To be honest, I was a little overwhelmed by the idea of Tokyo before I even got there. I kept overthinking it’s unfathomable scale, arguing with myself that I’m just not a big city person and it’s too much for me to handle.

Before my trip, someone who has stayed in Tokyo calmed me down a bit by telling me that yes, it’s the biggest city in the world, but all things considered, it’s really quite calm and orderly. In my head I remember thinking, yeah okay I’ll believe it when I see it.

Well, my predetermined assumptions were definitely wrong. Within even just the first hour of walking around the Asakusa neighborhood in Tokyo looking for my hostel, I was surprised and incredibly relieved at how comfortable the city felt. So I threw my backpack in the hostel and started exploring.

Street scenes from Tokyo

Walking through the small side streets, you start to get a sense of the differences in the Japanese way of living. I only had a few days here, so by no means did I really get a full understanding. Regardless, here’s what I found:

1. It seems that in general everything is to a much smaller scale, and actually maybe a more human scale. I saw so many little tiny houses in small streets but they still had all the same amenities we had, just organized slightly better, and in general, less stuff.

It might seem like a lot when you have all these little houses and shops next to each other in a tight space, but it really doesn’t feel chaotic at all.

2. They make room for nature. I actually found it difficult to go more than a few steps without spotting a plant, a tree, or small garden. And most times, the small houses would have as many plants as possible.

3. There’s more appreciation for craft. Any store will tell you right off the bat which items were Made in Japan, very brightly and proudly. I was told to see the kitchenware market street, a road with shops generally dedicated to a variety of items all used for cooking.

Through all of the handmade ceramics and stainless steel appliances, you could see people really truly looking at each item, carefully selecting the right one.

And this level of craft is not just in food, but of course in their buildings. I found that where their homes might be lacking in traditional ornament, the scale and texture was made up very carefully in their selection of materials, scale and proportion.

I think it’s interesting that the same idea exists in their cemeteries: beautiful, simple materials with only the necessary ornament.

4. Not only are they very pedestrian and bike friendly, but the pedestrians are friendly. I don’t know if it’s just because I grew up in the fast-paced northeast, but it actually caught me by surprised to be in such a dense city, with no one seemingly in a hurry. For instance, there could be no cars in the road, none even in sight – but pedestrians will wait for the walk signal to turn green. On the subway, no one is running through the gates, or even really through the station. And once you’re on the subway, it’s actually quiet!

And when people have to cross an expressway or even just a moderately faster road, there is almost always a pedestrian bridge.

Oh and lastly, restaurants all put out small displays of the foods they serve. They’re all plastic and sometimes it’s easier to wonder how they get these things versus actually looking at the food… but I still think it’s a nice gesture.

Nerd Alert: the following sections are really mostly about my favorite buildings I was able to see in Tokyo. I won’t be offended if you just scroll through the pictures, but if you’re in the mood for some nerd talk, read on.

Senso-ji Temple

The first stop on my list was Senso-ji, the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo! And conveniently, it was located about 5 minutes from my hostel.

The temple sits in a campus of other shrines and pagodas, but is the oldest, from 645 AD.

The Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate, marks the entrance to the temple area with three large lanterns suspended from above.

And once you pass through the gate, you get to a small, dense market leading you to the temple.

And from above:

And at night, the shops close and the streets are quiet, and calm. It’s such a fun way to explore the area, imagining it without all the same tourist attraction it sees during the day.

And lastly, the five story pagoda, easily grabbing everyone’s attention. It’s actually the second tallest pagoda in Japan, and I heard it holds the Buddha’s ashes, but I would give that a fact-check before repeating. It was built in 942 AD, and then moved and reconstructed in Tokyo to be near the Senso-ji temple.

The five stories of the pagoda are meant to symbolize the five natural elements: land, water, fire, wind and sky. And with its height, you can understand the emphasis to the sky; and with its large base, you can understand it’s equal emphasis to be grounded.

