One of my favorite plants in Japan is the susuki grass (Miscanthus sinensis) which you can find growing wild just about anywhere in Japan (and many other parts of Asia), and due to eager gardeners, here and there in Europe and North America as well. The grass is very decorative and yellows beautifully in autumn, with a soft almost brush like head. There are few feelings that can match striding through a field of this beautiful grass, almost as tall as yourself.
In the old days the susuki was cultivated everywhere. Humans grew it in neat little fields near their houses in every village and villagers would take turns to harvest it and use it to thatch the roofs of everything from temples to castles to simple barns. Anything left over could be used as a simple ingredient for straw figures and as feed for the livestock. The susuki was also the perfect home for the tiny harvest mouse which in turn was preyed upon by the owls that lived near the villages.
In Japanese poetry and folk tradition there is something special about the susuki, it is thoroughly common and very plain looking yet there is a sense that we can find beauty even in something as common as this grass. I have often noted how many people stop and smile while looking at it, in parks and in the wild. Not everyone though. It can be quite tricky to control in smaller house gardens and I have had a few sad moments cutting it back when I volunteer to help friends with their gardening. For me the susuki is as essential to an elevated Japanese garden as the rock, the moss or the momiji.
The best place to see the gorgeous fields of susuki in the Kanto area is in Hakone, up until roughly Nobember. There is a guide to the sadly under appreciated art of susuki-watching here.
I found this gorgeous thicket of susuki growing on a ridge near the summit of Mount Takao a couple of weeks ago.
Having been cancelled due to the 3/11 earthquake, the Omotesando Illuminations are back in force this year. All of the famous zelkova trees on Omotesando boulevard has been wrapped in lights. At night the whole place is lit up and to avoid dangerous crowds forming on the pedestrian overpasses these have been shut off for public use. I still managed to sneak a few photos at the street crossing despite the guards urging crowds not to stop for too long and hold up traffic. The illuminations are scheduled to last until January 5th, and is lit until 2100 every night (with an exception off the 21st to 25th when it stays on until 2200).
Omotesando is not only flagship stores but also the home for several very high end shopping “clusters”, like the Omotesando Hills, that flaunted building rules by digging down instead of building up. There are more sub-floors than top floors and it is a must for people interested in modern architecture. As you can see though, the building doesn’t look like much from the outside. I don’t blog about it because photography is not allowed inside (for some reason). For kids (with well off parents) or people who still like to see fun/cool/strange/high end toys, the famous Kiddyland store is a must. It celebrates 60 years in business this year! Very close to Kiddyland is one of the few stores that virtually everyone I know visit at least once, Oriental Bazaar. It has a huge range of fake-traditional to genuinely traditional craft, art and souvenirs, and the prices are about as fair as anywhere in Japan. It has everything from the tackiest plastic samurai swords for kids to real antique kimono. A lot of people I know go there once, to check out the souvenirs and get an idea of prices, and then again before they go home to fill up on any gifts and souvenirs they missed (and I missed getting a photo of the place). You can miss Kiddyland and Oriental Bazaar as they are pretty close, on the right hand side if you come from Harajuku station and walk towards Omotesando street crossing. Omotesando Hills is on the opposite side.
For touristy eating there is also the rather good (for a conveyor belt sushi restaurant) Heiroku Sushi (the photos on their site are old, it looks much better these days). They have proper English menu and a huge variety of sushi, fish and otherwise: a great place to challenge your conceptions about raw food. If you are more into burger chains Wendy’s also has a nice shop just off Omotesando street just near the Sushi place, it is a little tricky to find. Of course there are hundreds of other restaurants, but for the casual tourist with not too much time or money on hand these might be a good start.
Apart from Omotesando Hills there is also the newish Tokyu Plaza, or the Omahara Plaza as some cool cats say (Omotsando + Harajuku = Omahara) with some very peculiar architecture, especially at the entrance. This place is more like a proper department store, with lots of different shops and restaurants, including off course a more stylish mini-Tokyu Hands. Also good for souvenirs.
Two weekends ago I visited the famous Mount Takao, probably the most visited mountai/nature park in Tokyo. People here love seeing the seasons changing so the getting out of the city to watch the changing colors of the autumn leaves is almost as popular as getting out in spring to watch the cherry blossoms. It always feels unreal to visit this mountain as you get onto a normal commuter at the worlds busiest train station, and step off an hour later, surrounded by an almost overwhelming amount of nature.
Among all this nature there is also quite a bit of culture, as the mountain is home of one of the more powerful buddhist temples in Japan, founded all the way back in 744 A.D. The temple’s statues, markers and stones are scattered along the path to the temple and makes for some very photogenic scenery!
Mount Takao is officially just over 599m tall, but in the old days it used to be over 601m. A couple of big earthquakes early last century forced officials to recalculate the mountain and it appears to have shrunk a tiny bit. There botany of the mountain is also quite varied and has been intensively studied, yielding a stunning 63 new plant species first discovered (by science) at this mountain.
Few areas of Tokyo are as famous as Omotesando, the 1100m long street leading up to the huge Meiji Grand Shrine. Officially Omotesando street is known as Route 413 but in common use the name refers to the street and the immediate surroundings. The Omotesando Boulevad begins in Minato Ward but ends in Shibuya Ward. Since Omotesando is quite possibly the most fashionable address in Japan shops will use the name even if they are not on the street itself. The street is home to several high brand flagship stores and to have a shop on Omotesando is generally regarded as the ultimate in the Asian fashion world. Naturally, the rents here are astronomical.
In a country of ancients Omotesando itself is a mere baby, having been inaugurated in 1919 together with the Meiji Grand Shrine. The boulevard is lined by zelkova trees, 163 of them, all but 11 of which were planted in 1950 to replace the ones that perished in the American air raids 1944-1945. The prewar trees are marked out with special plaques if you are interested in some serious tree spotting (look for them near Omotesando Hills)! The alignment of the street is calculated to correspond perfectly with the winter solstice. On that morning, the sun will rise exactly above the street. Up until 2003 there were also a few buildings left from the first western style public housing project in Japan, the Dojunkai council houses. Most of them survived the war but very little remain today. I remember the absolute contrast in architecural style (as well as pricing in rents!) from the old concrete council estate on the right side of the street and the massive luxury brand stores on the right! After the war, and during the Korean war, a large US Air Force Base (Washington Heights, of which today there is only one building left) was housed in nearby Yoyogi and Omotesando prospered as a shopping street. The area became even more famous during the 1964 Tokyo olympics and in 1972 the subway station on the other end, Meijijingumae Station, opened (Omotesando station opened in 1938).
Since 2009 Omotesando has been illuminated during December, giving extra strength to the nickname of “the Champs Aliases of Tokyo”. I’ll blog about the illuminations later this week!
You can use the tag “Omotesando” to see all posts about this area.