Most of the blog will contain thoughts on religion in general,and Judaism in particular. It will also contain travelogues.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Japan 2009

April 2, 2009

In the morning, we woke up and were very excited that we were headed back to Japan. We had wanted so much to go back there, since we were there just for three days briefly on our way to China six years ago. We boarded the plane from LAX to Narita Airport. We had purchased an upgrade to Economy Plus, and they gave us the wrong seats, ones that did not even recline. We proceeded to play “good cop - bad cop” with a few different levels of crew, and wound up being upgraded to Business Class. It made for a far more comfortable twelve and a half hour flight, and enabled us to be more rested as we began our tour. Between getting our luggage, going through customs and immigration, and catching a bus and then a cab to get to our hotel, it took almost four hours from the time we landed to check in. When we arrived, we briefly met a few people who had gone on the pre-tour. They were warm and welcoming, but we were so zonked and out of our heads (From the time that we left our house, our travel time was close to twenty-one hours.) that all we wanted to do was to go upstairs to our room, and crash.

We woke up a few times during the night starving, even though we had good meals on the plane, (surprise!) because our body clocks were out of whack despite the fact that we managed to sleep a few hours. We were raring to go in the morning, and eager to meet our travel companions for the next two weeks.

We met our group at breakfast, and everyone was congenial. We had a combined Japanese - American breakfast. Unfortunately, our scheduled tour guide was ill, so we had a temporary pinch hitter. Her name is Miko.

Our first stop in Tokyo was the world’s largest fish market, Tsukiji, where over two thousand tons of fish are sold per day. Adjacent to the market is a Shinto shrine, and a small booth where they sell paper that certifies that people have visited the shrine. People make a pilgrimage and go from shrine to shrine. They then paste the paper into a book to show they have made the entire tour.

We took pictures of many varieties of fish that we had never seen, as well as pictures of people
preparing fish, selling fish, and bargaining for fish.

We also have a shot of Dee on an indoor fish wagon that went from stand to stand.

From there, we headed to the Royal Palace. On the way we stopped at a lovely park where we saw many Bonsai trees and statuary of a Samurai warrior. No one is allowed close enough to the palace for pictures, but we did see a guard house that was certainly palatial.

Our next stop was Asakusa Kannon area, which is the home of a large Buddhist Temple that according to legend was founded during the seventh Century.

We noticed many people wearing masks. We had thought it was because of fear of disease, but later learned that it was to protect them from allergens.

We had been there on our previous trip. We were looking forward to returning because we were told that this is a very special day. Most people would be wearing kimonos because of the celebration of the blooming of the cherry trees.We really lucked out. Talk about “Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat!”

In Japan, there is a fascinating interplay between Buddhism and Shinto. This was clearly demonstrated to us by our seeing a Shinto shrine on the grounds of the Buddhist Temple. Shinto is into naturism, Its founders are fishermen who are worshiped as gods. Buddhism, which is non-specific in terms of theology, fits right in. One can be both a Buddhist and a worshiper at a Shinto shrine. In fact, this is the case for a very high percentage of Japanese. "Shinto gods" are called kami . They are sacred spirits which take the form of things and concepts important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility. Humans become kami after they die and are revered by their families as ancestral kami. The kami of extraordinary people are even enshrined at some shrines. The Sun Goddess Amaterasu is considered Shinto's most important kami. In contrast to many monotheist religions, there are no absolutes in Shinto. There is no absolute right and wrong, and nobody is perfect. Shinto is an optimistic faith, as humans are thought to be fundamentally good, and evil is believed to be caused by evil spirits. Consequently, the purpose of most Shinto rituals is to keep away evil spirits by purification, prayers and offerings to the kami . Many Buddhists view the kami as manifestations of Buddhas. The levels in the pagoda here and everywhere represent fire, wind, and sky. Inside the Pagoda, there are ashes of Gautama, the Buddha.We bought pajamas for the kids, and Dee bought herself a kimono. We saw an outdoor tea ceremony, which we knew that we would experience in greater detail later on our tour.

The color, both in literal and figurative terms, within this area is more than spectacular. We were never surrounded by so many kimonos, in every color size and shape. We saw an interesting bit of cultural dissonance, a woman in a traditional kimono, carrying a Gucci purse, and shooting with a very sophisticated camera.

The last time that we were in Tokyo, we did not get to see the Ginza area. It is very exciting. Our first impression was of the hoards of surging humanity entering and leaving. Times Square is rural by comparison. More on that later.

We entered a department store, and went to the food department, below the street level. The word amazing does not begin to describe it. Every imaginable kind of food can be found, and magnificently encased. In the bakery section, we almost thought that we were in Paris. There are all kinds of Sushi available, salads from all over, and a plethora of cheeses. The presentation is colorful and beautiful. Dee observed that walking through this department store, she felt as if were in London at Harrah’s, but Japanese style. It is just fascinating, looking at beautiful breads and other bakery items, Everything is just delectable and delicious. We found a stand called Johan of Paris boulangerie , patisserie, glacierie, confisiere. It was very funny to find this in the middle of Tokyo.

The population density here is incredible. As we mentioned, it is a special weekend because of the blooming of the cherry blossoms. One of the reasons that they are so treasured is that they only stay in bloom for a few days. Their ephemeral nature makes them precious. People are out all over the place, shopping. The Ginza is a mob scene. One can barely get into the stores because there are so many people buying away. It appeared to us that the world economy crisis has not hit here, despite the fact that we were told that it did indeed.

After returning home to our hotel from the Ginza, we took a nap, and then went out to dinner. We had an interesting Japanese meal. This was the welcome dinner for the sixteen members of our tour group. We had chicken cooked on a stone, salad, warm vegetables, yams, and a flan like dessert. We had cold saki. If you are starving, good luck!The Japanese manage to maintain their male thirty-four inch waists and female twenty-five inch waists by serving very small portions. We were probably better off. Overeating on a tour is not a good idea. Every traveler knows that the hardest part of traveling is keeping oneself hydrated. What a joyful contrast Japan offers. We had excellent safe water everywhere.

The next morning we were headed for Hakone. Before we started out, we were introduced to Reiko, who was to be our second pinch hitter. She captivated us as soon as we met her. Our first stop was still in Tokyo, the Meiji Shinto Shrine. It is a relatively new shrine.

On every trip, we manage to take a picture of a wedding that I did not do. Here at Meiji we saw what was to be the first of several wedding pictures we would encounter.

Outside the city, we stopped for lunch at a café, patisserie, boulangerie. The food was absolutely delicious. We were told that the chef had studied in France. When I thanked him for the meal in French, he did not seem to have a clue as to what I was talking about. We found this rather amusing. We also enjoyed the irony of seeing a French restaurant in the Japanese countryside.

We drove to the furthermost available parking space on Mount Fuji. We could only go so far because of snow conditions. The clouds came in and covered the peak, but then more winds came in and we managed to get some good pictures. Fuji was playing peekaboo with us. The view would be there; the clouds would cover it; the winds would blow them away, and they would return. Our guide said that this was one of the best viewing days in a long time. More often than not, clouds cover the crest. Fuji is almost a magical experience. Surprisingly, it is even worshiped in China. It is one of the few free-standing volcanoes in the world that is not part of a mountain range. Its cone shape is known world-wide. It is an exceptionally beautiful mountain.

Since we were not sure about the quality of our pictures in the overcast, we asked one of our fellow explorers to get us in front of a Mt. Fuji sign.In Hakone, we stayed at the Gora Asahi Hotel. This is an authentic Japanese inn. We checked into a charming room. The closets were in the front as we entered. This entry way had a wooden floor. It had space for us to place our shoes. The main part of the room had bamboo mats for flooring. Therefore, we had to remove our shoes before entering the room proper. We walked in and saw a large low table, with a tea set on it. There were two low chairs. We put our feet under the table. We were served green tea with biscuits. We would learn later that the table would be moved and replaced with two futons, which is where we slept for two nights.

In our room, we fund Yukatas, (long shoulder to floor style unisex kimonos) and Tanzens, or happy coats which are padded jackets to go over the Yukata in cold weather. It is customary to wear nothing under these, but not all of our tour members followed the practice. Reiko took pictures of our group wearing our Yakutas during happy hour, prior to dinner.

One of the major attractions of this area are the baths or onsen. These are fed by hot springs. Usually the participants are in the buff, and as a result our hotel had one onsen for men and one for women. We decided to soak in our own hot tub in our room, together. After all, it was our anniversary. After our soak, we were ready to go to happy hour with our friends on the tour. We had wine and delicious little Japanese goodies. We took pictures of all of us in our Yukatas, and then went to a Japanese dinner in a beautiful dining room. It was spectacular. We did not recognize some of the items on our plates, but we finally had our sashimi, but not enough of it. We had a wonderful shrimp and scallop dish in a little pot.

We could have had so much more of it. We decided why by and large the Japanese are so thin. They serve delicious beautiful food, but very little of it. The dinner went on forever and ever. We had a terrific time, telling stories, and getting to know one another a lot better. Our guide, Reiko was a charming young woman. We wished that she would have been with us for the rest of the trip. (As it happened, we have continued an email correspondence with her.) The group wished us a happy anniversary, and Reiko took it upon herself to give us a lovely card and a beautiful gift, two pairs of wedding chop sticks that we will treasure. Every time that we use them we will remember her and this wonderful trip. It has been a fabulous day. We absolutely love the small group approach of Overseas Adventure Travel. The group is more than compatible. We felt as though we were making fast friends. The people of Japan are delightful. The cherry blossoms are out. The food is delicious. What more could we ask for our twenty-sixth wedding anniversary. How fortunate we are.

Tuesday morning, we had an American style breakfast, which included a banana. We really missed fresh fruit, which seems to be a luxury in Japan. After we ate, we got on our little bus and went to a commuter train up a hill. I guess you might call it a funicular. From there we took a cable car known as the Hakone Ropeway. We were at Owakudani (in English, "The Valley of Hell"), 1044 meters (3393 feet) high. It is still spewing and bubbling sulfur and thermal smoke about 3000 years after the last volcanic eruption of Mount Hakone. The entire area is hazy and smells of sulfur and egg.

Two signs we saw tell a lot.

Around the crater at Owakudani is where you find what is known locally as kurotamago or black-egg. The name is derived from the color of the eggshell which is black from boiling in the thermal hot spring. It is worth mentioning that while the shell is blackened by hard boiling in the hot spring, the albumen and all content remains the same as in any other egg. Priced at 6 for 500 yen, the local myth is that eating one of these eggs can add seven years to your life span.

We were then escorted toLake Ashi (Ashinoko)where we boarded an ornate pirate ship that took us across the lake, where we disembarked and walked about five minutes to restaurant where we had a fabulous buffet lunch.

Then we took a walk through Anshihakone Park. It was a half-mile long grove of cypress trees, three hundred years old. It was originally planted to protect travelers from the sun.

We then visited the Hamamatsuya Company that manufactures beautiful woodwork puzzle boxes and pictures. The chief artisan explained how he creates these works.

Their web site is http://hamamatsuya.co.jp. However, do not expect an explanation. While the pictures on the site are beautiful, the text is in Japanese. Several of our tour members bought boxes and pictures.

We then returned to our hotel, and we took a walk around the little town.

The next morning, we had breakfast at our hotel and then went to the train station where we boarded the shinkansen, or bullet train.This is where we said a sad good bye to Reiko, and met Akiko, our original tour director, who had recovered from her illness. With her delightful smile, she guided us on to the train. This high-speed train service was pioneered by the Japanese. It is one of the world's finest quick-transit trains, and still among the fastest trains in the world, traveling at speeds over 160 mph.

We had a great ride on the bullet train. It is so smooth that you do not realize how fast it is going until another train passes in the opposite direction. We bought lunch in the train station to eat on the train. We transferred to an express train, which is slower, but still fast, arriving in Kanazawa. This was a relaxing day in which we indeed relaxed, and read, getting ready for our next adventure.

When our train ride was over, we took a bus ride over to the Nagamachi quarter, a district in which the Samurai lived, some time ago. The homes there are over two hundred years old. We saw a number of artists sitting and drawing or painting pictures of them.

I took one cultural dissonance picture of a Samurai house with a TV Satellite dish on the roof.

We stopped in one of the houses to see what constitutes samurai style in Nomura-ke, the ancient home of the Nomura family.
It features an immaculate garden with lanterns, stone towers, waterfalls, and meandering streams. It was like a living museum. It even had a Koi pond.

We checked in to the New Kanazawa Grand Hotel. We had a beautiful room, complete with a settee and a table and a refrigerator. It was almost like semi-suite. We had an American style dinner in the hotel with our group, hosted by OAT.

The next morning, we visited the Kenrokuen Garden, which is is one of the most visited garden spots in all of Japan. Originally built as the outer garden of Ishikawa castle, it was opened to the public in 1875. It is considered one of the "three most beautiful gardens in Japan" and is filled with a variety of trees, ponds, waterfalls and flowers stretching over 25 acres.

We took a group picture, to commemorate our visit.

We then got to participate in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, called sado. To create the actual beverage, a ceremonial powdered tea is put in a teacup, covered with hot water, then whipped with a bamboo whisk until it foams slightly. The significance of the tea goes far beyond the tea preparation; the ceremony is a traditional art form of Japanese culture, one that exhibits the beauty of simplicity and the efficiency of movement. An integral part of the ceremony is the appreciation of the aesthetics of the place where the tea is prepared and enjoyed, all of which we certainly appreciated.

From there, we were off to visit the Higashi-Caga district with old wooden structures, where we saw some local traditional craft workshops.

After lunch at a local restaurant, we visited the open-air Omicho Market. This 300-year-old market, known locally as Kanazawa's Kitchen. is a very busy gathering place. You name it; They have it. Omicho Market has been Kanazawa's largest fresh food market since the Edo Period. Today, it is a busy and colorful network of covered streets lined by about 200 shops and stalls. While most shops specialize in the excellent local seafood and produce, you can also find flowers, clothing, kitchen tools and more on sale. Unfortunately all the labels were in Japanese.

It was the eve of Passover, so we had asked our group if they wanted to join us in our room for mini-Seder. We had brought a box of matzah and a box of Passover macaroons., Dee decided to scout around and find ingredients to make Haroset. We were seventeen people, including our director, so we needed enough to feed everyone. There were apples galore. Dee found two humongous beautiful red apples. The next ingredient was to be walnuts. This is easier said than done, but when Dee is in a quest, it takes a lot to stop her. There she was running through this marketplace, most of the time not knowing what she was looking at and with no help from the signs in Japanese to tell her what was what. Then, VOILA! In a small stall she found what she thought was a package of candied walnuts, and sure enough it was. She was happy. Now all she needed to do was to put it together upon our return to our hotel.

On the way, we passed a store where there were two maps of the Kanazawa District, three hundred years old. We visited a Shinto shrine across the street from the market, and of course, took pictures. Oyama Shrine which is known for its unusual gate, which was designed by a Dutch architect, using elements of European and Asian religious themes. While the first story displays a mixture of Japanese and Chinese influence, the upper stories once served as a lighthouse and feature a Dutch style, stained-glass window. This was most unusual to see.

Back at the hotel, Dee started to put the Seder all together, which was a lot more difficult than she imagined. We had no bowls, no knife, no peeler, so she improvised. One of our members had a knife. Dee used a tray in our room. Dee peeled, sliced, diced, poured red wine into the mixture, and amazingly enough, she actually made Haroset here in Japan.We needed Maror, the bitter herb. When in Japan, do as the Japanese do. We used wasabi, which actually is another species of horseradish. That evening we had a “cliff notes” version of the Seder which was absolutely great. Everyone wanted to know how she put this all together. She had even made copies of the “four questions” for people to read. It was wonderful that Dee brought the box of matzah, and even better that we shared it with our fellow travelers, and had the macaroons for dessert.

The next day, we bought the optional trip to Shirakawa-go and Gokoyama. The villages are famous for their farmhouses, which are built in a unique architectural style known as gassho. Because of their relative isolation, these areas developed independently of Japanese society, resulting in a unique culture and lifestyle. In addition to creating their own dances, festivals, and traditions, residents developed a distinctive architectural style known as ghasso-zukuri. Characterized by steeply pitched thatched roofs that are both striking and elegant, these dwellings are considered to be some of the most efficient farm houses in Japan. The name means "hands together" as in prayer, referring to the steep roofs that keep the snow off in the winter. Underneath the roofs, the large attic area was used to house silkworms.

We visited a washi-a paper manufacturing facility. Washi or Wagami, (literally, "harmony paper" or "serenity paper") is a type of paper made in Japan. Washi is commonly made using fibers from the bark of the gampi tree, the mitsumata shrub (Edgeworthia papyrifera), or the paper mulberry, but also can be made using bamboo, hemp, rice, and wheat. Washi comes from wa meaning Japanese and shi meaning paper, and the term is used to describe paper made by hand in the traditional manner. Washi is generally tougher than ordinary paper made from wood pulp, and is used in many traditional arts. Origami, Shodo, and Ukiyo-e were all produced using washi. Washi was also used to make various everyday goods like clothes, household goods, and toys as well as vestments and ritual objects for Shinto priests and statues of Buddha. It was even used to make wreaths that were given to winners in the 1998 Winter Paralympics. Several kinds of washi, referred to collectively as Japanese tissue, are used in the conservation and mending of books. Washi was developed from the traditional Chinese paper-making process.One of our members, Joe, helped to design a piece of paper. Sericulture (silk manufacturing) is very big in this district, as the weather does not allow for much outdoor activity.

On the side of the road, there were three little objects looking like naves. Those represent deities called cjtos. They are said to be guardians of travelers, pregnant women, and children.

We visited a multi-generational house that was four hundred years old. In there we saw a dancer whose dance was said to bring on an abundant harvest.

It had Buddhist nave that was most lovely. After lunch, we saw a demonstration of the art of rice cake making. The rice is pounded in large a wooden bowl.

Notice, the woman setting up the rice to be pounded stood well back when I wielded the mallet.

In the second town we saw gasho stlye housing, featuring steep roofs, and a kokoriko dance to insure a rich harvest of rice in the autumn. The power source in Japan is hydro-electric. In order to make dams, entire villages were destroyed. We went to an open air museum. The mountainous area is very beautiful. It was fun to see snow up in the mountains, contrasting to the warm weather views in the lower altitudes.. The village of two-thousand, which is UNESCO World Heritage site, receives about a million and a half visitors a year.

We returned to Kanazawa. We had a large room and we gathered in our room with our more than congenial and convivial group of fellow travelers for what had become our traditional happy hour. We then found a place to eat, and afterwards, walked to Ten Daku Park with Gant and Dorothy, where we saw beautiful trees reflected in the water. Apparently, walking in this park at night is a community tradition, especially at cherry blossom time. It was like one giant party. The mix of artistic street lanterns, cherry blossoms, food stands, created an almost magical aura.

The next morning we awakened in anticipation of our trip to Kyoto. Before leaving Kanazawa, OAT divided our tour into even smaller numbers sending each group to a host Japanese family. Our hosts, the Okamotos welcomed us and our friend Betty. They were more than gracious hosts. They gave us a beautiful gift. It was a calendar with Japanese symbols, which we planned to put on our kitchen table as a continuing reminder of our trip to Japan.

We brought them chocolate-covered Passover macaroons, which they loved. We also brought picture post cards so they could see Oxnard and our surrounding area. Betty brought them a beautiful water color that she had painted. After tea and snacks, they showed us their vegetable garden, and then took us for short drive to a Shinto shrine, and a Buddhist temple, both of which were right near the house.

We exchanged email addresses. The daughter-in-law has a lovely modern home which was featured in a magazine similar to our “Home Beautiful”. She showed it to us. Her husband is a pharmacist. They have a thirty-year mortgage at 5%, which is a better rate than ours. We wondered whether we could re-fi with a Japanese bank. The entire family, including their adorable grand baby was a delight.

We also saw their wedding album, with our young couple in full Japanese garb, even though in so many other areas, they are very modern.

After our visit we returned to the hotel, gathered our things, as we had to beat check-out time. We headed for the train station, where we had an hour and a half to hang out. During this lunch time, we heard about the wonderful experiences had by all of our other tour members during their home visits. We eagerly boarded the train for Kyoto, where we arrived late in the day.

That evening, Akiko took us to dinner at a restaurant in the train station. The architecture is not like that of any other we have ever seen. For example, there was a gazebo that was all lit up at night. We thought, what a great Huppah for me to use for weddings.

The station not only houses trains, but a huge department store, and a plethora of restaurants and boutiques on two lower floors. The view from the top floor of the station was awesome, to use a word our grandkids love. In fact, we went back to the station several times for many things that we were looking for, and just to take pictures. In fact, we found an authentic piece of Japanese Samurai art work for our family room table. Every time we look at it reminds us of our time in Kyoto. We love to bring something special home from our trips. This one was no exception.

After breakfast, the next day, we visited the Ryoanji Zen Temple. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. One meticulously planned rock garden within it is fascinating, because it contains fifteen rocks, but no matter what angle you use to view it, you can only see fourteen of them. It is said that you see the fifteenth rock with the third eye. Those who practice Yoga will understand.
The entire area provides a beautiful place for meditation.

This was known at one time as the Temple of Mandarin ducks. Tsukubai, the stone washed basin in the tearoom has a unique inscription, “I learn only to be contented. He who learns only to be contented is spiritually rich, while the one who does not learn to be contented is spiritually poor, even if he is materially wealthy. This directly parallels Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) in the Babylonian Talmud, “Who is the rich man? He who is contented with his lot”. It is interesting to find this philosophy in both Zen and Jewish thought.

We went from there to visit the Kinkakuji Temple, the Golden Pavilion, another UNESCO World Heritage site, which dates from 1397. Kinkakuji is perhaps the most well-known temple in Japan. The main pavilion is covered in gold leaf and shimmers in front of a pond - kyoko-chi (Mirror Pond). The current building only dates to 1955. The ancient original was burned to the ground in 1950 by a disgruntled priest. The incident was immortalized in the Yukio Mishima novel - The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

Our next stop was the University of Kyoto, where we had lunch at the Faculty Club. We then visited Semjusangindo Hall, built in the twelfth century. Sanjusangendo (Rengeo-in) was originally built by Taira no Kiyamori for retired emperor Go-Shirakawa in 1164 and dedicated to Kannon. The temple features a huge hall containing 1,001 figures of Kannon carved in the 12th and 13th centuries. For more information, see http://www.taleofgenji.org/sanjusangendo.html and http://www.jref.com/practical/sanjusangendo_temple.shtml .

Our next stop was at Nijo Castle, which was constructed between 1601 and 1603. The castle, shrines, and 17 temples here are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally built between 1601 and 1603 under the supervision of Itakura Katsushige, Nijo Castle epitomized the political and military power of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Following the form of the Turret at Nijo Castle Tokugawa victory at Sekigahara (1600), Ieyasu constructed this seemingly gargantuan monument in the heart of Kyoto, not only as a central location for a shogunal palace, but also as a reminder of his indomitable strength to the citizens of what was once the center of imperial authority. While none of the castles in Japanese history can boast of being completely fortified structures, Nijo was considered to be particularly unfortified. Perhaps flaunting an air of arrogance by implying that he does not need to fear attack, Ieyasu’s Nijo Castle more closely resembled a princely estate than a defensive structure. The lantern in the temple here is twelve hundred years old. It is said to be the oldest brass lantern in the world. The gold fins on the top of the building are to ward off fire. One of the statues is of the Buddha of health. It said that if you touch his belly, and then touch any part of you that hurts, that part will be healed.

One of the delights of Japanese culture is that people greet each other by bowing their heads. It is a form of social deference and friendliness. This is even true when people are total strangers. Another delight is that when you say something, the other person responds, “Hai”, which, while it literally means “yes”, is not so much a matter of agreement, but rather is an acknowledgment of having heard what the other person said.. It is wonderful because you do not have to sit there wondering, “Did the person hear what I had to say?” It would be nice if we had more of that in our American cultural patterns.

The next morning, we went to the Kiomizu temple which offers a sweeping view of Kyoto, and its waters are believed by some to have highly curative powers. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site built in 798. For more information, see http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3901.html.

Our next adventure was to a field in which we picked Canola plants which were to be come part of a Japanese lunch that our group would learn to prepare. First the farmers gave us a Canola picking lesson. You pick only the bloom parts, not the green stems. The farmers had fun taking pictures of us. I enjoyed eating Canola as I picked. Still I picked enough to have a full basket. They don’t call me Farmer John for nothing.

We went to lunch where first we learned how to make sushi rolls. Some of us were more adept than others, but we all had fun doing it. We will have to show pictures of them to our Sushi chef at home. We also had Canola Tempura, and a salad, part of which we had picked, clear soup in a fish broth, and other Japanese goodies.

Some of us modeled Samurai hats provided by our hosts.

We then went off with Norma and Kim, exploring on our own, to antique shops to find something to bring home. We had no luck, but they did. We grabbed a cab back to our hotel. That night we decided to bring diner into our hotel room and just veg out. We needed it.

The next day, we went on another optional excursion to the distinctive city of Nara, which was the capital of Japan before Kyoto. As we approach the Todaiji Temple, we were impressed by its massive size. It is said to be the largest wooden building in the world.

It is also one of the major historic temples in Japan and contains valuable artifacts. Within this temple is the largest gilded bronze Buddha in existence. A charming feature of the park area is its herd of free-roaming tame Sika deer, which were traditionally regarded as the messengers of the Shinto god Kasuga. The deer love to be fed by tourists. Of course, there are machines from which to buy the specially prepared food. It is fun to watch the deer as they come up to you for their snack. If you hold the food above your head, they bow their heads to you. We have never seen that before. We all looked very funny as we were chased by the hungry deer.

For more information, see http://www.yamasa.org/japan/english/destinations/nara/todaiji.html.

We also visit the Kasuga Shinto Shrine, dating back to 768. It is situated in the fields of the Mount Mikasa's foothills. The interior is famous for its many bronze lanterns, as well as the many stone lanterns that lead up the shrine. These hills and the mountain are considered sacred because it is believed that a deity descended to the top of Mount Mikasa. Within the shrine we saw two very colorful wedding parties. One wedding was the most elaborate one that we have ever seen on any of our trips. The colors of the bridal couple’s garb were phenomenal.

We also saw a Shinto priest doing a blessing on a car. Of course our group loved the old joke about the rabbi blessing the car by cutting off a piece of the tailpipe. For more information, the Kasuga Shinto Shrine, see http://babibubebo.com/2008/07/19/kasuga-taisha/

After lunch at a local restaurant, we went to the lovely town of Fushimi, one of Japan's most famous sake brewing districts. Our tour ended at Fushimi-inari, a shrine dedicated to the Shinto god of the harvest, particularly rice. Fushimi Inari Taisha is without doubt the largest and most impressive Inari shrine in Japan. Fushimi Inari Taisha was founded in the 8th century by the Hata family and is the head shrine of no less than 30,000 Inari Shrines nationwide. The sanctuary is composed of several buildings, including the Sakura-mon Gate and Go-Honden Shrine, followed by a 4km (2.5 mile ) long tunnel made of thousands of red torii gates making their way through the woods. It served as a backdrop in the film “Memoirs of a Geisha”. We were particularly struck by the colors of this shrine. The Japanese love reds and oranges.

The last day of our trip, we decided not take the optional tour which did not sound very exciting. As it happened, this was the first time during our entire journey that we had rain. Anyone who knows us knows that nothing stops us, especially a few raindrops. We saw an ad for a touristy experience, that just for a lark we tried, the Sagano Romantic Train ride. We took an express train to the town of Sagano. From there we took a twenty-five minute train ride from Saga to Kamiyoka. The train wended its way through a fine gorge as it went through eight old tunnels. The lush green panoramic views were superb.

This is what we do best, break away from the group and go off on our own, and make our own discoveries. We do not worry about getting lost. We get directions from people. Whatever we find, we find. We met a mother and her fourteen-year-old twin daughters from Hong Kong, and another family from Hong Kong. We needed to change American money for Japanese yen. There were no banks in the area, but the man from the family volunteered to do the exchange for us. We got the same exchange rate as the bank, without a commission, so it worked out very well. He was our Bank of Hong Kong in Kyoto. Interestingly enough, the people from Hong Kong whom we met spoke perfect English with no accent. It was an amazing contrast with the Japanese for the most part.

One of the interesting aspects of Japanese life, and one of which all travelers there should be aware is that despite the fact Japan has been exposed to the Western world for six decades, the society is extremely insular, and only a limited number of Japanese speak English. In fact, labels in stores are 99% in Japanese. Therefore, more often than not, you need a guide along with you to tell you what this is and what that is, because the person behind the counter probably cannot help with translation. We had our car all to ourselves on the way back and were serenaded with romantic Japanese music. What a terrific find this train ride was. We just happened on it in a local newspaper.

On our return to Kyoto, we took our last chance to complete whatever shopping we needed to do. It was back to the train station department store, which is where we found the piece for your family room, referenced above. We were delighted. We also enjoyed seeing the station and its architecture one more time.

That evening, was our farewell dinner for our terrific friends that we made. We went in cabs to Kyoto’s Geisha district. As my wife will tell you, once a trip I happen to get waylaid by my interest in taking pictures of just about everything. It had not happened earlier. I had to wait for the last night. Fortunately Akiko and Dee found me and got me to the restaurant in time for our dinner and a surprise party for my birthday Which Dee had planned. My birthday cake was a flan surrounded by fresh strawberries and mango slices.

Earlier in the trip, Akiko introduced us to the Japanese art of Haiku. She encouraged us to try our hand at writing them, and announced that the best Haiku would get a prize. During dinner the prize was awarded. We voted, and first prize went to Kim.’s Haiku. All the Haikus appear below.
We had a wonderful memorable evening. The next morning after breakfast we had time to do a little bit of running around and last minute purchases. As a note, when visiting Japan, make sure that you have enough yen to last the entire trip. We found it very difficult to exchange money and, most of the time, to use credit cards, and American cash was not welcome for purchases. Otherwise, we were thrilled to have gone back to Japan because our first visit was just a taste of the menu. We could not have picked a better time of the year or found a more cohesive group of people with whom to share this wonderful journey.

Clouds gather, the winds blowing
Trees cry tears of pink
Throw open your arms and drink.

My lure bobs in the stream.
A breeze rustles the water.
Fresh fish for dinner.

Beauty, Peaceful, Calm
Mountains, Shrines Blossoms
Strangers are now friends.

Futons nestle side by side.
Through open windows crows
drop pearls of blood
Spring is over.

Snow topped mountain peak
She peeks out from behind clouds
Not shy after all.

Blossoms fall
Reminding us how
ephemeral life can be.

The plane lands smoothly.
Beautiful blossoms greet us.
Now we must go home.

Radiance of white and pink.
Life’s longing gently stirs.
April’s bride is blushin.

John S.
Cherry blossoms
live briefly and die,
teaching us love.

Missing my home now.
No more coins in my pocket.
Going home for sure.

The quiet still night
is broken with full moon glow.
Shards of brilliance.


Japan’s beauty astounds.
Cherry blossoms abound.
Nature’s glory fills the soul.

Smiling blossoms now.
Will Iris laugh in summer?
Sun sends the message.

Pink cherry blossoms
drifting lightly on the breeze.
Oh, they are gone much too soon.

John B.
Warm white blossoms caress
the dappled weary traveler
with fragrant moon glow.


Grabbing small petals
Racing through the cherry trees.
Beautiful baby.