Tokyo On The Go: Maximum Relaxation Near Mt. Fuji

IMG_2437One of the highlights of this trip (or any of the other Japanese trips I’ve taken) was an overnight stay at an amazing onsen near Mount Fuji called Kozantei Ubuya, some 80 miles southwest of Tokyo. This was another pre-trip research find, and online I saw a beautiful, classically-designed ryokan (inn) on the shores of a beautiful lake. Best, Mount Fuji loomed majestically in the background … SOLD!

For those of you not familiar with the concept of an onsen, it’s a term for natural hot springs, though it is often used to describe the bathing facilities and ryokans around the hot springs. Onsens are very popular in Japan for their rejuvenating effects and natural hot springs are numerous. Every region of the country has its share of hot springs and resort towns.

IMG_2531From a well-being perspective, the different minerals from the natural hot springs provide many health benefits, and all hot springs have the obvious relaxing effect on your body and mind. Believe me, your first dip in a perfectly hot, mineral spring bath and you instantly feel the outside world melt away. And from the moment you enter Kozantei Ubuya everything from the classic Japanese ambience to the soothing baths all help to deliver not only an intensely relaxing experience, but a uniquely Japanese one as well.

So on a cloudy Wednesday we boarded a bus in Shinjuku bound for the little town of Kawaguchico where Kozantei Ubuya is located. It started raining hard about halfway thru the 2-hour bus ride from Tokyo, and judging by mist in the hills, the prospect of actually seeing Mount Fuji was looking increasingly dim. DOH! Three visits to japan and I’ve yet to see Mount Fuji.

IMG_2602After arriving at the bus station at Kawaguchiko Station we decided to forgo the free shuttle to the inn and take the thirty-minute walk along Lake Kawaguchi to the ryokan, even though it was still raining hard. But the walk along the lake is beautiful, and being from drought-ravaged California, where the last significant rainfall was December 2014, we really appreciated walking in a heavy rainfall. Still, by the time we got to the ryokan (below), we were a little wet and tired after the long bus ride.

IMG_2588But from the moment we entered the lobby, shaking out umbrellas as we went, we felt at home, like we had arrived. Low but rich lighting, wood elements, classic Japanese interior design and architecture combined with the constantly falling rain to create an quiet ambience of relaxation. The interior of the inn was a celebration of simple and elegant design, with splashes of color and always interesting Japanese aesthetics interspersed with the wood finishes. The staff, of course, was friendly, polite and helpful.

IMG_2557A greeting area near the lobby.

IMG_2376The dining area with killer views of Lake Kawaguchi

IMG_2378The lounge area, which served various functions given the time of day. Here, it’s fresh afternoon juices, tea, and mineral water from Mount Fuji.

IMG_2373With its comfy chairs and view of Lake Kawaguchi, the lounge is a popular place for kicking back to read a book, take a little snooze, or both.

IMG_2380Interesting floral designs were a big part of the inn’s aesthetics.

IMG_2395Exploring the ryokan was fun … interesting touches everywhere. Here’s an outdoor garden, glistening in the rain.

IMG_2579An attendant cares for the inn’s plant and floral designs.

IMG_2404This cool design aesthetic was right outside of my room.

IMG_2286Speaking of rooms, mine was really beyond what I had imagined, and world’s above what I had seen online. Again, maximum Japanese simplicity. The room was much larger than I had imagined with a big deck overlooking the lake and a private onsen in the corner of the deck. A traditional table, cushion chairs and tatami mats made up part of the living area, the other part was dominated by a giant, intensely comfy couch lined with thick pillows.

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_ASC3997The living area with its massive couch and multitude of comfy pillows. You can’t see it, but there’s a big screen TV on the left hand side of the living area. The TV got some use late at night, because watching Japanese game shows without knowing the language is a hoot!

_ASC3934Best of all, a private onsen on the deck, overlooking the lake. Unfortunately, I cannot share pics of the public onsen because it was the only part of the ryukan where photography was prohibited but having a private bath on the deck of the room was just as good.

IMG_2413Yours truly, taking in the rainy day scene at Lake Kawaguchi.

