Monday, March 23, 2015

Denboin Garden in Asakusa - hidden in plain sight

Senso-ji in Asakusa is my favourite place in all of Tokyo.  I never fail to visit each time I am in the city.   It is the oldest and most popular Buddhist temple in Tokyo where the Goddess of mercy Kannon is enshrined.
There is a garden in Senso-ji called Denboin that I had passed by many times but had never been able to enter.  It is located beside the pagoda and is hardly ever open to the public.

On this last trip to Tokyo, Denboin opened its doors with an exhibit of traditional Japanese paintings.   This exhibit would last till May 7 and would give visitors a chance to see both the gallery and the garden.  The first day of the Denboin's opening coincided with my visit to Senso-ji so it was indeed serendipity -- and of course, I believe it was a grace given to me by Kannon herself.

It's a pity that photos were not allowed inside the gallery where I enjoyed a small but excellent  exhibit of traditional antique Japanese paintings and sculpture. 
As I stepped out of the gallery, the garden of Denboin slowly unfolded before me, transporting me to a serene and tranquil place -  far from the crowds and noise of Senso-ji.

The gardens comprise a land area of about a hectare and was designed by a famous Japanese landscape gardener more than 300 years ago.  While a hectare may seem large, the garden itself was compact and very easy to navigate.  

So many varieties of trees, shrubs and plants can be seen in Denboin.  Perhaps it was a bit early for spring blossoms but if I had come a few weeks later,  the greenery would probably be in full flower.

The main reason why Denboin is closed to the public is that for generations, this has been the residence of the head priest of Senso-ji.  Only nobles like the Shogun and priests were allowed to enter.    Denboin is very much an active part of the workings of the temple.  I was told that the gardens are opened occasionally to the public, perhaps twice a year.  Which is why I felt truly fortunate to be in this place at this time.

Today, the priests of Senso-ji have opened the gardens to us and have even laid out cups of steaming hot matcha.  These provide a warm welcome, particularly on this chilly March afternoon.
The deep rich matcha tastes of the woods, of trees, of the earth, of goodness --  I feel it tastes of the gardens of Denboin.

I make my way through the garden and come upon this tangle of branches with a single sakura blossom.  It's a sweet early sign of cherry blossom season and a perfect example of wabi sabi, the Japanese aesthetic of impermanent beauty.

Like many traditional Japanese gardens Denboin features a pond built in the middle.  Looking at the reflection of the trees and the buildings on the water doubles my pleasure and enjoyment of this lovely place.

As I make my way around the path that encircles the pond, so many alluring and captivating views are revealed.  From this spot, the pagoda of Senso-ji makes  a magnificent backdrop against the blue spring sky.

Each step, each glance opens up another exquisite perspective.   I find myself stopping at certain spots, hoping to imprint this particular memory in my mind's eye so that I can return to it again and again.

 Even this last look at Denboin, with the towering Sky Tree in the background does not strike me as incongruous -- I see it as a harmonious balance between old and new, traditional and modern, efficiency and elegance.

 As I reluctantly make my way out of Denboin,  I come upon this small rock pool.
Surely not by design, but perhaps blown down by the wind, one pink camellia rests on the edge of the stones.   I know it as a parting gift from Kannon, a sign of her mercy to lift my spirits.
Namu amida butsu.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Savoring Sapporo's Specialties, Part 4 -- Breakfast with Buta at Drive In Ito, New Chitose Airport

All good things must come to an end.  It was time to say good bye to our short, fun working visit to Sapporo and head back to reality.

Nana san and I had separate late morning flights back to Tokyo so we headed to Sapporo station bright and early to catch the train to the airport.

Quick! A selfie before entering the station!

It was rush hour so the train to New Chitose Airport was full of commuters -- we had to wait for the next one before we could get on board.

New Chitose Airport is chock-full of shops and eating places.   It's even more interesting than
Narita Airport. The restaurants are one floor above the departure level so after checking in our bags, we checked out where we could have a quick but delicious meal.
Pork in the road immediately zoomed in on this corner place that featured piggy decor and furnishings.  Buta or pig for breakfast would be the perfect last meal in Sapporo!

This is Drive In Ito, a Sapporo restaurant specialising in pork.  Apparently, the original restaurant is a drive-in place,  hence the name.   Perhaps here at New Chitose Airport, this branch should be called Fly In Ito!

The cute mascot at the entrance holds up the restaurant's famous dish, butadon or pork and rice bowl.

