Wednesday, December 2, 2009

62. Museum Review - Nezu Museum

Recently re-opened after a three year renovation, the Nezu Museum is an incredible oasis within Tokyo. The industrialist and President of Tobu Railway, Kaichiro Nezu, originally opened this museum at his private residence in 1941. The museum and grounds cover more than 20,000 square meters. Within that space are the museum itself, a large Japanese garden, several tea houses, and a small cafe.

The museum is divided into 6 galleries:
1) Special Exhibitions
2) Paintings and Calligraphy
3) Sculpture
4) Bronzes
5) Decorative Arts
6) Tea Arts
The collection also includes lacquerware, bamboo crafts, ceramics, metalwork, textiles, and archaeological materials. Altogether the museum possesses over 7,000 pieces, including 7 works designated as National Treasures, 87 Important Cultural Properties, and 96 Important Art Objects. The museum's most famous pieces are its ancient Chinese bronzes and a folding screen of irises by the 17th century artist, Korin Ogata.

The current special exhibition (11/18/09 - 12/23/09) is 'Nezu Seizan: Tea and Art'. Mr. Nezu was an enthusiastic practioner of tea ceremony and he was famous for his end of year 'tea parties' and his incredible collection of tea related artifacts.
All exhibits are labeled in English.
This was my first visit to the Nezu Museum, and I was not disappointed. I was very impressed by the building itself, and its exhibits. But the garden took me completely by surprise. I have visited most of the gardens in Tokyo and this is now my very favorite. It is especially beautiful in the fall.
Unbelievably, it is just down the street from Aoyama-dori and Omotesando Station!
Address: 6-5-1 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-0062

Getting there: 8 minute walk from exit A5 of Omotesando Station of the Ginza, Hanzomon, and Chiyoda subway lines. It is also 5 minutes from Minami Aoyama 6-chome Bus stop on the Metropolitan Bus Shibu 88 that runs between Shibuya and Shimbashi Stations.

Entrance fees: 1000 yen for regular collection, 1200 for special exhibitions

Hours of Operation: 10am - 5pm (last entry at 4:30). Closed on Mondays, during exhibition installations, and during the New Year's holiday period. When a National Holiday falls on a Monday, the museum is open on that Monday and is closed the next day.

Website: *They have a fantastic English website, and the curator speaks perfect English.

I highly recommend this museum to anyone interested in Japanese culture, art, and gardens

Thursday, October 1, 2009

61. Transportation Review: Tokyo Shitamachi Bus

The Tokyo Shitamachi Bus is a new bus service for the touristy 'downtown' sections of the city. The bus runs back and forth between Tokyo Station and Ryogoku and costs 200 yen per ride for adults (100 for children). They also offer a one-day Toei Bus pass for 500 yen (250 for children), which includes some really good discounts at locations along the route. The pass is good for the Shitamachi bus, and all other Toei buses.

The bus itself has been designed in a retro style, with a large round window on both sides of the back. If you ride the bus, sit beside one of these windows for the best views. Pay or show your pass when you get on the bus, press a button before the stop you want, to get off. Be sure to grab the two English brochures on the bus, they contain a lot of helpful information and good maps.

There are tv's on the bus with English subtitles and stops are announced in a number of different languages. Buses run daily at 30 minute intervals from 9:00 am to around 6:00pm. If you go from end to end, it takes about one hour. The ride is pretty slow, but it gives a good view of the area.

Bus stops are marked in Japanese and English with a sign that says 'tokyo shitamachi bus'.

Here are the stops:

1) Tokyo Station (Marunouchi North Exit)
2) Nihombashi Mitsukoshi
3) Sudacho (Akihabara) - on weekdays and Saturdays
Manseibashi (Akihabara) - on Sundays and holidays
4) Ueno Koen (park) Yamashita / Ueno Station
5) Kikuyabashi (Kappabashi Dogugai Street)
6) Asakusa Kaminarimon
7a) Ryogoku Station
7b) Toei Ryogoku Station (Edo-Tokyo Museum)

I highly recommend this bus to tourists (and locals alike), especially for an entire day of sightseeing in Shitamachi. 500 yen for a day pass (with discounts at locations along the route) is an excellent deal!

*By the way, the Ryogoku Station bus stop is just outside and down the street a little from the West Exit. Just behind the bus stop is a tiny tourist center with really good walking maps of Ryogoku. The maps do not have any English writing on the outside of them, but the map inside is labeled in Japanese and English. Currently the outside of the brochure is burgundy with mostly white printing and a wood block print picture. Be sure to get one!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

60. Temple Review: Tsukiji Honganji

The Tsukiji Honganji Temple dates back to 1617 when Junnyo Shonin, the 12th leader of the Jodo Shinshu Sect of Buddhism in Kyoto, established a branch temple in Edo (Tokyo). Known at that time as the 'Edo-Asakusa Gobo', the temple burned down in the Great Fire of 1657. Permission to rebuild in the same spot was denied by the feudal government. Instead, an area of the shoreline of Hatchobori was reclaimed from the sea by devout followers, many who lived on nearby Tsukudajima. The word Tsukiji means 'built up land', so the temple came to be called 'Tsukiji Gobo' and the district around it became known as Tsukiji.The temple was destroyed again in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and it was rebuilt from 1931 to 1934 with an Indian architectural motif designed by Chuta Itoh, a professor of Architecture at Tokyo University. It will be observing the 750th memorial service of its founder in 2012.

Although the building is large and impressive looking from the outside, the temple grounds themselves are just a huge paved parking lot. Anyone is welcome to go inside, but as the hall is filled with cheap theater seats, it is not terribly impressive. There are English brochures available near the front door, and they explain the history of the temple and the important artifacts stored there. Unless you happen to be walking down the street or visiting Tsukiji Fish Market, I would not go out of my way to visit this temple.
Monthly Dharma talks in English are held generally on the last Saturday from 5:30pm. There is more information on their website:
Morning and evening worship services (in Japanese) are held daily at 7:00am and 4:00pm. There are also special services throughout the year (New Years, Buddha's Birthday,...).
Address: 3-15-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku 104-8435, Tokyo
Phone: 03-3541-1131
Getting there: Hibiya Line to Tsukiji Station. Or, the Oedo Line to Tsukiji-shijo Station.

Monday, April 27, 2009

59. Restaurant Review: L-Atelier de Joel Robuchon (Roppongi Hills)

A sister restaurant to the chef's Paris location, L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon is a welcome addition to Tokyo. The French restaurant is 'Roppongi Hills Casual' (meaning: not that casual) and most guests are seated at a long bar counter that overlooks a completely visible kitchen. There are also three tables that can seat four each.

Sit at the counter, the show is better. The shiny silver (spotlessly clean) kitchen is full of activity, with a staff dressed in all black working in perfect coordination.

I was there for dinner with my husband. We started with a few appetizers including the best shrimp I have ever eaten in my life. It was lightly battered and fried and it melted in my mouth. Pricey at 1000 yen each, but I'd order them again.

My main dish was a marinated white fish (3,200 yen), my husband had lamb chops (3,900). Both absolutely delicious. We stopped there, but all of the French people around us (there were quite a few) had a cheese plate with bottles of wine, then coffee,...

Glasses of the house red were 1,300 yen, a 500ml bottle of Evian, 700 yen.There is a 10% service charge, and our bill came to 16,389 yen. Not somewhere you could eat on a regular basis. But, it was some of the best food I've ever eaten in Tokyo, I would recommend it, hands down.

Reservations are only accepted for lunch and early dinner.

Menus are in French and Japanese. If you don't read either, just pick anything - it all seems to be delicious.

Address: Roppongi Hills Hillside, 2nd Floor, 6-10-1 Roppongi
Hours of Operation: 11:00- 22:00 (last order is at 22:00).
Tel: 03-5772-7500

Next door is the Robuchon Boutique, which sells traditional French breads and pastries.

58. Restaurant Review: K-Shiki (Mandarin Oriental Hotel)

With incredible views of Tokyo from the 38th floor, K'Shiki is a restaurant in the new Mandarin Oriental Hotel. It has an elegant Japanese feel, with huge windows overlooking the city.

I visited this restaurant in a group of 25, and it was strongly suggested that we order the Mandarin Lunch Set. Three members that were unable to eat seafood ordered a pizza set instead, but the rest of us never saw a menu.

The lunch was 'Asian-inspired'. First, an appetizer of raw? scallops and octopus, cut into tiny pieces and mixed together. Perhaps a dish the Japanese would really like, it was not a big hit for our American crowd. Next was a wasabi flavored cream risotto with seaweed sprinkles. I found it quite tasty, but two of the ladies close to me only had a bite.

The main dish was a choice of roasted tenderloin or sea bream in a rice cracker coating. Both of these entrees were excellent. For dessert we had some vanilla bean ice cream and a fried wonton stuffed with chocolate. Everyone liked the ice cream (of course), but the wonton with chocolate was not that tasty. We also had a choice of tea or coffee.

Considering that the Mandarin Oriental is a major international hotel chain, I think they should have thought twice about recommending this set to our group. Americans are not known for having adventurous palettes. I have lived in Japan for 11 years, and even I wish that I had been given a different choice.

Service was excellent, although I felt there was too much of a gap between when we finished and when the desserts and coffee/tea arrived. Also, when asked if we preferred separate checks, we said 'yes'. I don't think they anticipated a 'yes' and there was quite a bit of commotion. We did get our separate checks, though.

The Mandarin Lunch Set was 3500 yen with a 10% service charge (a 5% consumption tax was already included). I will never understand why there has to be a service charge. Almost nowhere else in Japan is one ever included. I always feel cheated when foreign hotel chains insist on this practice. Since we had just completed a tour of the spa and they were courting our business, we did receive a 10% discount on our meal. That took care of our service charge, but everyone else in the restaurant still had to pay one.

I also ordered their least expensive glass of wine (1400 yen). One coke was ordered (900 yen). With drink prices so high, our other 23 members just drank water.

Although the view was magnificent, I doubt I will eat here again. I may, however, bring guests from overseas to the hotel. Perhaps we'll have better luck at one of the other restaurants, or maybe we'll just have drinks. For those who don't want to spend a lot of money for the view, just stand in the lobby. Or, even better, go to the bathroom. Definitely one of Tokyo's best free views of the city!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

57. Area Review: Sangenjaya (Setagaya)

Just outside of Shibuya on the Den-en-toshi Line is Sangenjaya, which means 'three tea houses'. The area was given this name because travelers from the countryside would stop here on their way into Tokyo. The tea houses are gone, and although there are a number of nice shops/restaurants in the area, there are three main reasons to visit:

First, it is a starting/ending station of the Tokyu Setagaya Line, one of only two remaining streetcars in Tokyo.

Second, is the Carrot Tower. It is Setagaya Ward's tallest building, and as it was built to attract people to Sangenjaya and the ward itself, it has a free observatory on the 26th floor.
There are many observatories in Tokyo, but I like this one because Sangenjaya lies outside of the Yamanote Line and their are no other tall buildings nearby. It gives a very unique perspective of the city.

The best way to enjoy the observatory is to have lunch there. Since the Carrot Tower is owned by the Setagaya Government, the restaurant has a cafeteria feeling, but the view and tasty food more than make up for its lack of style. The menu is all in Japanese, but if you can read katakana, you can read most of the choices. Best of all, lunches start at only 1100 yen and usually include salad and coffee/tea.
The Setagaya Public Theatre is also located in the Carrot Tower. And, I am happy to say, they actually have an English website:

The third reason to visit Sangenjaya is because it is home to one of Tokyo's two Samba Festivals (the other is in Asakusa). It is called the 'Sancha Matsuri' and in 2008 was held on August 23 and 24. The festival commemorates the historic relationship between Japan and Brazil, and it features an impressive Samba parade, live performances, and booths selling a wide variety of products.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

56. Transportation Review: Toden Arakawa Line

The Toden Arakawa Line, which originated in 1913, is one of only two remaining streetcars in Tokyo. It operates from Waseda Station in Shinjuku Ward, cutting through Toshima Ward and Kita Ward; before terminating at Minowabashi Station in Arakawa Ward.
On most of the 12 kilometer journey it runs along its own tracks; but it also runs along Meiji Dori between Asukayama Station and Oji Eki-mae Station. The entire ride takes about 50 minutes. It is a slow, and leisurely ride through some interesting sections of Tokyo's 'Shita-machi' (the traditional 'downtown').
Some interesting stations for explorations include:

*Waseda - home of Waseda University, one of the top private universities in Japan. The campus is open to the public and is covered with many trees.

*Zoshigaya - Zoshigaya Cemetery and Gokokuji Temple

*Koshinzuka - Sugamo, the 'Harajuku' of the elderly

*Asukayama - Asukayama Park and it's museums

*Arakawa-yuenchimae - Children's amusement park

*Minowabashi - very 'downtown' atmosphere with once popular shotengai covered shopping arcade

A ride along the Arakawa Line costs a flat 160 yen, no matter how far you go. I recommend buying the 'Ichinichi Josya Ken' for 400 yen. With this ticket, you can hop on and off the train as much as you like for one day.

To see a map of the streetcar (with connecting train lines), use this link:
Exploring along the Arakawa Line is a great, inexpensive way to spend the day!