Ethereal cemetery at Koya-san

At long last, we reached Mount Koya, site of the ethereal Okuno-in cemetery and sacred temple. I had visited this place nearly 3 decades ago and it has had me in its spell ever since. Ancient, solemn headstones, many covered in moss, line the pathway to a temple lit by thousands of lanterns which have, according to tradition, been burning for more than 1,000 years.

Elise’s introduction to the cemetery was during a night tour given by a good-natured monk who described the significance of the headstones, bridges, symbols, temple, as well as teachings of Kobo Daishi, the monk who founded Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, and who is believed to have been meditating in a sealed chamber at Okuno-in since 835.

In spite of the size of our group and the cheeriness of our guide, Elise and I had goosebumps at times. It was spooky seeing the faint outlines of the headstones just a few meters from the path where the light dropped off.

The monk explained that the Japanese practice both Shintoism and Buddhism, the former to celebrate beginnings, such as births and weddings, and the latter to commemorate death. He pointed out the full and partial moon shapes in the lanterns, which represent the range of human emotions. He said that we should strive to be open and bright like the full moon, rather than subject to, say, anger or depression, which reduces us to a fraction of our full selves.

Before we crossed one of the bridges, he warned us to walk carefully because anyone who falls dies within 3 years. He said this almost gleefully. He also told us that anyone who cannot see their reflection in a well near the bridge would likewise die in 3 years. Fortunately, we did not fall, and, the next morning – gulp – we checked for our reflections and saw them deep in the well.

At the third and final bridge, beyond which no photography was allowed, we purified ourselves by splashing water on the statues of Buddha, and then followed the monk to Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, the most sacred part of Okunoin. Drawing our attention to the tall, gilded, lotus flowers, he told us that Kobo Daishi taught that lotuses can grow out of even mud, and that, like them, we should strive to live beautifully in spite of challenging earthly conditions. I reflected on how I’d allowed myself to get cranky when things did not meet expectations during our travels (eg suboptimal accommodations, delays, airline strikes, etc), and decided to concentrate instead on how fortunate we are just to be there.

The monk chanted so that we would receive blessings. Our group was quiet and I saw that eyes were shining. There seemed to be an element of respect or big-heartedness or something in the air, and my (type A/stressed-out/gotta-manage-it-all) self felt strangely at peace.

The next day we had no trouble feeling as open and bright as the full moon as we sampled a sublime vegetarian Zen Buddhist meal. It was a joy lifting up the tiny lids to see what delicacy lay beneath. There were more than a dozen different dishes including silken tofu, miso soup, veggie tempura, salads, pickles, various unidentifiable root veggies, and fresh fruit. We were in heaven. I could not recall the name of the restaurant, so I checked the receipt. It was in Japanese, so I drew the characters (花 菱) into this fun website to get the romanized spelling: Hanabishi.

At a shop nearby, Elise spotted a giant Totoro and sat down next to it, mimicking the bus stop scene in Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, where Satsuki and little Mei first discover (the initially somewhat sinister) Totoro.

Elise loves Totoro and carries a baseball-sized version of him with her, which she photographs like a stolen garden gnome.

After lunch, we made our way to a temple for sutra writing, the meditative practice of tracing kanji characters representing spiritual teachings. I loved seeing Elise carefully produce proper-looking characters with her calligraphy brush.

Eons ago I taught myself enough kanji to pass the first two levels of the exam of Japanese for foreigners, and had started working towards the third level when I decided to leave Japan for a fellowship in the German Parliament. Learning the strokes, stroke order, meaning, and pronunciation of each character required attention and time. It was then with a delicious sense of recklessness that I traced the characters at high speed (though with the proper stroke order), giving me an undeserved feeling of mastery. This was completely contrary to the point of the exercise, but it made me as happy as a little kid singing now I know my ABCs

We dedicated our scrolls to the good health of our loved ones and paid a small fee to have them stored at Kobo Daishi’s temple.

We revisited the cemetery which had a very different feel during daylight. A monk chanting quietly clunked by in big wooden shoes.

