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FoodGaijin Survival GuideJapanese SnacksLife in JapanMatsuri & More

Eating Gobo

Burdock

牛蒡
ごぼう
Gobo

Also known as Great Burdock. U-eong in Korean. Niúbàng in Chinese. And Arctium lappa in Latin.

When living in a new country for the first time you notice all sorts of things. For me, it’s the small details while on regular everyday outings. That’s what happened when I encountered a strange root at the local grocery store in the produce section. Language books and online courses don’t explain the small nuances of everyday life in Japan, let alone the name or use of a vegetable root.

During my first encounter, I was kind of surprised to see dirty yard-long sticks for sale in the right next to sweet potatoes and onions. But, after a quick inspection and a little help from Google translate, I discovered that it was a burdock root, also known as gobuo or gobō in Japanese.

Gobo for sale. Yum.

Tea, Herb, & Weed.

I’ve seen burdock tea in the US, but it’s hard to find and usually in small tea bags. In Japan, there’s a lot more burdock tea on the grocery shelves and I’ve even seen it bottled.

I also know about burdock as a medicinal herb. Burdock is often found in teas or dry powders packed in tiny pills sold at vitamin and herbal health stores and of course online. Used in western folk herbalism and Chinese medicine for thousands of years, this root supposedly cures a litany of aliments such as reducing inflammation, lowering blood sugar, and preventing infections.  

I can’t recall ever seeing cleaned burdock root sold fresh at the grocery store in the states. I might have seen it at an Asian food market, not realizing what it was.

As a past gardener and plant hobbyist, I am also familiar with the common burdock (Arctium minus – a relative of the Japanese version Arctium lappa). Common burdock is a tenaciously invasive weed. Sprouting from unkempt back yards, abandoned lots, and in between cracks of sidewalks all over the USA. This plant from the thistle family is more of a nuisance since its seed burs cling eagerly to clothing.

From left to right: Dried burdock root, bottled burdock tea, burdock burs.

War Crimes?

I once heard a story about how American POWs in World War II were being “forced to eat tree roots” for testimony in a war-crime trial. I did some background research and one document did confirm it, but it was noted as a miss translation rather than an actual crime of “cruel and unusual punishment.” Nattō was also mentioned as “rotten beans” in the report – having tried nattō I can completely understand why!

Fresh Great burdock roots.

The Vegetable

Since eating gobō, I’m happy to report its hardly a punishment, but rather a tasty and healthy root vegetable.

I learned that burdock is as common as carrots in Japan. The most common way to cook burdock in Japan is Kinpira Gobo (recipe below). Kinpira is a Japanese cooking style where you stir fry and simmer usually with sugar and soy sauce, maybe some other seasonings as desired. With burdock, carrots and other vegetables are also added. This traditional dish is commonly found in supermarket bento boxes. I can honestly say that it’s far more appetizing when julienned rather than the “dirty stick” raw form.

The taste of burdock reminds me of artichokes (also apart of the thistle family) and the texture is similar to parsnips. It’s crispy and a bit sweet especially when cooked. There a hint of bitterness, and sometimes it can have a harsh muddy taste but only if you don’t pre-soak the roots for about ten minutes before cooking.

The burdock roots are a bit bothersome to cook from scratch since they tend to oxidize to a brown color quickly if you don’t submerge them in water with a teaspoon of vinegar immediately after cutting. I have seen pre-cut packages of burdock, usually in the frozen foods section.

Burdock sold in Japanese Grocery Stores.

Worth Trying

If you want to try a new vegetable, I think gobō is worthwhile. Packed with fiber, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants it is defiantly good for you, but then again the same is true for all vegetables.

Kinpira Gobo

Kinpira Gobo

¼ pound carrot (about 1 medium), peeled, top and bottom trimmed
¼ pound burdock (1 root), peeled, top and bottom trimmed
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon mirin (sweet rice wine)
2 tablespoons of dashi or water
1 teaspoon of vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
pinch of toasted sesame seeds

Julienne the carrot and burdock into long matchstick pieces, about 1-2 mm × 1–2 mm × 4 cm.

Fully submerge the burdock in cold water with 1 teaspoon vinegar, mix and let soak for 5 to 10 minutes. Drain well before cooking.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat, add the sesame oil, and when it begins to smoke, add the vegetables. Cook, stirring frequently until the vegetables begin to wilt, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the mirin and dashi/water and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds or so, then add the soy sauce. Cook, stirring, for 2 minutes more, then stir in the sugar.

Continue cooking, stirring frequently and reducing the heat if the vegetables threaten to color until the vegetables are tender with a slight bite and just begin to stick to the skillet, 2 to 3 minutes.

Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle toasted sesame seeds on top.

Burdock flowers
FoodLife in Japan

Mitsuya Melted Peach Soda

MitsuyaMeltedPeach

Snack Attack #2

三ツ矢 とろけるもも
Mitsuya Melted Peach

Package Style: PET bottle, 500 ml
Price:  ¥100 to 140

  • Taste:  4/5
  • Smell:  4/5
  • Texture: 3/5
  • Value: 2/5

Mitsuya was a famous beverage producer here in Japan, brewing cider since 1884. Today it’s a brand name owned and made by Asahi Soft Drinks. They have all sorts of flavors in addition to cider, but all drinks regardless of flavor are carbonated.

