Japan 2010

Japan Trip–Day 1

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010


It’s been five years since Jan and I traveled abroad, my retirement began, and I started writing this blog.  Japan was the next destination on our list because we were attracted by what we knew of its culture–haiku, sashimi, kabuki, Toyota–and because we hoped to spend some time there with our nieces, Emma and Marie, whose mother is Japanese-Korean.  The nieces had gotten married and engaged within the last year and wanted to introduce their partners to the family, so the time had arrived to coordinate plans.  Jan and I would go on a ten-day guided tour of “Japan’s Cultural Treasures” and meet them afterward for a few days together in Osaka, where it happened a friend of ours from San Luis Obispo had been living for three years.  Once we decided our schedule, I contacted Kazumi Yamagata, an eminent scholar of English Literature who’d translated my book on Shakespeare and the Bible into Japanese, and he invited us to visit him and his family at home outside of Tokyo the day before the tour  started.

After 24 hours of travel and a good night’s sleep we were met at our hotel by a disciple of Dr. Yamagata who conducted us through the maze of downtown Tokyo to Central station where we met one of his disciples and boarded the bullet train for an hour’s trip north to the Professor’s home.


These men all teach English literature and were relatively easy for us to communicate with.  Kazumi’s wife, Satchiko, met us at the station in their daughter’s Jaguar and drove us to their  country home, where were we received warmly by the mentor, who’d turned 76 the day before.  We spent time gossiping about English literary critics, I signed their copies of his translation, and Kazumi brought out fourteen volumes of his collected works recently published–a minor portion of the 50 books that he’s written.


He was pleased when Jan mentioned that she’d written her M.A. thesis on Dante, who he’s now translating into Japanese.

After a couple of hours, they took us to a traditional restaurant in their neighborhood where we ate large quantities of melt-in-your-mouth and melt-you-away sashimi and tempura.



Then back to their house for tea and a tour of his study, and a visit with their daughter, Yumi, who’d just arrived from a concert she’d performed at in southern Japan.  Jan got to know her better than I did, but as her flute played quietly on the stereo in the background, they brought out gifts for us including a new CD of her work.


We toured their garden, where the same plants that we’d eaten in the tempura were springing up, plum blossoms in the background.


We returned to Tokyo in time to meet up with our tour group led by Maya, our striking and gracious guide. We marched together to a little dive for yakitori dinner and then home to this “modest” hotel, one of the best I’ve ever stayed in, that has a toilet with two different kinds of sprays for one’s undercarriage, along with a really deep bathtub.


Japan Trip–Day 2

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010



Light from the rising sun pours into the sixth floor window of our ryokan perched on a steep slope inside the crater of Hakone.  Beneath it a ring of peaks is broken by the river valley that opens into the sea.  I drink green tea from a cup on a wooden coaster, brewed on the low table next to the futons where we slept and I lay wakeful for a good part of the night, overstimulated with impressions and still not adjusted to the seventeen hours lost by travel across the Pacific. I’m dressed in the elegant cotton yukata I wore to dinner last night and to the hot sulfur baths where I soaked yesterday afternoon and this morning at 5.

Our second day in was largely taken up with bus travel through heavy but smoothly flowing traffic in Tokyo streets and on expressways and tightly curved mountain roads during this Spring Equinox holiday weekend.


The transit time was enlivened by the variety of unfamiliar landscapes and the continuous offerings provided by our beautiful and hard working guide Maya.  She lectured on geography, history, linguistics, geology, cuisine and etiquette, using maps, color handouts, flip cards, little cheat sheets, and mnemonic songs.  I learned, and immediately forgot, basic greetings, numbers, some written Japanese characters, and a jingle in tribute to Mt Fuji.


After driving for an hour south from Tokyo through a dense urban world”all buildings outside the center appearing recent, angular, drab but clean–we suddenly entered a landscape of forested mountains, river valleys, little villages and artfully bordered rice patties. The brown pre-spring vegetation was offset by patches of evergreen and a few groves of plum blossoms. The expressway rest stop buzzed with vacationers, food vendors and souvenir hawkers.


First destination was Mt. Fuji, which the bus ascended to station 5 at about 7000 feet.  This is the busy trailhead for thousands of summer hikers who climb the remaining 5000 feet to the summit, a pilgrimage that Japanese expect to make at least once in a lifetime. We got off the bus and entered the crowd battling the cold wind. Away from the parking lot the ground was covered with snow and ice, but eventually we came upon an observation platform sheltered from the gale where one could get a clear view of the summit, which occasionally appeared from behind a streaming shroud of snow and cloud. Despite the buses and multistory tourist facilities, the place felt like a real and dangerous mountain.


