Tokyo. A shopper’s wonderland. My friends are green with envy at my good luck. Sadly, I am not a typical woman. I loathe shopping. Basement food halls, malls, and department stores make my eyes blur with panic. Too much stuff. Too many choices. So, heartily tired of concrete, traffic, and effulgent electric lighting, I follow my nose through the narrow back streets of Shinjuku and Shibuya to the Meiji-Jingu Shrine. Ducking across a railway line between convoys of commuter trains, I round a corner, and bump into a dazzling vision of deep green foliage.
Yes, really. Hidden backstage, behind towering high-rises and roads crowded with those snub-nosed little Everywagons, is Yoyogi Park: 250 improbable acres of high-rise trees, a mere 100,000 of them, planted back in 1920 to honour the memory of Emperor Meiji and his wife, the Empress Shoken, who died in the early years of the 20th century. Emperor Meiji came to the throne in 1867 and was instrumental in modernizing Japan. While he was opening doors to the west that had been kept firmly locked for centuries, his wife was also being busy and important, promoting both the education of women and national welfare.
Shinto, the original Japanese religion, values a sincere heart and harmony with nature. This preferred state of mind is amply reflected in the extensive woodland of Yoyogi Park, where it is hard to feel anything but serene. Once saplings, donated from all over the globe, those same trees now shade the forest pathways from lofty heights.
Despite the hotel manager’s anxiety that it would take me hours to walk here—it would be much better if I were to catch the train three stops—I have skibbled down the hill and under the vast Shinto arch (a torii) in less than half an hour. And suddenly, like Alice through the looking glass, I am immersed in a new world, a muted world of dappled green. While the trains keep up their urgent background hum, now the air is filled with bird noises and the steady crunch of gravel under my feet. Majestic trees arch overhead in a glorious leafy canopy. Elderly gardeners maintain the tidiness of the forest floor with long-necked brooms that they sweep like scythes across the broad gravel paths, making small, neat mounds of recalcitrant leaves that will be scooped into bucket-shaped baskets. I imagine this will be a huge job in November, when the torrential downfall of autumn leaves might threaten to overwhelm, but today it seems a fairly peaceful, part-time occupation.
Wandering aimlessly, I reach a fork in the road, and another vast wooden arch, marking the entrance to the shrine. A sign to Kiyomasa’s Well tempts me off the highway and through the little wooden gate beneath the trees. A road to fairyland? Almost. This is the Inner Garden, designed by the Emperor as a tranquil retreat for his wife. There is an entry fee of 500 yen, but it is worth it to follow the narrow, winding paths to a large pond surrounded by thick foliage and full of koi carp and water lilies, reminiscent of Monet’s garden. Oak trees drip acorns onto the paths. Dainty St. Andrew’s Cross spiders weave intricate webs amongst the undergrowth. Fragile and lowly ferns kowtow to the stately elegance of the trees. A gardener in a broad- brimmed hat kneels in a muddy flower bed, planting irises. Photographers wait patiently by the spring for spiritual serenity or that special moment with capricious nature, while I capture that moment when an enchanting, sparrow-sized bird steals a peanut from my palm, its tiny feet, delicate as Japanese characters, clinging briefly to my fingers.
But I am hungry, and the quiet garden is filling up with a sudden torrent of tourists. I wander off to look for lunch, and find an airy, empty restaurant on the edge of the park, where I am offered an autumn feast, a glorified bento box, that Japanese lunch box of both beauty and convenience.
Arranged alluringly on a tray is an assortment of eye-catching bowls and platters. Some of the dishes are a mystery, but I must take my chances, as no one speaks enough English to explain. I somehow survive my ignorance, and enjoy making some new acquaintances. There is a clear broth that I leave till last—not miso, my waiter corrects me shortly, but won’t elaborate on what it is—and a bowl of rice dotted with cubes of an unknown yellow fruit, or possibly a vegetable. A large blue egg cup offers up a teaspoon of sardines garnished with tiny pink and purple petals that tastes unexpectedly like the Baltic rollmop of my childhood. A cooked prawn cuddles up to a piece of grilled salmon on a pillow of boiled daikon, or Asian radish, of which I am growing inordinately fond. Two enormous, plum-sized red grapes are so ripe they taste drunk, and they are topped whimsically with a tiny amber maple leaf.
But the plat de résistance is a lacquered box of tempura. And here I must use my imagination. Apparently, I am informed curtly, the spray of wheat is edible. My waiter isn’t rude, just a little embarrassed by his lack of English. Goodness knows why, as it’s easily better than my non-existent Japanese. The wheat grains having partially ‘popped’ in the oil look like a corsage of puffed wheat. It is crispy, but the fine stems lodge between my teeth and dig into my gums. This pretty piece might be better on a lapel after all. The mushrooms, however, are moreish, and I wish there were. More. I crunch through them happily. I don’t know their names, but they are those long-stemmed white ones that grow in clusters like pins on a pincushion. Google says enoki or possibly shimeji, but cooking tips don’t include tempura, so I assume the chef is being creative, and it works. A scattering of maple leaves lightly coated in tempura is so small I feel guilty about eating them, like swallowing those diminutive quail eggs. I am only slightly discomfited, however, before they disappear down my throat with as much substance as fairy floss. The final mouthful is an indefinable piece of foliage that might be mushrooms or could be a branch of some unknown shrubbery, but tempura waves its magic wand and wraps whatever-it-may-be in crunchy, crispy, mouth-filling deliciousness.
And I am done. And I emerge, reluctantly, from my sensual haven into the surreal world of futuristic, fantastical Tokyo.
Written by ALEXANDRA GREGORI