Friday, December 31, 2010

Great Wall of China and Ming Tombs

“He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man.” Mao Zedong

The buses were in front of our hotel and waiting for our 7:30 a.m. departure to the Great Wall of China. We ran the “Ha-low” gauntlet to board the bus and settled in for the hour+ ride out to the wall. This is what our family had been waiting for – sure we wanted to see the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square – but the Great Wall? That was the quintessential image of China – I’d seen it in magazines, picture books, it was even in the opening image of one my all time favorite kids movies “Mulan.” Wrenn, my daughter, sat next to me that morning and she glanced at me at one point with the expression of “who are you?” on her face. I was so excited – I was uncharacteristically giddy. I told her I was sorry (I think I was freaking her out a bit) but that I’d seen pictures of The Great Wall and of course had thought to myself that it’s magnificent, but it wasn’t even a dream of mine to come to China and see it because I’d never even thought it would be in the realm of possibilities. And yet, here I was, sitting on a bus traveling with my family to experience something I’d never even thought possible (I know, there’s a lesson in there for me).

We arrived early, and boarded the ropeway to the top and had two hours to explore the Great Wall. It wasn’t exactly a picture perfect day – it was hazy – but while it started out a bit brisk, by the time we were all walking on the wall, we were shedding our layers and for a few, brief moments the sun broke through the. My family took off – setting a goal of reaching a far off gate. I decided to take my time, I would not be here again and I wanted to take in every, single minute. A couple of things struck me; one was that it was really quiet out there, of course it was November not exactly the height of the tourist season, but after the hustle and bustle of Beijing it was very peaceful (I understand however that if you come in the summer it is anything but quiet, more like a carnival atmosphere with hoards of tourists); another thought was that the United States is a toddler in World History, well maybe more like an infant. This original wall was started 2000 years ago (221 B.C.). With a country so rich and deep in culture, no wonder our two countries can have culture-clashes at times. It makes me want to learn more about China, with it’s population at over one billion people and it’s emergence as a world power I’m thinking we’d all better know a lot more about this country.

I did eventually meet up with my family, after climbing more than 400 steps up a steep incline to the northern most point where you could explore the wall (you can only traverse certain renovated sections of the wall). Jeff was already sipping a beer he bought from one of the vendors – he asked if I would like one and just at that moment all the vendors quickly packed up their wares and vanished over the “do not enter” sign to the off-limits section of the wall. We tourists stood there looking around wondering what just happened, when someone spotted a figure hiking up through the brush off to the side of the wall. We all surmised that a guard must be headed our way and these vendors weren’t exactly “approved” for selling their goods on a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Noting the time, we headed back – each family member at their own pace. I wanted to savor, I wanted to try and not forget a single moment. When we were stateside and oblivious to the fact that the military would one day send us to live overseas, our trips consisted only of places we could drive to – exclusively on the East Coast. Jeff and I would sometimes refer to these trips as “Scouting Expeditions” – as in, we’re here to gather information so that when we come back we’ll know what to come back and see. Our trips in Asia have a different mindset – these are onetime deals, at least for me – hopefully our children will be able to come back to some of these places with their kids … a long, long time from now. So the approach is somewhat different and when I leave a site, like the Great Wall, it is bittersweet. I’m so incredibly thankful I’ve had the chance to have the experience, but sad at the same time knowing I will not pass this way again.

We boarded the buses and headed for our next destination a Cloisonne Factory/lunch. Seeing the Cloisonne being made through the windows of the factory was interesting and we were able to get in a bit of power-shopping and purchase some gifts for our friends and family back home. And then we were off and running again, next destination – the Ming Tombs.

Ming Tombs
This is the final resting place for 13 of the 16 Ming emperors. We stopped first at the Spirit Way, passing through the Great Palace Gate and by a giant bixi (a mythical tortoise-dragon-like animal). The Spirit Way is lined with 12 sets of stone animals (sitting and standing) and officials. Along the path are beautiful weeping willow trees, which were in abundance both in and around Beijing. With all of the leaves off of the deciduous trees, these sweeping flowing beauties offered a bit of welcome color to the landscape and I loved them – making a mental note that one day, I wanted a garden with a weeping willow tree that would remind me of China.

Another long day, but it was a great day with the highlight of course being the Great Wall. So much to think about and ponder on the bus ride back to the hotel, more great stories and information from our guide, George, which I’ll save for my final Beijing entry. Till next time, sayonara.

Beijing Trip

Our first day full day in Beijing started off with an 8 a.m. bus pickup, first stop Tiananmen Square but before getting on the bus though we had to run a gauntlet of the Ha-low People.

“Ha-low, ha-low … you buy Panda?”
Here is yet another Asian culture vastly different from Japan, to encounter someone here in Japan that would be literally shoving things in your face and saying “Ha-low, ha-low – you buy? Very good price!” is absolutely unheard of. The Ha-low people clearly know where the foreigners are staying and if I could think of a stronger word than aggressive to describe their tactics I would. Sunglasses are very handy in this instance – do not, as our guide George warned us, do not make eye contact, unless you want to buy something. And bargain – you must. At one point I said to Jeff “you need to bargain” and he said “but Jane, it’s only $5” and my response was that’s not the point, they expect you to bargain. I don’t like to bargain – I’d rather just not buy it, suddenly whatever it was I thought would be interesting to have is no longer worth it. Jeff on the other hand is too left brained – he’s just making the calculation in his computer brain and thinking this is a deal compared to what we’d pay back home. A good bargaining team, we do not make. Again, our guide George was great for giving us parameters – he said take the price and cut it in half, then cut it in half again – and walk away, they’ll come after you if they can still sell it for a profit. That first hat we bought for one of our sons, we paid way too much for – even if it did only convert to $5.

Tiananmen Square

The world’s largest square, Mao conceived it as a square to project the enormity of the Communist Party. Mao is entombed in a building on the square and the Chinese people are still very devoted to him. The line to see his tomb can at times be up to 2 miles in length (see photo at left). Again, thank goodness George briefed us, the Ha-low People were out here too, although not quite as aggressive as those in front of our hotel. We had time to wander the square, wander among the hordes of other tourists. There are two gigantic flat screens showing scenes from across China. One of my sons remarked about the propaganda and I questioned why propaganda? I thought the photography was beautiful and why shouldn’t a country show what’s good about them for all to see? I could envision sweeping vistas of the Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountains, Big Sur, towering Sequoias, and Acadia on huge flat screens on The Mall in DC (for all I know they have that now) of course there would probably be some sort of “sponsored by” ad at the end and the foundation the screen would sit on would have the Apple logo or whomever provided it (hopefully a U.S. owned company?). We took the requisite pictures with the portrait of Mao hanging in the background from the Gate of Heavenly Peace. I’m not sure what I was expecting, a place that I’d seen on tv with so much turmoil – the picture of the lone student standing defiantly in front of the tank. My children asked me what happened to him … and I honestly don’t know (but I’ll be looking it up just after I get this entry completed). Our guide referred to this period as “the incident.” I did not have the gumption (or would it be audacity?) to ask him if that was the Chinese party line speaking. I always think of it as the “student uprising.” The word ‘incident’ I’m sure translates well but doesn’t exactly convey how the rest of the world was riveted by what was occurring in China at the time. Incident makes it sound like a Chinese tank bumped into a telephone pole.

Forbidden City
We made our way towards the Gate of Heavenly Peace, for centuries only the Emperor could use the central door and bridge to enter into the Forbidden City. There are over 1000 rooms in the Forbidden City. If you visited a different room everyday, it would take you just over two and a half years to see all the rooms – it is massive. The amount of information thrown at us was equally massive. I quickly went into “information overload.” While I found the information fascinating at the time, there was so much to take in, the historical significance of a building, the architectural details, that I found later I had a hard time keeping it all. What follows is the “best of” what I can remember. We had a packed day – Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and the Summer Palace … so we were moving at a fairly good pace and there’s only so much information this brain can apparently absorb in an 8-hour time span.

Interesting Tidbits about the Forbidden City
• There are no trees inside the walled area of the outer court. This was a strategic decision, so that no enemies could hide in the trees. • The outer court is composed of 15 layers of bricks set in a criss-cross pattern to prevent enemies from digging up into the Forbidden City. • There are large, or maybe I should say mammoth, metal containers stationed around the different buildings – these were fire protection containers. • Emperors could have a thousand or more concubines and there were an equal number of eunuchs that would attend to them, safely ensuring only the Emperor himself would be able to get a concubine pregnant. Other than the Emperor himself, the eunuchs were the only other men allowed to live within the Forbidden City. • Rooftop ornaments led by an official riding a rooster – the story goes that an official of the Emperor’s court brought shame upon the Emperor, who then promptly cast the official to always ride a rooster. The importance of the building determines how many of the rooftop ornaments will be on top (as you will see in my photos, I loved these characters and I tried to only select a few from my expansive photo gallery featuring these guys). • Yellow was the color of Imperial Family, all the rooftop tiles of the Emperor’s buildings were yellow. • The buildings are painted vermillion which represents strength. • Only the Emperor could wear the color yellow – in all of China, not just inside the Forbidden City.