Each season the Mitsuya brand puts out the special flavor, this winter its Melted Peach. Not sure what “melted” means in this context, but I imagine it has to do with the fact there are bits of peach pulp in the soda.

Both the smell and flavor is like a peach on steroids, but without being sugary. Honestly, I find that peachiness better than a real peach, only because I’ve chosen too many bad peaches. 

The texture of the peach pulp is subtle and overpowered by the carbonation. Like most Mitsuya drinks, the CO2 is on overdrive such that I suggest that you slowly sip and let the bubbles fizz away in the mouth. Drinking it too fast would just waste the flavors in addition to giving you excessive burps.

Overall, it’s a fun and refreshing fizzy drink that kind of reminds me of a Bellini minus the Champaign.

Mitsuya Melted Peach Ingredients: Sugars (fructose-glucose liquid sugar (domestic production), sugar), thigh juice / carbonic acid, acidulants, flavors, vitamin C, thickener (xanthan)

Thick peach puree with pulp!

Currently, you can buy Mitsuya Melted Peach on Amazon.co.jp

Matsuri & MoreNew Year

Kadomatsu: Three Friends of Winter

KadomatsuTwins

門松
Kadomatsu
“Gate Pine”

Japan loves its New Year’s decorations. It’s reminiscent of western Christmas decorations, something to bring verdant cheer to grey winters.

Just after Christmas, the New Year’s decorations known as kadomatsu “門松 – Gate Pine” are placed in front of homes, department stores, and businesses. It’s an evergreen ikebana arrangement that reminds me of Yule Tide Garlands. Kadomatsu can be spotted nearly everywhere up until January 13th.

A large and fancy Kadomatsu

松竹梅
Shochikubai
“Pine, Bamboo, and Plum”

Shochikubai originated from China, where it’s commonly known as 岁寒三友 (Suihan Sanyou) or “Three Friends of Winter.” Koreans and Vietnamese also share a similar New Year art motif. But in Japan, it’s specifically known as Kadomatsu. Hawaii also loves its kadomatsu given its communities of Japanese descent.

These three symbols represent longevity (pine), prosperity (bamboo), and steadfastness (plum). Not only are they found as decorations on doorways, but I’ve seen them on greeting cards and embossed into winter confections.

Various sizes of Kadomatsu at a Hawaii florist shop

Kadomatsu come in all sizes, but the basics are the same: three stalks of bamboo cut on the diagonal at various heights standing vertically. Pine branches are arranged around the bamboo and then twigs of plum blossoms are inserted. Sometimes they are bound together using a straw or rope. Kadomatsu are always found in pairs, on either side of the entryway and embody the male and female genders.

Originally, kadomatsu were placed to honor and receive the toshigami (deity), who will then bring a bountiful harvest. Today, they are symbols of good luck, wishing a bountiful year to the residents and the users of the building.

A kind friend sent us a cute New Year’s Postcard greeting with kadomatsu! It’s so adorable!

Sagichō
左義長

When the holidays are done, the decorations in America are tucked away in boxes to be saved for next year. Here in Japan, Kadomatsu and other decorations are burned on a special holiday season called “Little New Year’s” also known as Koshogatsu.

On the night of January 14th and the morning of January 15th, kadomatsu, other New Year’s decorations, and old lucky talismans are ritualistically burned in a Shinto ritual called Sagichō (not to be confused with the famous Omihachiman Sagicho Fire Festival near Kyoto). The festival also has many other regional specific names including tondo, dondo-yaki, saitōyaki, bokkengyō, and sankurōyaki.

A pile of kadomatsu, daruma dolls, and other talismans before the burning.

Regardless of its name, they all have one thing in common: The building, stacking and burning the New Year’s door ornaments and charms of luck, usually at a location near the village border or in a field. It’s mostly a family event with an intricate spiritual significance. The burning of the charms represents breaking up with the past and showing a desire to turn forward toward progress. Sometimes a short ritual is performed beforehand, but they always roast mochi or rice cakes over the fire for everyone to enjoy.

A pyre for Dondo-yaki

FoodJapanese Snacks

Shinshu Apple Kit Kat Minis

AppleKitKat-small
Snack Attack Series

信州りんごキットカット ミニ
Shinshu Apple Kit Kat Minis

Package Style: Regional souvenir box, 12 kit kat minis
Price:  ¥900

  • Taste:  4/5
  • Smell:  5/5
  • Texture: 4/5
  • Value: 3/5

When I first picked up the box at the local confectionery store, I notice the bright red apples and then “信州” or Shinshu.  Where is Shinshu? My Japan geography is sorely lacking. I later learn that Shinshū, also known as Shinano Province, is the traditional name for Nagano Prefecture on the island of Honshu.

Upon opening the box, Sig immediately exclaims, “Certainly smells like apples!”  And boy does it ever! Although the fragrance of sweet apple is intense like a perfume, I find it very pleasant, and we found ourselves anticipating the flavor. Shinshū apples, also known as Shinano apples, from Nagano are famous for their juicy and crispness, making it refreshing eating, and even better baking, apple. Let me just say, if you can go Shinshū apple picking, do it – you will be rewarded with some of the best apples that Japan has to offer.

Japan loves its individually wrapped snacks, and Shinshu Apple Kit Kat Minis are no exception. I’m almost disappointed to only find a dozen. As with most things Kit Kat I want more, maybe it’s a good thing that we’ll only get six each between us, and that box costs roughly nine to ten dollars per box! *Sigh* Oh the difficulty of practicing moderation and self-control!

