday, in April 2013, a friend and senior purser with KLM gave me the best present ever: a ride to any destination in the world, my choice. I didn’t have to think long. It had to be Tokyo.
We just had to wait for the destination to fit into her schedule. By the time my chance to go came up, rest time between flights had been cut to one day. “Do you still want to go?”, my friend asked. Of course I did.
Flying 22 hours to Narita and back for one jetlagged day in a major metropolis? That’s my idea of fun. Besides, it was the perfect opportunity to quit a nasty habit.
I smoked my last cigarette outside Schiphol Airport, two hours before take off.
IN FLIGHT SERVICE
The flight was fantastic. They even let me into the cockpit for the landing at Narita. Strapped in and headphones on, I listened to our pilots communicating with traffic control while I watched them land that huge 747 and find their way to the gate. I stayed up there in the cockpit until the last passenger had left the plane, completely in awe.
The food was pretty good, too.
Straight to bed after arrival, to try and beat the jetlag.
The next day, we took the bus into Tokyo and made our way to Yoyogi Park. We were looking for the Meiji Shrine which actually turned out to be ‘next door’. Yoyogi park itself was more or less deserted this Friday morning, but for a few photographers around these trees. Cherry blossom season had not quite started yet, but these Ume plum trees blossom early.
Right next to Yoyogi park you’ll find the Meiji Shrine. I was most impressed by the stack of huge barrels of sake.
We walked up Omotesando, Tokyo’s Champs Elysees, in search of a kaiten-sushi place recommended to us by the Captain of the flight. It wasn’t too difficult to find. The chef had a sense of humour which he unleashed on an unfortunate group of Korean kids, while winking at us. Fortunately, the kids were oblivious.
Just a few steps away from Omotesando, in the middle of a residential area, we found the quiet Zenkōji temple and cemetery.
AOYAMA & OMOTESANDO
An odd mixture of hipster posh and the light decay of what looked like council flats.
I loved all the little underground shops, selling mostly food and sweets I’d never seen before.
ADS AND PACKAGING
Since I had so little time in the city, I had hung my Olympus Pen from my neck and shot mostly without thinking.. Easy to do with its 17mm wide angle lens. I think it worked out well.
Where else to end the day but the famous Shibuya crossing? Upstairs from the Starbucks café, we got a decent view of madness central.
And that was the end of my 24 hours in Tokyo and my smoking habit. I dropped my last half pack in the bin in my room at the Radisson Hotel in Chiba. I haven’t touched a ciggie since.
Google “Mount Fuji” and your first search results are very likely to include the beautiful view of Japan’s sacred mountain from the Chureito Pagoda in Arakurayama Sengen Shrine Park, Fujiyoshida. Most of these search results won’t even mention the location – it’s just one of the default “pretty Japan” stock photos used in articles.
This iconic location had been on my bucket list for a while, but since the view would be the main point of the expedition, good weather, or at least good visibility was paramount. In December 2019 I was in Tokyo for a week and the weather was perfect most days. Time to get on a train to Fujiyoshida.
I departed from my hotel in Otsuka and took the Yamanote Line to Shinjuku. From there I took a Limited Express train to Otsuki (1 hour) and continued on the Fujikyuko line to Shimoyoshida (50 minutes).
As I got nearer to your destination, I started catching glimpses of the mountain. It never gets old.
It was a week day, but the train was pretty full with mostly elderly Japanese hikers with backpacks and walking sticks. I was afraid they were all going to see the pagoda, but they all got off at another stop for, probably, a less touristy hike.
The train station in Shimoyoshida is small. Cross the tracks and you’ll see Mt Fuji behind the train station. You can get a drink from one of the vending machines there, or make use of its decent toilets.
Check out the map outside the station to get your bearings. To head for the pagoda, go to the right outside the station, straight on and eventually cross back over the train tracks, straight on, then go right underneath the overpass and straight towards Arakurayama Sengen Shrine Park.
