Design & stationery shopping in Western Tokyo

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d47 design travel store and Tomio Koyama Gallery at Hikarie



d47 design travel store (Hikarie 8F 2-21-1 Shibuya) – Muji is now an international brand that many non-Japanese are familiar with, but in Japan, d & department Project is the fastest-growing household and lifestyle brand in recent years. Established in 2000 by the famous graphic designer Kenmei Nagaoka, it started as an self-initiated project on connecting cities in Japan under the name of ‘design’. The shop name stands for ‘dream design department store’, and their shops sell a wide range of new and recycled furniture and everyday objects that are timeless and functional.

At this store, it offers a collection of traditional Japanese wares, tools, handicrafts, regional specialties and gourmet ingredients sourced from the 47 prefectures of Japan. If you are looking for souvenir with a difference to bring home, then this store is the place to visit.


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Top two rows: Postalco; Bottom: Flying books


Postalco (1-6-3 3FL Dogenzaka Shibuya) Founded in New York in 2000 by Mike and Yuri Ableson, the company has since moved to Tokyo, where it creates highly practical and understated stationary and leather goods. Located on the 2nd floor of an inconspicuous building, the quaint shop in Shibuya is not easy to find. Once inside, it is hard not to be drawn towards the appealing leather products and stationery, prices are not cheap but quality and timelessness of the products are the main draws here.

Flying Books (1-6-3 2FL Dogenzaka Shibuya) – Under Postalco within the same building is a cafe and bookshop that stocks an international selection of new and used books and magazines on music, art, design, philosophy and world religions etc.



Shibuya Publishing booksellers


Since I was staying near Shibuya, I was keen to explore the area, particularly on after hours shopping. As a supporter of independent booksellers, I was thrilled when I discovered Shibuya Publishing & Booksellers (17-3 Kamiyamacho, Shibuya), an independent bookshop and publisher that opens from noon until midnight. The shop was designed by architect Hiroshi Nakamura, and there is a illusory mirror-like window that allows customers to see the office behind. This unconventional bookshop is not interested in selling bestsellers, instead it carefully curates a selection of new and used books and magazines on topics like food, culture, art, design, photography and lifestyle. Besides books, the shop also sells an interesting selection of stationery, jewellery and lifestyle products. Being able to linger and browse in a bookshop at 11pm was a luxury that I seldom experience outside of Asia, so I truly cherished my time spent here.


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Daikanyama T-site 


My after hours shopping continued the following evening at Daikanyama T-site (17-5 Sarugakucho, Shibuya-ku), Tokyo’s most talked-about lifestyle bookstore in recent years. Design by Klein Dytham Architecture, whose design won the World Architecture Festival, it is considered to be a dream bookstore for many. Tsutaya‘s complex comprises of three interlinked two-story buildings with a convenient store, a cafe, a lounge inside and several restaurants outside. I was particularly dazzled by its vast magazine selection, I am not sure if I had ever seen so many magazines at one place before! It is easy to spend hours here, and luckily, the store is open from 7am until 2am, so do enjoy the midnight shopping experience here!



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Top, 2nd & 3rd left: Pass the Baton; 3rd right: MOMA design store; Bottom: Comme des Garcons’ Play Box at Gyre


I have previously written about shops in Omotesando, so I will not repeat the list again. I will only add two shops to the list, and one of them is Pass the baton (Omotesando Hills West Bldg 2F, 4-12-10 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku), a contemporary recycle/consignment store that sells not only fashion but also antiques, furniture and crafts. Designed by well-known interior designer Kasamichi Katayama of Wonderwall, the basement shop feels more like a vintage museum, and it even has a small gallery at the back. Don’t expect bargain charity shop prices here, but the quality and selections are a cut above the rest. Many items include a photograph of the previous owner and a personal anecdote from them about each item. Emotive storytelling is an effective communication tool, and the success of this shop proves exactly that.





Quico (5-16-15 Jingumae, Shibuya) – inside a white building designed by architect Kazunari Sakamoto is a split-level store filled with a well-curated collection of homewares, textiles, fashion, shoes and furniture from around the world. The store also has an exhibition space upstairs.


