April, 2010 Archive

Japan Trip 2010 — Day 12b

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

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While munching the sushi lunch purchased on the platform, we watched a blue uniformed crew enter the conventional express train and whiz through the car cleaning, polishing and turning all the seats around. Five minutes later we boarded for the short trip to Osaka, noting the freshly ironed seat reservation sleeves.

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Our rendezvous was anticipated for years.  Jan had wanted to return to Japan after she visited with her mother for the wedding in 1980, and I’d had a yen to go since first seeing Kurosawa films in college.  Emma was born in Kobe, and both girls spent time with their mother’s family in Osaka most summers, acquiring proficiency in the language. Our plan to join them there two years earlier was sidetracked by Emma and Travis’ wedding in Playa del Carmen, where we met “older sister,” Jung-ja, aka You-ki, who invited us to her house.

She stood waiting for us at Tennoji station, too stylish and graceful for a California hug, but brimming with affection. She grabbed Jan’s suitcase, ushered us into a cab, apologized and insisted on paying.  Unfortunately, she said, her husband was in Hong Kong for an ancient coin-collectors convention and couldn’t meet us, but he left her lots of money to entertain her guests. She thanked us for helping to finance the nieces’ trip.  She loved spending time with them and Taylor and Travis, whose name she pronounced with special relish.

They are all in Nara for the day, she said,  and will meet us tonight for dinner at a Korean restaurant downtown owned by her friend. That left almost four hours for the three of us alone, which made me a bit apprehensive.  Her English was halting, and she relied on a little hand-held computer to translate.  But as she unlocked her house and we took off our shoes in the entry, I was put at ease.  It  welcomed us with the smell of burning incense and a striking arrangement of objects d’art.

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Down the lustrous wooden floors of the hallway, she slid open some soji doors to reveal a large tatami room facing an enclosed garden. “This is yours.” “Travis and Emma are in the back””two tatami rooms away facing another enclosed garden, “and Marie and Taylor are upstairs.”

After we dumped our baggage in the corner, she invited us into the western-style sitting room across the hall for tea.  She brought out a cake plate with five rich pastries we both declined, and then started the gift giving, by now a familiar and welcome ice-breaking ritual. I offered a copy of the Cal Poly Land Field Guide,  and a bottle of plum wine from the Kanazawa brewery.  She presented us a gold leaf fan and a round lacquered box.

Then it was time to talk about our shared nieces and their menfolk and to exchange gossip about other family members on both sides of the Pacific.  Jan mentioned the recent death of her mother, and You-ki remembered her earlier visit.  I dug the computer out of my pack and showed a set of pictures that Jan had taken at the time which I ‘d recently scanned. She brought out photos of the nieces  as little girls playing with their cousins.

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After we described our recent Kabuki adventure, she led us to the music room and to my amazement pointed out  pictures of herself in costumes like the ones we’d seen in the Noh Museum.

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She said that recently her opportunities had been exploding; her manager wanted her to perform all the time, but she needed to keep balance in her life.  She explained that at age 34, she’d walked past Osaka’s Noh theatre, not far from her house, and been struck by the sound of the drum.  She’d gone inside and begged for a chance to learn to play.  Though the knowledge was usually passed from father to son and women were almost unheard of as performers, she persisted, studied and practiced for 20 years.  Not long ago she’d finally got her license as drummer, singer  and actor.

Her most recent enthusiasm was a different kind of drum, which she gestured toward on a stand.

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It looked like a flying saucer made of brass.  She said she’d heard it played briefly and decided to pursue the creator”a woman in Switzerland whom she visited and bought one from.  She’d done a small recital for Japanese musicians a few months ago and they were so eager for more, she’s got a large concert scheduled for early next month. She said Travis played it last night, “very beautiful.”

I asked her to play for us, so she brought it  to the sitting room and touched its various indentations lightly with her fingertips making throbbing silky sounds, like a mix of vibraharp’s and finger piano’s. I dared to bring out my little soprano recorder and we improvised together for ten minutes.