Asakusa Visitor Center

Conveniently next to Senso-ji is Kengo Kuma’s Asakusa Visitor Center. Not only is this a beautiful project, but the services inside were extremely helpful! They gave me pamphlets, maps, brochures, and helped me understand which metro ticket made the most sense for me to buy.

Each section’s representative of a different floor with a different use, and therefore a different shape that follows.

And you can start to see the different volumes expressed on the interior:

Kengo Kuma always does a brilliant job at mixing relatively simple materials in an intriguing composition. I really admire when you can make something necessary, like the structural system, also the main point of attraction in a space, like these wooden joists that read more like ceiling fins.

After reading historical and contemporary information on Asakusa and Tokyo, you’re led to the roof for a beautiful view of Senso-ji and the Tokyo Skytree.

Mori Museum of Art and Sky Deck

Next, I went across the city to they Tokyo Midtown area where there’s so much to see. I admit, I wasn’t able to see it all. And even the next few buildings which I did see I wound up spreading over two days, because there just isn’t enough time in a day!

The Mori Tower is mostly an office building, but dedicates one floor to the Mori Art Museum and an amazing sky deck overlooking the city. I was interested but not necessarily dying to see the view, until I got up there.

After my day of thinking Tokyo really wasn’t so overwhelming, I came up here and realized the crazy density of this metropolis. No wonder it has the highest population of any city!

I must’ve stared into the city for an hour, watching cars move on the highway, trains come in and out of town, and the vitality of the city calmly moving.

And that made me one pretty happy traveler!

The exhibits inside the Mori Art Museum were also really fascinating. Work called “Seeing and Believing” by Leandro Elrich just played with our minds through mastering reflections.

Like this eerie old classroom you can see your vague ghost in…

Or this giant mirror and floorscape where you can see yourself dangling from a window…

And lastly this little garden where you can peer into your neighbor’s window – oh wait no that’s just you…

I just want to point out that I generally visit museums to look at the building, not necessarily the artwork (sorry, but I’m a shameless nerdy architect), but I really enjoying Elrich’s pieces. They were engaging and thought provoking. I hope to see more soon.

Nezu Museum

Kengo Kuma does it again.

The Nezu Museum houses artifacts from ancient Japanese and Chinese times, generally used for tea ceremonies. But, shameless architect nerd I am, I was a bit more interested in the building.

You enter through this semi-outdoor area, unable to even realize that you’re still in the middle of a city center.

And once you get inside, the light opens up the room. Because of the connection to the outdoor garden beyond, this lobby space actually feels as if it’s just a connection to the garden.

The volume is light and airy, a stark contrast to the galleries which are kept dark and subtle in order to highlight the sculptures.

I snuck a photo of my favorite collection piece, the painted poems used during tea ceremonies.

And then, you exit the building into the courtyard. I’m telling you, you wouldn’t even know you’re in the middle of Tokyo.

I realized while walking through the Nezu Museum that the overall mass of the building is certainly not that impressive, or even very clean. But I also realized that you never really experience the building as a form, you experience the space it creates.

And that is why Kengo Kuma is so good.

21 21 Design Sight

Nearby is Tadao Ando’s 21 21 Design Sight gallery. Ando worked with a fashion designer on the project. In fact, the exterior is made to evoke a sense of draped cloth.

The interior was meant to be much more than just house contemporary galleries. The intent was to create a space that evoked people’s design sensibilities by arousing different sights and perspectives of the same object.

When you begin, you walk down into this beautifully lit space. You see an exhibit in this sunken courtyard, but continue to the other exhibits.

Then you walk through a series of dark corridors with subtle light accents.

Ando is truly a master at manipulating light. A part of his success is the ability to make an incredibly clear contrast between the beautifully well lit volumes and between the dark corridors with only a streak of light.

The procession is clear, and the ebb and flow of the dark, small spaces and the bright, large spaces serve to only make the other stronger. And because the pathway is a circuitous route which leads you back to where you started, you can appreciate that beautifully well lit space even more when you end here.

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