Opening one of the mini wrappers, I am delighted to find milk chocolate instead of white chocolate. I often find white chocolate very sweet, near treacly in flavor. Biting into it, I get that chocolate-covered wafer bar confection I expected, but while the odor of apple wafts into my mouth and my nose. The flavor of the creamy milk chocolate and the apple is well-balanced and absolutely delicious. 

Shinshu Apple Kit Kat Mini Ingredients: sugar, whole milk powder, vegetable oil, cacao mass, flour, lactose, cocoa butter, apple juice powder, cocoa powder, yeast, emulsifier, fragrance, baking soda, yeast food, acidulant, (some of the raw materials include soy)

Currently you can buy Shinshu Apple Kit Kat Minis on Amazon.co.jp

FoodLocal FavoritesMatsuri & MoreNew Year

The Rooster Festival – Tori No Ichi

ToriNoIchi-KumadeVendors

酉の市
Tori No Ichi

When we lived in Tokyo, we really wanted to experience a matsuri or festival — Tori No Ichi ended up being our first.  So on a brisk November afternoon, we set out to the Otori Shrine in Asakusa area within Taito Ward of Tokyo.

When we reached the Tori-no-ichi Fair, a lively and loud shoulder-to-shoulder crowd greets us. The grounds are packed with colorful stalls selling festive “good luck rakes.” Food stands, billowing with steam, assault us with savory and sweet odors. Wandering and slightly confused we couldn’t help but wonder: “What is it all for?”

Making a Wish at Tori No Ichi

What is Tor-No-Ichi?

Torinoichi, Tori No Ichi, and Tori-no-Ichi.

Regardless of how its spelled in English, its true name is 酉の市 and in short, “Tori No Ichi” means “Market of the Rooster” or “Rooster Fair.”

– “Tori” means “The Rooster.” It also means “bird,”  but this specific kanji stems from the Chinese character for the tenth zodiac sign.

– “No” means “of”

– “Ichi” means “market” or “fair.”

Every November on the Day of the Rooster (according to the old Japanese calendar system), over 30 Otori Shrines throughout Japan hold a Tori No Ichi.  Just like the Chinese zodiac animals, Rooster days happen every 12 days, so a Rooster Market usually twice or three times so long as it falls within the month of November.

One of Many Kumade Stalls

The Ritual

Hours before midnight, crowds line up the main gate hundreds long and 4 to 5 people wide consisting of families or business groups. When the clock ticks over, the shrine announces the opening with a loud drum.  Inside the shrine, priests say prayers and opening rights, all of which is quick and takes no more than 15 minutes. As monks ring the bell, additional priests clade in white pray over the crowd for good luck and good health. All of this is mostly going unseen by the vast crowds outside, only to be witnessed by attendants inside and glimpsed by those just beyond the shrine thresholds.

Just outside the shrine itself is obscured by a wall of lit paper lanterns, each inscribed with the names and businesses of those who donated to the shrine. The air is so thick with incense supposedly warding off any bad spirits and misfortune. The deep rumbling of drums seems to cut through the din of crowds, announcing the start of Tori No Ichi.

Numerous Lanterns Obscure the Shrine

Lengthy lines of people pass under the tori gate, while two shrine officiants wave a purifying Ōnusa (a kind of wand with paper streamers) over them. When worshipers reach the front of the shrine, they throw their coins in the collection box, ring the bell, and then pray for good fortune. They then move off to the side either to buy additional fortunes or look for a “kumade” or rake to buy.

Kumade – Rake Talismans of Good Luck

After making our offering at the shrine, we move off to ogle at decorative rakes or kumade. The kiosks come big and small, each packed to the brim with rakes of all sizes and of various degrees of ornateness.

Business owners big and small especially make it a point to attend Tori No Ichi every year to help their businesses “rake in” wealth and good fortune. At a large shrine, such as the Otori Shrine in Asakusa, there are over 150 kumade vendors, each offering their special designs on a lucky bamboo rakes

Kumade brimming with Good Luck Decorations

A kumade talisman is made of a base bamboo rake, very much like the kind you use to sweep the leaves off lawns. Many are decorated with a chubby-cheeked female mask, which is in the likeness of Otafuku, the Goddess of Mirth. Other decorative good luck charms and symbols of wealth include:

Maneki Neko – Beckoning Cat, usually a gold-colored with the left paw raised and a gold coin in the right. This is in the hope to bring in more customers while wishing for wealth and prosperity.

Daruma Doll – A hollow, round, Japanese traditional doll modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen tradition of Buddhism. Daruma is a talisman seen as a symbol of perseverance and good luck.

Sho Chiku Bai or “Three Friends of Winter” – Pine, bamboo, and plum blossom. These three symbols represent steadfast longevity (pine), vigorous perseverance (bamboo), and resilience (plum).

Tai or “Sea Bream” – Tai (鯛) is the same phonetics as the Tai as used in “omedetai” which means congratulations, or happy.

Crane and Turtle – Both animals are considered symbols of longevity. There is a Japanese saying, “‘tsuru sen-nen, kami man-nen”, which means “the crane lives 1,000 years, the turtle 10,000”

Shichi Fukujin or “Seven Lucky Gods” – many anime fans will recognize who the seven lucky gods, but in Japan, they important figures in Buddhism often invoked for good luck and fortune.