After fifteen minutes we were ushered back on the bus for a ride to the Fuji information center near the northern base. The clearing skies allowed for a classic view of the graceful cone whose shape was familiar to me since early childhood from stamps and world puzzles as the icon of Japan.


It would have been nice to slow down and pay homage for a while, but the wind remained strong, the museum beckoned and the schedule pressed us forward. As the bus headed south, through the windows we caught fleeting glimpses of this huge image of unalterable perfection always changing before our eyes. Maya recited the proverb: watch Fuji for ten minutes and you get a hundred views.


Another stint in the bus brought us to Hakone, to the world of onsen–hot springs–and ryokan–traditional rooms.  Still under the spell of  the mountain, we opened the door to a space whose first impression was comparably familiar and overwhelming: the austere beauty of unfinished planed lumber framing large panels of wall and small panels of translucent rice paper, the tightly woven tatami mats, hard yet springy to the touch, their moldings of embroidered blue silk, the low black table and cushioned floor seats, all waiting for the hotel porter, who arrived just behind us with a pot of hot tea he placed inside a round laquered  box containing ceramic cups, wooden coasters and a coiled towel in a basket. He smiled, bowed, and disappeared, silently sliding the doors and leaving us to partake undistracted in the room’s celebration of squares, rectangles and circles.



After a quiet cup of tea, we changed clothes to prepare for the baths. The protocol was inculcated by the guidebook’s instruction, Maya’s gentle admonitions, and posters on the wall in English as well as Japanese.  There are two baths, one on either side of the elevator on the first floor, the red curtained for women, the green for men.  The designation alternates daily, marked by the changing of the curtain.  Yukatas and slippers supplied in the rooms are worn in the hotel, removed and stowed in the sink area and locker room outside the inner curtain and sliding door leading to the tubs.  Passing through them naked, I found a steam-filled chamber, to one side the three foot deep pool into which the mineral water flows continually, to the other a row of booths, each with a shelf holding a dozen or so bottles of shampoo, conditioner, body soaps and lotions in front of a full size mirror.

Several of the booths were occupied by men sitting on low plastic stools, assiduously scrubbing themselves with washcloths and brushes and then rinsing off with the hand-held showers attached to plumbing fixtures on the floor between their legs.  I followed their example to get clean before entering the pool, and then stepped into the bath and leaned against the wall near the inlet, where a stream of the extremely hot water from the thermal source mixed with a smaller stream of cold to maintain a tolerable temperature. I enjoyed the familiar sensation of pain and stiffness draining from my joints, especially knuckles and knees, and the occasional change in water temperature resulting from some subterranean valve adjustment.

Fifteen minutes later, I was ready to get out but the men in the booths were still busily scrubbing. After two baths in the deep tub and using the advanced toilet appliance in the Tokyo hotel, I’d already felt unusually clean before entering this chamber.  What in the world could these guys be doing?  But then I remembered the requirement to leave shoes at the door, the little cloth in the tea set, the damp towel offered with meals and the face masks worn by people on the street, and I realized that citizens of this tightly packed country had reason to make a cult of hygiene.

Light-headed after the day’s ascent and immersion, upon entering the banquet room I again felt overwhelmed–this time by the the traditional Japanese dinner panoply spread at my seat.  A dozen dishes each of a different shape, color and material held  elaborate combinations of artfully processed ingredients. I can picture a small wooden box with a plunger which required me to press a block of green-tea tofu into 20 sharp edged tiny blocks that tumbled into a bowl of misu soup containing scallions and buckwheat noodles, but the rest of the details are lost to memory since I didnt take pictures and neglected to keep the menu.  The second night’s dinner was equally complex without repeating any dishes or ingredients:


After this feast we turned down Maya’s invitation to watch a video of “Lost in Translation” and retired to our lodging. During dinner it had been converted from parlor to bedroom, the table moved aside and two futons covering the tatami mats made up with flower-patterned down quilts showing through a large oval window in their fitted sheets.

Japan Trip–Day 3

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010


Jan and I decided to walk around the village of Goya during the 40 minutes before the bus departure.  The weather was clear and brisk.  We took one of the steep streets bordering the city park, passing new resort hotels, antique gates of private residences, stone walls erected with huge rocks, neatly cut or jagged and irregular, bubbling tanks, and small flumes along the gutters that steamed with fast flowing hot water.



As we rounded a corner, the top of the mountain we were on came into view, a steeple-like peak below which a series of modern masonry walls spanned an eroded gulley.  “I bet they’re building a hotel up there, what a travesty,” I complained.