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It excites me to see the products we carry in stores… Top left: Rocca games; Top right: Marusa balloons; 2nd & 3rd rows: stationery and books that I bought on this trip


Design & stationery shopping in Eastern/Central Tokyo

My final two Tokyo entries are on shopping, so I hope this will delight a few readers. I have written another entry under the same title 2 years ago, so this is an update/addition to the previous blog entry (click here to read). This entry will focus on Eastern and Central Tokyo:



On this trip, I visited a few new design shopping destinations, and my first stop was the up-and-coming Kuramae neighbourhood, which was featured in Monocle magazine last year.

Unlike the touristy Asakusa nearby, Kuramae is laid-back and relatively quiet. Kuramae means front of the warehouse, and the area was full of rice granaries for the Tokguawa Government during the Edo period. These days, specialist shops, artisan workshops and cafes are scattered around the area, so expect to spend some time wandering and discovering interesting finds.


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Kakimori in Kuramae


Kakimori (4-20-12 Kuramae) – As a mega fan of stationery, Kakimori was partly why I wanted to visit this area. This small shop offers a vast array of stationery with a focus on pens, fountain pens and made-to-order (on-site) notebooks. On the day of my visit (which was a weekday), the shop was full of stationery enthusiasts. It is always comforting to see these independent specialist shops thriving in this day and age. Stationery is like comfort food, one can never have too many pens nor notebooks, right? There is a short video on this shop made for Monocle and you can watch by clicking here.


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Top two rows: Maito; 3rd row: a leather workshop & showroom; Bottom left: Yuwaeru Shouka; Bottom right: M+ (Mpiu)


A few shops down the street is Maito (4-14-12 Kuramae), a family-run hand-dye specialist that uses only natural materials and dyes. Aside from fashion, accessories, the shop also sells artisan ceramics and similar lifestyle items.

M+ / M Piu ( 3-4-5 Kuramae) – There are many hand-crafted leather workshops/showroom in this area, but this one stands out for its original design, high quality Italian leather and exquisite craftsmanship. The craftsman/owner Yuichiro Murakami used to work as an architect before learning leather craft in Italy, so function and form play important roles in his creations.

Yuwaeru Shouka (2-14-14 Kuramae) – This is an organic food store with an attached restaurant, where you can enjoy a healthy and very reasonable priced set lunch (with a few options) in a relaxing and unpretentious setting.


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Quaint toy shops in the area


Aside from the specialist shops, I was particularly intrigued by the quaint toy shops in the area. I have not seen these types of toy shops in other areas of Tokyo. It was only later that I found out about this area’s nick name: ‘toy town’, where you can still find many wholesale toy shops and offices of larger toy companies.




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mAAch ecute Kanda Manseibashi Bridge


Akihabara is an area often associated with electrical goods, otaku subcullture (anime and manga) and maid cafes. Yet this area has been going through some transformations in recent years, and one major development project was the conversion of Kanda’s disused Manseibashi station (since 1943) into Maach Ecute Kanda Manseibashi (1-25-4 Kanda-Sudacho), a commercial complex with restaurants, cafés, and design-focus retailers.


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 N3331 Café


Aside from cool design outlets, one of the main attractions at mAAch ecute is N3331 Café, located between the rail tracks above the arcade. This cafe is ideal for trainspotters, and there were trains passing by constantly while I was there. Admittedly, my lunch set was not at all up to scratch, but I guess people come here for the experience rather than for the food. I think it would even cooler to come for a drink in the evening and watch the world/trains go by!


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3331 Arts Chiyoda


3331 Arts Chiyoda (6-11-14 Sotokanda) – Opened in 2010, 3331 Arts Chiyoda is an art and creative space that occupies the site of the old Rensei Junior High School. It offers a residency program open to artists, curators and creative practitioners internationally. On the ground floor, there is a cafe, a design/craft shop, and an art gallery space with regular special exhibitions curated by the organisation. On other floors, there are various galleries and exhibition space featuring resident artists from all the over the world. On the day of my visit, only a few rooms were opened… not sure if it was the ‘wrong’ day to visit, but it was surprisingly quiet and I ended my tour sooner than expected.


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2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan


A few blocks north of 3331 Arts Chiyoda is an artisan institution: 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan (5-9-23 Ueno). This shopping arcade situated under the JR tracks offers an eclectic range of stores selling Japanese-made crafts and designs. There are several notable shops here if you are looking for quality souvenir to bring home: Nippon Hyakkuten (a Japanese design/craft department store), Hacoa (selling contemporary wooden stationery and lifestyle products), Hinomoto Hanpu (selling handmade and water-resistant canvas bags) and Nijiyura (selling hand-dye textiles, tenugui and scarves etc).