Kazari Goma with Reverse “Horse” Character – A large decorative wooden plaque in the shape of a shogi piece. If found on a rake, the kazari goma will have the kanji Hidari Uma (The Left Facing Horse). So instead of reading “Uma” for “horse” it would be said as “Ma-u” which means dance. Traditionally, a dance was performed for celebrations, and thus it became synonymous with good luck.

Watching a sale of a rake for the first time is a treat in itself. The buyer and seller engage in a passionate mock haggle battle over a selected rake, going back and forth until a price is settled. After the show is done, the buyer pays the original price. She then refuses any change given by the seller, all while saying “This is a gift for you.”

Buyers who follow this traditional faux haggling ceremony will be treated by a three-fold clapping chant by the rake vendor owner and staff over the rake itself – as if pouring good luck into it by sheer will. This chant and rhythmic clapping can be heard in threes everywhere in the kumade vendor area:

“ヨッ!ソーレソーレソーレッ!”
“Yooo! Sore! Sore! Sore!”

Congratulations! Once the clapping chant is complete, the buyer takes the luck infused and often oversized amulet to their business to put on display.

The Spirited Luck-Infusing Kumade Chant

History of the Festival of the Rooster

Three hundred years ago, when Tokyo was known as Edo, the first Tori No Ichi was held in a hamlet called Hanamata-mura, which is now known as Hanahata-chō, Adachi-ku, Tokyo by. Farmers and Ujiko (worshipers) would gather and hold a thanksgiving festival to the local diety, Ōtori Daimyōjin. Families would offer roosters or other kinds of live birds to the shrine, then hold a market to sell their goods and produce. Worshipers would then set the birds free the next day in front of Asakusa’s Kannondō temple, now known as Senso-ji temple.

Secondary shrine for prayer

Yatai – The Food Stalls

As per tradition, shrines that celebrate Tori No Ichi would offer space to merchants and allow them to hold a market. Today that takes place in the form of Yatai or “food stalls.”  It just wouldn’t be a Matsuri or “festival” without food stalls, and a large festival like Asakusa’s Tori No Ichi will have hundreds of Yatai.

Sig Eating Meat on a Stick
Sig Eating Meat on a Stick from a Yatai

There are tons of Matsuri foods and it merits its own blog post of its own, but three treats are worth mentioning here because they are specific to the Tori No Ichi festival.

Kashira no Imo (頭の芋) – Literally means “head of taro” and is usually steamed. Worshipers ate its corm in the hope that they would become a leader or “head” of a prosperous business.

Kogane Mochi (黄金もち) – “Golden Rice Cake” usually made with Japanese millet, which gives it a gold color. This Edo period sweet was said to help bring in wealth but has gone out of style since then. Today they sell Kiri-Zansho (切山椒) in its place.

Kiri-Zansho (切山椒) – “Cut Pepper Rice Candy” A chewy rice candy made from a mixture of sugar, powdered Japanese Sansho pepper, and rice flour. According to the ladies at the stand, eating Japanese Sansho Pepper will help prevent catching a cold. The recipe is below.

An Old Tokyo Festival Worth Celebrating

Even though the first Tori No Ichi of the November is considered auspicious, it is always held a second time, and sometimes a third, later in the month. Regardless of when you go, this festival is a fantastic way to dive deep into Japanese culture, while wishing for good luck and maybe a rake of fortune to bring home!

Kiri-Zansho (切山椒) Recipe

  • 600g Glutinous short-grain Japanese rice flour
  • 250g Unrefined dark brown sugar
  • 250g Light brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons Japanese Sansho Fine-Ground Pepper
  • ½ teaspoon Salt
  • 3 cups Water

Hardware

  • Steamer
  • Sautee pan
  • Mixing Bowl
  • Mixing Spoon
  • Directions

Directions

1. Over medium heat, mix salt, sugar, and pepper in a pan in water until sugar is fully dissolved. When the sugar has melted into a dark syrup turn off the heat, let it cool down until it’s safe to touch.

2. Add the glutinous rice flour to the sugar syrup and knead well. The mixture will become stiff, but still pliable.

3. Flatten the flour-sugar ball to about 1 to 2 cm thick and such that it fits into the steamer. Place into a paper-lined steamer and steam for about 15 minutes.

4. Remove from steamer and let cool. Then sprinkle with potato starch and cut it into strips. Make sure to coat strips in starch such that the candies don’t stick to each other. The candy should be soft, but a bit firmer than mochi.

Kiri-Zansho or Cut Pepper Mochi Rice Candy

23 WardsBunkyoParks & GardensViewing Spots

Rikugien Garden

Rikugien-Fall-NightRikugien Fall Illumination

六義園
Rikugi-en

  • Address: 6 Chome-16-3 Honkomagome, Bunkyo City, Tokyo 113-0021
  • Nearest Station: Komagome Station
  • Website: https://www.tokyo-park.or.jp/teien/en/rikugien/
  • Hours: 9:00 – 16:00
  • Price: ¥300

Rikugien is one of those places where art mimics art. When the noble samurai Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu founded this garden some 300 plus years ago, he was inspired by classical Waka poetry and sought to give it shape within earth, stone, water, and plant. In fact, the word Rikugi refers to the “Six Forms of Waka Poetry” while en means garden. If you’re lucky to find a full English translation of Kokin Wakashu (古今和歌集) perhaps you gain some insight into Yanagisawa’s own ascetics – seeing as he was inspired by this literature published by an Emperor some 800 years before the Edo period samurai himself!

