Japan 2001: the Journey

Day 1: Toronto to Kyoto (11,000 km and 23 hours...)
The less said about the loooong flight the better! Arriving in Osaka, Kansai International Airport, we took the Haruka Limited Express to Kyoto and finally staggered our way to the Iida Hotel, dropped luggage and found our first dinner of the trip - tempura dropped into a bowl of noodles! Have you ever had soggy tempura before? Let us tell you, it is not pleasant, especially after 23 hrs of 'getting there'. Then, at last, hot bath in the hotel furo, tea and bed.

A room at Hotel Iida

Day 2: Kyoto to Kyushu - 600 km in 3.5 hrs!)
No rest for the wicked! On our way, oh but first, Starbucks!!! Kyoto grew a "Starbucks" since our last visit. No more tinned hot coffee but all the curry buns we could eat. We boarded the shinkansen for our longest journey of the trip. We passed through Fukuyama (Lucky Mountain) which is actually where Usui made his transition in 1926. We paused in our thoughts and considered how auspicious it was to be passing through on the eve of Usui's system returning to Japan!

Days 3 - 5: Kyushu - Bringing Usui-Do back to its birthplace!
Our very first Usui-do workshop in Japan was held in a tatami room at a community centre located in the back streets behind a Buddhist temple. A group of contented alley cats were sunning themselves in the middle of the street below, obviously well fed and cared for by the temple. We were very pleased with our interpreter, Sakiko, who had never studied the system before. This presented some interesting challenges due to trying to present our understanding of Japanese concepts in English which had to be translated back into Japanese! However, all the students returned for the second part of the workshop! We were overwhelmed and surprised by student's willingness to share their experiences openly in the group. The only real challenge of the workshop was sort-of-sitting seiza for long periods of time. The first transformations were augmented by the sound of a local politicians' highly amplified campaign speech as his convoy paused in front of the community centre. Closing windows would have helped, however, the weather was much more humid and warmer then we expected so we struck a balance in favour of suffering the 'noise'.

We held the workshop in a tatami room

One evening we were invited to a special tea ceremony in honour of the workshop. This was followed by a banquet which consisted of paper thin slices of raw fugu (blowfish) and many other dishes, both hot and cold. The presentation and culinary skill was overwhelming. Dishes kept coming from the kitchen and from guests as they arrived. The sake kept reappearing in our cups as the conversations grew louder and more energetic. After several hours, although we did not want to leave, we had to drag ourselves away from the table and face a long trip in a tiny car on a Japanese freeway and back to the home of Andrew, our host.

Banquet in Kyushu.

The last day of the workshop flowed easily as the students reconnected with their own cultural roots through the system. When it came time to hand out the certificates emotions were running a little high to say the least. Everyone was overwhelmed with a profound sensation of 'coming home'. We would like to say a big 'thank you' to Sakiko and Andrew for all their efforts in making the workshop such a great success.

We had the absolute pleasure of attending two set dinners. One was made totally from soy products served at a long bar. The waitresses, dressed in traditional clothing, came fluttering down the aisle from the kitchen like butterflies, landing in front of us and morphed into this graceful mindful still being, delicately presenting each dish as a great prize. The entire meal was a soy theme based on Buddhist tradition balanced with the wabi-sabi of classical Japanese. The whole experience was deeply nurturing in ways we can't quite put into words. The other set dinner was held in a more rural setting and the menu was more traditional. We sat on tatami around a low table trying desperately to decide where to put our weary legs. This incredible meal contained all the food elements traditionally found in Japan. Needless to say we ate like kings, complete with king crab legs!

Two set dinner choices

Day 6: Kyushu to Miyajima and Kyoto (650 km)

Our trip to Hiroshima was to take around 90 minutes on the Hikari Super Express. At Hiroshima we changed to a local service to Miyajimaguchi station and on to a 20 minute ride on the Miyajima ferry. We deposited our baggage in a locker and made first contact with the many friendly deer that range freely on the island. They live off round 'deer wafers' that look like ginger snaps but are most likely made of grains and of course sold abundantly by the many street vendors. Watch out for the deer with antlers...

