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The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

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Widely considered to be one of the prettiest spots in Tokyo, the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden has long been a favorite spot for weary Tokyoites looking to escape the city’s concrete jungle. However, if it’s crowds you’re hoping to escape, you might want to look elsewhere.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

Like many of the city’s traditional gardens, the Shinjuku Gyoen charges a small entrance fee. But considering the size of the place and the great expense which must go into its maintenance, this is hardly unreasonable. At 144 acres in area, these gardens are massive. You could easily spend hours touring the various sections. There’s a greenhouse near the entrance, an English-style garden with cleanly manicured lawns, a French-style garden meant to replicate the courtyard of a palace, and of course the Japanese section.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the garden, at least while we were there, was the sheer number of visitors. Dispiriting, but not surprising. After all, it’s right next door to Shinjuku Station, which is the busiest transportation hub in the world. Plus, it was the warmest day of the still-nascent summer, and a Saturday to boot.

The land was originally the property of Lord Naito, a powerful shogun from Tsuruga, who built the garden in the late eighteenth century. It became the property of the Meiji Empire on their ascension to power, and would host hanami flower-viewing parties for the emperor up until the outbreak of World War II. The gardens were largely destroyed by bombing, but rebuilt after the war and given over to the public in 1949.

With its backdrop provided by Shinjuku’s skyscraper district, the Shinjuku Gyoen Garden is nice, but we didn’t love our time there. The park was no more charming than others we’d seen in Tokyo, and far less peaceful. Better were Fukugawa’s Kiyosumi Shirakawa Gardens, those of the Nezu Museum, and the gardens of the Sensō-ji Temple in Asakusa. But still, Shinjuku Gyoen has a reputation as one of the city’s highlights. Try showing up early on a weekday, and you’ll almost certainly have a wonderful experience.

Location on our Map

-Great Collection of Bosai Trees

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July 5, 2014 at 3:47 pm Comments (0)

Komagome and the Rikugi-en Gardens

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A pleasant and almost entirely-overlooked neighborhood in the north of the city, Komagome is defined by narrow alleys lined with shops and restaurants, and is home to one of Tokyo’s best gardens: the Rikugi-en, originally built at the end of the seventeenth century.

Komagome and the Rikugi-en Gardens

We got off the train at Komagome Station with low expectations, which were quickly confirmed. There simply isn’t much here. But it’s an agreeable kind of nothingness. The streets are pedestrian and unpretentious, with shops that are interesting without being touristy. And the few people walking about are definitely locals.

After doing some shopping (I found an odds-and-ends shop selling cheap origami paper), we made our way to the Rikugi-en Gardens. It seems to be a popular place, particularly with older Japanese people meeting for a day in the park. I later learned that “Rikugi-en” translates to the “Garden of the Six Principles of Poetry”… which… first of all, how can such a short name can have such a complicated meaning? And second: that’s the weirdest name for a garden I’ve ever heard.

With its large pond, trees, hills and a circular path that leads around the grounds, the Rikugi-en was easily among the most lovely parks we saw in Tokyo. “Garden of the Six Principles of Poetry” is interesting, but if I were in charge, its name would be “Pretty Garden You So Pretty.”

Locations on our Map: Komagome Station | Rikugi-en

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Komagome and the Rikugi-en Gardens
Komagome and the Rikugi-en Gardens
Komagome and the Rikugi-en Gardens
Komagome and the Rikugi-en Gardens
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July 3, 2014 at 7:25 am Comments (0)

The Historic Neighborhood of Fukagawa

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Across the Sumida River from Nihonbashi, Fukagawa is one of Tokyo’s original fifteen wards. We spent a day wandering around its uncrowded streets, allowing the district to surprise us with an excellent museum, a tranquil garden and, for lunch, a delicious bowl of the neighborhood specialty, Fukugawa Meshi.

Kiyosumi

Fukugawa is home to a few of Tokyo’s most acclaimed sumo stables. In fact, after emerging from the metro, the very first person we saw was a sumo wrestler, clad in a robe and large enough to blot out the sun. Like starstruck schoolgirls, we followed him at a discrete distance, watching as he went into a 7-11 to flip through comics. It’s not that I expect sumo wrestlers to constantly be eating or practicing, but it was somehow amusing to see this massive guy being so normal, just going about his day.

Kiyosumi

Next, we paid a small fee to enter the Kiyosumi Gardens, a 20-acre park with a circular path that leads along a pond, past a tea house, and through thousands of trees. The garden was created in the eighteenth century, and purchased in 1878 by Iwasaki Yataro, founder of the Mitsubishi Corporation, who intended to use it as a place of rest for his employees. Opened to the public in 1932, Kiyosumi is one of the more beautiful gardens we visited in Tokyo, thanks largely to an almost total lack of other tourists.

Kiyosumi

After leaving the garden, we walked a few blocks to the west and came upon the Fukagawa Edo Folk Museum. We weren’t sure what to expect here, but certainly not what we found: a full-scale reconstruction of Edo-era Fukagawa. This museum was a real surprise. Around eight houses have been built, some in cut-away to better show off the interiors, and others in their entirety. You’re allowed to remove your shoes and enter all of the buildings, both the residences and the stores. You can walk down by the canal (Fukagawa was an important port of Edo), look up at the fire tower, peer into the outdoor toilet shared by the entire neighborhood and see the roving soba vendor.

The museum is very permissive, allowing and even encouraging photographs, and visitors are free to handle any of the artifacts which are laying around. But the best part might be the dedicated volunteer staff, many of whom speak English, and all of whom are eager to answer questions you might have. The woman following us around was even answering questions we didn’t have.

By the time we finished in the museum, we were famished and set out to find lunch. While puzzling over the Japanese-only menu of a nearby restaurant, a group of older men clad in hiking gear stormed past us and into the door. The last one in line looked back and rubbed his belly as if to say, “yummy yummy”… and that’s as good a recommendation as you’re likely to get. We went up to the third floor, removed our shoes, sat down and dug into the neighborhood specialty: Fukagawa Meshi, a rice dish topped with a rich miso-based broth of clams and green onions.

Fukagawa doesn’t see a lot of foreign tourism, perhaps because it’s on the wrong side of the Sumida River. But this historic neighborhood is still quite central, easy to reach, and worth at least half a day. Probably more.

Locations on our Map: Kiyosumi Gardens | Edo Folk Museum | Meshi Restaurant

Our Apartment In Tokyo Was Very Close To This Neighborhood

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June 13, 2014 at 2:00 pm Comments (2)

Our Introduction to Kaiseki at Tofuya-Ukai

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Kaiseki is Japan’s haute cuisine, a traditional meal of several individually-crafted dishes. It’s as expensive as it sounds, and since our budget won’t allow us to repeatedly indulge in kaiseki, we wanted to be careful about the restaurant in which we’d experience it. After considerable research, we decided upon Tofuya-Ukai. I doubt we could have made a better choice.

Kaiseki at Tofuya-Ukai

Found at the foot of the Tokyo Tower, Tofuya-Ukai is one of the most popular kaiseki restaurants in the city. From the moment we walked through the gate, we were enchanted. In the middle of noisy, modern Tokyo, the Tofuya-Ukai offers an oasis of serenity and tradition. A path through a Japanese-style garden, complete with cherry trees and a koi pond, brought us to the main building where a woman dressed in a kimono greeted us with a deep bow.

After checking our reservation, she showed us to our table. And I don’t mean, she pointed us to a spot across the dining room full of other guests. No, we followed her on a circuitous course through the building, which looks more like the residence of a powerful daimyo than a restaurant. She led us through a hall with enormous sake barrels and down a long hallway, before sliding open the doors to our compartment. We removed our shoes and stepped into a simple tatami-floored room with large windows looking out onto the garden.

Our kaiseki lunch was served in seven courses. As indicated by the restaurant’s name, tofu is the house specialty and was the centerpiece of the main dishes. I don’t mind tofu, but have never understood its appeal. However, I’d never had tofu like this. Delicate and rich, the white squares floating with kelp in a large copper pot were so pure and lovely, I didn’t want to touch them. All the tofu served at the Tofuya-Ukai is made in-house, and it’s delicious.

The food was just a single part of what made the experience so memorable. The quarters were lovely, and I’d have been satisfied to simply spend an afternoon sitting on the tatami and looking out onto the garden. And the service! The waitresses brought in the plates one by one, theatrically placing each in front of us with precise, studied movements. The plates and bowls were always different, individually suited to each dish, and the presentation of the food was thoughtful, emphasizing the freshness and color of the ingredients.

The Tofuya-Ukai wasn’t cheap, but it was worth every penny. Kaiseki is an essential Japanese experience, and one we’re happy to have had at Tofuya-Ukai. If you’d like to eat here yourself, make sure to get reservations early, as the restaurant fills up weeks in advance.

Location on our Map

We visited the Tofyua-Ukai with friends from Spain, one of whom writes about food on the blog Chic Souffle. If you can read Spanish, or just want to see more mouth-watering photos of the food we ate, check out her take on the Tofuya-Ukai.

Japanese Cook Books

Kaiseki at Tofuya-Ukai
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June 4, 2014 at 8:39 am Comments (2)
The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden Widely considered to be one of the prettiest spots in Tokyo, the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden has long been a favorite spot for weary Tokyoites looking to escape the city's concrete jungle. However, if it's crowds you're hoping to escape, you might want to look elsewhere.
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