Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Magic of Moss - a visit to Saiho-ji garden in Kyoto


Hello and Merry Christmas to old and new visitors to my bloggywog!  I'm not bored with blogging about my Japanese hols yet and in any event there is nothing of any amusement to be had on the Gardening TV front at this time of year.  Normal service may be resumed in the New Year.

But for now, boys and girls, I am going to tell you about some Kyoto gardens we visited.  Don't worry there are not too many words and lots of pictures.

When I planned our holiday with the marvellous Inside Japan Tours I explained that I was very keen to see some of Japan's great gardens.  They came back to me with the idea of visiting  the famous Saiho-Ji Temple Moss Garden in Kyoto but there was a catch... because in the past zillions of people tramping around had destroyed the moss visitors now had to prove their worthiness by booking in advance, paying a huge entrance fee (over £30 per person) and spending two hours in the temple doing zen buddhist chanting and copying scripts/sutras before being allowed in the garden!  Obviously we just had to go - apart from anything else the idea of a couple of hours chanting and calligraphy sounded quite charming and an antidote to the rushing around we were likely to be doing on the rest of our tour.  So armed with pre-paid permits and brushes provided for us by Inside Japan Tours we arrived at  Saiho-Ji, removed our shoes at the entrance porch (as ever) slipping into the provided sandals and made our way into the temple. This is where we made a wrong call - asked whether we wanted to sit inside the temple where all the Japanese were kneeling at low desks, or outside on the verandah with proper chairs, we opted for the latter to save ourselves from likely leg cramps.

The main temple with our chairs and tables on verandah to the left

Disappointingly those of us outside, which seemed to consist of the old, the infirm and a couple of foreigners, didn't get to use our brushes and ink to copy the sutras but were instead provided with felt pens and lines of scripts for us to copy or trace.

This didn't seem like it was going to be so much fun for two hours but things improved when the buddhist monks started their chanting which sounded exactly like Plastic Betrand's 'Ca Plane Pour moi'.  I sang along the words to this for a while until it got faster and faster and the few lyrics I knew ran out.  After that I started chanting counting down backwards from a hundred - a test I occasionally do to check I don't have Alzheimer's and that the Bedsock's pronouncement that I forget things because I don't concentrate is correct.  That having been said I've had OldMaSock count down from a hundred several times, she always manages to do it and as we all know OldMaSock is more than a tad demented.

After about forty minutes of copying and chanting a monk approached and told a family with howling baby they could go.  This was fine but then an elderly couple near us suddenly scarpered as well and you could feel everyone on the verandah was thinking "Well if they're off perhaps we should go too before the garden gets crowded!"  So it was on this account that the Socks threw down their pens, handed in their sutra (which the monks keep and pray over) and quickly retrieved their shoes, making a hasty exit before the whole mob singing Ca Plan Pour Moi inside the temple emerged.

And so into the moss garden.  What can you say? It was beautiful, enchanting and more than a bit mossy.

Detail Chelsea Moss Garden

I hadn't been sure what to expect, perhaps more sculpted forms of moss and stones as used in Ishihara Kazuyuki's Japanese Moss Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2010.

What we found was that the entire ground of the garden was covered in pillowing moss of more than 120 different kinds.

 It certainly produced an exquisite effect although apparently the moss is at its best in the spring.

The fabulous acers were at their most magnificent though, lighting up the scene with their vibrant colours.

The pond is shaped like the Japanese character for 'heart' or 'mind'

This was our main reason for travelling in November in the hope of seeing the famous autumn colours. We were still a little early as Japan, like Europe, has experienced a warmer autumn than usual, lacking a hard frost in Kyoto which gives the most spectacular turning leaf colours.

An artfully placed boat to complete this scene..

 I loved the splash of such intense leaf colour above the velvet green of the moss. I have looked at pictures of the garden in other seasons and without the vibrant reds and yellows of the Japanese maples the garden seems to descend too far into a sea of immeasurable green.