The bus drove up the hill where we’d walked, to the large terminal of a teleferique heading toward the mountaintop over an expanse of forest. Our group of fifteen packed into two gondolas and ascended, the view over forest and ocean expanding as we went.  Suddenly there was a gasp and the passengers in our gondola rushed to the right side to gaze at Fuji rising over the far wall of the caldera, brilliant in the morning sun.


Another minute and all turned to the left to gaze down at billowing plumes of smoke erupting from yellow sulfurous pits in a barren gully cluttered with rusting steel towers and crossed by modern masonry walls built, not for a hotel, but to prevent the mountainside from falling on the town. This place, said Maya, was known as hell in the sky.


The ropeway ended on a plateau below the summit at a complex of hotels and restaurants, just below paths leading up to a bunch of steam-spewing vents.


The place was as crowded and busy as Tokyo Central station on this holiday weekend. Maya told us we could ascend for a closer look at the vents and buy the famous black eggs boiled  in their bubbling cauldrons, and that we should meet back in 40 minutes at the sign of her cherry-blossom wand.



People of all ages indulged in the characteristic activity of posing and photographing each other in special places, happy to have reached this mecca on a beautiful day that provided heavenly views of Fuji and a chance to play on the brink of the inferno.


We couldn’t resist the endless sign-language offers to stand and say cheese while someone snapped our cameras and put our stamp on the incredible scene.


Anthony, a member of our tour group bought a bag of five eggs and offered us two to celebrate a demonic prelude to Easter.


By some magic the tour bus met us at the top of the ropeway and carried us down the mountain past a horrible jam of cars trying to drive up. It deposited us at a ferry terminal on a lake at the bottom of the caldera.  The boat took us across, followed by another decked out as a fanciful pirate ship.


After a 20 minute voyage, we landed at a terminal in the town of Hakone Machi, and Maya ushered us into a lakefront hotel where we were indulged with a lavish Sunday buffet. After lunch, as the weather turned less friendly, she led us on a walk down an ancient wide footpath that used to be the main road between Kyoto and Tokyo lined with 200 foot 400 year old Japanese cedars.


The bus met us at the end of the path and passed a bright red Tori gate in the water as Fuji once again came into towering view.


The prospect was a famous image that we saw repeated in the amazing wood mosaics on display in the workshop and store of a craftsman whose family had mastered the art over a period of hundreds of years.


Maya translated as he gave a lecture and demonstration of techniques for assembling blocks of different colored wood and then using a plane to shave off paper-thin layers of geometric or representational patterns that were either framed or applied to the surfaces of everything from ball point pens to puzzle boxes.


The bus wound around the ridges and canyons of the Caldera and stopped at the Pola Open Air Art Museum highly recommended by Kazumi and Maya.  But by this time I had reached my limit of stimulation and went back to the ryokan, while Jan stayed and later showed me her pictures of the marvels I’d missed.


After a short nap I descended from the sixth to the first floor in my yukata and slippers and entered the onsen on the left side where I’d bathed at 5:00 A.M. I enjoyed being there all alone, and after a soak in the pool duly preceded by a thorough scrub, I decided to enter the sauna off the dressing room. Just as the sweat started flowing, I looked through the sauna’s large window and got a glimpse of the swept up straight black hair and graceful back of a naked girl passing through the inner curtain.  It was red!  I dashed out of the sauna, grabbed my towel and yukata, trying unsuccessfully to get my arms into the wide sleeves as I stumbled through the outer door, hoping to avoid another encounter on my way to the opposite door, which now was curtained in green.  Both relieved and flustered, I noticed three pairs of slippers outside, which told me the pool would be occupied.  I dumped the towel and flopping yukata in a basket and went through the green inner curtain, bowed politely to the three men inside and walked straight into the hot pool, since I’d already scrubbed with soap before. No one said anything, but all three looked at me with swords. It took  a little longer for me to realize my error this time, but then it hit me: they thought I was getting in unwashed.

Japan Trip – Day 4

Sunday, March 28th, 2010


The bus took us down the long winding valley we’d seen out our window to the railway station on the coast. We bought box lunches in one of the crowded little booths on the platform that offered  fresh food and paid the immaculately dressed  cashier about five dollars each. Anthony gave us a copy of the Japan Times.  The first page showed Nancy Pelosi and other jubilant Democratic party leaders parading in Washington under the headline, “health reform bill passes.”

As we stood in line at the place for our reserved seats, a superbullet train whizzed through the station at over 200 miles an hour, so quietly and quickly it seemed from another dimension.


Our conventional Shinkasen (bullet train) took us the distance to Nagoya in less than an hour, where we switched to the non-bullet express heading north to Kanazawa. Passing through the grandiose station entry at our destination, we were driven by black-suited cabbies to the KKH hotel, located across the street from the castle wall and moat. I loved the design of that sleek but moderately priced “business hotel,’ its sharp right angles and clear wood surfaces echoing the  architecture of the ryokan, including a traditional garden in the courtyard.



Maya led us on a walk downtown through narrow streets shared by bicycles and fast moving vehicles which seemed to have the right of way but  didn’t threaten pedestrians. The urban landscape was a hodgepodge of office buildings apartment blocks, old residences, stores, restaurants, warehouses, manufacturing facilities, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.


Little gardens appeared everywhere, and when there was no room for them, rows of potted plants.  We made our way through an indoor market filled with brightly lighted stalls displaying vegetables, meat, fish, and sweets”arranged like the dishes at meals to appeal to the eye as much as to the taste.


As the market closed at 5 p.m. we crossed a main thoroughfare and entered a mall of department stores packed with the elegant clothing and accessories worn by  everyone from students to executives.

Back at the hotel we were treated to a fine formal western-style dinner in the dining room.  We asked Maya if it would be possible to attend a Kabuki performance when we got to Kyoto, and she reserved us the cheapest seats for the  the last of the season’s, a production directed by  Ennosuki, a  legendary superstar.

Japan Trip–Day 5

Sunday, March 28th, 2010


Breakfast was offered both Japanese and western-style and we fueled up for walking in the cold wet weather  we hadn’t anticipated while packing in sunny California.  Jan wore my cashmere sweater as one layer and I borrowed her cherry blossom scarf.  I hadn’t even brought a hat and shivered in my windbreaker.  Fortunately the hotel supplied umbrellas.

Maya introduced a yellow-raincoated lady, one of the city guides who would accompany her providing additional local information.  We crossed the street, ascended steps flanked by 16th century walls made of immense rocks stamped with samurai family logos and entered a vast parade ground.


Across the field rose the “Diamond Turret,” a gracefully tapering tower, perched on another wall rising above field and framed by tall and carefully pruned pines.


Equipment and workers were finishing up restoration work on a heavy gate.


Across another parade ground on the north side of the castle, we saw behind the turret a  200 yard extension serving as a storehouse and armory.


Passing through the ponderous north gate, we crossed a wide footbridge over a boulevard and entered Kokuen Gardens, originally built as the private pleasure ground of a local feudal lord, and now known as one of three grandest gardens in all of Japan.


As we mounted to the top of the entrance hill it was evident why.  Even in the cold and rain, every step presented new prospects in all directions, each composed like a painting and prompting an urge to take a picture.


Maya brought out one of her charts and declared that this garden emobodied all six features of a beautiful landscape: spaciousness and seclusion (i.e. long prospects and intimate enclosures), artifice and antiquity (i.e. ingeniousness and naturalness), openness and watercourses (i.e. views of the surrounding area and internal water features).


These, she explained, were paired as typical opposites”Jan said yin and yang. Suddenly those features popped out everywhere: in broad vistas of islands and shores juxtaposed with mossy grottos, in the look of natural subalpine landscapes imitated by gnarled trees and rock outcrops juxtaposed with the ornamentation of stone lanterns and arched bridges, in the strategic panorama of the surrounding city juxtaposed with omnipresent water in ponds, springs, rivulets, waterfalls and fountains.



That water, she told us, was transported here from the snow-covered mountains on the horizon, where the lord of the garden had originally made his home. It was carried by aqueducts that sometimes pulled the water uphill through action of siphons.  Centuries ago, the original gardeners had designed the huge trees that  were shaped by pruning, tilting, twisting and tieing as they grew.


The walk in the park ended too soon.  We next were bussed to the preserved residence built in 1770 by a middle class samurai named Oyo.  He distinguished himself as a fighter, an artist, an economist and an advisor to the Government, which eventually exiled him to a remote island because of his outspoken criticism.  Kanazawa was not bombed during World War II and this house has remained intact.  The hostess there was his direct descendant as revealed in her appearance and demeanor.


Next we drove to the workshop and showroom of one of the city’s traditional gold leaf producers. Three people were at work on their knees trimming sheets of the metal .0001 millimeter thick with a bamboo cutter, lifting them with chopsticks,  smoothing them on leaves of paper and lightly blowing away the residue, which drifted slowly in the air.


In the store one could buy large screens with scenes painted on the gold background, gilt Miss Kitty do-dads and the paper which had been used to press the gold for facial wipes that absorbed grease.  We were served tea in gilt cups with flakes of gold floating on the surface.

Next we wandered around a charming old teahouse-geisha neighborhood and then toured a preserved samurai district surrounded by canals, now occupied by wealthy residents and an antique pottery studio.


Then came lunch at an upscale French bistro, where the chicken entrée was less appealing than a delicate dessert custard made from buckwheat flour.

Last stop of the day was a saki brewery housed in a plant built in the seventeenth century by the same family that still owned it.  The entryway towered three stories, and led to a dark labyrinth of presses and vats.  The proprietor, a slight amiable gentleman in a dark suit whose few remaining teeth seemed unusually long, showed us his prized doll collection, featuring the Emperor and Empress and their court.  As we gratefully sampled, he told us about the several grades of saki, the annual process of harvesting, brewing and bottling, and the methods of turning it into plum wine and liqueur.


After a short rest in the hotel we headed back to the department stores downtown to find me a hat.  The prices seemed too high so we decided to look for an inexpensive place for dinner, but without success.  We met two fellow tour members who guided us to a food court near the department store, where we found a bowl of Udon noodles for eight dollars, a good deal. Then again to the department store, where the cheapest hat was on sale for twenty dollars.  Homing in to the hotel room, we got an email from the relatives in Osaka saying cancel your hotel reservations and stay with us.  We celebrated by opening the saki we’d planned to bring them and staying up late, downloading and editing our day’s pictures.

Japan Trip 2010–Day 6

Monday, March 29th, 2010


This morning we were glad that we’d opted out any of the supplementary excursions offered by our tour for budgetary reasons.  Though it meant missing what looked like an interesting trip to the mountains and more of Maya’s excellent instruction, we wanted to slow down and return to some of the places we’d sped through the day before.

As bundled as we could get against the rain and cold, we trudged up to the castle grounds, no less enthralled by their familiarity, and made our way to the entrance of the armory. The interior was almost empty this early in the morning, which magnified the scale and symmetry of the long chamber, as if one was looking into a pair of facing mirrors reflecting the warm color and intricate joinery of its unfinished wood members.



Originally constructed in 1583, the castle was burned to the ground several times. The present restoration, begun in 2001 and employing 53000 workers was done from scratch following plans of its 1809 reconstruction, which went up in flames 1881. In the intervening years, the place had been used as a military barracks and then the site of Kanagawa University.

We climbed the three story “Diamond Turret” overlooking the parade ground, so named because instead of 90 degree angles, all the joints in this tower were at 100 and 80 degrees.


Ostensibly this allowed for better visibility of the surrounding area, but it also advertised the virtuosity of the carpenters, which might be even better appreciated by our son, Joe, whose carpentry skills keep evolving and whose design preferences now seem quite Japanese.

After an hour and a half of enjoying the castle’s visual delights, learning about its sophisticated engineering, and luxuriating in its warmth, we went out into the rain and walked the half mile to the No Theatre Museum located near the back wall of the fortress.  There we looked at beautiful costumes and masks, and a poorly produced video preview of one production, which sharpened our anticipation of seeing Kabuki the next day.


Next door we encountered the first and only disappointment of our trip in the Museum of Twenty First Century Art. Most of the galleries in this graceless and sterile building were empty, and those not empty were no more interesting.

Fortified by a buffet lunch we raised umbrellas and braved the elements with a return to the Kokuen garden, entering at a corner we’d missed the day before.


Despite the cold, cherry blossoms were entering their full glory. Under the indirect light from gray skies the wet washed leaves and rocks took on an interior radiance. Raindrops animated the placid surface of ponds with rippling circles.


Another hour of uncomfortable delights had us again seeking shelter, and we found it  inside the garden at the Shigurateki Teahouse, where for three dollars a kimono-clad hostess welcomed us to sit down on a tatami mat, have hot green tea and a biscuit while looking across the verandah at the rain dripping from the eaves and listening to the waterfall behind us.


On a visit to the nearby men’s room as we made our way toward the garden’s exit, I found a vase of fresh flowers by the sink.


A flamboyant koi waved sayonara as we left.


Japan Trip 2010-Day 7

Monday, March 29th, 2010


Maya sent us off in a taxi this morning on a home visit along with Nita and Janet, our fellow Californians, and an envelop containing her phone number and the hotel’s, the address of our destination, and 5 new 1000 yen bills to pay the fare.

We were let out at a non-descript looking house in a dense residential neighborhood and invited in with broad smiles by a couple carrying umbrellas and signing to remove shoes. “My name is Kane, like Citizen Kane,” laughed the host. “This is my wife Akiko, who speaks no English.”


He led us down a narrow corridor to the formal tatami reception room and immediately out the back door to the garden, where we donned slippers for the first stage of the tour. It was like a miniature Kenrokuen, packed with striking rocks, artfully shaped trees, stone lanterns, winding pathways and several water features.


The rocks, he informed us, were purchased from a garden supply store and delivered with a crane from the back alley.  The larger trees were pruned by professionals and he handled the shrubs and delicate bonsais. Behind a screen was his flower and vegetable garden and across the alley, Akiko grew 100 varieties of prize-winning roses.

Back in the parlor we sat around the table in low chairs and Akiko brought green tea and a sweet wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf.


We each were presented with gifts: a lovely ceramic cup and a CD about Japanese cooking, and in turn presented what we had brought, in our case the wrapped Trader Joe’s chocolate bar seeming not quite up to par.

Kano passed out his card and asked us where we were from. When he heard California, he laughed and told us that he recently returned from San Diego, where he went in his capacity as a Rotarian District Leader.  Jan replied that she too was a Rotarian and from her purse dug out a pin in the shape of a sushi roll she’d been given at a convention by a delegate from Japan  and handed it to him.  I was relieved.  He laughed louder than ever and gave Akiko a command in Japanese.  She returned with a plate full of Rotary pins that he passed out to everybody.

After tea, he stood up and showed us a beautiful scroll in the alcove painted by his calligraphy teacher.


He explained the meaning of the kanji, which included a maxim on the importance of humility””not like George W. Bush for example,” he laughed. Jan and I laughed loudly with him and Nita and Janet smiled politely. He would return to making derogative remarks about our former president several times during the visit.

Next he moved to the elaborate Buddhist altar in another corner of the room, flanked by antique looking photos of his and Akiko’s parents.


We’d earlier learned that the production of these altars, popular throughout Japan was a traditional Kanazawa industry. “Very expensive,” he said. It was purchased by his mother with money from a life insurance policy. He explained various implements on the altar, including a book of prayers sung every morning. At Jan’s request he chanted one.


I could have listened for a long time.  Then he placed our gifts on the altar, “as an offering,” he stated.

Led now into the western-style portion of the house, we entered a family room adjoining the kitchen, containing computer, TV, and an American short-haired cat. “I’m a horse maniac,” he laughed, pointing to paintings of horses decorating the walls. “I drew them.” Other horse portraits were done in needlepoint by Akiko. Across a tiny enclosed garden was the adjoining unit now inhabited by his son’s family, including grandchildren.  Back out in the chilly vestibule he gestured toward a large wooden frieze of carved horses.  “I did those too.”


Then up the steep stairs to a former child’s room housing more horse paraphernalia, Akiko’s gold medals for roses, and above the door a little Shinto shrine. “This is for prayers of hope, the other one for thanksgiving.  Here we pray for peace, long life, health, and a little bit of money, not too much.  Remember humility.  Also for the Emperor and his family.  They are the oldest royal family in the world.”


Next he conducted us to the bedroom, where futons are pulled out of the closet and placed on the floor at night.  “The cat sleeps between us,” he laughed.  “Keeps us from making babies.”

Ignoring Nita’s concern that we get back to our hotel in time, he said “Don’t worry, I’ve got it under control,” and led us to a high-ceilinged office, where formerly he conducted his real-estate business, now his son’s.  He and Akiko ushered us to sit on leather couches around another low table and she brought more tea”this time a combination of hibiscus, rose hips and strawberry””lots of vitamin C”–and delicate rice cookies. As we sipped, he took out his calligraphy set and effortlessly inked four characters on white cards bordered in gold leaf, one for each of us.


“The kanji signify this,” he explained. “˜One life, One encounter.’  It’s a Buddhist saying that applies to what has just taken place in this house.”  The room was silenced by the resonance of that proverb in that moment.

After a pause, I mentioned that it expresses how I feel about every class that I teach.  Nita said she’s been on fifteen home visits with OAT, but this has been the best. Akiko brought in elegant little shopping bags to pack up our gifts.

The cab was now waiting, and as he led us out the door of the office, Kano said, “this is most important,” and pointed to a fuzzy picture of a bunch of people in suits. His and Akiko’s faces were recognizable in the crowd.  In the foreground a distinguished gray-haired man was bowing.


“Who is that,” he asked?  Jan said, “Is it the prince?”  “No,” he said, “that’s the Emperor.”  He’d been at a meeting of the equestrian society to which the emperor belongs, where taking pictures was forbidden, but his friend snapped this one and then ran away, “like a papparazzi.”

Back to the hotel we zipped to meet Maya and the rest of the group and off to the train to Kyoto. On the way the sun came out briefly and made a rainbow over lake Biwa.


Jan and I read and reread the Kabuki play’s summary downloaded from the internet without full comprehension, since it was a sequel with many allusions to earlier scripts. The cab driver from the Kyoto station remarked on the theatre’s name we showed him with approval and said, “Empera here.”  Deploying her six-word vocabulary in Japanese,  Jan said “Sakura,” meaning Cherry blossoms. The driver nodded emphatically.  On the way along the river, we could see them in glorious bloom, about two weeks earlier than usual. Cherry blossoms in Kyoto is the number one attraction in Japan according to our authoritative Lonely Planet guidebook.  Anthony said our tour was $2000 cheaper than the one during the expected Sakura period.

We arrived at the beautiful old theatre about 30 minutes late, but the tickets were waiting at the box office.


We rushed upstairs to our seats in the last row of the top balcony.  The set was brilliantly lit and colored”a stylized version of the cherry blossom scene outside, itself a stylized version of a natural landscape.


The sets changed magically”one of the attractions of Kabuki”as did the costumes of the lead actor who played seven roles, both male and female.  There was lots of action, some of which we understood, including the accidental murder of the queen and the escape of the well-meaning perpetrator through a stormy sea created by windblown silk banners.


During our hasty entry I saw no prohibition on picture taking, so I snapped a few with the flash down, but an usher dashed upstairs to ask me please to stop.  Now I was paparazzi.

At the first intermission, we bought delicious sushi in a Styrofoam bento box, joining the other audience members in getting nourishment during the four and a half hour performance.  We were the only Caucasians in sight. The next act may have explained why. The set was a dimly lit scene in a humble  farmhouse.  The assassin was told of his error by the visiting courtier who deceived him earlier and who placed a sword in front of him.  For the next hour, the disgraced murderer lamented his dishonor and worked up to committing seppuku with the sword, in the presence of his blind albino child and his grieving sister. As they wept beside him, he did the deed, and it took the next 50 minutes of his incomprehensible groaning for him to finally die.

The remainder of the sushi tasted especially good at the next intermission, which was followed by a short final act, which included a swordfight ballet, brilliant acrobatics, the ascent of a ghost in a beautiful kimono to heaven, two more relatively brief seppukus, and the final vaporizing of the ghost as a result of the Emperor’s flashing it with a small image of Buddha.

Japan Trip 2010–Day 8

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010


Jetlag, insomnia, overstimulation and exposure to the elements caught up with me during the first night in our modest but comfortable Kyoto hotel, inflicting a sore throat that I feared would turn into serious illness. But morning sunshine and the cheerful greeting of Maya garbed in kimono lifted my spirits.


She too was puffy with a cold. On the way to our first destination she told us of the special distinction of Kyoto, Japan’s capital and the seat of the Emperor until it moved to Tokyo, its anagram, in 1867.  It was laid out in a grid a thousand years earlier and still had building restrictions against skyscrapers to preserve views of the hills and the prominence of its more than 2000 temples and shrines.  Three hundred varieties of flowering cherry trees bloomed here. The city was spared bombing in World War II only because of the intervention of Henry Stimson, Secretary of War, who had an appreciation for its beauty.

First stop was a prominent one of those temples known as Sanjusanjendo, founded in 1164 and rebuilt in its present form in 1266, which appeared contemporary in its clean lines and spare ornamentation.


Removing shoes at the entry, we followed the crowd into a dark 390 foot passageway that faced an array of gold-covered larger-than-life-sized boddhisatvas, 200 long and five deep on ascending risers, each in an identical position, with a serene but individual expression.  Looked at face-on, their interlocking radiances created a dizzying visual buzz, looked at diagonally they lined up like rows of corn.  In front of every fifth one of these stood a bigger figure of a Hindu god in a twisted position with a ferocious look, drapery flying and weapon brandished.  Their remarkable realism and fluidity reminded me of the baroque sculptures of Bernini, though carved 500 years earlier.  As we approached the middle of the gallery we heard gongs and chants and smelled incense.  Monks were praying before a huge statue of  “Eka-Dasa-mukha-sahasra-bhuja-Avalokite-svara” or Kannon, the hermaphrodic Buddha of mercy, with eleven faces and 20 pairs of arms. I tossed a 50-yen coin into the box and begged for relief from illness and forgiveness for being cheap.

Outside in the brilliant sun, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom.


On we traveled across town and up to the range of forested mountains enclosing it on the east.  Led by Maya’s wand, now hard to distinguish from the blooming background, we joined the throng climbing the steep shop-lined streets leading up to the Kiyumizo Dera temple complex.


By contrast to the somber and flat temple we’d left, this place was noisy, exuberant and vertical, steep steps leading to terrace upon terrace, views of the city below opening wider, people at the lower levels appearing tiny at the base of vertiginous foundations and stone walls.


This was a place, said Maya, where individuals come to find mates and couples to ask for fertility.


Up this high the blossoms were just starting to burst and I got to see what I’d been looking for since Kanazawa, evidence of the armies of arborists who must be deployed to do the continual meticulous trimming of trees.  They worked as a crew with ladders and small saws, deliberating over each cut and hand bundling every twig.


Another smart contrast was provided by our next destination,  Ninjo Castle, a samurai fortress built by the Shogun military dictatorship in 1625. Surrounded by a wide outer and inner moat and two sets of forbidding stone walls, it reminded me of the Castle in Kanazawa.


No cherry trees here and the weather darkened.  More old wood and murals of gnarled pine trees on gold leaf background representing long life, strength and evergreen vitality.  The rooms were designed like those in the ryokan, spare, with tatami mats, sochi screens, alcoves and decorated ceilings, but on a gargantuan scale, the walls 20 feet high, the porticoes, which squeaked deliberately to warn of assassins, fifteen feet wide, the footprint of the building 27000 square feet.  Each chamber had different murals, less formal, more intimate as one moved from the forbidding atmosphere of the hall where the Shogun received his feudal vassals to the private quarters where he was entertained by geishas and consorts.  But every room, we were told, included a bell pull and hidden door behind which soldiers waited to be summoned at a moment in the event of threat.

We had time only for a brief visit to the splendid but appropriately austere gardens outside, devoid of flowers and adorned with artfully placed rocks imported from the far corners of the country.


An excellent lunch of French cuisine”the bread as good as any in Paris–was served in a small dining room off a larger restaurant at Kyoto University. The walk there from the bus allowed an even briefer taste of the academic atmosphere of what Maya said was probably Japan’s most prestigious institution of higher learning.

We arrived at our final destination just before the gates closed: Kinkakuji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, built in 1397 as a retirement villa for a Shogun and converted by his son to a Zen temple.


It’s famous for its exquisite architecture and gardens and also as a cause celebre, since it was burned down by a deranged monk in 1954, the subject of a novel by You-kio Mishima (my favorite Japanese writer), and then rebuilt quickly with publicly donated funds. Even after a day packed with enough highlights for a week and observed among crowds, the beauty of this place was deeply stirring.  Taking pictures and returning to them, I was grateful to the camera for filtering and arranging the views.




After a needed rest back at the hotel, Jan and I wandered through narrow streets off the main boulevard of Kyoto looking for food.  An unassuming little place with bikes parked outside attracted our attention, and we found a reasonably priced dinner of eggplant in a lemony sauce and rice served by a shy and handsome young waiter.

Japan Trip 2010–Day 9

Thursday, April 8th, 2010


We again were looking forward to a day off from the rigors of the tour as it embarked on an optional trip to Nara, the destination we had planned to visit on our own a week later.  The intention was to find a subtemple of Nanzenji suggested by our guidebook, a stroll in the woods away from crowds where we could meditate and absorb some of the beauties of Kyoto at our own pace.

We walked to the bus stop down the main boulevard near our hotel,  surprised at the hush despite the volume of traffic, dodging bicycles that sped along the sidewalk.


We got off at a stop near the eastern mountains, north of Kiyumizo Dera and sauntered through a neighborhood of elegant houses and gardens graced by a little plant shop and a footpath along a canal routing the everpresent flowing water through the city.



At the massive gate to Nanzenji we met up with the Sunday crowd, including quiet sketchers and noisy kids.



Attempting unsuccessfully to follow the map, we hiked a mile in the wrong direction along a lovely wooded aqueduct and ended up at a city waterworks that served as a picnic ground for locals.


Back at the Temple we abandoned the search for seclusion in favor of lunch, which we found just outside the gate at a tiny noodle shop  run by two elderly ladies who stumbled among the shoeless feet of packed patrons to bring us our soup.

Revived by the repast, we set out for the “Philosopher’s Walk,” a famous attraction recommended by Maya.  This footpath straddling both banks of a stone canal running along the base of the mountains, was bordered with cherry trees in full bloom, forsythia, japonica, azalea and rhododendron.


Every quarter mile another path led up into the forest to a temple, but despite the press of people, the way was so charming we decided to follow it to its terminus at the Temple of the Silver Pavilion.


As we approached, however charm was eclipsed by rank commerce and raucus public. Swept into line, we paid the substantial entrance fee and shuffled by mysterious piles of raked sand for which the place is well known.


As we wound up the steep manicured hillside, Jan had a grief-tinged memory of being here 30 years earlier with her mother, who made jokes in English that somehow had elicited delight from the gardeners.


Even outside the fence separating the temple grounds from the mountain above, I noticed that the ground had been raked clean.


The weather again turning dark, we dragged ourselves to a bus stop, waited 25 minutes in the cold and then capitulated into hailing a cab to return us to the hotel, where we took comfort from hamburgers served in the snack bar.

Japan Trip 2010–Day 10

Thursday, April 8th, 2010


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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