Just a wee P.S….One of the things we enjoyed most about Japan was looking at the traditional, modern, creative and diverse fashion statements made by young and old, male and female. Here are some of our favorites.
In ending this Japanese segment of my mgprontheroad blog, I would like to thank my co-travelers for this extraordinary experience. The tone of these posts differs from my European posts, as traveling with eight other people kept me too busy to actually enter my day to day reflections. It was rewarding speaking about these daily experiences with each other. Let it suffice to say that nine more congenial people couldn’t have been found to share this adventure. Thank you Mei and John for including me, and Mei for the hours and hours of organization that made for a such a memorable trip.
On our last day, we decided to divide and conquer and spend our day either exploring new places or returning to places that touched our hearts. I shall begin with Wendy’s journey, as it began 46 years earlier. She and Ed set out to discover the convent where Wendy had rented a room 19 years ago, in hopes of finding Sister Moe who lived there when she did and was her “partner” in laughter and great fun. They did indeed find the convent, which is now renamed on a street which has also been renamed. Talk about when there is a will there is a way. The new nuns had just seen Sister Moe earlier that day, and knew that she was at a nearby hotel celebrating her 84th birthday. When Wendy and Ed found her, leaving the ballroom of her party, their reunion ended with Sister Moe saying, “We’ll save all our stories from these many years until we meet again in heaven.” Needless to say, there were lots of tears of joy and a contented nun who will undoubtedly always remember her 84h birthday, as will Wendy.
As for my day, I returned to Maruyama Park where I spent the day in meditation and gratitude for the life I am now living.
Our Last Supper was celebrated at Kikunoi Maruyama Kyoto — a three star Michelin restaurant that is tastefully designed within the Maruyama Park. The service and presentation were exquisite. As for a three star restaurant experience, so many of our meals were elegantly presented and prepared, so we were a tough crowd to please at this point. But it was lovely, and provided our group yet another magnificent venue in which to circle around the table sharing sentiments of extreme gratitude and love.
Our second to the last day in Kyoto was busy and full of adventure. It began at the great Todai-ji Temple, a national treasure first constructed in 710 -794 AD, which is known for its chief object of worship — a magnificent Vairocana Buddha (Buddha that shines throughout the world like the sun). The Buddha is 49’ tall, resting on a Lotus petal that stands 10’ tall. The Temple serves both as a place of peace and affluence on earth, as well as a center for Buddhist doctrinal research, which has produced many famous scholar priests. The statue of Vairocana Buddha is made from cast bronze and plated with gold. It has been damaged and repaired numerous times and the current rendition is 33% smaller than the original structure, yet still ranks as the largest wooden structure in the world. Seeing this Buddha was awe-inspiring to say the least.
Entering and leaving the Temple park, we were greeted by deer who only had eyes for John…
The afternoon was spent engaging in quite a different experience at the Ninja Museum. At first it was hard to imagine why this visit was included on our tour, until we heard the history of these nationally celebrated secret agents. Little did I know that our modern day Ninja is based on such an important cultural phenomenon. I’ll let the photos tell a thousand words about this adventure. For me the best part was seeing the Ninja house with secret doors and rooms and compartments where Ninjas could hide from the enemy and escape. Dinner was a traditional meal at Yamabuki Temple. Very elegant, subdued and offered a wonderful opportunity for us to recap our visit and gratitude in preparation for our last day in Kyoto.
After our long walk, Wendy and I joined the group for a visit to Nishiki Market. It is where locals and visitors go to shop in Kyoto. Everything can be found in this covered market that extends for blocks — from upscale knives of all sizes and shapes, to baby gifts, to tea and many expressions of traditional Japanese food. There were stations for fermented foods, dry fish, chestnuts, fans, plastic food (which is widely seen throughout Japan and used to advertise the wares of local restaurants), and a myriad of tea shops.
Twice a month there is a flea market across town and we were excited to visit this all day market where there were old kimonos and prints alongside exotic street food, art, ceramics and hand-crafted wooden items. Throughout Kyoto are Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines and this flea market offered no exception. A ceremony was taking place during this open market and of course I was drawn to listen and watch.
In the center of Kyoto, inspiring natives and tourists alike with the beauty of nature and dotted with Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines, lays Maruyama Park. It is Kyoto’s version of New York City’s Central Park. Wendy and I walk regularly at home in Healdsburg. More than 45 years ago Wendy lived in Kyoto. One of my favorite mornings of the trip was when she took me to this park, early one morning, prior to the onset of tourists — when the park was quiet and only the sound of drum beats and a gentle wind could be heard. We walked for what seemed to be forever, passing nuns and ancient cemeteries and blossoming trees and flowers of all kinds, shapes, and colors. It was magical to be here in the quiet hours of daybreak. Maruyama Park was deserted and overgrown with shrubs and weeds until three hundred years ago. In 1886, it was designated as a park site at which time it was enlarged. In 1913, it was professionally designed by Jihei Ogawa, a landscape gardener who had previously designed the well-known gardens of Heian Shrine and Murin-an. We were told that it was a typical Japanese park especially noted for its big dropping cheery trees and various other varieties of these trees. To stroll through this park relatively alone at the height of cherry blossom season provides a memory to be cherished.
