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Thursday, 27 November 2014

Baisouin, the temple of glass and bamboo

It's an old temple. It was established in 1643. This is what it looks like:

Baisōin (or Basouin) in Aoyama, designed by Kengo Kuma

Seriously. Or, in South African English, seriaas!

Baisōin originated 371 years ago, but it was reconstructed in 2003, based on a design by Kengo Kuma*, the same architect who designed the ultra-modern Akagi Jinja in Kagurazaka.

I read about his temple when I researched his shrine, and finally got a chance to visit it last Sunday. I promise – word of honour as fact-obsessed information junkie – that I did consult my books and Google this temple, but don't fix what ain't broke and don't reinvent the wheel. Unless, of course, you replace wheels with this.

I digress.

This shot was taken from the cemetery next to the temple

Point is, the best information about this temple is in its brochure: concise and written in faultless English. I'm therefore going to commit shameless plagiarism, with full credit to Baisōin in Minami-Aoyama. The temple's name can also be transcribed as Baisouin, and you can find more information here, here and here.

Its full name is Chōseizan Hōjuji Baisōin (長青寶樹梅窓). It belongs to the Jōdo-shū (浄土宗) or Pure Land School of Buddhism, and was originally sponsored by Aoyama Yoshinari, a senior statesman in the Tokugawa era. It's served as the Aoyama family's ancestral temple, and thirteen generations of family heads are enshrined here. (Yes, same family that lends its name to the district in which the temple is located.)

It was redesigned by Kuma, a professor at the University of Tokyo, one of Japan's best-known architects and a winner of numerous international awards (link, link).

His design is a beautiful, simple glass-and-steel structure that allows soft light to filter through unhindered. It's approached through an avenue of bamboo that leads to the original temple gate, left intact. 

Simplicity, clean lines, lots of natural light

Stone garden under the steps

This is what he says in the temple's brochure:
My aim was to create a temple with the feeling of an oasis in the middle of the city. To achieve this, the approach from Aoyama-dori, which is heavily trafficked, was important. As one approaches the main gate, the design incorporates bamboo on either side to create a feeling of serenity appropriate for communication with the Buddha … Particular attention was paid to the colour of the bamboo. Using yellow rather than green bamboo created a feeling of quiet, elegant simplicity.
The bamboo-lined entrance of the temple

The original gate still stands. The small structure on the right is a pet cemetery.

The temple's main image is Amida Buddha, referred to as the Buddha of infinite light. It also includes an image of Kannon Bodhisattva, and is one of the temples that form the Edo 33 Kannon Pilgrimage (also called the Tokyo 33 Kannon Pilgrimage in English sources).

The temple … OK, this is now my own commentary, not taken from the brochure … the temple also has a surprisingly large cemetery that's probably the newest and best-maintained I've ever seen in central Tokyo, with a small brook and several shady spots under copses of trees. It's beautiful, but if left me with the same awkward restlessness that I experienced in the very wealthy, very upmarket Tsutaya Books in Daikenyama: lots of style, not so much atmosphere.

(Scribbles note to self: You're such a poverty-stricken barbarian, Ru, that you have no appreciation for the upper echelons of refined society. Or "snotty stuff", as you call it so eruditely. Best shut up.)

(Scribbles second note to self: Three years ago you promised yourself a second visit to Tsutaya. You haven't done it yet. Go.)

Autumn colours in the cemetery

However, let it be stated categorically that the cemetery is lovely and offers a tranquil escape after the crowds in Ichō Namiki. The staff in the information office is graceful and helpful, the brochure is in English, the bamboo is beautiful. Well worth a visit.

* I write his name in the Western way, with his family name last, since he's so well-known in English-speaking countries.

** I dedicate this post to the two architects I know, Du and Cocomino. I have endless admiration for a brain that can combine art and maths.

Added Friday 28 November

Du has shared extra information with us. If you're interested in Kengo Kuma, here's a lecture in which he describes his work and philosophy (it's a video on Vimeo). You can also read more about his designs in Anti-Object, available on Thanks, Du!

The entrance on Aoyama-dori

Two tiny Jizō statues guard the entrance.

Standing in the old gate, looking towards Aoyama-dori


Cemetery detail above and below

This is the kind of thing that amuses my small mind: it may be a tranquil cemetery
in an upmarket suburb, but there's still a vending machine tucked into an impossible corner.

The temple's brochure was my main source of information.

