A beautiful garden, a knife, and really good food

My first stop of the day was, as I'd planned yesterday, Rikugi-en - which LP calls "Tokyo's most beautiful garden." I haven't seen many of the others, but it's got to be up there: it's magnificent. I spent two and a half hours there.

photo: Rikugi-en

a beautiful small island in a garden pond with a lawn, trees, and azaleas

I've been thinking a lot about why I like Japanese gardens so much, and why almost all other gardens leave me cold. I may have figured it out: other gardens are about individual plants, or perhaps an individual flower bed - but Japanese gardens are about the whole garden - the views, the way it looks as a whole. Individual plants may be valued, but the emphasis is on creating scenic views, not perfect plants. It's a very different aesthetic, and one I enjoy considerably more.

My next stop was Tsukiji Outer Market. When I was in Tokyo last, I went there at 0730 and stood in a line in the rain to have a superb breakfast from some tiny place that had just bought the fish from a wholesaler in the Inner Market. But I never looked around the retail market, which is what I was there to do this time. It's a fun place: lots of sushi, lots of places selling fish, but also dried goods (mostly seafood, but not all), and a lot of kitchen goods. Really, really good quality kitchen goods. On my To Do list was "buy a Shun knife." Shun is a fairly well known high end brand of kitchen knives. What I found was three or four places selling knives - not brands like Shun, but ones they made themselves, at the back of their tiny shop. I really liked this one knife - medium size, damascus, felt good in my hand - but it cost enough that I took a wander around the market before going back and purchasing it.

Then I trotted on over to the tax refund office (right in the middle of the market) where I gave them my passport and my bill and was refunded the tax I'd paid on the purchase in cash after signing a thing that solemnly swore I'd take the goods out of the country within 30 days.

I picked a random sushi place and ordered a set meal that looked good. And wow, that was the meal I was looking for yesterday: delicious. You know how people always say that sushi tastes better in Japan? Sorry, I have to do it again. I've always avoided mackerel because I know I don't like it - it has a strong flavour about it that I find kind of unpleasant. But the set included both a piece of mackerel and a piece of horse mackerel. The mackerel didn't have that taste, and it was quite good. And the horse mackerel was one of the best pieces in the set. Fresh makes a bigger difference than we realize ... I'm still not a fan of sea urchin, but the rest of it was great.

From there I walked the 1.8km to "Sake Plaza" because their hours are, rather oddly to my mind, from 10-6 Monday to Friday. But technically they're not a bar: they're the public face of the Sake Brewer's Association, where you can sample a wide variety of sakes. Or you could, if the building in question wasn't a large hole in the ground construction site. One of the two guards looked at my guidebook long enough to cross his arms in the classic Japanese "No," an "X" (normally red on signage). A yes or okay is a big green "O" - I don't know how you do that with your arms. Anyway, that was pretty annoying. Got on the metro to Roppongi Hills, which triggered a rather startling revulsion in me. I'd been there before, four years ago and hadn't liked it then. It's the ultimate in flash, an incredibly posh mall.

A friend and I had a conversation a few years ago that immediately came to mind, about the difference between Yorkdale Mall and Thornecliff Mall (which apparently is technically called "East York Town Centre"). Thornecliff is low rent - metaphorically, but probably also in fact. It's got a Food Basics at one end, a Dollarama, a small independent fruit store, a Halal bakery, and a multicultural food court where Indian women and old Persian guys hang out half the day. And then there's Yorkdale: it's sparkling clean, glossy white, and there isn't a store in the place that isn't a multi-million dollar chain. I can't afford to shop in half of them, but it doesn't matter because I wouldn't set foot in there if you paid me. I hate the place, it makes my skin crawl. Whereas Thornecliff, shabby as it is, is alive and fun and easy-going.

So - Roppongi Hills seems to equate to Yorkdale in my head. Which may well not make sense to anyone else, but there it is. Although it was fun to see Maman (one of Louise Bourgeois' giant spider sculptures which lives at Roppongi Hills) with its legs all dressed up in multi-coloured fabric. Made it quite a bit less creepy.

photo: Maman at Roppongi Hills, with his new leggings

a very large spider-like sculpture, now with multi-coloured fabric leggings in the middle of an outdoor mall

The tourist info told me that "Sake Plaza" (now calling itself something like "The Sake and Sochu Information Center") is still up and running. They showed me a map that seemed to indicate it was about a block from where I'd been - no longer in the big hole in the ground. But I wasn't going back, and they won't be open tomorrow or Sunday ...

I bought a combined ticket to Tokyo City View (the 52rd floor of the Roppongi Hills tower) and the Mori Art Museum (on the 53rd floor). The view of the city from there is spectacular, but frustrating to a photographer as it's all through glass: there are some pretty overwhelming reflections to deal with. So I paid the extra ¥500 to go up to the Sky Deck (or whatever they called it) which is outside on the roof. Only to find that I'd traded reflections for a wide swath of roof between me and the view: on the roof you couldn't get as near the edge, and so a lot of the stuff straight down (that you could see on the 52nd floor) was now cut off from view. <sigh> Trade-offs.

The Mori doesn't have a permanent collection, they do rotating original exhibits. This one was on Japanese Architecture, and was interesting. They had a lot of building models, but also covered things like the evolution of the Japanese roof (copied from China, but then modified and extended to deal with heavier wind and rain), a section on carpentry methods I found fascinating, and various videos about buildings and architects.

LP recommended that I not miss the Mohri Gardens outside, so I checked in on them. Quite small, and I was momentarily disappointed because they'd dropped the water level in the pond by 35cm to do maintenance ... but then I realized it was to install a variety of different lighted artworks, so I had a good time photographing them working on that, as well as the stuff that was already in place.

I took the subway to Ginza where I tried to find Kagari, a ramen restaurant recommended by LP. (I'm taking my food seriously again, and Ramen was at the top of the list.) This involved asking multiple people, and maps.me guided me down a tiny little back alley to a ramen shop that wasn't them ... Finally I found someone nearby who could convey to me that Kagari was closed. "But there is new shop." He walked me to it - the place I'd already found. Which was both reassuring and disappointing.

I walked to Tokyo Station, because it has - not kidding - "Tokyo Rāmen Street." Ten chosen ramen places, all in one corridor. "Long lines form outside the most popular shops, but they tend to move quickly" (so says LP). I was very tired and not willing to wait through a line on the assumption that a place would be any better, so I chose one that was busy but not lined up. I still don't know what its name was, nothing I saw was in English (well, a bit on the menu). As with all the ramen places there, and most of the ones around the city, you order from a vending machine out front which issues you a ticket for your meal after you feed it your money - I got the regular pork version with a side of fried chicken. They sat me down elbow to elbow with others, facing a wall (a countertop for those eating alone). I was surprised how long I had to wait (15 minutes? - this is supposed to be the fast food of Japan). I watched bowl after bowl of ramen come out topped with a heaping helping of bean sprouts with a bit of cabbage mixed in, and by the time mine arrived I was pretty sceptical. I'm not a huge fan of bean sprouts. I don't hate them, but they're just not my favourite thing. So imagine my surprise when I loved them - it helps that they'd given them a quick stir fry along with a helping of black pepper, but still - good job. And the ramen and meat and soup were all excellent too, as was the fried chicken. Another really good meal.