Thursday, December 18, 2014

Koyo Viewing at Rikugien Garden, Tokyo


How lucky that this last business trip to Tokyo put me smack dab in the peak of koyo or autumn leaves viewing.  Like cherry blossoms,  koyo or autumn leaves are much loved by the Japanese for their exquisite but brief season.  


I had done some research and found out that there were quite a number of recommended koyo viewing spots within Tokyo.  One of the most recommended is Rikugi-en Garden. It is easily reached by taking the JR Yamanote Line to Komagome station.





The main entrance of the garden is a 10 minute walk from the station but during autumn and spring when more people visit the park, the Someimon gate, which is much closer, is opened to the public.
There is a long line that's briskly moving when we get to Rikugi-en at 9 in the morning.





Upon entering, I am immediately greeted by this burst of red which stands tall amidst a riot of green shrubbery.  I cannot wait to see what else will Rikugi-en will dazzle me with.



Rikugi-en is a beautifully landscaped garden right in the heart of modern, bustling Tokyo.
For me, it is a prime example  of "wabi sabi" that quintessentially Japanese aesthetic that sees beauty in simplicity and imperfection.  Trees and branches and shrubs seemingly run riot until you notice the plan and symmetry in their perfect disorder.
The garden sprawls across nine hectares and was created in the 18th century by one of the shoguns.  It was later bought by the founder of Mitsubishi who used it as his second residence until he donated it to the government in the 1950s.


There are  88 sections in the garden that were created from scenes in famous Japanese poems.  Each of these has a marker inviting the visitor to stop and contemplate the particular spot of beauty before him.


Rikugi-en is perhaps the loveliest garden I have seen.  To take in and enjoy all the beauty, your steps slow down, you stop more often, you breathe a little deeper and time seems to stand still.


I come upon this small shrub with deep purple berries.  This plant is very appropriately called Japanese beauty berry.


I think autumn with its various shades of reds and golds is even more of a show stopper than spring or sakura season.  After the initial impact,  masses and masses of pink and white sakura make me want to rest my eyes.
But I could sit in a garden such as this and meditate on these autumn leaves for as long as I could.


This large pond is the centrepiece of Rikugi-en Garden.  There are two small islands on the pond which symbolise the male and female deities.  I am grateful that except for a few buildings in the far background, there are no massive skyscrapers to ruin the effect.


What a show-off!  This Japanese maple with its vibrant red leaves stands in the middle of a wide expanse of lawn, preening as everyone snaps away on their cameras.


It had started to drizzle quite steadily.  We found a bench, shaded from the rain by a large tree and sat and enjoyed the quiet splendour of Rikugi-en Garden.  No conversation is needed -- just quiet and peaceful yet companionable silence.


Unfortunately, from a drizzle, the skies soon opened and then came the downpour.
The ducks came out to enjoy the rain but the people had to scurry for cover.
Our tree's branches could no longer shield us so with much reluctance, we left Rikugi-en Garden.
It was a grace filled interlude that is completely etched in my memory.

A Salaryman's Lunch at Ikeda in Tokyo

It had been a long but productive and congenial morning meeting with my Dentsu Tokyo colleagues.  To celebrate, I asked them to lunch -- and they decided to take me to a very popular place among Dentsu kaishain (employees) of a certain age, that is.



This is the small and rather unobtrusive entrance to Ikeda.  Before the current Dentsu building in Shiodome was built in 2002,  Ikeda was very near the old Dentsu offices in the Higashiginza area.  Thus,  anyone over the age of 40 would certainly have had quite a number of lunches, dinners and after-office beers at this place.  
Today, younger employees have never even heard of it.



Aside from being a restaurant cum izakaya,  Ikeda is also quite well known because its owner is a famous reiki practitioner.   They call him "Mr Power Hands".  Reiki is the Japanese technique of stress relief and healing by the laying of hands.  For a few thousand yen, the owner will come up to you for 5 minutes of healing.  He has his photos on the wall with testimonials from his "patients".