There are clear signs pointing you towards the park and its pagoda. It’s a 20 minute walk and you will get to see Mt Fuji from many interesting angles as you walk through the village and the fields.
Once you get to the park you will have to either go up some 390 steps to the top, or take the winding road for a steadier ascend. I took the steps. The further you go up, the better the views become, so don’t forget to look over your shoulder once every while. Take care though, it gets pretty busy up there.
The shrine itself is halfway up Mount Arakura, you’ll see the red torii gate. Here you can rest for a bit and get some snacks from the stalls outside the shrine.
When you get to the five-storied pagoda, you’ll have to climb up behind it. Wow. Pinch yourself, you’re really there and it really is the most spectacular view.
The pagoda was built in 1963, as an addition to Arakura Fuji Sengen Shrine. It is a memorial to peace, commemorating the war dead. The shrine itself was first established in 705.
I was there in Winter, so the trees were bare. Imagine being lucky enough to be there in Sakura season, when the pagoda is framed by cherry blossoms. It’s a lot harder to get clear skies then, that’s why I chose to go in Winter.
There isn’t a lot of space on the observatory deck behind the pagoda and you’ll be competing with a lots of people trying to get their selfies and group shots. You’ll have to be a little patient. Take your time. Maybe sit down for a bit, take it all in before you try to get your shot and return to the station.
From Shimoyoshida station you could head towards Kawaguchiko to cycle around the lake, for more amazing views of Mount Fuji.
Rent a bike and cycle around Lake Kawaguchiko, in the shadow of Mt Fuji.
I’m the kind of traveller that plans their trips meticulously. The planning and looking forward to those plans is a part of the enjoyment. I don’t want to waste any time deciding what to do every day. But I have no problems changing my plans and carefully constructed itineraries if it suits me on the day.
Planned itineraries can wear you out if you forget to plan for down time. That’s why one day in my First Cabin hostel in Akasaka I woke up early, feeling a little tired of the city. I checked the weather forecast. It was a clear enough day, so I got up and hurried to the Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal to catch an early highway bus to Kawaguchiko.
Take the highway bus
Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal (4F) is a 2 minute walk from the New South Exit of JR Shinjuku Station. From there you can catch highway buses to Kawaguchiko. Both Fujikyu and Keio Bus operate buses to Kawaguchiko Station from Shinjuku. You can book tickets online, or buy them from the counter at the terminal.
Kawaguchiko is one of the towns in the Five Lake area at the foot of Mt Fuji. I’d googled for buses in that direction and saw that the very early buses were mostly full. When I got to the station just after 7 AM, I was able to get a ticket for the 8.55 AM bus, but the man at the counter also put me on the waiting list for the one at 7.55 AM. He told me to come back to his desk at a certain time and stand in a certain place. The man had flash cards in various languages, but he spoke no English at all. This was, at the time, the longest and most complicated conversation I’d had in Japanese, but it all worked out. I stood in the place I was told to, at the time I was told to and lo and behold, the man beckoned me over with a smile. Off I went on the 7.55 AM bus.
Great views of Mount Fuji
The bus ride to Kawaguchiko is about an hour and forty-five minutes long. On a bright day, you get a good and long view of Mount Fuji the minute you drive out of Shinjuku to the West. You’ll barely lose sight of it until you arrive at your destination. The bus picks up passengers from only a couple of bus stops along the way and eventually passes through Fuji Q, the entertainment park, before arriving at Kawaguchiko station. There, the mountain looms impressively behind the station building. Trust me, at some point during your day here, you’ll start to feel like you can’t escape the damn thing!
Renting a bicycle
Right across from the station you’ll find an outdoor shop with a side business in bicycle rental, Soranoshita Kawaguchiko. They also carry an impressive line in cool T-shirts. I was able to rent a bike from them very quickly. You fill in a rental form and make your payment, including a deposit that you’ll get back once you return the bike. There’s a choice of regular or electric. I went for regular after consulting the staff member who said the ride around the lake wasn’t going to be too strenuous. She was right, it wasn’t.
