Love in Tokyo
Japan is an experience. A country where politeness is the norm; bowing to say hello, thank you and sorry is a surprising change in today’s fairly mean world. Bump into someone, its your fault but a Japanese will apologise profusely – a world’s apart from a New York “watch it” or more accurately “I’ll sue you”. Like almost every other Indian, I come from a family obsessed with flowers. The cherry blossom season in Japan was on my bucket list and it was only appropriate to make the journey to visit Japan now to see the famous full bloom of cherry blossoms. Planned within 10 days I went fully prepared.
The cherry blossom trees originate from Japan, have spread to the rest of the world through gifts given by the Japanese government or as a mark of their occupation or planted by immigrants (America, Brazil, Australian, Germany). The sakura, cherry blossom in Japanese, are special as they flower for a period of 7 to 10 days only, starting off as dark pink buds and then light pink when they blossom and then to a beautiful pale pink or white, before falling off. The sakura trees don’t actually belong in the traditional Japanese gardens, but are planted in parks and public spaces for the hanami celebrations. For the Japanese, the sakura is a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life, and the beauty and volatility of the blooms is associated with mortality and he graceful and readily acceptance of destiny and karma. Trust the Japanese to find something deep and life altering symbolism to even flowers.
Unfortunately, the weather played spoilsport, flowering only a few trees, a decent amount, but not exactly what I flew miles for! The bitter cold, chilly winds and rain ended up delaying the season by another 10 days – another example of how global warming is getting the better of us. We saw an unusual amount of snowfall at Hakone and up by Mount Fuji, which was an utter delight and also a clear view of Mount Fuji, which had been clouded up the previous three weeks.
However much I did see made me happy enough, with large parks adorned with these beautiful trees blooming with various shades of whites and pinks. A few trees had branches coming down to waist level, and in true Indian fashion, we hogged the area and in true Japanese fashion, the others patiently waited for at least 45 minutes for us to be done with our pictures!
Vegetarian food was a bit of a challenge, but going prepared is what I recommend. I visited Dominique Ansel’s bakery (the famous cronut guy!), and to be totally honest with you, it was one of the main reasons for my trip to Japan – a bit of a pricey ride for a cronut, but then again, not much is ever normal in my life! Unfortunately, the experience was not good enough. It didn’t have any of the buzz like the New York one, and like the cherry blossoms, turned into a bit of a disappointment. Each month they offer a special cronut flavour, the month of March being: Sakura Roobois Tea Flavour, which didn’t take my fancy. The cookie shot partially satisfied my reasoning, but not enough.
Walk the back streets of Ginza for a more local flavour in shops and cafés. I am not a food snob, but I am a coffee snob (I choose tea if I have to go to Starbucks!) and good coffee was hard to come by, which added to a bit of sulk. But on the back streets of Ginza, an array of local coffee roasting cafes serve up some extremely good drip coffee, which kept me going for a few days. These streets also have more of a local flavour in shops and cafés.
Try out the local food and remember the words ‘Yasai’ (vegeatbles), ‘kappa maki’ (cucumber rolls) and go for the artistic and intricate looking pastries. The Japanese are talented with their hands, and each tiny dessert is a piece of art that will be too pretty to break into.
Romance in Kyoto
Kyoto was definitely my favourite; there’s a sense of romance and comfort in the air. I reached the city via the bullet train, a fabulous experience, more so to see them pass by at lightening speed. Whilst seated inside, you haven’t got a clue.
Kyoto’s local charm is splendid, with so many tiny boutiques with local handicrafts. You can simply start walking in any area, armed with a Google maps, and discover all the amazing little places. In full cherry blossom season I recommend a romantic walk through Philosopher’s Path, and then explore Nishika Market for various food stalls.
Vegetarian food in Kyoto is a whole lot easier and tastier. The names and addresses for the restaurants are all listed below.
Note to take home: Like any woman, Mother Nature cannot be controlled, predicted or tamed. She will do exactly what she wants, as and when she wants!
Where. What. Notes. Food.
Parks for the best cherry blossom sightings:
Showa Kinen Park – an hour’s drive from the city, but well worth, if the blooms are, well, blooming! Beautiful flowers of every kind, and a Japanese garden with some 100-year-old bonsai trees.
Chidorigafuchi Park – the most popular cherry blossom viewing spot.
Shinjuku Gyoen Park – a popular park, with more number of blossoms blooming when I went!
Mus mus – Means “steamed steamed” in Japanese. Located in the famous Marunouchi Tower, near the Tokyo Station, it served up one the best local foods I have had, with a variety in steamed vegetables and various condiments. Menu is only in Japanese, so please go with a local or translator.
[ 7 Floor, 1-5-1 Shin-Marunouchi Building, Chiyoda-ku ]
Shiseido Salon de Café – From the beauty and cosmetics brand Shiseido, the eleven-storey building houses everything Shiseido, including this lovely ice cream parlour-café on the third floor. Silver service, white linens, pretty teacups and gorgeous strawberry sundaes…
[ 8-8-3 Ginza, Shiseido Building, Chuo-ku ]
Tenmasa Ozashiki Tempura – an upmarket only tempura place, fairly close to the Imperial Palace. Booking is recommended. Limited vegetable options, but if you want tempura, this is the place.
[ 2-4-1 Marunouchi Building, 35F, Chiyoda-ku ]
Bills Ginza – On the top floor of Okura House, famous mostly for breakfast, this is Australian Bill Granger’s sixth Japanese branch. I went in for dinner has fabulous spelt risotto and cauliflower and lemon linguini. Do go for the famous brunch if you can, and please book.
[ Okura House 12F, 2-6-12 Ginza, Chuo-ku ]
Cicado – I did not get a reservation, despite calling a day earlier, so it means it must be brilliant! The restaurant serves Mediterranean meals and is a fancy, upbeat place. Call ahead!
[ 5-7-28 Minamiaoayama Minato 106 ]
Ta-im Shibuya – A tiny hole in the wall Mediterranean food, fired up by a passionate Israeli, serving excellent food. It’s so small that you will be rubbing shoulders with the next person, and indulging in conversations with just about everyone, as only about 14 people can fit. A great experience but booking is absolutely necessary.
[ 1-19-16 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku ]
Dominique Ansel Bakery – Check for the cronut flavour of the month if that’s your sole purpose. Or else the cookie shot is always there!
[ 5-7-14, Jingumae, Shibuya-Ku ]
Reissue Café – for 3D and 2D latte art
[ 3 Chome-25-7 Jingūmae, Shibuya-ku ]
Cherry Blossom Sightings:
Philospsher’s Path – a great walkway within city area lined with cherry blossom trees, shops and a canal.
Marayuma Park – close to the tourist areas.
Arash’s Kitchen – Mouth watering Persian food, with authentic beri pollo, bagali pollo and kashk-e-badamjan. If you go on a Saturday night, you’ll catch a belly dancing show!
[ 16-Shogoin Sannocho, Sakyo-ku, 2F Sun Plaza, Kyoto Prefecture ]
La Jolla – An amazing little Mexican restaurant with plenty of vegetarian options and excellent guacamole.
[ 154-2 Nagahamacho, Nakagyo Ward ]
Omen – Come here for authentic udon in broth (hot or cold) with fresh vegetables. Please call ahead to book and ask for a vegetarian broth. This is a famous chain, so check for a closest one before booking.
[ 358 Masuya-chō, Kōdaiji-dōri, Shimokawara higashi-iru ]
Yōshūji – I didn’t get the chance to go here, but it came highly recommended. It is located in an old Japanese farmhouse with an open hearth and has a good number of vegetarian Japanese dishes.
[ 1074 Honmachi, Kuram ]