Todai ginkgo report, 27 November

I share, with no further comment, the glory of Tōdai's ginkgos as photographed this morning.


The most glorious ginkgo in the world will be at his best this coming weekend.

I as standing under the most glorious ginkgo in the world when I took this shot.

Brown is beautiful, too.

Monday, 24 November 2014

The ginkgos of Aoyama

Aoyama is not my natural habitat. It's très chichi, in other words, very fancy, but to say "very fancy" isn't fancy enough. Rather go for faux French.

Despite my discomfort in such refined surroundings, I was lured there by the twin temptations of gold and gods. You could even add sex, since I found myself walking through a fairly shady area in Shibuya later that same day, but that was happenstance rather than forethought. Money, religion and fornication. That covers all the bases, doesn't it?

The gods were at a temple and two shrines – more about that later – and the gold? Ah. That was to be found at what is allegedly Tokyo's most famous spot for ginkgos, Ichō Namiki, the ginkgo-lined avenue that runs from Aoyama 1-chōme to Meiji Jingu Gaien. I avoid it precisely because it's famous, jam-packed and in my arrogant opinion not the best spot at all, but since I was in that area anyway, well, why not?

Ichō Namiki in Aoyama 1-chōme

Beautiful but crowded

I went on Sunday, when it was fairly early in the season and not all the trees had turned gold, but it was still a breathtaking sight against a cobalt autumn sky. It was also crowded, with guards shouting cautions and directions, and mothers with prams colliding with my shins, and fashionistas irritating me with their yapping lapdogs' diamond-encrusted outfits. 

I saw one woman with a … what? Dog. "Dog." Tiny fluffy thingy dressed in a Santa Claus outfit, cap and all, sitting on top of a pole (it was that tiny), getting photographed by an army of coochie-coochie-cooing females. I scowled viciously, ignored the dog and crashed into another oblivious person holding up an iPad in front of her face.

"What's next?" I wondered. "Parasols?"

I panicked, and fled to this:

The ginkgo avenue at Aoyama Gakuin Daigaku

Aoyama Gakuin Daigaku

Now isn't that a thousand times better than battling the hordes of Genghis Khan for a Kodak moment? It's within spitting distance of Ichō Namiki, yet it was deserted. 

This is on the campus of Aoyama Gakuin Daigaku, a Christian university near
Omotesandō, established in 1874 by missionaries from the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States. It's 701+ on the QS World University Rankings and 201-250 on the QS Asian University Rankings. The University Brand Image Survey conducted by Nikkei BP Consulting in 2010 ranked it 7th in the Greater Tokyo Area and 4th out of the private universities after Keio, Waseda and Sophia.

It certainly has one of the most sophisticated, well-kept campuses in Tokyo, and you can see money dripping from its lintels. 

The Christian influence at Aoyama Gakuin Daigaku

Oopsie! TOEIC test time! :)

The contrast between this private Christian university and the public University of Tokyo is startling: the latter is old but run-down, genteel but shabby, a haphazard collection of styles and organic gardens.

Yet what struck me was how deserted Aoyama Gakuin was on a Sunday. I saw two photographers and not a single other soul. That smacked my gob. I guarantee you that on any Sunday there are students ánd staff on Tōdai's campus: in the labs, in the library, studying, researching, working. (The library is open every single day from 9 am till 7 pm except during the short New Year's Holiday and on the fourth Thursday of each month. Now do you understand my grumpiness once a month? It has nothing to do with womanly curses.)

So, all things in this world being very unequal, I'd rather amble around Tōdai. (Tōdai's rankings? A bit higher.)

This was supposed to be a photo post, and here I am, 580 words later.

The ginkgos will be at their most spectacular in the week ahead, and even a fortnight from now it will be beautiful, because you'll be walking on a yellow carpet.

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
– W. B. Yeats

Read more about my ginkgo recommendations here (but caution: Tachikawa is already past its prime), here and here.

That temple? That should be my next post. I've discovered a modern architectural masterpiece, a shrine for mathematics and another wolf shrine. Watch this space. Meantime, more Aoyama ginkgo photos:

Ichō Namiki


A smaller side street leading off from Ichō Namiki

I spotted this on my way to Shibuya via Omotesandō. "God jul" is
Norwegian, Swedish and/or Danish for "Merry Christmas". I can't explain
the shop's linguistic adventure, but the contents are the usual white fluff.

This is the United Nations University, almost exactly opposite Aoyama Gakuin.
The tents in front are a farmer's market.


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