Mental Cultivation Hall – Temporary lodgings were provided here for the Empresses and Concubines, who could only visit upon personal invitation of the Emperor to attend to his “needs.” I am sure there was so much more to the information that was provided that day, but this, along with the fact that the some Emperors had as many as 2000 concubines and the beautiful architecture diverted my attention.

Our last stop on the tour that day was the Summer Palace, a good 45 minute bus ride from the Forbidden City, winding our way through the notoriously slow Beijing traffic. George, our guide, was really fabulous during these rides to keep us informed on not just what we would be seeing but also on day to day things like how he met his wife (through his mom, who worked with his future wife). Why there are few dogs in Beijing … he brought just the right amount of levity, knowing what Westerner’s say and no, it’s not because they eat them (well at least not in Beijing) – the truth is that it’s very expensive to own a dog. You have to pay the equivalent of $1000 U.S. to register your dog and then an additional annual fee of more than several hundred dollars. Before stopping for lunch George tried to enlighten our group on some more of the customs of China – for example he asked us if our parents told us when we were growing up if we’d been told at meal time to make sure we “cleaned our plates, because of the starving children in China.” He said in China they were told to make sure to leave a small amount of food on your plate “for the starving children in the U.S.” true or not, we all chuckled. He did share with us the story of being a part of a state dinner where senior U.S. officials dined – someone apparently did not do their homework and so with each course the U.S. diplomats cleaned their plates. Unfortunately, in China this is a signal to the host that they were still hungry and wanted more. And the Chinese being the ever-accommodating hosts, complied. This merry-go-round circle continued, with more than 128 courses served! That story really stuck with our crew and the importance on knowing the culture you’re visiting. I’ve heard them mention that story since we’ve been back – and when we went to Hong Kong they made sure they left a small amount on each plate, “for the starving children in the U.S.”

5-star Restrooms – “I’m sorry but who can we speak to about the rating system?”
There is apparently a rating system for the bathrooms in China. Our guide, George, with each stop would give the rating for that particular stop saying something along the lines of “very nice bathrooms at this stop – 5 star.” I had been warned about the restrooms before arriving in China. Some comments from friends were – “disgusting” “malodorous” “bring your own tp.” I like the saying “forewarned is forearmed.” So I came equipped with tissue packets, hand wipes, and tried to have a sense of adventure in all things, including the necessary room. Thank goodness we were traveling in cooler weather because it appears the Chinese sewage system cannot handle toilet paper. There are little trashcans that are in each stall where you are supposed to deposit well … your used toilet paper, the smell is overpowering. I’ve been in outhouses on camping trips that smelled better. One bathroom that my daughter and I went in together there was a sign that read “watch for landslides” – this did not convey confidence. My daughter asked “what do you think that means?” and I said I think they meant to say the toilets overflow. Dubiously looking at each other, we shrugged our shoulders and picked our stall, hoping for no landslides.

Summer Palace
The Summer Palace was a place where the royals came to escape the oppressive summer heat of the Forbidden City. Kunming Lake is man-made – dug by hand and a favorite playground for the Dragon Empress. We learned that the Dragon Empress was not a patient woman and liked to get what she wanted, so the deck was stacked so to speak, and the servants would dive beneath the water and attach fish to her lines so she did not have to wait for a bite. They would also from time to time attach jewels, like bracelets, to the fishing lines for surprises.

There is a lovely curved covered walking path that follows along the lake – it is curved because evil spirits can only travel in a straight path. There are over 14,000 paintings, along this walkway depicting landscapes, or flower and birds, or Chinese legends – our guide said that they have to repaint the scenes every seven years to maintain them. The covered walkway extends for nearly a half mile.

Our group moved along at a fairly brisk pace – it seemed I was always in the rear running to catch up after stopping for a moment to take a few quick photos. Last stop for the day was a Silk “Museum” – I was excited for this stop with my interest in fiber art/kimonos/shibori – and while we did learn about the production of silk and it was interesting, it was really nothing more than a front for selling silk products. Of course that didn’t stop us for falling for it – the kids all now have silk pillows to remember the trip by and we have a silk comforter that I will honestly say I’m liking a whole heck of a lot more than the down comforter we had at one point.

That night we ended our first day in Beijing by taking our family to the Kung Fu show – clearly geared towards tourists, we all enjoyed it anyways, seeing an additional aspect of Chinese culture and creating another part of a memory for a lifetime. Next day’s agenda: The Great Wall of China – we could hardly wait. Till next time, sayonara.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Seoul – Palaces, a Market and Seoul Tower

Our final day in Seoul had two palaces, Insadong Market, and Seoul Tower on our itinerary. We started the day out with another cab ride – this one more sedate thank goodness, where we were delivered curbside to Deoksu Palace to view the changing of the guard ceremony.

The Royal Guards Changing Ceremony at Deoksu Palace
The main reason for our visit to Deoksu Palace was to see the changing of the guards, other palaces in Seoul have these ceremonies but this one is apparently considered the best. We arrived with enough time to make our way inside the grounds but were only a few steps inside before I spied a banner reading “2010 Book Festival.” My fellow traveler’s are aware of my passion for books – they are in one of the two book groups I belong to here in Yokosuka. But what they probably didn’t know was that I can not pass by bookstores, or anything about books without stopping to look. So with festival tents set up we strolled along taking a look at the books on display. One tent had a very cool display set up where you could ink up an early version of movable type and by placing a sheet of rice paper down and rubbing it you could get a sense of how labor intensive this process was. We all gave it a try and then moved along to see what else was there to see. I found a beautiful book on Korean flower arranging that I picked up, knowing I’d have to lug it around the entire day. No sooner had I made my purchase than I got a gentle nudge from my friends that time was running out and we needed to head back to the entrance to see the ceremony. As we started back we could hear the traditional band playing the music along with the sound of a steady drum beat … my pace quickened, I did not want to miss out on this, nor the chance to wiggle my way into position for some photo ops.

The elite Palace Guards who defended the palace and escorted the King were called Geum-gun (Soldiers Guarding the Forbidden Palace) and were responsible for opening and closing the palace gates as well as guarding and patrolling the area around the gate. Deoksu (meaning virtue and long life) Palace served as the king’s residence following the withdrawal of Japanese occupied forces in 1593. The palace was originally called Geum-gung (the Forbidden Palace) because it was off limits to ordinary citizens. In 1907, the Emperor Gojong moved into Deoksu after relinquishing his throne to his son, Emperor Sunjong.

The traditional Korean attire was very colorful – a contrast to the more subdued tones of Japan. The music played by the traditional Korean band was wonderful, the blowing of conch shells, the beating of the drums, the high-pitched wail of the flutes. It really was quite special and I’m so glad I had a chance to see this while in Seoul. For more information on the Royal Guards Ceremony go to:

With the ceremony over we were off to the next palace – Changdeok Palace. Taxi!

Changdeok Palace
This is a huge sprawling complex with many buildings and some lovely garden areas. At the information booth/ticket office you can rent a headset with a guided tour in English. I recommend this, however even for me, one who likes details, I hit information overload at one point and shut it off – TMI. I enjoyed looking at the architecture, Korean style architecture is much more colorful than traditional Japanese architecture. The brightly painted architectural details were beautiful.

Surrounding Geunjeongjeon Hall, in the palace complex, are twelve stone statues – one for each birth year – rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, lamb, monkey, rooster, dog and boar (see photo). We moved along to Yeonji pond and the Gyonghoeru pavilion which is a lovely spot to take a break. Further back in this expansive complex is Hyangwonjeong – an octagonal shaped pavilion. This is one of the most photographed areas in Korea and I could see why. It’s lovely.

With two more stops on our itinerary we moved along in search of Insadong Market. For more information on Gyeongbokgung go to:

Insadong Market
This was the market I was waiting for … I love seeing traditional crafts and had read that this market was THE place to go in Seoul to find celadon pottery and all sorts of other Korean crafts. I was not disappointed. The main street is closed to traffic on the weekends and you can wander in and out of shops looking at all the wares. I had read some great reviews on Ssamzie Market and stopped at the information booth to find out where it is located. Armed with my map we made our way down the street – and found the building, which is an architectural treat, along with art cases (see the photo of the zipper bags – sooo cool!) and some great stores with lots of eye candy. This was one of my favorite places we visited while in Seoul.

