Japan: a most serene urban garden

Let me show you one of my favorite places I’ve ever been. Without doubt, the most beautiful urban garden you could lose an afternoon within.

Nezu Museum TokyoNezu Museum Tokyo
Nezu Museum TokyoNezu Museum Tokyo
NezuCafe, where we enjoyed a delicious, leisurely lunch (2 photos directly above) 

Nezu Museum TokyoNezu Museum Tokyo Nezu Museum TokyoNezu Museum Tokyo

Nezu Museum, Tokyo Nezu Museum, Tokyo Nezu Museum, TokyoGinkgo leaf, considered a living fossil. Shall I purchase these earrings in memory?

Nezu Museum, Tokyo Nezu Museum, Tokyo Nezu Museum, TokyoAutumn persimmons offer lovely colors and subtle flavours

Nezu Museum, Tokyo Nezu Museum, Tokyo

Rikyu, tea masterPresiding over the garden is Rikyū, the tea master.

Nezu Museum, TokyoAh, what a magical place.
The museum on the grounds is a serene building completed by architect Kengo Kuma.

Founded in 1941 following Nezu’s death, the museum boasts one of Japan’s most culturally significant private collections of Asian art from the pre-modern period. Nezu was a particularly avid collector of hanging scrolls and utensils for tea ceremonies, and today the museum has over 7,000 objects, including calligraphy, paintings, sculpture, ceramics, metalwork, bamboo crafts and textiles. The collection was originally displayed in Nezu’s Aoyama residence, which stood in extensive traditional gardens studded with ponds, bridges and teahouses. In 2006 his grandson Koichi Nezu commissioned Kuma to remodel and rationalise the existing facilities and design a new building on the garden site. The revitalised complex reopened in October 2009.




Japan: Archi-Tour of Tokyo

Many visitors to Tokyo will say that Tokyo is ugly and overall grey. My impression is that like many cities, there are pockets of charming areas, a smattering of gorgeous architectural wonders and an expected amount of concrete. Unlike many dense cities though, we found Tokyo to be very quiet (no honking!), extremely clean, and very safe (practically zero crime rate). And we enjoyed plentiful sunshine and meditation time within some of the loveliest urban parks I’ve been to. Tokyo is dominated by architecture completed by world famous Japanese and foreign architects alike. Some districts are best viewed at twilight when the buildings start to glow and the power lines recede into the background. Others are beautiful during the daylight when one can appreciate the material details and tree-lined boulevards on which they sit. This is by no means a comprehensive visual tour, just a sampling of some of the weird and wonderful. We were fortunate to spend a holiday Sunday in Tokyo during which many of the main streets were designated pedestrian-only, affording us unique views and easy access into shops and galleries. There’s still plenty of areas we never got to see…so I guess we’ll have to return one day 🙂

JAP_11_0061-archAs seen from the Sumida River

JAP_11_1051-archOne of my favorite buildings, near Tokyo Station

JAP_11_0114-archAs seen from our hotel, Remm Hibiya

JAP_11_0099-archDon’t let Santa get away! (left); What the heck?? (right)

JAP_11_0109-archDiamonds are a girl’s best friend

JAP_11_0022-archA fierce competition for the flashiest facade along the popular Ginza street

JAP_11_0293-smNational Art Center, Roppongi district

JAP_11_0291-sm21_21 Design Sight Museum

JAP_11_0296-smA bamboo hedge planted in a bamboo hedge, Roppongi Hills

JAP_11_0180-sm JAP_11_0182-pradaStarchitects Herzog & de Meuron’s stamp on the Prada empire, Omotesando

JAP_11_0186-archShopping in Omotesando

JAP_11_0044-archAsakusa Culture Tourist Info Center

Japan: The Most Relaxing 24 Hours in Hakone

After a busy four days of shopping and running around Tokyo, Amanda had planned a relaxing 24 hours in this small resort area outside of Tokyo called Hakone. Hakone is known for their natural hot springs and the area has tons of hotels built on top of these springs with world renowned spas. Sounds good! The setting was beautiful, the service was impeccable and we have since been remarking that it was one of the best 24 hours of our lives.

Hakone train station

The station with the beautiful foliage

Kai Hakone

Lobby, with espresso machine. I came here to ponder life’s mysteries when Amanda took a lot longer in the spa.

Kai Hakone

The old mixed with the modern

Kai Hakone
Kai Hakone

Upon arrival, the concierge led us to the lobby seating in order to present us with our hot towels (for hand washing) and our welcome drink. After an appropriate amount of solitude, the concierge returned to complete our check-in, confirm our dinner and breakfast reservation times and process Amanda’s “no raw fish” request (she kept saying sesame instead of sashimi…they finally resolved the translation error).

