Thursday, June 30, 2011

Reason Why I am an Architect

Today (or more accurately yesterday) I travelled to Yokohama to see the architectural wonder, the Yokohama International Ferry Terminal. Designed by FOA is has caused a large stir in the architectural community and has been the focus of many books. Most of these books equate the terminals design to the mark the transition into Landscape Urbanism, a sort of sandwiched/compressed topography of programming space. Whatever way you want to see the terminal, its still a fantastic piece of architecture.

Waking up early I got ready to commute to Yokohama. Luckily where I live I have access to an commuter express train and made it too the ferry terminal's nearest station in under 30mins. Approaching the ferry terminal I was overjoyed. I studied this building extensively for my thesis and now I was finally able to step foot on it. 

It was blazingly hot this day, but there was a strong ocean breeze that helped to keep things cool. I bathed in sunblock before I got to the terminal, so fingers were crossed that I would not have another baking incident. I roamed all over the terminal taking pictures and enjoying the many unique spaces and conditions that were created by the surface variations. Very few people were at the terminal, so it made for some good photographs. I was a little disappointed however to realize for such a hot climate FOA only designed a few awnings to protect people from the sun.

After traversing the length of the terminal I made my way down into the inner folds of the terminal's landscape. I first entered the exhibition space,but it was in use by a group so I could only take some pictures at the entrance. Moving along the edges of the terminal I entered into the main terminal space. A grand space with its distinct folded ceiling. I was overjoyed at this point, I always wanted to see and interact in this space.

Something started to dawn on me though, as well as all the details were done in the terminal by FOA, it did little to allow for adaptation. While FOA stated in their theories about the terminal that it could modify itself to changing requirements, the newer interventions were done with little grace. While the terminal did not have one 90 degree surface, the juxtaposed walls of the kiosks and shop stalls broke up the natural flow of the terminals design. It was an unfortunate condition. Advertisements and other billboards littered the space and broke up the almost church like qualities of the space. I do not know if this is a failure of FOA to integrate these ideas or was the terminals owner's failure to have properly integrated features (I tend to lean on the latter as I could think of a few alternatives that would have retained the integrity of the stations design). 

After shooting more than 100 photos of the terminal I finally pried myself away from the building to continue on with my days plan. One aspect of the plan was skipped due to the hot weather. I wanted to walk over to a nearby pier to take a look at a refurbish brick factory building (similar to Toronto's Distillery District), but the 37C weather and lack of sun protection on the pier forced me to change my mind.

Continuing on I headed over to the famed Yokohama's Chinatown, and it was a big let down. If you are from Toronto you understand Chinatown (or Chinatowns) as places where actual Chinese frequent for all their entertainment and goods. The Chinatown in Yokohama was nothing more than a tourist trap filled with repeated restaurants and novelty stores. Thinking as though this Chinatown was like Toronto's I wanted to have dim sum for brunch, but not a single restaurant sold purely dim sum... big let down. Most of the Chinese food was a sort of mainland mix, but mostly focused on Shanghai cuisine... which is alright, but lacked the seafood's of Cantonese styles and spicy foods of Sichuan. Oh well, deciding that lunch was not a good idea here I decided that I will do lunch at the Ramen Museum... I was not disappointed.

The Ramen Museum as the name states is a museum for the famed Chinese noodle adaptation, Ramen. Situated in the most bineign area (got lost trying to find it in a no name street), the Ramen Museum is the sort of place you'd walk by everyday and not care to know whats inside. But what's inside is amazing.

Once getting your ticket and passing through a Metro style gate you are presented with..... the boring gift shop... I was not impressed, nothing there won me over with the faux pristine noodle station with novelties piled on it. But then you find a stair case that takes you below.... you start to notice that the place seems dirty, and maybe a little old...

 and you go deeper... older and dirtier... 

and then you enter the main space.

You are transported back to a 1930/40's Tokyo! The city as been compressed into a courtyard and you are witnessed to an almost Back to the Future sort of situation. The faux interior is augmented by the real Ramen shops which feature a different ramen recipe from across the country of Japan. 

