Darkness settles after eight,
Shifting the oak leaves into
The evening star is out,
And below it, a star-like airplane
Travels east, beyond the tips
Of distant pines and palms.
I wonder what time it is in Japan,
What time it is in Jerusalem.
I hear the voices of children
Playing in the cul-de-sac,
And the gloaming breeze has not yet come,
But a scent, roses and lilies mingling with moss
In the stillness, whispers,
“Summer has returned.”
I have been blogging now for seven years, and the title of my monthly blog is “Tea and Travels.” The corona virus brought my travel adventures to a complete stop during two of those years, but I am always happy to write about Afternoon Tea and to celebrate the seasons as they come and go, guiding the little details of our daily lives.
This year, after a four-year delay, our dream of returning to Japan came true at last. My husband Wayne grew up in Japan, and I first visited Japan many years ago when I took our son David and Wayne’s sister Joyce to Japan when they were teenagers on a summer tour that included climbing Mt. Fuji.
We did not climb Mt. Fuji this spring, but we climbed a lot of stairs and winding paths on this most recent trip to Japan, visiting temples, shrines, castles, and navigating our way through countless train stations and hilly gardens. Though we traveled on planes, boats and trains, Japan is still best experienced by simply walking.
In every corner of Japan, the seasons of the year are evident at every glance, even in huge cities filled with gray skyscrapers, like Tokyo, where I wrote this haiku in a lovely old garden, right in the middle of the city. Our trip was planned for late spring moving into summer, and of course we were hoping to see Japan’s famous cherry blossoms. But as it turned out, climate change affects cherry blossoms along with everything else, and Japan’s cherry trees bloomed a week early and had completely disappeared by the time we arrived.
The joy of travel is in embracing the unexpected and celebrating every beautiful moment we meet. Let’s start in Tokyo, Japan’s most famous and largest city. We were fortunate to stay in the Shangri-La Hotel, one of the most beautiful hotels in the world. Like many of Japan’s treasures, it is unobtrusively hidden away with no fancy exterior giving the slightest hint of the elegance within. The Shangri-La Hotel sits on the twenty-fourth floor of a tall, sleek and modern business tower adjacent to the massive Tokyo Train Station.
The ginkgo tree, one of the longest-living tree species on earth, is the symbol for the city of Tokyo. It is viewed throughout Asia as a sacred tree whose presence will bring positive energy of all kinds, including peace, hope, love, resilience, good health and long life. Historically, the ginkgo tree has been used for medicinal purposes and has appeared in art and literature as an icon for these many positive aspects. Ginkgo trees grow to enormous sizes, and their lovely green fan-shaped leaves turn a glorious golden color in the autumn. They can live for three thousand years. The streets of Tokyo are lined with ginkgo trees, and it is not surprising that the Shangri-La Hotel, famous for its sparkling chandeliers, had some of them designed as luminous ginkgo leaves.
Tokyo is an enormous city of more than thirteen million people, and its wider metropolitan area, the largest in the world, includes thirty-seven million people. Tokyo has evolved from an obscure fishing village called Edo, to the headquarters of the Tokugawa Shogunate, from which the Samurai clans controlled the entire country for seven hundred years, to the modern metropolis it is today, the location of Japan’s, central government, its economic powerhouse, and the home of the Emperor of Japan. The current Emperor Naruhito and his family reside in the Imperial Palace, formerly the location of Edo Castle, in the center of Tokyo, surrounded by a moat and a huge protective stone wall. The Japanese Monarchy is among the oldest in the world, dating back to around the Third Century of the Current Era.
The Imperial Palace East Gardens
The Meiji Shrine
These three vibrant pillars of history and beauty are not tourist traps. They are part of Tokyo’s daily life, reflecting Japan’s reverence for the past and its continuing commitment to decorum, elegance and artistic excellence. And all are free to the public.
The Imperial Palace is not open to the public. As I mentioned, it is the home of the current Emperor of Japan and his family, and it is protected by ancient stone walls and a moat surrounded by graceful and elegant ginkgo trees. However, the Imperial Palace East Garden is open to anyone who wants to visit. Guests are welcome to walk in or out with or without a guide to show them the glories of this exquisite example of Japanese garden design. Depending on the season of the year, guests will be enchanted by cherry blossoms, plum blossoms, purple iris, blue hydrangeas, bamboo, roses and many other plants, including trees and orchards.
The Imperial Palace East Garden is also an historical gem. It is built around the ruins of old Edo Castle, established by the Tokugawa Shoguns in the 1600s. While only the stones from the castle’s foundation remain, guests can view original moats, entrance gates and guard towers, now surrounded by glorious trees and flowers.
The Meiji Shrine, also in central Tokyo, appears to be an ancient old-growth forest with its expansive self-sustaining canopy of broad-leafed evergreens including camphor, oak, pines and other conifers surrounding this enormous complex of gardens and pathways, impressive wooden torii gates and its majestic central shrine. In fact, the Meiji Shrine is only a little more than one hundred years old. It was created in 1920 to honor Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken, who died in 1912 and 1914. The Meiji Restoration took place in 1868 and brought about a transforming change in Japanese life and culture. Emperor Meiji was the central figure in this historic revival, ending feudalism and centuries of Samurai rule along with Japan’s policy of isolationism. When Emperor Meiji returned to Tokyo, and built the new Imperial Palace, he also opened the country up to trade, travel, education, economic expansion and industrialization. The people of Tokyo wanted to honor him by creating a sacred forest in the ancient Shinto tradition as Japan made its transition into the modern world.