During our stay we had to be in uniform (yukata) at all times. When we arrived they gave these robes and slippers to wear. The robes were nice, but I found the slippers to be uncomfortable, mainly because there was no real way to discern what was the left food from the right. I still don’t know if there was an answer, or if the slipper was designed to be available for either foot and comfortable to neither. Also, when you arrive at a hotel in Japan they send a little friend with you around your room for like 10 minutes showing you everything you could need. “Here is the kettle, here is the wall outlet, here is the bed, here is the toilet, here are your towels, this is the phone, this is the button you press to ask us questions should you have any after this 15 min walkthrough of your room” etc. It was kinda charming at first, but not so much after you’ve checked in to 3-4 places in the past 8 days.


The more you look at them, the less sure you are as to which one is for which foot. A zen exercise perhaps?


The shogun assesses his kingdom.

JAP_11_0385-sm JAP_11_0322-sm JAP_11_0310-room JAP_11_0324-stool

[vimeo 82459767]

JAP_11_0353-elevator JAP_11_0392-sm

In the basement of the hotel was the reason we came here: the spa. Natural hot water, a sauna and a cold water dipping pool. The Japanese love their baths, and I am now a total convert. When Amanda and I build a house we are totally going to make a big bath in the basement. And as with everything there is a set ritual for the bath–or at least there was for the guys side. I’m sure it was similar on Amanda’s side of the spa. You come in, disrobe and go to this little shower room and sit naked on a little stool and clean yourself off with a shower-head and bucket. Once you’re clean of all of life’s dirt you are ready for the soak in the bath. And it was glorious. Half-inside, half-outside with the crisp fall air around you while you are submerged in 100 degree water, floating around with small woodland creatures looking in at you. Awesome.


My little sakura blossom


The next day we had to leave, which was sad. This hotel had a long windy driveway, and when our hostess put us in the cab we watched with sadness as the hotel slowly wound out of our sight. But during that 45 second climb up the hill, our hostess did not cease her bowing to our cab and we rolled away. Japanese hospitality rocks!

Japan notes: the toilet

One of the things that surprised us about our trip, was how much we’d be talking about the toilets upon our return. We love to remember those warm seats, a strange yet wonderful extension of Japanese hospitality in pretty much every public and private facility you’d enter. And we’re not the only ones who love these toilets. A colleague of mine who’s married to a Japanese woman tried to procure one of these magic toilets for his Austin home after a number of visits to her homeland. His electrician and plumber finally talked him out of it… 


A bit intimidating at first, we soon looked forward to our brief rest stops throughout the day. The buttons usually had enough symbols to instruct you on proper usage. But, alas, sometimes you just had to experiment. So, what all do they do? They can do anything from: heat the seat, play water noises, emit white noise-cancelling sounds, automatically flush, offer washing & drying cycles and even call for emergency help! Brilliant!

Japan: mark making


One of my first learnt lessons in design school has its roots in ancient calligraphy practice: in making the first mark on the page one must be focused yet relaxed, strong yet graceful and full of purpose. Though there’s a plan, one also yields to the will of the paper, the ink, the dexterity of one’s body (calligraphy is often done kneeling or upright—with gusto!). It is meditative and relaxing. There is a start and a stop. Practicing drawing ancient characters one cold, windy evening in a traditional Tokyo studio gave us a glimpse into an ancient cultural tradition, a rich experience we will never forget. Thank you, Ten-You for your patience, gentleness and hospitality. To learn more about Ten-You, check out her site!

Tokyo is not the best place to buy calligraphy, paper or stationery supplies, however it is supposedly much less expensive than in Kyoto. In Kyoto one finds many traditional craftsmen still committed to paper-making and calligraphy and the city was flush with cozy shops selling goods for both the amateur and professional. I aim to continue my practice and so I procured a brush, ink tray and ink block in a small Kyoto shop a few days later. Finally, I selected some rice paper on which to inscribe one of my favorite Japanese phrases that I’ve spent much of these last few weeks pondering, Ichi-go ichi-e.

lines-on-paperWe made lines for about 15 minutes before we could move on to circles.

JAP_11_0136-smReviewing the ancient characters, Kodai-moji,  from which the modern Kanji is based.

JAP_11_0137-smEven mixing the ink was meditative: small, deliberate circles, with slight pressure until we had enough to make our marks

JAP_11_0142-composite-smThe final creations: Graeme drew the character for “deer”. Mine is “bread”

JAP_11_0146-smI’ve learned that this is true Japanese style: group photo at the end of a workshop

Japan Stories: Food


Not gonna lie: we were worries about food leading up to our trip to Japan. We like sushi and tempura and fish and rice fine, but every day at every meal for 10 days? We were nervous. But turns out we didn’t have to be nervous about anything…well, almost. Japan has some weird notions about breakfast, but we’ll get to that later.