After another pot of tea, I asked if we could see some of her kimonos, having noticed the large chest of narrow drawers in the middle tatami room.  Each was filled with several thick paper envelops fastened together with ribbons.  She slowly untied the knots on six or seven of them and hung the treasures up on special straight hangars.

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I asked if she would play dress-up with Jan, who after her initial reluctance I knew would get into it because of  her experience in theatrical costuming.  From another chest, You-ki unpacked half a dozen Obis, even more luxurious fabrics, to drape around the waist and tie in an elaborate knot at the back of the kimono.

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Then she laughed and set to work.

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The design was sakura.

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She dressed me in a heavy silk yukata that would be worn by a samurai, put a mysterious wooden scepter in my hand, and took our portrait.

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As she slowly packed away the precious garments, her daughter called to say that we were late to the restaurant.  Another cab waited for us at the door and drove half an hour to a lantern-lit district of narrow streets.

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We were greeted by the owner and conducted upstairs to a dining room full of young people including the four Americans.

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All the rest were female: Ryoko, You-ki’s daughter who’d been our email go-between,

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Choon-ja, middle sister, and her three daughters.  The men were all at work.  Chuoon-ja’s husband phoned to welcome us and send his regrets.

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We sat around a table cooking endless portions of Wagyu beef and other delicacies.

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After a couple of beers, the conversation turned to arranged marriages, and I announced that from where I stood now, they seemed like a good idea, given the importance over time that families and combining families has taken on. But I mentioned that this wasn’t always my opinion.  Jan and my parents met the first time at our wedding and the one thing that our two mothers agreed upon was that  it was a bad idea.  I learned later in the evening from Emma, that this was a painful subject on various counts and I hoped that perhaps the language barrier spared the others from my ramblings.

Back home at You-ki’s we stayed up long past my bedtime with our fellow foreigners regaling each other with travel stories and pictures and anticipating tomorrow’s excursion westward.

Japan Trip 2010–Day 12a

Monday, April 12th, 2010

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The final phase of the trip began with check-out from the tour hotel and a brief subway ride to Kyoto railroad station, where we navigated through throngs of commuters to the the basement counter set up for idiot foreigners to validate their rail passes.

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Around the corner, we checked our bags until afternoon departure.  As we rode the escalator to the ground floor we had no idea that we’d emerge into one of the world’s most grandiose and quirky buildings.  Immense horizontal and vertical volumes were framed by a variety of visible structural members and open at both ends to daylight, which illuminated ascending ranks of terraces recalling the steep mountain temple complexes at Kiyumizo and Nanzenji. But the deliberate lack of symmetry, the oblique fractioning of functions, spaces, levels, shapes, colors and textures suggested the frenetic overabundance of malls and market arcades.

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My first reaction was childlike eagerness to ride the escalators, as far as they would go up into the white expanse of the firmament.

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As we did so, my eyes were drawn to opaque and translucent layers of canopy dancing above our diagonal ascent.

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These were  multiplied by segmented surfaces of mirroring windows which made it impossible to distinguish substance from reflection or to discern the dividing line between them.

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Each landing was decorated with brightly colored sculptures hard to differentiate from functional structures.

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As we rose, views of the station below and the hotel complex at the opposite end brought new disparate elements into sight and glimpses of the surrounding city revealed railroad yards and skyscrapers in the foreground, temple roofs in the middle ground and the city’s surrounding mountains in the distance.

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The fifteen-story ascent ended at a green roof designed as as a modernistic garden paying tribute with signage in Japanese and English to the importance of nature, energy conservation, and the role of landscaping in traditional temples and fortresses.  But the vegetation was not thriving.

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More alluring was the entry to the Skyway, a glassed-in catwalk traversing the length of the station just below the roof

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which offered more prospects of the dissonant configurations below.

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At the end of the Skyway stood one of many statue-like janitors holding a disinfectant cloth against the moving handrails of escalators before they disappeared into the floor.

