My last days in Japan

I slept in today and awoke to rain outside. I decided to take today and relax after a very full week of sightseeing. Originally I was scheduled to visit the science museum today, but instead decided to do some shopping and take a break from the crowds.  I head out to find some Japanese textiles and cooking supplies. The rain was a bit of a deterrent so I did not make full day of this. I spent the afternoon watching a Japanese football match and resting.

I attended the Lawrence SET-J reunion in the evening. Seeing all of these families together made me realize how unique the SET-J community is and how fortunate I am to be a part of it. I feel like I how have a Japan family to return to. We had a very nice dinner reception. I appreciate the warm sentiments, kind words and gifts from all the families who made the Memory Book. A special thank you to the families in Tokyo who were unable to attend but sent along their messages and photographs. That meant a lot.

Once I return stateside I will do a more thorough summary of my thoughts about the trip  and my impressions of Japan. I want to send out a few words of thanks to some special people who made this trip possible.

Thank you to following SET-J members and friends who assisted me during the trip. Your guidance, patience and skills in interpreting were invaluable to me:

Ms. Nobuko Nakamura in Osaka and Kyoto

Ms. Megumi Takewa in Nara

Ms. And Mr. Maki and Aki Kusanagi in Kyoto

Ms. Masako Unezaki in Hiroshima

Ms. Rumi Watanabe and her friend Yuko in Hiroshima

Ms. Chiyuki Tanaka in Osaka

Ms. Kayo Miyamura – reunion organizer

Ms. Naoko Murakawa – reunion organizer

Ms. Sayaka Koda – reunion organizer

And the SET-J members back in Boston who organized the trip and did an excellent job preparing me for the adventure including:

Tomomi Kojima

Maiko Roppomgi

Hiroyo Kida

Tatsuya Ito

To Taro Saeki for teaching me how to cook Japanese food.; I am planning a meal for friends for this winter.

And lastly, Akiko Kawai for being the liaison between teachers and SET-J and my anchor during the preparation stages over the past six months.

On Sunday, I was first in line to for the Umeda Sky Garden. I was fortunate to have mostly clear skies this day and could see all of Osaka , the surrounding foorhills and harbor.

I made it to Doguyasuji (“dogu” = tools/utensils, “ya” = store, “suji” = street), a place which I loved. This narrow street in Osaka that has several shops catering to restaurants but also sells to the public. I purchased a tamagoyaki pan, a pair of ryoribashi (long chop sticks for cooking), some kombu, bonito flakes, okonomiyaki sauce, and a killer 10” santoku (chef knife).

On the recommendation of Mr. Kusanagi, I found a place to have Osaka okonomiyaki from a lively street vendor near Doguyasuji; a fitting last lunch in Japan.

An hour-long bus ride out to the airport and long flight now await me.

While I am excited to head home and see family and friends, it is bittersweet for me as I have made new friends and lasting memories in a place far from home. I guess that means I will just have to start planning my trip back (already have my initial itinerary planned in my head).

1000 Paper Cranes, Old Japanese Farmhouses and Takoyaki

I woke this morning to the first grey skies of the trip. A warm rain was falling as I left the hotel to head off to dedicate the paper cranes from the Lawrence Community at the Children’s Peace Memorial. Mrs. Unezaki met me for the last time and after the dedication, helped me make a few phone calls to see if my camera had been found by the ferry or train company. No luck. We parted ways for the last time and I set off to check out of the hotel and head to the train stain to catch the high-speed train, Sakura, for Shin-Osaka station.

Dedicating the paper cranes

Back in Osaka, I wet with Mrs. Chiyuki Tanaka and her daughter at my hotle who took me to Hattori Ryokuchi Park in northern Osaka. We spent the afternoon visiting the Open Air Museum of Old Japanese Farmhouses. The 11 farmhouses were all built during the Edo period (1603-1867) and come from various parts of Japan. They were relocated and reconstructed on this site in the 1960s. The design of these houses reflects the customs and culture of their representative locations.

Next we walked to the Botanical Gardens and took some time to view their collection of native plants before heading back to Osaka. Tired from our day, we parted ways to meet up tomorrow at the reunion dinner.

