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.

Cherry blossoms and mad baby swan boat driver in Ueno Park

We took a break from the bustling city-side of Tokyo to stroll Ueno Park. The lake was lined with cherry blossom trees. They were past their prime, but still beautiful.

These ladies asked where I was from. I told them USA, and the one in blue said “United Kingdom”? To quickly clarify, although I am from MA, I said “New York” and they applauded for 20 long seconds. I felt like an imposter, lol.

Elise passed through the striking red torri gates, lit incense, and rang the giant gong at Bentendo Temple. When I asked an elderly attendant in a gray and blue kimono questions about the temple, he gave me a flier and a bookmark, and, smiling, held out a peach-flavored lollipop to Elise.

After all that friendliness, we were unprepared for the epic battle that was to take place on the lake. Although there should have been plenty of room for everyone’s swan boat, the wind (and steering ineptitude) caused a number of crashes. The fiercest boat, by far, was commandeered by an adorably round-faced baby Japanese girl. Her boat slammed into ours twice, and yet, cleverly hiding her intentions, she waved at us cheerfully.

Miraculously unscathed , we continued our walk through the park. From this vantage point, the mighty urban bustle of Tokyo, more populous than entire countries! (eg Canada, Oz), felt like a distant dream.