I just got back from a week in Tokyo and am scrambling to get caught up, so here is a quick account of my travels the last two weeks!
Monterrey was a wonderful culmination to the student work this past Spring. There wasn’t too much time for exploration outside of our meetings, but on our free afternoon we headed to Macroplaza, the downtown civic center, to see two interesting exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MARCO), one by Korean light thread artist Jeongmoon Choi and the other by Dreamworks. MARCO was design by Legoretta, who also designed the new Schwab residences on Stanford campus, among many famous buildings around the world. I would characterize his work as minimalist in the modern sense, but bordering on postmodern in its whimsical investigation of form. That being said, standing in his sculpture can be exhilarating. In the main hall, this massive yellow shaft hangs down from the ceiling and acts as a private skylight for the receptionist desk. I was also struck by the elegance of the more general clerestory grooves in another space.
The Dreamworks exhibition was surprisingly moving as it reminded me a lot of my artistic upbringing, which was largely based on pencil sketching. My brother did much more of the CGI rendering which also was highlighted in the exhibit. I particularly enjoyed the process sketches from Madagascar, and the architectural studies Kung Fu Panda and other movies.
As for food, I must confess I succumbed to eating some Arrachera steak which, in my defense, was already ordered and would have been wasted otherwise (it was just as good as I remembered). Mostly I stuck to my vegetarian diet and wasn’t disappointed, especially given the simple perfection of a little taco stand beside the hotel, and chilaquiles.
So I got back from Monterrey last Friday, did laundry, dropped in on some homies at an afterparty for an Ivy League young alumni mixer (which I was glad I did not attend), and then was back to SFO early the next morning. The direct flight to Tokyo Haneda was about eleven hours, which I spent watching two indie films I had missed, Certain Women and Paterson (both solid 3.5s), and half of Planet Earth 2 (which I finished up on the flight back) and reading a little bit of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Murakami. I got to Tokyo around 3pm on a Saturday. I had asked the Asian Leadership Conference to give me an extra day before and after the event to allow me to travel. I started off by waking over to the Imperial Palace outer grounds, checking out a little Da Vinci and Michelangelo sketching exhibit at a Mitsubishi museum, and then trying a mid-tier sushi dinner for about $60 at Manten Sushi. It did not disappoint, and was seriously too much food, as a guy from Apple and I reflected after enjoying the entire meal in silence at the corner of the traditional L-shaped counter. It was very much like what you see in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, in which the chef selects the entire meal and drops individual pieces of sushi or sashimi on a plate, or sometimes more exotic concoctions like sea urchin directly on a piece of seaweed in your hand, mixed in with bowls of other treats. You sit there patiently cleansing your palette with ginger and drinking tea while you watch the sushi chef prepare the exact same rounds for a group of you who arrived around the same time, while preparing slightly delayed or slightly different meals for other customers. By far the tuna sashimi blew me away, and I think probably ruined all the other mediocre sushi I had for the rest of the trip. I have yet to attempt to see how the top-tier $100+ restaurants compare, but that will have to await another trip and higher honoraria.
After dinner, I floundered around Tokyo Station’s Character Street for a bit before heading to the other side of the city to check out the famous Shibuya Shuffle. In a little alleyway nearby I walked in on an impromptu concert by this band called LOOP POOL which was totally chill, like a little taste of Real Estate and American Football. I wandered further south and, after getting lost a bit in a seedy little red light district, ended up at this red gem of a building, Aoyama Technical College, by Deconstructivist Makoto Sei Watanabe. Other highlights of the night include pretty solid $1 coffee out of a machine at every Seven Eleven, generally impressive infiltration of vending machines everywhere, and a serene moment with one of my favorite buildings of all time, the Nakagin Capsule Towers by Metabolist Kisho Kurokawa.
By around 1:30am I was back in Ginza and walked over to the Tsukiji Fish Market, which was the ultimate destination for my whole sleep-deprived journey, as I heard that a select group of 120 people could get in to see the 5am tuna auction (also as seen in Jiro) if they got to the information center really early. Here’s the official signage I found at 1:30am, as well as the view inside the waiting room you have to sit/stand in from 2:30-5:30am, if you are considering the ordeal. Luckily, I got in right at the same time as a fellow traveler-and-blogger-at-heart, Civa (@Row8c), who was a delight to talk to for the four hour wait.
Near the end of the wait, an auctioneer came in and talked to us about the tuna auction, noting that the average tuna is 100 kilos sells for about $10-30 per kilogram, along with many other interesting facts. Then the yellow-vested group got to go in first, and we watched the auctioneers hack at the exposed tail-ends of the massive fish, shine a light at the meat, rub in between their fingertips, and make quick notes on a clipboard before doing lightning-fast bidding with raised hands for select rows of tuna at a time. Outside, the scene was reminiscent of a Tatooine droid market, especially with the peculiar R2-D2 shaped shippers whizzing back and forth. Overall it was definitely worth experiencing a cultural pulse of Tokyo firsthand, despite the cruel industrialism of it all. At the very least, you get to see a system that’s imbued with veneration for nature.