Tokyo Station


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Kitte – a shopping complex converted from the post office building in Marunouchi


Although I am not a fan of traditional shopping malls, I was curious to visit Kitte (2-7-2 Marunouchi), the newly constructed Japan Post Tower which incorporates parts of the 1933 Tokyo Central Post Office building opposite the restored Tokyo station. Opened in 2013, this 7-floor shopping complex houses 100 tenants, offering an array of restaurants and shops that focus on Japanese aesthetics and manufacturing.

After spending an hour here, I felt that most of the shops here are akin and lack distinctive character. The initial feel-good factor worn off and I was eager to leave. The issue is not with the products, but like most other shopping malls or complexes, the place feels rather soulless. Aside from the facade, there is no trace of the old post office remain inside except for some old photographs being exhibited in a retro dark wood room that overlooks Tokyo Station. Disappointing.




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Coredo Muromachi in Nihobashi – 3rd row: Kayanoya’s store designed Kengo Kuma


Nihobashi is one of Tokyo’s most historical and prosperous districts. The area has been undergoing redevelopment in recent years, and the latest addition to this area is the Coredo Muromachi complex, consists of three skyscrapers inspired by the Edo Period heritage of the merchant district. The shops here specialise in traditional crafts or local foods from across Japan; I applaud Mitsui group’s endeavour in creating an appealing Edo-style shopping complex targeting at 40+, but I found the layout confusing and it was difficult to navigate from one building to another.

Unlike most other shopping complexes, there is a strong emphasis on fusing traditional Japanese heritage with contemporary design. This is conspicuous in the buildings’ interior furnishings like the floor and wall tiles, which are inspired by traditional Japanese motifs and kimono design.

The shop that is not to be missed is the Fukuoka-based soy sauce company Kayanoyas new flagship store designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. The interior of the shop was inspired by Kuma‘s visit to the company’s production warehouse in Kyushu. Traditional soy sauce-making barrels hang from the shop’s ceiling and special wooden trays/koji buta used in the manufacturing process act as display shelves. Like other food shops in Japan, customers are encouraged to taste and sample their sauces, condiments and other natural produce at the counter.


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First to third rows: Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi department store; Last row: Nihonbashi Takashimaya department store


Nihonbashi is the home to Japan’s oldest surviving department store chain, Mitsukoshi, which dating back to 1673. The Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi Main store was opened in 1935, and it is considered to be the “Harrods of Japan”. Wandering around this art deco store can be an exhilarating experience, especially when you encounter the 4-storey tall wood-carved statue of goddess ‘Magokoro’ in the central hall. This statue was the creation of master craftsman Gengen Sato who spent more than 10 years in completing it. This store is undoubtedly one of the most stunning department stores that I have ever visited, and it reminds us of the heyday of department stores.

If you appreciate art deco design, then it is necessary to visit the nearby Takashimaya Department Store opened since 1933. This was the first department store to be designated as an important Japanese cultural property in 2009. I especially love the art deco interiors, furnishings and lifts/elevators (always accompanied by smiley attendants). The food section in the basement is also very popular amongst the locals.


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Top right: Haibara; Others: Saruya toothpick store


There are two notable traditional specialist shops in Nihonbashi, and one of them is Haibara (2-7-1-chome Nihombashi), a washi paper specialist store founded since 1806. If you love washi paper, then this shop will not disappoint, because you can find a variety of traditional washi writing paper, tapes, envelopes, wrapping paper and other paper objects here.

I have been wanting to visit Saruya (1-12-5 Nihonbashi Muromachi) for some time, because it has been producing toothpicks by hand since 1704. Since our company name is related to this product, I felt obliged to pay this store a visit. Most of the toothpicks here are made by hand from lindera umbellata, and some would come in miniature wooden cases with traditional motifs/characters/ names. In some cases, each toothpick is wrapped in a piece of paper with a ‘love fortune’ poem written on it.

I don’t know if Westerners would consider giving toothpicks as presents, but I think they are unusual and functional. Hence, I decided to buy a box to give to my parents back home!


To be continued…

Tokyo graphics

Graphic design is a visual communication tool, and it is more complex than most people realise. As a graphic design student at uni, I was profoundly influenced by Japanese graphic design. Now that my main focus is on product designs, I still can’t help noticing and forming judgements on graphics seen in the streets, museums and shops etc.