Deer at Miyajima

Freed of our bags we walked along the bay and past the many tourist shops and restaurants lining the main street. We made our way to the Itsukushima Shrine which is set on piles driven into the sea bed. There was a wedding in process and we could see the Shinto priests at work purifying the space in readiness for the ceremony. Now hungry, our feet lead us to a little restaurant serving okonomiyaki which we quickly gobbled up and then made our way to the park.

The O-torii of Itsukushima Shrine

After a walk in Momijidani Park we took the waiting ropeway to the summit of Mount Misen which allowed an extensive view of the island, the oyster beds in the Seto Inland Sea and the mainland as far away as Hiroshima. We were too exhausted to travel any further and so made our way back down the mountain, said our farewells to the deer and retraced our steps back to Hiroshima and on to Kyoto via the shinkansen.

Day 7: Kyoto - A day to catch up on laundry and disturb the Iida chambermaids!
The Japanese tend to be caring in their contact with others. There is a inherent willingness to ensure that the customer is satisfied, regardless of how trivial the task may be. This can be seen with the chambermaids at Iida, working through the rooms 'vertically', completing one task for every room on a given floor before proceeding to the next. You can imagine with this type of process how us remaining in our rooms distressed the chambermaids. The evening 'ritual' of laying out the futons was performed in a more formal dress and if we did not leave the room our futons remained tucked away in the cupboards! Some of us, (guess who?) needed more than one futon (try 4) which caused even further distress but by the last night in Kyoto, we had it all sorted out!  We were delighted by the experience of pulling into a gas station where there are a multitude of attendants all attentive, joyful and scurrying to complete their individual tasks, including cleaning all the windows, mirrors and making sure the driver also participates by handing him a clean damp cloth to wipe down the interior ... all during the filling of gas! This experience was a shining example of Usui's affirmation "do your work with appreciation" and is 'a way' that seems to be lost here is the West.

Day 8: Kamakura and Hakone
Off we set early in the morning for Odawara by shinkansen and then took a local train to Fujisawa and then a village tram to Kamakura-Hase and finally a walk through the village to the Giant Buddha. By the time we arrived, we were literally soaked to the skin from the pelting rain that struck us at every angle, even into our boots! After visiting with a wet but beautiful bronze Buddha we retraced our steps to Odawara, still very wet and a little miserable! In Odawara we clambered aboard a warm bus bound for Hakone National Park and made our way to the Fuji Hakone Guest House. We were greeted by Lisa Takahashi who was most pleasant and had an excellent grasp of English. Taking one look at our sorry faces and wet clothing, Lisa quickly pointed out the furo, a traditional Japanese bathhouse. This was fed directly from the Owakudani hot spring which comes out of the ground laden with sulphur and at a temperature of 120 degrees C! We no sooner dropped our knapsacks and jumped in to restore our body temperatures and came out resembling freshly boiled lobsters! The temperature in the tub is 85-90 degrees C and getting into the tub at first presented a 'heat' challenge. We soon learned the art of slipping in slowly but consistently and then not moving a fraction till ready to climb out. The night was spent with the heater in the room at full blast, drying wet clothes, boots and knapsacks while the rain outside continued to fall heavily, lulling us quickly to sleep or was it just exhaustion! What a day!.

The furo at the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse

Day 9: Fuji - Hakone National Park and Owakudani - Yellow Hats everywhere!
What are yellow hats? In Japan, nearly all school children wear uniforms. Senior students have a more formal uniform. The young men's uniform are in a military style while the young women wear very short kilts and very long woolly socks worn around the ankles, an obvious gesture of defiance. The grade students are adorable! The little boys wear a shirt and shorts uniform while the little girls wear tunics. Most had school coloured leather satchels on their backs and YELLOW HATS on their heads! (sometimes powder blue hats!) 'Yellow Hats' were everywhere in large numbers, always excited and full of joy, embracing opportunities to practice their English with the Westerners. It was always a delightful experience when we were approached by the children.

The boiling mud pool at Owakudani

Fuji - Hakone National Park includes Fuji-san and Lake Ashi which is as deep as Fuji is high. Transportation in the park is by twisty roads, cable cars, trains and ropeways. The ropeway in the park has the highest stretch in all of Japan at the point where it goes over Owakudani (great boiling valley). When the wind blows the ropeway car will rock! We swung alarmingly from side to side, helplessly dangling from the cable. It wasn't that bad, really! As we climbed higher we entered the clouds and the visibility went down to only a few feet. An unexpected loud hissing sound surrounded us like the clouds and took me by surprise. However, once we came out of the clouds, there was a great view of Fuji-san as well as the main steam vent (hissing cloud-maker!). Eventually we arrived at the boiling spring itself, complete with the smell of rotten eggs from the sulphur dissolved in the water that was bubbling out of the ground all over the place! There were several streams of milky white boiling water that had carved themselves into little canyons. One of these streams eventually comes out into the bathhouse at the guest house we were staying at. On our way back we had to wait in line for nearly an hour while several hundred "Yellow Hats", ahead of us, were loaded back onto the ropeway cars. Finally we arrived back at Lake Ashi, tired and hungry and faced with another army of "Yellow Hats", we decided against taking the pirate ship to the small town on the other side of the lake. Instead, we headed back to the guest house and quickly found our way back into the furo.

Fuji-san from Owakudani

Day 10: NO RAIN!Off to Ofuna to visit the Goddess of Mercy and then a second attempt at Kamakura.
A beautiful day lay before us and off we set, first returning to Odawara, then taking a limited express to Ofuna and then following our feet we climbed a great hill to be rewarded with our first view of the 25 metre tall Goddess of Mercy. In Japan she is known as Kannon, in China Guan Yin, in India Tara and in the west Mary!

A plaque mounted at the base of statue read as follows:

At the beginning of the Showa Era (the reign of Emperor Hirohito) it was planned to erect this Goddess of Mercy dedicated to better social conditions. Construction began in 1929 and the basic contour was completed in 1934. The work was interrupted by the Second World War. After the War, work was once again resumed and it was completed in 1960.

Needless to say we were both overwhelmed with her magnificence and compassion and amazingly there were no Yellow Hats to be seen or heard! This was the quietest temple that we visited. Apparently, most Japanese and tourists just don't get there unless they are a 'believer'. We were soon enveloped by the calming and soothing presence of Kannon. Something within us shifted and our spirits were lighter and our steps easier. Before we left we stopped at the Memorial to the bombing of Hiroshima and quietly reflected on the current events in the world.

Flame of the Atomic Bomb
The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima brought death to hundreds of thousands of citizens. The flame taken from the conflagration, burning in "deep-seated pain in memory" of those who were killed, has been kept burning at Hoshino Village in Fukuoka Prefecture. This flame was lit from that flame and is placed here as a symbol of our yearning for lasting peace. To commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, August 6 and 9, 1945.

Kanagawa Association of A-bomb Sufferers July 29, 1990.

We departed, feeling more connected to 'the self' and quietly made our way back to the train station to catch the local train to Kamakura to complete the day by re-visiting the Giant Buddha. The weather was still brilliant and the Giant Buddha was just as glorious. Large hawks soared over-head completing the surreal quality of the statue.

The Great Buddha - Kamakura
This bronze statue of Amida Buddha was cast in 1252 A.D. by the sculptors Ono-Goroemon and Tanji-Hisatomo at the request of Miss Idanono-Tsubone and Priest Joko, who not only originated the idea of building this large statue and the temple covering it, but also collected donations for it.
In 1498, a tidal wave swept away the great temple of the Buddha, leaving the foundation stones. In the 500 years since then, the holy statue has been exposed to sunshine, storms, and snow.
the latest repair was done in 1960-1961, to strengthen the Buddha's neck and to make it possible for the Buddha's body to move freely on the base to prevent a damaging shock to the statue in case of an earthquake. The statue is 13.35 metres tall, and weighs 121 tons.

Well I hope you didn't expect me to walk barefoot!

Day 11: Kyoto National Museum
Well you know how museums go! Look at old stuff and leave. Actually we saw some incredible kimonos, ancient calligraphy, religious sculptures and artifacts from the stone, bronze and iron ages. Fascinating! We show below an image of a Katabira dress with a design of standing paulownia trees and poem of "Kimiga-yo" in dye and embroidery on light blue ramie ground. It comes from the Edo Period (19th century) and is on loan from the Tokyo National Museum

A kimono in the Kyoto National Museum

Day 12: Gobo and Iwashiro
A refreshing change of pace, the Pacific Ocean! Starbucks and curry buns in hand, we raced for the early "Ocean Arrow" - a Pacific Coaster express, not quite the coast of California but very close indeed! The weather became warmer and sunnier the closer we got to our destination - Gobo. However, having arrived at Gobo we soon realized that it was more populated than we had hoped so we jumped on the next local train, moving at a snail's pace until we saw what we were looking for and jumped out at the next station, Iwashiro. We were seeking deserted beach in order to make binaural recordings of the Pacific surf. Once we left the station, we were not sure how to actually get to the beach. We set off in one direction but the road started to curve away from the ocean so we turned around and noticed a trail leading through a field which lead to a level crossing from which we could see the ocean. At this point we immediately surrendered to the wonderful experience of the ocean from the salty smell, the rolling crashing waves to the beautiful black volcanic rocks and the tiny remnants of the inner spirals of shells below our feet. The ocean has a way of taking you to a place where you suddenly feel liberated and child-like. We eventually settled down to devour our lunch and then to do the task at hand and find a suitable 'sound' site for the binaural recording. However, local truck traffic, trains and the 'gong' at the railway crossing intruded on the sound environment of the Pacific. Despite the noise, we managed to get a sun tan while wading at the edge of the water and playing with the beautiful black volcanic sand. Sadly it was time to make our way back to Kyoto, a 3 hour journey. Once back in Kyoto we celebrated our visit to the Pacific with an authentic Cantonese set dinner with sake and chilled jasmine tea.

railway crossing at Iwashiro

Pacific Coastline

Day 13: Kyoto
What did we do? Oh yeah, laundry, an attempt at an internet cafe and finally ending up in the Shosei-en Garden which belongs to the Higashi Honganji Temple. That evening we took to the Kyoto Skyway, a shopping complex in Kyoto station. From the station concourse the complex was terraced like the side of a Mayan pyramid reaching skyward. We counted at least 7 escalators before reaching the plaza at the top. The main department store, called The Cube, took up one side of the complex. Shoppers Heaven!

Scenes from the Shosei-en Garden

Day 14: Amanohashidate: the Bridge of Heaven
The strangest day of our entire visit to Japan. Upon arriving at Amanohashidate it was as if we had arrived at Japan's 'twilight zone'. We did not even know we had arrived upon arriving! Eventually, as the train went no further we fell out into the very small village at the waters edge, the Sea of Japan. We saw very few people and shop keepers were hiding behind closed doors. We found a pier to walk out on and sat down to eat lunch wondering why the heck we had come here, waiting for some Loch Ness Monster to poke its head out of the dead greasy black and still water. Suddenly fish began to jump in the air, catching themselves their mid morning snack of flying creatures while two large cranes came from out of nowhere, flying over head and squawking, perhaps warning us of something!

Two cranes came out of nowhere...