In the pic above I’m wearing the traditional samue, or Japanese casual room wear, which was standard issue dress code at the inn. Most men and women wore the samue when around the inn, whether at dinner, relaxing in the lounge, or making your way to the public onsen … maybe because they’re so darn comfy! You also have the choice of wearing a one-piece, ankle-length bathrobe type of garment called a yukuta, but I preferred the samue, because it looked really cool!

The evening brought dinner, which is so amazing, it will have it’s own post. Here’s a tease:

IMG_2456 A veggie/sashimi salad. Note how various characteristics of this dish are shaped like Mount Fuji.

IMG_2469This amazing ball of gelatin was filled with tiny clams, shrimp and cockles. I can’t even begin to describe the flavor!

IMG_2479The lounge at night.

IMG_2501The onsen got plenty of use, especially at night when the cool winds and mist blew down from the mountains. The onsen was illuminated at night, and the colors would subtly change from red to green to blue to yellow.

IMG_2493The center tatami mat area at night. Thanks to the traditional sliding wooden panel doors, the rooms could be configured for size, light or privacy. At night, thick panels could be slid out to cover the deck door and window, making the entire space nearly pitch black, which made going to the bathroom in the middle of the night something of a challenge. Speaking of which, the bathroom always smelled of a light incense.

_ASC3969Misty morning on Lake Kawaguchi. This pic was taken at 6 a.m., because when you’re in the lap of luxury, you don’t want to spend any more time sleeping than you have to. There’s nothing like sipping coffee while soaking in a hot mineral water onsen to start your day!

IMG_2518The rain began to taper off as the morning progressed and had pretty much stopped by the 11 o’clock a.m. check out time. So after a traditional Japanese breakfast (above) and a last soak in the onsen, we once again walked back to the bus station in nearby Kawaguchiko, and there was plenty to see along the way.

IMG_2591 Parking lot attendant.

IMG_2625 Fishermen on Lake Kawaguchi.

IMG_2642 A sign outside of a restaurant that serves pork, chicken and beef.

IMG_2273Laughing Buddha.

IMG_2645A weird sprite/rabbit hybrid across the street from the Kawaguchiko bus station.

Thanks to the rain, mist and heavy clouds I never did get to see Mount Fuji, but after completely immersing myself in the entire wonderful ryokan experience, not seeing the mountain hardly seemed to matter at all. That will have to wait until a return visit, because I’m definitely coming back, only not in July and the summer rainy season.

Which seems like a great time to mention costs. Suffice to say that the deluxe overnight package I bought was not cheap … $750.00 U.S. dollars (¥8990) for an overnight stay that included the big room with private onsen, traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast in a private room, and all of the other amenities of the ryokan, including full use of the public onsens.

Fun fact: The presence of an onsen is often indicated on signs and maps by the symbol ♨ or the kanji, 湯 (yu, meaning “hot water”)

I’m not usually that big of a spender, but after ten months of working as a contractor, in April my work converted me to full time employee. So this visit was my reward to myself for the achievement of a major goal, the type of indulgence a guy can make when his financial future is finally set. And to me, the experience was worth every penny.

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But don’t let that put you off. Kozantei Ubuya has a number of other packages at varying cheaper prices, depending on the amenities you choose for your visit. Be aware that a Mount Fuji view will be on the pricier side. Also, the area along Lake Kawaguchi is rimmed with many ryokan that offer similar packages at more budget-friendly prices.

Round trip bus tickets from Shinjuku Bus Station to Kawaguchiko run about $40 U.S. dollars (that’s ¥4960) per person. It’s best to reserve a few days in advance. The map below points out the Shinjuku bus station.

Bottom line: highly recommended. I intend on doing it all over again in my next visit to Japan, which will probably be next spring. Only next time, I hope to get clear weather so I can finally see Mount Fuji!