We saw tiny bibs that had been placed on statues for the protection of children.

We also saw our lovely French friends Frederique and Caro, and Totoro posed for the obligatory stolen gnome travel photo.

Tea-making in Uji and wheelchairing around Byodo-in Temple

When I graduated from college, I was sure I wanted to study international relations, but at that time, while I knew a bit about American and European culture and geopolitics, I knew precious little about Asia. I didn’t even have a single Asian friend. So I decided to participate in the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET), which brought 2,000 native English speakers to Japan to teach in schools. I was placed in Uji, a tiny town in the south of Kyoto Prefecture famous for Japan’s finest green tea.

The day Elise and I visited Uji, I had 3 goals: experience a tea ceremony, show Elise Byodo-in, the temple featured on the back of 10 yen coins, and introduce her to my old host parents. She had somehow hurt her leg while climbing the mountain at Fushimi Inari Shrine and was limping a bit, so when I spotted a row of wheelchairs at the entrance to Byodo-in Temple I asked to borrow one. There were many so there was no danger of our taking one from someone with greater need.

Elise spotted a window where beautiful, handmade temple stamps were being offered for 300 yen. She asked to have one for her journal, but they informed us that the stamps are considered so precious that they cannot be added directly to a standard journal. We were allowed, however, to purchase a stamp on a small sheet and add it later.

In the museum, there were stunning Buddha figures, a giant metal bell, and a gorgeous room with painted walls with buddhas arriving on a swoosh of air from the mountaintops. The patterns and colors – orange, gold, red and turquoise – were so beautiful fireworks were going off in my head. I was in agony that photography was not allowed.

Outside, we took a pleasantly strenuous path uphill which, unbeknownst to us, would eventually turn into a downhill path with large, shallow steps. The wheelchair pitched forward somewhat precariously each time we went over a step, causing us to laugh hysterically, but Elise wanted to stay in the wheelchair. Anyone observing from afar would have thought that I was an Extremely Bad Mom. Elise joked that she might actually break her leg, which would justify the wheelchair even more than her pulled muscle.

On our way out we stopped at the prettiest Starbucks I’ve ever seen that had a rock garden surrounded by lush greenery. It struck me as culturally brash, however, that it was occupying the best real estate in a strip of shops dedicated to selling Japan’s finest green tea.

As we made our way down the street, we noticed the heavenly scent of green tea emanating from one particular shop, Mitsuboshi-en Kambayashi Sannyu. I was hoping we might be able to observe a tea ceremony, but instead we were offered a lesson in preparing tea ourselves, which was even better. The owner, 16th generation tea master, Kambayashi Sannyu, told us that his shop had been the official supplier of tea to the Emperor during the Edo Period. He took us through the shop museum which had framed orders for tea from the Tokugawa Shogunate and a parade of tiny dolls transporting a huge pot of tea on foot representing their early missions to Edo (Toyko), a journey that took about two weeks.

He was clearly proud of his connection to the Emperor, rapidly flipping through magazines to show us photographs, but, interestingly, he seemed even more proud of a certificate of award from the 1876 International Exhibition in Philadelphia.

As we left, he flashed us a photo of what will become the 18th generation Mistuboshi-en Kambayashi Sannyu tea master: his cute, little, 3-year-old grandson.

In the tea room, his son, 17th generation tea master, had us rotate an old-school stone tea grinder (today it’s done mechanically), and we saw how the dark green tea leaves turn into a brilliant green powder.

He then taught us how to prepare the tea: place two spoonfuls into the cup, tap the spoon once on the ridge of the cup, add hot water, and whisk the tea briskly until it foams. Then clasp hands together and say itadakimasu, take a tiny bite of a sweet (in this case, a red bean paste confection), rotate the cup twice, and sip. When finished, rotate the cup back once, and say gochisosamadeshita. The taste of pure Uji tea is richer and yet more subtle than any other tea I’ve ever had. It was wonderful.