Today, this Shinto Shrine is a vibrant place of beauty and serenity where visitors and the general public are welcome to offer daily prayers. Weddings often take place at the Meiji Shrine, and parents brings their babies there for blessings for a long and happy life. The Imperial Palace East Garden and the Meiji Shrine are both conveniently located near train stations, making them easily available to all of Tokyo’s citizens and visitors.
Ueno Park is another of Tokyo’s treasures. Like the Imperial Palace Gardens and the Meiji Shrine, Ueno Park is a deep, green and fragrant magic forest in the midst of one of the most densely populated cities on Earth. Ueno Park has its own train station, as it is even more diverse in the delights it offers. There is something for everyone at Ueno Park. Established in 1873, shortly after the Meiji Restoration, it is one of the oldest parks in Japan. The park’s central showcase, the Tokyo National Museum, was built in 1872 at a time when the Japanese were discovering the glories of European and American museums, libraries, public squares and concert halls. Ueno Park has all of these, elegantly constructed and arranged among 8,800 trees, including 800 cherry trees, which fill the park with delicate blossoms every spring. The park is also a sanctuary for wildlife, as ducks, egrets and cormorants flock to Shinobazu Pond, graced with lotus beds and marshlands, and other birds nest in the tree canopy. For children and families, Ueno Park Zoo is a journey of discovery repeated many times through a life span and from generation to generation.
Tokyo is filled with hidden gems in addition to the three famous destinations I have described. Visitors who want to embark on self-directed treasure hunts might want to seek out the Rikugien Gardens, built for a Samurai lord in 1702, with its tea house, constructed of acacia wood, still standing, or the famous old Koganji Temple (also called Togenuki-Jizo,) an active Buddhist temple, where Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, is still revered for her healing powers. The Namiyoke Inari Shinto shrine near the old Tsukiji Fish Market is a charming little spot dedicated to protecting this waterfront neighborhood from high waves and tsunamis. The community surrounding this shrine hosts a colorful street festival each year in June, and this little shrine continues to be a quiet place where locals can stop by and offer their daily prayers.
All of these places, famous or secluded, share the same Japanese vision of reality, the same aesthetic values, and the same reverence for nature as a sacred and eternal element in which human beings are humble participants, not rulers. All of these are quiet places, not places of loud, commercial entertainment, dominance and competition, but refuges of beauty, silence, learning and serenity. Wayne and I are grateful for the time we spent in this great city, and as a parting gift to my readers who share my love for Afternoon Tea, I am happy to share Wayne’s photos of the tea experience we enjoyed on our first day in Tokyo. It took place at the elegant, serene and quiet Shangri-La Hotel, and it happened that they were serving a matcha (powdered green tea)-themed tea, presented on elegant, western-style porcelain, like an English Afternoon Tea. This memorable blending of east and west featured the three traditional courses of savories, scones and sweets, but most of the delicate food items being served were Japanese, and in each course at least one item included matcha as a central ingredient. We enjoyed Matcha Scones, tea sandwiches on Matcha Bread, and an imaginative dessert called “Matcha Cappuccino,” actually a matcha flavored mousse with foam on top.
Finally, since we are still reflecting on our magical respite in Tokyo, and I am hoping next month to introduce you to Osaka and the ancient cities of Nara and Kyoto, it is my pleasure to share with you another east-west treat from the Japanese New Year’s Afternoon Tea from the calendar section of the Tea Book on this website.
Like the Black Sesame Seed Shortbread Cookies, these Green Tea Madeleines are not Japanese. However, they do reflect the Japanese passion for all things French, from the Impressionist Painters to fine French pastries. And matcha (powdered green tea) has been used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony for centuries. We think these green madeleines will make a visually attractive and very tasty addition to the Japanese New Year’s Buffet.
For the Madeleines:
¼ cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted and cooled, plus more to butter the pans
2/3 cup flour, plus more for dusting the pans
2 teaspoons matcha (Japanese powdered green tea)
2 eggs, at room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
pinch of salt
½ teaspoon vanilla
grated zest of 1 lemon
For the topping:
½ cup powdered sugar
½ teaspoon matcha
Preheat oven to 400° F (after Step 4)
Special equipment: sieve, medium sized bowl, hand held electric mixer, large mixing bowl, rubber spatula, plastic wrap, 2 madeleine pans, wire racks, parchment, decorative serving tray
Makes: 2 dozen madeleines
- Grease 2 madeleine pans with melted butter and dust them with flour, tapping out any excess. Chill the pans in the freezer until ready to bake.
- Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture until combined and no flour is visible. Drizzle the melted butter over the batter, sprinkle the lemon zest over, and carefully fold them into the batter.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 400° F and position two oven racks in the top quarter and middle of the oven. Remove the madeleine pans from the freezer and the batter from the refrigerator.
- Spoon the batter into the prepared pans, filling each mold about three-quarters full. Bake for about 9 minutes, rotating the pans from upper to lower and front to back about halfway through the baking time. Immediately turn the madeleines out onto a wire rack to cool.
- For the topping, sift ½ cup of powdered sugar and ½ teaspoon matcha together into a medium sized bowl. While the madeleines are still warm, place them on a sheet of parchment on a flat surface. Return the powdered sugar and matcha mixture to the sieve and sift it over the warm madeleines. Serve immediately, or place on a decorative serving tray and keep, uncovered, at room temperature, until ready to serve. Cover loosely with plastic wrap if the madeleines need to sit more than 1 hour before serving.