I’m not much of a map person, and for me one of the joys of traveling is not knowing what to expect or how to get there. So yesterday was a rather magical day from this perspective. After a short walk, a longer bus ride, four stops on the subway, and another 50 minute bus ride, we had our first venture ascending into the mountains of Japan. Following a bubbling brook, we climbed the mountain on a narrow road where erosion was evident with road construction around nearly every corner. Flowers were abundant with colors of pink I’ve never before seen, and reds, violets and blues. We finally reached our destination, The Miho Museum, where above the fog we arrived in Shangri-La. In Osaka, we had missed the Cherry blossoms by about 5 days but here in the mountains we followed a natural tunnel of Cherry Trees in full bloom. The petals were blowing and the trees were raining blossoms. Words really can’t describe the experience of the approach through the blossoms to renowned Architect I.M. Pei’s exquisite Miho Museum. The geometric-designed museum was built 80% below the ground, to bring the building into harmony with the environment and the surrounding view. I have visited many museums throughout the world and this experience offered a spiritual moment in life. The collection contains over 2,000 works from Japanese Tea Ceremonial art, Buddhist art and ceramics to art from Asian and Western cultures. Yet the true experience of the Miho is how I.M. Pei and the founders integrated and celebrated nature as the primary exhibit. With Cherry blossoms in full bloom as it was designed to display, we were blessed beyond words to be there. AND, this was merely our day time activity. As evening approached, we loaded into two taxis for a long drive in the opposite direction. Once again we climbed hills and dales. We were convinced that our driver was trained in Tokyo, as he maneuvered his cell phone while making hairpin turns. It was a bit tricky finding Wappado Restaurant, www.wappado.jp – but well worth the drive and adventure.
With a light rain beginning and mist and dusk setting in, we got out of the cab on to a very narrow, rocky road surrounded by a patchwork quilt of farm land. Small plots of family farms dotted the landscape and went as far as the eye could see. Wappado is one of the few farm-to-table restaurants in Kyoto, i.e. Japan, as Kyoto is the gastronomic capital of this country. The owners are husband and wife, he the chef, she the sous chef and mother of their 7 and 3 year old children. The restaurant is their charming farmhouse and we were the only diners that night. They are open Friday – Sunday only, as the rest of the time their garden and family obligations command their attention. Let it suffice to say that our eight-course, exquisitely prepared and presented meal was freshly picked from their garden. The subtle flavors were unimaginable as John and Mei tried to identify what we were tasting. The mother-in-law is a weaver, so after dinner many of us wanted to further support this young family by purchasing the beautifully crafted hand woven scarves, mats, etc. Ahhhhh, thank you Mei for this once in a lifetime farm to table experience in Kyoto!
We began this beautiful birthday with 64 degree sunny weather at the National Treasure Sanjusangen-do. The principal images of this temple are the 1001 statues of the Buddhist deity Juichimen-senju-sengen Kanzeon… AKA “Kannon.” The 1001 Buddhas are made of Japanese cypress wood covered in gold, and are 700 years old. It took 70 artists 100 years to complete these Buddhas… Each of the Buddhas has 11 faces and 21 pairs of arms which totals 1000 arms, and as the story goes, with treasures in each hand saves 25 worlds. It is believed that Kannon Bodhisattva can transform himself into 33 different figures. Therefore, the 1001 images really equal 33,000. Can’t really say that I understand this all too well… but it was impressive to see.
In the center of these Buddha figures is a larger Buddha that was had carved by a famous 82 year old artist.
Next, we visited the Nijo Castle. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally built in 1603, it was the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugaway Shogun. In 1867, when Yoshinobu, the fifteenth Tokugawa Shogun returned sovereignty to the Emperor, the castle became the property of the Imperial family. It was donated to the City of Kyoto and renamed Nijo Castle in 1939.
Our final destination was the “Must See” Kinkaku or The Golden Pavilion. It is literally made of gold and sits stunningly on an island surrounded by Maple & Cherry Trees among other stunning landscape. It was overcast today, so didn’t see the gold temple and Cherry Blossoms reflected in the lake, but photos show that it is breathtaking in both spring and again in fall with the changing colors of the maple trees.
My birthday celebration was spent with a Champagne dinner at the Ryokan, where dressed in Kimonos, we indulged in an 18 course traditional Japanese dinner.
Certainly a birthday I will always treasure. Thank you, dear travel mates and friends!
A chartered bus transported our group the hour and a half drive from Osaka to Kyoto where we passed through the industrial section of Osaka on the outskirts of town. Just prior to arriving in Kyoto, low houses with Japanese style roofs lined the river as we moved into the countryside.
Kyoto is a city much smaller than Osaka with the charm of traditional Japan complemented by influences of the modern world. Our first two nights are spent at a Ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese style hotel or inn. Our inn respects the unique and subtle beauty of Japanese culture and custom. We sleep on futons on tatami mat floors and have public baths for both men and woman in addition to deep soaking tubs in each room. We are offered Japanese Kimonos with formal silk jackets to wear for breakfast and dinner. The dinners are 16 courses of traditional Japanese food served in exquisite ceramic bowls where the artistry is as sensual as the textures of the food. Breakfast was a real treat with a cold soft boiled egg and rice, ginger and a score of other condiments.
