9 May 2018. In the grey early morning I wait outside the hostel in Shirakawa Village. I have a bus to catch. My bags are all packed and I wait with them beside me, vaguely anxious about whether or not my ride to the bus stop will show up on time. Of course it does. This is Japan. People are reliable and punctual.
After my peaceful sojourn in Shirakawa-gō I take the bus back to Kanazawa Station. After a one and a half hour journey I step down from the bus and she is there. I recognise her immediately. Finally I get to meet Mo in person. We have been following each other’s blogs for many years now and meeting in person is as sweet as I could have imagined. Conversation is immediate and easy.
We walk and talk from the bus to the luggage lockers inside the station where I leave all the heaviest baggage. We walk and talk from the station all the way to the famous Kenrokuen Garden. On the way we pass a row of huge trees, perfectly shaped. The branches are propped up with wooden poles to help them bear the weight of the winter snows, and thus retain their perfect shape. It is the Japanese way, this love of, and caring for, nature.
Arriving at the garden we continue to walk and talk until we get to a teahouse by the lake. By now we are both in need of refreshment.
There are many traditional teahouses in Kenrokuen Garden. I probably would not have gone into any of them – I wouldn’t know what to order, or whether they would have something I would want, or if the menu would be only in Japanese, or how to behave properly. Japanese teahouses are so serene and peaceful that I feel like a bumbling foreigner. Sometimes I’m really not a very brave traveller. And besides I was hanging out for a coffee and cookie, but clearly neither was going to be available.
But Mo! Mo has lived in Kanazawa for a couple of years now, teaching English. She knows what to do. So we take our shoes off, enter, and sit on the tatami mat at a table by the window.
Mo looks at the menu, and we decide on matcha green tea. It is served in a bowl and comes with a sweet treat, Japanese-style. The little cake has a kanji stamped into the (pressed rice) mochi on the outside. Or perhaps it is not kanji but a rendering of the Kotojitoro Lantern, one of the emblems of Kenrokuen. The cakes, called daifuku, have sweet red bean paste in the middle. It is all so simple, so perfect, so elegant.
We savour it slowly, gazing out the window at the lake, and talking more, about life, about blogging, about adventures.
Of course I am as refreshed by the tea and red bean cake as I would have been by coffee and a cookie. When we are done we set out to explore the garden, although it is far from Mo’s first visit.
Kenrokuen Garden is considered one of the three most beautiful landscape gardens in Japan together with Mito’s Kairakuen and Okayama’s Korakuen. Kenrokuen, the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle, was founded and extended by the ruling Maeda family over nearly two centuries during the Edo period (1603 – 1868) and is typical of the gardens of the feudal lords of the time. It was opened to the public in 1871.
From the Ishikawa Prefecture website:
According to the ancient Chinese book of gardens, there should be six different sublime qualities to which a garden can aspire. Grouped in their traditional complementary pairs, they are spaciousness and seclusion, artifice and antiquity, water-courses and panoramas. As might be imagined, it is difficult enough to find a garden that is blessed with any three or four of these desirable attributes, let alone five, or even more rarely, all six. Yet that is just the case here, where as the name “Kenroku-en” literally means “garden that combines six characteristics”.
No matter how many characteristics, Kenrokuen has more than enough to delight me. We wander the spacious grounds and in every direction, around every bend there are scenes of perfect beauty and harmony. There are water features,
moss-covered stone lanterns,
gnarled ancient trees lovingly propped up against the snow,
the iconic Kotojitoro Lantern, over two metres tall, and uniquely built with two legs instead of one,
and many hidden secret nooks. We find curved stone bridges, moss-covered rocks, and paths bordered by bamboo fences. Designed as a strolling garden it is an organic combination of nature allowed to run free and careful tending to create perfection. There seems to be hidden beauty everywhere we turn but perhaps the real secret of Kenrokuen is that it was based on the concept that gardening is about consistently creating eternal life. Thus a large pond was created to resemble an ocean, with an island where lived a legendary wizard. The wizard apparently had the secret to perpetual youth. Thus was the craving for eternal life of the feudal lords built right into the garden. They may not have achieved eternal life, but perhaps their garden is on its way.
Just outside the garden’s paid area there is a pedestrian way lined with cherry trees, shops, and restaurants. It’s lunchtime. I suppose if I’d been alone I’d have walked along this street and chosen a restaurant at random, walked shyly in, and made a stab at ordering something. But I’m following Mo. She chooses a restaurant, at random, and we seat ourselves in the back. It’s nothing special: a homey place selling souvenirs at tables in the front. Oh but the meal! Japanese food is from heaven.
I choose chicken ramen but it is so much more than that. I think it is the best ramen I have in Japan, the best ramen I have anywhere ever. It has mushrooms and greens, corn and jellied vegetables, white asparagus, and a broth made in paradise. It is one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had. And the crowning glory is that it has gold flakes sprinkled on top. That gives me pause. Do I really want to ingest metal? Whatever. I dive right in and it’s as if the ramen is swallowing me. I can’t not eat it it’s so good.
And the gold flakes? It is a Kanazawa tradition, and they are of course quite edible.
The production of gold leaf in Kanazawa dates back to the 16th century. Kanazawa had the gold, and the ideal climate for the production of gold leaf. Even today it produces 98% of the gold leaf in Japan. Because gold leaf was thought to contribute to perpetual youth and longevity it was, and still is, used to decorate food. I have no idea what they do to make it edible, but you can buy soft ice cream and other confections with a piece of gold leaf draped over it. Of course it’s also used to decorate many things: from folding screens to Buddhist and Shinto altars to Noh costumes and ceramics.
My only problem with the ramen is that I can’t finish it all and I can’t take it with me. I hate to leave it but I have no choice.
It’s time to go. Mo has a class to teach and I have a train to catch. Thank God I think to ask Mo if she remembers where I’d left my bags. There are hundreds of lockers in Kanazawa Station and I was so busy talking that I didn’t pay attention. I realise I have absolutely no idea where my bags are, but fortunately she is able to point me at least in the right direction.
What a sweet easy time we had. How great to finally meet in person. Blogging has brought me so many online friends, and every now and then the connection can take form in real life. It’s rare, but always good. Thanks Mo.
It’s an easy journey to Kyoto, a little over two hours. For most of the time I gaze out the window at rural Japan flowing by. There are rice fields in every last square inch of available land, right up to the houses, and kitchen gardens anywhere there’s not enough room for a rice field. And it is all a rich glorious shrieking springtime green.
Go check out Mo’s excellent blog A Stranger in Paradise.
Next posts: Six days in Kyoto – shrines and temples, bamboo forests and kimono forests, monkeys, geishas, and markets.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2018.