Our first impression about Japanese food was: adorable packaging. (Well, that was probably Amanda’s first impression, being the visual design thinker that she is.) Everything is so intricately, excessively packaged, even in 7-Eleven corner stores (which are everywhere.) Second impression: Japan is the land of snack food. You just pick up whatever looks tasty from a street vendor, a small little cafe or boulangerie and get ready to enjoy your perfect little snack. And the cafes and boulangeries rival Paris in their frequency and quality of bread–well, white bread, pastries and croissants. Good luck finding fiber in Japan (but that’s probably another post.) But you could survive traveling in Japan without ever setting foot into a sit-down restaurant, and only buy snack foods, noodle bowls or whatever looks tasty as you walk around. That being said, you can BUY it on the go, but heaven forbid you should EAT it on the go. This is apparently a faux-pas in Japan. You must find some bench, seat or preferably, a park and eat your food there. Nice for life, but not so good for being tourists. We decided to retreat under the banner of ignorant-tourist and eat on the go anyway. We’re sorry Japan!





The practice in these bakeries is to take a tray, fill it with your selected baked goods that are arranged in bins around the perimeter, and then take the tray to the counter where they will double, triple bag them for you (separately, of course). And add the wet napkins packaged in sealed bag. And then add a sticker. And another bag. Germs will never get to that food! But, it’s a good thing you have all those bags, because you will be carrying around your garbage for most of the day until you locate a garbage bin.

So Good So Fast

Restaurants were awesome and our biggest takeaways were that they served you food SO FAST. We went to this one soba noodle place (that had been going on since the 1400s!) and the food was there in at least a 3rd of the time in restaurants over here. Even at this specialty burger place the food came pretty quick (and we were pretty happy to have a burger after a few days of rice, saucy-meat and limited veggies.) Oh, and you don’t tip or else they think you left money by mistake. And you’ll be in and out in an hour, tops.

JAP_pancake2-smOne of Amanda’s favorites: Okonomiyaki: Japanese “pancake”

Then there was the sushi and sashimi.

Hakone-dinnerKaiseki meal menu at Kai Hakone

We decided against making the famous 4am trek to the Tsukiji Market (Tokyo fish market) to procure the freshest of sushi and sashimi. So, our first experience of the delicacies would be during our Kaiseki meal at our Hakone resort hotel. Amanda was prepared to decline, Sumimasen, Sashimi wa tabemasen.  But, I, Graeme bravely ate it all: Eels, scallops, tuna, salmon, rainbow fish, these little pink round egg looking things. (Edit: turns out they are salmon eggs. Joy.)  Washed it down with my first sake ever, as well. There was a nervous 3 hours post-meal where I was closely monitored in order to see if I was going to burst or barf or feel nasty, but I felt fine. There was a bit of a rumbly moment in the sauna that night, but I pulled through like a champ. As someone who has come from a less than oceanic province  my knowledge and tolerance of fish is pretty limited, but my horizons have expanded a wee bit thanks to this trip. We unfortunately forgot our camera for the meal, but Amanda made little sketches of each dish on the rice paper English menu.

Japan doesn’t really do breakfasts.

Oh, I mean they have food at the beginning of the day, but they just have the same food they’d have at any other time of day. Fish. Rice. Soup. Salad. This was hard for us. We either had to degrade ourselves and go to some western looking cafe that heavily advertised Western Breakfast Panini, or a Starbucks with all the other tourists and sheepishly not make eye contact so as to not admit our weaknesses. It was relatively ok when breakfast was in our control. We could go to a corner store and get some yogurt, find a pastry and talk about how we would murder a bowl of Bran Flakes when we got home. But at our super nice fixed menu hotel, the realities of Japanese style breakfast was unavoidable. Also unavoidable was Amanda’s expression. Rice, steamed fish and soup. No fiber in sight! How do the Japanese poop! (Besides, in supreme comfort.) We broke down on day 3 and bought a huge bag of muslix from the grocery store and peppered that stuff into every meal.

JAP_11_0028-bfastWestern breakfast augmented by American granola bar

The Japanese breakfast menu at Kai Hakone


JAP_11_1074-menuThe breakfast menu at Kai Hakone


food-roundFrench Onion Soup (Elle Cafe), Coffee, Tea Ice Cream, Street food at its best: warm, hot off the grill, gooey rice/bean ball.

JAP_11_0850-smbranded steamed pork bun

Vending Machines

A sensually-rich experience. But how does that coffee taste?

[vimeo 81292437]