“But why can’t you take us there?”
I have mentioned the wild taxi rides but have not yet addressed just how difficult it is to get a taxi in the first place. After our trip to the DMZ we were told “just stand here a taxi will come along” after waiting and waiting and waiting some more MJ, our taxi maven, decided to take matters into her own hands and went to the security booth at the USO and asked that they call us a taxi. The next day we didn’t do much better … after leaving the Myeongdong shopping district we asked a policeman if there was a certain place to pick up a taxi as the cars seemed to be whizzing by at breakneck speed. He said “stand here and I’ll flag one down for you.” As we waited, we watched fashionista after fashionista dash down the road about 15 feet ahead to grab the next available taxi. We thanked the policeman and decided to join in the “I’m better than you at getting a taxi” game. Later that night after the Nanta show we tried for an HOUR to get a taxi with no luck, finally gave up and tried to take the subway system back to our hotel. We almost pulled it off, but ended up getting off at the wrong station and in the end still had to get a taxi – MJ out there taking control of “Mission Taxi.” So here we are, it’s our last evening and we’ve planned to go to Seoul Tower, this time we can find a taxi but no one will take us there. Finally, one signals for us to get in and after we all pile into the cab and our “taxi maven” shows him a map and information he motions to us to get out. This is when my friend Monika says with a tone of frustration in her voice “but why can’t you take us there?” and I start to laugh. “Monika, he can’t speak English and you want him to explain why he’s saying no?” She responds with a “but I just want to understand why he won’t take us there.” I get it. It’s one of the frustrating parts of traveling in another country and you cannot speak the language, sometimes you’re just not going to understand something. This is when you hope that the “random acts of kindness” fairy will swoop down and step in. As we all unload from the cab a young man who had just stepped out of the cab, looked back and saw the confusion taking place and came over to see if he could help. In impeccable English he asked where we were trying to go and then in rapid-fire Korean had an exchange with the driver, next thing we knew we were off on another “wild taxi ride” through the streets of Seoul, destination Seoul Tower.

Seoul Tower
I’m not sure I have a lot to say about this stop … we had wanted to grab a cocktail while we viewed the city but it turns out the restaurant at the top only will let you have dinner and we weren’t too interested in this option. We had hoped to get there right at dusk but didn’t quite make it after the long lines for the cable car and then another line for the ropeway. If it’s a pretty day and you have the time you can climb up the hill to the Seoul Tower but we were on a timeframe and decided to take the easier way out. It is what it is, a tourist trap, but it does afford a nice view of Seoul.

I had so many questions from friends about Korea when I returned. The Japanese and the Koreans have not exactly been the best of friends over the centuries. Mostly my Japanese friends were curious, what were the Koreans like? My American friends also wanted to know if the Koreans were rude – they have that unfortunate reputation. Aside from my encounter with the chargin’ grandma I didn’t find the Koreans rude. In fact, I sort of liked the hustle bustle of Seoul. It was much more like being in D.C. or NYC to me than Tokyo. The architecture was very western, there were trashcans (something you rarely find here in Japan and when you do you feel like you just won the lottery), there was chaos and disorder getting on the subway or waiting for a taxi which is soooo much more like the U.S. than here in Japan. Japan is an orderly nation, I’m sure this is a cultural thing, when you have this many people living in such a small area in order to survive the society needs structure – you pass by a bus stop here and everyone is lined up, a taxi stand – the same thing, the train platform – ditto. In Japan if you bump into someone as your walking down a crowded street or in a jam-packed train you’d say “sumimasen” – common courtesy – but there was none of that in Seoul. So for me, Seoul was more like a taste of the U.S. with a markedly Asian flare. I liked it and I’m hoping to return, next time with my family … shopping will not be on the list but there’s so much more to Seoul than that. Till next time, sayonara.

Friday, November 19, 2010

"Pali-Pali" – Hurry Hurry we have shopping to do!

Pali, Pali (hurry, hurry)
“We drive fast, eat fast, do everything fast – we are always in a hurry.”

This was what our Korean tour guide from the DMZ tour had told us about Koreans. It’s a good phrase to know before arriving in Seoul. It gives you a bit of insight into the culture here and definitely clues you in on how the taxi drivers get around the city.

“Excuse me, but did you go to the Pali, Pali taxi drivers school?”
As I mentioned in my previous entry, I heard more horn blowing in the first 24 hours of being in Seoul than I have in the entire last year of living in Japan. The cab drivers in Seoul are crazy! Most were quite nice but they drive like a bat out of hell. Red light ahead? That must mean “floor it.” Car stopped in front of you? That translates into – “Speed up and hope they start moving before you hit them.” Which sadly for us on one of our wild taxi rides the car in front of us did not move quickly enough. After rear-ending the car in front of us and checking to make sure we were all o.k. – our driver asks “is it o.k. if I pull over?” While we were waiting in the taxi for our driver to exchange information we all looked at each other and commented how this would never have happened in Japan. The rest of our taxi rides did not result in any collisions but apparently not for lack of trying – we nearly hit a bike rider in one ride, another the driver decided that going up on part of the sidewalk would help him circumvent some traffic, one member of our party had the horn blown at her for not getting out of the way quick enough (this was from the driver who had not even 60 seconds earlier dropped us off!) and after piling into one cab and telling him where we wanted to go he shooed us all out of his cab.

Namdaemun Market
Our second day in Seoul was earmarked for some shopping and a show. The first stop was Namdaemun Market – a huge, sprawling market that covers over 10 acres in the downtown area and has over 1000 shops. Anything and everything is available here – toys, food, clothes, crafts. I wasn’t in the market for anything in particular – but sure did enjoy looking. I did manage to purchase a few sheets of beautiful Korean paper and a very pretty fur scarf but aside from that my load was light – unlike some of my shopping companions. While my friends were shopping I wandered down an alley and found the Korea Snack Company – the shop owner was very friendly and offered me a sample. Some sort of pounded, puffy rice coated with honey on the inside. Quite tasty. Wandering further along I spied a beautiful display of figs. They looked delicious and I was ready to buy some, but first I wanted to take a picture …

“So were the Koreans rude?”
I was asked this a lot upon my return from Seoul. For the most part I did not find them rude – no more so than what I’d encounter in Washington, D.C. I think it’s part of the Pali, Pali mindset. They have someplace to go, are focused on the job at hand and do not have time to be bothered with tourists. But I did encounter one incredibly ornery elderly grandmother type selling her figs in Namdaemun Market. There are tourists everywhere in Namdaemun Market, so perhaps she’s just tired of them, but she does have her wares set up in the middle of a walking street – out for everyone to see and admire – so I really didn’t think too much about pulling out my camera and taking a few shots. But much to my surprise I got off one picture before she charged at me – this older Korean grandmother could move! I could not understand her anger – showed her the picture, that I hadn’t actually taken a photo of her but of the fig display … but she wasn’t about to listen to a westerner, yelling at me, waving her hands and promptly covered her nice display of figs with a cloth. Clearly, she’s done this before. She sat down behind her covered figs with her arms crossed, glaring at me. Well alrighty then, guess I won’t be buying any of her figs for a snack later … as the Scarecrow said to the apple tree in the Wizard of Oz “they probably had little green worms in them anyways.”

Later that evening we went to see the Korean show called Nanta or “Cookin.” This was a funny show, with audience participation, lots of dancing and percussion – sort of like Stomp taking place in a Korean kitchen. I had read the reviews and the warnings … if you are a Westerner you might want to sit in the middle or further back in the audience to avoid being selected to come up on stage. We arrive after another Pali-Pali taxi ride and start to take our seats – thank you my friends who scurried in front of me, leaving me 3 seats in from the aisle. I’m thinking well, we’re halfway back from the front and I’m not on the end … surely I’m safe. Wrong – at one part of the show the “Sexy Guy” selects me from the audience to come up on stage. Happy … I am not. I am petrified to be in front of people and much prefer to always, always be in the back of a group, behind a camera, basically no where near any attention. Somehow Sexy Guy must have some sort of radar and honed right in on me as a victim. Aside from my “15 minutes of fame” I thoroughly enjoyed the show and for a brief moment at least got to have some contact with a guy who is definitely cut and well deserves his show title as “Sexy Guy.” “Cookin” is an international show and if it happens to come to your town it is well worth seeing. For more information go to:

So, two really busy days down, one more to go. Our final day was spent seeing a bit of culture and getting in a little more shopping. Till next time, sayonara.

Korea - "It is o.k? Yeah"

October was a busy month, my English Conversation classes were in full gear, my children were busy with school and extracurricular activities but somehow I managed to squeeze in two trips – sans family. I was due … way overdue. One trip was to Nagoya to my shibori sensei’s studio for a four-day workshop. There is so much to share from that trip that I hardly know where to begin and I can’t say that it was a pleasure trip – it was four days of long hours and hard work. I’ve made notes, started several blog entries and still I have not pulled that one together. I will, but it may still be a while. The other trip I was able to take was to Seoul Korea with three friends from here on base. It was jam-packed and there were many hilarious moments. It was a trip filled with history, shopping, a highly entertaining show, several wild taxi rides, a couple of palaces and more shopping. I had not gone away for a girls weekend for more than 5 years (no Jeff, packing out by myself for an overseas move does not count) and I needed a break, needed some time to myself, needed to have the luxury of stopping to look at something, anything that I fancied and not be questioned about “what are you looking at?” “come on, can we go now?” “how much longer?” I’ve stated this before – but as a reminder, my family is not a family of shoppers – not even window-shoppers. And while I can’t say I’m the biggest shopper in the world I do enjoy looking at things, especially things I know I’ll probably never get to see again. So I was looking forward to this trip … a lot.