Nourished and satisfied, we took the local train 2 stops to my old neighborhood. We’d arrived on a different train line than the one I used to use, so I asked directions to Junese, my old host parents’ beauty salon while Elise petted a fluffy Pomeranian. As we walked, nothing looked familiar, until, suddenly, there it was – my old street! – transformed with a big, glaring grocery, but still, my old street. I marveled at how fast the nearly 30 years had passed since I’d lived there. When we reached my host parents’ salon, however, it was closed and their home was completely dark and I felt sad. Elise, however, managed to make the most of it by playing on the playground in front of my old house at the end of the street.

1 Golden Temple + 1000 red Shinto gates

Today we visited one of Kyoto’s most iconic sites: the Golden Temple. I was first taken to see it nearly 30 years ago as a freshly trained English teacher with the JET Programme. I was in awe, and I thought Elise would be, too. But the crowds were thick and we felt rushed as groups of tourists vied for photo ops, and the day was hot and sticky, etc, so our visit ended up feeling more perfunctory than magical. Elise did, however, enjoy the samples of traditional Japanese snacks for sale at the tea garden.

We said prayers for our loved ones and headed next to Fushimi Inari Shrine.

The path to the entrance was lined with food stands. The sign at this one looked, um – how to say it? – the opposite of appetizing.

Unlike the short path around the Golden Temple, the route up and down the mountain at Fushimi Inari was nearly 4 km and passed through 2,000+ red Shinto gates. As we got closer to the summit, the crowds disappeared.

There were many mini shrines along the path with statues of foxes, which are regarded as messengers.

As we neared the top, Elise asked “Is it going to be what heaven looks like?” When we got there, it looked like same as the path we’d been on, just level. And there were Oreo cookies for sale.

A soft, cool rain started to fall as we headed down the mountain, and in the falling light, the magic missing from earlier in the day was suddenly all around us.

Nijo Castle light show, Kimono Roboto, and packaged eyeballs

To make up for a lazy day of zero exploration, we finally dragged ourselves out of the hotel after nightfall to see the light show at nearby Nijo Castle. Everything from the massive, stately walls, to the cherry blossom trees and gardens was aglow, and there was a light show on a towering wooden gate reminiscent of Miyazaki’s magical Spirited Away with flying birds, dragons and swirling cherry blossom petals.  And, of course, because Japan would not be Japan without something a little futuristic and weird, there was a multi-media show called Kimono Roboto with a moving C3P0-type robot in a kimono flanked by two twisted, blob-like robotic arms. The footage behind them alternated between close-ups of gleaming robot heads and staggeringly gorgeous models in kimono strolling a moody beach. For just a flicker, I felt the same dazzle that I felt eons ago photographing NY Fashion Week, and I felt happy.

Afterwards we shopped for food. It was a treat seeing shoppers in kimono as if it were the most normal thing in the world. But then we discovered a package of what looked liked clear eyeballs in the refrigerated section next to seaweed and potato salad. I couldn’t even bring myself to google what they might be.

Monkeys on mountains and Elise in kimono

At the shops near Arashiyama Mountain Elise tried on her first kimono. Various undergarments were wrapped and hooked, and the hem was fitted to her by hoisting up the excess fabric and folding it under a wide obi belt (so different from the Western cinched-waist silhouette). She was given tabi split-toe socks to accommodate the traditional wooden shoes, and her hair was twisted into a bun and embellished with a flower.

Parasol in hand, she was ready to head outside.

Even with the restrictions of the clothing, she did not move like Japanese ladies in kimono, with tiny forward steps, but instead clumped in the unusual shoes and struck poses like the cartoon characters she draws. I wanted her to stay in the kimono all day, but the shop was closing so we returned and she changed back into her normal clothes. While I waited, I took in the sumptuous patterns and colors of the kimono and obi and was practically floating by the time we left.

After that experience, a bowl of udon noodles and veggie tempura was in order. We try to avoid fried food in the US and Germany, but in Japan, the tempura batter is so light that it does not feel as sinful.

But the best part of the day was our hike up Arashimaya Mountain, where monkeys roam free.