Today Rikugien is open to the public and is one of Tokyo’s highly renowned gardens in addition to being designated as a “special place of scenic beauty” by the Japanese government.

When to Go

Spring – Weeping Cherry Blossom Viewing

From mid-March to early April, Rikugien lights up its prodigious weeping cherry tree (also known as the Shidarezakura) for an annual illumination viewing. The Shidarezakura is truly a massive tree and measures at 15m high and 20m wide. During the day, the tree looks like a soft pink cloud, while at night the lights create an illusion of cascading blossoms.

Rikugien Cherry Blossom Illumination
Rikugien Cherry Blossom Illumination at Night

Summer – Hydrangeas

Japan has a very long history with the Ajisai (紫陽花) or Hydrangea. It was first cultivated in Japan. There is even a tea called ama-cha (甘茶 “sweet tea”) made from the Hydrangea serrata, a specific breed whose leaves contain an ingredient which develops a sweet taste. A legend has it that on the day Buddha was born, nine dragons poured Amrita over him. So every April 8th, during the Buddha’s birthday ceremony, monks will substitute ama-cha for Amrita and pour the tea over a statue of Buddha.

Sitting next to Rikugien’s hydrangea trellis while enjoying a cup of ama-cha is the perfect way to enjoy the verdant green of high summer. Followed by a stop at the tea house to enjoy wagashi in the shape of hydrangea,

Hydrangeas
Hydrangeas symbolize Gratitude in Japanese culture

Autumn – Fall Foliage Illuminations

From mid-November to December, Rikugien holds its annual Autumn Evening Illumination. As the lights turn on at sunset, the central pond sparkles with the vibrant colors of fall as the water reflects the image of the trees and their foliage. Taking a stroll through the garden circuit will guide you through over 400 maple trees and all their glorious hues of vivid red, deep orange, or flashy yellow.

Rikugien Fall Illumination
Rikugien Fall Illumination

Rikugien Highlights

Tsutsuji-chaya – This Meiji era tea house was built using azalea wood. It avoided damage during World War II and is a style rarely seen today. This is one of the best spots to sit and enjoy the fall foliage of Rikugien.

Togetsukyo – Not to be mistaken for the one in Kyoto, this bridge was created from two large slabs of rock linking a man-made island in the middle of the lake. It was named after the Waka Poem: “Shadow of the moon moving at night and cry of a crane in the mash of reed in the sore of Waka, makes me feel so lonely.”

Takimi-chaya – Takimi means “waterfall viewing” and next to this small tea house, you can enjoy the sounds of cascading water.

Horaijima – In Japanese and Chinese legends “Horaijima” is an island inhabited by immortals and represents a kind of paradise. Its often a feature found in Japanese gardens and is intended to be watched and pondered from a distance. So, find a bench near the pond shore and meditate upon this particular Horaijima.

Fukiage Chaya – Inside the gardens is a tea house that serves tea and sweet wagashi in shapes that reflect the season. In summer, the matcha will be iced and the wagashi in the shape of a hydrangea. In fall, the wagashi will be a maple leaf, while in spring they will offer a sakura shaped confection

Matcha and Wagashi
Matcha and Fall Wagashi

A Garden for Meditation & Art

During the few times I visited Rikugien, it was crowded with people. I have a feeling that if I had a moment of solitude, it would have been easier to enjoy the gardens and to meditate on the original creator’s intention behind each vista and vignette. I also wish I had access to the poems associated with Rikugien. Regardless of these minor regrets, I felt that Rikugien represents a single facet of Japanese art and literature – all in a single perfectly groomed floriferous edifice – and that alone makes it worth visiting.

Shidarezakura
Shidarezakura – the Willow Cherry Tree
23 WardsChuoParks & Gardens

Hamarikyu Gardens

Hamarikyu GardensHamarikyu Gardens

浜離宮恩賜庭園
Hama-rikyū Onshi Teien

  • Address: 1-1 Hamarikyūteien, Chuo City, Tōkyō-to 104-0046
  • Nearest Stations: Shiodome Station, Tsukijishijo Station
  • Hours: 9:00 to 17:00
  • Price: ¥300

Between skyscrapers and the mouth of Sumida River lies an Edo period estate now turned into a public garden. For 365 plus years, the Hamarikyu Gardens has seen many visitors, from noble daimyos and powerful shoguns to the modern-day office workers and curious tourists.

This coastal garden intentionally draws water from the sea to fill its moats and ponds. Before the modern highways and skyrises, canals connected this feudal estate with Edo Castle. During the Meiji Era,  Hamarikyu served as a detached garden for the imperial family.

Although many of the original buildings were destroyed during World War II, the garden was restored and replicas rebuilt just for the public to enjoy.

When to Go

Spring Flowers

March 20th marks the first day of spring. For Hamarikyu Gardens, this is the time when about 300,000 rapeseed (canola) blossoms carpet the flower fields in hues of gold. Then in early April, the garden is painted in dreamy soft shades of pink thanks to the hundred or so cherry trees.

Rapeseed (canola) blossoms

Summer Arts

In August, the Hamarikyu Oedo Cultural Arts Festival celebrates high summer with traditional Edo-era art right next to pop-culture exhibits. What better way to fully appreciate Tokyo then to dance the traditional summer Bon Odori dance to beats spun by a modern DJ.

