Visiting Kenroku-En: One of Japan’s Three Most Beautiful Landscaped Gardens

Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture is relatively unknown among foreign tourists – perhaps due to it being off the beaten path of the Shinkansen (bullet train) – but the place is a popular destination for domestic travelers, and for good reason. If you’re looking for well-preserved examples of art, culture and history from Japan’s feudal era, Kanazawa has, perhaps, one of the best you’ll find in Japan.

Departing from Nagoya in the early morning, we arrive at the modern-looking JR Kanazawa Station an hour later. It was a rainy day – not surprising, since the city is known as the ‘Seattle of Japan’.

Part modern metropolis, part ancient capital, the city is an interesting blend of old and new, as seen from the giant wooden archway at the station’s entrance that stands in stark contrast to the place’s squeaky clean tiled floors, glass and steel railings and concrete facade. Known as a cultural and artistic hub, the city has a rich history that dates back hundreds of years, and was lucky enough to escape bombings during World War II. This makes Kanazawa the best place to see Edo-era buildings in their original form.

After dropping our items off at the hotel, our first stop for the day was Kanazawa Castle. 

* Since it was raining I had to keep my DSLR in the bag most of the time. The photos I took with my phone weren’t too good so here are some from the Japan National Tourism Organisation. Photos watermarked are my own. 

credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

Kanazawa Castle was built in the 16th century as the homebase of Maeda Toshiie, a local daimyo (ruling warlord of a district). Japan’s feudal era was characterised by war and military insecurity, so it was natural for Toshiie to construct a castle town with which he could defend himself. As a result, nobles and samurais flocked to the place, as did the merchants, blacksmiths, carpenters, entertainers and geishas. Wars and several fires ravished the castle, resulting in its destruction in the 19th century, but the building has since been restored to some measure of its former glory.

A unique feature of the building’s architecture is its white-tiled roofs, said to be made from lead which could be melted down in times of war to make bullets.

Credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

We skipped a tour of the castle and proceeded to the adjoining park instead, which is almost as old as the original castle itself. Kenroku-en, or the ‘Garden of Six Attributes’, is widely considered as one of the most beautiful landscaped gardens in Japan, so called because it combines the six qualities that make up a perfect garden: spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and broad views.

Spanning over 11.4 hectares, the garden is home to over 8,000 trees from 183 species of plants, with artificial ponds and streams found throughout the grounds. Look out for the unique two-legged lantern called a Kotojitoro (above, right) which has become a symbol of the gardens.

credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

Since I was visiting in summer, the trees and plants were a bright, verdant green, bursting with colour and life. It is said that a visit to the Kenroku-en throughout the seasons offers a different experience each time: in spring, cherry blossoms abound, in autumn the leaves turn to vivid gold, red and yellow, while winter sees the trees tied down with long wooden contraptions to keep their shape and protect them from heavy snow.

The gentle patter of rain subsided halfway through our park tour, although the sky remained grey and overcast – a pity, since the place would have otherwise made great photos. Still beautiful though. I can imagine the lords and ladies of old in their fancy kimonos strolling through the bridges and walkways before settling down to a nice warm tea whilst taking in the views.

Some not so nice photos from my phone.

We spotted the ‘oldest fountain in Japan’!  It’s not that impressive at only 3.5m high, but considering that people in the olden days did not have the technology we have today, this was quite a feat. The spurting water was achieved by applying natural water pressure.

One of my favourite spots, which had an ‘island’ in the centre of a pond. I thought it looked rather like a turtle in the water with trees sprouting from its back.

One can easily spend the whole morning walking through the place. Not sure on good days when its sunny, but we almost had the whole garden to ourselves! It was serene and quiet.

Lunch was at a restaurant called Miyoshian, replete with low dining tables, tatami mats and sliding partitions for privacy. Ordered soba noodles again (but hot this time) with chicken in a creamy sauce on top. It also came served with a boiled prawn, sweet egg roll (tamago) and condiments.

GETTING TO KENROKUEN/KANAZAWA CASTLE PARK 

Board the tourist oriented Kanazawa Loop Bus and stop at numbers LL9 and RL8. The Kenrokuen Shuttle Bus stops at number S8. It costs approximately 200yen and takes 20 minutes. Alternatively, there are Hokutetsu buses that run between Kanazawa Station and Kenrokuen, which takes 15 minutes and 200 yen one way.