Feeding the monkeys outside is not allowed, so Elise was delighted to discover that it was possible to buy tiny bags of peanuts and chunks of apple and feed the monkeys through a screen at the visitor’s center.

This little gal surprised me by scooting over and plunking herself down behind my chair. It was fun, but after having had monkeys clamber all over us in the Amazon trying to get our bananas, I longed to scoop them up in my arms and hold them – or at least let them hang out on my shoulders for a while.

To round out the day, we headed to Gion, the oldest part of the city and Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. The tiny alleys are atmospheric, and if you’re lucky (we weren’t), you may catch a glimpse of apprentice geisha disappearing behind sliding wooden doors into one of the traditional tea houses or restaurants.

Also atmospheric at night is Yasaka Shrine, which overlooks the bustling Shijo-dori shopping avenue. By the time we wandered inside, however, the vendors had started packing up, and so we decided to call it a day and headed home, tired after the long day.

Kyoto traditional dolls artisans

We made it to Kyoto, my old home after graduating from college. After checking in to our hotel, we happened upon Ohasi Ippo, a traditional Kyoto-style master doll-maker. The artisans welcomed Elise and showed her various doll styles in their catalogue and showroom, and even gave her a piece of gorgeous textured red fabric and a handmade set of porcelain doll hands. We learned that there are specialists for each part of the process, such as the head crafting master, hair attaching master, hand and foot craftsmen and accessory craftsmen, who are masters of traditions dating back to the Edo era.

I asked Elise, who makes tiny, painted figurines out of oven-bake clay, which aspect of doll-making she’d most enjoy if she were part of Ohashi Ippo and she said head crafting, since she loves creating expressions on her dolls. She brought this set of dolls she made with us on our travels. She’s been writing a story about the two taller ones, Any and Sunny, and their pets, Luna the panda and Sugar the cat.

Across from the Ohasi Ippo was an Indian restaurant that served up spinach curry and the largest piece of naan I’ve ever seen.

Back at the hotel, it was a relief having a bit more space after having tripped over each other for days in our teensy tiny hotel room in Tokyo.

Shibuya’s beloved dog Hachiko, tiny treasures, and soba noodles

Elise was moved by the story of a beloved dog, Hachiko, who came to the station every day to meet his master, a professor. At one point, the professor died, but Hachiko kept coming to the station for 10 more years until he died. Hachiko’s loyalty was so moving to the townsfolk that they erected a statue in his honor. Even today, crowds throng to get a shot of the statute. A cat has apparently taken up residence at the statue, but wasn’t to be seen the day we were there.

Shibuya is also know for the Pedestrian Scramble, one of the largest pedestrian crossings in the world. It struck me that there is a lot less smoking today than there was when I lived in Japan 1989-92, which is a fantastic thing. Or maybe everyone’s e-smoking and we just can’t smell it.

The neighborhood is full of funky shops selling gadgets, school supplies, zany clothes, character figurines, and toys. Elise spotted My Melody, the character on the dress she bought in Harajuku and got a matching pen, and then struggled over whether to spend her Tooth Fairy money on tiny furniture for a tiny Pikachu. I was pleased to see that she decided not to acquire anything else new.

After a day of lots of walking while dodging the crowds, it was very pleasant to sit down to a meal of soba noodles. Elise chose a bowl with hot broth and kelp, and I choose my old favorite, cold Zaru Soba noodles with a delicious soy/mirin dip with seaweed and sliced green onions.

Extreme cuteness in Toyko’s Harajuku, petting owls, and Meiji Shrine

We finally made it to Tokyo! Since Elise is a girly-girl, our first foray into the city was to Harajuku, ground zero for über kawaii toys, clothes, candy and necessary accessories such as bunny ears for your cat.

We happened upon a crowd oohing and awwing over these life-size dancing bear characters and their little chick friend. The chick accidentally tipped over and the reaction was as if a real baby had fallen.

Elise found a froofy dress she loved in a little boutique. I was afraid I was going to have to say No, but a 70% discount meant it was within our budget. As she came out of the store excitedly clutching her bag, Japanese ladies walking by beamed at me and said “Kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiii!”