We really scored on the weather, arriving in Seoul late on a Thursday evening it was clear, a slight nip in the Fall night air and it stayed that way the entire time we were there. After months and months of humidity in Japan, this was a welcome respite. My friends and I had booked the USO DMZ tour for our first day in Seoul. The taxi ride from the airport should have been my first clue that “I wasn’t in Kansas anymore” – the cab driver barreled down the highway and used his horn freely. After a year of living in Japan this was a bit of a shock – you don’t really think about things that vanish from your environment, like horn blowing, until you’re confronted with them again. Our ride over to the USO was no different, fast paced through the city streets, very reminiscent of riding in a NYC cab. Not sure my companions were digging this too much but I thought it was a crack up – sort of an Asian spin on the west.

The DMZ was a long day and honestly, I was very ambivalent about going. My family on the other hand couldn’t believe I was going there without them, “that’s not fair” was a common refrain. Here are some of my thoughts from the day:

Infiltration Tunnel
Our first stop, the 3rd tunnel tour was interesting only from the perspective of the audacity of North Korea digging infiltration tunnels into South Korea and then painting the inside of the tunnels black and claiming they were mining tunnels for coal. Really? Didn’t they think someone would discover there’s no coal in that area?

Dora Observatory
The stop at the Dora Observatory gives you the chance to look across the Demilitarized Zone and view North Korea’s Propaganda Village. Built by the North Koreans as a “Peace Village,” until 2004 communist propaganda blasted from huge speakers up to 20 hours a day in the hopes of inducing defections to the North. Apparently their propaganda campaign was unsuccessful and in 2004 the speakers were silenced.

Dorasan Station – A train station to nowhere
Dorasan station was educational – I wasn’t aware of the South-North Korea Joint Declaration in 2000 and the importance of connecting the railways. When relations were somewhat better between the two nations the CEO of Hyundai decided to build this train station in the hopes of cutting out nearly 2 weeks of transit time from South Korea to Europe. This was an economic decision – 21 days by ship or hook up a railway spur from South Korea, across North Korea and then onto the TransSiberian Railway. Good idea. Shipments would go from 21 days to 7. Sadly for him and the country, shortly after the train station and railway opened up there was an incident where a South Korean tourist was shot and killed when she veered out of the restricted area her group was confined too. That’s all it took. Now this train station is a stop on the tourist circuit – a symbol of one step forward and two steps back.

JSA/Camp Bonifas
The part the tour that impressed me the most was the stop at Camp Bonifas and JSA. We had to stop here for a briefing at Camp Bonifas – signing of a waiver in case of an “incident” the U.N. would not be held liable – and an interesting short film on the history of the area. We then boarded a bus that would take us directly to the JSA (Joint Security Area). The JSA area was what I’d been waiting for, while I found the other stops somewhat interesting, this area is where history has been made. It was very quiet, and I could feel a certain amount of tension in the air. The South Korean soldiers (ROK – Republic of Korea) are intense, as you would expect at a border with your enemy. They are trained in martial arts – all have at least one black belt in Taekwondo, are college graduates – this is an elite assignment for a ROK soldier. While visitors are in the area they maintain a ROK Ready stance – a modified Taekwondo stance – and they wear sunglasses so that no eye contact is made. At building corners they stand half-covered/half-exposed to show readiness to fight or take cover if a fight breaks out.

No photography was allowed while traveling from Camp Bonifas to JSA. We saw the South Korean village that has the unfortunate claim to fame as being located in the middle of the DMZ – but the silver lining for those born into this village is that they are well compensated, earning on average the equivalent of $80,000 each year. They do have to be inside by midnight every night and they have to spend at least 240 nights a year at their residence. I’m not sure that would be worth it to me … having restricted freedom but I supposed if this is your home and where your ancestors are from it would be hard to leave.

For more information on this area go to:

“It is o.k.? Yeah”
Our Korean tour guide that day was so cute, with each explanation of what we were going to do she would end with “It is o.k.? Yeah” followed by a short little “he, he, he.” My friend Monika and I started to crack up each time this was said …we wondered what she would do if the busload of Westerners had said – “Uhh, no it is not o.k.” This was our first full day in Korea and we were starting to get clued in with a particular mindset – our tour guide mentioned quite a number of times throughout the day about “when we are reunited” like it was going to happen next week. This surprised me, from a westerner’s perspective it sure seems like North Korea has dug in and they aren’t embracing the idea of reunification any time soon, but our guide truly seems to have hope that this will happen soon.

It was a long day but I’m glad my friends wanted to take the DMZ tour. I learned so much and hope that my family can come here to share this experience. Check back in for the rest of the entries on my trip. Till next time, sayonara.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Engaku-ji Kyudo

The Way of the Bow
In the Spring, my family and I unexpectedly happened upon the Yabusame Archery demonstration (archery competition on horseback) in Kamakura. It was fascinating to watch, the skill, the tradition, the costumes. All of it screamed ancient Japan to me. I shared with some of my students that I had enjoyed watching this event and that my family had tried their hand from time to time with basic backyard archery. Watanabe-san shared that her husband had been taking lessons and studying this traditional Japanese archery technique at Engaku-ji in Kita-Kamakura. "Really?" I said, "Can we come watch some time?"

We moved on with our English conversation lesson, weeks and months passed by and I let it go. Maybe my request was too forward, too you know ... American. But Watanabe-san is a gracious Japanese lady and too my delight on the last lesson in July before summer break she came in with several dates and asked if our family would be available to meet her at the train station in Kita-Kamakura to go see her husband and his fellow archery students practice. I was thrilled! A window into this quiet, meditative art form of Kyudo.

A little research into the art of Kyudo and I found that it is considered a meditative form of martial arts and is said that it's essence is to be the pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty. Attitude, movement and technique come together to form a perfect state of harmony – where truth exists. A kyuko archer maintains his or her composure and grace even in times of stress or conflict – goodness comes from this, always displaying qualities of courtesy, compassion, morality and non-aggression. Beauty enhances life and stimulates the spirit, it is found in the refined etiquette that surrounds the kyudo ceremony.

No thoughts, No Illusions
In Kyudo, the when the archer gives oneself completely to the shooting, then it is said they have reached the spiritual goal through the perfection of the shooting and the spirit - there are no thoughts, no illusions.

It was a sweltering August morning when we arrived at the Engaku-ji Temple in Kita-Kamakura. This is a Zen temple, one of the larger temples in the area, with beautiful grounds and a huge bell, cast in 1301 (no, that's not a typo), that is a Japanese National Treasure (at the top of 140 steps ... which Watanabe-san managed to knock out easily while I tried hard not to sound like I was about to go into cardiac arrest as I tried to keep up with her).

Watanabe-san guided us to a small area off to the side of the main temple grounds where there was a lovely traditional Japanese building and a small garden area. Those of you who have been reading my posts over the last year have heard me mention before how welcoming the Japanese are, when you're their guest you are treated like royalty. I should not have been surprised but I wasn't expecting anything ... just that we would have the opportunity to see someone shoot these very long and elegant bows and be on our way. I should have known better. We are greeted by a Japanese lady in traditional Kyudo attire, after introductions and bowing we are guided to an area that has clearly been prepared for us. Two benches are covered in royalty red cloth, incense has been lit around the area to keep away the mosquitoes, and no sooner are we seated than we are presented with iced tea with sugar pats. Unlike the sweet tea I grew up with in the south (so sweet it makes your fillings hurt as one of my friends used to say), tea here in Japan is offered unsweetened with beautiful little sugar "cubes" that have been molded into a shape (see photo). I have to instruct my family that you place the sugar pat on your tongue and sip the tea, not plop the sugar pat into the cup and swirl it around until it's dissolved!

With refreshments served, we settle in to watch the members practice. I learn from Watanabe-san that her husband has been studying Kyudo for 10 years and this is the first time she has seen him practice. I sit there for a moment and ponder this revelation and realize this was no simple request from me months ago ... I cringe and hope we have not caused undue disruption as honored guests, but so grateful to have another opportunity to learn about another part of Japanese culture.

Thoughts that stuck me that morning ... it was blazing hot and humid even in the shade, the cicadas are humming their incessantly loud song, butterfly's are floating and darting through the thick summer air, the aroma of incense lingers, a slight breeze stirs the leaves and even though we are only steps away from the JR tracks that run from Yokosuka to Tokyo we are in another world. Time has slowed, daily worries are gone. The kyudo students move with grace, every step, every moment seems to be measured, thoughtful.

Hassetsu - Eight stages of shooting
It was evident to me that as we started to watch there is a very clear set of rules, stages I was to learn later, that the archer must work their way through before ever releasing the arrow. There were three different positions and if you notice in one of the photos, you'll see three tiny flower bud vases at the edge of the building, this is the sort of "x marks the spot" from where the archer lines themselves up. This is as much mental as physical - the archer takes the time to examine, meditate, examine some more - very Eastern mentality. There is nothing hurried about this martial art. Our family all sort of chuckled later to think about how Westerners would just grab the bow and arrow, get yourself comfortable and "fire at will."

