Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo, or Guest House on Camellia Hill, is a tranquil oasis in the bustle of Tokyo. A lush Japanese garden built around an ancient growth of wild camellias, it has offered hotel rooms, banquet halls, wedding venues and renowned restaurants to Tokyoites and tourists for almost 70 years.

Six decades ago, when my American grandparents were living in Tokyo for work, they visited Chinzanso’s restaurant and garden. My grandmother Carol enjoyed it so much, she purchased a postcard at the gift shop. Even 40 years later, my grandmother remembered her experience with such fondness that she recommended Chinzanso to her daughter. When my aunt made a trip to Tokyo in the 1990s, my grandmother mailed that postcard to her, writing:

“This is the restaurant I told [you] was a must when you go to Tokyo. (If it’s still there, of course).”

The back of the postcard

My Best Friend

By the time she sent that postcard to my aunt, my grandmother was called Oma by everyone who knew her. She and I shared a rich friendship that went beyond the usual grandparent-grandchild relationship. She was my best friend, biggest fan and greatest supporter. We had the same interests, including literature and theatre, but at the top of our list was good food.

She and I spent much of our time together eating at the best restaurants we could afford in cities throughout the United States. We ate clam chowder at dives in Boston, fresh snapper in beach cottages in Florida, lobster dipped in butter at seaside shanties in Cape Cod. We ate Italian, Chinese, American, French and fusion — but we never ate Japanese food.

Oma lived in Tokyo from 1962 to 1965 and she would often tell me that they were the best years of her life. She dove into the language and culture of Japan, learning flower arranging and Japanese whenever she and her family weren’t driving around Honshu taking in the sights and tastes. I think she was so spoiled by the food she had in Japan that she couldn’t stomach the American versions of it when she moved back to the States.

Shannon Cothran and her grandmother Carol

Connecting with Oma Once More

Oma passed away about a year before I moved to Tokyo. She would have been elated to know I had the same opportunities she once did. I would have also been overjoyed to experience my years in this country with her on the other end of the phone as she guided me to the places she loved.

It didn’t work out that way, but as luck would have it, I was able to visit at least one of the places in Japan that I know Oma loved. In 2022, my aunt came across the old Chinzanso postcard among her paperwork and mailed it to me. After reading the postcard, I realized I could connect with my Oma once more. I subsequently called Chinzanso to make a reservation.

Six decades after my grandparents visited Chinzanso, my husband and I stood on Camellia Hill looking at the same three-story pagoda Oma once stood next to. The old main house she visited was razed years ago to make room for a new, larger, modern hotel complex, but the garden and original tea houses haven’t changed. Walking through them is like walking through sacred gardens at a Kyoto temple. They are calm, verdant, lined with bamboo and dotted with ancient statues pulled from all over Japan.

The old postcard above versus the photo taken in 2022

Sumptuous Dishes

I made a reservation for lunch at Mokushundo, which was a tea house when Oma made her trip there in the ’60s. Today it serves traditional kaiseki food grilled on lava stone slabs from the Mount Fuji region. The building is nestled into the garden like it’s a part of nature itself. From anywhere inside, guests can hear the calming sounds of waterfalls and see dense greenery out of every window.

Lunch was six courses. It seemed every ingredient possible was sourced in Japan. Our server, Chieko gave us daily menus in Japanese and English and explained each course in the latter. We started with mugwort tofu with roe and wasabi, the perfect bite of different yet complementary textures and flavors, the salty sea from the roe and earthy budding of the mugwort working together perfectly.

The next course’s broad beans were delicious, served with smoked firefly squid. The meal featured fresh bamboo shoots in many forms and dessert was in-season fruits, jellies, perfectly-smooth adzuki mochi and warabimochi. But the star of the show was the barbecue course: five portions of different meats, seafood and vegetables from Japan. The lava stone grill gave each a soft yet distinct flavor. We didn’t even need the sauces and salts served. The shrimp, fish, pork, beef and vegetables were delicious as prepared thanks to the unique flavor of the stone.

A Stroll Back in Time

After lunch, I strolled through the garden and reveled in seeing sights Oma saw 60 years before. And I imagined her young and enjoying a warm afternoon in the garden with my grandfather. I felt I was reaching across time and reconnecting with her after years of missing her presence in my life.

The beauty of the garden and the quality of the restaurants at Chinzanso haven’t lessened since my grandmother visited six decades ago. I can imagine myself someday recommending it to my own granddaughter if she also has the opportunity to visit Tokyo (if it’s still there, of course).