While I would have wanted to meet  Mr. Power Hands, we were here to have a late lunch and we were all famished -- perhaps the healing hands can be experienced some other time.  I looked at the rather well worn plastic bound menu but I needn't have bothered -- it was all in Japanese.


In the end, my colleagues ordered the same thing for all of us -- the basic salaryman's lunch, what Ikeda is well known for and what they said all Dentsu kaishain over forty at one point in time had for a regular meal.
This is the yurinchi setto.  Yurinchi is fried chicken -- lightly floured chicken breasts, deep fried, sliced into strips and served with a mild soy and sweetish vinegar sauce.
It was utterly delicious and reminded me of a milder, less oily karaage.
The yurinchi setto came with a small salad with a citrusy vinaigrette,  the omnipresent miso soup and some crunchy tsukemono.
I tried hard to avoid the bowl of hot fragrant sticky japanese rice but it went so well with the tasty yurinchi, it would have been a shame to leave it in the bowl.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Conquering Mont Blanc at Cafe de Ginza Miyuki-kan Ginza, Tokyo


Always trust your stomach's intuition!  My betsubara (Japanese term for "second stomach, for dessert only") and I were walking along Ginza one evening a few weeks ago when we passed by this cheerfully lit coffee shop that seemed uprooted straight from some sidewalk in Europe. 


Plant boxes filled with festive red flowers and fairy lights were a welcome sight on this cold and rainy evening.  It certainly looked warm and cozy inside.  I had just come from an office dinner but my betsubara had me rooted to the spot.  



The other reason why I just couldn't move on was this large poster showing the signature dish of Cafe de Ginza Miyuki-kan.  This is not spaghetti or any kind of pasta noodle -- this is a picture of a Mont Blanc, a pastry made of cream and pureed chestnuts.  While I had frequently read about it,  I had yet to try one.  
Now, I would finally conquer Mont Blanc!


As it says on the door, Cafe de Ginza Miyuki-kan has been on the scene since 1969.  However, they only started serving the Mont Blanc a little more than 10 years ago so I suppose even if you put these  pastries one on top of the other, they wouldn't be as tall as the real Mont Blanc.


The shop is indeed charming and reminded me of any one of these quaint little coffee shops you'd find in a small town in Europe.  I imagine the french windows open up during spring or summer and you can probably have your coffee al fresco.


While waiting for my tea and Mont Blanc -- the table tent card showed  how a Mont Blanc is constructed.  The base is a meringue disc followed by a topping of cream and then pureed chestnut is piped on in thin ribbons.
I cannot read Japanese but when I did some research on Cafe de Ginza Miyuki-kan, I learned that they use only premium Japanese chestnuts from Kuma, in Kumamoto Prefecture.  Apparently, these chestnuts have a mild aroma and sweetness that works best for the Mont Blanc pastry.
The shop uses about 15 tons of chestnut a year -- serving up an average of 200,000 of these exquisite little pastries.


I unwrapped the thin wax paper surrounding my Mont Blanc to get a better shot of this three tiered dessert -- meringue, cream and chestnut puree.  The chestnut puree is a rich caramel colour -- it's such a delectably dainty  bit of dessert.


After my first forkful -- I became an instant Mont Blanc convert.  
I was a little worried that it would be too sweet -- given the meringue, the cream and the chestnut puree but this was just delightful.   The chestnuts used in the puree must have been laced with just the slightest hint of sugar to allow the natural sweetness of the nut to shine through.
I could actually have eaten another one with relative ease --- who am I kidding, I could have eaten two more with out batting an eye!


But no, such genteel and refined surroundings did not warrant a gluttonous binge.
I scraped the very last bit of my Mont Blanc from the plate and reluctantly stood up to pay my bill.  As I passed by the chiller containing Cafe de Ginza Miyuki-kan's other sweet offerings, I knew that before I headed back home, I would make another stop for their Mont Blanc.
Rather than conquering Mont Blanc, it had conquered me!



Friday, December 5, 2014

Swishing the shabu shabu at Ginzasyabutsuu in Ginza, Tokyo


To the tourist who loves Japanese food, perhaps shabu shabu is not on the top five list of foods to eat.  There's ramen, tonkatsu, soba, tempura and of course sushi and sashimi  -- all of which are best eaten right at the source, i.e. anywhere in Japan.
On last week's business trip to Tokyo, I was wandering around Ginza at dinner time, trying to decide where my first "welcome back to Japan" meal would be when this well lit doorway caught my eye.


Ginzasyabutsuu is a shabu shabu restaurant that I later learned from the website Gurunavi  is famous because it invented "all-you-can-eat" shabu shabu.   In other words, shabu shabu kuidaore or eat-until-you're-ruined as they like to say in Osaka.  The restaurant is in the basement so you have to walk down a narrow staircase.



The menu is  in Japanese but there is a one-page english menu for the gaijin.  You can choose from all you can eat courses of five types of meats or a more expansive (and expensive) version that includes more varieties plus Japanese black beef and a special domestic chicken.



For the less hungry, there are sets that start at Y2,400 for two types of meat -- pork belly and sirloin.  I decided to go with the "udon" set with three types of meat plus noodles.



Nothing  starts a meal better than beer.  I ordered the medium nama beer, in this case the restaurant's beer on tap is from Kirin.


We're lucky we snagged the last few seats at the counter.  The restaurant is not that big, just a few booths in the back, all of them completely full.


 Each person at the counter has the small pot of boiling water on top of a gas burner.  The shabu shabu set includes a small dish of vegetables -- carrot slices, greens, enoki mushrooms and a tofu skin pouch filled with minced herbs.



 There are two types of sauces for the shabu shabu. There is a light ponzu sauce and Ginzasyabutsuu's special sesame sauce that is also a bit citrusy.  This creamy yet tart taste is more to my liking and is ideal for dipping the meat in. For my 3-meat set,  I chose beef tongue, pork belly and sirloin (left to right, on the plate above).


 "Shabu shabu"  is onomatopoeic.  They say it is the sound you make when you swish the meat around in the boiling water.  All I could  hear though was the grumbling of my hungry stomach.



Once you've finished the meat on your plate, the waitstaff bring a small bowl of udon noodles with a side of tanuki and chopped green onions.  The remaining broth from the shabu shabu pot is then skimmed and strained of any bits of meat and is poured on the noodles, thus creating an instantly flavourful udon bowl.


A small scoop of yuzu flavoured sherbet ended the meal and was the perfect way to cleanse the palate of any lingering beefy aftertastes.
Ginzasyabutsuu was a lucky find for my first meal on this trip to Tokyo.
I hope I can find my way back next time!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Of a Jesuit church, Frescoes, A Miraculous Well and an Earthquake Survivor -- the Our Lady of Assumption Church in Dauis, Bohol


The massive earthquake that happened in Bohol last October 2013 damaged so many beautiful churches -- most of them are beyond repair.  When I saw these magnificent structures reduced to rubble,  it broke my heart.  I regretted that I had not been to Bohol earlier -- so that I could have seen these centuries old churches while they were still intact.



Some of the churches, those farther away from the epicentre and those built perhaps on more solid ground or of sturdier construction avoided complete destruction.  
One of these churches is the Assumption of Our Lady Shrine in Dauis in Panglao Island.  Originally established by the Jesuits in the 1700s, it was passed on to the Augustinians when the Jesuits were expelled from the country.
On this last trip to Bohol for work, I purposely stopped off to see the church on my way to the airport.


The portico that used to be a significant feature of the church facade had been completely felled by the earthquake and portions of the tall bell tower rising high above the church had also been destroyed.  Despite these, I felt that the Dauis church still fared much better than the church in Loboc where it seems that repair and reconstruction are more daunting, near impossible
tasks.



You can see that reconstruction has started on the gothic inspired bell tower. Cream coloured limestone bricks will replace those that were damaged, keeping the overall look of the structure.



The church interior is graceful and quietly elegant.  It seemed to me that it suffered  less damage than the exterior.  Sunlight streamed in from the windows and the tall white columns and posts add to the spacious and uncluttered feel.
The statues have been removed for protection as the church undergoes repair.
Masses are not held inside the church but outdoors, as precaution from whatever danger could arise from the weakened structure.


This is a view of the interior taken from the altar.  The massive posts you see in front, flanking the entrance are there to hold up and support the portico, now completely destroyed.
A gaping hole in the ceiling shows where the top of the portico would have been.



The ceiling all along the central nave and aisles shows not frescoes but woodwork.  
Each square frames ornamental non liturgical symbols, in gold and a vivid turquoise blue.  


The religious scenes such as this one showing Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem, are painted along the sides of the ceiling.  These marvellous frescoes were done in the early 1920s by Ray Francia, a famous Boholano painter.  



The work of this outstanding artist continues throughout the ceiling of the church.  Right under the dome is this fresco showing the Assumption of Our Lady.  



On top of the altar are more frescoes depicting various scenes like the Last Supper and the Agony in the Garden.  These are all beautifully painted and would not look out of place in the grandest of churches anywhere in the world.


Aside from its striking and impressive appearance, Dauis church is more popular because of the presence of miraculous waters right inside the church, coming from a deep well located just in front of the main altar.
According to local lore, centuries ago, the town was attacked by pirates.  To keep themselves safe, the townspeople locked themselves inside the church as the pirates ransacked the town.  After a while they ran out of food and water.  A well miraculously appeared inside the church and they were able to sustain themselves until it was safe to come out.
To this day, fresh water continues to spring from the well and is available to anyone -- just bring your plastic containers and fill them up.  People have faith that the waters have healing powers.



The back of the church has also sustained damage and reconstruction is ongoing.  A squat hexagonal watch tower, dating back to 1774  sits on one side.  In Spanish times, this was used to watch out for Moorish invaders who came by sea.


This is a panoramic shot of the back of the church.  On the left side is the very impressive and large convento -- also made of bricks and limestone.  It is built along the lines of the tradition Philippine bahay na bato.


This is the view that looks out over the sea.  Right now, it is tranquil and calm but I can imagine that centuries ago, when Moors and pirates were a constant threat, being on the edge of open water such as this must have been a constant concern for Dauis and its inhabitants.


The convento is massive and imposing.  Because it is so wide and squat, it seems to have been spared from the destruction wrought by the earthquake.   I had spent quite a bit of time walking in and around the complex and I felt that I should be on my way to the airport.  But something made me step inside the convento.


The ground floor houses a small coffee shop and a gift shop selling church and Boholano souvenirs and crafts.  Part of the space is now occupied by these statues, rescued from the church.  Some have lost fingers and limbs and will have to be restored.


There is a charming painting showing the walkway from the church to the boat shed at the end of the small pier.  I can imagine the people of Bohol, coming to church via banca, tying up their boats at water's edge and attending church services.


Behind the convento is the open air area where pews have been set up and masses and church services are now held.  It overlooks the sea and is ringed with large old trees -- acacia and narra perhaps.  I can imagine that it is conducive to prayer and meditation.


The lady at the gift shop asked me if I wanted to pay a visit to Our Lady of the Assumption. She pointed me to the back of the convento and told me to enter where an angel stood guard at the door.


The room had been transformed into a small makeshift chapel.  Our Lady of the Assumption, also proclaimed as miraculous by the people of Bohol who have worshipped her for centuries, stood serenely on an improvised altar covered with blue cloth.
It is far cry from her majestic, gold crowned perch on the main altar.
As I stood before her,  I could feel her strong, loving and protective spirit, lessened not one bit by the simple and humble surroundings she is in.
Now I understood why I was drawn into the convento -- it was Our Lady calling me to visit and
spend some moments with her.