Tip: I find that Japanese bikes tend to have their saddles a lot lower than I’m used to in my country. Instead of sitting up straight, you end up more slouchy and this makes it 1. hard on your knees and 2. more difficult to navigate. Make sure shop staff prepare the bike for you the way you are used to.
Cycling around the lake
Once they’d adjusted my bike, I set off for the 20km ride, counter clockwise around the lake. 20km is nothing and can be done in an hour, but it took me about five as I felt compelled to stop every few 100 meters to take in the spectacular views, and to take pictures.
It was too early in the year for the cherry blossoms, but right out of the gate, so to speak, I found a small strip of green with a couple of ume (plum) trees in bloom. So pretty.
The weather was amazing. Bright and sunny, with a cool breeze. I got sunburnt like I hadn’t been in a while. Bring sunscreen or cover yourself. Bring sunglasses too.
Take a break in Oishi Park
My first real break was at Oishi Park on the North shore of the lake. It has a wonderful view of the mountain and it is a popular rest area. I parked my bike, got some food and a glass of iced coffee and – as they say – smelled the flowers.
On the South shore of the lake, I took a break at Yagizaki Park. Closer to the town of Kawaguchiko, this park was being used for school year pictures when I got there. You can see them gathering on top of the hill on the right side of the picture below.
Lake Kawaguchi Mt. Tenjō Ropeway
After my bike ride, I took the Lake Kawaguchi Mt. Tenjō Ropeway up Mount Tenjō (900 yen for a round trip). At the top, the observatory has a view of the lake as well as the infamous Aokigahara forest and Mount Fuji. By then, the clouds were coming in and Fuji-san became less and less visible. I’ve read mornings are always the best time for clear skies, so I suggest an early start is advisable if you too would like to cycle around Lake Kawaguchiko.
Buying a ticket back to Tokyo was relatively easy from the counter at Kawaguchiko station. I got back to the city around 7pm. On the bus all the Japanese passengers were fast asleep. I had an ear to ear grin on my face. Completely refreshed and ready to face the city again.
(23 september 2019) It is currently not possible to land on Gunkanjima until further notice due to typhoon related damage to the port.
Back in 2015, on one of my first trips to Japan, I tried to go to Gunkanjima, the “James Bond” island off the coast of Nagasaki. I was staying in Fukuoka and had booked the trip via the Gunkanjima Concierge website, one of several operators of sightseeing tours to the island. I was aware that weather conditions would decide whether the boat would be able to land on the island or indeed actually depart or not, but I forgot to check the weather the morning of my departure. When I got there after a long train ride, all trips had been cancelled for the day.
“Gunkan” battleship roll, an oval ship-shaped maki sushi.
Hashima Island (端島) better known as Gunkanjima (軍艦島; meaning Battleship Island), is an abandoned artificial island about 19 kilometers off the coast of the city of Nagasaki, in southern Japan. One of Nagasaki Prefecture’s 505 uninhabited islands, it’s best known for the abandoned concrete buildings used as the backdrop for some notable scenes in the James Bond movie Skyfall, although the scenes involving the actors were not actually filmed on the island, but in Macau.
Around 5000 people used to work in undersea coal mines on Gunkanjima. They lived in multi-story apartments that covered the island, giving it its battleship shape. The coal was mainly for the Yawata Steel Works, managed by the Mitsubishi Mining Company since 1890. Controversially, from the 1930s until the end of the Second World War, conscripted Korean civilians and Chinese prisoners of war were forced to work at the Gunkanjima Mitsubishi facility under Japanese wartime mobilisation policies in very dangerous conditions.
It does look like a battleship.
Eventually, the coal ran out and the mine was closed in 1974. All of Gunkanjima’s inhabitants left and the island was abandoned for 30 years. The buildings crumbled and tumbled under the harsh weather conditions. But the ruins stirred up interest with urban explorers and eventually and access was re-opened in April 2009. Gunkanjima became an unlikely tourist attraction even though more than 95% of the island is still off-limits during the organised tours. Japanese tourists flocked to the island first, and after the Bond movie, foreign visitors started to join the daily tours, operated by various companies from Nagasaki harbour.
Unesco World Heritage
In 2015, the island was listed as a Unesco World Heritage site as part of “Industrial Heritages for Modernization in Kyushu and Yamaguchi”, but not without opposition from both China and South Korea. Japan had never acknowledged the existence of forced labour on the island before and during WWII. Japan eventually said they would take measures “to allow an understanding that there were a large number of Koreans and others who were brought there against their will and forced to work under harsh conditions” and the island was then approved for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Until today, there is no mention of this dark history on the island and tour guides apparently do not refer to or appreciate being asked about it at all.
In 2018 I was on day trip to Nagasaki from Fukuoka, with no planned intention to visit Gukanjima. I wanted to see more of the city and its Chinatown than I did last time I went. Beautifully situated on the coast, surrounded by mountains, Nagasaki has almost a European flavour. The city has street names (“Holland Street”) and you’ll find signs and plaques everywhere telling you about its history. I walked up “Dutch slope” and had a coffee at a very colonial looking mansion. I went to Dejima, the former Dutch settlement that has been lovingly restored. Marvelled at the Dutch language videos in the rooms. The city has recently restored the bridge to the original entrance of the settlement. They even want to make it an island again by digging canals on its two, now landlocked, sides.
Nagasaki’s famous dish, Champon
After exploring the city, I picked Shikairou, the oldest Chinese restaurant in town (1899), for lunch. I’d seen the historic spot where it used to be in Chinatown, but it has since moved to a 5-story, ugly modern building near the waterfront. I ordered the dish that Shikairou’s owner invented: Champon. A noodle soup in sea food broth. It had no flavour that I could detect, and neither did the small piece of slow cooked pork I ordered as a side, another local specialty.
A disappointing lunch, but Shikairou is very close to Tokiwa Pier, the spot where four years earlier I’d found out my trip to Gunkanjima had been cancelled due to weather conditions. This time, the weather was outstanding, so I walked over to the tour operator’s office. By chance I got there exactly at the right time, the boat was due to leave within the hour. A small queue had already formed. I was handed a waiting list ticket and ended up nr 6 in line after all the pre-booked people. Eventually, I got on the tour without a problem. They made me sign a landing certificate and a ‘safety contract’ and the ticket for the tour cost 4000 yen, plus 300 yen island landing rights.
Nothing better than an unplanned boat ride. I’d read about the sea around the island being rough and to get ready for sea sickness, but there was none of that. The trip takes about 50 minutes and the island comes in view about 30 minutes after departure. The boat circles the island slowly before landing, so everybody can get a good look. From a certain angle, the island and its buildings really does look like a battleship. The captain of the boat has to decided whether conditions are safe enough for the boat to land. If not, the boat will keep circumnavigating the island for the duration of the tour. Landing on Gunkanjima is said to be possible only on about 100 days per year and is most difficult between November and March.
Fortunately, conditions were deemed good enough. After the boat landed, everyone on the tour had to walk along the designated paths as a group. You get to spend about an hour on the island and are only allowed to walk within a fenced off strip about 1/4 of the island’s circumference. The rest of the island is deemed too dangerous to explore. You are not allowed to stray from the group. Commentary on the tour that I was on was in Japanese only. Like a lot of Japanese bus and boat tours, the whole thing was highly organised, with continuous and inescapable Japanese commentary both on the boat (pre-recorded) and on the island. Some tour operators provide English language ear pieces. The guides will talk about the history of the island, its role in the modernisation of Japan and the stories of the people who risked their lives in the mines.
The best parts for me were the eerie ruins, their shapes and colours, a contrast to the blue sky and sea around us. Sailing back after the trip and getting a good look at Nagasaki’s coast line was another treat. While some boat trips in Japan have been disappointing (there’s one in Hakodate that’s particularly lame), this visit to Gunkanjima island was an excellent way to spend the afternoon.
How To Get There
You can only get to Gunkanjima by joining an organised tour. Private landing is strictly prohibited. Ferry tours from Nagasaki range from ¥3,600 to ¥4,200 for adults. In addition to ferry fees, visitors must also pay a ¥300 landing fee (¥150 for children). This fee is charged by Nagasaki City and goes towards assisting in Gunkanjima’s preservation.
There are several tour operators who all leave from various piers in Nagasaki Port. You can reach Nagasaki Port by taking tram #1 heading for Syokakujishita and get off at Tsukimachi station. Transfer to tram #5 heading to Ishibashi. Get off at Ourakaigandori Street station. From there it’s a one minute walk to the harbour and Gunkanjima Concierge Co, the tour operator that arranged the tour I was on.
Gunkanjima Concierge Co. Fee: Adults ¥4,000 / Students (Junior and Senior High School) ¥3,300 / Children ¥2000 Departure Area: Tokiwa Pier, Nagasaki Port; Ioujima Pier, Ioujima Port https://www.gunkanjima-concierge.com/en/
Robot Restaurant is listed in most “Top 10 things to do in Tokyo” articles and videos you can find. It is a very popular attraction and often described as a kind of “only in Japan” experience. Typically Japanese. Is it really though?
Well, brace yourselves, because here’s what I think: Robot Restaurant sucks. It is, to me, one of the least Japanese things I’ve experienced in Tokyo. Is it entertaining? It might be. Only in Japan? I doubt it. Is it worth the 60 euro entrance fee? I don’t think so. Typically Japanese? When I went, the audience was 90% tourists. The only Japanese people there were entertaining foreign business partners.
Robots? Robots are cool! Yeah. Here’s what a Robot Restaurant show is like: In a small and really rather dingy venue, extravagantly clad men and women parade from one end to the other between two rows of spectators, occasionally riding fantasy animals and monsters. What you see is a cross between a Caribbean carnival and the Amsterdam Pride boat parade if both were staged in Las Vegas. What you definitely don’t get? Robots.
That’s right. There are no robots in Robot Restaurant. Animatronics, maybe. Fire spewing snakes. Giant ponies. A shark. A Ninja turtle? It’s pretty random. You know what else sucks? Every five minutes there is a break to sell the audience as much food, drink and merchandising as possible. It got old fast. The whole thing was a bit of a let down and quite obviously not my thang.
The Shizuoka Prefecture Fujisan World Heritage Centre is a museum in Fujinomiya City, Shizuoka Prefecture. A facility for protecting, preserving and maintaining Mt. Fuji. The Centre also has an academic research function.
In 2013, Japan’s iconic Fuji mountain was registered as a Unesco World Heritage site. I had read about the architect Shigeru Ban’s Mount Fuji World Heritage Centre, built to celebrate this event, before its opening in 2017. I jotted it down on my long list of interesting places to visit. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of information around on how to actually get to this place. In the end, I stumbled upon it almost by accident. Coming back on the train from a trip to the Kuon-Ji temple in Minobu, Yamanashi prefecture, I caught a glimpse of a very large red torii gate. When I turned to get a better look, I recognised the cone-shaped building behind it. I got off the train at the next stop, Fujinomiya Station, and walked back to have a look.
The red torii gate that drew my attention is part of the Fujisan Hongū Sengen Taisha Shrine which lies a little further behind the centre, towards the mountain itself. 1000 years old, it is the most important shrine dedicated to Mount Fuji and seen as the front entrance to the mountain. Admission to this shrine is free.
It was a quiet day at the center, there weren’t a lot of people around. Shigeru Ban’s clever upside down design is striking and makes use of the same kind of woven lattice woodwork (8,000 bars of locally sourced cypress wood) that Kengo Kuma makes use of so often in his work. Shigeru Ban’s competition winning design was based on water circulation and reflection. There’s a plane of water in front of the building, a natural spring-fed water basin. If you’re lucky, the water will be still enough to reflect the shape of the building. When I visited, however, there was a strong breeze rippling the water.
It is 300 yen to go in. The building has a shop, a theatre, a library, a restaurant and an event space. Inside, you walk up a spiral ramp, as if you are ascending the mountain from within. Your ascent is specifically designed to make it seem like you are climbing all the way from the ocean to the summit. On the wall on your right hand side, images are projected such as the outlines of imagined fellow pilgrims and time-lapse videos of the mountain from various angles and in all four seasons. There are five floors, each with their own exhibitions, telling the story of the mountain, its resources and the devotion it inspired.
On the top floor of the building you find an observation hall that leads to an open-air deck. From here you get unobstructed views of Mount Fuji, that is, if the skies aren’t too cloudy. This is the best part of the museum. Personally, I think the best way to experience Mount Fuji in this area is from the train that runs from Shizuoka to Minobu on the Minobu Line, a long and winding track. While you are on that train, the mountain appears and disappears as if by magic. Sometimes on your right hand side, sometimes on your left. It is surprising and awe inspiring, and you’ll understand the ‘sacred’ part of it, more so than viewing it from a purpose built platform. Still, I enjoyed the visit and can appreciate Shigeru Ban’s innovative design of the building.
How to get there
By train: from Shizuoka, take the Tokaido Line to Fuji Station. From there, get on the Minobu Line to Fujinomiya Station. From Fujinomiya it is an easy 10 minute walk to the center.
For more details and opening hours, check the Mt Fuji World Heritage Centre’s official website.
I get most of my Japan travel ideas and information from YouTube channels. I started my “J-vlogger” viewing about five years ago, at the tail end of the first or second wave of the phenomenon. J-vloggers are mostly non-Japanese (mostly Americans, Canadians and Australians) living in Japan and uploading videos to YouTube about their experiences living in Japan. Often (starting out) as English teachers, sometimes moving on to other jobs, sometimes becoming full time YouTubers.
The first channels I watched were Gimmeabreakman ( ‘the godfather of jvlogging’ ), his Two and a half Oyaji co-host Hikosaemon and Rachel and Jun. In those days there was quite a bit of interaction between these and other early channels as well as a lot of drama. I still check in with these channels from time to time, but they generally don’t provide much actual travel information. Rachel and Jun seem to be mostly posting a lot of videos about their cats, though Jun has his own extremely popular cooking channel “JunsKitchen” which is always good to watch. The channels listed below are the ones I watch most regularly and mostly for their travel related information.
These are my favourite Japan travel related channels (in 2019):
Abroad in Japan One of the best known Japan related channels out there is Chris Broad’s Abroad in Japan. British, sarcastic and proud of it, Chris’s videos are bloody succesful for exactly that reason and because he’s good at picking subjects that appeal. To viewers. Or YouTube’s algorithm. Who knows. Chris also has a knack for making interesting friends with quirky personalities, like Natsuki and Ryotaro who both regularly feature on the channel.
NinjaMonkey Subject-wise, Ninja Monkey (Nathan) is the channel that appeals to me the most. Gibraltar based, Nathan is at a similar stage in the Japan travel experience timeline as I am. We’ve both done all the stuff that’s in travel guides (Tokyo-Kyoto-Hiroshima) and are now exploring beyond that. Nathan is one step ahead of me, he’s done 9 trips, I’ve done 8. Last year he did Shikoku, just before I went there a few months later. His most recent trip in Summer 2019 covered Chugoku (see the video above), an area I have scheduled for next year. Basically I could just copy his itinerary and I’m good to go.
Tabieats Probably my favourite YouTube couple are Shinichi and Satoshi. They make a lot of different types of videos and have recently separated them into different channels. I like their travel and their cooking videos best, but they also have a food review channel, a live channel, and individual personal channels. On their most recent one, “I will always travel for food” the videos only have ambient sound and subtitles, giving them an ASMR-like quality, like this one detailing a trip to Coco Curry:
Paolo from Tokyo Filipino-American Paulo de Guzman gave up his consulting job and software business to do YouTube full time. He and his wife Maiko create videos with a high emphasis on food (lots of ‘top ten’ type of content), but since they’ve started putting out really fun, informative “Day in the life of…” videos (salarymen, professional cosplayers, ramen chefs) and other ‘life in Japan’ related stuff, their channel has become essential viewing.
I also watch:
Simon and Martina Previously based in Korea, this couple moved to Japan a few years back. One of their videos about ramen made me travel to Fukuoka to experience Kurume ramen for myself. They’re naturals on camera which makes watching easy and fun.
Life where I’m from Greg started this channel from the point of view of his children, but he has evolved into a solid documentary maker. Not afraid to investigate social issues in Japan.
Jennifer Julien French foodie Jennifer Julien started her channel encouraged by her friend John Daub from Only In Japan (see below). Jennifer works in Japanese broadcasting, has her own food range in Japanese shops and moves in different circles than most J-vloggers, her live streams will give you a different perspective life in Japan.
Only in Japan Very popular channel by John Daub, who travels all over Japan to highlight interesting areas and topics. Regular live streaming.
As a bonus, these are some of the channels I watch to improve my Japanese:
Yuki JapanFries Yuki is a young Japanese youtuber who does funny bilingual videos.
Japanese Ammo Misa teaches Japanese grammar covering both beginner and advanced topics.
Peaceful Cuisine Beautifully produced, soothing videos by Ryoya Takashima. If you want to see some of that famed Japanese “attention to detail”, go watch this guy grind coffee, or build a work bench. 2.1 million subscribers!
Samurai Gourmet is the title of a cool Japanese series on Netflix. It’s funny, moving and full of delicious food.
There is an ever growing collection of Japanese series on Netflix: Terrace House, Good Morning Call, Atelier en the wonderful Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. I’d like to talk about Samurai Gourmet (Nobushi no Gurume). This series is based on an essay by Masayuki Kusumi and a manga with the same title.
Salaryman thinks he’s a samurai
In Samurai Gourmet we meet Takeshi Kasumi, a recently retired salaryman. In the first episode it is the first day of his retirement. Takeshi-san still has to get used to having the whole day to himself. Daydreaming his way around the city, in 12 epsiodes he rediscovers his passion for life in general and food in particular.
While he is walking he imagines himself a samurai who can eat and drink whatever he wants. In real life however, sometimes he struggles standing up for himself.
The actor starring as Takeshi-san, Naota Takenaka, plays him with much sympathy. It’s endearing to see how much he enjoys a simple meal and a glass of beer. This series is as heart warming as it is appetising. Apart from Takeshi and his samurai alter ego, you get to know his wife a little, but other than that there are no recurring characters. Takeshi-san visits a different restaurant for lunch in every episode.
Samurai Gourmet is filmed on location in Tokyo, in existing restaurants. They appear under their own name, with authentic dishes that are genuinely on their menu. Every episode contains close ups of ingredients and the preparation of the dishes. Just like in that other Netflix series Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, every episode features another favourite dish. When Takeshi-san is daydreaming about the samurai, or about his childhood, you join him in his reminiscing because the location and the actors go back in time as well.
The 12 episodes all last 20 minutes. We recommend you watch it!
The architect Tadao Ando has designed four chapels and churches in Japan. They are known as the Churches of the Wind, Water, Sea and, his signature work, Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church, better known as the Church of the Light.
The Church of the Light was built in 1989, in the town of Ibaraki, in Osaka prefecture about 25 kilometers outside of Osaka city. It is the main chapel of the Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church and a showcase of the self taught (he used to be a boxer) architect Ando’s trademark work.
Ando – unlike his Japanese contemporary Kengo Kuma who specialises in the use of wood – primarily uses reinforced concrete that is very smooth to the touch, with strictly geometric lines. He is renowned for building his structures in harmony with nature, letting in natural light and wind to redefine the space inside the concrete.
“Light is the origin of all being. Light gives, with each moment, new form to being and new interrelationships to things, and architecture condenses light to its most concise being. The creation of space in architecture is simply the condensation and purification of the power of light.” – Tadao Ando
The Church of the Light has a rectangular shape, cut through by an obliquely-angled freestanding wall which divides the space into two parts: the chapel itself and a small triangular entry hall. The narrow aisle slopes gently down towards the altar on the south end of the church.
Behind the altar, the wall has two large slotted openings that form the shape of a cross. Light seems to burn through wall into the otherwise very dark space, facing the churchgoers seated on wooden benches made from the wood that was used for the scaffolding during the construction of the church.
Ando had an ongoing disagreement with the congregation concerning the cross shaped slots. He wanted to let the wind in freely, but the congregation deemed it too cold and covered it with see through plastic windows.
There’s something very striking about Tadao Ando’s work. I love the smoothness of the concrete and can’t resist touching it whenever I visit one of his buildings. The absolute minimalism appeals, as does his use of light and dark. It is photogenic work, or in modern terms… ‘instagrammable’. Concrete is sexy, don’t @ me.
My favourite of his buildings that I have been able to visit is the Chichu Art Museum on the island of Naoshima. Its labyrinthal entrance leaves a lasting impression and the building is more interesting than most of the art inside. Although the Monets are a nice contrast. Unfortunately, photography is forbidden on the premises, you’re not even allowed to take a picture of the sea views from the museum café.
As for the Church of the Light, even as a non-believer, the sight of daylight burning a cross through the wall is something I won’t forget.
How to get to the Church of the Light
Unlike some of Ando’s other churches, The Church of the Light is fairly easy to get to and to visit, although you do have to book in advance.
You’ll have to sign up via their website weeks in advance and it is not open every day. Days of opening are decided one month in advance. Visiting hours are between 1.30pm and 4pm. Entrance is free, but church staff will ask you for a donation upon signing in. Nobody checked whether I had actually booked in advance or not.
Tadao Ando is a very famous and popular architect throughout Asia, he has designed many buildings in South-Korea and China. When I visited in November 2017, there were a lot of – mainly Asian – visitors. Everybody will be taking pictures. People will stand at the back, north end of the aisle first, but will eventually walk towards the south wall. Take your indoor pictures early if you want clean shots of the building.
Directions: From Osaka take the JR Tokaido-Sanyo Line to Ibaraki Station, a 14-minute ride. From there you can take a local bus. It is 12 minutes on the number 2 Kintetsu bus, the ride costs around ¥220. Get off at Kasugaoka Park Bus Stop (Kasugaokakouen) from which it is a 1 minute walk north-west towards the church. The bus driver will provide a map with walking directions upon request.
Or you can walk, as I did. It’s a little under one hour.
The “Colorful Japan” exhibition which opened today at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam showcases a selection of 226 of the more than 800 Japanese posters in their collection.
The reason why the Stedelijk Museum has such a large collection of Japanese posters can be attributed to Shigeru Watano (Osaka 1937 – Amsterdam 2012). Watano started working for a Dutch graphic design studio in 1966. He designed the Japanese logo and all the Japanese language graphics for the Dutch pavilion at the 1970 Expo in Osaka. He also contributed to the succes of Dick Bruna’s Miffy on the Japanese market. The Stedelijk Museum benefitted greatly from his connections with the Japanese design community and Japanese graphic designers started contributing their work to the Dutch museum on his request. “Colorful Japan” is the museum’s way to posthumously thank Shigeru Watano for his commitment.
It is an impressive collection. There are booklets available that contain background information on each of these posters. You can also download it (pdf) from the museum website.
Sometimes Japanese sensibilities make it difficult to discern what a poster might be advertising. A poster of little boy holding out a handful of cigarette butts isn’t a PSA about the dangers of smoking, but tells smokers to clean up after themselves. Sometimes posters are quite abstract and the actual advertisement too small to make out. Japanese visual culture is less direct than Western design, the image doesn’t always seem to match the subject.
If you go see it, try and keep count of all the rabbits…
Colorful Japan Exhibition at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum runs from 7 September 2019 until 2 February 2020.
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