We then made our way to the shuttle ferry to take us to the other end of the sand spit which is also called Amanohashidate. Of course, we were the only passengers and the fish seemed to follow us along with a pair of sea gulls. We then proceeded to walk back along the sand spit, about 4 km long and covered with about 7,000 white pines. As beautiful as it was, it was as if we were in the eye of a storm and did not know it. Well guess what, that is exactly what was going on. A typhoon was actually hitting Korea at exactly that time. We decided to cut short our stay due to the on-coming rain and this time took a local train connecting with a different express at Ayabe which brought us into Kyoto two hours earlier than we had planned.

Walking along the sandspit at Amanohashidate

That evening, back in Kyoto, the rain built up again to a deluge which lasted  for most of the night. Tired, wet and hungry we headed for the Chinese Resturant for dinner and then returned to our rooms where we sat gazing out of the windows, drinking green tea and watching the rain cascading off the illuminated Kyoto Tower till it was time to surrender to the not-so-comfortable futons once again.

Day 15: Kyoto
What did we do? Oh yes, we were in recovery mode after our experience of being in the eye of the storm the day before. The typhoon that was raging over Korea spilled over into Japan just enough to cause a constant downpour which moderated to a drizzle by mid afternoon. We did however escape to the subterranean world of train stations and shops and of course indulged in Starbucks and curry buns yet again!

Day 16: Nara - Yet Another Giant Buddha!
Have we introduced Sakiko yet? Sakiko was our lovely interpreter for the workshop. She joined us for the day, having never been to Nara or the Giant Buddha. Once again Starbucks in hand, corrupting Sakiko with our Western ways, off we went! Oh dear, more deer and more "Yellow Hats" per square inch than you can imagine! Unlike the Kamakura Buddha, this Giant Buddha still has a home (temple) covering him. He was built to promote world peace and is the aspect of Buddha known as Dainichi Nyori, which is the Supreme Buddha. Nara was at one time the capital of Japan and has more Starbucks than Kyoto... guess where we went for lunch! Poor Sakiko or was it her idea? We will return on our next visit to Japan, hopefully while the "Yellow Hats" are taking a nap!

Komainu - Guardians of the temple gate.

The Giant Buddha of Nara.

Day 17: Kurama
We just had to return! This time we cheated and took the cable car which deposited us about half way up the mountain. It was as beautiful as ever and everything had remained the same except now there is a restaurant below one of the temples! Time ceases to exist when we are on Mt. Kurama and yet we can't tell you exactly what happened because we just don't know - yet!

Day 18: Susami and Wabuka
One day to play in the Pacific surf and sun is not enough! So, we dragged ourselves to the train, devastated because our train left  2 minutes before Starbucks opened that day! We had to suffer with the local bakery's version of brewed coffee, however, we did have curry buns to compensate. We had a boring four hour train ride to Susami and then a local train, painted up in pandas, to Wabuka, another tiny remote village in the Kii Peninsula on the Pacific Coast. During the train ride, almost the whole of the land on either side of the train was covered in terraced orange groves all bearing fruit. Once we arrived at Wabuka, our feet knew that there was a tunnel under the railway line and soon we were once again embraced by the ocean! The beach was quite different than Iwashiro. The past action of the ocean interacting with the volcanic rock masses, probably thousands of years ago, had left behind a striking scape more like the moon. Terminated quartz, thick veins of iron-ore and coral were all easily accessed where the rocks had broke and shifted planes revealing the layers of geology in this area. We found many little rock crevices that were like miniature aquariums, complete with seaweed, hermit crabs, barnacles, sea anemones, tiny fish and rock oysters! Brilliant! There were deep crevices where the fresh water rivers had cut a path into the ocean. We could really get a sense of the constant interaction between the ocean and the fresh water. Despite making four separate recordings in this beautiful area, we were unsuccessful in capturing a binaural recording that wasn't swamped by the sounds of wind howling in the microphones!

