Tokyo, the heart of Japan, also the capital of Asian technology, artificial intelligence robots, overcrowded trains and capsule hotels. At the same time, a quiet temple on the outskirts of the city, a museum showcasing folk fabrics, a restaurant reinventing classic dishes and a traditional inn reveals that Tokyo continues to be very in touch with its cultural heritage. Slow down your pace, and you will discover time-honoured gems silently hidden among the rows of bright neon lights and populated streets.
01. Hondo-ji Temple
An hour by train from the heart of Tokyo, Hondo-ji Temple is a quick getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city. It is famous for its beautiful blooms of irises and hydrangeas during the summer, but you can visit it all year round to take in the picturesque view of changing foliage hues in the different seasons. Along the streets leading to the temple, a marketplace selling seasonal vegetables welcomes visitors with a complimentary bowl of miso soup.
If you are looking for a unique souvenir, pick up a Goshuin. Usually inscribed with graceful calligraphy the temple’s name and stamped in vermillion the date and symbol of the temple, these temple insignias have become a collectors’ item among the locals, who buy them on their pilgrimage to various temples throughout the country. The calligraphy styles also differ by the monks who have written them, so that no two pieces are ever the same. The monks exchanged it for sutras copied and donated to the temple by the folk population in the past, but you can now get yours on a special notebook (Goshuin-Cho) for a contribution of 300 to 500 yen.
02. Weekends at Yoyogi Park
The famed city park right beside the Meiji Shrine comes alive during weekends, with various performances and cosplayers out near the bridge to showcase the quirkiness of the city. During Autumn, you can enjoy having a picnic amongst the ginkgo trees and the bright yellow leaves enveloping the grounds like a blanket. If you are lucky enough, you can catch the infamous rockabilly group performing their signature dances in the centre of the park.
03. BORO : The Fabric of Life
I was researching on the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi, the simplicity and quiet beauty in imperfection, for my schoolwork when I chanced upon its manifestation in fabric form. Born out of poverty, the Boro of the Amori tribe was stitched together from multiple scraps of cotton to form patchwork quilts which protected families from the harsh winters. While the Boro is no longer in use today, it has inspired many designers to adopt the philosophy of Wabi-Sabi in their work. The AMUSE Museum in Asakusa tells the heart-warming stories of the Amori community and their garments.
04. Goshuin : Collecting Temple Insignias
A well kept secret and so-called collector’s item of the locals is the Goshuin, temple insignias usually consisting of the temple’s name gracefully written in calligraphy by the monks, along with a vermillion date and symbol of the temple stamped over it. In the past, Goshuin is given when offering a sutra that you wrote to temples. Nowadays, you can get it done on the special notebook (Goshuin-Cho) for 300 to 500 yen as a support to the temples. Full of character and always one-of-a-kind, Goshuin is a unique way to remember the temples you’ve been in Japan.
05. Chanko Nabe at Chanko Shibamatsu, Nakameguro
Nabe is a hearty and protein-rich hotpot traditionally eaten by sumo wrestlers. The Chanko Nabe shop at Chanko Shibamatsu, Nakameguro does not expect you to eat enough meat fit for a sumo wrestler though. Instead, they have transformed it into a healthy meal with vegetable-based broths, coupled with sashimi appetisers and characteristic Japanese sides like creamy croquettes and tempuras. Unlike the Chinese hotpots we are familiar with, however, the Japanese hotpots are served with ingredients already cooking in the soup. Also, condiments are kept to a minimum, so as to bring out the natural flavours of the meat and vegetables. There are soy and salt-based soup flavours, but I am in love with the miso one!
06. Coffee break at Omotesando Koffee
Huddled in a quiet corner in the back alleys of Omotesando is Omotesando Koffee. Truly a hole-in-the-wall, the humble standing coffee place looks like a zen garden from outside. They are passionate about their coffee and they stick to the basics, making only classic coffee styles. Serious and no-nonsense, the place favours the quiet and calm, with no loud chatter allowed in the premises.
07. Kimi Ryokan
Rather than indulging in a modern hotel, opt for a warm family-run Japanese inn complete with tatami mats, polished wooden floors and fluffy futons. Built in the 1950s, Kimi Ryokan aspires to create connections between travellers from all around the world. As one of the only few ryokans left in Tokyo, Kimi Ryokan successfully fuses Japanese traditional living together with modern comfort, to bring the best of both worlds to their customers. If you have the time, indulge in the Japanese bath they provide, or gather at the rooftop terrace to meet with other like-minded travellers for a cultural exchange with someone from another part of the world. You may realise that we are not all that different after all.