Starving I beelined for the nearest and least busy noodle shop. Not sure of what the menu presented me I ordered from the ticket machine of what seemed to be the most popular dish at that shop... and of course a pint of beer. The miso ramen was delicious!!! smooth and delicious.... and the pork slices were heart stoppingly delicious... I gorged on the soup and beer and was done in no time.... I was stuffed... really stuffed... I wanted to try more of the ramens, but I could barely move... 

I decided that I needed to walk around and burn off some of that food. The museum turned out to be a real gem of a place and reminded me of how museums used to be fun as a kid. The whole place was different alleyways of real and faux shops. Some were ode to shops of days past and others were functioning period bars. The place is so popular that everyday salarymen from the area come there for lunch and dinner to enjoy the space. 

After burning off some of the ramen I waited in line at what seemed to be the most popular Ramen shop... and I was definitely not disappointed with!!! The ramen soup base is traditionally made with miso and dashi (fermented soy bean and Japanese fish/kelp stock), but this ramen soup base had a twist. The original ramen soup base was thickened with bonito (smoked fish flakes) and ground dried fish... it was amazing... a dish I will never forget... it will give me nightmares now... I am going to try to replicated this dish and I know I will not succeed. It was a heavenly delicious...!

When I fished that dish I was stuffed... sick almost... I thought I was ordering the sample dish but mistakenly ordered the full size dish... oh well... I had two amazing ramen dishes and it gives me a reason to come back to the museum to try more! 

I travelled home with a full gut of food and a smile. I crashed in my bed and slept soundly after....

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Here Fishy Fishy Fishy

Now that I am wrapped up my time with my internship with the firm of Arata Isozaki & Associates I am devoting this next week to touring the many sights of Tokyo. After three months of an Open Desk position with the firm I am left almost pennyless, so I am spending most of my time around Tokyo to save money.

At 4:30am I dragged myself out of bed, why? Because I am heading to the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo Bay. Why so early? Because the market sales are almost done by 9am and fully closed by 11am... so time was of the essence. I wanted to go see the tuna action, but since the earthquake the tuna actions have been closed to the public (or most likely is that they finally had a strong reason to ban tourists from the tuna sales). The Fish market is firstly a business, and probably at the far extreme end a tourist destination. The inner market is where the wholesaling of most of Tokyo's and Japan's fish is done. This is the place where you get to see Tuna the size of cows.

Tourists are not allowed into the inner market before 9am, but as I arrived at 6:30am and the outer market was just gearing up, I decided I should make the plunge. The market is a photographers dream, but alas I did not take many. The place is literally a death trap. Fast moving carts, bicycles and fish mongers leave little space and time to take pictures. This is a place of business and just felt wrong to stand in the way and take pictures. Therefore I was only able to snap a few pictures of the interior. But the memories will last forever. Mountains of fish and other sea creatures; hundred pound tuna's being carved up by 1m long swords; and the rapid movements of fish mongers and their carts.

After escaping the inner market I made my way around the outer market. The outer market is a sort of everything market with a large concentration of fish related products like fish cakes. So many foods I wanted to try, but had no way of transporting them home cold nor money to purchase them. However, even low on funds I had to try sushi at the Tsukiji Fish Market. I chose to go to a more mainstream sushi place with a little cheaper prices, but still really high quality. The nigiri-zushi was the best I have ever had. The grilled fatty tuna was south watering and gave me a whole new love for sushi. I tried as many as I can with a particular fondness for the mackerel zushi.

After gorging on the raw fish I decided I really needed a coffee. I toured over to a small coffee shop just outside the outer market. The coffee was extremely good...!

After the coffee I decided that I would walk around the surrounding area of the fish market. Nothing overly exciting in the area, however there was an interesting 1930's? building sort of dropped into the area.

After the fish market I decided to make my way over to Tsukishima area, about one stop away from the fish market. The Tsukishima area once contained many traditional Japanese narrow lane homes, but now has given way to massive high rises and large vacant public spaces. Some of the lane houses luckily still exist there with a small canal. I wanted to try a famous dish there called monjiyaki, but I could not find a place selling it. It was likely though that I was too early in the area to try the food.

