Journey in Japan Part 37: Shiitake My Breath Away

Journey in Japan Part 37: Shiitake My Breath Away

Tidings in my hostel today inform me of a festival at Mukojima-Hyakkaen Gardens. Today is Tsukimi-no-Kai, which translates to mean ‘Moon Viewing’; an age old tradition that has been celebrated in these gardens for over two hundred years. The aim tonight is to celebrate and enjoy the Harvest Moon. The plan to meet up at 4pm is added to my memory. Outside it is cloudy, I doubt the moon will be visible, but the event sounds fun.

My first destination of the day is the brilliantly titled ‘Project Eat More Mushrooms’, only a tempting eleven stations away on the Ginza Line. It is held this year at Ark Hills, a huge office development at the heart of Akasaka. I hop on the train and get off at mnemonic favorite, Toranamon. To run a marathon. I take a rather unhurried walk to the venue. Along the way I pass the Embassy of Micronesia and the Foundation of Miracles, before finally arriving at Project Eat More Mushrooms.

The mushroom festival here is rubbish. An absolute waste of thirty minutes each way on the train. Forget eating more mushrooms, more stores selling the mushrooms would be a welcome start. I would hardly call four market stalls a festival. There are no miracles here. There are no mascots here. There are not many mushrooms here. For the sake of not wasting a journey, I buy some shiitake mushrooms and some enoki mushrooms for a total of ¥450.

Back at the hostel, it turns out that these mushrooms are exactly the same ones that I could have bought from Seven Eleven. With my wasted time and wasted train fares, these turn out to be the most expensive mushrooms on the planet.

After mushrooms, I meet up at 4pm as planned. The small group of seven includes my friends Aram and Dagmar, and two awesome tour guides from the hostel, Keina and Gomez. We head to Asakusa Station and take the Tobu Skytree Line to Higashimukojima Station. Oddly, on the way the train slows to a crawl as it crosses the Sumida River; this happens deliberately to show off the glorious view, apparently. In Sumida, we head to Mukojima-Hyakkaen Gardens; my third visit to these gardens since being in Japan. The entrance fee is the usual ¥150.

At the entrance we are asked to douse ourselves in mosquito repellent, so we do, before entering the gardens. Inside, offerings are being made to the moon.

Television crews are setting up at the entrance to the Hagi Tunnel. Swarms of people are queueing up for the ¥2000 tea ceremony; the same ceremony I had previously enjoyed at no cost. The sound of chirping insects fill the air. We kill some time exploring the park, before heading back to the wisteria trellis for the opening ceremony. After a short opening speech, a performance of the shinobue begins.

Shinobue is a Japanese transverse flute, made from hollow bamboo. Two performers play for almost thirty minutes. During their performance I get lost in meditation on a bench surrounded by foliage and mosquitoes.

After the performance, it is time to light the many lanterns that litter the gardens. The paper lanterns are lit just in time for twilight. There are thirty-five in total, and volunteers are encouraged to take part in the event. Each of the lanterns are decorated with haiku.

Once the lanterns are lit a curtain of dusk falls to the sound of koto, a traditional Japanese thirteen-stringed instrument. The five performers play in harmony, the sweet sound of the koto continues to resonate, until at last the gifts presented earlier and the beautiful music are enough to change the evening sky from overcast to clear. Clouds step aside, and the Harvest Moon reveals its face.

We sit down and admire the sky. The moon is a ghostly white, brighter than I can ever recall; but it has been a while. Like the stars, the moon rarely appears above the Tokyo skyline. Tonight the moon doesn’t hide, it looks beautiful, it is breathtaking.

We eat snacks. The chatter combines with the music. The thought crosses my mind that this ceremony has been taking place exactly where I am right now, for the last two-hundred or so years. It probably hasn’t changed much since then either. My mind transported to another time.

I eat a bowl of Oden; a Japanese winter food consisting of various fish and vegetables in a soy-flavoured broth. ¥800 and delicious. We chat for a while longer, enjoying the sound of the insects, the music from the koto performance, and the lull of the moon.

At 7pm it feels much later than it is. The darkness comes earlier now, but the weather is still warm; an atypical autumn. We all head back to Asakusa on the train before going our separate ways. I return to my hostel to eat some more mushrooms.

Read the next part of my Journey in Japan, where I explore a parasite museum, look for graffiti in Harajuku, and wander through a forest made of sweets  by clicking here.

Or alternatively, click here to begin the journey from part one.

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From England, Luke is a writer and editor living on the edge of Tokyo. He enjoys finding the strange and wonderful amongst the seemingly mundane moments of everyday life and travel, and writing about them.

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