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After more than an hour of tribute in this monument to Japan’s enviable transportation system, Jan said we should walk over to Hongwanji, a large temple complex we spotted from the roof, a couple of blocks away.  This place was less an antiquity and tourist attraction than a vital hub of worship and institutional administration.  The heritage tree in the center of the plaza was shielded from ongoing construction,

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the great hall was newly outfitted with collection boxes and lamps,

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a group of shoeless parishioners in business attire were listening intently to a sermon being delivered by a female monk who looked liked like a round smiling Buddha, her musical voice perfectly amplified by a public address system whose large console blinked colored lights in a far corner.

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We left through a side doorway and searched our map for an entrance to the gardens enclosed by gates at the back of the temple.  I was surprised when the monk who’d been preaching came upon us and asked in a sweet voice if she could help and then apologized for the gardens now being closed to the public.  She gave us the eye contact, the smile and the slow bow I’d wanted from the Zen priest and then disappeared into an adjoining building roofed like the temple, but framed with steel and glass.  This was the international headquarters of Shin Buddhism.

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On the way to a bathroom in the busy bookstore nearby, among hundreds of beautifully bound Japanese texts I found several shelves of volumes in English and a video showing a DVD animation of a story of  Shinran Shonin, the sect’s founder, taming the  fury of an attacking samurai warrior with only a peaceful look in the eyes.

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The contemporary vitality of this sect was further brought home during our walk back to the railroad station along a street lined with shops selling religious paraphernalia–not the inexpensive charms and talismans offered at other temples but gorgeous lacquered altars produced in Kanazawa and elegant gold-leaf statues, paintings and scrolls, none with prices marked.

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As we headed out of this city of shrines dedicated to glorifying and retaining the experience of eternity bestowed on rare individuals, I was struck by a memory of my own brush with such experiences during my twenties, experiences that Jan and I usually shared.  I remembered  the choice I had made to depart from “the path of totality” involved in a deliberate spiritual quest and to find my own path through matrimony, family and procreation.  Now we were headed to Osaka to meet the beloved nieces, their husband and fiancé, and their large Japanese-Korean family, whom I had become related to through my wife’s brother’s first marriage.

Japan Trip 2010–Day 11

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

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I was told that for economic reasons, the tour company was reducing the number of excursions provided, but after the overload of yesterday’s experiences I was happy to sit in our hotel room and  catch up on earlier journal entries. Jan went her own way to attend a Rotary meeting in a posh hotel nearby and reported about it upon returning in the late afternoon.

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She was seated at a table with the past Rotary International Director and Grand Tea Master Genshitsu Sen, the only one who spoke English.  When she mentioned visiting with Kanosaku Nakagawa in Kanazawa, the host said they were best friends.

She urged me to get moving and visit the huge downtown market a few blocks away. After seven uninterrupted hours at the computer, I followed her shakily through an endless labyrinth of stalls

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and shops offering everything from live fish in Styrofoam tanks to onsite handcrafted cutlery

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to guns and camo garb American-style

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to satin jackets embroidered with slogans like “Punk Drunkers¦Uncool is Cool.”

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Intrigued at first, I was soon desperate to escape, but blocked by the surge of teenagers who descended upon the place after school let out and jammed the entrances to video arcades, boutiques, and junkfood establishments. Something there is about the scale, animation and seriousness of Japanese consumer culture that makes even the grossest American shopping mall seem austere. It was challenging to reconcile with the aesthetics of Zen and wabi.

The departure dinner for our tour group took place in a Gion restaurant specializing in Shabu-Shabu, a dinner ritual that involves swishing around prepared ingredients with chopsticks in a pot of boiling water set into the table.  Maya read us a satirical English poem of farewell to tour patrons and folded origami cranes for everyone.

In the hotel we posed for a final team picture.

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Japan Trip 2010–Day 10

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

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We took traditional Japanese breakfast with Maya and Anthony on the second floor of the hotel, a decorous and quiet place compared to the busy western style buffet downstairs.

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Her lecture on the bus about tea ceremony was a model of clarity and wisdom, the kind of presentation I might have expected from a Dharma talk by a monk.  And no wonder, since she told us she has studied it for fifteen years with her 84 year-old teacher, ten before reaching the “entrance” to knowledge.  In a composed musical voice with precise articulation she expounded its definition, meanings, history and process, each section marked by a lengthy pregnant pause.