After touring Tsukishima I hoped on the metro and traveled 2 stops over to Shiodome, a sort of new business district located on vacant harbour lands. Its interesting that the land was flat before development, but the Japanese design method was to have buildings with multiple topographies. There are elevated streets, metro lines and multilevelled atriums spaces and interacting with each other. All these spaces and walkways are interconnected to the surround buildings. What it amounts to is a surprisingly rich and dense building area. Interestingly the elevated walkways did not seem vacant like so many western designs.

On one of the upper levels I found a fomous television studio's restaruant that houses a massive entertainment clock. The clock is styled to look like the anime style 'Steam Punk' and at every 6th hour the clock puts on a one minute display. Unfortunetely due to power conservation measures, the clock was not functioning. But you can view its display here on youtube.

After walking around Shiodome I walked over to the Hama-Rikyu Park. The park was designed for a wealthy feudal lord during the Edo period. By the time I got to the park it was about noon and the sun was deadly! I knew I was going to burn without sunblock, but I soldiered on an hugged the tree line. The park was a surprising treat. Large open green spaces and lots of forested areas, brought back memories of Canada. I found a nice shaded area and napped for about an hour in the hot air. After waking up from my nap from a helicopter flying overhead, I decided to finish the tour of the park. I found an interesting area where the lord of the park had a manmade duck pond constructed with specially designed duck blinds. The pond and duck blinds blended into the surround landscape into one complete whole.

Where I napped
After finished the tour of the park and being sufficiently burnt and soaked with sweat I decided to make my way home... but I gave into a previous idea I had. I wanted to stop off in Roppongi on the way home because people at my former firm told me that there is a free gallery and book store near by. I found the TOTO gallery (which also displays bathroom fixtures) and its book store and was greatly surprised. I found all the books I wanted to buy and for a greatly reduced price from their Canadian counter parts (roughly 1/2 the price). Above the bookstore is the free gallery that was another gem space. On display was architect Jun Igarashi scaled models of various projects and designs. The models were designed at very large scales, 1:10 for some of them and were almost like doll houses. It was greatly inspirational show to see and has spurred me on to get home and start building ideas I have with large models. 

When I left the gallery I beelined it for home. I was exhausted.... wet and burnt. I essentially crashed when I got home... The next day was another big day.. the day I travel to Yokohama to see the famed Yokohama International Ferry Terminal... 

stay tuned

Monday, June 20, 2011

Higashiizu Onsen

So this past weekend I journeyed south of the Tokyo to Shizuoka prefecture to the town of Higashiizu; a town of about 17,000. The day started off with a trip to Ikea (or as the Japanese pronouce it ee-kay-ah, which confused me as a town or something before I realized it was EYE-kea). The reason for the trip to Ikea was to save some $$$, jump the free shuttle from Tokyo to Yokohama's Ikea, and then the free shuttle from Ikea to Yokohama-shin station... At the Ikea I grabbed some breakfast, which turned out to be not bad, and the coffee was really great help.
Ikea waiting for the Shuttle Bus to Yokohama-shin
The next stage of the journey was some train hoping to get south to Shizuoka... we were a little held up by taking the wrong train, but cleared it up and only lost 30mins or so. The journey was entertaining, the terrain changed from the flat urban sprawl of Tokyo to the ever steepening mountains to the south. If I was to travel a little more south east I would have been in the region of Mt. Fuji. Its nice to see even though Japan is highly urbanized, its a very lush island.
Steepening Terrain

The station in Higashiizu was quite rural with only one gate, though luckily my metro pass worked all the way south of Tokyo. We found our short bus driver and ended up waiting in the van until the driver knew there was no one else coming (which there wasn't, we were the only people heading to that onsen).

Waiting in the Shuttle Bus in Higashiizun
The first thing you notice when arriving into Higashiizu is these towers similar to old oil drilling towers, but this are markers for the hot spring wells. This region was know for hot springs of high mineral content, so this region had a bit of a fart smell of the sulfurs in the waters. Waiting in the van I noticed the place was very rough around the edges, and would not be the last of noticing that.