Matcha and seasonal Wagashi

Autumn Colors & Tea

In September, the Hamarikyu flower fields that were once colored yellow by the spring blossoms of the canola plant, are now dressed in the pink, white, and purple of cosmos flowers.

In October, the garden becomes a host of the Tokyo Grand Tea Party, a celebration of the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony on a large scale. Participants can attend tea ceremonies held in buildings at the Hamarikyu Gardens and Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, and open-air ceremonies held under the autumn sky.

In November is when Tokyo’s autumn color really begins to show, and Hamarikyu Gardens is no exception.  Though it may not be the best that Tokyo has to offer, it still offers a serene landscape for everyone to enjoy.

Cosmos at Hamarikyu

Winter Lights & New Year’s Falcons

The top of the garden’s hill Shinhi-no-Kuchiyama offers a unique view of Tokyo Bay and Rainbow Bridge. As the sun sets early in the winter, you may be able to see the bridge’s special winter rainbow illumination (Dec to Jan). Also, Nearby Caretta Shiodome holds an annual Winter Illuminations from November through February.

On January 2nd and 3rd, Hamarikyu annually hosts a New year’s celebration.  Weather permitting, falcon demonstrations are held right on the falconry field that once belonging to the Tokugawa shogun. In other parts of the park, Edo period food and drink is available right alongside traditional New Year’s games.

Falcon Demonstration at Hamarikyu

Hamarikyu Garden Highlights

Nakajima no Ochaya – On an island in the middle of the pond is Nakajima Teahouse. Here you can sip a cup of matcha and nibble a traditional Japanese sweet for ¥500. But drinking in the scenery as shoguns and imperials have done for centuries before you is nearly priceless.

Nakajima no Ochaya

Audio Self-Tour or Group Tour – the gardens offer both audio tours and group tours both free of charge. This is a great way to learn more about the park. They offer audio tours in English, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

300-year-old Pine Tree – This pine was planted by Ienobu Tokugawa, the 6th shogun to commemorate the garden as the detached residence of the Tokugawa. Give pause when you realized that this tree is nearly 60 years older than the United States is as a country.

Peony Garden – Over 60 types of Peonies can be found in Hamarikyu. From Mid-April to Mid-May, you can enjoy a plethora of color in the form of big lacy blooms.

One of many Peonies to enjoy at the garden

Shioiri-no-ike – This seawater pond is the last of its kind in Tokyo, the other historic ponds were consumed by skyrises and highways. Fed by Tokyo Bay, it draws water from the sea through a sluice gate. Look carefully and you may be able to spot some seawater fish such as mullet, sea bass, gobies, and eels

Waterbus Landing – Taking the morning Tokyo Waterbus is a fantastic way to start out a tour of Hamarikyu Garden. The Sumida River Line runs from Asakusa to Hamarikyu and takes 35 minutes for ¥1040. There are usually 1-2 boats per hour – be sure to check which boat goes were since there are several routes. The dock at Hamarikyu is located within the garden’s paid grounds, and admission to the garden is included in the price of the boat ticket.  

Note that the boat from Asakusa to Hamarikyu Garden is one way only and there is no direct return service. You would have to take the boat to Hinode Pier, then transfer to Odaiba and take the Asakusa-Odaiba Direct Line back to Asakusa.

Hotaluna – Tokyo Waterbus

Quintessential Tokyo

Hamarikyu Gardens is an ideal representative of nearly four centuries worth Japanese garden culture and history. If you’re here on a layover or a weeklong vacation, this garden is certainly my top pick of places to first visit once landing in Tokyo.



Try some Cherry blossom viewing at Hamarikyu in the Spring
View of Hamarikyu from Shiodome Building
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Tokyo Skytree

Tokyo Skytree DayTokyo Skytree Day

東京スカイツリー
Tōkyō Sukaitsurī

When to Go

If you are a tourist visiting Japan, I would suggest checking the weather and then buying tickets online a day or more before you go. Shop for the best prices because they will be different based on when and who you buy them from. Try to book for a weekday rather than weekends or during Japanese holidays if don’t like crowds. Autumn and Winter mornings are a splendid time for clearer views.

How Much?

The Tokyo Skytree view and “experience” does come at a hefty price and is by far one of the most expensive tourist spots in Tokyo.  To make things worse, it comes with a confusing price system.  But in short, make reservations and buy your tickets online if you want to save money.

If you go to Google maps and search for Tokyo Skytree, you’ll be given the option to buy tickets online via GooglePay portal, just click on the “Buy Tickets” button. The last time I looked prices were ¥2,700 each for adults for access to both the Tembo Deck (350m) and Tembo Galleria (450m). ¥1,800 if you just want to go to the Tembo Deck (350m). This is a pretty good deal especially compared to buying them in-person which is almost twice as much – and potentially more if you end up going on a weekend or holiday.  Other sites that offer decent prices are Viator.com and Voyagin.com.

View from Sumida Park
View from Sumida Park

First & Fourth Floors

Before heading up to claim your tickets, take a quick stop on the first floor. There’s a large digital picture scroll of Sumida River worthy of a quick glance. For you civil engineering & architecture buffs, there’s a window where you can see part of the super thick steel framework that supports the 634-meter (2080 feet) Tokyo Skytree.

Head to the fourth floor to claim or buy your tickets. If you’re really into modern art, there’s a nice display of Tokyo Skytree renditions in the form of several mediums and interpretations by several artists. Otherwise, head for the main entrance for online-purchased reserved tickets. For same-day tickets, head to the North & West entrances and follow the signs. There are also storage lockers for restricted items and large luggage. Yes, they will check your bags at security before they let you into the elevator.

Tokyo Skytree Night
Tokyo Skytree Night

Floor 350 and the Tembo Deck

The elevator ride up Tokyo Skytree is super-fast.  The maximum speed is 600m per minute or roughly 22 miles per hour, which did cause my ears to pop. I found the three HD screens displaying information and an idealized view of Tokyo to be very pretty. A nice touch for the ride up.

I’ll say this upfront, I really like sky views so I’m kind of biased here. Heights don’t really bother me, and I’m easily entertained by most sky decks. I could spend hours looking down trying to identify landmarks and estimate distances. The Tokyo Skytree really delivered on its promise of distant and unobstructed views. I was delighted by how they incorporated technology through multi-lingual touch screen displays equipped with a zoom feature and detailed information on various objects in the Tokyo skyline. Combined with the Tokyo Skytree Panorama Guide on my iPhone, it was easy to discover all the famous places located in the area, both near and far.

For extra fun, I tried out the VR Stations. Intended for inclement weather days, the goggles provide a 360 view outside Tokyo Skytree in Hi-def 3D.

One of the most surprising things I found on the 350th floor of the Tembo Deck was a painted folding screen by the famous Edo Period artist Keisai Kuwagata. Entitled “Edo Hitomezu Byobu” the painting gives a similar view to what can be seen from Tokyo Skytree, except back in the 1800s when Tokyo was called Edo.

Like any good observation deck, there were plenty of photo spots and a souvenir photo service. It costs about ¥1,500 and comes complete with both digital and physical photos decorative display folder. In addition, they’ll even use your own camera or smartphone to take a picture as well.

If you happen to go after 5 pm, projector displays will turn on and play a film right on the top half of the glass. The display roughly covers 255 degrees of the Tembo Deck, which is a rather fun way to watch a film as you walk around.

Tokyo Sky Tree Tembo Deck View
Tokyo Sky Tree Tembo Deck View

Down Floor 345 and Sky Restaurant 634 (Musashi)

The designated path leads you clockwise and downwards via escalators or stairs as you complete the circuit. Much of the views on the 345 floor are the same as the one above it, but here you can enjoy a fusion of Edo and French cuisine at the posh Sky Restaurant 634 (Musashi). Reservations are required. Lunch courses start at roughly ¥6,200 per person, and dinner course at ¥16,000. That’s roughly $60 and $158 respectively. The price reflects the superb quality of food and the above-and-beyond service. If you do decide to treat yourself and that lucky someone, I assure you that you are not just paying for the view.

Following the circuit and down a set of stairs or escalators will lead you to the final level of the Tembo Deck.

Anne at Skytree Tembo Deck
Selfie at Tokyo Skytree Tembo Deck

Floor 340 & the Glass Floor

Frankly, a modern observation deck isn’t complete without a glass floor facing directly down. The area is only 2 × 3 meters, but that’s big enough to take a nice selfie and post it on Instagram. They also offer a souvenir photography service as well. 

There is also the Skytree Café on this floor, but I suggest skipping it since much of what they have to offer is way overpriced for the quality. But if you’re looking to impress your significant other without breaking the bank, then go for that ¥850 ($8) ice cream parfait.

Tokyo Sky Tree View Down
Tokyo Sky Tree View Down

Floors 445 to 450 and the Tembo Galleria

If you bought a combo ticket, you’ll need to head back up to floor 350 to take the elevators up to the 445 floor.

Tembo Galleria is a glass-covered path that starts from the elevators that lead up and around to the 450th floor. At night, it feels kind of like a tunnel of love, with the path lit up in colored lights and the sparkling lights of Tokyo outside. It’s really the perfect place to take your hold hands with a loved one while enjoying the view. At the halfway point, there’s another souvenir photography service if you fancy spending even more money.

At the final floor, there’s an area called Sorakara Point, which marks your altitude at 451.2 meters above the mega-metropolis of Tokyo. To me, it looked like a stage built out of glass and animated LED lights – just a fun area to take photographs.

I know what you’re thinking: an extra ¥900 or so just to walk up a slope. Personally, I think the extra yen is worth it. Especially at night and during the end-of-year illumination season, when everything is decorated with glittering lights for the holidays. Plus, as far as I could tell, there is nothing preventing anyone from walking back down and up again.

Tokyo Skytree Tembo Galleria
Tokyo Skytree Tembo Galleria

Sky Tree Terrace Tours

So, you’ve blown roughly ¥2,700 just to view both the Tembo Deck and Galleria, maybe a few extra on official commemorative photos, souvenirs, and overpriced ice cream. Why not go whole-hog and book a tour at the Terrance for an extra ¥1,700.  Located at 155 meters above the ground, the staff will take you on a guided tour outside to view the Skytree’s structural supports. The tour guides only speak Japanese, but you can get a free audio device giving a similar lecture in English.

The trick to getting into one of these tours is to come on a weekday *before* you pick up or buy your tickets at the counter, and to check and see if the tour is available for that day. If it is, just simply ask to get into one of the time slots.

