Archive for the ‘food’ Category

Ueno (上野)

Ueno is located in the old Shitamachi (下町) area of Tokyo, along with Asakusa. We have visited the area a couple of times on our trips to Japan, but have only scratched the surface of what the district has to offer.

The most famous part of Ueno is, of course, Ueno Park (上野公園), located alongside Ueno Station and famous for its cherry blossom in Spring.

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Our first visit to Ueno was in October 2010 when, on a particularly rainy day, we decided to follow our visit to the Drum Museum in Asakusa with a trip to the National Museum of Nature and Science.

I work in a science and industry museum and I’m always interested to see how other countries approach science in their museums. By far my favourite science museum is Miraikan, which seems to get the balance between learning and fun just right. The National Museum of Nature and Science is a mix of the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum in London. It’s an integrated museum with a satellite site out at the Tsukuba Research Centre. We only visited the main museum building in Ueno Park, but I want to visit the Centre for the History of Japanese Industrial Technology as well, one day.

The main museum is split into two galleries. The Japan Gallery presents the natural history of the Japanese islands, as well as an introduction to the scientific instruments used to observe nature in Japan. The Global Gallery presents natural history across the planet, mixed in with a celebration of Japanese scientists and an exploration of how science and technology has progressed in Japan, compared with other nations.

We mainly explored the Japan Gallery on our trip. It was interesting to learn how people have adapted to the environment in Japan over the centuries, and how they have used science to understand the nature of Japan. I particularly liked the chronometers, celestial globes and seismographs, one of which preserves a recording of the Great Kanto Earthquake.

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The natural history displays were interesting, particularly the displays of flowers, fossilised plants and insects.

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The museum is pretty big, and we were running out of time, so our visit to the Global Gallery focused on the Science and Innovation display. This featured similar objects to those collected and displayed at the museum where I work. The space seemed a little stark, and a lot of the interactives were broken. It was interesting to see the industrial machinery, aviation and computing displays, though, and particularly nice to see the Manchester Mark I computer given a name check!

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There was also a display of dinosaurs that we visited at the end. It was in a really small room, but the curators had done their best with the space. The path through brought you up close to the skeletons and replicas, so you got a sense of scale. It did feel cramped and jumbled, though.

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There are other museums in Ueno Park, including Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of Western Art, neither of which we have visited yet. There’s a zoo in the park as well, if captive animals float your boat.

We did a bit of cherry blossom viewing in Ueno Park, in April 2012, and had a wander around Shinobazu Pond. The Park is beautiful and very busy in cherry blossom season. The April day we visited was a sunny one, but not particularly warm. The park was filling up with people by the time we arrived. At the southern entrance to the park, close to Ueno Station, there is a cherry tree with a large inscribed rock sitting under it. It seems to be something to do with a Rotary Club.

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We took the tree lined path north from this stone, past a display of lanterns for the Ueno Sakura Matsuri (Ueno Cherry Festival).

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We somehow missed the statue of Saigo Takamori, one of the generals who fought in the Battle of Ueno which destroyed most of the buildings previously on the site the park now occupies. The Battle of Ueno was part of the brief civil war that followed the Meiji Restoration. Supporters of the overthrown Shogun fought the army of the restored Emperor in the grounds of Kaneiji Temple, which was a family shrine for the Tokugawa Shoguns. Most of the temple was destroyed, and the land became the property of the city of Tokyo. Ueno Park was established in 1873 and was gifted to the people in 1924 in celebration of Prince Hirohito’s marriage. The park’s official name is Ueno Onshi Koen (上野恩賜公園), or Ueno Imperial Gift Park.

The walk up through the cherry trees was very pretty, and full of Tokyoites and other tourists taking photographs. I particularly liked the starkness of the branches against the froth of the cherry blossom, and the way the branches seem to have been trained to give a zigzag effect.

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There were plenty of people having blossom viewing picnics, and tarpaulins were laid out and marked with names ready for evening picnics. On group of people had an enormous banquet – plate upon plate of food, arranged in the middle of the tarp, with the people sitting in a ring around it. I would like to be more organised and have a picnic under the cherry blossom in Ueno Park!

After we’d walked the length of the avenue, we turned back and headed for Shinobazu Pond. Kaneiji Temple was modelled on Enryakuji Temple in Kyoto, which overlooks lake Biwako, which Shinobazu Pond is said to represent. An island in the middle of the pond is home to the Bentendo, or Hall of the goddess Benten. It’s the green-roofed structure in the picture below.

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Part of the pond is reserved for the preservation of wildlife, but most of it is used as a boating lake, with swan shaped pedalos for hire. It being cherry blossom season, there were plenty of food stalls around, so we treated ourselves to a cup of salted sweet potato chips, which were delicious.

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On our walk around the pond, one of the nicest sights we saw was a man feeding the birds from the nature reserve. Some of the birds were bold enough to eat straight from his hand, and he was whistling to them to bring them to him. We stood and watched him for a while, and he happily let me take a photograph of him.

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On our trip to Ueno Park in 2010, we paid a short visit to the Ameya Yokocho shopping street. It was disappointingly like Oldham Tommyfield market. I was expecting something more vibrant from the descriptions I’d read, but it was quite grey and drab. Perhaps because it was a wet day. I didn’t take any photographs because of the weather.

Our most recent visit to Ueno was on our walk from Akihabara over to the Sky Tree in May 2015. We decided to go to Asakusa via Iriya so that we could make a reservation for dinner at Bon. This walk brought us up alongside Ueno Station, across a pavement in the sky. It was another aspect of Ueno to what we had seen before, and we discovered a chiming piece of public sculpture.

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There is still lots for us to see and do in Ueno, and it is one of my favourite parts of Tokyo. I’m sure we’ll head back there one day and take in some of the other museums in Ueno Park, and explore more of the other sights the area has to offer.

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Tokyo Sky Tree (東京スカイツリー)

On our autumn trip to Japan in October 2010, we arrived at Narita airport and took the train to Kyoto via Tokyo. On our train journey, we noticed a half formed tower being built on the east of Tokyo. We stayed in Asakusa for the second half of our trip that year, and saw the incomplete tower in the distance as we wandered around Nakamise market.

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In 2012, we noticed that the tower was complete. We discovered that it is called the Sky Tree and was due to open the following month. Built mainly as a broadcasting tower to replace Tokyo Tower, Sky Tree also has two observation decks and a restaurant. At its foot is Sky Tree Town, a shopping complex and entertainment district.

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At 634m high, it is the tallest tower in the world, and only the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is a taller structure. Ever with the eye for detail, the reason the tower is 634m tall is because the number can be pronounced “musashi”. Musashi is the old name for the historic province within which Tokyo falls, and it is that expanse of land that can be seen from the observation decks.

We took the chance to visit the Sky Tree on our May 2014 trip. We were staying in Akihabara, and I decided it would be a great idea to walk to Asakusa and then on to the Sky Tree. That’s a lot of walking. I find translating distances from how they appear on Japanese maps into how they actually are on planet Earth difficult. I pretty much always get it wrong.

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When we arrived, we went straight up to the 4th floor to buy our tickets for the Tembo Deck, but were advised that there was a half hour wait. After all the walking we’d done, I was too hungry to hang around in a ticket queue, so we headed back down to the restaurants and tried to find the Moomin themed café that I’d read about. I was keen to sit at a table with a giant Moomin stuffed toy, so it was disappointing to discover that there was no vegetarian food on offer. There were three dishes on the menu – beef curry, salmon, or chicken cutlet. No Moomin repast for us, then.

Across the way was an Italian restaurant. I asked for (thought I’d asked for) the tomato and mozarella spaghetti, but what arrived was the spaghetti pomodoro with egg and bacon. Ah, the joys of trying to find vegetarian food in a touristy part of Tokyo! At least it was easy to pick the bacon off the top of the pasta, and there wasn’t much. If I’d done a bit more research before heading over there, instead of being fixated on Moomin cuteness, I would have known that there are restaurants on the upper floors of Solamachi that have vegetarian options. D’oh!

After eating, we headed back to the 4th floor of the Sky Tree, where we had only a 20 minute wait for tickets. We travelled up to the Tembo Deck in a space-age lift that travelled at 10m per second. We only felt it as the lift slowed back down and our ears popped. Otherwise, it didn’t feel like we were moving at all. It was a strange sensation.

Tembo Deck is 350m from the ground and the views across Tokyo are spectacular.

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Tokyo really is a huge city. At ground level, you don’t really get a sense of how immense it is. Seeing it stretch away from you in all directions from 350m above ground really brings it home to you.

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We spent about an hour wandering around the observation deck, taking pictures from every angle, including down through a section of glass floor that my husband was happy to stand on but that my vertigo wouldn’t let me try!

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We found the café on our photo tour of the observation deck and made sure we fitted in a portion of Sky Tree ice cream with fruit vinegar. I had the apple vinegar on mine, which was pleasingly sweet and then pleasingly sour. At the bottom of the ice cream was a sprinkling of cornflakes, as well. Yum!

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It was great up the Sky Tree looking out over Tokyo and worth the 2,060円 entry fee. If you speak good enough Japanese, it’s possible to book timed tickets online in advance of your visit, so that you can avoid the queues, but we had no problems buying day tickets. The waiting time was fine for us. We went on a Thursday, though. I’d imagine it gets a lot busier at the weekend.

We decided not to buy the second ticket up to the Tembo Gallery, which is the observation deck at 450m. The additional ticket can only be bought on the day while you are on the Tembo Deck. It costs an extra 1,030円.

We visited the shop on the Tembo Deck, but weren’t grabbed by any of the souvenirs. We like a bit of tat, but the gifts were too kitsch even for our taste!

We were tired from me forcing us to march around east Tokyo, so couldn’t find the energy to mooch around the four floors of shops at the base of the tower. Not even for the Medicom store.

Mifune Matsuri/三船祭

Whenever we head to Japan, we always check to see whether there will be any festivals on local to where we’re staying. In 2015, we discovered that we would be in Kyoto at the right time to see the Mifune Matsuri in Arashiyama. We love Arashiyama and have visited it a couple of times.

We caught the train from Kyoto station to Saga-Arashiyama on the JR line. The train was already at the platform when we reached Kyoto station, and was pretty crowded. We’d read that somewhere in the region of 100,000 people visit Arashiyama to watch the festival each year, so we were expecting the train to be full. We managed to get seats, then more people piled on until it was standing room only. It turned out that we were on a local train and not everyone was heading out to the festival.

We arrived at Saga station around lunch time. It was pretty quiet. We guessed that most people must already be at Kurumazaki shrine, getting ready for the procession to the Togetsukyo bridge. As we walked down into town, we passed a sign for a vegan café called Prunus.

It was lunchtime, we were hungry, and an opportunity to eat healthily instead of scavenging for onigiri in a combini had presented itself to us. So we climbed the stairs to the empty café. We sat at a table in the window and ordered from the extensive menu. Gradually the café began to fill up with customers, and I started to worry that we had missed the festival. We shared a plate of vegan gyoza and a salad, both of which were delicious. The salad was particularly good. I could almost feel the nutrients adding benefit to my body! I don’t know if there was an offer on, but we also got a free slice of savoury pound cake. Savoury cake, you might ask, what the heck is that about? It was surprisingly delicious.

We paid up and headed back out into the sunshine. The route into town still seemed quiet to me, further adding to my worries that we’d missed the show. It was around 1 p.m., and the procession from the shrine should have reached the river. Fortunately, when we got to Togetsukyo bridge, we found plenty of people lining the banks of the river, and plenty more rowing around in small blue boats. Huge boats were ferrying camera crews up and down the river as well, and covered boats were carrying groups of tourists along the river.

 

We crossed the bridge and wandered up the river bank. The narrow path was pressed with people, but we found a spot beneath some trees that gave us a good view across the river to the landing stage where the festival boats were gathering. Some kind of ceremony seemed to be happening in an area alongside the landing stage, and costumed people were starting to get into the boats.

 

We watched and waited for around half an hour, and then the action started. Boats started to leave the landing stage and were propelled up river by oarsmen in the prows. We could hear ghostly court music in the distance, and then the first of the festival boats started to move back down river along our bank towards us.

First a group of women in Heian-era court dress.

 

Then a wide open bird-prowed barge with women dancers in priestly dress.

 

The women performed a fan dance, accompanied by flautists and drummers.

 

A dragon-prowed barge followed on their heels, containing warrior-like young women who danced forcefully with extravagant arm gestures.

 

It was a serious business.

The Heian Court ladies returned and began the tradition of floating colourful fans on the surface of the river.

People who had hired the blue rowing boats jostled for position, as close to the barge as they could safely get, ready to swoop in as the barge moved off to claim a memento of the day.

 

Somehow, as we’d been focusing on the fan activity, another open barge of men in colourful costume had made its way past us and was crossing in front of the bridge down river from us.

With that, the festival seemed to be over, and people started to make their way off the river bank and back over the bridge into town.

As we crossed the bridge, we could see that there was still some activity up near the landing stage, so we headed up along the opposite bank of the river to stand behind the landing stage with other, more elegant hangers on.

We were rewarded with a clearer view of the Heian Court ladies, still floating their fans on the river, and smiling graciously at the spectators.

 

Further up the bank was a man with a set of carp streamers (koinobori/鯉幟), enjoying the spectacle as much as we were.

 

A few moments later, the barge that we had missed on the other side of the river made its way towards us. Two young men in bright orange costumes were performing an elegant dance.

The whole thing was a wonderful spectacle. The festival itself has an interesting story. Some websites describe it as a re-enactment of an Imperial boating party that happened on the Oi river in the Heian period, but an article on the Matsuri Times website remembers that there is a spiritual element to the festival as well. The soul of the 12th century scholar Kiyohara Yorinari is enshrined at Kurumazaki-jinja and every May is taken out in a mikoshi shrine to tour the neighbourhood. The mikoshi is transferred to a boat which then sits in the middle of the river, while the other boats travel around it, carrying the performers who pay their respects to the soul of Kiyohara Yorinori through song, poetry and dance. Mifune refers to the three main boats that feature in the festival (the Gozabune carrying the mikoshi, the dragon-prowed Ryutosen and the bird-prowed Gekisusen), but it also refers to the three performance arts of music, poetry and dance. I wish I had known this before we went, because I would have looked harder for the Gozabune. It must have been further up the river from where we were standing.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Arashiyama, making a return visit to the bamboo groves, and popping in to look at Tenryu-ji, of which more later.

I always enjoy visiting Arashiyama, but seeing the Mifune Matsuri made our 2015 visit even more special. One of the better festivals we’ve visited in the Kyoto area.

Unexpected enjoyment in Osaka – featuring Free Flight Brass Band

I have documented on this blog my difficult relationship with Osaka. Last time we stayed for a couple of days, and I vowed that I wouldn’t go back again. I wasn’t true to my word, though, because at the end of our sixth trip we had an overnight stay back at the Hotel Monterey Grasmere Osaka. Purely for convenience, you understand, as we were flying home out of Kansai International Airport early in the morning.

We ended up having a good time. It helped that the day was hot and sunny. We were too early to check in at the hotel, so we dropped off our luggage and headed out into the Osaka sunshine.

We headed up the road to Naniwa and sat in the sun next to the river, eating buns we’d bought at Shinshindo on our way out from Kyoto Station, drinking huge cans of CC lemon bought at the vending machine on our way from Blue Tengu to Kyoto Station, and watching the synchronised setting up of a Texas BBQ.

A pleasure boat sailed by as we lounged on the steps of Minatomachi River Place (湊町リバープレイス) and the tour guide had everyone waving to us, so we waved back. Then we walked up to Shinsaibashi, taking photographs of graffiti and stickered vending machines and interesting signs and buildings along the way.

It was such a beautiful day, and I could feel myself warming to Osaka. We made our way to Tokyu Hands to buy some presents for our cat from the pet department, then headed back to the hotel to check in. We went back via one of the shopping arcades, which was just like Market Street in Manchester on a Saturday afternoon. Tired and hot, I could feel my dislike of Osaka returning!

Checked in at the hotel, we had a bit of a rest and a cool down in our room on the 29th floor. The view was staggering, even in the slight haze of a hot day.

Refreshed, we set out again, looking at shops and wandering through an area full of the Japanese equivalent of Shoreditch Hipsters before heading to the Namba branch of the Yukari okonomiyaki chain for tea.

It was as good as the okonomiyaki we’d had at the branch in Ohatsutenjin Dori, near Umeda station. We also had a salad of shredded daikon, carrot and cucumber with a plum sauce, which tasted amazing.

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We had a good wander round Namba after eating. Namba is a surprisingly rum area. After drifting around the covered shopping streets, where we saw a couple of interestingly named shops, we somehow ended up in the red light district.

Feeling like it was time to move onto pastures new, away from the seedy gents crawling the streets of Namba for sex, we headed back up to Dotonbori where I was determined to buy a Portuguese egg tart from Lord Stow’s Bakery.

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It was so delicious that I wished I’d bought two!

We wandered around aimlessly some more, seeing where our legs took us, taking in the sights and sounds, and drifted towards a plaza outside the Takamashiya department store, where taxis were congregating, waiting to pick up fares. Various bands and singers were also performing, and one of the taxi drivers was clicking his fingers along with a folky indie band.

Right in front of the Takamashiya was an R’n’B singer. Modern R’n’B not being our thing, we quickly walked past and were rewarded around the corner by a jazz brass ensemble in the New Orleans mode.

We stood and listened for a while, and then my husband spotted that they were selling CDs. He waited for a break in their playing and then approached one of the band members to buy a CD from him. The band are called Free Flight Brass Band, and you can follow them on Facebook. We bought a copy of their second CD, Take Off, which is really good. Six tracks of upbeat brassy jazz.

It would have been good to stay out later, but we had an early start for the airport in the morning, so we decided to head back to our hotel. We passed a live music venue with lots of posters around its entranceway. Quite a few of the bands looked interesting.

Maybe I’ve been approaching Osaka all wrong, using it as a stop off for the airport and only exploring it in daylight. Maybe, if we stay again, we should do more night time things there, see a few bands, hit a few bars. Maybe that way I’ll understand Osaka better. In just one evening, I’d had a better time in Osaka than I had on previous visits!

When we got back to the hotel, there was a sliver of red moon hanging in the sky over the city. It looked like something out of a Murakami novel, and I went to bed not hating Osaka any more.

Vegreca in Matsuyama/松山のベジレカ

On our first night in Matsuyama, after we’d checked in and recovered from walking in the heat from the train station to the hotel, we decided to scope out a couple of vegetarian/vegan restaurants that Mr. Hicks had found online, for future reference.

The first one we went in search of was Vegreca. It sounded great from the write-up my husband had found, which described it as part record shop, part veggie café. We looked up the address on Google maps and marked it on our tourist map, then gamely set off into the evening. It was reasonably straightforward to find – we walked straight south from our hotel on the west of Matsuyama Castle along Imabari Highway until we reached the junction that has a Starbucks on the right. We turned left along a narrow street that had some kind of animal hospital on it called Dog Pillar MD. Vegreca is at the end of the block in a building with a Spanish style doorway. It’s opposite the train shed for the Iyotetsu railway and looks very anonymous.

We’d set off thinking that we could locate it and then head back the following day for lunch, but the lights were on and a board was out on the street, and we hadn’t eaten yet so we decided to go in.

As we walked in, there were canteen style tables in front of us, a bar to the right, and in the front of the shop were wooden boxes containing vinyl records and some CDs. We were invited by the staff to sit at a table, so we headed to a table for two at the back of the café area. Through the window, we could see the train line. A couple of trains rattled past during our meal.

The owners were really friendly, and were playing some great music, so we knew we were in the right place for us! The music was so good that we asked who the bands were, and I bought two CDs by one of the artists who was playing. The owner told me that they were playing a gig in Osaka that same week, in case we wanted to go to see them live. Unfortunately, their gig in Osaka didn’t coincide with our overnight stay there.

Vegreca serves two curries a day, which are chalked up on a board behind the bar, along with a list of side dishes and desserts. The daily curries are also posted on Vegreca’s Facebook page each day. The side dishes on our visit included chickpea falafel, spicy fried potatoes and a snowpea salad. We took one each of the chickpea curry (ひよこ豆のカレー) and the Thai green curry (グレーンカレー), which came with a warning that it was very, very spicy, plus the salad and the falafel, which were drizzled with dengaku sauce. The fafalel were amazing, especially with the sauce, and the salad was fresh and tasty with its scrummy dressing. The curries were both excellent as well, and were served with brown sticky rice. I tasted some of my husband’s green curry, and it wasn’t so hot – it had a nice prickle to it, but it didn’t remove all sensation from my mouth. Perhaps it’s a Japan-UK difference!

Vegreca Chickpea Curry

After our curries, we were in the mood for dessert. We both went for the cheesecake, and the owner kindly pointed out to us, with genuine concern on her face, that it wasn’t vegan. We assured her that it was okay, and then we chose the sauce we wanted on top. I went for lemon, as usual, and Mr. Hicks chose the いちご.

Vegreca Lemon Cheesecake

I love lemon cheesecake. It is my favourite dessert, and this one was up there with the best that I’ve had. The lemon was more of a marmalade than a sauce, and was very flavoursome.

We finished up with a masala chai for me and an Americano coffee for Mr. Hicks, then we chatted a little with our hosts, who had been joined by a couple of friends at the bar, before tipping out into the night.

If you find yourself in Matsuyama, I urge you to search out Vegreca. Their hours are irregular, but they post up a monthly calendar on their website and on their Facebook page. Whether you’re vegan, veggie or omni, you won’t regret going. Be prepared to spend money on more than just delicious food, though!

Ritsurin Koen (栗林公園)

One of the reasons I wanted to stay in Takamatsu during our 2015 trip to Japan was Ritsurin Koen. I had read about it on Michael Lai’s Retiree Diary blog, and really wanted to go as a result.

It was a slightly drizzly day, but we decided that we would head there anyway, having travelled almost halfway across the globe to see it. We decided to walk from our hotel, and it took around half an hour. As we got closer, we could smell the trees. It was an amazing aroma – almost intoxicating. I wish that I could have bottled it to bring it home with me!

Outside the garden was a statue to local politician Bukichi Miki (Raian), and a haiku stone that I can’t recall the significance of!

We entered the garden by the East Gate and paid our entrance fee.

We paused to read the guide leaflet, to decide on our route around the gardens. As we stood there, lots of people went past and each one gave us a cheery hello. I thought they were friendly staff, as they all had green and white jackets on, but it later transpired that they were volunteer guides. If we’d known, we could have got one to show us around!

Instead, we trotted off by ourselves. First we called into the Sanuki Mingeikan, or Folk Craft Museum. Here we admired a wide range of local treasures, including roof tiles, furniture, ornaments, baskets and kites.

 

 

After drinking our fill of the crafts of Takamatsu, we set off around the gardens, spending three hours on our wanderings.

The gardens are a fine example of a daimyo stroll garden, typical of 17th/18th century Japan. The garden was established in the 1620s by Takatoshi Ikoma, who was the daimyo (feudal lord) of Sanuki (the old name for the Takamatsu area). Twenty years later, he was replaced as daimyo by Yorishige Matsudaira, who inherited the garden.

The Matsudaira family retained the garden and added to it over the following century. It was considered complete in 1754, and the Matsudaira family lived in a villa within the grounds until 1870. The garden opened to the public in 1875.

When we visited, the Shoko Shoreikan, built as a museum in 1899, was closed for renovation, but it didn’t detract from our visit.

The first trees we saw were the black pines planted by members of the Japanese royal family, and one by King Edward VII. They had a prehistoric look to them, although they were only around 100 years old.

Nearby was the Tsurukame matsu, or Crane and Turtle pine tree, which has been cultivated to look like a fluttering crane standing on the back of a turtle.

We paused to look out over the Hokko (North Pond) and watched a couple of men feed the carp until they were menaced by a large crow!

 

We passed Higurashi-tei, one of the tea ceremony houses dotted across the garden, and walked up the path to look inside. Tea ceremony was already underway for a small group of visitors, but we couldn’t work out where to wait our turn, so we carried on round the garden. This turned out to be a good thing!

At the west of the garden is the Sekiheki (Red Cliff). The Seiko (West Pond) is full of water lilies, and we were lucky to be visiting during their blooming season. There were pink and white water lilies, and they were a joy to behold.

Tumbling down the Red Cliff is the Basin and Pipe waterfall (Oketoi no Taki) – so named because it is man-made. Water used to be carried up to the top of the cliff in basins whenever the daimyo passed by on a stroll. These days it flows constantly, fed by a pump.

As we walked on, we passed Kyu Higurashi-tei, an old tea house that had been moved out of the garden at the end of the 19th century, but returned to the grounds in 1945. Originally built in the 17th century, it is preserved as an example of a daimyo-style tea house and isn’t open to the public, other than to look around its garden.

 

Further on is the main tea house, Kikugetsu-tei, a traditional tea house over 300 years old. Its name means Moon Scooping Tea House, after a line in a Chinese poem. Initially we walked past, until we encountered one of the volunteer guides who stopped us for a chat. She asked where we were from and we discovered that she had been to Blackpool, of all places, because she was interested in ballroom dancing. She recommended that we should head back to the tea house and have some matcha tea, looking out over the Nanko (South Pond). So we did! After I finished my bowl of tea, the foam seemed to make the shape of a tree.

The views from this tea house were stunning. There was a boatman ferrying other visitors around the pond. He stopped for a chat as we stood on one of the verandas to take photographs. When we told him we were from England, he congratulated us on our Big Baby. It took a couple of seconds to realise that he meant the recently born Princess Charlotte!

 

After our matcha tea, we were hungry so headed to an udon café alongside the Nanko. We ate kitsune udon looking out on a mossy stream, which we crossed after eating, on our way to the arched bridge, Engetsukyo (Crescent Moon Bridge), on the Nanko. We paused for a few moments, looking across the pond to the tea house, before heading off to a viewing point that looked out on the bridge. This hill, called Hiraiho, has been sculpted to resemble Mount Fuji and gives a really good view across the pond to the tea house.

 

We headed east again, skirting the Nanko back towards the Folk Craft Museum and then on to the Gun’o-chi. This is the biggest pond in the garden and was used for duck hunting during the feudal era. It has a stone building projecting out over the pond, presumably from where the hunters shot at the ducks!

 

This pond is also a good spot for viewing irises, which are my favourite flowers. There were plenty of yellow irises in bloom while we were visiting.

At the north end of the garden, heading west, is the Fuyo-sho, or Lotus Pond. This wasn’t at its best during our visit, the lotus plants having died back, leaving behind an eerie mass of stems.

We had to imagine how glorious this stretch of water would look over the summer months!

We wandered a little further then headed out via the North Gate.

Entry to the garden is 410円, and matcha tea at Kikugetsu-tei is 700円. If you want to spend less on tea, then Higurashi-tei charges 500円. You can also try red bean soup with rice cakes at Higurashi-tei, which we might do next time we visit. The Sanuki Mingeikan is free entry, and consists of a New Folk Craft Museum (where you can buy examples of crafts created by contemporary craftsmen), the Roof Tile Museum, the Furniture Museum and the Old Folk Craft Museum. Plan to spend at least half a day, because there are so many things to see and whizzing round in less time won’t do it justice. If you want a personalised tour, with key points of significance pointed out to you, then take up the offer of one of the volunteer guides. Many of them are volunteering in order to improve their English speaking, and the couple that we talked to on our way around the garden were excellent. There’s no charge, and you might even come away with a free gift!

Takamatsu (高松)

Our 2015 holiday to Japan was the best one so far, for me. It even outstripped our honeymoon!

We headed off the main island for a week on Shikoku (四国). Our main destination was Matsuyama (松山), but to break up the journey from Kansai Airport, we had a couple of days in Takamatsu (高松).

We travelled by train from Kansai Airport via Okayama (岡山), crossing from Honshu to Shikoku on the Marine Liner (マリンライナ) across a series of bridges over the Seto Inland Sea.

 

The views across the sea were spectacular. It was difficult to take photographs, because the train was travelling so fast and the camera kept trying to focus on the struts of the bridge, rather than on the view beyond. It felt like a proper adventure was starting.

It was swelteringly hot when we arrived at Takamatsu station. We headed for the tourist information office where a friendly woman gave us a map of the city and advised us to catch the loop bus to the hotel where we were staying. When the bus arrived, it was tiny and we almost filled it with our luggage!

Our hotel was located pretty centrally, not far from the main shopping arcade that runs south from the grounds of the former castle. It was pretty basic as hotel rooms go (no plug for the sink, and the water pressure in the shower was a bit hit and miss) but reasonably spacious for a Japanese hotel room. If we’d been meat eaters, we could have taken advantage of its free pork ramen offer, but that was its main selling point. I wouldn’t stay there again.

After we’d freshened up after our train journey, we headed out to explore the town a little. My husband had downloaded a map that someone had made of veggie-friendly places to eat, but either the map maker had poor Google Maps skills or the places had closed down in the five years since the map was made, because each time we tried to find one, it wasn’t there.

We headed up the main covered shopping arcade to Tamamo Koen, the site of the former Takamatsu Castle. The area is now a garden with a 200円 entrance fee. We had a lovely stroll around in the evening sunshine.

 

It’s a great spot for azalea viewing, as we discovered.

After wandering among the azaleas for a while, we headed up to the ferry port and sat on some benches, looking out to sea. A couple of big ferries came in, which were an impressive sight.

Takamatsu is very different to Aomori, which had a run down air about it because of the loss of business for the ferries after the railway line under the sea was built. The bridges across to Shikoku for the train cost 1.5tn円 (around £8 million), so perhaps building bridges to the smaller islands between Shikoku and Honshu isn’t cost effective. This must keep Takamatsu’s ferry services in business.

We went back up to the harbour area on our second evening, after the sun had gone down, so that we could see the Red Lighthouse in all its glory. This lighthouse is the first in the world to have been built entirely from glass. The whole structure shines red at night. The walk along the jetty was lovely. It was a warm evening, other people were strolling and cycling along, mostly groups of friends, and there were lots of anglers casting their lines into the sea. The smell of the sea was lovely, too – a proper seaside aroma. The view back towards Takamatsu was also stunning.

We walked almost to the end of the jetty, then strolled back to the hotel. One thing that struck us was the difference in nightlife. If we’d been walking back through Manchester city centre, we would probably have had to dodge pools of vomit and verbal abuse. The people of Takamatsu who were out and about were drunk but not aggressive, enjoying themselves without being obnoxious.

We ate well while we were in Takamatsu, but it was mostly Indian food or noodles! We can recommend Thalispice, which is located in the Tamachi shopping arcade. The restaurant serves Nepali curries, and is very generous with its portions. The vegetarian options are good, and it is really reasonably priced. The other places we ate were a pasta restaurant, where we had spaghetti topped with natto (I suspect the broth might have been chicken, but it was too hard for us to find out, as the staff didn’t have much English and my Japanese was getting us nowhere!), and a branch of Hanamaru, where we tried ontama bukkake (温玉ぶっかけ) – a dish of sanuki udon in a soy sauce broth with a half boiled egg.

While we were in Takamatsu, we also visited its main sight-seeing site, Ritsurin Koen, which I will blog about separately.

I feel like we didn’t do Takamatsu justice, and could happily have spent longer there. We didn’t see everything the city had to offer, for sure. It would have been good to have had time to head out to Yashima. There were references to Nasu no Yoichi dotted around Takamatsu. He was a warrior in the Genpei War and features in the Heike Monogatari. He appears on a eki-stamp at Takamatsu station, on a drain cover and in the roof glazing for Tamachi arcade.

I’ve read different things about him, but the gist of his story is that during the Battle of Yashima, Nasu no Yoichi fought on the side of the Minamoto clan. The Taira had placed fans (or flags) on the masts of their ships to protect them from attack, but Nasu no Yoichi was such a good archer that he was able to strike off a fan with an arrow and break the protection, winning the battle for the Minamoto.

I really enjoyed our stay in Takamatsu, and would definitely go back there again.