The bus ride was a short tight turning journey through the town, which from the windows didn't look overly entertaining with most store-fronts locked up with metal shutters. The onsen hotel was located on a dead-end bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It appears this onsen was an amalgamation of 3 separate onsens. We were greeted by a nice heavyset receptionist couple that told us about the hotels amenities and the times for the onsens. The times were a little confusing for me as I couldn't follow along with all what they were saying. 

The room was much much bigger than I expected. It was a large multi room space with a nice bathroom with tub and shower, an anti room, a reception space, and the main room that included a dining space, beds, sitting area and balcony. The balcony had a nice view of the gloomy day, but the sound of the ocean on the rocks was really soothing. 

As soon as getting settled we were off to the onsens to relax. After figuring out how to put on the robe (which I forget its proper name) I was off to the onsen. The onsen has a few conventions that should be done. When entering the change room you choose your basket, disrobe and put your belongings in basket. Grab a glass of water (which I would find out later why). Just before entering I noticed a elderly gentleman (fully naked at that) weighing himself and I decided to do the same.... before entering the onsen I was 73kg.

When in the onsen you choose one of the many showers to clean yourself before entering the waters. This isn't like showers in public pools in Canada, this is fully outfitted shower spaces with mirrors, an array of soaps and shampoo and other skin care products. After that you grab a small bucket and scoop up some of the onsen waters... you douse your feet to chest as to relax your body to the 'shock' of the waters (as I was told). 

The waters were amazing. The onsen waters were naturally ground heated to 85C and then tempered to an acceptable temperature with sea water. What you are left with is a really smooth feeling water. I boiled away in the onsen for a long while... and then I chose to go outside to the outdoor onsen. I was along and had a great view of the shoreline. The outdoor onsen was much hotter than the indoor waters... I alternated roasting in the waters and relaxing on the cedar lounge chairs.

Lounging I was able to take in the details of the onsen. This onsen had seen some better days. Its obviously the product of the 1980's boom period of rapid construction. The soffit and large chunk of the roof had rotted away from the outdoor waters... there was many areas where the salt waters had not be kind to the building. It baffles my why steel and aluminium was utilized in a climate of salty air and steamy waters. Made me want to think of ways of designing an onsen that can pass the test of time.

After roasting a long long time in the waters I left to dry off and get ready for dinner. Just before leaving I weighed by self again, 71kg!!! I lost 2kg from just sweating and would soon notice those effects, my thirst for water all night was insatiable. 

The dinner was really really good and I ate and ate from the buffet of sashimi and other treats. One of the highlights was chunks of pineapple that I could not believe could be so sweet. Usually I do not like pineapple, but this was almost like eating candy it was so sweet tasting. 

After dinner my friend urged me in my bloated state to go try a special onsen that had healing properties... so I joined and roasted some more. After returning to the room to restock on some water we headed to the reserved onsen room to chill. Was very disappointed to find that the brochure showed a nice view from the room and when entering the room the windows had been masked with film for privacy. We pried open a window for cooler air and found that we faced the parking lot and a giant rusting expansion tank for the onsen waters... 
Natural Onsen Waters returning to the sea
After that roast is was off to bed... and slept amazingly to the sound of the ocean. Waking up for breakfast was rough as the breakfast was from from 7-8:30am... after chowing down on some authentic Japanese and western breakfast treats I returned to my room. My friend chose to go to the onsen after breakfast, but I was too full and slept some more to the sound of the ocean, very very relaxing...

After that we checked out of the hotel and decided to walk back to the train station. On the way we stopped off a souvenir shop to pick up some traditional gifts.  I bought some treats for people at work and for family back home. After that it was the long journey back to Tokyo.

In all it was a great weekend, but obviously too short. I would love to do a tour of Japan's onsens, especially at the right time of year... fall and winter... nothing better than cool air and hot waters. Hope to get to another onsen very soon.