Thursday 26 September 2013

Tokyo, not just a concrete jungle - Hama Rikyu Garden

A couple of weeks ago, I had a two lesson break during the afternoon.  A few of my students had told me of a garden quite close to where I work that they recommended I check out,  so seeing this as a perfect opportunity I grabbed my camera and set off.

Hama Rikyu garden was constructed in 1654 by the then Shogun's brother and later became the property of the Imperial family.  It was heavily damaged in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and in World War II.  It was repaired again and opened to the public for the first time in 1946.

As with a lot of the top public gardens in Tokyo, there is, understandably, a small entry fee to help cover maintenance costs, which I imagine would be quite high!

The different areas of the park all have quite distinctly different looks and atmospheres.  The initial part is quite wild and forest-like.

After getting through that area, the park opens out into an area with a lake and a lot of pine trees.


In the above picture, just where the man is about to walk into, there is a little part of the walkway that is covered and has what looks like a really old tree whose foliage forms the roof of the walkway.  Who know how old that tree is, but I imagine it has been through it's fair share of typhoons and has survived all of them!

After reaching the other side of the pond, you turn around and this is the view that is in front of you!

 I sometimes talk in this blog about Japan being a country of contrasts where the different sides of Japan co-exist in a beautiful way.  This is a perfect example of that!  Nestled in the middle of one of Tokyo's busiest business district surrounded by skyscrapers and freeways is a beautifully peaceful garden!  These spots are treasured by Japanese people as a place to go to escape the hustle and bustle of Tokyo life.

Some of the trees in the park have fascinating form.  These pine trees are like giant bonsai trees with the form they take, and each one is different.

A few days earlier a typhoon had passed over Tokyo and the gardeners were out in force cleaning up.

On the other side of the lake a couple of cranes were out looking for lunch.

A little further around, I saw some steps heading up off to the right hand side and decided to go up and see where they went to.  At the top was a little wood hut with some holes in one wall.  I guess it was for bird watching.

I peered through the holes and was stunned at what I saw.

A bright green pond!  I am assuming that it was some kind of algae.  It wasn't stopping a duck bobbing under water occasionally looking for a bite to eat.  

The final part of the park was a flower field.

I don't know what kind of flowers they were, but there were people all along the path that weaved through the field taking photos.

Just before the exit is this grand old tree.

 I made my way out of the park and headed back to work, back to the real world, having, as everyone else who goes to these parks, gotten my harmony back.

I remember thinking as I was walking around that only half of the beauty of Japan is in what you see.  The other half of the beauty comes from how it  makes you feel, and I felt awesome!

Thanks again for reading.  I'll see you again soon.

Friday 20 September 2013

Gourmet tour of Tokyo

My sister SJ, who visited a couple of weeks ago, is a foodie.  She loves going to restaurants, trying different kinds of food.  In a previous post I wrote about going out to dinner with a friend (Eriko) who is a food and wine writer here in Tokyo.  She had said to me that when my sister came to Tokyo, she wanted to take us on a gourmet tour of Tokyo.  As soon as SJ heard about that, that was one day already planned.  It was nice of Eriko to take time out of her schedule to do this as she was packing and preparing to leave for France to live for a year one week later to study gastronomy and write articles for the magazine she writes for (if any of my Japanese readers would like to know which magazine she writes for, you can find the website here)

We met Eriko and her friend Akiko outside of Tsukiji station.  Tsukiji is home to the world's biggest fish and seafood market.  Prior to 1923, the fish market was located at Nihonbashi but after the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 that destroyed large parts of Tokyo it was rebuilt at it's current location in Tsukiji.  The fish market will soon move again to Toyosu as the location in Tsukiji is considered prime real estate and it wouldn't surprise me if the land is used for the Olympic Games of 2020 in some way.

We started walking toward the market.  It was about 12pm and most of the action at the market had died down (the activity at the market starts at about 3am, so 12pm is the end of the day!).  There were, however still a lot of stalls selling to the public.  Most of it was selling seafood

of one variety

or anotherHighly prized tuna, really expensive here.

Some amazingly huge crabs!

Not everything is fish though.  There are vegetable stalls.  These are wasabi plants that when ground down, makes the beautifully spicy wasabi paste used for sushi and sashimi.

Mushrooms.......yes, mushrooms.  These are Matsutake mushrooms.  They are highly valued for their smell as well as their taste.


I saw a guy dragging a bucket along the ground, too heavy for him to carry it and I stole a look at what was in the bucket......

a giant tuna head!  If the head was too heavy for him to carry, you can imagine how heavy it was with it's body attached!

Finally we arrived at our first stop of the day, Daiwa Sushi.  Sorry that the photo is not really clear, but the link will take you to a review and information about the restaurant.

The restaurant is very popular, especially at breakfast when you can wait in line for a long time.  We got there at about 12:30 and only waited 5 minutes and we were in.

The man closest to camera seemed to be the head guy there and we were lucky enough that he was serving us.  He was a friendly guy and said that the restaurant had been open since the 1950's and he had been a sushi chef for about 27 years.  The sushi started coming out, and we all started with the best, magoro and toro, both cuts of tuna, very soft and tender, they were almost melting in my mouth!

Next, they brought out some miso soup, soul food!

This piece was mackerel I think.

I must apologise as I kept forgetting to take photos of everything we ordered.  Just as well I don't do a food blog!  Next up (that I took photos of at least) was some tuna rolls.

Sitting in refrigerated glass display cases were all of the slabs of fish that they were slicing away at to make each piece.

Chatting away to the chef I mentioned that I was from a place in Australia called Port Lincoln which is famous for being Australia's biggest tuna town and that each year there is a festival in January that celebrates tuna.  One of the more interesting events at the festival is the tuna toss (you can find some youtube footage here).  I showed him a photo and he thought it was hilarious!!

Feeling very satisfied, we paid the bill and made our way outside and on to our next destination.

Next stop on the gourmet tour was the shopping district of Ginza.  Eriko's favourite soba noodle restaurant is located there.  It is called Narutomi (and here is the official website in Japanese).

Stepping inside, the interior was nicely decorated with classic style wood furniture.  The menu came out and we left the ordering to Eriko (on the left) and Akiko (on the right).

and luckily we did, as the results were spectacular!  Eggplant (or aubergine depending on where you are from),

some tempura,

soba noodles

and tempura in broth

 It was the best soba I have eaten!  The place settings were really nice and rustic.

Feeling full all over again (1 hour after I got full last time) we rolled out of the soba place and headed off to a nearby Jewellery shop that is owned by one of Akiko's friends, a lady from Australia together with her Japanese husband.  Along the way, we passed a big Kabuki (taditional Japanese theatre) theatre.

We arrived at the jewellery shop (Atelier Shinji) where they have a shop and also their production area downstairs.  Some of the pieces were absolutely beautiful.  I took some photos but some of them didn't turn out so well.  I had the "food shakes" after having eaten too much sushi and soba, so you can check out some much better photos on their website here.  Some photos did turn out ok though, so here they are.

Really nice pieces.  As I said, my photos don't really do the quality of the craftsmanship and detail justice, so feel free to have a look at their website for some much better photos.

We left the shop ready to head to our next destination on the gourmet tour which was located in the district of Roppongi.  Roppongi is well know for being an entertainment district popular with Japanese and foreigners alike, but there is a classier side to it as well.  Tokyo Midtown is home to a classy and stylish shops, restaurants and a museum.  It was also home to our next stop, Toraya a classy cafe that does coffee, tea and Japanese sweets.  There was a line-up so we stood waiting our turn patiently and gradually we moved our way closer to the door.  Finally our wait was over and we made our way inside.  They brought over an English menu so SJ and I could order comfortably.  I ordered coffee and a beautiful Japanese sweet which took my breath away when it arrived.  It was just amazing.  I felt bad eating it, but happy after I finished!!

I wasn't sure if anything could top this but I was prepared to find out.  We jumped on a bus and made our way to Shibuya for the last stop on the tour.

"Fujiya Honten" is a very old standing bar that is always full, always buzzing with conversation, and always cheap!  All you have to do is put down whatever amount of money you would like to spend for the time you are there and start ordering.  The staff simply take the price of whatever you order out of the money you have placed on the bar and when it is all used, your night is finished.  This concept wouldn't work in many other countries but Japan is a country where you can trust that the staff will only take the exact amount!

We started ordering and first came some edamame (salted boiled soy beans).

Next was some Karaage (fried chicken, or JFC as my friends in Australia know it as!), some fried shumai (dumplings) and some tofu salad.

The place has an open kitchen so everyone can see what is happening there.

You could tell it was a place that has a lot of regulars as the staff were chatting away to everyone.  One of them even had a chat to me about baseball in English as he saw I was wearing an LA Dodgers shirt.

All too soon, the gourmet tour was over.   Thanks so much to Eriko for showing us around, and showing us a little slice of the gourmet that Tokyo has to offer.  A little known fact is that Japan has more Michelin star restaurants than France, so it mustn't have been easy for her to choose where to take us!

And with that, SJ's visit to Japan was nearly over.  I loved having her here and showing her all of the many sides to Japan.  I think she left with a pretty good idea of why I now call Japan home.

Thanks again for reading, and feel free to leave comments.  See you again soon.