Tokyo Skytree Reflections
Tokyo Skytree Reflections

Pricy, But Fun.

I think we easily spent over ¥10,000 ($98 USD) Tokyo Skytree including food, souvenirs, and transport. It was also hard to resist some of the cute gatchapon machines scattered around the Skytree and down at the mall. I can see how one could easily spend twice that amount, especially with all the high-class restaurants and boutiques in the area tempting you at every step.  But thankfully, there are plenty of cheap options and a lot of free things to look at too. So no matter what your price range is there’s plenty of fun for everyone at Tokyo Skytree

Tokyo Skytree Illuminations
Tokyo Skytree Illuminations
Sumida River from Tokyo Skytree
Sumida River from Tokyo Skytree
Tokyo Sky Tree Sumida River Night
Tokyo Sky Tree Sumida River Night
Tokyo Skytree
Tokyo Skytree
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Bunkyo Civic Center Observation Lounge

North ward viewNorth ward view

文京シビックセンター展望ラウンジ
Bunkyō shibikkusentā tenbō raunji

The Bunkyo Civic Center Observatory contains views from 130 meters up. With its unique 270-degree semi-circular shape, you can view the Tokyo Skytree at the east, Mt. Tsukuba to the north, and Shinjuku to the west. On a clear winter day, Mt. Fuji will show just behind the Shinjuku skyscrapers. Immediately below the civic center is Tokyo Dome City and the seventeenth-century garden of Koishikawa Korakuen. If you want good photos, use your best zoom lens, which is hopefully a 200mm or better.

The elevators to the observatory deck can get a bit tricky. If you enter from the first floor you first must take the escalators up to the 4th floor, then make your way to the elevators. You then take the elevator up to the 11th floor and then switch elevators which will stop at the 25th floor.  The elevators can get quite congested at around lunchtime and at around 5 pm as folks head out to go home.

If you want a fine meal with your view, make reservations at the Civic Sky Restaurant Chinzanso also on the same floor, but on the southern portion of the building. Lunchtime is from 11:30 to 16:00 and meals cost as little as 1300 yen. Dinner starts at 17:00 and ends at 23:30.

If you’re in the area, I highly recommend visiting Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens, a seventeenth-century garden done in the design of both Chinese and Japanese aesthetics. For more substantial entertainment, go to the Tokyo Dome City for events, amusement rides, matsuri-style foods. Personally, my favorite (although a bit pricy) Tokyo Dome spot is LaQua, a full-service onsen! If you’re looking for something more subdued and free, the University of Tokyo is roughly 20 minutes away by foot and offers a delightful scene of fall colors in November.



Bunkyo Civic Center Building
Bunkyo Civic Center Building
View of Koishikawa Korakuen Garden
View of Koishikawa Korakuen Garden
Bunkyo Civic Center View
Bunkyo Civic Center View
Tokyo Dome City Amusements . . . and Onsen!
Tokyo Dome City Amusements . . . and Onsen!
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Yebisu Garden Place Tower Sky Lounge (Top of Yebisu)

Yebisu Garden Place Sky LoungeYebisu Garden Place Sky Lounge

恵比寿ガーデンプレイスタワースカイラウンジ
Yebisu gādenpureisutawā sukairaunji

Yebisu Garden Place (also called Ebisu Garden Place) is a virtual city of delights located in the Ebisu district of Shibuya. This multi-block complex is ripe with entertainments, fancy retail shops, and gastronomical diversions. And within the shining tower resides a romantic’s visual delight: Yebisu Garden Place Tower Sky Lounge, also known as Top of Yebisu

To find Top of Yebisu, you’ll have to head into Yebisu Garden Place Tower – don’t worry, there are plenty of signs and the elevators are clearly marked. Looking out the halls of the 38th and 39th floors, you’ll get unobstructed views of the Tokyo skyline.  Although it’s not a proper observatory, it does have east-facing windows with views of Minato ward, Roppongi Hills and the iconic Tokyo Tower. Shinjuku and Shibuya can be seen from the northside, while to the west is Mt. Fuji but only on a very clear day.

To make the most of your visit, I suggest visiting during the winter illuminations (November through January), when the grounds are dressed in twinkling splendor while you shop at the annual Christmas Bazaar. If you can’t make it during the holiday season, try attending the Yebisu Marche (Ebisu Marche), a farmer’s market held every Sunday throughout the rest of the year.

Regardless of the season, go for a tour of the Museum of Yebisu Beer or the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum before heading up Ebisu Garden Place Tower for a fantastic meal. For extra fun, stop by Cat Cafe Nyafe Melange for cats and coffee in a trendy setting, right next to Ebisu Station.

BTW: The 38th Floor mostly contains some of the best Japanese restaurants in Tokyo, while the 39th floor has an international selection with cuisines from China, Thailand, and Italy. It’s all delightful really and you can’t go wrong with whatever choice you make.



Yebisu Garden Place Tower
Yebisu Garden Place Tower
Yebisu Garden Tower Sky Lounge View toward the east
Yebisu Garden Tower Sky Lounge View toward the east
Yebisu Garden Square Decorated for the Holidays
Yebisu Garden Square Decorated for the holidays
Yebisu Garden Place in Mid Spring
Yebisu Garden Place in Mid Spring
Nyafe melange
Take a Cat Break at Nyafe melange Cafe