The Japanese have always excelled in graphic design, and one doesn’t need to go to design exhibitions to appreciate their ability to convey messages through visual means. Walking in the streets of Tokyo, one can hardly miss the impressive and highly impactful designs everywhere. Here are some that I captured while I was in Tokyo:


Poster graphics


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“Rene Magritte” exhibition posters at The National center of Art


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Exhibition graphics at 21_21 design sight’s “Measuring: This much, That much, How much?” 


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Metro graphics


Signage, logo, museum and cafe graphics


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Food, tea and souvenir packaging


Tokyo’s coffee culture

Trend is an intriguing topic. Why is it that some trends remain local (within a town/city/country) while others spread and become global? There are of course numerous factors behind the spread of a particular trend, but the one that excites me most in recent years is the booming coffee or cafe culture, or the so-called “Third wave coffee” movement.

Forget about Starbucks and the traditional European style cafes, this trend is more about independent artisanal coffee shops, where many would also roast the coffee beans on site. Usually a few single origin and blended options are available, and then they are drip brewed by hand or by Aeropress.


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Japanese magazine on Tokyo’s cafe culture


Unlike its neighbour South Korea (where coffee is ubiquitous), Japan has predominantly been a tea-drinking country. Although Tokyo has never been short of specialist coffee shops, this trend did not take off until recent years.

Interestingly, I was informed by my Japanese friend that since 7-Eleven started installing freshly grounded automatic coffee dispensers at its convenience stores across Japan, it has sold almost half a billion cups of coffee. And according to the All Japan Coffee Association, coffee has now replaced green tea as the biggest-selling hot drink in Japan.

One of the ‘hippest’ coffee shops of the moment is Blue Bottle Coffee from California. Their new 7,000-square-foot roastery in Kiyosumi took the city by storm when it opened in February. People queued for up to four hours outside of the new shop to taste a cup of coffee!

Due to time constraint, I didn’t travel specifically to these hip artisanal coffee shops, but I did manage to discover some delightful ones either by chance or through local guides/ magazines.


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About Life coffee brewers, Shibuya


About Life coffee brewers (1-19-8 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku) – I love this small corner coffee shop in Shibuya, which is easy to miss in this busy area. There are bikes hanging on the wall outside next a narrow bench. It is not a place to linger, but if all you want is an excellent cup of carefully brewed coffee, then this is the place to stop by as there is nothing nearby that matches the quality of this shop.


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Gorilla coffee in Shibuya


Gorilla coffee (1-20-17, Jinnan, Shibuya-ku) – Another new US import is Brooklyn’s Gorilla Coffee opened in Shibuya at the beginning of the year. I went there on a rainy morning, and although I found the americano a little weak for my liking, I liked the shop’s interior and spaciousness. Aside from coffee and bakery, the shop also sells its own branded goods, coffee and all essential coffee brewing equipments.


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Top, 2nd right and bottom rows: Riverside cafe Cielo y Rio; 2nd row left: Gallery Ef


Located inside the Mirror Arts building next to the river in Kuramae, Riverside cafe Cielo y Rio (2 Chome 15-5 Kuramae)occupies two floors (1F & 3F) and offers a wonderful view of the Sumida River and Tokyo Skytree tower. The cafe/restaurant offers Western style dishes and drinks in a casual setting, with fairly reasonable prices. Nearby in Asakusa (away from the touristy bit), there is an interesting cafe/art gallery space called Gallery Ef (2-19-18 Kaminarimon, Taito-ku) converted from an Edo period (1868) warehouse. There are regular art exhibitions that take place on the 1st floor, while the ground floor operates as a cafe during the day and a sake bar in the evenings.


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Turret coffee


Although I have visited Tsukiji market many times before for my sushi craving, I have never had coffee in this area. Located a few blocks away from Tsukiji market is Turret coffee (2-12-6 Tsukiji), a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop with few seating. There is nothing more satisfying than a good cup of coffee after a delicious meal, and Turret coffee offers this in a cosy and friendly setting.


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Kabaya Coffee in Yanaka


Yanaka is one of my favourite areas in Tokyo because it makes you forget that you are in one of the most densely populated metropolis in the world. Right opposite the restored Old Yoshidaya sake store is Kabaya Coffee (6-1-29 Yanaka, Taito-ku) opened since 1938. The cafe looks like a kissaten (traditional coffee shop) from the outside, so it is quite surprising to see the retro & modernist interior when you step inside. This is friendly and relaxing cafe where you can enjoy coffee and cakes before setting off and getting lost in this maze-like area.