Even at this hour of the morning, there were some die hard pork aficionados  who were tucking into their savoury breakfasts.  My kind of people!  This was definitely not the skinny latte crowd.

 This is the piece de resistance at Drive In Ito.  A huge bowl of porky scrumptiousness.
Slices of tender, utterly divine pork marinated and grilled with a piquant, lip smacking sauce covered this bowl of hot, sticky Japanese rice.  
Toku betsu. So special.
Shita ga tokeru -- it melted in my mouth.
Drive In Ito's butadon was one of the best pork dishes I have ever had!

 Our happy faces certainly attested to the delightful eating we enjoyed at Drive In Ito.  Oh yes, that and our near-empty bowls.

So farewell for now,  Sapporo and New Chitose Airport.  If I ever make my way back here,
I certainly know what my first meal will be ... butadon at Drive In Ito on the 3rd floor!

Savoring Sapporo's Specialties, Part 3 -- Doing Genghis Khan proud at Aji no Hitsujigaoka

This was my first trip to Sapporo and since I was going to be there for all of two days, I wanted to discover her tastes and specialties as much as I could in the short time that I had.   
It was a good thing that my young colleague Nana san,  who was with me for this business trip, had the same thing on her mind.  She had done her "due diligence" as to what and where we should eat.

It was our last evening in Sapporo and we had just come from a successful launch of our project. 
To celebrate, we headed to Susukino, Sapporo's famous "red-light district".  A bit of a misnomer perhaps because while all the clubs, bars and entertainment centres are here, this is also where you can find very good restaurants, cafes and high end stores and shops.  

Susukino plays a major role each year at Sapporo's Yuki Matsuri or Snow Festival.  It is one of the three areas where the festival is held.  This long ice corridor sponsored by Kirin had thousands of tiny twinkling multi-coloured fairy lights - truly a dazzling display.

This long street in the Susukino district was the site of  the ice sculpture competitions.  
The judging would be done the next day but some contestants were still putting the finishing touches on their entries.  It was - 5 degrees that night and I could just imagine how cold it must have been to be working with ice and standing on the snowdrifts around these sculptures.

While I had seen and marvelled at the gigantic snow sculptures in Odori Park, these smaller but very detailed ice carvings were no less impressive.  

This was one of my favourites. Now where can I get that giant can of Sapporo beer?

Viewing all these original and creative ice sculptures finally took its toll on us.  We were hungry, thirsty and yes -- we needed to get in from the frigid night air.  Thankfully, we finally arrived at our dinner destination.  Here are my colleagues in front of Aji no Hitsujigaoka -- one of Sapporo's best places that serves a local favourite ... jingisukan.

A narrow flight of stairs led us to the second floor where the restaurant was.  There was just one long counter good for about 20 diners -- and because we had reservations, we were able to grab the last few seats.  

These domed hot grills have blazing charcoal briquettes inside and are the basic cooking implements for jingisukan.  Interesting factoid -- the dish is named after Genghis Khan, the great Mongolian warrior.  Jingisukan is essentially grilled mutton -- a meat that was associated with the Mongolian tribes, hence the name.  It is also said that these skillets look like the helmets that were used during Genghis' time. 
At the restaurant, these skillets are placed in front of the diners as jingisukan involves cooking your own meal.

To spare diners' clothes from splatters paper aprons are de rigueur at jingisukan restaurants.  

Here's how the aprons looked like, as modelled by my colleagues Hashi san and Okamoto san.

Nothing goes better with grilled meat and barbecue than a mug of cold beer.  And when in Sapporo, it must be  Sapporo Classic -- a beer sold only in Hokkaido.

We ordered mutton to start off with.  The lady behind the counter lined the sides of the hot grill with assorted vegetables --  bean sprouts, slices of bell peppers, cabbage pieces.  She left space in the centre -- this was where the meat would be cooked.

Aside from the vegetables and the meat, another key ingredient of jingisukan is sheep lard -- that's the white chunk in centre of the grill.   The  charcoal embers rendered the lard which then coated the metal and kept the meat from sticking to the grill.  The sizzle coming from frying lard and meat gave off such a tantalising aroma.

 We cooked our mutton on the hot grill and the meat juices slid down to the vegetables, making them even more tasty.  Mutton does not need a lot of cooking time -- medium rare is the best way to enjoy  it.  The mutton at Aji no Hitsuijigaoka was tender and not at all gamey.  Even if mutton has very little marbling compared to beef,  each cooked piece was juicy and tender and it was oh so easy to eat slice after delightful slice.   I was in the throes of mutton mania!

 We had a bit of  space left in our stomachs so we ordered  sausages.  They were quite mild and not as spicy or strong flavoured so perhaps they were made of lamb and not mutton -- which is the meat from older sheep.  The sausages were excellent  and  went very well with the beer.

 We certainly ate a lot of jingisukan that night at Aji no Hitsujigaoka.  Genghis Khan would have approved.  Stuffed with sheep lard and meat,  faces warmed from the beer and the hot grill,
we stepped out of the restaurant, ready to face the frosty February night.
But first,  one last "group-fie" before we ended our most satisfying last night in Sapporo.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Savoring Sapporo's Specialties, Part 2 -- Spiny Hairy Crab and more at Yosuko

Hokkaido, the major island where Sapporo is located, is surrounded by cold northern seas and thus there is an abundance of all types of seafood.
For dinner on our first night in Sapporo, my colleagues from Tokyo said that we would go to a  Chinese restaurant specialising in seafood.   
This did not sit quite well with me, as I wondered why on earth would I want to eat sweet and sour fish and pancit canton in Sapporo?  They said we would go to Yosuko, highly recommended by Sapporo natives.

Yosuko  must be really popular -- the cab driver knew where to take us right away.  
We traveled through  snow bound streets until we reached this simple, unremarkable building. 
The restaurant is located on a street corner in a quiet area.  Note the slippery icy walk  leading to the entrance.

I love these unpretentious, casual eating places where the food and not the ambience is the centre of attention.  I felt much better when I saw that Yosuko did not seem like a typical Chinese  restaurant -- perhaps I wouldn't have to eat sweet and sour fish after all. 

Despite the snow and freezing temperature outside,  cold Sapporo beer was the perfect drink to start with.   While we were enjoying our beer, I told my colleagues about my initial misgivings about eating in a "chinese" restaurant.  
They were so amused   -- I needn't have worried they said.   Yosuko is a seafood restaurant with both chinese and japanese dishes.  It's also labelled as a Chinese restaurant because of the name -- Yosuko is a  Japanese name for the Yangtze river.
Hai, so desu ne!

Because it was the season and because it is a Sapporo specialty, it was practically mandatory to order Hokkaido kegani or spiny hairy crab.   One colossal crustacean was big enough to feed all four of us.

This prodigious crab claw yielded quite a bit of delectable crab meat.  The kitchen had thoughtfully slit the claws open so all I  had to do was to scoop out the sweet delicate flesh.

We were all given these little stainless steel utensils to help push out the crabmeat from the claws.   That certainly made it easier and less painful -- those spiny hairy crab legs were no joke.

We started with the crab and a large order of sashimi moriawase -- it was excellent!  The tuna was cut from near the belly and therefore fattily succulent.  There were slices of what looked like a large clam which at first glance seemed tough and chewy but was the exact opposite.  
Plump scallops, a type of crawfish, large chunks of fish roe and translucent slices of white fish completed the choices on the table.

This golden yellow coloured piece which looks suspiciously like a fruit  is a very fine, very firm piece of fish roe.  It had a unique, briny,  fresh- from-the-sea taste.  Thoughts of sustainability crept into my mind -- my porcine alter ego gently pushed them away.

Another dish that my colleagues ordered was shirako in a spicy shoyu sauce.  I like eating shirako but more than that, I enjoy asking my Japanese friends just what it is.  
Of course I know what it is -- it's fish sperm sacs, usually cod's.  But I secretly enjoy seeing the normally polite Japanese hesitate as to how they could properly explain just what it is.  
I specially remember one who blurted out to me --"it's fish testicles!" then blushed a deep beet red.

How about this ugly prehistoric looking fish? This is called hakkaku -- in english, it's known as a sail fin poacher fish.  It looked like a throwback from the Jurassic era but my colleagues assured me it tasted much better than it looked.  Hakkaku is another fish  commonly seen in Sapporo's fish markets.

 The hakkaku had been carefully deboned then stuffed again with its own flesh mixed with miso and negi,  a leek like vegetable.  The slightly charred hakkaku skin gave way to a rich, creamy, salty deliciousness.

 One for the road or one more dish before we officially declared ourselves as onaka ippai.
This is awabi or abalone karaage.  We should have eaten this once it was served but we were too busy demolishing the hakkaku.  It had cooled and become chewy by the time I got my chopsticks into it -- zannen desu ne.

 Here are my three young colleagues from Tokyo who were with me on this business trip. A big arigato to them for taking me to discover Sapporo's seafood delicacies at Yosuko!