After a nap and shower, I headed out to see a bit of Osaka nightlife and get some dinner. I made my way by train to Dotonbori, a river that runs through Osaka. This area is well know for the colorful characters, bright neon lights and many shops and restaurants. For fans fo the movie “Blade Runner” this that apparently the inspiration for the setting of the movie, which is easy to picture. I had a some takoyaki for dinner tried my hand at pachinko. It took a few minutes a couple of attendant’s assistance before I got the hang of it. I walked through the various video game shops of which there were many with multiple floors. I had a great evening out and was ready for some much needed rest.

tako yaki


Hakushima Elementary School and Miyajima

This morning I met Mrs. Unezaki who accompanied me to Hakushima Elementary School. I spent the day with a sixth grade class of 29 students. Our day began with a briefing from the principal and the teacher I would be with today, Ms. Kae Fukunaga, a teacher whose energy was infectious. She informed me that they had prepared a special schedule for me today and that the students were very excited to welcome their first American sensei to the school. We walked up to the classroom where a classroom full of curious smiling faces greeted me. They stood and gave a loud and boisterous “Good Morning Keser sensei!”

The day began with a morning meeting where the teacher took attendance and verbally checked on the health of every student. This is a daily routine. If a student reports any ailments, they are directed to the nurse. The schedule for the day was reviewed and then it was off to the gymnasium for P.E. There are no P.E. teachers, so Ms. Fukunaga led a class of tumbling, calisthenics, yoga and jumping rope. I later learned she is a third level master of kendo, one of the most disciplined of the Japanese martial arts.

We returned to the school classroom for their weekly English lesson. Last April, new standards were put in place for mandatory English instruction or grades 5+. The Hiroshima model focuses on conversational English and vocabulary acquisition. Today’s lesson was on number in the hundreds and the exchange of goods while shopping. I got involved with this lesson playing a shop keeper or shopper in a verbal exchange of selling and purchasing goods. The shopper greeted the shop keeper and inquired about the price of various items depicted on colored cards. The shop keeper named a price and the shopper bartered. Once a price was set, play money and cards were exchanged. To make it more of game, the shoppers were encouraged to buy as much as they could and the shop keepers to make as much money as possible.

Recess came next where I was taken outside and schooled in Japanese dodge ball. This is a very different version than we play back in the states. Let’s just say that I spent more time in the outfield due to being nailed with the ball. Not for lack of trying, I was more confused by the rules and positions of play. First off, the field is roughly drawn out in the gravel, there is an infield and outfield, so when you get out you move to the outfield behind the opposing team where you can field missed balls and attack the other team from behind. There is only one ball in play during the game so it is easy to stay focused on where the ball is headed. It was just my luck that one of the girls was a national judo champion. Built like a high school wrestler, this was the first 6th grade girl I had met whom I did not want to mess with. Every time she had the ball, the kids would scatter and warn me of how strong she was.

After recess we were off to Home Economics.  I worked alongside the students to sew tissue holders out of felt fabric. This class is part of a gender quality movement in all schools. Every child had his/her own sewing kit.  Art class came next. Again, each student had their own art kit of brushes and watercolor paints. They had a lesson in gradation of color.  Recently they had completed painted images of Hiroshima castle, which could be seen from the windows of their 4th floor classroom.

For lunch, a few of students changed into white smocks and put on face masks, gloves and caps and headed to the kitchen to retrieve trays, bowls, plates and spoons, along with baskets of milk, bread, cheese and buckets of stew and eggs with spinach and pork. These were all taken back to the classroom where the students set up a lunch line and ate at their desks. The entire process was very orderly and efficient.  After lunch clean up I observed a student council meeting where representative of grades 3-6 met in a separate classroom to discuss and vote on plans for a student led festival. I was really impressed by this group. They followed a democratic protocol of parliamentary procedure.

We ended the day with a closing meeting where I played a game with kids and they sang me a song and played their recorders as a farewell gesture. The staff and students gave me a warm send off. I really appreciated getting to spend the day here.

One of the mothers of the students from this class, Mrs. Rumi Watanabe, met me after school and together we travelled to Miyajima Island. After taking the train 25 minutes south, we boarded a passenger ferry for the 10 minutes ride across the bay. Oyster platforms floated on the water nearby.

Oyster farm

The Itsukushima Shrine located at the base of steep forested hillsides that rise out of the water. The red entrance gate, or torii is positioned in the water a few hundred yards from the shine, looking as though it is floating on the bay. We docked at the ferry terminal and made out way past the narrow shop lined street towards the temple and shrine. Pine trees and stone pagodas decorated the path. Local deer were abundant and overly friendly with the tourist. Mostly looking for food, they would approach you, curiously sniffing the contents of your bags. No wonder, as the air was filled with the smells of local food vendors selling all sorts of local delicacies including roasted oysters, yakitori and maple cakes.