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Top left and middle: Yanaka coffee; bottom row: Cafe Skipa


Yanaka coffee is a home-grown coffee brand. It has been supplying and roasting coffee for the citizens of Tokyo since 2001, and has opened stores over twenty-four different locations across the city. Although it is a chain coffee shop, it differs from other soulless chains, and the best thing is that you can order raw beans on site and have them roasted by the baristas in just 15 minutes.

My friend and I visited Cafe Skipa (6-16, Shinjuku) in Kagurazaka on our previous trip, and I would like to recommend it because it is cute and cosy. From the outside, it looks rather like a wooden shed, but the eclectic interior and laid back ambience make it a good place to hang out or linger on a lazy afternoon.


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Ginza – Top left: Cafe Rin; Top middle, right, 2nd & 3rd rows: Café de l’Ambre; Bottom: Ginza Tsubakiya


Ginza is the home of traditional kissaten in Tokyo. Since my friend and I have stayed in the area a few times in the previous years, we have also tried out many cafes around here. Coffee prices in Ginza are higher than most other areas in Tokyo; while we have tried fancy cafes like Shiseido Parlour, Ladurée, The Royal Café and Qu’il Fait Bon (famous for its freshly baked fruit tarts) etc, personally I prefer the smaller and more traditional coffee shops.

The oldest and most famous in the area is Café De L’Ambre (8-10-15 Ginza) tucked away in a back alley, where it feels like it is stuck in a time warp. Opened in 1948 by Ichiro Sekiguchi, and amazingly, the 101-year old owner is still running the shop today.

The wooden-furnished and dimly lit cafe does not sell comfort nor spaciousness, and it is full of chain smokers. However, this place is quaint, authentic, and best of all, it is known for serving the best coffee in town. And honestly, I think the coffee I tasted here was by far the best on this trip. Prices are not cheap here, but it is worth every penny.

Ginza Tsubakiya (6-6-14 Ginza) is a local chain kissaten that occupies two floors of a building in a traditional European-style dark wood setting. The coffee prices here are steep, but if you want to find a comfortable and ‘retro’ coffee shop to hang out in the area, then this is an option.

Coffee Rin (1F, 4-11-3 Ginza) is a more contemporary artisanal coffee shop where baristas would take their time to prepare and hand drip the coffee slowly (in one direction) in front of you at the counter seats. The shop’s speciality is its charcoal roasted coffee and it is roasted on site to ensure its freshness.


Yokosuka Museum of art

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Yokosuka museum of art


Due to unforeseen circumstances, my original itinerary in Japan was altered at the last minute, and I had to go alone without my travel companion and cancelled all the pre-booked accommodations.

Fortunately, I managed to rebook my entire trip one day before my departure; and a few days later, I found myself spending the weekend in the suburbs of Yokosuka, a military port about an hour from Tokyo.

I had found a pleasant and tranquil accommodation via Airbnb, but it was situated in the middle of nowhere with an infrequent bus service and no shops nor restaurants nearby. I did not want to go to the city centre, instead I decided to visit Yokosuka Museum of Art, a sea-front contemporary art museum located within the Kannonzaki Park.

After 45 minutes of walking (to the nearest train station), 2 train journeys and a bus ride later, I finally found myself standing outside of the museum (don’t ever judge the distance from a map, because it can be very misleading)!


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The breathtaking architecture and setting are the highlights of this museum. Since it is located an hour outside of Tokyo and not easily reached by public transport, therefore, it is not frequently visited by foreign tourists.

The museum was designed by Japanese architect Riken Yamamoto in 2007, and it is one of most stunning contemporary art museums that I have come across. Unfortunately, photography is not permitted inside, it is a shame because the exhibition area (located in the basement) is as enthralling as the exterior.

All the natural light reaches the exhibition area from the side and skyline circular windows, which create a playful effect and at the same time brighten up the area. There is also a set of spiral staircase that brings visitors to the rooftop, where they can enjoy a panoramic view of Tokyo Bay. The indoor observation deck is called the “Lover’s Sanctuary project”.


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And outside of the deck, visitors can wander around the rooftop and hike up to the hill behind the museum.


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After visiting the museum, I decided to take a stroll along the seafront towards the Kannonzaki lighthouse. There were almost no tourists, and the area was quiet and peaceful.

Opposite the museum is Spasso, a Japanese spa or onsen with indoor and outdoor hot spring facing the sea. After about two hours at the onsen, I felt relaxed, revitalised and ready to head back.


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I enjoyed spending the weekend in the rural area, even though there was no sights nor ‘entertainment’ nearby, it allowed me to slow down and get away from all the hustle and bustle in Tokyo. If I have the time, I would certainly try to explore more rural parts of Japan on my next trip, because it provides an authentic insight into understanding how the local Japanese live and work.


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Tokyo’s surviving & endangered Modernist architecture

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 Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan


Japan is a country that deeply respects its traditions and heritage. Architectural conservations efforts by the authority could be seen at the Edo Tokyo open air architectural museum (read my previous entry). Yet is it too little, too late? In fact, due to rapid growth and urbanisation of Tokyo in the last few decades, the city has lost numerous architectural masterpieces, historical cultural buildings (like Ginza’s Kabuki theatre), shrines and gardens. Now many of the remaining iconic Modernist buildings are under threat again because of the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics. I am flabbergasted by how little effort had been spent on preventing property developers and other parties from tearing down these buildings. One would ‘expect’ this to happen in China, but the truth is that Japan had been the forerunner of this culture and trend since its economic boom in the 1970s.

The renowned American Modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed 14 buildings in Japan from 1912 to 1922, yet only a few have been preserved. His iconic Imperial hotel in Tokyo survived the Great Kanto Earthquake and bombing in the Second World War, but it could not escape demolition by property developers in 1968 (somethings never seem to change). Miraculously, a portion of the hotel (including the grand entrance/lobby and the reflecting pool) had been saved and relocated to the Meiji Mura Museum, an open-air architectural park in Inuyama near Nagoya.

Today the only surviving building by Frank Lloyd Wright in Tokyo is Jiyu Gakuen Myonichikan ( The house of Tomorrow) built in 1921. Surprisingly, this architectural gem is still an under-the-radar tourist destination, which suited me fine as it gave me the opportunity to explore it freely.


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Located in Ikebukuro, this former girl school is ‘well-hidden’ from the bustling part of the area. Listed as an Important Cultural Property in 1997 for its historic and artistic values, restoration work of the buildings was conducted from 1999 through 2001, and was officially opened to the public in 2001.

Built of economical 2 x 4 wood and plaster, the Myonichikan consists of four buildings: the main, the east, the west buildings and an auditorium designed by Arata Endo located across the street south of the site. The main building is considered to be a ‘Prairie house’ design, commonly seen in the late and early 20th century. The colour scheme is simple: creamy yellow walls paired with dark green door and window frames/decorative lines; while dark brown furniture and flooring is used throughout the building.


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Strongly influenced by traditional Japanese architecture and fascinated by Japanese woodblock prints, Wright‘s design embodies the simple and subdued quality that can often be found in traditional Japanese architecture. I love his use of natural light, geometrical patterns and lines. Wright also paid a lot of attention on the details such as the furniture and lighting; his hanging lights are the prominent feature in the dining room, and the Japanese-inspired wooden stenciled screen reveals his fondness for craftsmanship.


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The most spectacular room though is the lounge area, where visitors can enjoy a cup of tea or coffee and a biscuit (for an extra 200 yen at the entrance) while admiring the stunning window design, Biblical wall mural and cute wooden chairs and tables specifically made for children.

Last but not least, there is also a shop that sells lifestyle goods made by local designers and communities, as well as books and souvenir related to Frank Lloyd Wright, including a paper model of the building.


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The National museum of Western art in Ueno park


A more well-visited Tokyo Modernist architecture is The National museum of Western art located inside Ueno park. Designed by the renowned Swiss/French architect Le Corbusier (or Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris), the building was completed in 1959 as a symbol of the resumption of diplomatic ties between Japan and France after World War II. As the only building designed by Le Corbusier in the Far East, this building was designated as an Important Cultural Property / Buildings in 2007.

The museum was born to house the remarkable Impressionist art collection amassed by Japanese industrialist Kojiro Matsukata in Paris from 1916 to 1923. This vast collection was briefly confiscated by the French Government at the end of the Second World War, and a majority of it was eventually returned to Japan (while some valuable ones were retained in France) on the condition that the works should be housed in a museum designed by a French architect.