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Posted in Japan, Photo Essay, Photo Gallery, Photography, Stephen Kelly Creative, Stephen Kelly Photography, Tokyo, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Tokyo Dine & Dash: Cafe N3331

I’ve dined in some far-out places in Tokyo, but few match lunch at Cafe N3331 in the Akihabara section of Tokyo. The cafe is situated on a platform that sits right between two JR commuter rail lines, and as you can see in the above video, the trains come and go with amazing regularity. It’s a really fun, different dining environment, and the constantly-passing trains give the scene a lively sense of motion and movement. And the show never ends, as trains going in both directions pass by seemingly every ten minutes (as trains in Tokyo are wont to do).

I was lucky to catch the vid above, as it was rare to see two lines pass by going in opposite directions. It was a little noisy as the two trains passed by, but it’s all part of the experience. Thankfully, thick glass walls that line the outside deck greatly reduce the noise. Also, surprisingly, the deck did not shake as the train zipped by, as I thought it might. Good foundation! It’s an open-air ceiling/roof, so  the place was cool on a hot day, but forget about outdoor dining when it rains. They also have indoor seating, but the experience isn’t nearly as impressive.

IMG_3200After going up a long staircase that showcases the building’s original brick and tile interior, you come upon the entrance to Cafe N3331. As you can see, it’s pretty narrow. Order at the counter where the guy in the baseball cap is standing, take a number, pick a table, sit back and enjoy the show. The staff brings your meal to you.

IMG_3186Lunch was decent and relaxing. It was around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and we had already put in an action-packed, energetic day, and it was warm, so a quick rest, a small bite and cold drinks were just what we had in mind.

IMG_3180The Japanese, of course, love tea in all of it’s incarnations, so finding iced tea on a hot day is easy. Iced coffee is also popular.

IMG_3182Lunch is served: tuna sandwiches, creamy cold soup and a little salad: perfect!

All in all, lunch with drinks cost around 2000 yen, which translates to $16 in US dollars. The yen is weak these days, especially when compared with the strong US dollar, so things seemed relatively cheaper than in my previous trips. It also seemed that every retail store was “tax free”, or at least 30% off, making it a good time to go shopping in Tokyo!

IMG_3196Cafe N3331 also has a nice interior, which was perfectly air-conditioned for a warm day. It seemed as if this was a popular place for locals to meet for a chat over drinks.

_ASC3856Cafe N331 is found on the roof above this impressive brick building, which also houses Maach ecute, a collection of interesting retail spaces, galleries, restaurants, and cafes inside in a converted train station. In fact, it’s in one of Tokyo’s oldest train stations, called Manseibashi, brought back to life in 2013 after being out of use since 1943. Part of the original station platform can be seen on the second floor, and original staircases dating from 1912 and 1935 have been preserved.

_ASC3853The interior of Maach is really cool, almost like an optical illusion. As well as being a retail area focusing on handmade, artisan crafts, fashion, and interior design and home goods, the building also hosts live music events, artists workshops and food tastings. Maach has it’s own cool little cafe, a tad overpriced but with a dark, sexy ambience not unlike a jazz club.

Cafe N3331The above pic (courtesy of the cool website Designboom) gives a great view of Cafe N3331 and it’s vicinity. The stairway that leads up to Cafe N3331 is located on the side of the building opposite the waterway (which is the Kanda-gawa River, btw, one of many small rivers that cut through various parts of downtown Tokyo). I’ve indicated its location because it’s easy to pass it by. The sign for Cafe N3331 is inside the doors of the entrance and not on the outside, and we walked right past it a few times until we figured it out.

If you’re planning on visiting the popular Akihabara area, I highly recommend a visit to the Maatch ecute building and Cafe N3331. It’s a 4-minute walk from JR Akihabara Station or a 6-minute walk from JR Kanda Station/Ochanomizu Station on the JR Chuo Line. Look for the Big Apple Slot and Pachinko sign and you’re almost there.

IMG_3194Stroll along that side of the building while you’re there. There are a few cool wine/sake shops (offering samples!), Japanese and Western restaurants (mostly Italian, at least one Chinese), cafes, coffee roasters, and a clam ramen joint called Wheat and Olives that might have been amazing but we never found out as they we were closing just as we got there. Be aware that most of the these establishments close at 9 p.m. on weeknights, 8 o’clock p.m. on Sunday. The majority of businesses in this building are closed on Tuesday. Like almost all businesses in Tokyo, opening time is 11 a.m.