The first temple we visited was Tenryu-ji Temple, which is a World Cultural Heritage Site. It is the head temple of the Tenryu-ji branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism and was established in 1339, by the shogun Ashikaga Takauji in memory of Emperor Go-Daigo. Throughout the years, it has been ravaged by fires more than eight times, most recently in 1864. However, the magnificent landscaped garden behind the main hall is one of the oldest in Japan, retaining the same form as when it was designed by Muso Soseki in the 14th century. It was the first Special Historical Scenic Area named by the Japanese government, and in 1994 was designated by the United Nations as a World Cultural Heritage site. The garden is a MUST SEE.
After a traditional Japanese lunch with fish, tempura and other delicacies, we went to a high tea ceremony (which was a joke and really more of a photo op of Geisha and Maiko girls). The tea ceremony, such as it was, was a prelude to a Geisha performance. All of the actors and musicians were females. The sets and costumes were breathtaking, colorful, and quite impressive. Otherwise, the show was a bit commercial for our taste.
Most Americans have never heard of Momofuku Ando. I certainly had not… and perhaps one of the last products I would imagine to be synonymous with the quote “Peace will come to the world when the people have enough to eat” is CupNoodles Top Ramen. In fact, I was quite curious as to why a visit to the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum was on the itinerary for our Japanese culinary tour.
The museum was swarming with people of all ages from school children on field trips to adults visiting from throughout the world. Each of us were shepherded through the lines to make our own personally chefed CupNoodles, while listening to the fascinating story of how one man, deeply affected by the poverty and starvation caused by WWII, invented the world’s first instant noodle product, and subsequently used his fortune to establish a foundation dedicated to the sound growth of young people. Who knew that CupNoodles has such a rich and textured history and global impact on feeding the world? It was indeed a morning well spent.
Observations about Osaka as we leave for Kyoto:
– There is a fanciful sense of style with young, old, men, and women in Osaka, where there seems to be no one fashion trend, rather, individuality and creativity with fashion.
– At the Hotel Granvia Osaka, everything is minimalistic with exquisite attention to detail. The toilet seats are heated; there is a heated mirror in the bathroom to prevent the glass from fogging up; the beds are hard as can be but comfortable and rice pillows are a reminder of Japanese lifestyle.
– Architecture throughout Osaka is in transition, with old narrow alley ways and crowded spaces that open into large boulevards with modern glass high rises, artistic sculptures scattered about, and innovative design. The city is very clean and people seem respectful and orderly. They drive and walk on the left side, as in England, and during rush hour the subway station is a sea of black moving quickly.
– The best shopping for food is found in major department stores in the basement level. There are unbelievable choices of fresh fruits and vegetables, gourmet delicacies and packaged foods. Shelves upon shelves of soy sauce choices made us all laugh.
We began our day mastering the elaborate subway system beginning at our Granvia Hotel, which is centrally located next to the Osaka Station.
Arriving at Osaka Castle Park, we were greeted by an impressive rock garden (a mini version of Stonehedge).
We crossed the Gokurakubashi Bridge leading to the castle which was built between 1583 and 1598.
The museum displays with human actors animated over-elaborate artwork depicting scenes from the violent history of this castle throughout the centuries. The original castle was built by Hideyoshi Toyotomi at the site of Ishiyama Hogan-ji Temple. After being reduced to ashes during the Winter Siege and Summer War of Osaka in 1614, Tokugawa Shogun mobilized 64 feudal lords in western and northern Japan and reconstructed the castle over a period of 10 years. Apparently, over 500,000 stones were used in the reconstructed walls of this castle.
Our tour guide had brought Bento Box lunches for us to enjoy among the Stonehedge-style gardens of the park. Rick, ready to retire as a Kaiser Doc, is practicing for his new career as Japanese Sommelier, while Vintner Susan and Lou Preston pose for a photo op for their new Japanese brand.
No rest for the weary as we continued our adventures in Nakazakoi, a neighborhood reminiscent of New York’s Chelsea. Nakazakoi offers a welcome reprieve from the bustling metropolis of Osaka with its fancy shopping, offering small boutique shops where entrepreneurs sell handmade artisan items. The shops are interspersed between quaint living spaces with tidy, abundant gardens.
Our favorite shop, Nijiyura, sold batik fabrics representing both traditional and modern Japanese art.
We opted for the wild and crazy nightlife scene and took taxis to Dotonbori area of Osaka which resembles New York’s Time Square on a quiet night.
Eating octopus balls on the street encouraged us to look for a more subdued place to dine along the Tombori (river walk). Much to our surprise, John and Jill found a well-named restaurant – Zen. This tiny restaurant on the river front seated about 15 people. The owner’s father-in-law who spoke perfect English lured us in, helped us to order, and after trying many of the house Sakes, upon hearing that we were from the Sonoma wine country, treated us to a bottle of quite delicious white Japanese wine.
…Just another day in the Land of the Rising Sun.