Entrance fee to Kenrokuen: 300 yen (RM11)

Opening hours:

  • 7AM-6PM (March to October 15)
  • 8AM – 5PM (October 16 – February)

 

Travelogue Japan: Of High-Tech Toilets, Yukatas and Meeting A Real-Life Ninja

When I was in grade school, I remember seeing a beautiful picture of a perfect cone-shaped mountain, capped with snow and surrounded by pink cherry blossoms, in a book. It was the opening page for a chapter on Japan, and I was fascinated by how beautiful the photos looked. There were pictures of pale-faced women in elaborate kimonos, men with samurai swords at their waist, ancient temples and Zen gardens in stark contrast to towering buildings, assembly lines and robotic inventions. Growing up, I experienced another Japanese cultural import (albeit, a modern one) – anime and manga. Doraemon, Slamdunk, GS Mikami, Ranma 1/2 and Nintama Rantarou were just some of the cartoons I watched religiously on Saturday mornings or after school.

As such, I’ve always wanted to visit Japan at least once – and lo and behold, the universe provided in the form of a media trip I got to attend last summer. But it wasn’t to the usual touristy confines of Tokyo, Osaka or Hokkaido that we were headed to: it was a place I had never heard of – Chubu. 

Quick Facts – CHUBU, JAPAN 

  • Literally means ‘central region’, and comprises nine prefectures on the Honshu mainland.
  • Made up mostly of mountainous landscapes, the centre of Chubu is divided by the Japanese Alps
  • Here is where you’ll find Mount Fuji,  Japan’s most famous symbol and a national icon.

Arriving at Tokyo Airport after an eight hour flight, I got my first taste of Japan via their public toilets. Aside from being squeaky clean, the toilets here are so high-tech they have operating manuals in each booth to tell you how to use them wtf. There are buttons to warm the seat, front and back sprays (power adjustable), and the toilet even plays sounds like running water/nature in order to drown out any unceremonious plonks.

Let me tell you this: once you’ve tried a self-warming toilet seat, you’ll never feel comfortable on a normal one, ever again. lol

We met up with our guide, Mariko-San, who took us to Tokyo Central Station – the central hub of Honshu’s railway lines. Travelling by rail to most cities is very convenient : just hop onto a Shinkansen, or bullet train. A marvel of engineering and technological prowess, these streamlined trains are capable of travelling up to a whopping 200miles/hour. You’d think a country like Japan, which suffers constantly from earthquakes and typhoons, would be the last place to employ a train system, but they have an extremely efficient warning/stop system – so much so that in its 50 years of operations, there has not been a single accident caused by derailment.

The trains all sport poetic names like Hikari (Light), Tsubasa (Wings) and Hayate (strong wind). Our Shinkansen, headed to the city of Nagano, was dubbed Asama, after the sacred Mt Asama. Since there are many different lines running through Tokyo, be sure to check the correct one you should be taking from their website, where you can also purchase passes. Note: Seats on the Shinkansen are numbered so locate the proper platform/coach before boarding.

Our ride to Nagano took approximately 80 minutes.

Nagano is an ancient castle town and the birthplace of soba. Soba doesn’t get enough publicity outside of Japan: it always seems to me that ramen and udon get better reps – but the Japanese themselves consider it a staple and it is often eaten in many households, especially over the festive season. It’s also widely considered to be healthy, and our guide Mariko-san tells us that they believe it is the reason why people living in certain regions where soba is eaten live longer lives.

We stopped by a restaurant at Nagano Station for a soba lunch, which came with a side of expertly fried and lightly battered tempura. Soba can be served hot or cold; in summer they are usually served cold and vice versa in winter. You lift a few strands of the noodles, place it into the accompanying shoyu broth and slurp it up noisily (this is polite. If possible, try to slurp up the entire strand instead of biting it)

Exploring the city.

We went to a shop to rent yukatas.

We have an annual Bon Odori festival in Malaysia where people dress up in  yukatas, but I’ve never actually worn one. It was a lot more tedious than I expected. You have to have at least one person to help you put it on (I heard with kimonos, you need two). First, I wore a white robe which served as an undergarment, before slipping the outer layer on. The staff then wound a purple sash around me so tightly I felt the air being pushed out of my lungs. This must be the Asian version of the corset! The sash severely limited my movements: I couldn’t take big steps, it forced my back to remain straight, and when paired with the elevated wooden clogs, all I could manage were small teetering steps forward (which somehow looked demure rather than clumsy).

We visited the ancient Buddhist temple of Zenkoji, considered one of Japan’s three most sacred sites, in this get up. Nevermind that there weren’t other people dressed up like this – it was fun! (More on Zenkoji in a separate post).

Quick ice cream break.

Dinner that night was within walking distance of our hotel at an underground establishment called Gotoku Tei. The owner (his name slipped my memory but I have his namecard somewhere) is an actual ninja. He mentioned that he has been in training for over 30 years, and showed us an authentic blade.

Mariko-san did the ordering. Appetisers consisted of tofu, pickled radishes and a savoury broth with a good chunk of fish in it.

Since I was travelling with two Muslim colleagues, we couldn’t order any meat (coz it’s not halal).Had a plate of fresh raw salmon sashimi instead. Wonderful cut and texture, meat was fatty but in a good way.