Of course, after visiting here, you’re literally steps from the heart of Akihabara, also known as Electric Town, one of Tokyo’s more colorful, fast-paced areas, and we’ll be going there in a future post!

Posted in Essays, Food, Japan, Photo Essay, Photography, Stephen Kelly Photography, Tokyo, Travel, Video | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Tokyo On The Go: The Retro Charm of Ōme

Outside the Ōme Train Station

For my first day in Tokyo I wanted to take in some vintage Japan, circa 1950s-60s. I wanted to visit a throwback, somewhere far from the throngs of tourists, which in bustling Tokyo can sometimes be quite difficult. But pre-trip research revealed a city within Tokyo called Ōme that looked like it could fit that retro bill. Blogs and websites showed a quiet neighborhood where vintage movie posters lined the streets.

I’m interested in the post-1945 Showa period in Japan that ran from 1945 to 1989, an incredibly fertile time for creativity and originality in marketing and advertising design. Typically, Japan put their own creative flair into the “Mad Men” era, and from what I saw online, Ōme looked like it could really scratch that retro itch.

So I was happy to find that when it comes to embracing a mid 50s-60s vibe and a genuine old-time Tokyo feel, Ōme truly delivers. From the moment you pass through the exit tunnel at the JR Ōme Station, you’re immersed in it.

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Ōme Station Exit tunnel

The train station is about a half block from the main drag that cuts through Ōme. Normally I would identify that street, but there were no street signs and post-trip research turned up blank, but you can’t miss it. We took a left on that main thoroughfare because we had some destinations we knew that were in that vicinity.

Initially we had no idea what to expect once we got to Ōme … things that look promising online can actually hold limited attraction or appeal or be downright boring. But the small half-mile stretch of the main street held enough fun, interesting, distinctively Japanese things to do and see that what we thought might be an hour-long visit turned into four hours.

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This guy greets you as you exit the JR Ōme Station.
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Five-story pagoda in a residential area off the main street.
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Wooden facades gave the area in warm, rustic feel.
_ASC3649A vintage wooden bus stop that is still in service; the gentleman in the pic is waiting for the next bus to arrive.
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Silent of the Cat
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A phone booth that actually works.
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60s-era shops along the main street.
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Masks!

I also soon found that what I had seen online was no exaggeration: true to the city’s reputation, retro movie posters were literally everywhere.

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Ōme street intersection, about a half-mile from the train station.
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John Wayne in Tokyo: She Wore A Yellow Ribbon above a Ōme shop.
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Poster-filled room in the Ōme Akasuka Fujio Kaikan Museum
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Poster above a side-street restaurant just above a residential area. You can see it from the main drag. This little area had a lot of interesting things to see and is worth exploring. The five-story pagoda in the above pic is also found here.
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Posters everywhere!

Strolling the main thoroughfare was lots of fun, and we found plenty of cool, fun, surprising stuff, but we had three small museums we definitely wanted to visit, each showcasing a different aspect of Showa era design. I highly recommend visiting some of these museums should you visit Ōme. Or why not visit of all of them, as a single ticket for access to all three museums is a bargain at 700 yen.

Ōme Akasuka Fujio Kaikan Museum (Retro Museum of Packaging from the Showa Era)

Ome Akasuka Fujio Kaikan Museum (Retro Museum of Packaging from the Showa Era)

This little museum really packs a lot into small space. Just a five-minute walk from the station, it boasts an excellent collection of advertising and packaging from the Showa period that I’m a sucker for and this place was a was like being in mid-century kitschy nirvana. Be careful if you take on the staircase to the second floor. It’s really steep and getting down is an adventure … in your stocking feet to boot.

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The entrance to Akasuka Fujio Kaikan Museum.
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Retro, late-Showa era eye candy abounds in Akasuka Fujio Kaikan Museum!
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A showcase of some seriously vintage Japanese advertising icons and other pop culture collectible gems from the late-period Showa era.
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A gallery dedicated to medical packaging and advertising, circa 50s-60s.
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The gentleman just barely seen behind the counter is the proprietor and that space acts as a counter/office/living space.

Ōme Akatsuka Fujio Kaikan

Ome Akatsuka Fujio Kaikan

Akatsuka Fujio Kaikan is a museum dedicated to the ground-breaking Japanese manga cartoonist, Akatsuka Fujio (1935-2008), who created the popular manga, “Tensai Bakabon.” The museum displays many things including original work drawn by Akatsuka’s own hand. It’s Japanese cutesy to the max and a lot of fun!

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Manga Inferno!
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A doll likeness of Akatsuka Fujio with items from his actual workspace.
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More manga wackiness!
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These six characters must have been popular back in the day because they figured prominently in this museum.
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Vintage collectibles of characters from vintage late-Showa era manga.

Showa Gento-kan and Cat Museum

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The Japanese love cats, so it was no surprise to find a place dedicated to them. This small museum also boasts a cool collection of dioramas recreating various Showa scenes, many of which involve … you guessed it …cats.

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The main gallery.
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If Tokyo were run by cats.
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Detailed diorama of a typical early-Showa era Tokyo store.
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An homage to cats.
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Sign and bench outside the museum.

We had other parts of Tokyo we wanted to visit that day, but four hours still didn’t seem like enough time to fully explore Ōme. It’s actually a pretty big place and it has lots of interest places to visit, like the Ōme Railway Park, the Gyokodo Art Museum, the Ōme City Ume Park, a number of shrines and temples, and nature and wildlife tours. So Ōme definitely begs a return visit in my next trip to Tokyo.

Getting there: The JR East Ōme Line provides rail service to Ōme. We took the JR train line for the hour-long ride from Shinjuku Station to Ōme. Those leaving Tokyo Station can expect a 70-minute ride. I highly recommend trying to catch the rapid line that cuts down on stops and time. 

Check out a detailed map of Ōme and vicinity.

Posted in Essays, Japan, Tokyo, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Let’s Go Tokyo, 2015

Ome StationKonnichiwa, blog friends! I’m in Tokyo again, and the theme of this trip is Underground Tokyo, and the goal is to visit some of the quieter, less traveled parts of this notoriously hectic city (and I say hectic in the best way possible). That means checking out smaller towns outside of the city proper, as well as hidden gems in the more urban areas. I hope to be live blogging as I go … wifi is easy to find here. I’ll  also be checking in periodically at the end of the day as I cool my jets in the hotel room. I plan on visiting a lot of cool sites and eating lots of awesome food, and I’d like to share that with you all.

Oh yes, and did I mention photography? As is my custom, I’ll be shooting like it’s going out of style, but this trip might be a little different. It’s a little rainy here in Tokyo, and holding an SLR while holding an umbrella gets a little unwieldy, so I’m enlisting the help of my iPhone, despite my somewhat snobbish views on iPhoneography, which I’ve remarkably gotten over after my first full day here yesterday

So, an amazing city, authentic Japanese food, great photography … what’s not to love? So with no further adieu, let’s go Tokyo!!!

Posted in Essays, Japan, Stephen Kelly Creative, Stephen Kelly Photography, Tokyo | 3 Comments

Ailsa’s Travel Theme: Off-Centre

kyoto_temple

This off-centre temple in Kyoto, Japan seems like it’s rising up from the surrounding countryside, a splash of orange amongst all that green.

For more off-center, off-tilter pics, y’all be sure to visit Ailsa’s Travel Theme, y’hear?

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San Francisco Street Art #3: The Mission District

At 19th and Mission

It’s been a while since I posted anything about street art in San Francisco, or street art in general, for that matter … in fact, it was was back on June 19, 2013 when I posted San Francisco Street Art, Volume 1 and not again until January 31, 2014 when I put up a Volume 2. At the time I promised that there would be more to come quickly, and, well, there ya go … time slips on by.

