Archive for May, 2009

Travel stories

May 27, 2009

At my last book club meeting the conversation went from discussing A Year in Provence to sharing humorous travel stories (book club tangents are often more interesting than the actual book discussions). After hearing about several hilarious mishaps, inadvertent cultural faux pas, and near-disasters (most, funny only from the safety of hindsight and home), it occurred to me that problem-free trips do not make for very interesting travel anecdotes.

Both my trips to Japan were so well choreographed and shepherded by friends, that there was little opportunity for me to get lost, botch anything up, or encounter any risks or pitfalls. The funniest things to happen on my latest trip was having to ask a male friend to help me decipher the Japanese on feminine hygiene products (he was unable to offer any enlightenment as to the reason for the pictures of rabbits and flying pigs). The only other funny thing was, apparently, my pronunciation of Japanese words, which baffled some people and highly entertained others. Also, running out of money 2/3 the way through the trip did lead to some unexpected challenges and suspense.

So, if no problems means no stories, than I’m relieved to say I have no real stories to tell about my trip. However, that doesn’t mean I have no stories to tell. They just wont be about me.

Some of my favourite places and things experienced on my recent trip:

– stopping to eat a box lunch overlooking the Oi River and the lush green mountainside of Arashiyama (storm mountain), Kyoto

– hearing uguisu, the Japanese nightingale, call in the bamboo forest beside an old inari shrine

– shopping for kimono fabric and antiques at Kitano Tenmangu market, Kyoto (and escaping from the rain in a tiny tofu hot pot restaurant)

– eating a delicious lunch of fresh vegetables, rice and grilled tofu braised with miso sauce (if you scoff at the idea of tofu tasting good, then you’ve never eaten in Japan!), followed by exploring a school for samurai, a castle, and a ninja house

– enjoying the view from Kiyumizu Temple in Kyoto and Roppongi Tower in Tokyo

– following the beckoning cats signs to Gotokuji temple, the home of the first maneki-neko (lucky cat)

– experiencing Kabuki

– soaking in a natural hotspring beside a river in Wakayama

– walking down ancient stones stairs to the base of Nachi Falls

– following a crow through the huge tori gate at Kumano Taisha, the shrine of the three-legged crow

– walking on the old Tokaido hwy through the historic town of Seki-cho and sitting in a 370 year old shop interviewing the 13th and 14th generation wagashi-makers (who may or may not be related to ninjas)

– meeting highschool and university students, and chatting with people at my talks

– basking in the hospitality and kindness of friends and acquaintances (old and new)

I came away with two notebooks full of notes and ideas, as well as over 2000 photos (mostly for research and to help jog my memory), so look for a future story — possibly involving a 17th century girl, a wagashi shop, ninjas, a fire, and a trip on the old Tokaido hwy.… (that is, after the maneki-neko story).


Highlights of my trip to Japan

May 20, 2009

Want a glimpse into my working holiday in Japan? Here is a link to the album I posted on Facebook (you’re supposed to be able to look at it even if you’re not signed up to Facebook):


(I hope it works)

Journey to Japan

May 16, 2009

I couldn’t manage to connect to WordPress from internet cafes while I was in Japan, so now that I’m back home, I’ll post some thoughts and images from the trip. I didn’t expect to have time to write any haiku while I was there, but I actually found that in the middle of seeing and doing so many things, composing a haiku could sometimes be a good way of focusing in on a single experience (at least for a few minutes).

My first night in Japan I fell asleep to the creaking of frogs from a nearby rice paddy and woke up to the chattering of birds. I went for a morning walk and watched rice being planted, then composed my first haiku of the trip as I sat in the back seat of a friend’s car on my way to lunch (at a French restaurant, of all places, where my first meal in Japan was vegetarian quiche). We drove past recently flooded rice fields where rows of new plants bent and twitched in the wind, while white egrets stood erect and motionless.

newly planted rice
green fingers tap in the wind
three patient egrets

(I don’t know if this comes across, but the contrast between the two, reminded me of the impatient eagerness of youth vs the knowing resignation of old age…??)


In Kyoto a couple days later, I walked through a bamboo forest and stopped by a basho (bannana leaf) plant (the plant for which the poet Basho took his name) near an old house once frequented by Basho (in the 17th c.). It seemed an appropriate spot to stop for a rest and a haiku moment.

in the bamboo grove
stripes of light and shadow
a nightingale sings


I heard the uguisu (Japanese nightingale) near a spooky old inari (fox messanger) shrine in the middle of the bamboo forest in an area called Sagano, near the Togetsukyo Bridge over the River Oi, which is the last stage on the old Tokaido Highway, a place that has been visited by pilgrims and other travellers for perhaps a thousand years (being used to Canada’s west coast, where recorded history is very recent, this thought blew me away).


On our last day in Kyoto, my friend and I walked down Pontocho Road (one of the traditional geisha areas). The street was so narrow, two people barely had room to pass.

rain drips from roof tops
along Pontocho Road
two umbrellas touch


Further along the road, we discovered a tiny temple and garden honouring thirty-something women and children killed and buried near the spot in the 16th c. after the male leader of their household fell out of favour with his uncle (Hideyoshi, the samurai lord who controlled power at the time) and was forced to commit seppuko. Kyoto is full of magnificant temples, shrines, castles, etc., but to me, history never felt as poignantly close as at this modest, easy-to-miss spot. My friend and I stopped to ring the temple bell and make an offering in memory of the murdered women and children, and I tried to put the experience into words as we sat on the train that night, returning to Suzuka.

beside the canal
in a small temple garden
the names of children