Aji & Ajisai

I am really grooving on the hydrangea this year. For the second year in a row, I dragged Abby to the Ajisai (hydrangea) Matsuri (festival) inside Toshimaen amusement park. I had to bribe the girl with soba and sora mame (grilled fava beans) but it was well worth the effort on every front.

This year we decided we would be better able to appreciate the floral displays if our tummies were full. So our adventure started with a stop at a favorite noodle shop, just outside the park precinct. We stumbled upon it last year when we attended the fair with close friends and have been hankering to go back ever since.

Abby opted for soba with vegetable tempura. Favoring seasonal delicacies, the selection included sora mame, avocado, asparagus and several other more conventional offerings like pumpkin, sweet potato and burdock root. I went for the soba with sesame dipping sauce — not an easy choice since last year’s walnut sauce was exceptionally delicious. We shared a side of the grilled beans. Earthy, soba tea accompanied our meal.

In addition to excellent ingredients prepared with the utmost care, the food is beautifully presented. In keeping with the shop’s retro feel (in one corner a 60s vintage TV shows a continuous loop of programs from the era), each edible is served in a beautiful but well loved dish of its own, some the products of studio potters. The assorted vessels are united by a lacquer-coated, wooden tray that is tastefully chipped and worn from use. Both food and container are full of aji (= character and flavor).

Now back to the ajisai. The flowering bushes occupy a corner of the park, set apart from the flashing neon lights, garish signage and roaring roller coaster. Grouped by type, they cover the hilly terrain. The lush green foliage dotted with clusters of deep blue and purple blossoms are a winning combination if ever there was one.

Strolling among the flower-bedecked paths is magical. Mature trees at the perimeter cast a little shadow on the garden and mist intended to moisten the flowers fills the air, creating a benevolently mysterious atmosphere. The whole setting reminds me of the fantasy cartoons of my youth — think Flintstones, Jetsons and Peter Pan, the Disney version. The colors are so intense, they are almost out of this world.

I must admit that my appreciation of ajisai caught me by surprise. It started with sakura, the cherry blossoms I came to adore after living in Japan for a year or two. While I love watching people love the flowers (in this case mostly old ladies and camera buffs), I am even more taken with the ajisai themselves. The endless variations in petal shapes. The intense colors. The size range from dainty houseplants to cascading bushes. If you share my enthusiasm, please leave me a comment.

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