Our short visit to Japan was like a breath of chilled fresh air. We didn’t even realize how tired we were until we arrived at Keiko and Paul’s house and felt the welcoming comfort envelop us like a warm blanket. Our stay in Japan refreshed and energized us and sent us back on the road with renewed energy and curiosity.
First I must mention the exceptional hospitality of our hosts. Keiko and Paul allocated a week out of their incredibly busy schedule to take us around to local sights and ensure that our stay was comfortable and entertaining. Toshi, Keiko’s mother, also welcomed us with a big smile and long strings of sing-song Japanese that left us all smiling, laughing, and bowing.
We visited the Akashi Suspension bridge – the longest suspension bridge in the world – where the dimensions of the bridge create odd optical illusions, especially in the fog that surrounded the area the day we visited. We also made a quick visit to a modernistic Buddhist temple designed by a famous architect. The temple is built into the side of a hill and the roof has a pond on it.
During our stay we ate great food that included, tasty home cooked meals (we have not had many of those lately), sushi, udon, yakatori chicken, shabu shabu, fried octopus, Japanese knock-off of McDonalds, and Italian food. You might say that we were well fed when we left Japan.
One day we all boarded the bullet train from Akashi to Kyoto and spent the day taking in the traditional Japanese sights. By happen-stance we were in Kyoto on the 15th of January when a Zen Buddhist temple serves a ceremonial rice soup lunch for the New Year. Keiko signed us up for lunch and we did our best to sit seiza (sitting on our heels) on the tatami mats. I used to be able to sit that way for a while when I was practicing aikido, but everything had stiffened up lately and after a few minutes we were all sitting “criss-cross-apple-sauce”. The meal started with a plate of appetizers served by a member of the temple – each type of food represented something for the new year, such as increased wealth, good health, long life, etc. After the appetizers we moved to a tatami room looking out on a Zen garden where the main meal was served. There were many interesting and unique dishes served up, but the main dish was a very bland bowl of traditional rice soup – actually more like gruel. A spoon full of the gruel is offered to a temple attendant who takes the offering outside and leaves it as an offering. The meal is meant to be symbolic for wishes for a good year, and to remind us of the beauty of the simplicity of life. After the meal, as we walked around the temple compound, I told Patrick about some of the training for Zen students – where the students close their eyes and meditate while a Zen master sneaks up behind them and whacks them on the head with a stick. The practice is to accept the pain then quickly let it go, along with all the ill will for the guy with the stick. Patrick thought this was “way cool” – as long as he was the one with the stick.
While in Kyoto we also visited the Golden Pavilion, a very impressive temple that is gilded inside and out with real gold leaf. It was a great place for photos. We also visited a large temple built on a hillside that overlooked the whole city. Our driver also pointed out the traditional training schools where maiko (geisha in training) are taught and the traditional wooden buildings where geisha ply their trade by entertaining well-heeled gentlemen.
Back in Akashi Keiko also found time to arrange a horse riding lesson for the kids one afternoon. Both kids enjoyed the horses and were a little saddle sore for a couple of days.
A highlight of our stay was the Akashi Sister City meeting; where we caught up with old friends and made new contacts. Keiko, as the president of the Sister City organization in Akashi, arranged for me to give a 30 minute pre-dinner presentation about our travels. Even though Keiko handed out a translation of my notes to the audience, I realized pretty quickly that most folks were not following my English very well. So I let pictures do most of the talking and just made some color commentary now and then. The best part was that Keiko arranged for the kids to spend a couple of nights with a host family after the meeting. I spent a week with a host family in Akashi when I was 15, and it was a great experience. Our kids had a wonderful time with their family too – and Alex is working on a post to tell you about it.
One final comment about the toilets in Japan. They are truly amazing. They are warm when it is cold, they lift the seat as you approach, they wash whatever gets dirty, and some are controlled by a panel of buttons hanging on the wall. Suzanne is convinced that Toto toilets will be the next big thing in Danville.
As we packed to leave Toshi asked the kids to write her a letter, then they all had a great time typing it into Google Translate and laughing at the translation. And then it was with a little tear in my eye that I shook Paul’s hand and gave Keiko a hug goodbye at the Osaka airport. It was a wonderful visit and we were rested and refreshed for the next leg of our trip to Australia.