The butter-stir fried mushrooms were juicy and fragrant, with a texture similar to meat. Also enjoyed the rice balls topped with miso.

My first day in Japan was well spent and offered me fascinating insights and experiences into a rich and colourful culture. I was already looking forward to more as I tucked in for the night.

Stay tuned for more of Japan!

Cafes in Kepong: @ Vergine Coffee, Aman Puri

There are literally no reasons for me to go to Kepong. 

It’s a long drive from where I live, and I have no idea what there is to do there (other than the Metropolitan Park). So when I got an invite to review a cafe there, I was hesitant to brave the weekend traffic (It may always be sunny in Philadelphia, but it’s always jammed in Puchong. Lol.)

Nevertheless, an hour later, I found myself parking at a commercial centre in Aman Puri, where Vergine Coffee is.

Opened two years ago, the space was converted from a former car workshop. Aside from coffee and cakes, they also serve lunch and dinner with dishes such as pasta, salads, chops and more.

Italian for ‘virgin’, Vergine Coffee’s owners had no experience in F&B – but they were driven by a common passion for good food. Taking the plunge, they opened their maiden cafe project, hence the name.

The fragrant aroma of coffee beans wafted into our nostrils as soon as we entered the cafe, which boasts a warm and enticing ambience. Glass windows allow for natural sunlight to filter in, and the high ceiling which opens up to a mezzanine floor creates a sense of space. The look is industrial yet chic: exposed brick walls paired with clean lines, dark walls and furniture.

Its the kind of place I wouldn’t mind lounging in for hours.

Outdoor smoking area.

Counter with a selection of pastries, desserts and juices.

An innovative condiments station fashioned out of two barrels. There’s also free water, but why have water when you can have coffee? 😀

Paying it forward is something that the owners take to heart. One thing you’ll notice once you enter the shop is the ‘Kindness Challenge’ wall, which lists 30 small things you can do to make someone’s day a better one. It can be as simple as ‘giving encouragement to someone who is working hard’, or ‘cover for a co-worker so they can leave work early’. In a world where we are becoming increasingly self-absorbed and disconnected, I think this is a great reminder to be kind and nice to others.

Enough talk though: time to dig in!

For appetisers, we had salad: but unlike the usual chicken/vinaigrette fare, the one we tried was sweet and full of texture –  crisp fresh leaves, crunchy almonds, a hint of tanginess from pineapple cubes and juicy tangerines. Everyone knows I’m practically a carnivore, but this was so refreshing I kept going back for seconds.

Washed it down with some foamy peach tea ! 🙂

One of my favourites was their mushroom soup. The fact that it was actual mushroom soup (ie you can taste blended chunks and bits as opposed to the ‘powdered’ instant soup you find in many restos) gave it major brownie points. It wasn’t too salty and had  just the right amount of creaminess. Garlic bread was a great accompaniment.

Moving on to the mains, we kicked off with the Lemon Thyme Chicken Chop. A sizable chunk of tender, grilled chicken thigh came drizzled over with brown sauce, which was infused with the flavours of lemon and thyme. I liked the sauce as it was tangy without overpowering the meat. On the side were thick-cut fries and salad, although these were rather ordinary for me.

The cheese-baked seafood rice was another winner. Best eaten hot, the gooey cheese formed a melted crust over fluffy, spicy rice which almost had the texture of risotto. Flavours were just right and not too salty, and there was a generous amount of seafood on the inside.

Our last main was the Chicken Pot Pie. The pillow-like golden, flaky puff pastry opened up to reveal a mix of goodies on the inside, which included chicken sausages and mushrooms in a creamy, buttery sauce. This was also served with a side of salad.

We were fully satisfied with all the dishes we had, but of course, there’s always room for dessert and coffee! To round off the meal, I had a cup of latte to go with a Tiramisu mille crepe. 

The latte was very well done; rich and milky, not too bitter nor sweet, and with beautiful latte art done on top. Was told that the cafe takes in young baristas and train them with an expert so that they can learn skills – also part of their pay-it-forward philosophy.

The tiramisu mille crepe needed to be thawed a little more as it was quite solid, but the flavours were well balanced between the bitterness of the coffee and the light sweetness of vanilla.

The chocolate on the other hand was perfect. I liked that it wasn’t too sweet, and the layers of crepe were light and fluffy.

All in all I was very impressed with the quality of food, as they emphasised freshness and flavour. If you’re looking for a hearty meal paired with great coffee and dessert, then Vergine Coffee hits all the right notes. They’ve recently introduced new, heavier dishes to the menu such as steaks and fish to cater to customers looking for something more substantial.