This lovely tree graced the temple courtyard, it looked like it was sprinkled with silver magic - a Japanese Singing Ringing tree. Does anyone know what it is?

We felt privileged to have been allowed to visit this garden and it was worth the time and money spent particularly as the rules for entrance cut down the crowds and made it very quiet and peaceful.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Three weeks without chocolate - a Japanese food fest


Posh shop selling replica food

Can you imagine a diet composed mainly of fish and rice with no chocolate, no dairy, no red wine and no bread? Neither could I but three weeks in Japan showed me that not only was it possible but I felt a load healthier, more energetic and thoroughly enjoyed it.   We were lucky that quite a few of our meals were sumptuous traditional feasts at the ryokans we stayed at which I will blog about  later but the quality and range of street and market food was quite fantastic too and with the opportunity of free tastings almost everywhere - OldmaSock would have been in her element!  The only problem in cafés and restaurant was choosing from extensive menus in Japanese BUT there is a way around this - the ubiquitous plastic food replicas!

Most cafés and cheaper food establishments will have a display case outside where you can point out the meal you want!

Unfortunately some of them don't look so appetizing close up!

 Whole rows of shops dedicated to selling snacks  of different sorts of freshly made biscuits

and various forms of rice crackers - many of which sounded nicer than they tasted.

Our favourite outdoor market was in the lovely town of Takeyama in the Japanese Alps.

Market stalls ran along the side of the river selling local fresh vegetables, home-made pickles and spices.  The lady below is mixing spices according to customers requirements these include hemp seeds, dried mandarin orange peel, black sesame seeds and Japanese sancho pepper..

You can never have too much fish-on-a-stick

You could sample all these jars of goodies - so we did and came away with some fabulous wasabi coated nuts, some cranberry coloured things of unknown origin which were yummy and some mixed nuts with what turned out to be dried fishy bits in with them which were yuck and tasted like some cat treats I once accidentally ate!

Didn't really understand what this was supposed to be - possibly marshmallow

but as usual we tried one anyway and whatever it was it was rather good...

the only grumpy Japanese person we met in three weeks was Mrs. Dumplings - after we'd been stood around salivating for a while she informed us they wouldn't be ready for half and hour!  We eventually tried some of these in Kyoto and whilst I thought they were no great shakes the Bedsock felt they could become quite addictive..

this guy was cutting his roll so fast that a crowd gathered in the expectation he would slice off a finger..

Takeyama has streets of old merchant's houses some of which now house sake breweries.  We didn't have time for the brewery tours but I sampled a fridge full of sakes all of which were quite different to each other and for the most part very good - except for the one that was mixed with yoghurt (a Japanese version of Bailey's?) which tasted like rancid milk vomit.

Wherever there was a queue of people we knew fab food would be at the end of it and one of the best was a piece of sushi with kobe beef on top that was to die for! No photo as we wolfed it down too quickly.

We move on to Kyoto where Nishiki food market

was enough to make the Bedsock cry with frustration that the packed pickles wouldn't make the journey home..

but he did buy himself an expensive knife to cheer himself up

and they inscribed his name on it (at least they said it was his name)!!!

 More fish!!

You can't have too much octopus

particularly when it is on a stick!

Barrels of beautiful veg we watched them pack in some paste preserve

We came home having cast off our chocolate and cheese addictions and desiring only sake and plum wine.  This hasn't lasted, although we do now have a craving for pickles and raw fish that is never going to be satisfied.

Friday, 9 December 2011



Matsoumoto Castle

The Socks have long been wasabi addicts so when we spotted "Wasabi Farm visit" in our guide book with the possibility of sampling wasabi beer, wasabi ice cream and noodles in hot wasabi sauce, we knew it was the place for us.