We then happened upon a cat “forest”. We sat on the floor while Bengal cats curled up on our laps. Instead of music, the soothing sound of twittering birds was piped through hidden speakers. It was supremely relaxing, and the perfect break from the thronged streets outside. We thought fondly of Chaos, the Bengal cat that lives across from my Mom.

Downstairs from the cat cafe was an owl forest, with a dozen or so owls perched on branches throughout a phony cherry blossom forest. Elise felt like she was a character in Harry Potter. We were instructed to pet the owls only with the back of our hands. I couldn’t believe that we were allowed to touch these beautiful creatures! It was a rare treat being able to look into their eyes and to feel the astonishing softness of their feathers, but I worried about their well-being and hoped that all visitors were closely supervised.

We then made our way to splendid Yoyogi Park to see Meiji-jitsu, the Shinto shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken. At the entrance, Elise purified her hands with water using a bamboo dipper.

A tiny Japanese girl in a kimono was posing for photos while her parents looked on proudly. It seemed that it was expected that everyone photograph her – that not doing so was actually impolite. We guessed that she was part of the wedding that was in progress at the shrine.

On our way out, we stopped for dango, sweet rice flour dumplings, which were gooey and icky sweet. Feeling the effects of jetlag, we picked up sushi for dinner to eat at the hotel, and then fell into a deep sleep…until 2am.

Salt Flats of Bolivia – surreal island and train cemetery

On Day One in Salar de Uyuni, we experienced a major shift in perception as we sped deep into the vast salt flats. There was white as far as the eye could see. The surface, formed of dried-up prehistoric lakes, was etched with hexagonal cells, much like honeycombs and the columns of Giant’s Causeway, evidence of nature’s fixed rules on order and economy. Elise had fun hopping up onto salt mounds that were ready for harvesting. Everything was dry – our hands, lips, the air, and the salt itself.

We stopped at a train cemetery where trains were abandoned in the 1940’s after the mining industry collapsed. As would not have been the case in the US, we were allowed to clamber all over the rusting structures.

For lunch, our guide brought us to a restaurant formed of blocks of salt. Even the chairs and tables were made of salt. Needless to say, there was no lack of table salt, lol.

Outside the restaurant, a sea of international flags were flapping madly in the strong wind. After traveling for so long in foreign lands, Elise found comfort in the familiar and ran to the American flag and hugged it.

Most astonishing was Isla Incahuasi, a cacti-covered island rising out of the salt flats, which played games with our sense of sea and land. Elise and I hiked its trails through caves and across scorched terrain.

The sky deepened into shades of gold and violet as night fell, a fitting end to a surreal day.

La Senda Verde animal refuge

We visited La Senda Verde, a 22 acre animal refuge in the semi-tropical Yungas region of Bolivia north of La Paz. This is beautiful Mara, a rescued spider monkey. When she was a baby, a poacher killed her mother so that he could capture Mara and sell her. But as her mother died, she fell on Mara’s legs, paralyzing her from the waist down.

Marcello, co-founder of La Senda Verde, rescued her from the poacher and then spent two years caring for the terrified, injured baby. Her legs and tail still have no feeling and need to be bandaged so that she doesn’t hurt herself as she drops down from swinging or drags herself along the ground (a truly heartbreaking thing to observe). But she is healing emotionally, and is so profoundly comfortable with Marcello, that she falls into a restful sleep when he holds her in his arms – and it is clear that his affection for her is as deep as a father’s for his baby girl. Mara has been accepted by the other monkeys and will eventually be able to move into a larger enclosure with them. To learn more about Mara, click here: https://youtu.be/a3bAwPnNE0c.

This is Ajayu, another one of the rescued animals at La Senda Verde.

