Musashino Place: The ideal library

musashino place


While I was in Tokyo, I met up with the Japanese architect/ director behind a brand that we will be launching soon. I mentioned to him that I would be visiting the Edo-Tokyo open air architectural museum, and he recommended a visit to the nearby Musashino Place in Musashino City.

Designed by kw + hg architect and opened in 2011, Musashino Place functions primarily as a public library, whilst providing spaces for children/youth activities, educational workshops, meetings and civic events. The building is located within a small park near the Musashi-Sakai station, and it stands out from afar due to its cool white exterior and massive oval-shaped windows.


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As soon as I stepped into the building, I was immediately struck by the clean lines and spaciousness. The mix of natural light source with soft interior lighting works harmoniously. This is one of the most minimal and yet striking libraries that I have ever visited. It showcases the essence of Japanese aesthetics and design principles brilliantly. It is simple, subtle, open, calm and well balanced. In many ways, this contemporary library is not so indifferent from a traditional Japanese zen temple.


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One of the most fascinating aspects of this building is that it appears to be a three storey building from the exterior, yet in fact, it has four floors and three basement including an underground car park! Aside from a library collection of 140,000 books and 600 periodicals, there are 400 reading seats, a cafe on the ground floor, as well as soundproof recording studio in the basement.


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When I was visiting the library, I saw groups of mothers and their young kids sitting and playing outside in the park. While inside, I saw a few elderly men taking naps on the reading chairs (why not?), students doing research and friends chatting and relaxing in the cafe.

Musashino Place not only serves as an educational facility, it also encourages social interactions for people of all ages and backgrounds. In an ideal world, all libraries should be like this… if all local councils in the UK would invest and improve their library facilities and services for youths, I am sure that literacy rates would improve and crime rates would also be reduced.

The residents of Musashino City are a lucky bunch!


Tokyo’s Contemporary Architecture

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21_21 Design Sight in Tokyo Midtown by Tadao Ando


It is not hard to understand why architecture enthusiasts love Tokyo. The metropolis showcases myriad of alluring post-war architecture, and it would be a shame not to check out some of the city’s most original and conspicuous designs by internatioanlly renowned architects.

In the next few entries, the focus will be on Tokyo’s architecture; and I shall start from contemporary designs.


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 The interior of 21_21 Design Sight


Being one of the most respected Japanese contemporary architects, Tadao Ando‘s 21_21 design sight is his signature work in Tokyo. Opened in 2007, the design museum has been operating under the direction of three Japanese design masters: fashion designer Issey Miyake, graphic designer Taku Satoh and product designer Naoto Fukazawa.

The sleek and futuristic building is characterised by its seamless steel roof and concrete walls. Interestingly, seventy percent of the building is located below ground level, yet a large light-well lets in natural light and brightens up the sunken exhibition area.


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National art center designed by Kisho Kurokawa in Roppongi 


Not far from this design museum, there is another intriguing architecture which houses The National Art Center. Opened in 2007, this huge contemporary art center was designed by Kisho Kurokawa, one of the founders of the Metabolist Movement and the architect of Nakagin Capsule Tower in Ginza.

This predominantly glass and concrete building offers the largest exhibition space in Japan. However, the center does not have its own permanent collection, instead it regularly hold major and smaller exhibitions. The undulating glass facade is the highlight of this building, and it creates a strong contrast against the interior’s giant inverted concrete cones.

Also within the “Art Triangle Roppongi” is the Suntory Museum of Art designed by another internationally renowned architect, Kengo Kuma. The architect combined traditional and contemporary Japanese elements to create a low-key, warm and spacious museum space which includes a tea-ceremony room.


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Top & 2nd left rows: Dior building; 2nd right row: Hugo Boss building & Tod’s building; Bottom two rows: Tod’s building


The best area to explore and appreciate Tokyo’s contemporary architecture is undoubtedly Omotesando. This shopping area is a grand showcase for an impressive array of modern and innovative architecture designed by world class architects for major international fashion and accessories brands. Here are some of the highlights:

Dior building – Designed by Pritzker Prize laureates Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA in 2004, the minimal transparent glass walls is especially spectacular at night as it is illuminated from within, creating a glowy effect.

Tod’s building –  Designed by Toyo Ito in 2004, the L-shaped building is wrapped in a skin of interlocking concrete supports and glass that mimic the trees lining the street. The facade design mimics the natural growth patterns of the trees nearby, whilst bare tree branches are reflected through the glass in the winters.

Hugo Boss building – A new addition to the avenue, this building was designed by renowned architect Norihiko Dan in 2013. It somewhat resembles more of a Brutalist Cathedral than a high-end menswear store to me, but the striking bold design does capture the German brand’s cool and manly appeal.


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Top: Gyre building; 2nd row left: Prada building; 3rd row: Coach building


Gyre building – Designed by Dutch architecture firm MVRDV, Gyre (also known as The Swirl) unquestionably looks less ‘flashy’ than its neighbours at first glance. In fact, the building features stacked rectangular floors that are rotated on a vertical axis. As a result, a series of terraces emerged and are connected to external stairways and elevators to create a vertical promenade.

Prada building – Designed by Swiss architectural firm and Pritzker Prize winners Herzog & de Meuron, Prada’s flagship store is a five-sided, six-storey building with a transparent glass facade, featuring flat, concave and convex diamond-shaped glass panels.

Coach building – Designed by New York-based OMA in 2013, the firm has designed a glass facade made up of 210 stacked display boxes that run horizontal and vertical to form a herringbone pattern. Inspired by the company’s original, systematic filing retail strategy, the modular shelving units are used to showcase the Coach merchandise.


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Top row: Dior building in Ginza; 2nd left & bottom: Mikimoto 2; 2nd right; DE BEERS building


Aside from Omotesando, Ginza is another shopping area where we can spot some interesting contemporary architecture.

Dior building – This white Ginza Dior building was designed by Kumiko Inui in 2004. There are two layers on the facade – an outer one made of steel and punctured with holes which reveals the illuminated inner patterned layer. Lit by LED lighting, the building glows like its Omotesando store at night. A white star, which is Dior’s lucky motif can also be spotted on the top of the building.

DE BEERS building – Designed by Jun Mitsui in 2008 for the world’s top diamond company’s first Asian store. This curvy building was inspired by the beauty of the female outline. It maximizes light reflection from different directions in different hours of the day, which suggests the shimmering reflection of a high-quality diamond.

Mikimoto Ginza 2 – This conspicuous white building is the ‘jewel’ in Ginza. It is designed by Toyo Ito (see his Tod’s building above) for the famous Japanese pearl company in 2005. The structure of the nine-storey building is made of steel and reinforced concrete, and wrapped in four thin walls to create a tube structural system, leaving the internal spaces column-free. Yet the most unique part of this building is its irregular shaped windows, which makes the building look like a piece of cheese!


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Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center


Located opposite the famous kaminari-mon gate, the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center designed by Kengo Kuma & associates opened its doors in 2012, and it was later awarded a Good design award. The unusual 8-storey structure not only serves as a tourist information center, it also has a conference room, multi-purpose hall and an exhibition space.

This Kuma Kengo design was inspired by Japanese traditional houses, and the structure looks as if a series of them are stacked on top of each other. Wood is the material defining the facades and interior, which refers to the traditional Japanese construction but done in a contemporary way.


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Top: Mercedes-Benz Connection in Roppongi designed by Kubota Architects & Associates in 2011; 2nd row: Proud Daikanyama Apartments; Bottom row: Daikanyama T-site


Daikanyama is a shopping district full of cool fashion brands. At the end of 2011, TSUTAYA opened a massive books and lifestyle shopping complex Daikanyama T-Site, tailored to customers over 50 years of age. Slotted between large existing trees on the site, the three 2-storey pavilions are arranged to resemble “A Library in the Woods”. The white facades of the pavilions are comprised of interlocking T-shapes that subtly reference the logo. Tokyo’s Klein Dytham Architecture won an award at the World Architecture Festival for this relatively low-budget but stylish site.


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 Cool contemporary architecture can be spotted all over the city


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Vertical gardens are especially popular in Tokyo


Architecture from the 1990s


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Philippe Starck’s Asahi beer hall 


One of the most iconic and controversial buildings in Tokyo must be the Asahi beer hall designed by Philippe Starck in 1990. The building was designed to resemble the shape of a beer glass, with an enormous gold flame at the top. Not surprisingly, this flashy building has never been fully appreciated by the local Japanese and they gave it an appropriate nickname: The Golden Poo (O Gon No Unko).


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Top row: Tokyo Big Sight designed by AXS Satow in 1996; 2nd to 4th rows: Tokyo Metropolitan theatre designed by Yoshinobu Ashihara in 1990; 5th row: The University Art Museum in Ueno opened in 1999



Tokyo street life



People-watching is my favourite pastime when I travel. I enjoy immersing myself in the surroundings and observing the quirks and odd sights. Sometimes being an outsider enables you to notice interesting sightings that are often neglected by the locals. What is ‘norm’ to the locals may be fascinating to the outsiders, our perceptions of our surroundings tend to change as we become more familiar with them, making us less aware and less curious over time.

I believe that traveling grants us opportunities to refresh our senses, embrace the unknown, generate new insights; and hopefully, see our familiar world with fresh eyes when we return.


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The enduring allure of traditional kimonos


Tokyo is spellbinding because it is full of contradictions and it is unlike any other cities in the world. It is technologically advanced in many ways, and yet very traditional at the same time. And these contradictions are palpable in the streets… from fashion to architecture, it is the contrasts that the city so intriguing.

In this day and age, there are not many modern women who would choose to wear traditional costumes as their preferred dress code. In most East Asian countries, the younger generation is more interested in Western trends and fashion; yet it is in Japan that I still come across women of different ages wearing kimonos on the streets.

I think the traditional kimono is beautiful, and it has an enduring allure that stands the test of time. When I see a Japanese woman in kimono in the street, I become transfixed by its exquisiteness and versatility. It can be youthful, glamourous, elegant, sophisticated or subtle; and it conveys the unique qualities and characteristics of each individual. The Chinese cheongsam has a similar effect (think Maggie Cheung in “In the mood for love”), yet we seldom see it being worn nowadays except in tacky Chinese restaurants!


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Whilst many visitors like to visit popular shopping areas like Shibuya, Ginza and Shinjuku. I prefer to spend time wandering (and getting lost) around the laidback and maze-like Yanaka and other less touristy districts. I am a flâneur at heart, and if I have unlimited time in Tokyo, I would idle my time away in the streets everyday.


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Top: The bustling Shinjuku district; 2nd to 4th & 6th rows: Nihonbashi


In recent years, an area that has been going through some regeneration is Nihonbashi, one of the oldest districts in Tokyo. The area has the most stunning art deco style department stores in Tokyo, traditional crafts shops and architecture. Now with the new Coredo shopping complex, the vibe of the area has changed significantly, and the ubiquitous cranes also indicate that more changes are on their way.


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Man-made ‘nature’ on the streets


The Japanese generally prefer their cities looking pristine and tidy, so the global street art/graffiti phenomenon has not affected Tokyo as much as other major international cities. However, in some trendy areas like Harajuku, Shibuya and Meguro, you may be lucky to come across something interesting if you look hard enough. If you are interested in the city’s graffiti scene, then check out Tokyo Graffiti index to locate the works.


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Bottom two rows: Graffiti in Shibuya


In Japan, sometimes unexpected art may occur when we look down on the pavements! The Japanese have managed to turn the unappealing manhole covers into works of art in the last few decades. In different prefectures, you would find specifically designed manhole covers, and many of them are inspired by flowers or local spots of natural beauty. The concept is a wonderful way to make the streets more attractive and a surprisingly effective marketing tool!


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Pavement art… Manhole covers, station platform art and ceramic tiles depicting old Tokyo in Nihonbashi


Spring blossom in Tokyo

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The last days of cherry blossom in Tokyo’s Shiba park


Due to all the traveling, I have been slacking on the blog writing lately. The next few entries will be on my trip to Japan last month…

This year, sakura/cherry blossom arrived in Tokyo at the end of March, as predicted by the forecast. Unfortunately, it was cut short by strong wind, rain and a sudden drop in temperature, hence I missed the full bloom and only caught the end of the party.

Yet it didn’t upset me too much as I didn’t have much expectation beforehand. I avoided the peak season knowing the city would have been packed with tourists as well as locals, so I was fairly grateful to have caught a fleeting glimpse of the iconic natural phenomena.


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In fact I was more bothered about the erratic weather; even though I am used the British weather, I didn’t expect to experience three seasons within 10 days!

A cold front hit Tokyo upon my arrival, followed by heavy downpour for days, and so it was a huge anticlimax as my activities were restricted by the rain. Finally the sun reappeared again a few days before my departure, and I was able to enjoy some outdoor activities at last.


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Being able to stroll outdoor and enjoy nature was joyous for me. And even without endless cherry trees in sight, a delightful array of lush flowers could be seen everywhere in the city. Aside from efforts by the city official to enhance the streetscape, local residents are also keen to show off their green fingers.


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The Japanese love nature and flower viewing, and cherry blossom is only the beginning of the flower viewing season in Japan. There are numerous flower festivals throughout the country at different times of the year, and currently there is the Fuji Shibazakura Festival, where 800,000 stunning pink moss phlox can be seen near Lake Motosu and Mount Fuji.

If endless consumption is not your cup of tea, then head for some flower viewing in Japan next time… you will be amazed by what this country has to offer for everyone!


Hong Kong’s street art & exhibitions 2015

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A giant pig in Mui Wo by Smile maker Hong Kong


It is interesting to see Hong Kong’s street art scene evolving over the last few years (you can read my previous entry from last year here). Compare to city like London, it is still in its infancy, but it is certainly more ‘happening’ than other immaculate-looking neighbours in Asia.

Street art is becoming more mainstream here, and it is partly due to HK walls, an annual street art and graffiti festival. The mission of the organisation is to create opportunities for local and international artists to bring their talents to the streets of Hong Kong by transforming large exterior walls into original works of art. The event took place in March, but you can still find a lot of the art work around SoHo, Sheung Wan and the Western district of Hong Kong island.


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Top left: Parent’s Parents (HK); Top right: Rukkit (Thailand); 2nd row: Bruce Lee by Xeva (South Korea); 3rd right: Hopare (France); Bottom right: Rookie (Taiwan) & Gas (China)


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2nd row: ‘Reclining Lady’ by Victoriano (Spain); Bottom right: Szabotage (Hong Kong/UK)


I stumbled upon an alley off Tai Ping Shan Street in Sheung Wan one day, and I was quite pleasantly surprised to see an array of works by local and international street artists like Barlo (Italy/HK), Egg Fiasco (Philippines), exld (Philippines) and Jay Flow (South Korea) etc covering both sides of the walls.


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Top right: Barlo; 2nd row: exld, 3rd left: Egg Fiasco; 4th row: Jay Flow (South Korea)


Aside from the streets, art galleries are now seeing the value of works by street artists (thanks largely to Banksy). A solo exhibition of the notorious American street artist Alec Monopoly was presented ‘Capital Games’ at Above Second gallery in March/April. Monopoly is best known for his tuxedoed and top-hatted graffiti character of Uncle Pennybags, an idea originally inspired by the stockbroker Bernie Madoff. It is both apt and ironic to see his works (a critique of the capitalist greed) on the streets of a financial centre like Hong Kong. And aside from Uncle Pennybags, childhood mascots like Richie Rich and Scrooge McDuck were also featured at the exhibition. I was informed by the gallery assistant that his works sold exceedingly well, and many of the buyers were locals who seem to appreciate his playful and yet critical style.


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Top row: Alec Monopoly’s street art; 2nd row: Alec Monopoly’s solo exhibition at Above Second gallery; Bottom: The ‘original’ Hong Kong street artist King of Kowloon’s calligraphy work at Lightstage


At the Lightstage Art & Events Space in March/April, the Google Cultural Institute dedicated an exhibition to Hong Kong’s cultural icon King of Kowloon (Tsang Tsou-choi), who painted over 55,000 street ‘calligraffiti’ works during his lifetime on the streets of Kowloon. Misunderstood and dismissed by the public and local authority during his lifetime, Tsang‘s work is finally being recognised worldwide and it is fantastic to see Google’s online virtual museum paying tribute to this ‘urban poet’.


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Top & second rows: Invader’s ‘Wipe out’ exhibition at PMQ; Bottom two rows: New works by Invader


One of the most talked-about exhibitions in May was famous French street artist Invader‘s “Wipe out” exhibition at PMQ. Invited as a guest of the French consulate and as part of Le French May, the exhibition was a response to the Hong Kong authorities’ efficient removal of his pixelated mosaic works in 2014. Somehow dismayed by this undertaking, the street artist not only gave  the exhibition a pertinent title, he (a guess after watching the work-in-progress videos at the exhibition) ‘invaded’ the city again.

What is so compelling about the street art phenomenon is the dialogues between every city’s authorities and the artists. What are the boundaries? Are the works vandalism or acts of defiance towards the authorities? Artists in the past have often challenged the authorities and expressed their opinions through art, the only difference now is that they are doing it outdoor instead. This is why I think the global street art scene is much more exciting than traditional art scene at the moment.


Hong Kong on Istagram

I have been using Instagram on and off for a while now, but on this trip to Asia, I decided to use Instagram as the main social media outlet. It has been fun, but also slightly addictive.

I think Hong Kong is a beguiling city to be photographed; and during my stay, I used Instagram as a tool to capture this chaotic and vibrant city. It is remarkable what a smartphone and some filters can do these days, and although these are not ‘professional’ standard, they do document the dynamics and the occasional tranquility in this city.



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Nature & countryside


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Cityscape & architecture


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Street life & people


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Art & exhibitions


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PMQ – Hong Kong’s creative hub


PMQ’s Staunton Street entrance


Back in 2010, I visited the disused Grade 3 listed former Hollywood Road Police Married Quarters, which was temporarily transformed into an arts and design hub by deTour (part of The Business of design week). Built in 1951 as housing or dormitory for Chinese rank and file police officers, the site was listed as one of eight projects under ‘Conserving Central’ in 2009. Local architectural firm Thomas Chow Architects (TCA) was responsible for the transformation and conservation of the site.


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The former Hollywood Road Police Married Quarters back in 2010


Finally in 2014, with support from the Government and Musketeers Education and Culture Charitable Foundation Ltd., a new design and creative hub PMQ was born. The organisation runs as a self-financing, non-profit-making social enterprise, with a aim to support local artists, designers and entrepreneurs.




Honestly, I think this hub is long overdue. The Government has neglected the local arts and creative industry for decades, and it is only in recent years that new creative hubs have started to emerge. One of the forerunners is the JCCAC (opened in 2008) in Shek Kip Mei (read my previous entry on it here) and InnoCentre (opened in 2006) in Kowloon Tong. Yet both venues are not centrally located, so the main advantage of PMQ is its prime location.




The site is comprised of two main buildings and a large front courtyard, occupying 6000 square metre of land in the SoHo area not far from the mid-Levels escalator.

Wandering around the vast site, it is not hard to see the collective effort that has been put into it. From rooftop garden to signage to each shop’s interior and visual merchandising, it is a far cry from the glossy and soulless shopping malls that dominate all parts of the city today.


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Aside from local independent shops and design studios, there are also alternative art galleries, cafes, restaurants and a 600 square metre multifunctional hall available for hire. There are also pop up shops, exhibitions, workshops and marketplace that take place regularly.

Another interesting aspect of the site is the underground archaeological remains of the Central school, which was the original building that occupied the site back in 1862. Visitors can book onto the free daily heritage guided tour or visit the site unguided to learn more about the history of the site.


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I initially visited the site on a weekday, and it was fairly quiet, with some tourists, high school students and young locals. And when I spoke to my local friends/ entrepreneurs, I found out from them that the site has somewhat failed to attract regular footfall esp. on weekdays. One of them was in negotiation with the organisation for a shop rental, but despite the reasonable rental cost and thorough application procedure, the deal fell through and she is still seeking for a new shop space.

However, on a more positive note, the venue was jam-packed on my last visit (during the long weekend) because of the opening of Le French May festival. At the front foyer, there were food stalls, live music and performances; and inside the Qube, it is currently hosting French street artist Invader’s new exhibition “Wipe Out” (until 17th May).


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Top row: The Qube is often used as an exhibition space, including handmade carpet made by designer Alexandra Kehayoglou for Dries Van Noten SS2015 fashion show (right) and French street artist Invader’s “Wipe out” exhibition (left)


I sincerely hope that this venue would continue to evolve and be a success story in Hong Kong. This city desperately needs an alternative shopping space and cultural hub, and I think PMQ does fill the gap in the market. If it proves to be successful, then hopefully, the model will inspire others to follow suit.


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Top left: old mail boxes from the former Police married quarters; Top right: an underground latrine from 1918; the rest: Archaeological remains of Central school