“The Way of Tea,” she said, is a better translation than “tea ceremony.”  Tea was originally brought to Japan around 1200 from China by the same monk who introduced Zen Buddhism. Its function was to keep you awake during long hours of practicing Zazen meditation.  Both Zazen and the Way of Tea were appropriate to the Samurai way of life. They emphasize the importance of experiencing the present moment, since you can die in battle the next day.  The central idea of tea is that this day will never happen again.  Every moment is precious, it will occur only once in a lifetime. Her words recalled the revelation I felt when Kano translated the meaning of the kanji he had painted for us at the end of our home visit in Kanawaza: “one encounter, one life.”

Then I was brought up short by another concept I heard for the first time.  The tea ceremony is a way to pursue a particular state of mind known as “wabi,” in which the person is calm and content in a sense of profound simplicity.  This named the elusive goal of our previous day’s wandering, the sensation I had felt in the teahouse in Kenrukoen gardens, and the apparant purpose of all classical Japanese landscape and architectural design. The tea room, she continued, is a sacred space, a dojo for tea.  One must purify oneself and bow before entering. It has features that combine several traditional arts: a hanging scroll from calligraphy, beautiful wise words from literature and philosophy, boxes for tea from  lacquer work, pot and cups from ceramics, and a vase of flowers from ikebana, the art of arrangement.

The pot is set to boil at the beginning of the ceremony, which normally lasts about four hours.  First, lunch is served along with saki and kaiseki or sweet thick tea, which is sipped from a bowl that people pass one to the other to express harmony and respect. Then thin light tea is offered, one bowl per person, along with a candy to sweeten the tongue before the Machu or bitter green tea is served.  This is made from the top five leaves of the tea plant, which are dried,  powdered, and dissolved in the liquid to be taken into the body, for among other reasons, its high vitamin C content.

The tea is poured by the host or hostess into the cup, which has, like everything else, a front and a back.  It’s important to turn the cup 180 degrees before drinking to make the front face outward.  Interactions between server and recipients and among the recipients are always accompanied by bows.  Each of the implements used–pot, cup, tea canister, and screen–have pedigree and significance.

The bus arrived at the gate of the monastery of Zuiho-in, and the clear cool morning air relieved some of the sinus pressure in my head.

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Signs told us that this subtemple was founded in 1546 by Otoro Sorin, who converted to Christianity and became “influential” in East-West trade before Christianity was outlawed. I expected that the quiet atmosphere of this place would induce “wabi.”  The paths were covered with a boardwalk to avoid the extensive construction work adjoining the temple.

We left our shoes at the entrance and entered a tatami room with a Buddhist altar on one side, and took places in whatever position was comfortable around the edge of the room, some kneeling, which my joints couldn’t handle, some in chairs supplied by monks flitting in and out, and some sitting cross-legged on folded pillows. People were clicking and flashing in the darkened room, but after one shot I concluded that taking pictures was highly inappropriate here and now. The abbot of the monastery entered briskly, a deeply tanned monk with glistening eyes and shaved head dressed in a smart black yukata over a white undergarment.

He sat on his knees and spoke in a crisp voice, alternating rapid staccato, melodic flow and loud laughs, pausing regularly for Maya to translate.  He welcomed us to the zendo, explaining that once we entered this place we should leave outside the business of the street and the bus and the city and also of tv and cellphone and internet. We should come into the present moment and just breathe the air, in and out, give attention only to our breathing and our straight backs, which must not hunch forward.  Good breathing and posture would provide long life and health, he said, it’s free and very valuable.  Your life is just a certain number of breaths. Don’t think about the next stop on your tour or the last or what pictures you will take or what gifts you will buy or how much things cost. Breathing costs nothing. Be thankful.

In the presence of his vitality and radiant health I felt disgraced by my bodily condition: breath marred by coughing, hooked on decongestants, the turkey neck in the mirror I’d asked Jan for beauty advice about that morning, and her  reply:  “stand straight, don’t hunch forward.”

And my mental state was no better: the continuing picture taking by my fellow tourists agitated me with both righteous indignation and frustration that I couldn’t get the shots I wanted.  Things settled down a little when the abbot rang a gong after telling us to look at the floor three feet away with half closed eyes and number our breaths. But I lost count quickly and instead thought about our obsessive photography.  Is it a way to intensify the here and now while preserving it for later reflection and refinement, or a supreme evasion of living in the present?  Is the urge to “collect experiences” with cameras, with journals, and with travel itself a way of treasuring what our one life has to offer, or is it an expensive form of distraction and trophy hunting?

After what someone later said was ten minutes, the gong rang again and the abbot spoke: “With a straight back while you exhale give a deep bow of thanks, and then rise with an inhale that will make you smile and improve your skin.”  Next we were led into the tea ceremony chamber, where the monk quickly reviewed some of the steps Maya had outlined earlier.  I was hoping that participating in the decorous ritual would reduce the turmoil I felt after his unsettling talk. But the picture snapping resumed and four or five apprentice monks scurried into the room bearing trays with pots and cups. One bowed quickly as he poured and moved immediately on to the next person. I tried to drink my cupful slowly but had to gulp it down since it was time to leave.  The abbot passed before the row of picture-takers, bowing to each. Yet before I could return the greeting, he was out the soji screen. Why the rush I wondered? Was another busload of tourists right behind us?  Could these visits be financing the expensive restoration outside?

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My cold symptoms seemed worse as we paraded back out into the parking lot, and I didn’t feel like talking.  When I wrote down some of my reactions in my little notebook during the hour long ride to the farm in Kameoka, both discomfort and disorientation subsided.

We were cordially greeted by three farmers and the local tourist promotion guide in front of a greenhouse at the edge of ricefields now growing spring green vegetables and were handed plastic coverings for our shoes and bags to hold our harvest.

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After we snapped off crisp stems and leaves of plants resembling rappacini, they answered the questions of the group. They grow rice in summer, vegetables after the rice harvest. They use no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, manure and green manure only.

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They’ve farmed this land, about 13 acres, for 13 generations and make a family living off it. They sell directly to local supermarkets. They’re helped by government price supports and crop insurance. When I told them about the Community Supported Agriculture program we belong to as an antidote to international industrial agriculture, they loved the idea.

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The bus drove us through the rural district to an old samurai home, now a restaurant.

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Rain mixed with snow as we were welcomed by the proprietor, a descendant of the original owners.  We stood around tables stacked with ingredients, including some of the vegetables we’d picked, and she demonstrated the art of rolling sushi, then set us to making our own.  After we sat down to eat, she and her assistants brought out five more courses to the meal.

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Back in the hotel, we had only thirty minutes to prepare to meet our dinner companion, Stephen P., who had worked with Jan long ago as her appointee to the City Planning Commission and who later visited Japan and has remained for the last three years. We met him in the lobby together with Kayoko, his friend and English language student. She brought us a bag full of gifts and instructions on how to get to the hotel she’d reserved for our anniversary three nights later in Tomonoura, a fishing village on the coast.  We gave her another Trader Joe’s chocolate bar.

We talked at length with Stephen about what we’ve all noticed that’s different about Japan”its cleanliness, efficiency, friendliness and politeness. He liked that people don’t complain or share any negative emotions.  However, on the other hand, Japan’s has the highest suicide rate in the world. Stephen told us he loves Sumo wrestling.  He’d wanted to take us to a session but we declined. Through the front door of the hotel, populated largely by foreigners, walked a large man with swept-back greased hair and a topknot in a full-length black coat. He sat solemnly texting on his phone behind Stephen, and Jan took their picture.

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We took a cab to Stephen’s favorite Kyoto restaurant located in the Gion district, famous for geishas, cherry blossoms and tourists. Jan was cold in the pouring rain, but we lingered at a street crossing a canal to admire the herons.

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Inside the restaurant twelve seats were placed at a counter around a pit where several women worked, dipping chopped  pieces of fish and vegetables in batter, and one-by-one serving them to our plates.

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We stayed for two hours, watching the rain turn to snow falling into the tiny garden in an airshaft behind a window.

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As we headed for a cab back to the hotel, a blizzard of big flakes mixed with the cherry blossoms illuminated from below.

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