Part one of my fellowship proposal was to spend 4 weeks in Japan learning about both their modern and traditional architecture. It was also (I hoped!) a bit of a gradual introduction to Asia, a bit of culture shock, but somewhere safe to get my head around things.
Architecturally Japan is has been incredible, and more diverse than I had imagined. Tokyo astounded me, I stayed in an area called Asakusa – geographically very close to the centre, but an area of old shops and a maze of tiny laneways. The contrast of this to the cityscape from Tange’s Metropolitan Government Offices is still something I’m finding hard to comprehend.
Most of my time in Tokyo was spent exploring the city with friends I made on my third day. From the tourist information service I had found out about a free tour of the nearby park, and ended up with three very lovely girls joining me. It was possibly the best tour I have ever done – a very kind man, Jun, walked us through the entire park and spent the morning teaching us about Japanese culture, religion and history. The park has museums, schools, temples and shrines – so this became the perfect introduction to Japan.
For about a week I spend most of my time with these girls, exploring the areas within Tokyo. One of the reasons for being in Japan was to look buildings by Tadao Ando.
Unfortunately I made the mistake of going to Omotesando Hills first, and in the same day looked at the Prada building by Herzog and De Meuron, and Saana’s Dior building. It seemed almost grotesquely consumerist and I lost most of my faith in modern architecture. I instead became distracted by temples and traditional architecture and lost most of my motivation to chase down Ando’s buildings.
This continued in Kyoto where I spent most of my time visiting temples and villas. In Kyoto I also got both sick and homesick – the enormity of the next 6 months hit me very hard. I had very quickly made some very good friends in Tokyo, but with all of us having parted out respective ways 6 months solo traveling dawned on me as a very daunting prospect and there were more than a few tears. A week with headaches and a chest infection (thank goodness for Japanese doctors with very good english!!) didn’t help things, but time and friends brought a new confidence, and belief that I could actually do this.
In Kyoto Ric Leplaistrier had suggested I visit the house of Kawai Kanjiro. It was the most beautiful house I have ever seen. Kanjiro was a famous Japanese potter who was also an incredible timber craftsman. The house he had made with his friends – both to live and work in, and since his death has been opened as a museum. It is one of the most delicately crafted buildings I have ever had the fortune to experience. It is built around a central courtyard and filled with Kanjiro’s ceramics, stools and sculptures. It includes his studio, and right the back is the kiln he used to fire his work. I spent hours here wandering around, somehow left by myself to explore the house.
After a bit more than a week in Kyoto I moved to Osaka for what has become an entirely different experience. Very fortunitously I booked the accommodation with some English friends I had made, as we ended up in a house in what can only be described as the Ghetto. Everyone says it is safe, but we are a very short walk from the largest red light district in Japan, and rumours have it the mafia live nearby. It is definitely not a place that I would like to walk around in by myself.
Not surprisingly it has been a very eye opening experience, and I am very grateful for the entirely different taste of Japan. One night we stumbled upon a tiny karaoke bar, and spent the better part of two hours singing and dancing with a handful of locals, aged somewhere between 40-70. Architecturally it has also been a goldfield. The house we are staying in operates a bit like a hostel, a bit like a sharehouse. I sleep on a futon, on a tatami mat floor, and have been given the opportunity to explore a ‘modern’ run of the mill Japanese house. I’m not sure what I think of it, but I had been desperately curious about what lay within the Japanese terrace – and its an interesting mix of tradition and the sort of terrace houses we have at home.
Towards the end of my stay in Osaka I realised I should probably visit some of Ando’s buildings – he was after all the primary reason I put Japan on the trip. I organised to go to Awaji Yumebutai, The Water Temple, and Church of Light. I will be forever grateful that I did. The Church of Light and The Water Temple completely blew me away. I haven’t figured out how to describe how they made me feel – excited, humbled, and entirely amazed. I don’t think I have been in buildings that elegant, simple, but so fanatically but delicately considered. I also had the most lovely experience at The Church of Light. I was standing outside sketching when a man who lived next door came over and showed me some postcards of paintings (which I believe he had done – we had a few language problems and I had just given my phrasebook away). What it took me a while to realise was that he was giving them to me and now I have these beautiful pictures, one exactly the same as the view I was sketching! (except with better perspective and whole lot more artistic talent).
So I am awfully disappointed I didn’t spend more of my time searching for Ando’s buildings. My experience of Omotesando turned me off “big name” architects and I think I might have missed much in Japan as a consequence.
I did get distracted by beautiful temples and some amazing little alleyways – but I regret not visiting more of his buildings. However this has given me a renewed excitement about the chance to see Zumthor’s buildings in Switzerland, and will get me doing a whole lot more research to see what other buildings cross my travel path.
I thought you might like to know about the drawings. They’ve been happening, but very slowly. As you would all know, Poppy’s drawings were absolutely incredible and left me feeling very daunted. I have some pretty serious problems just drawing correct perspective and had this idea that I should be creating brilliant drawings of everything I see, which left me too scared to draw anything. I think I’ve got to stop thinking of the sketches as drawings I bring back to show people, but drawings I do for myself. This began to happen in the last few days, and I’ve done much more sketching, but more importantly been enjoying the process！ So I don’t have a lot of drawings to bring back from Japan, and I’ll apologise in advance for that. I’m thinking of approaching Japan as my learning process. It’s taken me a while to figure out what on earth I’m actually doing – I think I might be almost there? As you would all know, there’s a few ideas intertwined that underpin the where and the whys of my itinerary. I’ve also got a bit of a love hate relationship with architecture – some days its brilliant, others a blight on the world. Then the travel itself is a bit of a challenge, trying to find a balance between making friends, chasing down architectural wonders, experiencing what I’m calling “non” architecture (the beautiful places that seem to happen, rather than be designed) and wandering lost around cities. So in my books Japan was the most brilliant place to start getting my head around architecture, sketching, solo traveling, language barriers and culture shock. I have had the most amazing month (despite the tears), seen beautiful buildings and made some wonderful friends. It still astounds me that you all are helping me do this, so to finish, a big thank you to all the sponsors and everyone on the committee who has helped make this happen!!!