 

VERGINE COFFEE AMAN PURI 

25, Jalan Desa 2/4, Desa Aman Puri
Kepong, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Opening hours: 
11:00AM – 11:00PM (closed Tuesdays)
Phone:  03-6263 4719

 

**Erisgoesto was invited to Vergine Coffee in exchange for an honest food review. Views here are entirely my own.

Why Sri Lanka Should Be Your Next Honeymoon Destination

Honeymoon destinations.

Top off the head, places that come to mind – the Maldives, Bali, Paris…truth is, few would think of Sri Lanka – but there’s plenty of reasons why you should book your next flight to this relatively undiscovered gem of an island, southeast of the Indian coast. With a rich history and culture spanning 3,000 years, coupled with beautiful natural sights such as tropical beaches and majestic formations, Sri Lanka makes the perfect honeymoon spot for an unforgettable time with the significant other.

Here are just some of the things you can expect to see while visiting the island:

SIGIRIYA ROCK (LION ROCK) 

Credit: Wikimedia Commons – commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sigiriya_lion_gate_04.JPG

Towering nearly 200 metres high in the northern Matale District is the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya Rock, or Lion Rock. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and dubbed by locals as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’, the massive rock column, formed from magma from an extinct volcano, is a prime example of nature’s wonder blended with man’s ingenuity.

The fortress was built in the 5th century during the reign of King Kasyapa, who made it his royal residence. Inside, visitors will find the ruins of an ancient palace, alongside gardens, pools, alleyways and fountains. After the king’s death, it served as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century. The entrance was made to look like a grand stone lion – hence the name Lion Rock – but visitors today will only find its carved feet as the rest of the structure has been destroyed. Other points of interest include a wall covered in frescoes, and the ‘Mirror Wall’, said to have been polished so thoroughly that the king would be able to see his reflection in it. Climbing to the top, visitors will be rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding jungles and valleys.

SPICE GARDENS IN MATALE 

Spices Herbs Sri Lanka

Credit: Flickr, Amilla Tennakoon

Sri Lankan cuisine is known for being robust and full of flavours – thanks to its use of exotic herbs and spices, which are found abundantly all over the island. For many of us city folk, spices are sold in ready form in supermarkets, so getting to see how they are grown and processed on the ground will be an interesting experience. Stroll through gardens filled with greenery and the fragrant scents of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and more, before indulging in a herbal brew and a hearty local lunch. Couples can unwind to relaxing Ayurvedic massages using natural products from the gardens, designed to heal with its unique properties. Visitors may also purchase traditional remedies and cosmetics, used by the locals for centuries.

COLOMBO CITY 

Credit: Wikimedia Commons – By Ocsi143

No trip to Sri Lanka would be complete without a visit to its bustling capital, Colombo. Very much like Melaka in Malaysia, the place is a natural harbour and was once colonised by the Portuguese, Dutch and English – so visitors will see an eclectic mix of modern and colonial buildings. Within the city are various attractions, including the Beira Lake at the heart of the city and the Gangaramaya Temple, which boasts Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian and Chinese architecture. Shopping precincts abound for those looking for souvenirs and gifts, many of which are located within revamped historical buildings such as the Old Dutch Hospital and the Independence Memorial Hall Square.

GALLE – BEAUTIFUL BEACHES

Credit: Wikimedia Commons 

Surrounded by the azure blue waters of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is fast earning a reputation as a surfer’s paradise – especially the area around Galle, where it boasts postcard-worthy tropical beaches: golden sand, clean blue water and foamy white waves. One of the best spots to take a dip or even just to suntan with a nice cocktail is at Unawatuna Beach or at the bohemian Hikkaduwa beach to catch a gorgeous, romantic sunset.

KANDY CITY – TEMPLE OF THE SACRED TOOTH RELIC

Kandy, Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Alut Maligawa

Credit: Flickr/Arian Zwegers 

One of Sri Lanka’s most popular attractions and a significant place for Buddhism (Sri Lanka’s main religion) is the Sri Dalada Maligawa Temple, or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy. A World Heritage site, the temple houses the relic of the Buddha’s tooth and was completed in the 16th century. The building boasts beautiful architecture, with golden canopies and wall paintings done by the most skilled artisans of ancient times. Every year, a grand festival and parade is held on the streets – the only time the tooth will be out of its place in the temple.

Getting Around/Tour Packages 

Sri Lanka is still recovering from the effects of a 30-year-civil war that ended in 2009, so improvements to infrastructure are still in its early stages. As such, tourists will find it difficult to get around by public transport.

The best way to experience a holiday on the island would be to go with a reputable company that offers Sri Lanka tour packages, as not only will there be a guide to ferry you around, they’ll also be able to feed you with tidbits on the island’s history. Better still, go with a tailor-made Honeymoon Package, designed to make your trip with the significant other a special and memorable one. After all, the whole point of a honeymoon is to kick back, relax, and enjoy a wonderful time with the other half.

At the end of the day, services can be bought, but memories created last forever.

Happy Travels!