Shinjuku Gyoen (新宿御苑) in winter

Of all the parks and gardens in Tokyo, Shinjuku Gyoen evokes to me the most Central Park in Manhattan.  It’s not the size (it is less than one fifth of Central Park) but rather how the park is completely encased by the maddest section of the city yet feels peacefully detached from it.  Minutes after you enter either through the Shinjuku or Okido gate, the wide and flat plane is laid out and you are instantly in a different world.  Yet the juxtaposition of skyscrapers in the background, particularly that monstrosity NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building, is a reminder that the hustle and bustle is never too far away.

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Maple tree boulevard in French Formal Garden

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NTT Docomo Yoyogi towers over the park

As you  pass through the vast French Formal Garden and English Landscape Garden, meander cross the duck ponds and delve deeper into the smaller and denser sections the park, the city starts to fade away.  Looking out to the Japanese Garden from Taiwan Pavilion and sitting lazily watching the warm afternoon sun idle by, now I own this park all to myself.  I visited in mid-Jan, three days after a rare snowstorm in Tokyo, and it looked and and felt like early fall when the pines are blue enough and the grass softly tanned.

Shinjuku Gyoen was constructed on the site of a private mansion belonging to an Edo era feudal lord.  It was first completed as an imperial garden in 1906 and then was opened to the public as a national garden after the Second World War.

Y200 entrance fee (this less than $2 fee is in fact what keeps this park rather sparse, so please oblige), open everyday except Monday, best to enter and exit through either Okido or Shinjuku gates and walk the entire park.  Shinjuku gate  is 5min walk from Shinjuku Sanchome station, Okido gate is 10min walk from Shinjuku Gyoenmae Station.

Hamarikyu Gardens (浜離宮庭園) of Shinbashi

There’s the vast gardens of Imperial Palace and bustle of joggers and dance groups in Meji Jingu/Yoyogi Park but Hamarikyu Gardens hold its own with its classic Japanese aesthetics and tranquility. Even on the most pleasant public holidays, Hamarikyu is sparsely populated and devoid of tourists.  The garden’s placement at the foot of Shinbashi monoliths of sky scrapers  (a special shout out to the noticeably ugly Dentsu building) and on the shores of Tokyo bay give it a uniquely contrasting back and fore-drop and quietly dramatic atmosphere.

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Manicures gardens accentuated by stunted growth of pine trees ooze Edo period style and the two duck hunting ponds add to the charm.  The main pond was designed to draw in sea water from Tokyo Bay and change appearance as the tide ebbs and flows.  Lock gates open and close according to the water levels of Tokyo Bay to adjust the rise and fall of water in the pond.  Salt water fish (mullets, sea bass, goby and eel) abound in the pond.

Nakajima Ocha-ya (Nakajima tea house) floating on one of the duck ponds serves up matcha paired with Japanese sweets and Matcha here is served with cappuccino-like foam.  It must be the sifting and whisking… and the correct matcha to water ratio.  Absolute beauty.

Hamarikyu originates from the 17th century Tokugawa Shogunate private residence. It served as the outer fort for Edo Castle with tidal pond of sea water drawn from Tokyo Bay and two duck hunting grounds.  After the Meiji Restoration the garden became a Detached Palace for the Imperial family and in 1945 the Imperial family gave the garden to the City of Tokyo to be open to the public.

Y300 entrance fee, 10 minutes walk from Shinbashi St. (JR, Ginza & Asakusa Line), Open Everyday

Sampling the best of Korean table at Jung Gang Won (정강원 한국 전통음식 체험관)

Perched in a quiet valley in the village of Jangpyeong in between Yongpyong and Pheonix Park (roughly 30min west of Yongpyong and 10min east of Pheonix) is 정강원 한국 전통음식 체험관 (Jung Gang Won Korean Traditional Food Experience Center).  It offers traditional home stay, cooking classes and a small tour dedicated the the art of ‘Korean fermentation’ but it’s main draw is the restaurant which offers traditional course meal.  As mentioned in my other blog posts, traditional Korean ‘course meal’ is a somewhat a misnomer as Korean tradition is to serve all dishes in one serving for maximum visual impact of plentifulness. Nevertheless Jung Gang Won (and many other modern Korean restaurants) do serve a set meal in courses.  What’s described here is their 전통한정식 (juntong hanjungshik, traditional Korean course meal) priced 35,000 per person, the hallmark of Jung Gang Won boasting various Korean cooking techniques and all the refined presentation.

Jo Jung Gang, proprietor, opened Jung Gang Won on this site in 1999 and  its origins can be traced back to Dongchon  in Seoul.  Dongchon had its reputation in its heyday as the presidential canteen frequented by the two Kims.  Mr. Jo is an advocate of fermentation, traditional and ubiquitous technique used in Korean cuisine to add depth to flavors and lengthen the lifespan of food in the days when refrigeration was poor. The cooking school and the museum arms are dedicated to this heritage and art of fermentation in various types of food preparation.

The meal kicks off with a couple of appetizer plates of cold cuts and vegetable strips in buckwheat wraps and salad-like dish consisting roots and nuts. Main course includes 떡갈비 (duk galbi, beef patty), 된장찌개 (deonjang chigae, spicy miso soup), 굴비 (gulbi, grilled) and 반찬 (banchan, side dishes).  Appetizers and banchan (side dishes) vary by season.  For those uninitiated the menu includes a small number of a la carte dishes such as bibimbap.

산채정식 (sanchae jeongshik, mountain vegetables course meal)

산채정식 (sanchae jeongshik) is the dining experience you can’t miss when in Pyeongchang area. Mountain ranges in the area boast endless variety of wild vegetables.  They are leaves, sprouts, fern, roots of all kind which are foraged, simmered, cured (mostly in soy sauce and vinegar but also in red chili paste occasionally) and then stored in low temperature until serving.  Low temperature controlled storage is the mainstay of traditional Korean cuisine which adds depth to natural flavors and allows convenient long term storage, particularly in winter when there is little to forage (!). At least a dozen variety of vegetable dishes in small portions are served with 된장찌개 (deonjang chigae, spicy miso soup) and house specialty tofu. Although 정식 (jeongshik) refers to a course meal, all courses in traditional Korean meal is served together, to be shared by the group.  Often 산채정식 is the only meal that’s is served in restaurants as their specialty and is priced simply per person.

부일식당 (Buil shikdang) is an utterly unassuming home dining experience. There isn’t much of an entrance and you walk through the storage cum alley into the dining rooms (there’s two) where there is floor seating only. Price is cheap (8,000 per person) but this home-style diner serves up flawless basics of a dozen wild vegetable dishes.

74-2 Hajinbu-ri, Jinbu-myeon, Pyeongchang-gun, Kangwon, South Korea

서울식당 (Seoul shikdang), despite its out-of-place and non-descriptive name, is a rather refined affair with the main table dining area in addition to traditional floor dining option, all decked with fir tree tables ubiquitous in the area. Highlight of their sanchae set meal is 더덕 (deodeok, bellflower roots), tossed in 고추장 (gochujang, red pepper paste), sesame oil and various condiments. For those seeking an alternative from 산채, they serve 버섯전골 (beoseot jeongol, mushroom  and tofu hot pot). 18,000 per person for 산채정식 and 45,000 for 버섯전골 (serves 3-4).

109-9 Ganpyeong-ri, Jinbu-myeon, Pyeongchang-gun, Kangwon, South Korea