Wabuka Station

Day 19: Kyoto
What did we do? Oh yeah not much! We were a little weary of sleeping on futons, sitting on tatami and suffering for the lack of food choices in our section of Kyoto.
Thank goodness for  around the corner, where we could always find prepared bento boxed meals, sake and orange Kit Kat bars! This was our last 'free' day to hang out in Kyoto and complete any last minute shopping. We headed out to the '100 yen' store in the Kyoto Tower complex, hunting for bargains and bumped into this character with his monkeys! When we played 'stupid Westerner' and motioned with a camera to indicate a request to take his picture he came right over and let his monkeys loose on us. They were light, agile and had yellow and green fur and made little quiet chattering sounds! They climbed all over us, pawed our faces and jumped back and forth between all three of us. It appeared these monkeys were genuine pets and not performing monkeys. Needless to say, our wallets and jewellery had not vanished! It was a delightful encounter and totally unexpected.

A customer in the "100 yen store" in Kyoto Tower

After wondering around underground shops aimlessly, we were not much in the mood for anything except perhaps getting home to Toronto. So we made a promise to prepare another fabulous extravagant salad for our dinner and passed up on another restaurant dinner. The grocery store, from where we grabbed the fixings for our salad  was actually a multi-layer sub-basement of a large department store called Kintetsu. The selection of food was overwhelming and the prices were quite reasonable i.e.. $0.85 for a fresh head of romaine. We found enoki mushrooms, which are very good for the immune system and are rare here in Canada. By the time we were done and had prepared the salad we had enough to feed a small village in Japan! If you look carefully at the picture below... our salads nearly completely fill two serving trays 14" X 12"! Seeing as we did not actually have salad bowls and cutlery we did pretty good camping out in the hotel! All good fun!

Our salad

Day 20: Miyajima revisited
We began the day, bound and determined, full of our tenacious spirits and ready for a second attempt on Mt. Misen. We walked out of the hotel, ignoring the threat of rain overhead, pushed on to the bakery and Starbucks for our breakfast-on-the-go and jumped aboard our  8:15am shinkansen and headed back to Hiroshima. Despite the skies turning more gloomy by the minute, we pushed on. In Hiroshima we caught the local train and then the ferry. As we got closer to the Island, which was disappearing into the fog, the rain became increasingly heavy but we trudged on. Once on the Island we began to get very wet and succumbed to purchasing a couple of plastic umbrellas as our "Lowe Alpine" 'Cadillac' rain coats were simply acting as drain pipes funnelling the rain to our legs and into our boots. The dampness was creeping in so we ducked into our little okonomiyaki restaurant and went dutch on a huge serving, warming up but not drying out. At this time, the rain increased to a torrential downpour so we cut our losses and headed straight back to Kyoto where we drowned our sorrows in our final dinner in Japan at our Cantonese Restaurant where the sake is warm and the food always good as long as you stay away from the soups which tend to be laden with MSG. In our set dinner we enjoyed the unique taste of glutenous rice wrapped and steamed in banana leaves along with the authentic taste of Canton in Japan!

Day 21: Kyoto to Toronto. What? Flight cancelled! Vancouver in the dark?
Worry not... our NorthWest flight was cancelled but Air Canada came to the rescue, saved us from Wayne County Airport in Detroit and delivered us to Vancouver where upon a tree fell over the main power lines plunging the entire airport into darkness, stranding several people in elevators and halting computer systems and conveyor equipment and who knows what else... at the very moment we entered customs! After much confusion and mis-direction, we finally made our way to the gate for our final flight to Toronto still unsure whether our baggage was actually going to follow! Arriving in Toronto went smoothly and after all the chaos since arriving at Kansai International Airport in Japan till now, we were only 30 minutes later than originally expected and even our luggage had survived the journey. Once home we began the slow recovery from chopsticks to yen to the time change which set us behind 13 hrs!

Finally, here are some collages we created from various passes and tickets that we accumulated during the trip. Click on an image to see it full size.