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Designed in the later period of his life, this exterior of this building differs in style from his famous earlier works like Villa Savoye and Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut ( except for the columns). As a supporter of utopian ideals and Brutalist architecture (which flourished from 1950s to 70s), this building is a fine example of this architectural style.

From the exterior, this austere and inconspicuous grey concrete structure appears to be almost windowless, with only one window on each side of the rectangular building. Yet once inside, one can see that the natural lighting reaches the exhibition rooms from the ceiling/roof or through the floor to ceiling windows that overlook the courtyard. The high ceiling, skyline windows (now partly artificially lit) and columns create a dramatic effect and strong impact as one steps into the exhibition room.


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It is highly significant that great works of art can be viewed in a non-intrusive environment where the public can linger and be absorbed in the artworks. This is partly why this building is a timeless masterpiece, unlike many contemporary museums designed by celebrity architects who are more concerned with showing off their signature styles than its contents and viewers’ experiences.



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 Tokyo Bunka Kaikan


Opposite the National Museum of Western Art is another Brutalist architecture: Tokyo Bunka Kaikan designed by renowned Japanese architect Kunio Maekawa (whose beautiful house can be visited at the Edo Tokyo open-air architectural museum mentioned in my previous entry).

The prodigious concrete building was built in 1961 as part of the project to celebrate 500 years since the birth of Tokyo. Renovated from 1989-99, it is one of the oldest concert halls for classical music in Japan.


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Left & middle: The brutalist facade of Tobu Department Store in Ikebukuro; Right: The Nakagin capsule Tower in Ginza


Tokyo’s endangered Modernist architecture:

There are currently a few Modernist buildings that are facing the possibility of being demolished and one of them is the iconic Nakagin capsule Tower in Ginza. Built in 1972 by Kisho Kurokawa, one of the founders of the Metabolism (who later designed the National Art Center in Roppongi), this peculiar and intriguing building is a rare example of this home-grown architectural style.

The Metabolism is an avant-garde Japanese architectural movement inspired by utopian ideals, organic biological growth, recyclability and sustainability. The residential and office-mix building consists of 140 individual capsules stacked on top of or next to each other, and they were designed to be replaced every 25 years (although this never actually happened).

Due to neglect and disrepair, 80% of the building’s remaining residents voted to have the building demolished to make way for a more modern apartment block in 2007. Since then, many have been trying to preserve this unique building. A ‘Save Nakagin Capsule Tower‘ community was formed and a Kickstarter campaign was launched to raise funds for the group to buy the capsule one by one. The fate of this building is yet to be decided, but visitors to Tokyo can stay in one of the capsules via Airbnb for around £50 per night.

I sincerely hope that this innovative and futuristic (in the 70s sense) building will be saved, and I shall try to book at least one night there when I next visit Tokyo.


The trailer of the 2010 documentary ‘Japanese Metabolist Landmark on the Edge of Destruction’ produced by Michael Blackwood


The demolition announcement by the owner of the iconic Modernist building Hotel Okura has been causing outcry recently. Opened in 1962 ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the main wing of the much-loved hotel will be demolished and be replaced by a bigger 18-storey glass tower in advance of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Since the announcement, Monocle magazine has created an online petition to ‘Save the Okura; while Tomas Maier, the creative director of Italian luxury goods company Bottega Veneta, has partnered with Japanese architecture magazine Casa Brutus to launch a social media campaign asking social media users to post photographs to Twitter under the hashtag #MyMomentAtOkura. You can also watch the designer’s plead in the video below:



The interior of Okura Hotel (downloaded from the internet)


Save Japan’s Modern Architecture – Tomas Maier in Japan BOTTEGA VENETA 


I highly doubt that these petitions will change the minds of the hotel’s management. It is a real shame that I have never visited Hotel Okura during my many visits to Tokyo, but I was fortunate enough to have stayed at the massive 40-storey Akasaka Prince hotel before it was torn down in 2013. Designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Kenzo Tange in 1982, the rooms at this Blade-runner style hotel were spacious (unlike most other cabin-sized hotel rooms in Tokyo) and the view was spectacular.



 © Tange Associates


Elsewhere, Kengo Tange‘s Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium in Takamatsu City (featured in Maier‘s video) is also facing possible demolition after it was closed to public due to safety reasons last year. The brutalist building was built in the same year as Tange‘s Yoyogi National Gymnasium before the 1964 Olympics.

