Words: Ellyse Ng Photography: Ariff Shah Sopian
Wa kei sei jaku – harmony, respect, purity, tranquility. Those are the main principles that guide the ‘Way of Tea’, which is, at its simplest, the ceremonial preparation and presentation of tea. I didn’t dare move as I watched the tea master delicately place a small scoop of green tea powder into a tea bowl, add boiling water, and stir the concoction vigorously with a bamboo whisk. I was observing the intricate process of chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony. The silence in the room was so intense that I didn’t even dare scratch my nose, which was starting to itch.
When the tea master stood up and placed the bowl in front of me, I offered a polite bow and took it in my hands. The bowl was painted with pretty leaves of gold, red and brown.
Remembering my briefing earlier, prior to entering the chashitsu (tea room), I balanced the bowl on my left palm and slowly turned it clockwise with my right hand before taking a timid sip. I then wiped the rim with my thumb the front to face the tea master and gave her a big, satisfied smile.
“You can put the bowl down now,” whispered my translator and friend, Maho-san, who was seated beside me. I breathed a sigh of relief as I put the bowl down as quietly as possible and offered another bow of appreciation to the tea master (who then bowed back).
Maho and I were in Yokohama’s famed Sankeien Garden. With its reputation as one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan, I knew it would have to be my first stop upon arriving in Yokohama, which is just a 40-minute drive from Tokyo.
The traditional Japanese garden was designed by wealthy silk trader Harasankei, a famous personage in Yokohama, known for his generosity and humility. Sankei Hara took it upon himself to preserve several historically important structures from across Japan, such as the Rinshunkaku from Wakayama, the Tomyo-ji Pagoda from Kyoro and the Tenju-in Temple from Kamakura, in his private gardens. Many of them have been designated as Japan’s National Treasures. The garden is now owned by the Sankeien Hoshokai Foundation.
Thus, 17 old but well-preserved buildings have been harmoniously arranged amidst Sankeien Garden’s lotus ponds, flower fields, Japanese bridges, viewing pavilions and abundance of willow trees.
“It is beautiful in every season. I sometimes find myself coming here to think, to be with myself and with nature,” said Maho as we strolled around the garden later, passing photographers on the lookout for nature subjects, aspiring artists with easel and palette, and couples picnicking beneath willow trees.
Autumn was approaching, but the flowers and trees were still in full bloom in the crisp Yokohama air. Upon a small hill across the lake, I spied the renowned three-storied Tomyoji Pagoda, standing tall as if watching over Sankei Hara’s legacy. This was serenity at its best. My head and heart yearned to remain in this moment forever.
“I have to show you the heart of Yokohama!” said Maho, as we headed to Minato Mirai 21, the seaside central business district of Yokohama whose name means ‘harbour of the future’. At first glance, its many high-rises, blazing lights and modish superstructures were mere reflections of a futuristic Tokyo, but the deeper I ventured, the more I realised that Yokohama was a city unlike any other.
Modernisation is present in every corner, yet the town offers so much personality and character without following in Tokyo’s footsteps, eclipsed by its gargantuan shadow. Yokohama’s unique blend of quirkiness and easygoing attitude offers the discerning tourist a unique perspective into Japanese culture.
“We call our locals hamakko. All it takes is three days to be a hamakko” said Maho. Well, that doesn’t take that long, I thought to myself, as we headed towards the Yokohama Landmark Tower. Reputedly, the second tallest building in Yokohama (and fourth in Japan), it is located right in the heart of the Minato Mirai 21 district. Up on the 69th floor observation deck, I was greeted with one of the most beautiful skylines I’d ever seen.
Minato Mirai’s mishmash of neoteric buildings gave way to barren spaces towards the Port of Yokohama. From this vantage point, I could even spot Tokyo’s Sky Tree at the edge of the horizon. Beyond the port was the vast Pacific Ocean speckled with ships and vessels. The sun was starting to set and Minato Mirai’s buildings, including the iconic Yokohama Cosmo Clock 21 Ferris Wheel, lit up as if in celebration of nightfall. Yokohama welcomed this gaijin (foreigner) into its embrace with a glorious display of lights, sights and sounds.
OODLES OF NOODLES
I love cup noodles. I love them so much that I collect them from all over the world. And so, in predictable fashion, I headed for Yokohama’s quirky Nissin Cup Noodle Museum. The minimalistic modern structure of the museum is the brainchild of eclectic Kashiwa Sato, who was the art director for clients such as Uniqlo, Rakuten and 7-Eleven. Maho came along, as my tongue had not picked up the language as quickly as my palate had started to crave Japanese food.
The interactive museum was designed to stir creativity and curiosity whilst providing a rich educational experience through the history of cup noodles and its creator, Momofuku Ando. We headed towards the My CUPNOODLES Factory, where eager participants were each given a noodle cup and a set of colourful paint markers. My humble artistic skills only allowed for a rough sketch of colourful balloons, but Maho was making waves with a portrait sketch. We then chose our own soup flavour, as well as ingredients – spicy with cheese, mushrooms and chicken cubes for me! The last step was to have our cups sealed with lids. Next door, I watched visitors at the Chicken Ramen Factory try their hand at making chicken ramen (noodle soup delicacy), which entailed kneading, spreading and steaming wheat flour.
One of the most interesting points in this museum was the Instant Noodles History Cube, where over 3,000 cup noodle products were displayed in an astounding lineup – taking us from the humble beginnings of instant noodles to its huge presence in the market today. My favourite part, however, was the Noodles Bazaar, where noodle culture from all corners of the world was introduced in an Asian night market setting. I ordered an Indonesian mie goreng (fried noodles) and Maho opted for Kazakhstan’s lagman (an Uzbek noodle dish). This really was noodle heaven!
KONNICHIWA OLD TOKYO!
When I craved ramen, Maho brought me to her favourite spot in Shin-Yokohama, southwest of Yokohama city. Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum is the world’s first food-themed amusement park. Don’t expect rides, amusing shows or, the usual museum displays. This is a museum like no other.
Ramen is such an important dish in Japan that an entire museum has been dedicated to gathering the world’s ramen connoisseurs to enjoy this great dish! At the basement of the museum, I was transported back in time to Old Tokyo. The setting of the museum paid homage to the nostalgia of the 1950s, with weathered billboards, old school bars, charming window displays, quaint alleyways and even theme park officials dressed as policemen and station masters in period uniforms.
The ramen stalls faced each other in the centre courtyard, as the crème de la crème vied for attention from ramen lovers. We opted to savour the delights of Muku Zweite, the famous ramen gurus from Frankfurt. Rumour has it that ramen lovers will queue for hours to have a taste of Muku’s ramen in Germany. The signature Muku Ramen was mind-blowing and I fear it has forever ruined others for me, for I have never tasted anything more exquisite than that complex blend of pork and chicken bone broth.
FINDING NEMO, FREE WILLY AND MORE
“Today, we get to see beluga whales!” exclaimed an enthusiastic Maho, as we hopped on a train heading to Hakkeijima Sea Paradise the next day. The manmade island at the tip of Yokohama Bay is home to Sea Paradise Aquarium along with the amusement park Pleasure Land, a hotel, a shopping mall and an array of restaurants. Sea Paradise itself is the star attraction that’s made up of four different aquariums: Aqua Museum, Fureai Lagoon, Umi Farm and Dolphin Fantasy.
At the world-class Aqua Museum, we met polar bears, penguins, Japanese spider crabs, Hachibei the gigantic whale shark, and many others. The star of the aquarium was the Sardine Orchestra, a dramatic spectacle of 50,000 sardines swimming to the rise and fall of orchestral music. Fureai Lagoon was an amazing interactive lagoon where we were allowed to interact with penguins, dolphins and even beluga whales!
At the Umi Farm, we rented fishing rods to catch our own lunch. The fishing squares were bustling with families fishing for horse mackerel and other seasonal fishes. The Karatoo Kitchen here cooks up your catch; you can opt for your fish to be fried or prepared as a fish burger! This interesting concept aims to educate children (and adults too) to catch only what is needed – a refreshing way of cultivating respect for nature’s balance from a very young age.
AN IDYLLIC STAY
Maho and I spent most evenings at the Aka Renga Soko, also known as the Red Brick Warehouse. Formerly a harbour warehouse and customs building, it has been given a major overhaul and transformed into an artsy shopping centre with event grounds and dining spots. Located right next to the port, the outdoor-facing premises are occupied by trendy restaurants and eateries, whilst its indoor area, with its beautiful hardwood floors and chic exposed ceilings, is dotted with food stalls, souvenir shops and even more dining options.
On some evenings, we headed to Chinatown (reputedly, the largest one in Japan), where we were greeted by bright lights, over 200 restaurants and more than 300 shops to feed our inquisitive heads and stomachs.
For a chance to take in the great outdoors and resplendent views, we sometimes packed lunch and headed to the rooftop of the futuristic Osanbashi Passenger Terminal at Minato Mirai 21. Previously, a simple pier, this was one of the first entry points to Japan. It played a key role in the development of the city – so much so that Yokohama authorities decided to give the old pier a new lease of life, hence, the construction of the Osanbashi Passenger Terminal, which was completed in 2002.
The top of the terminal boasts wooden floors with different floor levels arranged in random order to suggest wave-like oscillations – a tribute to the ocean’s wild and powerful waves. I loved to sit on one of the many oddly elevated plains and watch the giant vessels come and go.
A HAMAKKO AT HEART
After spending many glorious days in Yokohama, I finally understood why it only takes three days to be a hamakko; it really only takes that long to truly fall head over heels in love with Yokohama. The city grows on you, and shows you its own one-of-a-kind quirks. It is accepting, non-judgemental and ever-changing. Maho and I sat on the stairs of the Red Bricks Warehouse, leaned back and sipped our coffee, as we watched the sun set on the seaport. “To good times in Yokohama, hamakko,” she toasted me. “Hamakko for life,” I replied.
Dining in Yokohama isn’t just about the meal; it’s also about the experience!
Regarded as one of the best tempura bars in town, it offers an intricate dining experience, where the tempura chef serves up a variety of tempura dishes made fresh before your eyes. www.tenshichi.com/en
Yakatabune Cruise offers cruise dinners in an intimate setting aboard a private boat with limited tables to ensure exclusivity. Diners will be able to enjoy the night skyline of Minato Mirai 21 viewed from Yokohama Bay. www.funasei.com/fsei_english.htm
HELLO KITTY CAFÉ
This café pays tribute to Sanrio’s fictional character, Hello Kitty, with delicate coffee art, rose candy and desserts.
No one dances and interacts with diners like the troupe of dancers at Marin Rocket. The professional dancers here entertain with brilliant choreography, hilarious skits and colourful costumes. They bring the term ‘dinner and show’ to a whole new level! marin-rocket.com
Search for flights, manage your booking and check-in on the go with the AirAsia mobile app. Download it now! airasia.com/apps