Daio Wasabi farm is just outside Matsumoto a rather attractive town in the Japanese Alps with a very interesting castle and an extremely good yakitori bar where everyone shouts "Hooray" when a new customer comes in.  Actually, it sounded like "hooray" but it could have been anything - either way after a few sakes the Socks joined in the custom with gusto.

From the guidebook description the Sock's had imagined the Wasabi Farm to be a small, family concern with a homely restaurant serving a Japanese version of Mamma's home cooking.  The reality, as so often happened in Japan, was somewhat different - an enormous car park and the Japanese equivalent of Wasabis-R-Us greeted us.  Lord Sugar would have been proud of this farm, every possibility of 'adding value'  to the product had been exploited with shops and cafes offering everything from wasabi coated nuts (yum!) to wasabi flavoured cake (not so yum!).

Wasabi roots all ready to grate - the best way to buy it

Away from the usual maddening crowd milling around the facilities the wasabi fields themselves were quiet and beautiful with their pure flowing water and distant backdrop of the snow-tipped Alps.

Young wasabi shoots growing in stream bed

We saw this and thought of triple GMG Award Winner Mark Diacono (pictured on the link with his Movember moustache) and wondered whether at last we might have found something he wasn't growing on his climate change farm.  No such chance - Mark admits to attempting to grow a wasabi or two but with no great success.  He's missing a trick - here's how it's done.

Mature wasabi plantation

The science bit... Wasabi is an indigenous herb of Japan and mainly cultivated in cool plateau regions where the spring water is under neutral conditions. The temperature of the water of Daio Wasabi Farm is kept 13℃ all year. Wasabi root is often grated and eaten as spice. It provides excellent mild flavor to Japanese cuisine. It's flowers, leaves, and stems are eaten in various styles such as tempura, boiled with soy sauce and sugar, cooked with rice, etc.  Simples!

A river of wasabi

The Socks impulse bought a load of wasabi themed products including a wasabi burger and the really rather good wasabi ice-cream (rather bad photo of it) plus souvenirs of wasabi croutons, wasabi and seaweed seasoning, wasabi miso and various other stuff that seemed like a good idea at the time but now we actually have no idea what it is.

Exploiting your product is clearly the way forward and we thought of our friends Sean and Jooles at Heucheraholics.  Inspired by the fabulous foodie names given to heucheras we envisaged a  "Send a gift" service incorporating a heuchera with a couple of cupcakes in matching flavours, Plum Pudding, Creme Caramel, Sticky Toffee Pudding etc.  Even heuchera 'Fire Chief' could be presented by a Fireman-O-Gram - the scope for added value is endless.

Sadly the one product we really wanted to buy wasabi-wise was some top quality paste or powder.  This didn't seem to exist in Japan - perhaps they are purists and only use the real raw grated root.

So until Mark Diacono figures out how to make Otter Farm the Wasabi Centre of Devon we will have to make do with the second rate wasabi powder products we can buy here.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Kenruoken - the perfect type of a perfect pleasure


We are a week into our holiday and have yet to visit a garden which is odd for a holiday conceived with just that activity in mind.  Jetlag oversleep robbed us of an early morning visit to the famous fish market in Tokyo and our attempt to re-coup the day with a plan change wander around the Imperial Gardens was foiled when we arrived just as it was closing at a 4.00pm dusk. Imperial Gardens fail was a happy accident as we fell into a nearby sake bar and began our odyssey into the joys of rice wine then followed it with a fabulous tempura meal, sublimely fresh, delicate and delicious.

Since then every day has overflowed with new sights, new tastes, new experiences. For everywhere we visit we miss ten other places that we would dearly love to have seen. But that is Japan - too much of everything and so much choice one feels continually overwhelmed.

Today's garden is Kenruoken one of the top three in Japan.  It is what's known as a 'stroll' garden and the name means "Garden of the Six Sublimities"  encompassing the six attributes of a perfect Japanese landscape garden: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, watercourse and panoramas.  As usual we have been up since the 'crackov' our bodies obligingly re-setting themselves to early morning rising in order to beat the ubiquitous and annoying, milling crowds. And boy how the Japanese mill! Herding behind some raucous guide and stopping only to take photographs of themselves they never seem to take time to just stand, stare and absorb. In any Japanese garden the most difficult quality to find will be seclusion.  Luckily the masses invariably take the well worn central pathways rarely going off-piste so with a bit of clever manoeuvring we can usually lose them.  Despite our early get-up we have waited until some misty rain has cleared and arrive only just before the grouping guided tours. The sun is breaking through the clouds to creat a steamy warmth over the gardens as we race up the hill to the Kasumigaike Pond with the Kotojitoro Lantern and take our 'money shot' before the crowds arrive. (Clic on any pic to enlarge)

When I first looked at my holiday photos I felt disappointment at my failure to capture the moment when such excitement rose up in me that I was lost in the breathtaking beauty of it.  Perhaps it is not just my lack of camera skill and more the impossibility of recreating the balance where every tree, every sculpture, every curve of the mossy bank of the lake has been so precisely placed to create the perfect scene.

The Bedsock is also entranced but feels that the rope sculpture over the trees, whilst unusual, is an unnecessary enhancement.  And then we realise - this is no sculpture but another example of the Japanese custom of perfect packaging, where everything from fabulous food to kimono clad women is beautifully wrapped and presented.

The trees are having their branches supported to prevent breakage under the load of heavy winter snow Kanazawa is prone too.  We later see this labour intensive activity all around the town as even the humblest of street trees acquires its attractive winter over wear. 

We wander on, escaping the hoarse cawing of the tour guides coming up behind us.  The attribute the garden misses in its six sublimities is "Peace and Quiet". On our travels we have found that the one thing Japanese don't seem to enjoy is silence and in a garden, that one would feel should be given over to harmony and reflection, the noise seems harshly out of place.

We wander on and soon leave the hordes of people posing for photographs behind - in fact we now have some parts of the garden entirely to ourselves.  My excitement levels haven't dropped and as usual in Japan my only worry is that by focussing on one scene I am missing the beauty of another.  Everywhere I turn it is quite magical.   And so pristine - in pursuit of perfection Japanese workers are actually sweeping the stream!

In Spring the sweeping will remove the fallen blossom from the cherry trees lining the banks..

And every fallen leaf must be removed!

Down to the plum grove and another place of such beauty I want to cry.  I love the outline of the trees, I love the sprinkle of autumn colours over the myriad greenness of the scene.  I love the soft, soothing flow of the stream..

the brilliance of the butterfly

even the spiders come perfectly packaged!

Of course, as we all understand, no visit to a garden is complete without partaking of refreshments and at Kenrokuen the traditional tea house comes complete with kimono clad ladies serving us green tea and some strange little sweetmeats whilst we kneel on the tatami mats.  The usual elegant and ordered ceremony of bowing and placing of provisions takes place whilst the Bedsock and I ponder on whether we will ever regain the feeling in our cramped knees.  Men may sit cross-legged or kneel whilst women may kneel or observe the mermaid position - all of which are exceedingly uncomfortable for our Western limbs although we are gradually becoming more used to it.

An instructive tea ceremony we attended at the En Tea House in Kyoto
Our visit is nearly over and all that remains to do is sit on the tea house verandah and contemplate the shady pool

and see the oldest fountain in Japan.

As we leave I already feel bereft, I want to see Kenruoken cloaked in the Winter snow, in the Spring with the plum and cherries flowering and a river of blue irises running alongside the stream,  in the blowsy leaf-filled summer shaded from the heat.  Most of all I just want to see Kenruoken again.

Oscar Wilde wrote "a cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure.  It is exquisite yet leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?"  This is how I feel about Kenruoken.


Our tour was planned by me and organised by the excellent Inside Japan Tours without whose ideas and knowledge it would never have happened