There's so much I hope our kids took away from this experience - faster is not better would be one thing that comes to mind. Opening your mind to learn about other cultures makes you a better and richer person would be another. Etiquette, while we may not always be the best practitioner's of this at home as we slog through our busy family life, does matter (yes mom, you did read that here! Those white-gloved manners lessons in our living room from years ago do still come into play).

I left Engaku-ji a little bit different, part of my Western mentality so ingrained in me chipped away and reshaped with Eastern. No thoughts, no illusions ... I love this, it may just have to become my new mantra. I am so thankful to Watanabe-san and her husband for arranging this very special morning for me and my family. It has been added to our family highlights of living in Japan and will be a memory we will treasure. Till next time, sayonara.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Fuji-Yoshida Fire Festival

What a difference a year can make.

Last year, we were fresh off the plane only a month living in Japan when we came to the Fuji-Yoshida Fire Festival. Japan was intriguing, culturally different, mysterious. This year, Japan is home. Last year I took photos of the festival food, we tried so many different kinds of food - most of which we had no idea what we were eating. This year we passed by the food vendors with barely a glance - "oh, okonomiyaki (pancake like dish with cabbage), yakisoba (stir fry soba noodles with veggies and usually meat)", "oh yawn, look there's takoyaki" (Japanese dumpling with whole baby octopus). Last year we had eyes wide open, it was all new, it was all different and yes as far as the food went some of it was quite novel and we looked to each other to see who would dare eat the poor baby octopus in the batter ...

The difference a year can make is also apparent in your mentality. Last year we stuck together like glue. This year ... "you all have your cell phones? great, see you later, go have fun!" With fires lit, hoards of people, there was never a thought about our kids safety - this will be a hard reality for us when we do return to the U.S.

This year, with advanced planning, Jeff took leave so that he was able to join us. It was warmer than last year (hottest summer on record since they started in 1898) but the skys were clear and we were able to see Mt. Fuji.

The Fire Festival starts off for us at Fuji Sengen Jinja. It is one of the largest forest shrines in Japan and the mossy stone lanterns that line the way into the shrine were enjoying a lovely late afternoon sunbath - my family moved on as I took multiple photos enamored with the scenery. The large cedar trees offered a respite from the warm summer day and the lovely aroma of the cedars mixed in with incense wafting through the air was inhaling a deep sense calm - wish I could bottle the stuff. It was in stark contrast to all the activity once you arrived in the shrine area where there was a buzz about the place as men dressed in Hanten (a short coat with the name of their group on the back) with bells jingling as they walked, the aroma of incense lingering in the air, anticipation as everyone waited for the spirit of the princess to emerge in a shroud and enter into one of the Omikoshi (portable shrines). There's a deep respect as the shinto priests pass by, with the soulful sound of the Shakuhachi Flute (Japanese bamboo flute), the low pitched wailing that accompanies the shroud vs. the festival atmosphere as we encountered a high energy elderly gentleman with a twinkle in his eye as he stopped to offer Jeff and myself a sip of Sake from a communal cup. Jeff seemed hesitant but I jumped right in and laughed saying "what's the difference - you take communion from a communal cup" - his response was "but the priest wipes the cup with a cloth." Right. That makes all the difference.

We followed the shrines down the street with the masses, the bearer's chanting the heavy portable shrines as they go along, the mood definitely shifts after leaving the grounds of the shrine. It's like going to church for Christmas vs. opening presents on Christmas Day when all hell breaks loose. There's laughter, shouting, beer being consumed in public, jostling, kids running – it's lively, it's chaos!

As we walked down the main street the food vendors were starting to set up shop and we quickly got into our festival food mode. Release those barriers people, let's try something new! I had a delicious type of seafood on a stick (I was not going to examine it too closely) grilled and dipped in soy sauce - yum! We found our crepe lady from last year, at the very end of the street, and each of us was rewarded with a delicious crepe in a cone with the filling of our choice (yes I went for a run the next day, burn baby burn). Wrenn wanted to find the fried spaghetti - which we found on our way back up the street, at least this year we knew the choices and only had to guess which was which.

As dusk approached, the taimatsu (torches) were being lit and we had a clear view of Fuji. This year we were able to see the fires that are lit at each of the stations up the side of the mountain (you can barely make it out on our night photo). The crowds were becoming thicker, the heat from the fires much more intense. I could hear the taiko drums and of course sought them out. It is something to see and hear - the air vibrates with the beating of the drums, there is a build up as the pace quickens and the drumming becomes more energetic ... I love it and cannot get enough. In my next life I want to be a taiko drummer ...

The advantage to living in another country vs. visiting it, is that we live with the culture (I can't say in the culture since we do still live on a U.S. military base), we get to revisit favorite events from the previous year and see and notice things we either weren't aware of the year before or hadn't noticed. I spent a lot more time wandering around the shrine grounds this year, the lovely little pond garden I didn't see last year and seeing and hearing the Shishi Odoshi (bamboo deer chaser) with the steady hollow 'tonk,' seeing the awesome dragon where out of respect you are supposed to dip a cup into the water and rinse your mouth and hands from impurities before entering the shrine grounds. Like the Paper Lantern Festival in Kamakura, I do not know if we'll have a chance to come back to the Fuji Fire Festival (the Navy holds that crystal ball), but I will treasure this year's event, seeing Mt. Fuji with the stations lit was a site to behold, the signal that the climbing season has ended and the wait for the next one begins. Till next time, sayonara.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Hachimangu Paper Lantern Festival

A year has past since my second entry in this blog, the Paper Lantern Festival in Kamakura. I can hardly believe we have lived in Japan for a year. I will not lie, there are days that it seems like it's been forever since we left the states and I can't wait to go home ... being homesick, no matter your age can be a powerful emotion. There are other days though that going back to the states, whenever it is will be too soon. Sunday was one of those days ...

The kids and I headed over to Kamakura to see the Hachimangu Shrine's Paper Lantern Festival. Sadly, for the second year in a row Jeff was bound to the hospital and has to "see it" like the rest of my friends and family back home ... by reading my blog. As we did last year, we arrived early enough to look at the lanterns in the daylight, enjoyed looking at the lovely artistic expressions and tried to make a mental note on the ones we wanted to be sure to come back to later when it was dark.

A lot changes in a year, for one thing I am way more savvy riding the trains and my fears from last year of ending up "lost in Japan" with our three kids did not even enter my mind. Being timid about going into shops and not knowing the language have completely evaporated - I know very, very little ... "Gomen-nasai, Nihon-ga sukoshi ... ikura deska?" (very bad Japanese, but roughly I'm trying to say "I'm sorry, I speak very little Japanese ... how much is this?" - half the time the response is in English and I smile, laugh and am sooooo thankful they can speak English! The other half of the time the sales person is very patient, rings up the amount on a calculator and shows me the amount - I can at least understand how much Yen I will be parting with ... again.

So before getting to the shrine, this year the children and I headed down the main shopping street, stopping in my favorite snack store to buy Jeff and others (for care packages to be sent to the states) some Japanese snacks. Next a store for a birthday gift. Finally the ice cream store that has the baked sweet potato ice cream - and this year, others in my family decided to go beyond safe vanilla and give the sweet potato a try (it was a hit). Releasing those barriers has come a long way in a years time.

Purchases made and sweet-tooth's satisfied we headed off to the shrine. I did not get very far before I was already distracted and taking photos of the lotus blossoms in one of the ponds that flank either side of the entrance to the shrine. They were lovely, all phases of them from the creamy white unopened blossom, to the spent pod, I realized that a year ago I would not have appreciated the beauty of what has already been ... now, I look at a lotus pod in a different way, the texture, the color – the influence of Japan has been good for me.

The kids, ever impatient with their ADD mom asked if they could take off and look at the lanterns on their own. This being Japan, I realized I did not even hesitate and said sure, make certain your cell is on so I can reach you ... and they were gone. It wasn't until an hour later and I still had not seen them in the meandering crowds, that I thought - a. they would never have done that a year ago and b. I would never ever let them do that in the States. A lot changes in a year.

One thing though that didn't change is the beauty of the lanterns. Area artists and calligraphers illustrate/paint/draw/sumi-e on these small spaces – some are playful and amusing, some with their subtle use of colors and sumi-e are like delicate flowers, and yet others with their bold calligraphic brush strokes and the intense black ink on the ivory colored paper were quite powerful. After having made the rounds, we were losing daylight, but there was still time before the lanterns were to be lit. Luckily for me, there was an exhibit of some Ikebana work that I took photos of while we waited for the light to change - for my mom and sister but also of course for me. Ikebana (flower arranging) is about the essence - this is my Americanized take on this art form - I have enjoyed learning about this artistic flower arranging, it speaks to my training in Graphic Design.

Finally, it was dusk and the shrine maidens were out with their candles lighting the lanterns, which are stunning with the candle light. Some that I had not noticed in the daylight, came alive in the candlelight – others, that I thought were lovely by day became powerful and intense.

At 7 pm a traditional Japanese Koto musical performance began. The natives were getting restless and it was time to return to the station to catch our train but I begged for 5 more minutes "just give me 5 more minutes so I can hear her play ..." – I figure they owe me, I know over the years I've given them countless "5-more minutes" as I've waited for them to finish a book, a game, a movie ...

And so, I stood there listening to this beautiful and yet haunting music and felt a sense of peace envelop me, the pace to arrive at this event was quick and sure footed ... the pace to leave was slow, calm and lingering ... I do not know if I'll have another chance to come back here, the Navy powers-that-be will determine our fate for next year (at some point, when they deem I have a "need-to-know"). But I hope so, I hope I will be back, to absorb more of this rich culture, to discover what else my family and I have to learn ... till next time - sayonara.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Kubota Museum

Last month I traveled to the Lake Kawaguchiko area close to the base of Mt. Fuji, a two and a half/three hour trip from my house. The purpose of this trip was to visit the Itchiku Kubota Museum. I had seen some blog posts of this special museum and a couple of the people on our Thailand trip had traveled there and said with my interest in Indigo/Shibori/Art that this was a must-see for me. They weren’t kidding.

Once a month I travel to Fujisawa to have an English conversation class, about a 45 minute trip from my house. These ladies have been getting together for over 20 years and I am just one of a long line of American women who have become their teacher. Their English is excellent, they are all talented with varying interests and I have been so fortunate to have them as my students (and I use that word loosely, since there are times I wonder who's learning more). They had asked months ago if there was someplace that I would be interested in visiting and I mentioned the Kubota Museum – but I didn't realize at the time that it was such a hike to get to. Being ever so gracious they didn't bat an eye and started to plan how we would get there. Kimiko, Hiroko, Kato-san and Kazuko met me on the train, very early (I had to catch the 6:17 a.m. train from Yokosuka) headed for Yokohama where we were to catch a bus to Lake Kawaguchiko where the museum is located. It was rainy season and we headed out in pouring down rain but that did not dampen our spirits. In addition to the Kubota Museum there was also a doll museum and a Lavender garden in full bloom on our itinerary. I settled in on the bus ride, read the article I had printed out from the Smithsonian Magazine (in 1995 Kubota's work was exhibited at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, the first living artist to have his/her work exhibited), enjoyed the scenery through the rain soaked bus window, and tried to envision Kubota's work – kimono’s that are considered works of art, take more than a year to make and the artist who had the vision to create these masterpieces was a National Living Treasure up until his death in 2003.

At the age of 14, Kubota left school to apprentice under a Kimono artist that specialized in yuzen (a rice-paste resist dye technique). At the age of 20 he discovered a tsujigahana fragment, a textile and decorative technique from the Muromachi period (1338-1573) at the Tokyo National Museum. With the technique lost over time, Kubota decided to devote his studies to recreating this technique. He also studied Japanese sumi-e and landscape portraiture that would later evolve into his “Symphony of Light” series that represents the four seasons and the universe. His vision was to create a series of 80 kimonos where the landscape design flows from one kimono to the next, creating a panorama of the seasons and views of Mt. Fuji. WWII erupted and Kubota’s self-study of the tsujigahana technique was interrupted. At the end of the war he was stationed in Korea where he was captured by the Russians and sent to Siberia where he was held for several years. During this period of imprisonment he witnessed intense sunsets – among so much despair he found beauty and vowed that once he returned to Japan he would create a Kimono to emulate his vision.

Impressions and Inspiration
The museum does not allow photos of the kimonos, but you can go to the links below and to see some photos of his work in articles that have been written about Kubota. I do love museums and this one will go down as life transforming for me … I know, my husband would probably laugh at this (nuke/doc vs. artist) – but the beauty of Kubota’s work is breathtakingly beautiful. As Kubota was speechless and moved by his discovery of the 17 century tsujigahana textile remanant, so too was I moved by Kubota’s work. It is like nothing I have ever seen – the colors on the kimono’s are intense when they need to be, subtle when called for. The detail work it equisite, embroidery used to emphasize the work is perfection with the silk embroidery threads hand dyed to match the background. The sumi-e painted details are delicate and highlight Kubota’s artistic eye. I could have spent hours there, I wish I had a seat in front of each of these works to just sit and absorb – the texture of each of the works is rich and it took great discipline to not reach out and touch the kimonos. The kimonos are displayed in a large hall that was created with Kubota’s vision. There are large, massive ancient beams that form a pyramid shape towards a pinnacle skylight in the ceiling. The museum does have a small room off of the gallery where you can view an English video of Kubota at work and see the many layers and processes it takes to complete one kimono. I was also in luck that day, with my 4 Japanese friends I was able to ask questions about techniques that perhaps if I had been there alone I would not have … however, I suspect that the docent in the gallery at the time had an excellent command of the English language since she was able to respond to most of my questions without translation.

There is a lovely tearoom off of the main gallery area where we had some green tea and sweet beans – American taste buds may wrinkle their noses at the sound of that but it’s quite nice, the slightly bitter macha green tea complemented by the sweet beans was delicious. The scenery, looking out towards the back of the garden area was lush and green with vegetation and quite relaxing with the sound of the steady rain coming down.

With much reluctance I left the gallery space, with the hope that I will be able to come back here at least once more before my time is up here in Japan. The kimonos rotate and apparently the ones on display had only recently come out to be viewed – so next time I may have the opportunity to see some different masterpieces. The garden area is supposed to be lovely with trails up and behind the museum but it was still raining when we left and I will have to save that for another time.

For more information on Kubota go to:

Lavender Garden
Heading back around the lake to the Lavender garden on the tour loop Retro Bus, just as we were coming around Lake Kawaguchiko the clouds broke and Mt. Fuji appeared! What a treat to see this natural beauty. We reached the park to discover we were in luck, there was a lavender festival going on and I made some purchases … lavender linen water (YES!!), lavender sachets, lavender perfume. Did I mention that I love lavender? Every house we’ve every lived in I’ve planted it … except here. It’s so darn expensive – I did see some plants that were for sale and were a whole lot more reasonable than what I could buy locally and as Kimiko stood patiently while I weighed the pros and cons of lugging a plant by bus and then by train, and then walking it to my car common sense prevailed and I left it behind for someone else to enjoy. We ate some lunch from a vendor, grabbed an excellent locally brewed beer and then headed to the Yuki Atae Doll Museum.

The Yuki Atae Doll Museum
This is a lovely little museum that features a changing display of the dolls by Yuki Atae. These figurative sculptures are meticulously created by Atae, some taking more than a month to create. He takes his inspiration from a more simple time, scenes of children from the early twentieth century – playing games like tug of war, caring for a younger sibling, a group of young boys having a battle. The scenes are charming, most of the dolls are dressed in traditional Japanese clothing – it can take him months to find the correct old kimono cloth to use – and gave this westerner a window into a time gone by. There is a video in the museum, it is in Japanese, but still worth sitting down and watching the process, particularly how he captures the facial expressions of the children. If you have the time to spare, this museum is well worth a detour. Atae’s work has been shown at the Louvre, the Baccarat Museum in Paris and a gallery in Soho, NY.
For more information on Yuki Atae and his work go to:

After the museum we caught the local retro bus back to the Kawaguchiko Station where we caught the bus back to Shinagawa Station and made our way home from there. It was a long day but one of my best days in Japan. I feel so very lucky to have connected with my Fujisawa ladies and am thankful they are willing to take time out of their busy lives to share a part of Japan with me that I might have otherwise missed. Till next time, sayonara.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


Day three and day five of our trip we spent in Hiroshima. We arrived in the afternoon on the bullet train, stored our gear in lockers and headed out to the Peace Park. It was a perfect time to hit the park, all of the school groups had departed by the time we arrived, it was a beautiful day, clear skies, unseasonably cool weather – perfect for walking around the area.

It’s hard to describe my emotions as we made our way through the park. The skeletal remains of the A-dome are haunting. There was a movement at one point to tear the structure down, the thought from the citizens that they needed to move on, live in the present. I am so glad those that favored that idea did not win out – the remains of the building is a very graphic reminder of the power and destruction of war. It was incredibly moving to stand there and realize that more than 60 years ago our country and Japan were at war and our country wreaked havoc on this land. Now, here I am living in this beautiful, friendly country, our countries are allies and I’m thankful the human spirit can overcome the hatred of war.

Monument to the Mobilized Students
We moved on and only a few steps away there was a Monument to the Mobilized Students. During the war students age 13 to 15 were mobilized to demolish wooden houses for fire prevention – on August 6, 1945 6097 of these young people were killed by the atomic bombing while they were working. There are doves scattered throughout its five tiers and at the base is a beautiful Kannon (Goddess of Mercy) statue, with peace cranes surrounding her. While we were standing there, speechless and moved by the beauty of the monument, a single yellow crane falls from one of the 1000 cranes behind the Kannon – Wrenn stoops down and picks it up and gently places it in the Kannons hands … and me in my mommy moment have to bite my lip to keep the tears from flowing. At 12, she gets it …

Let all the souls here rest in peace: for we shall not repeat the evil.
This is the prayer that is inscribed at the Memorial Centograph. The Centograph is a tribute to all those that lost their lives on the day of the bombing and to those who died from its effects in the aftermath. The memorial is arch-shaped like that of an ancient Japanese home, symbolizing a shelter for the victims souls. Underneath the arch is a chest which contains the names of nearly a quarter of a million people who died.

Children’s Peace Monument
This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace on Earth.
This is a touching monument with the 1000 cranes in display cases and the memorial statue with the child holding up a peace crane. If you are not familiar with the story of Sadako, she was a young school girl who was exposed to the radiation from the bomb and developed cancer from the exposure. Her story is about courage and hope … she heard the Japanese story if you make a 1000 paper cranes good fortune will find you. In the hope that she would survive her battle with cancer she made 1000 paper cranes. Sadly, at age 12 she died from what her mom called the “A-bomb disease” but her legacy of peace and hope lives on with peace cranes sent to this site from all over the world.

Peace Memorial Museum
We probably arrived too late in the day to really give this museum our full attention – I’d say it needs a good 2 hours to visit and we had just over an hour. It is quite an extensive exhibit and I quickly reached information overload. The first half of the exhibit is pretty much void of the human element and is technical with the background and build up to the bombing on the 6th of August, 1945. Not realizing that there is a second half, the chime sounded indicating the museum would be closing in a 1/2 hour and I picked up my pace to discover the second half of the museum is where I should have spent 95% of my time – this side is a newer exhibit and touches on the impact of the bombing on the citizens of Hiroshima. Having been spoiled with visits to countless museums – most notably the Holocaust Museum in DC which deals with sensitive subject matter, working on some NPS museum projects and having lived in the DC area for 7+ years I was disappointed with the Peace Memorial Museum. It’s A LOT to take in and the flow of the overall exhibit seemed very disjointed to me … not that they’ll care what little ol’ me thinks but for those of you reading this and planning to visit, you might appreciate a heads up.

Peace Bell
Bell of Peace
We dedicate this bell
As a symbol of Hiroshima Aspiration:
Let all nuclear arms and war be gone,
and the nations live in true peace!
May it ring to all corners of the earth
to meet the ear of every man.
for in it throb and palpitate
the hearts of its peace-loving donors.
So may you too, friends,
step forward, and toll this bell for peace!

We returned on the morning of day 5 of our Kyoto/Hiroshima adventure. The school groups were out in full force and we decided to hit a few of the spots in the memorial that we had missed on our visit Monday afternoon. We crossed over the Aioi-bahsi renraku-kyo Bridge that the Enola Gay used as the landmark for releasing the bomb and we made our way to the Peace Bell. On Wednesday as we walked through the Peace Park I could hear almost at a steady rhythm a deep resonant tolling of a bell. I thought it was some sort of mechanical tolling of a bell, but no it is created by the human touch – we arrived and waited our turn as each one of us stepped up and took our turn at ringing the bell of peace. The sound is deep and the vibrations, when you place your hand on the bell run through you to your soul. It was deeply moving.

On our way back to catch the streetcar, I was standing by the A-dome area waiting for the rest of the family to catch up with me when a Japanese lady armed with a notebook approached me and offered to guide us through the park. She is a Hiroshima city volunteer and I was so disappointed that we hadn’t run into her when we first arrived, it would have been great to have her as our guide. She does this for free in order to practice her English. We told her we were sorry but we were headed to the train station to catch our train but we spared 5 minutes so she could tell us a little about what happened in Hiroshima during/after the bomb. One interesting fact we learned was that in September, just 5 weeks after the bombing, Hiroshima was hit by Makurazaki Typhoon which led to 3000 more deaths and further destruction, but the silver lining in this natural disaster is that it washed away at least some of the radioactivity. Scientists had thought that no trees would grow, no plants would reemerge for decades – instead within a year they started to see re-growth, as we saw with the Phoenix Trees in the Peace Park. The other interesting story was about the sole survivor of the area. Prior to WWII the area where the Peace Park stands was a thriving community full of shops and homes. A worker was in the basement of his shop when the bomb exploded which destroyed the area, he survived the impact because he just happened to go to the basement at the right moment. How does someone recover from that? It’s hard to wrap your head around something like that – how does someone emerge from utter destruction and then move on? But clearly, the people of Hiroshima have moved on, the city is quite nice and what struck me most is the space. Unlike the other cities I’ve been to here in Japan this one has breathing space. The streets are wide, there are lots and lots of trees, with a number of rivers running through the city there are many bridges adding to the scenery.

So that’s it … 5 days jampacked with history, world heritage sites and beautiful scenery. It was a great trip, our kids were at a perfect age to absorb it all – hard to believe it’s been a month and a half since we toured Kyoto, Mija Jima and Hiroshima. Hardly a day passes without someone talking about our experiences. It was a great trip and I hope we can find our way back down to that part of Japan before our time here ends. Especially in Kyoto, where I feel we only scratched the surface – there’s so much more waiting for us to explore. Till next time, sayonara.


Miya Jima – Itsuku-shima (Shrine Island),
We stayed at the Grand Prince Hotel in Hiroshima which was nice since the ferry to Miya Jima Island left from the hotel. It was another beautiful day and we enjoyed the short ferry ride between the outlying islands. As we approached the island we caught a glimpse of the Vermilion Torii Gate – the entire island of Miya Jima is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the torii gate which seems to float on the water at high tide, is ranked as one of the three best views of Japan. The present gate was built in 1874, but for more than seven centuries a gate has been has stood before Miyajima Island.

Miya Jima island has been a sacred spot for over 1500 years and is considered one of Japan’s holiest sites. No births or deaths have been allowed on the island and in centuries past commoners were not allowed to set foot on the island and had to pass through the floating Itsukushima-jinga (shrine gate) by boat in order to reach the shrine. These American commoners landed by ferry, hit the information booth in the terminal area, got a map and some helpful hints from the attendant and set off.

After passing through the shopping district area in the little town, past the souvenir shops and small restaurants we headed up through Momijidani Park to the ropeway station. The 1-mile long ropeway will take you to the top of Mt. Misen where you can hike up to the summit and then back down the mountain which is a nice 2 hour hike. The views from the top of Mt. Misen are beautiful and while we had a hazy day, it was still a lovely view of the inland sea and the surrounding islands. The hike down was fairly easy, although by the time we arrived at the bottom we all took a break and shed our shoes and socks and soaked our feet in the icy waters by the Daishoin Temple. This had to have been my favorite part of the day … laying back on the rocks with your feet dangling in the rushing water, getting a natural foot massage, while listening to the temple bell gong and the smell of incense wafting through the air – it was a Zen moment and a lovely way to end our visit to Miyajima.

We headed back to Hiroshima via the JR ferry and train for dinner where with the help of a local we found a great Italian restaurant that was decorated in Cape Cod nautical decor, had an English menu and the food was excellent – an awesome way to end a great day. Till next time, sayonara.

Kyoto Finale

On our last morning in Kyoto we got up early, hit Starbucks which was just down from our hotel, I made my purchase of a Kyoto Starbucks mug (so much for all the shopping tips I’d copied over …), and we headed off to the Kyoto station to stash our luggage before catching the train to Fushimi Inari Shinto Shrine.

Fushimi Inari
We arrived around 8:30 and the shrine area was deserted – we’d had excellent advice that in order to enjoy this famous shrine you needed to get there early. For those of you who may have seen the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha” Fushimi Inari was the background for the scene where Sayuri was running through the red torii gates. If you take the path all the way to the top of Mt. Inari you will pass through more than 10,000 red torii gates that have been donated by devotees. Inari is the fox deity who mediates between the human and the spirit world. The fox statues flank either side of the torii gates as you begin the journey through the 10,000 gates – they come in pairs, representing a male and female and they hold a symbolic item in their mouths or beneath their front paw, often a jewel or a scroll. Some of the foxes along the way were adorned with a red votive bib (yokarekake) that were placed on the foxes by worshippers out of respect. We had another lovely day, it was early and the light streaming through and hitting the vermilion gates was beautiful. The walk up the 2 mile path was an easy one, birds calling, incense wafting through the air … we should have called it a morning and left our last visit in Kyoto on a high note but instead we decided to cram in one more temple …

Kiyomizu Temple
The Kiyomizu Temple was built in 798 and this is one of Kyoto’s most famous temples. Its name, which means “Temple of Pure Water” comes from the fact that there is a spring on the grounds. Passing through the throngs of school groups, after hiking up the road that leads to the temple, we finally arrive at the main hall which was built in 1633 – without the use of a single nail. The main hall clings to the side of the hill, with large balcony’s hanging out over the tree tops. It was a Monday morning and maybe that accounted for the masses – and I suppose we were very lucky to have not encountered such large groups at the other temples – but it was hard to enjoy the splendor of the place with so many people. It felt much more like a carnival atmosphere than a temple.

Otowa-no-Taki (Otowa Falls)
Since ancient times it has been thought that the water flowing over this small waterfall in the temple grounds possess divine powers – there was quite a line for the priviledge of filling your cup with water but Jeff and Wrenn decided to wait it out. The water has alleged powers for good health, wealth, or studies – I'm guessing Wrenn is hoping for help with her studies and well Jeff ... I know which one he should be picking but am thinking he went for the other option.

Lover’s Stone
Behind the main hall and up some stone steps are two stones where it is said that if you can walk from one stone to the other with your eyes closed, your wish for love will come true. Many, many school kids were doing this and after skeptically observing for a while the Cleary kids decided to give it a whirl … I think more for the challenge of being able to walk from one stone to the other without any help from the siblings than for love. All three were successful and the parental units managed to bite their tongues and not inquire about possible love interests … (I am so not ready to go there). Maybe the best time to visit this temple is in the Fall or Winter when there is no haze and you can enjoy the view or perhaps very early or very late in the day when the crowds have dissipated. The architectural achievement of the main building was amazing, there’s no getting around that, but the crowds put a damper on our last temple. Of course all the other temples we had visited centered around gardens … so that could have been some of our disappointment, or maybe we had finally hit what is called “temple fatigue.”

So that was the end of our Kyoto tour … we walked back down the hill, hopped on a city bus which took us over to the main Kyoto station where we grabbed our luggage, some lunch and headed for the next leg of our trip to Hiroshima. Kyoto was wonderful, we had such fabulous weather it made the long days easier to take. We had a glimpse of a Maiko in the Gion district our second night but overhearing some other’s talking on the street we were not really sure she was the real thing – she had a camera crew following her and there was mention that they were filming an ad. Either way, she was beautiful and unfortunately with the early evening light my photo turned out a big blur. The city itself is easy to get around using public transportation, a tour may have been nice but I think we managed just fine on our own. I hope we can go back, there’s still so much I’d like to see – more temple gardens, and of course shopping. Check out the next two entries … Miya Jima Island and Hiroshima that conclude our 5 day whirlwind trip in southern Honshu. Till next time, sayonara.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Kyoto-5 Temples/8 hours

Ginkakuji – Silver Pavilion
Sunday was set to be a marathon day of hitting the high points in Kyoto. We started off our day in the Higashiyama area with the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji Temple) as our first stop. By the time we arrived there, shortly after nine, the temple was already packed with school groups. The numerous students did not deter us from enjoying this unique Japanese garden, which juxtaposes dry type (karesansui) and strolling garden (kayushiki) elements – an unusual combination in traditional Japanese gardens. The pathway leading to the garden is flanked by bamboo framework that supports a well-manicured hedge on either side of the approach to the temple – the hedge guides us and marks our progression from the hustle and bustle of the outside world to the tranquility of the garden. Entering the garden area we spot a worker carefully creating a pattern in the sand – Jeff and I take pictures hoping we can remember the details when we return to the U.S. for our ultimate goal of creating a Japanese garden.

Moving on to the main garden area we are stunned into silence as we view the two large sculpted mounds of sand. The form of the truncated cone, Kogetsudai – The Moon Viewing Height – references Mt. Fuji or the central mountain of Buddhism. The lower horizontal mound, Ginshadan – The Sea of Silver Sand – is named for its appearance by moonlight.

The garden is known for its wealth of stones, both in groupings and in bridges. The walks are paved with fine stones or slabs set in the simple “cleansing” patterns associated with the tea ceremony. I took many pictures of the stone pathways hoping one day to be able to use these as inspiration in our own garden.

Leaving the Silver Pavilion we made our way along the Philosopher’s Path towards Honen-in, which has a small but beautiful garden. The approach to the garden has a long stone walkway that gradually narrows leading to the thatched gate of Honen-in. Stepping up and over the gate entrance, the sand mounds lay below you. A lay monk is assigned to rework the sand mounds and the pattern on top every few weeks. The pattern is different every time, sometimes reflecting the season. Symmetry is typically avoided in Japanese gardens, architecture, flower arrangements (Ikebana) – even though the sand mounds are situated symmetrically they are of different sizes and heights. Further back, passing by the sand mounds and crossing over a small stone bridge and a carp filled pond is a lovely moss garden. The light was coming down through the trees overhead and I was able to capture one of my favorite shots from that day – the moss looked so lush you just wanted to reach out and run your hands over it. Realizing we still had a lot of ground to cover we headed out of the temple grounds towards the nearest bus stop to make our way to the other side of town where three UNESCO World Heritage sites are located within easy walking distance of each other – Ninnaji, Ryonji and Kinkakuji.

This is a huge temple complex, founded in 886 and was originally built as a summer home for the Emperor. Passing through the temple gate with the Nio (Benevolent Kings) looking down on us, we headed towards the courtyard area. Just inside the eastern gate is a horizontally trained pine tree – that is quite impressive. The Ninna-ji garden is a transition garden from the kaiyu (stroll garden) to the kansho (admiration) style garden. There is a waterfall that creates a nice splashing sound and with the pond area tucked into the side of the hill there are many different ways to view the garden combining the balanced composition of sand, water and vegetation. As you’ll notice in the photos, I was certainly impressed by the garden, in particular the mammoth sized pine tree at the entrance that has been manipulated over the years to create these huge outstretched limbs but mostly I was taken with the architectural details. I kept thinking how my grandfather who was a construction supervisor, a master wood worker and a bit of perfectionist (understatement) would have spent hours and hours looking at the details and the superior craftsmanship of the verandas and buildings. From the details of covering the joints with a decorative plate, to the construction of the covered walkways – the craftsmanship that went into these buildings was impressive. After touring only a small portion of this huge complex and viewing the 5-story pagoda we headed out for our next destination – Ryoan-ji, the ultimate Zen garden attraction in Kyoto.

The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon, Ryoan-ji, is probably the most famous Japanese dry landscape garden. We knew there would be crowds but that did not deter us from putting this high on our list. I had read about Ryoan-ji, even had a picture of it as my screen saver when we lived in the states before I ever knew we’d be coming to Japan. The kids all knew this was a classic example of a kare-sansui (dry-landscape) Zen meditation garden and that from no one spot could you simultaneously see all 15 of its carefully placed rocks. The gardens are meant to be viewed, not entered and were created by Zen masters to nudge the mind away from the mundane and to allow it to enter a higher level of consciousness. This unique style of garden uses white sand and rocks to create abstract representations of nature. We all took off our shoes and waited our turn to sit at the edge of the Abbott’s veranda and “just be.” There was no doubt that Jeff enjoyed this garden the most … I had to gently remind him that we still had one more stop to make, the Golden Pavilion, before we could call it a day. We left the kare-sansui area and rounded the corner of the building to find a lush moss garden – designing dry-rock and green gardens in pairs is popular in Japanese garden design. We found the famous tsukubai (crouch basin) on the grounds which reads “I learn only to be contented” – the Zen philosophy of he who learns only to be contented is spiritually rich, while the one who only looks for material wealth is spiritually poor. From there we looped around Kyoyochi, the pond garden, taking in the water lilies, turtles and islands before heading out to Kinkaku-ji our final stop on this whirlwind day of Kyoto temples.

Kinkaku-ji – Golden Pavilion
The guide books I read had heartily recommended viewing the Golden Pavilion in the late afternoon with the sunlight hitting the pavilion – the advice was dead on – the late afternoon sunshine on the Golden Pavilion was beautiful and with the school groups gone we had the added benefit of walking the grounds relatively free of the hoards of tourists. To the right of the pavilion is a remarkably shaped pine tree with its extended branches pruned and supported to resemble a boat. When the original pavilion was built in 1394 several different architectural styles were combined in its construction, considered very avant-garde at the time.
“The first floor of the pavilion, known as the Hôsuiin (“Temple of Dharma Water”), is built in the shinden style (shinden zukuri) associated with 11th-century Heian nobility. The second story, called the Chôondô (alternatively translated “Grotto of Wave Sounds” or “Tower of Sound Waves”), is built in the buke style (buke zukuri) of samurai houses. It houses a statue of Kannon. The third floor of Kinkakuji is built in the style of a Buddha Hall in a Zen temple and is known as the Kukkyôchô (“Superb Apex”). It has round-headed windows and is more richly ornamented than the other floors. Inside, it shelters an Amida triad and 25 Bodhisattvas. The roof is topped with a golden Chinese phoenix.”*
There is a pathway leads up and behind the temple to a famous tea house, unfortunately since we arrived so late the tea house was already closed for the day. But the views from up on the ridge looking down on the pavilion were lovely and it was nice way to end our marathon day of touring 5 temples (4 of which are World Heritage sites). We headed back out to wind our way through public transportation to the Gion area, hoping that this would be the night where we would be able to spot the elusive Maiko.

It was a crazy day – I would not recommend touring Kyoto this way, but it worked for us, the 5 teensntweens were troopers, of course it probably helped that both families are partial to time spent outside and in gardens, the U.S. cousins I think also realized that this was it – a once in a lifetime chance to see the temples of Kyoto.

If you’d like to know more about the temple history I have listed some of the websites I used in my research below, in particular the Bowdoin website is fabulous with an interactive map of the gardens. Till next time, sayonara.

Ginkaku-ji – Silver Pavilion


* source -

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