Sika deer

Shine at high tide

We took out time exploring the shrine and tide pools that surround it and walked through a small museum nearby to see their collection of Shogun era artifacts. On our way out of the shrine we stopped to sample several of the food offerings. It was all delicious, especially the grilled oysters washed down with a cold Asahi. They reminded me of Hood Canal oysters, big and juicy.

Shop lined streets


torii at sunset

As night was falling, it was time to return to Hiroshima where Rumi and her friend Yuko took me out to dinner. We explored the commercial district around my hotel and found the restaurant Hawaiandaininguandokafe Ohana. They ordered a HUGE spread of food and I tried all sorts of things that were firsts for me including  parts of the chicken we would not normally eat back home prepared teriyaki style. Tempura sardines, pickled vegetables, a stew of pork, carrot, udon, and potato, crab cakes, sushi, spinach with bacon and sesame dressing, tempura horse mackerel as well. Every bite was amazing. We drank a cocktail made from sweet potato liquor that was slighting sweet and dry served on the rocks.

Afterwards we parted ways and I headed back to my hotel to Skype with family and then head to bed. On a sad note, I have no pictures to post for this day as I lost my camera someplace after the return trip on the Miyajima ferry. I think I left it on the ferry. Total bummer. I could care less about the camera I just want the photos! So you will have to use your imagination for images from the school and dinner. I have inserted stock photos of Miyajima of the places I visited on the island.  I have my camera phone to use for the rest of the trip, so there will be images to come of the days ahead.

Tomorrow I will head back to the Children’s Peace Memorial to dedicate the 1000 paper cranes and then catch the bullet train for Osaka. Once there, I will visit the Old Japanese Farm House in the afternoon and the Umeda Sky Observatory and Dotonbori in the evening.  Only two and half more days left and already I am wishing I could stay longer.


Finally a real Japanese breakfast!! The Kusanagi family treated me to another spread of Japanese food; miso, rice, fish, egg, spinach, kelp, tea, and coffee. It was delicious. They were kind enough to bring me to the train station where I would board the bullet train to Hiroshima on Japan’s fastest bullet train, currently competing with Italy for the fastest train on the planet.

Bullet train pulling into the station

After arriving in Hiroshima at 10:00 am, I dropped my bags off at the hotel and explored the area for a bit, grabbing lunch and relaxing along the bank of the river. Around 12: 30 I met with my guide and interpreter, Masako Unezaki. We picked up a beautiful arrangement of cut flowers that SET-J had arranged for and then began our tour of the area closest to where the A-bomb was detonated.

We started at the hypocenter, which was spot 600 meters below where the bomb detonated. We then walked a short distance to the A-bomb dome, the skeletal remains of Hiroshima’s most prized building of its day. We crossed over the bridge that was the target of the American bombardier. A group of Japanese schoolchildren stopped me to say hello and asked me to sign a card telling my name, where I was from and a place to leave a message. Before we parted ways, we took a photo and they place a an origami crane necklace around my neck.

A-Bomb Dome

We proceeded on to the belfry where I rang the bell as a symbol of peace and remembrance. After we stopped to view the dome building once more from across the river. Down from this spot we watch groups of school children presenting garlands of paper cranes the Children’s Peace Memorial in remembrance of Sadako, a young girl who died as a result of leukemia, a side effect of the radiation poisoning and made famous by a book published about her struggle with the disease.

Children's Peace Memorial

The eternal flame and cenotaph were our next stops. The cenotaph has sealed inside the names of those who died as a result of the bomb. It was here that I laid the bouquet of flowers and said a blessing of peace. We visited the museum next and took time  watch a movie about the destruction of Hiroshima before making our way up to the museum. Later in the day I was treated to a one-on-one meeting with a survivor of the A-bomb who shared his story and of his sister who died shortly after the blast. This was a moving and emotional experience for me.

Placing the flowers

Meeting with a survivor of the bomb

We had a little bit of time left to finish seeing the museum  exhibit and then left the site. I will return her on Friday morning to dedicate the 1000 paper cranes from Lawrence as we did not have time on Wednesday.

Ms Unezaki and I went for dinner and had okonami-yaki, a Hiroshima specialty. It was the perfect end to our day.


Tomorrow I will visit Hakushima Elementary School and spend the day with a sixth grade class. Afterwards I will meet up with Mrs. Rumi Watanabe and travel to Miyajima for the afternoon before returning to Hiroshima.

p.s. (I am feeling like this is turning into a food blog. Ha!)

A Day to Explore Kyoto

There are many customs in Japan that I have been learning this week. In a previous post I mentioned about the variety of slippers you put on depending on the room you enter. Some other customs I have learned include

  • When entering a home from the outside it is customary to first wash your hands.
  • When paying for goods, it is impolite to hand money directly to the cashier. They will hand you a tray or mat onto which you place the credit card or money.
  • When handing a card, gift, letter to another person or when they hand the same to you, you give/accept the item with both hands and gently bow your head to show appreciation of receiving the item.
  • Before and after a meal you say a blessing, not unlike back home. Before you eat: ita daki mas     After the meal: go chi so same deshta

The Golden Pavillion

On Tuesday I had a day to explore Kyoto on my own. After checking out of my hotel in the morning I grabbed a day bus pass and set off for Rokuon-Ji Temple to see the Golden Pavillion. Another of Japan’s World Heritage sites, it was built first to be a villa of Kintsune Saionji. In 1394, the 3th Shogun of Ashikaga, Yoshimitsu, began to the build the site taking special care to make it a site to behold. After his death it was made into a Zen temple per his will.  The building consists of three types of architecture. The 1st floor is Shinden-zukuri, palace style. The 2nd floor in Buke-zukuri , samurai style and the 3rd floor is Karaky style or Zen Temple style. The 2nd and 3rd floors are covered with gold leaf on Japanese lacquer. A Chinese Phoenix sits atop the roof. Tis was one of favorite place to vista thus far on the trip. I enjoyed a cup of tea while sitting outside below tall trees and felt very at peace here. I was amused at the groups of school children stopping me to practice their English and take pictures with me. This has happened many times throughout  the trip.

A place to have tea among the trees

My next stop was Ryoanji Temple. Built around 1500 by a Zen monk, this temple houses a simple rock garden consisting only of white sand and fifteen rocks known to be one of the masterpieces of Japanese culture. The path leading up to the temple is beautifully landscaped. Every time I turned my head there was something else to see. Japanese landscaping evokes much contemplation and reflection on the viewer.

Zen Garden of stones

I travelled next to the Nishijin Textile Center and purchase some embroidered silk fabric for a friend back home and then stopped to visit the Shiramine Shine, which is dedicated to sports. Soccer balls, volleyballs, basketballs, baseballs, field hockey sticks another sporting equipment decorated each shrine. On this day there were a few athletes visiting and saying prayers at many of the small shrines spread throughout the grounds.

A shrine for athletes

Continuing on, I found my way to the convergence of the Kamo and Takano Rivers and took some time to cross both. Large stepping stones in the shapes of turtles and birds created a path stretching from one bank to the other. Up river a series of waterfalls could be seen. Next up was a stop at the Shimogamo Shrine. This was a place of serenity and calm.  I stopped for lunch at Hanaore Restaurant which specializes in Sabasushi. “Saba” is mackerel. To make Sabasushi, fresh mackerel from the Sea of Japan is soaked in a vinegar base sauce and them put onto sushi rice. It is then presses into a bar (know as Oshisushi, meaning pressed sushi). I was treated also to a small order of salted mackerel that had been preserved in salt 7-12 months which I was told is a nice compliment to the bottle of sake I had sipped on.

Crossing the rivers

The gate to Shimogamo


Near the restaurant I met my cooking instructor, Taro Sekei. Together with four other students, we walked a short distance to his home where we were greeted by his wife Yoshiko and daughter Karuko.  We started class by going over the menu and learning about Japanese cooking ingredients. Below is a list of the dishes we prepared:

  • Dashi : vegetarian and non-vegetarian (Japanese soup stick made from kelp and bonito fish flakes)
  • Miso soup (two types: vegetarian and non-vegetarian)
  • Yakinasu no Nibitashi (Grilled & simmered eggplant)
  • Tamago yaki (Japanese omelet)
  • Goma-ae (half cooked spinach)
  • Tsukune (Japanese chicken meatballs)
  • Ponzu Sauce (citrus and soy based sauced with dashi)
  • Agedashi-tofu (fried tofu with ginger sauce)
  • Tsukudashi (rice condiment) 

The ingredients we studied included:

  • Soy sauce (5 types)
  • Miso (3 types)
  • Sake (for cooking)
  • Mirin (sweet sake)
  • Kombu (kelp)
  • Katsuobushi (dried and shredded fish flakes)
  • Seasonal mushrooms

The tools we learned to use included”

  • Cooking chopsticks (3 types)
  • Square omelet pan
  • Tofu pan
  • Miso strainer

Chef Ryan

After cooking we sat down to enjoy the meal together and celebrate our new skills. We were served some Japanese sweets and green tea for dessert and parted ways shortly after. If you ever travel to Kyoto and are looking for a unique experience I highly recommend this class.

A meal I worked for.

I made my way back to the hotel to meet Mr. Kusanagi. Together we travelled to his home; about 20 minutes away form Kyoto near Japan’s largest lake. There I met his wife Maki, and their three children, Yutakta, Yurika, and Kyoka. They treated me to a meal of shabu-shabu and sushi; yet another amazing meal. After dinner we played some game,  Sequence and Spot-It, and then prepared for bed. I had my first experience sleeping on a traditional Japanese bed.  With another full day of sight seeing behind me, I was ready for some sleep.

Shabu Shabu dinner

Tomorrow I will take the bullet train (Japan’s fastest) to Hiroshima, a two-hour ride southwest of Kyoto. Once there I will visit a flower shop near Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park the visit Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and the museum. I will dedicate the flowers and 1000 paper cranes, which were folded by members of the Lawrence community this fall and shipped ahead of time. Afterwards, I will meet with a survivor of the atomic bomb blast and hear about his experiences.


Another early morning and a 6:30 train ride out to Nara, about an hour from Kyoto. The morning air was cool under a blanket of clouds that shortly burned off as the sun came out. The train ride out to Nara took about fifty minutes. The train tracks passed through field after field of vegetables. Many more passengers filled the train at each stop including a large number of school children. I was surprise at the long distance these kids were traveling to go to school.

Mrs. Megumi Takewa, another former Lawrence mother and a radiologist at a local hospital, greeted me in Nara. She took me to visit her daughter’s school, Seishin Gakuen Secondary school, a grade 7-12 private school located just outside of town. We took our time walking there to admire the buildings and small Shinto shrines along the way. We came upon a cemetery the was dotted with many stone pillars inscribed with the names of loved ones. Nearby a small water station housed ladles and buckets intended for visitors to use to bath the grave of their family and friends in purifying water.


Further up the road I saw my first persimmon tree. It is persimmon season in Japan the tree was head with the large orange fruit. Mrs. Takewa informed me that I would be able to try one that evening when we visit her home for dinner.

Persimmon Tree

We arrived at Seishin Gakuen and we greeted by the secretary we took us to me the principal. This time we had to change from out guest slippers into a nicer pair of slippers to enter his office, and by office I mean a 20 foot by 30 foot carpeted office and conference room. It was the nicest principal’s office I had ever been in. I was introduced to the vice principal, a science teacher who’s class I would visit later in the morning, and my interpreter for the day Mr. Yanase, a first year English teacher. After the customary exchange of business cards and gifts, we enjoyed coffee together which surprise me as I would have expected tea. I shared the purpose of my trip and some information about Lawrence school. No long after we left for the first class I was to visit, Calligraphy.

Mrs. Takewa’s daughter was a student in this class of first graders and by first graders I mean seventh graders. Remember that this is a grade 7-12 school, so their first grade is our seventh grade. We entered the calss room through a door at the back. The students, all dressed in jumpers, track jackets, slacks on the boys and skirts on the girls we already seated in front of their orderly looking calligraphy tools, ink, ink wells, brushes, a felt bad, paper, paperweights and instructional handouts. The teacher had them stand and bow then take their seats. At the back of the class they had a desk set up with supplies for me to join. I was invited to sit and follow along. The lesson was to practice making one of six different Japanese symbols meaning, dream, cherry blossom, new, spring, wind and flower. The teacher demonstrated at the board first and then gave us time to practice. It wasn’t long before I had the kids laughing at my attempts to recreate the symbols on my paper. I was determined though and made a dozen symbols. Once we all got the hang of them, we next moved on to practice making them inside of a fan shape that we would later paint onto handmade paper cutouts and glue onto an actual fan. Now it got serious. I wasn’t going home with a crappy looking fan! I think I did pretty well…have a look:

After class I was shown back to the principals office. This time we sat at the conference table. We were served seasonal sweets representing Koyo (red leaves) and bowls of machca, a type of green tea made from the powder of ground green tea leaves and served in handcrafted earthenware bowls, each unique and prized for its craftsmanship. I was later told this was a very special service and it reserved for unique occasions. The same staff as in the morning plus another vice-principal joined us. They shared a slide show and video presentation about the school program. Here were the highlights for me:

  • length of the school day for the staff : 7 am – 10 pm, six days a week.
  • length of the school day for the students : 8 am – 8 pm, six days a week.
  • Length of school year: 217 days
  • 6-7 60 minute classes a day plus club and sport activities
  • an annual trip for the third year students to Spain and Holland for 10 days
  • Pack three years of curriculum into two years
  • Seniors will have completed all state mandated curriculum at the end of year five so their focus is on passing exams.
  • The school offers 1800 classes, 2.4% more than public schools.
  • In addition to academics, they also teach morality, philosophy, and etiquette.
  • Students go on many field trips and attend several cultural events throughout the year.

It was all quite impressive. I was told that since the school day is so long, it discourages older teacher or teachers with families from working there hence many of the staff I met we young and single.

Next up was science class. This was a real treat for me. I was excited to see the lab and how well equipped it was. It included a retractable planetarium that collapsed up into the ceiling. The lesson today was on identifying limestone using hydrochloric acid, understanding the chemical reaction that takes place and then moving on to observe and identify photoautotrophic protista and diatoms under the microscope, labs I teach as well.

After science I was treated to lunch in the staff dining hall. Here is a picture of lunch….

It was delicious. It included rice, miso, tempura, fish, vegetables and fruit. The student’s are treated to this kind of food as well in their dining area. After lunch we visited the principal one last time. Enjoyed a cup of green tea and then were offered a chauffeured ride through town to see some historic sights before being dropped off near Mrs. Takewa’s car.

The next stop of our day was Horyuji temple, about a forty minute drive out of town. It is one of the world’s oldest surviving wooden structures and dates back 1300 years, during the Asuka Period. The emperor Yomei vowed to build a temple and an image of a Buddha s form of prayer for his own recovery from illness – a vow he was never able to fulfill as he died shortly thereafter. The Empress and Crown Prince fulfilled his wish though by building a temple and statue of Buddha in 607. Today, Horyuji contains over 2, 300 important cultural and historical structures and articles, including 190 that are national treasures. In 1993, UNESCO dedicated the site as the first World Heritage site in Japan.

After our visit to the temple, Mrs. Takewa took me back to her home to enjoy a meal of sushi, tako yaki (baked octopus dumplings), miso and persimmons. I was blown away by how good the food tasted. I met her youngest daughter and mother-in-law as well. Together we shared a very relaxing end to the day.

Tomorrow is my day off in Kyoto. I will visit the Golden Temple, a few shrines, take a Japanese cooking class and then meet then Kusanagi family in the evening who have invited to stay at their home for the night.

A Festival of Light and Descent into the Womb of the Goddess

After a relaxing soak in the tub and a nap I was ready to go explore a bit of Kyoto at night. On the recommendation of the woman at the front desk I set off of to find Kiyomizu Temple and explore the site at night during the annual Festival of Lights.

Precariously rooted on a steep hillside, this much-loved temple is a sight to behold. The site was founded in 798 though many of the current buildings date from 1633. To reach the temple site you much first make you way up “Teapot Lane” so named because of the numerous shops that line the approach. Here you can find all sorts of locally handcrafted pottery, textiles, sweets, teas, and other goods. The street ends at the entrance to the temple where a massive red gate towers over your head. Two fierce looking guardians flank either side of the entrance.

The Gate

Two-foot tall paper lanterns glowing a faint yellow and decorated with Japanese calligraphy lit the path and steps leading up to the gate. I had to remind myself to slow down and take it in the experience, thinking to myself that I never walk these paths again.

Temple Pagoda

I stopped at one of the first buildings past the gate where visitors were lining up for something. At first I thought it was to walk through the illuminated halls of what looked like an ornately decorated palace. We were asked to remove our shoes and pay 100 yen to enter. I followed the people ahead of me and was directed not to enter the first floor of the building but instead head down an unlit stair well. Signs were clearly posted (No Cameras) so I thought this must contain valuable artwork or something artifacts of great importance.

At the bottom of the stairs we entered a dark narrow hallway. There were no lights at all. I found myself in complete darkness. The floors and walls were made of wood panels that smelled old and earthen. I shuffled along trying not to follow to close to the family in front of me out of fear of trampling them. With an unknown amount of distance between them and no one behind me I found myself alone in the dark with no idea where I was heading. Turn after turn I proceeded, my hand on the wall to my right for guidance and the sound of voices behind me now becoming clearer. I could also hear what sounded like wooden balls being banged together ahead of me. I reached down with my left hand to find the wall and instead of a railing; I felt a large string of wooden beads that were strung on the wall. Every meter or so a larger ball was placed. I realized this must be meant to guide you through this path, a large string of prayer beads and that this blind walk must have been designed to take the pilgrim into the unknown, with nothing but faith to guide them through.

Tainai Meguri: Womb of the Goddess

On one of the last turns I came upon a massive circular stone slowly rotating in an alcove, illuminated from above by a dimly lit spot light. A large symbol was carved out of the top. It’s meaning unknown to me I can only imagine that it has to symbolize something sacred. The stone was slowing to a stop so I place my hands on its cool surface and gave it a heave to keep it spinning and continued ahead into the dark. I felt less apprehensive. The path ended a short distance later at the base of another set of stairs. Climbing the stairs put you back on the porch of the building and into the light of the evening.

I later learned this is called  Tainai-meguri, the womb of Daizuigu Bosatsu, a female Bodhisattva who has the power to grant any human wish.

I continued up the path towards the temple taking time to admire the statues, lanterns, fountains, tress and smaller buildings along the way. Approaching the temple entrance, I waited in line to first cleanse myself at a ceremonial fountain near the entrance. A large crouching dragon made of bronze and perched atop a huge rectangular stone cistern spewed out water. Visitors took up large ladles, long wooded handle attached to a metal cups, that they dipped into the water and then poured onto their left then right hands.

The Temple

The temple is built entirely of wood. No nails were used in its construction. The temple faces out onto Kyoto city, which was illuminated by a ¾ moon. The hillside above the temple was filled with trees that were lit from their bases. A massive beacon of white light shot out into the night sky from some place in the forest above. I stopped here for some time as it was one of the most serene and magical places I had ever seen.

Wood beams support the temple from below

A wide path led down from the temple through a forest of maple trees lit from a variety of angles. Engraved stones, cement lanterns and ponds dotted the path on the way back towards the main gate. I took one last look back up at Kiyomizu before heading down Teapot Lane. A vendor was selling steamed buns and I had to stop and buy one. I have to return here in the daytime to see more this place before I leave Kyoto.

Maple Trees

Engei High School

Today started early (5 am), mostly due to jet lag. I woke up every couple of hours thinking I had completed a full night’s sleep. I finally gave up fighting and decided to start my day. First on my agenda….coffee. I wandered around Osaka station but few shops were opened this early on a Sunday, save one….McDonalds. Yes, I succumbed to the McCafe and since I was already in line and hungry….hashbrowns and an egg McMuffin. Ugh. I haven’t been in  Japan 24 hours and I’m already eating McCrap.

I must admit, it was satisfying and gave me the caffeine boost I needed and some time to write and plan my day.  Of course an hour later as I was wandering around I came across Tully’s and Starbucks, not to mention a dozen or more Japanese cafes. Oh well. There is always tomorrow.

My guide for the day was Nobuko Nakamura and her son. They are a former Lawrence school family who moved back to Japan two weeks ago. They lived in Brookline for two and half years while her husband completed his research at Dana Farber Cancer Research Center. Together to took the train to Engei High School near where she went to middle school. Today was their Jubilee celebration. A one day event showcasing the varied work of the students along with food, arts and crafts, games, and a huge plant and produce sale.

We began our tour on our own, taking in the wide variety of native trees and plants on the grounds of school. It was impressive seeing the amount of work that the students put in landscaping the grounds (more on that later).

One of many Japanese gardens on the school grounds

Next we stopped to admire a display of chrysanthemums that the students had grown. A symbol of the sun, the Japanese consider the orderly unfolding of the chrysanthemum’s petals to represent perfection, and Confucius once suggested they be used as an object of meditation. It’s said that a single petal of this celebrated flower placed at the bottom of a wine glass will encourage a long and healthy life. It is also a symbol of royalty in Japan (look up the chrysanthemum throne).

Chrysanthemums on display

The principal and vice-principal of the school who invited us to join them for tea met us at the front office of the school. The lobby was filled with student created Ikebana, (flower arrangements), a traditional craft in Japan.



Entering the school we were asked to take off our shoes and put on slippers, a custom in many places in Japan. I learned that students at this school have three pairs of shoes. Their street shoes for wear to/from school and around the grounds, slippers to wear in the classrooms and school buildings, and white rubber boots to wear when working in the gardens. As I walked around I saw small( for slippers) and large (for boots) cubbies. The slippers they offered me were probably a men’s 8….I wear a men’s 11.5.  It was kind of funny.

Cubbies of gardening boots

During our talk I learned that they teach their students the values of farm-to-table practices, that they use mostly organic farming practices and use a system of bio-intensive planting similar to what we use at Lawrence. For those of you familiar with F.F.A. , they have a similar program here called F.F.J, Future Farmers of Japan. The students  also compete in local, national and international garden design competitions. They shared with us the process the students go through to compete. They are first presented with two dimensional plans and the are given 11 hours to construct a plot that measures 10 feet by 8 feet. They are responsible for hardscaping (stonework, wood and bamboo work) and landscaping (soil and plant arrangement). The designs incorporated both Eastern (curving, natural lines)  and Western (geometric) themes.

The design.

The completed project

The campus included orchards of orange, pomegranate and apple tress, grapes trellies, many greenhouses and field of vegetables and flowers, a pond, an English garden, fields of  vegetables, and several student created Japanese gardens. The center piece of the school courtyard was a massive stone garden. The grass covered hill symbolizes the land, while the stones symbolize a peninsula. The white stone represents the oceans. The horizontal lines are waves and the circular rings, ripples in the water.

I thought how great it would be to teach or be a student at school like this. It was a very inspiring place to visit.

Nakamura San invited me to lunch back in Osaka. We made our way to her favorite ramen restaurant near Hankyu station. This is nothing like the ramen American’s are use to. We were served steaming bowls of fresh soba noodles in house made miso broth topped with pork and gyoza; a very satisfying way to end a day with new friends. Over lunch she shared with me how to bathe in Japan. First you shower and wash your body then you soak in a tub of hot water that is communal for 3-4 minutes. I was curious about this as the bathroom in my hotel room has a raised ledge you step over to enter and the entire bath room is made of waterproof materials, floor-ceiling. She also shared with me the custom of table seating, the highest ranking person sits furthest from the door, and how to say the blessings before and after a meal. I will post the Japanese phrases I am learning later.

I made my way to Kyoto in the afternoon where I will spend the next two nights. Tomorrow I will head to Nara and visit Seishin-Gakuen Junior High School and  Horyuji Temple, one of the oldest wooden buildings existing in the world.

So it begins…

My Japan Adventrue Beings.

After nine months of waiting, planning and being an armchair tourist, I am finally in Japan.

My trip began at 4 am Friday morning. I boarded a 6 am flight from Boston to San Francisco. Six hours later, I landed with only 30 minutes to catch my 13 hour flight to Osaka. That was a bit stressful.  I arrived Saturday evening at 5 pm, collected my luggage and took an hour-long bus ride into the city.

My hotel, The Grandvia, was located inside Osaka Station, a massive, brightly lit building.  After a relaxing shower and change of clothes, I set off to explore the surrounding area and find a local restaurant for dinner.

Osaka Station

Wandering around Osaka station was a bit disorienting as the streets make many turns. I didn’t take me long though before I came across a narrow street illuminated with many brightly lit sings, banners, flags, sandwich boards, and lots of people.

After a few minutes of finding a place to cross the street (not as easy as one would think), I walked onto Ohatendori street. A bustling, lively mall of restaurants, pachinko and slot shots, peep shows and all variety of stores.

Ohatendori Street

I took my time walking up an down the street taking in the all the sights, sounds and smells. My goal was to find a place for dinner and after a few passes, I walked into Ganko, a sushi and shabu-shabu restaurant. I took a seat at the sushi bar and was greeted by an outgoing and friendly sushi chef, named… who talked me up about Boston and my trip to Japan.

I ordered a cold Asahi, some nigiri (salmon, mackerel and sea urchin) and an order of seafood tempura. It was wonderful. Fresh melt-in-your-mouth fish. The best! The staff was very friendly and made me feel at home.  They even helped me practice some Japanese. I felt like a regular by the time I left.

After dinner, I took some time to stroll back to the hotel, taking in a full moon filled sky along the way.  Too tired for much more, I headed back to my room to prepare for my day ahead.

Day one and two completed.Today I will meet up with Nakamura San who will accompany me to Engei High School where we will attend their fall Jubilee festival, meet with the principal, tour the school and grounds and buy some locally made food for lunch.  Tonight I will travel to Kyoto where I will stay for two days before heading off to Hiroshima.

My goal for today is to learn more Japanese phrases and learn about Japanese agricultural practices. I am interested to know about values in supporting local farms, farm-table commerce and what their farming and gardening curriculum teach students about these practices.


The day is almost here! I am hours away from my 6:00 a.m. departure for Osaka. Six hours to San Fran, then 12 hours to Japan. Crossing the International Date line along the way will cost me a day. Saturday I’ll get settled into a hotel for the night in Osaka. Next post will be my first in Japan.