The East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, Chiyoda City

The first place I tried to visit on my initial trip to Tokyo was the East Garden of the Imperial Palace in the geographical center of Tokyo. It was a Friday morning in September, and after a long hot slog, we found out that it was closed on Fridays (this was before the smartphone). I eventually managed to go inside after moving to Japan a couple of years later. At the time I thought it was quite nice. I paid another visit a few years after that to see the plum blossoms in February, but I didn’t visit the other areas.

The Ote-Mon gate leading to Otemachi

The Doshin Bansho Guard House with Marunouchi in the background

I never dropped by again although I work nearby, simply because there are so many other things to see in Tokyo. Recently, I was walking by in the late afternoon and noticed that the park was still open. Since the entrance was free, I decided to continue my stroll inside. I was glad I did, because I had totally forgotten how beautiful it was. I thought I would be in and out in half an hour, but I ended up being “gently” pushed out before closing time by the many police officers patrolling the gardens. The highlight for me was the Ninomaru garden with its central pond. When standing next to the small waterfall, I couldn’t see any buildings above the trees, and I could forget for a moment I was in Tokyo. A little further, I arrived at an interesting botanical sight: symbolic trees form each prefecture in Japan, including a palm tree from Miyagi. Each tree had a small sign with its name, and I wished I had more time to examine them in detail.

From one side of the pond, a high-rise building visible above the trees

Standing on the other side, just nature and the blue sky

At the top of a slope, I arrived at Tenshu-dai, described in the pamphlet I received from the kind lady at the entrance, as the base of the main tower. The original tower was lost in a fire but according to the signpost it had been the tallest ever built in Japan. I climbed the short but steep slope to the top to check out the view. I couldn’t see much because of the trees, but I was able to get a good look at the beautiful Concert Hall; it looked like it belonged to the Meiji era. One of the police officers on duty there, kindly offered to take my photo.

What is that old-fashioned structure among the high-rise buildings?

The “Tokagakudo” Concert Hall

Next, I walked the entire length of the surprisingly wide lawn to Fujimi-Yagura, meaning “Mt Fuji view turret”. I was hoping to get a glimpse of Japan’s most famous mountain, but I hadn’t realised that the the tower was closed to the public. Also, according to the signboard, it was no longer possible to see Mt Fuji because of all the high-rise buildings. Here, a police man caught up with me, and asked me to make my way to the entrance since the park was closing soon. A black car arrived a few minutes later and followed me till I was nearly out.

The Fujimi Watchtower, hidden in one corner of the gardens

The usual view from the gardens, surrounded by business districts

Walking back to the Otemon gate I admired the various grey stone walls, reminders of the old Edo castle that used to stand on these grounds. Policemen were positioned at every junction and politely showed me the way to the exit. I noticed many benches throughout the park, so I hope to return one day, perhaps in a different season, and spend more time soaking up the peaceful atmosphere of this garden in the heart of Tokyo.

Outside Ote-Mon Gate

William Adams (Miura Anjin) Memorial, Nihonbashi

I had read “Shogun” by James Clavell shortly after arriving in Japan, and had enjoyed every page of it. It recounts the story of the Englishman William Adams, Japanese name Miura Anjin, who was shipwrecked on the coast of Japan in 1600, and lived out the rest of his life here. He established a close relationship with Ieyasu Tokugawa, who unified the country around the same time.

The novel gave me a good sense of what Japan was like 400 years ago. What impressed me while reading this novel was how commoners could lose their lives over the smallest of slights. Often, close family members would be executed at the same time. I feel sometimes that the extreme politeness of the Japanese must have come from this past trauma, although James Clavell may have been exaggerating this practice.

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Close up of the text of the memorial (notice the last line)

Anjin-san, as he is often called throughout the book, was a real person, and it was amazing that he was able to navigate, survive and thrive in such a harsh environment. He might have been the first true “gaijin”. His grave is located on the Miura Peninsula in Tsukayama Park, which I have also visited (but that will be for another post). His Tokyo home was much closer, since it’s located a stone’s throw from Nihonbashi Bridge, the historical center of Edo Tokyo.

The stone memorial marking the spot is squeezed between two modern buildings. There is an English description of his life, crammed into one long sentence. I had to laugh aloud when I saw the final line: “Rebuilt by some Japanese”. That’s quite a nice way of saying “by Anonymous”. It’s definitely worth a quick visit if one is familiar with the story and strolling through out the area.

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Sofuan, Maebashi City, Gunma Prefecture

Before driving up Mt Akagi for a short hike, I decided to drop by Nakaya Sofuan Honten (なかや 桑風庵 本店) for lunch. There were many other soba restaurants along the road, but this one had by far the highest rating on Google Maps. It was also the 4th highest ranked soba restaurant in the Maebashi area, so my expectations were high.

Table with a view

I parked my car in the large parking lot, crossed the road, and followed a small path through a garden to the entrance. Even though it was a weekday, people were constantly arriving and leaving. Fortunately, the restaurant was quite spacious, and I was seated immediately at a table with a view of the garden.

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Sofuan’s handmade soba

I ordered the handmade soba with tempura (天ぷら付き手打ちそば tenpura tsuki teuchi soba). I was impressed with the size of the tempura which included a couple of enormous shrimp. The soba was firm and chewy, and I enjoyed every bite; it’s not often that I eat every scrap on the strainer.

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The entrance to Sofuan

It was also possible to have some chilled “amazake” (sweet sake), but I had to pass since I was driving. One interesting aspect about this place was that you could order two, three and four-person portion of soba and tempura. So instead of getting several plates of tempura, everything comes in one big plate. On the other hand, everybody gets their own plate of soba. I guess that is the one thing Japanese diners would rather not share.

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Nama Soba Gezan, Numata City, Gunma Prefecture

On my way to the Tanbara Highland hike, I stopped for an early lunch at the popular Nama Soba Gezan 生そば下山. The name combines “freshly made soba” with a word that means “descending from the mountain”. I chose it since it had a high rating on Tabelog, and was conveniently situated on the road leading to my hiking destination. I was able to time my arrival to a few minutes before the 11h30 opening time, and was surprised to get the last free parking spot; in reality there were only 3 other cars, but I didn’t expect to be last in line way out in the countryside.

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The restaurant is prepared for long lines

Fortunately I was seated almost immediately. I loved the traditional setting of the restaurant, especially the sunken fireplaces. Although it was possible to sit on a tatami floor, I prefered a table for the sake of my long legs. The menu was all in Japanese, with vertical writing and prices in the Japanese system. I chose Zaru Soba (“seiro” on the menu), Since the buckwheat noodles are made from scratch, I thought this would be the best way to enjoy their flavour. I ordered “maitake tempura moriawase” as a side dish.

On the left “fresh soba” and on the right “mushroom tempura assortment” 

The food was served quickly. I was reminded by the waiter to first dip the noodles into the “tsuyu” sauce before adding the spring onion and radish. Afterwards, I should add them gradually to enjoy the change in taste. Adding toppings little by little is also recommended by some ramen restaurants in Tokyo, so I was familiar with the process. The serving of tempura was huge and delicious. There was even corn on the cob tempura, so unexpected that I bit the cob itself by mistake. The soba itself was a class above anything I had before.

Japanese sunken hearths or “irori” inside the restaurant

There was a “jizake“, or local sake, on the menu, but I had to skip it since I was driving. It was the Tanigawadake brand by the Nagai Brewery which I was familiar with. The total cost was 1600 yen, quite reasonable for a filling soba and tempura lunch. Whether descending or ascending a mountain, it’s a great place to stop for lunch!

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