Yesterday from morning to midnight we had a second big snowfall over Tokyo. It is said that we got about 10cm but looking out of my window the morning after I think it was a lot more in some places. I was out and about in the early evening around Aoyama and Omotesando and luckily I had my camera. Both me and my camera were thoroughly soaked after a few minutes in the snow and I had to stop in doorways every few meters just to wipe of the lens as it got covered in snow within seconds. As usual though the subways were doing well but hundreds of flights were cancelled, the shinkansen trains ran on reduced speeds and several highways were closed. It seems that we will be blessed with interesting weather this year!
The AO Building in Aoyama looked great in the snow (here are some photos of it in daylight and here are some at night), whereas Omotseando came out even rougher in the storm (compare with these photos from last December). The Taro Okamoto statue outside of the Kodomo no Shiro building in Aoyama looked regal, I have blogged about one of his paintings before, The Myth of Tomorrow which was featured in a very good Internet hoax).
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.
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.
In Tokyo’s Aoyama/Omotesando district there are tons of hidden gems for tourists and local that stray off the big roads and enter the maze of tiny streets and alley where the real heart of Aoyama is. Despite Aoyama being one of the most famous address in Tokyo, it feels very secluded and remarkably empty to wander around the back streets at any time of the day. The streets are absolutely loaded with top notch boutiques, fashionable hair dressers and great tiny (and not even that expensive) bars and restaurants. I guess it must the fear of getting lost that keeps people away because even after visiting the are dozens of times I still have to keep a mental track of where I am going and in which direction I am heading. But there is no harm in getting lost and wherever you end up is bound to be good, whether it is Omotesando, Shibuya or Harajuku.
A few weeks ago I took a wrong turn on my way home late one night and stumbled upon the Portofino center. It was just after a major rain and the rather splendid architecture with the wooden details were shining in the light reflected from the street lights. It felt like I had stumbled upon a hidden treasure! I returned a few day later and took these photos of the Portofino buildings, and of the wedding hall so beautifully reflected in the windows. The Saint Grace Cathedral (which of course is not a real Cathedral, it is just the name of the building and the wedding event planning company that runs it. Japanese people are quite in love with the romantic idea of a gorgeous western wedding so all around Japan there are these little faux churches to cater to the soon to be wedded couples. Although it might look a little like a movie prop, the place looks fantastic when used in wedding ceremonies and considering the costs involved in flying a wedding party to a proper church abroad, it is quite reasonable (and ecological). Almost every night you can see couples practicing for the wedding ceremony or doing the photo shoots in the beautifully lit night.
The easiest way to find this place is to go to Ao Building in Aoyama, and then turn left just to the side of it, walk straight into the maze of streets and keep an eye out for the towers. It is easier to find at night! The place is quite new and not very established yet but there are restaurants, clinics and wine bars, so far.