Que Haria Zapata? on Clarion AlleyBut I’m a man of my word, and in this third edition of San Francisco Street Art the focus is on the the epicenter of the San Francisco street art scene, the Mission District, where street by street you will find the city’s most prolific examples of the genre. Whole alleys are lined with clever, colorful and often controversial works of art and it’s impossible not to wander the lively streets of the Mission and not see some form of  impressive street art. Some are obvious, encompassing the entire length of building sides, while others are small, cleverly placed in a bus enclave or on a door.

The beauty of Mission District street art, like the neighborhood itself, is that it’s always changing. While some murals are mainstays, others change from time to time as artists with something new to say paint over them. In fact, the mural in the gallery’s soccer-themed second shot (“On 19th St. at Mission”) is now the Para La Mission mural seen at the top of the page. So the watchful photographer is consistently rewarded by making repeated visits, as murals often morph into something completely different, seemingly overnight.

The Mission is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods with a deep, rich Latino population of  Central American and Mexican families that have been settling the neighborhood in big numbers since the 1950s. As such, the Mission boasts some of the best and most authentic taquerias, pupuserias, produce markets, and Salvadoran bakeries in the country. This deep proliferation of Latino cultures is also reflected in the area’s street art, and you’ll see Latino influences ranging from modern artists like Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo to the ancient Aztecs.

Tiger on Mission StreetSadly, the area faces the same gentrification that has swept across the entire city in the past few years, and old establishments are being forced out as the new tech boom has caused rents to skyrocket while a new population of cash-flushed techies drain the cultural color from yet another San Francisco neighborhood. Indeed, high-priced “artisan” coffee shops and Asian fusion restaurants are threatening to out-number the family-owned taquerias who have yet to be evicted by a greedy landlord. Because of that, high-tech gentrification has become a growing theme of the neighborhood’s street art, and I’ve included a few examples of that.

Still, like the cultural enclaves of most cities, the Mission takes great pride in its rich cultural heritage and diversified nature, and the fabric of what makes the Mission unique and special will always remain intact. If you’re planning on visiting San Francisco, put exploring the Mission near the top of your to-do list … it’s also a lot less touristy than other parts of the city. But if you’re into seeing the city’s best street art, put the Mission at the top of your list.

Check out more of the street art of the Mission District after the jump.

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Outdoor Menagerie: The “Fancy Animal Carnival” of Hung Yi

For my first art post in ten months, I’m taking it to the streets of San Francisco … to the Civic Center to be exact, for an outdoor exhibition of the fun and colorful sculptures of Taiwanese artist Hung Yi. One of Taiwan’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, Hung Yi is renowned for his quirky and whimsical sculptures of people and animals. His latest collection, entitled Fancy Animal Carnival, was on display for two weeks at the Joseph L. Alioto Performing Arts Piazza on the eastern front of San Francisco City Hall, and I was lucky to catch it on its final day.

Renowned Taiwanese Artist Hung Yi

Renowned Taiwanese artist Hung Yi

Described as a modern, Taiwanese twist on Aesop’s Fables, Fancy Animal Carnival consists of a menagerie of 19 large-scale animals constructed from baked enamel on steel plate. Each piece vividly captures his signature style of bold, bright colors, intricately detailed patterns and humorous and whimsical designs. His animated and personified interpretations of animals are based on symbols that, in Taiwan, are traditionally believed to be lucky.

He also decorates the modern sculptures with traditional Taiwanese patterns and texts that are believed to bring about good fortune. Beyond these cultural references and influences, I also detected a strong psychedelic hint of seventies pop artist Peter Max and the fantastical animation of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film from 1968.

_ASC3078Interesting fun fact about Hung Yi: Born in 1970, Taichung, Taiwan, he was once an owner of nine restaurants. At the age of 30, he decided to live his life fully as an artist following attention for his work in 2002.

While up close and personal is the best way to experience the amazing intricacy of his work, in this case, photos will have to do. I’ve included different angles of the pieces, because the patterns and expressions often changes from side to side. Look closely, because in this case of Taiwanese artist Hung Yi, the devil is in the details.

Check out the gallery after the jump.
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Posted in Animals, Art, Photography, San Francisco, Stephen Kelly Creative, Stephen Kelly Photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments