Kansai, Japan Architecture Tour

Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Kanazawa

By Tom Heneghan and Lucas Gray

Summer 2008


We picked up a Wallpaper Design Guide to Kyoto. It is a great book that fits in your pocket and highlights interesting contemporary design in the area. A Lonely Planet guide was also useful but any guidebook would do. The information office in the station was also very helpful upon arrival.

Kyoto Station

The main atrium space is grand but poorly executed. The concourse is interesting in a way, in a fairly ludicrous kind of way. This building has the ambitions of the Tokyo International Forum but without the elegance, lightness, or intrigue. The most interesting part is the exposed fire escapes on the backside facing the tracks. The interior is often confusing and crowded although the crowds thin as you move up into the mall. It's strange to see such a high profile building fall short in so many ways. An architect given this commission has a responsibility to the public and in this case has really dropped the ball. There are too many horrendous buildings in our word and it is truly disappointing when the public gateway to a city joins the list.

Temples and Gardens

You’ll probably do the usual things - the stone garden at Ryoanji, Kinkakuji (golden temple), Kiyomizudera (wood temple on a hill). It doesn’t matter what you do - everything in Kyoto wonderful. Fantastic. But, I also recommend a visit to the Imperial Palace, in the centre of the city. It’s FAR more interesting than I expected. You must make a reservation to go there and you need to show them your passports. Inside the main walls of the imperial palace, near the north west gate is a reservation office. It is free to get into all of the sites run by this company, which is nice. You can also make a reservation there (with passports) to visit the legendary Katsura Imperial Villa Garden (at the edge of the city).

I liked the Imperial Palace because you learned about the architecture of the buildings – which were quite impressive. The guide was very informative. However, I felt the grounds, mostly just horrendously wide gravel roads, were poorly maintained and not very romantic.

Katsura was the opposite in my opinion. You were held back from truly experiencing the buildings. You got close to a couple of the small teahouses but the main buildings were always a little distant. However, the landscape design more than made up for this shortcoming. The grounds were truly stunning – this was probably my favorite garden in Kyoto.

Ideally, you should stay in a ‘ryokan’ (traditional inn) in the Gion district - which is the geisha district. These are, however, all a bit spartan and musty/dusty, and often full of German/Australian backpackers. I very much enjoy staying in the Sawai Ryokan, PROVIDING I can get the room at the front, on the second floor. You are kept awake by the noise of the bells in the hair of the geisha’s walking in the street below - which is an atmospheric way to be kept awake. (Address: 4-320 Miyagawa-suji, Higashiyama-ku, phone number: +81 75 561 2179 - The owner speaks some English.).

Another option is Iohari Ryokan, which was definitely not an architectural highlight although it was in a great location, on a metro line, next to a large bus station, and rather cheap (only 52,000 yen for two of us about 50 USD). Ask for a room that faces the courtyard garden. They also have free internet. Its right next to the Sanjo-Keihan Bus and Metro Station. You can book a room here at the Information Center at the Kyoto Station.

Contemporary Design

Ando designed an outdoor art gallery somewhere near Kyoto University but we didn’t go see it for some reason. It is probably worth the trip though.

The shops and cafes along Sanjo Dori were worth visiting. Many had great design. The Paul Smith Store was particularly interesting with a courtyard garden. Café Independants is in the basement of an old concrete building and was a cozy space to relax with a coffee, a light meal, or a beer. Nicely designed, especially the plants growing out of the old light wells around the walls. Located on Sanjo Dori a block after the covered arcade ends. Tel: 075 255 4312

Comme des Garcons has a store in Kyoto worth a visit. If you face Kyoto City hall turn left and go down two blocks. Make a right up the narrow road and it will be on your left about 75 meters up from the corner. It’s a big black façade with a curvy entrance. On the 5th floor of the same building is Yusoshi Café - a stylish place with a great Tuna, Rice and Wasabi Sauce dish. One of the Chefs, Futoshi, is a great guy who let us stay at his apartment for a week.

Down the street from Kinkakuji is the Insho-Domoto Museum of Fine Art. The building looks sort of like a Corbusier design but was actually designed by the Artist. I believe the art on display changes periodically.

I suggest you visit Tadao Ando’s ‘Church of the Light’, and also his ‘Temple in Lotus’ and ‘Yumebutai’, the latter two both being on Awaji Island. You may also want to go to his Church on Mount Rokko - the famous one with the glass tunnel - but I think it’s not as essential to see as the ones I mention above. You could see his ‘Church of the Light’, ‘Temple in Lotus’, and ‘Yumebutai’ in one day.

Tadao Ando’s ‘Church of the Light’

Ideally, get there around 10.00am on a sunny morning, since it’s designed to work best during the Sunday morning services that begin at that time. We actually attended the service, which was a pleasant surprise. The people were all friendly and welcoming and were rather knowledgeable about the building. There were also many other architect pilgrims in attendance and we made a bunch of friends who we later met up with when we arrived in Tokyo. The service starts at 10:30 sharp. Please phone the priest first, and say some simple English like “I am an architect, please can I visit the church today at ..... am/pm” (Whatever he then says, go anyway...we didn’t say that!). Phone number: 0726 27 0071

Go from Kyoto station to Ibaraki station (Train journey = 25 minutes)
Exit the station on the northeast side - the right hand side of the track if coming from Kyoto - into the main bus-terminal plaza. Take bus number 2. Ask bus driver for: “KASUGAOKA KYOKAI” (kah-soo-ga-oh-kah kyo-kai) and/or “KASUGAOKA KOEN” (kah-soo-ga-oh-kah ko-en), or you could try “Church of the Light”, since they’ve had tens of thousands of foreign architect visitors traveling the same route. If all else fails, try “Ando Tadao” (honestly - that should be enough). Bus journey = 15 minutes. You get off the bus when it turns sharp left, after it has traveled in a generally straight line from the station. (Stay close to the driver - he’ll help you.) From the bus-stop walk back to the corner where the bus turned left, and look left - you should see the church, about 50 meters down the road. After visiting the church, go back to the same bus stop, and take the next bus - the bus route is a loop, with the church at it’s furthest point, so any bus will take you back to the station. The address of the church is: 3-50 Kitakasugaoka 4-chome Ibaraki, Osaka

Tadao Ando’s ‘Temple in Lotus’ and ‘Yumebutai’

Both are on Awaji Island, which is connected to the mainland by one of the longest bridges in the world. You should ask tourist information how to get a bus to ‘Yumebutai’, which is fairly famous.

Yumebutai is a huge development, every part (except the hotel interiors) designed by Tadao Ando. It is essentially a huge parkland, (planted gardens and water gardens), in which Ando intends his buildings to be less dominant than the planting. From the hotel, you can probably get a taxi to Tadao Ando’s ‘Temple in Lotus’, which is nearby. You should first telephone the temple and ask if you can visit. Tel number: 0799 74 3624.

If you decide to go to Ando’s ‘Church on Mount Rokko’, take a JR (Japan Railways) train to JR Rokko-michi station (maybe 45 mins from Kyoto), and from there take a bus for 20 mins to ‘Rokko Cablecar Station’. Take the cablecar up to the top of the mountain (15 minutes), and walk 20 minutes to Rokko Oriental Hotel. The church (which is not a real church but a wedding chapel) is in the back garden of the hotel. Phone the hotel first: tel: 078 891 0333.


Visit Arata Isozaki’s new Convention Centre, next to JR Nara station - one of his best works, a black elipse with black roof tiles that echo the roofs of historic Nara. Try to get into any interior spaces. The trashy hotel next to the convention centre, which looks like a very bad Aldo Rossi, is, in fact, one of Rossi’s last works. The apartment buildings also adjacent are by Kisho Kurokawa.


One of the largest wood structures in the world - and absolutely amazing! One of the most awe-inspiring buildings I have ever visited. It is a truly impressive structure housing a massive Buddha. I thought I had seen all the Buddha’s I’d ever want to see after spending a year in Thailand but this was a pleasant surprise. Also of note, there is a gate you pass through before you get to the pay area. Make sure to look to your right and left as you pass through – there are two gigantic guardian sculptures carved out of wood. They are immaculately detailed and truly stunning. Definitely a “must see”

The deer populating the areas on this side of town are also enchanting for a little while. They are docile enough to pet. They do get annoying if you are trying to snack outside though.

I would suggest doing Nara as a day trip from Osaka. It’s only about a 30 minute train ride and there isn’t that much to see other than Todaiji and the temples that dot the surrounding park. There are supposed to be some nice walks in the hills around the city if you do spend the night.


Osaka is a very gritty, and therefore very exciting city. Probably a city to be lived in rather than just visited. The easiest way to get a feeling for its style is to head for the Nanba district, at night, and just follow the crowd. Of course, the impression you get depends on which crowd you follow. Follow the most interesting-looking people.

You could go up the Umeda Sky building, near to JR Umeda station, designed by Hiroshi Hara - a very ‘fluffy’ derivative of The Grand Arch in Paris. Umeda station is also called Osaka Station. That’s where all the usual JR trains run to/from. The ‘Bullet Train’ (Shinkansen) runs to/from Shin-Osaka station, which is near the edge of the city. (Similarly, near Tokyo there is JR Yokohama station, and JR Shin-Yokohama station, where the Shinkansen stops).

You can visit Renzo Piano’s Kansai Airport - get JR train from JR Umeda station - or go by a kind of ‘Batman-style’ private railway train - from near to Umeda, I think. Or, there must be busses, or hotel courtesy busses. Remember - there is ALSO an airport called ‘Osaka Airport’. Renzo Piano’s is called ‘Kansai Airport’.

Suntory Museum and Aquarium

In Osaka, take the Midosuji subway line and change at Honmachi station, onto the Tyuoh Line (could also be written Chuo Line), heading to Osaka Port station, and get off there, at the terminus. Follow the crowd, or ask directions to the Suntory Museum (by Tadao Ando - an un-typical work by him - the interiors are not all by him). Next to the Suntory Museum is a foul-looking box building with red corners, which is the Osaka Aquarium by Cambridge Seven Architects of USA. Absolutely foul building, but a really very excellent aquarium inside.

See also:
archinect.com feature article

There is a district in Osaka that used to be an area for antique furniture, or so we were told. Now most of the shops have been converted into trendy clothing stores and small cafes. A lot of the interior design was great and some of the new structures were fantastic. The “Hysteric Glamour” shop was an interesting design - the men’s section is a metal box floating over the concrete women’s section. The entry sequence is rather fun as you are climbing up the folding concrete and catch glimpses of the interior. I’m not sure who the architect was for this building.

Another fun building is called the Organic Building. If you are facing the corner of the Apple store walk down the side street 1 block and make a right. Walk up about 2 or 3 blocks and you will see it on the right. It is a rust red colored building with large “ducts” coming out of each panel – the ducts are flowerpots with all sorts of plants growing out. Again, not sure who the architect was for this project but it was perhaps my favorite building in Osaka.


Another nice city to visit if you have a rail pass – it’s a few hours from Osaka/Kyoto on the high speed trains. The main reason to visit is the Museum of 21st Century Art designed by Tokyo based SANAA. It is a fantastic building with a great concept and intriguing exhibits. The plan consists of a large circle containing boxes that become the galleries and courtyards. The left over space becomes circulation and most of it is open to the public even when the museum is closed. It’s a fun building to wander through. The galleries are interestingly laid out, varying in size and height to create a fascinating circulation sequence in the negative spaces. It’s hard to describe but definitely one of my favorite buildings in Japan.

Across the street from the museum to the north is the Old castle with its sprawling grounds and a large traditional garden. It is worth spending a couple hours at each on a sunny afternoon. A few blocks to the west is a great town market selling all sorts of fresh produce and seafood. There are a bunch of great and cheap sushi restaurants there for lunch/dinner.


I was pleasantly surprised how affordable the trip was. You often hear that Japan is ridiculously expensive. There were parts of Tokyo where the price was prohibitive but in general I never felt like something was priced out of my budget – which was small. We lucked out by finding hosts through couchsurfing.com that opened their homes to us for one week in Kyoto and 5 days in Tokyo. This saved hundreds of dollars and gave us an insider’s view of the cities. I would highly recommend going this route. Otherwise, the food was fantastic and affordable and our biggest expense was train rides.

Japan is a fascinating place with an amazing blend of contemporary design and historic sites. I was there for three weeks and felt I could easily have spent another month or so without seeing everything I wanted to. I can’t wait to return and see more of the stunning landscapes and interact with a vibrant and beautiful culture.

Popular Posts