An Association of Conservation of Kagawa Prefectural Gymnasium was formed to preserve the building, and it is backed by many local architects. Will this effort falls on deaf ears again? Regardless of the outcome, I think it is about time that the Japanese authority reviews their conservation effort and policies especially in regards to modern architecture.

These cases are emblematic of a larger problem in the Far East/Asian countries. The constant thirst for newer and glossier buildings and objects is a prevalent mindset throughout Asia. Aside from Japan, culturally and architecturally significant buildings are also being torn down in other parts of Asia despite public outcry. As Maier mentioned in his video, we need to act before it is too late, but perhaps it is already too late.


Edo-Tokyo open air architectural museum

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No matter how many times I have visited Tokyo, there would always be interesting sights or attractions that I have yet to visit. And on this trip, I visited the Edo-Tokyo open air architectural museum in the western suburbs of Tokyo for the first time. Situated close to the Ghibli Museum (a MUST for all Studio Ghibli fans), the museum has served as the inspiration for many of the Studio Ghibli’s animations.

Since the Edo period (1603 to 1868), Tokyo has lost many valuable historical buildings due to natural and man-made disasters like fires, floods, earthquakes and warfare. And like many other major cities around the world, numerous culturally significant buildings were also destroyed because of urban regeneration or redevelopment.

In 1993, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government relocated and reconstructed 30 historical buildings within the seven-acre park as a way of preserving their cultural heritage.


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Walking around the site, you almost feel like you are on a film set. There are several private residences (with gardens), a tea room and a mausoleum in the central and west zones; and a mini town full of quaint shops in the east zone. There are also guides/volunteers on site explaining the history of the buildings (in Japanese), and I was lucky to have had my Japanese friend there translating for me.


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In the east zone, you would come across a Meiji period (1868-1912) ‘high street’ full of specialist shops selling soy sauce, cosmetics, stationery (my favourite), grocery, umbrellas and kitchenware etc. At the end of the street, there is a large temple-like public bathhouse “Kodakara-yu” which was originally built in 1929. This mini town served as Hayao Miyazaki‘s inspiration for the lost world in “Spirited Away” (one of my favourite Ghibli animations).


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Kodakara-yu public bathhouse


This beautiful gable-roofed public bathhouse (sento) has been carefully restored, with separate male and female changing areas and baths. The male side features a mural of Mount Fuji ( an ubiquitous theme in traditional bathhouses), while the female side features a picturesque but less ‘grand’ scene ( anything to do with sexism here?).

The baths are divided by a low wall with several tiled paintings depicting scenes from traditional folklore and fables; meanwhile, nostalgic advertising posters can also be seen in the changing areas.


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In the west zone, there are some Edo farmhouses with thatched roofs from the former Musashino Folklore Museum. And interestingly, there are volunteers (or Hijiro-kai) who would demonstrate or work on various tasks inside these farmhouses daily (except for holidays).


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Unexpectedly, I discovered my ‘dream house’ here… and it was a house built in 1942 by the Modernist architect Kunio Mayekawa for himself. The interior of this Japanese gabled roof wooden house reminded me of Finnish Modernist architect Alvar Aalto‘s home in Helsinki (read by earlier entry here). Built during the Second World War with limited materials in Shinagawa, the house was dismantled in 1973 and eventually reassembled at the current site. I love the bright and high-ceilinged salon; and the mix of Japanese screens with western modernist furniture and decorations. The house does not look outdated, and it proves that good designs will always stand the test of time.


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Top row: House of Koide; 2nd row: House of Georg de Lalande; Bottom row: Architectural paper models on sale at the museum shop


The “House of Georg de Lalande” is another house that inspired the Ghibli animation team. This Western-style house was originally built in the Shinjuku ward by German architect Georg de Lalande, and was enlarged into a three-storey wooden house in 1910. Now the house has been converted into a cafe/tearoom.

I highly recommend a visit to this open air museum (less busy during weekdays), and you can combine it with either the Ghibli musuem or the historical Jindaiji Temple ( the second oldest temple in Tokyo, originally built in 733) and Jindai Botanical gardens. After spending days in the hectic Tokyo city centre, it is worth venturing out because you are most likely to enjoy a more relaxing pace in this suburban yet leafy part of the city.