By the time I was done at Tsukiji it was 6:30am, and because I still couldn’t check into Hotel Okura until 2pm, I headed over to Roppongi to check out a few more points of architectural interest (21_21 DESIGN SIGHT; a really gorgeous campus for the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies; view from the top of Roppongi Hills Mori Tower), as well as enjoy what turned out to be the best ramen of the trip.
Then I passed out for essentially 15 hours. The conference started on Monday and was a really wonderful opportunity to meet national and local government representatives from the participating countries (India, China, Myanmar, Pakistan, Georgia, Sri Lanka, Fiji, and Timor-Leste) as well as fellow speakers from Japan, Singapore, Korea, and other places doing amazing sustainable and resilient development in Pacific Asia. I definitely felt out of place, both as a young speaker and as a speaker on the SDGs which didn’t seem to be of much significance to most of these developing countries. But by the end of the conference, it sounded like quite a few of the participants were motivated to localize SDG and smart city thinking into their cities; it was also surreal to get a chance to sit next to the head of the Department of Climate Change in China on a bus trip to Yokohama and share our honest thoughts on greenhouse gas geopolitics. On the last evening of the conference, a group of us who got especially close having mostly all been on the SDG panel together, hailing from Australia, Singapore, Korea, the Philippines, and the U.S. headed out for a classic night of yakitori and sake and made the world seem as small and down to earth as a sunken table. For our final lunch the next day (the start of a 4-meal ramen marathon), we discovered that four out of five of us were left handed.
For the end of my trip, with a few more days for sightseeing, I made a last-minute decision, based on a good recommendation by a new colleague, to head to Kyoto for a day-trip. Before that, I checked out a few more places in Tokyo, including Sou Fujimoto’s NA House and some of the artsy retail buildings in Omotesando and Daikanyama, and, of course, ramen.
The next morning, I checked out of my hotel, stored my suitcase in one of the ubiquitous lockers of the train stations, and boarded a Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. Kyoto was full of beautifully crafted (by which I mean deliberate nature, as is Japanese custom) and sometimes eccentric details. Just start with the public transit: the almost cute fins of the bullet train, and the seats of the Keifuku Electric Railroad train which you can transform by pivoting the back piece from one side to the other, instantly creating a cluster of 4 seats facing each other (on the Shinkansen the entire seat swiveled 180 degrees).
In Arashiyama, the famous bamboo forest was serene if a bit ruined by tourists, and I was especially struck by a pair of crows navigating down the hollowed path as if a natural hallway. Based on a tip from a blog, I checked out the Okochi Sanso Garden Villa at the end of the forest, which had a little meditation room with a miniature rock garden out one side and a series of tables with poetry and blank paper to practice calligraphy on. I must have spent 20 minutes there, completely alone.
Next up was Kinkaku-ji with its famous golden temple, which left me thinking, why isn’t every temple golden? While there I was blessed with some really stellar cloudy weather for photography. And another excellent ramen nearby — this one with a wait down the block. One thing worth noting — pretty much every ramen I tried was vastly different, unlike the mainstream type you get in the States.
A bit south of Kinkaku-ji is this peculiar street with a bunch of monstrous creatures guarding the storefronts. And on the east side of the city, I strolled down Philosopher’s Walk which follows a crawling channel shaded by lush trees. It seems like the kind of place I would have frequented often, had I done Stanford’s study abroad at Kyoto.
I saved the last stop, Fushimi Inari, for the the magical changing of light around sunset. I will say that Kyoto can quickly overwhelm you with temple saturation, in which the vast majority of the shrines look exactly the same, but Kinkaku-ji and Fushimi Inari stand out amongst the crowd. The mountain has a 4 kilometer loop trail in which you pass through thousands of torii, each a gift by a wealthy donor to the spirit of fertility and industry. As an architect, I had been yearning to experience this massive-scale environmental design for years, and once you got past the swarming crowds of basic tourists trying to snap selfies, the quieter forest trails up above were exhilarating. As I hoped, there was a delightful play of sunlight on and through these structures, as well as surprises, like the fact that the back sides have tons of writing, the occasional mounds of shrines and fox statues, and a black cat that appeared between my feet as I was taking a photograph.
And to cap off the night, one more ramen with a line out the door and a playlist that included, of all ironies, Justin Bieber singing “Despacito”.
I took the midnight bus out of Kyoto so I wouldn’t need to get a hotel for the extra night. At 6am the next morning I was in Tokyo with a few hours left to spare, so I checked out Akihabara, St. Mary’s Cathedral by Kenzo Tange, Yasukuni Shrine which commemorates Japan’s war dead, complete with a war museum which had an unnervingly different depiction of WWII than you get in the U.S., Harajuku (where I picked up a new pair of Japan-made black kicks from Onitsuka Tiger), and a museum full of architectural models by great Japanese architects.
Overall it was wonderful to spend a whole week in Japan, where I haven’t been for almost twenty years. I kept reaching into the inner depths of my memory to seek if anything would connect; perhaps the only thing that surprised me was seeing the real-life Mario Kart rides zipping through Shibuya Shuffle, and feeling strongly like I’ve seen them before. Otherwise, I just enjoyed participating in an enriching conference, meeting new acquaintances and hopefully future collaborators, and consuming a satisfying amount of Japanese architecture and cuisine.