He was blinded and his cheekbone was smashed when humans attacked him with rocks. There is footage of him bleeding from his eye and face that is soul-crushing. He was terrified and wailing when he was brought to La Senda Verde. After the vets treated him for his extensive injuries, co-founder Vicky nursed him back to health. She hand-feeds him and gives him loving comfort and attention. Like Mara, he is healing emotionally. In spite of his blindness, he can navigate his entire enclosure and will be getting a larger space when he is ready. To watch his heartbreaking rescue story, click here: https://youtu.be/X9vLz_zsJvg.

This is Maruka. Her human owners tried to extract her teeth with pliers, and, in the process, smashed her nose and blinded her in one eye. They also fed her the wrong food, and her stomach permanently distended.

Marcello learned of their abuse, and visited them regularly over many months, bringing food for Maruka and rice and sugar for the family. Eventually, his gentle persuasion convinced them to put Maruka in his care, and he brought her to La Senda Verde, where she flourished and even became the alpha female (she’s now 25 and has passed that baton to a younger female). Her abuser wore the traditional long Bolivian skirts, and – astonishingly – she taught the other monkeys to fear anyone wearing such skirts, and so the staff at La Senda Verde wear only pants.

If ever there was an animal refuge deserving of your donations or volunteer efforts, La Senda Verde is it. The Bolivian government provides no financial support, yet anytime the police bring an animal to the refuge, they are required to take it in. Bolivian law also does not allow them to release rehabilitated animals into the wild, so when an animal arrives, space must be made for it for the rest of its life. They currently have about 700 animals in their care and are reaching capacity, but buying land is very expensive. They have many projects in the works, including a new enclosure for an incoming jaguar, but need financial support. Click this link and you’ll see the Donate button in the upper right. You can also shop at your favorite stores via the portal and a small percent will go to La Senda Verde.

As a future veterinarian who loves animals, Elise was profoundly moved by the rescue stories of the animals (and I haven’t cried this hard in years).

She was given a tour of the grounds by volunteers. She saw a rescued tapir, cabybara, armadillo (so fat that he could not roll into a ball), deer, turtles, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, kinkajou (who hissed when looking at you, but expected a backrub when he turned his back on you, lol), boa constrictors, alligators, a lone duck, ocelots, three bears (including dear Ahayu), and many birds. She learned that the green-winged macaw’s beak is stronger than a lion’s jaws so that it can crack nuts. She also learned that the alpha male spider monkey protects the troupe, but that the alpha female makes all the societal decisions.

She also toured the clinic with Veterinarian Rosa from Spain.

Rosa showed Elise a turtle who’d needed stitches, a night monkey missing its teeth, another who’d pulled out much of its fur due to stress from an abusive situation, a parrot with a damaged claw, a tiny little monkey Rosa had named Rosita that had problems with its hands, and other physically and emotionally abused creatures.

Rosa showed Elise the operating room and explained how they gently put animals under for surgery. She told Elise that when normal medicine didn’t help, she treated the animals with homeopathic remedies, and many were showing signs of success. (Perhaps Elise will consider the same program in homeopathic treatments for vets in Barcelona that Rosa had done.)

We spent two nights at the refuge, first in a treehouse high above the grounds.

We slept under our mosquito net and were awakened by a fantastic bird chorus. Elise slipped out onto the balcony for a few minutes, and before she knew it, a group of playful squirrel monkeys had appeared. They ran back and forth along the railing, and one even jumped onto her back! Before they scurried away, the little mischievous critters held us hostage by hanging on the screen on our front door for a while, trying to get in. The second night we spent in a spacious, two-story lodge with lovely wooden details and a large screened-in porch near the bird enclosure. Throughout the day I heard different bird voices calling “Ola!” “Ola” “Ola!” to one another.

You can support La Senda Verde by volunteering, sending a donation or by visiting the refuge. If you do visit, you will be amazed by the astonishing level of caring for the animals and moved by their stories, as well as by the beauty of the natural environment. When the US president decides to make it possible for American hunters to import elephant ‘trophies’ from Africa (this violates some of my deepest beliefs), more than ever, we need everyone with a heart to make efforts to protect those who cannot protect themselves from human cruelty. To learn more about La Senda Verde, watch the video below: