It would seem the re-boot of the blog requires a re-boot.
I meant to keep it more current, honestly I did, but … clearly I did not. And you guys, a lot has happened in the past year (YEAR?!). Remember how—when I first began writing for a travel company—I sensibly noted that didn’t necessarily mean I’d suddenly morph into some jet-setting world traveler?
In June of 2014, I traveled to Japan with my sister.
In December of 2014, I traveled to Austria and Germany on a working writer’s trip. Alone.
This past April, we took the kids to Florida which included (drumroll) Disney World. Which, okay, isn’t technically a foreign country, but it IS like nowhere else on Earth. Plus, traveling with kids is awesome.
And there is more to come!
Therefore, since my “Wanderings” have become literal and not just figurative ones, I decided it was high time to begin chronicling them here. I’m going to go back and write about the trips in the order they were taken. This first entry is a bit of a cheat, as it’s from an article I wrote when I got back from Japan. But it is a nice overview of one of the cities we visited (plus, I am TOTALLY out of blogging shape and thus, needed all the help I could get).
So happy reading! And I hope this and future travel tales have you reaching for your own passport.
Kyoto: A city of contrasts
It is late June, 2014, and the water of the Sagakamenoocho River is shallow and still. A man in a crisp white shirt, eyes shielded from the sun by a wide-brimmed hat, pilots our flat-bottomed boat using only a long pole. He keeps a constant, easy rhythm, and with each almost imperceptible splash I am lulled into a blissful calm. I glance across the narrow wooden boat at my fellow passengers, and my sister, Kerry, who has joined me on this journey across the world—to Japan.The mountain stairs
We cruise through the river valley, a quiet oasis in the Arashiyama District of Kyoto. Tree-covered mountainsides climb up to the sky on either side of the bank. At the stern, smiling and cross-legged, is our host for the morning, Mr. Obayashi, a Zen Buddhist monk. Our Trip Leader, Toshi, sitting to Mr. Obayashi’s left, translates as the monk cheerily details the hard work and discipline his vocation requires. A typical day in a monastery requires a pre-sunrise wakeup, morning chanting and meditation, followed by a day full of chores and two small meals—both eaten before midday and none afterwards.The flat-bottom boat cruise
Today, however, we would be visiting not a monastery, but a temple—the 400-year-old Senkoji Temple—cloistered half-way up the mountain side. As our boat draws closer to its destination a low, sonorous sound drifts across the valley toward us. “That is the temple’s gong,” explains Toshi. “It is welcoming us.” Our pilot smoothly docks the boat next to a flat outcrop of river rock. Mr. Obayashi gathers his brown monk’s robes about him and deftly steps onto the shore, extending his hand to assist each person off the boat. Kerry returns Mr. Obayashi’s friendly smile when her turn comes, and when I ask if she likes the picture I took of her disembarking she proclaims, “A monk just held my hand! Of course I do.”
My fellow passengers and I are at first befuddled—have we been dropped off at the wrong spot?—for the surrounding area seems free of any man-made structure. Toshi beckons us forward. Then we see the stairs—stone stairs hewn right into the side of the mountain, winding their way up until we lose sight of them in the trees. Grasping the smooth wooden railing, we make our ascent. Green light filters through a canopy of leaves and the cool air is filled with the vibrating music of the temple’s gong. It grows increasingly louder the higher we climb.The mountain stairs
Sunlight dazzles our eyes as we pass the line of trees. The temple’s gong, a massive, engraved iron bell, is still calling to us. Each traveler is given a turn to pull back the gigantic mallet and sound our own ringing welcome. Gongs and bells are also used in Buddhism as a call to mindfulness, a way to focus a follower’s attention to meditation and prayer. Already, I feel focused and ready for whatever is next.Kerry rings the gongTea in the treehouse temple
As my sister, fellow travelers, and I round the dirt path just past the stairs, Senkoji Temple comes into view. Instead of the huge, solemn structure I was expecting, I am surprised and delighted to find myself gazing upon a small, airy building that seems perched upon the mountainside. Blonde wood beams, rice paper screens, and wide open windows welcome in the sunlight and provide a panoramic view of the leafy vista below. A flutter of color catches my eye; just outside the temple’s windows rainbow-striped flags dance in the breeze, giving Senkoji Temple a lighthearted, playful feel—as if I have discovered a secret treehouse up in the clouds.The view from the temple
After removing our shoes—a custom we have all grown used to at this point of the trip—we softly pad across the tatami mat-covered floor and take our seats on the low benches by the windows. Before each of us are two simple objects: A clay bowl (chawan
) and a small wooden whisk (chasen
). A peek inside my cup reveals a fine green powder. Matcha.Matcha,
powdered green tea, is enjoyed all across Japan and can be found in many forms. Already, Kerry and I have sampled iced green tea at a manga
(Japanese-style comic book) cafe in Tokyo, as well as matcha
-flavored ice cream at a restaurant in Kanazawa. But this time, we would be drinking classic matcha
tea during a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, called sado
. An older, female monk kneels before us at a low table. She holds her own whisk aloft and begins to explain to us, through Toshi, the way of tea.Our tea ceremony guides
To brew the beverage itself, hot water is poured over the matcha
powder; Mr. Obayashi ‘s wife (yes, Buddhist monks are allowed to marry) fills everyone’s cup from a steaming kettle. Then we are instructed to whip the tea with a bamboo whisk until it foams slightly. But the significance of the tea is more than just its precise preparation; the ceremony is a traditional art form that exhibits the Zen ideals of the beauty of simplicity and mindfulness of movement. An integral part of the ceremony is the appreciation of the aesthetics of the place where the tea is prepared and enjoyed, and the act of drinking the tea should be a spiritual experience—incorporating the values of respect, harmony, purity, and tranquility.
To this American, it seemed like a lot to ask for from one cup of green tea. But the stillness of the mountains and the atypical hush that had fallen over my usually chatty fellow travelers pulls my focus toward the task at hand. The task of making tea.
It is time to pick up my own whisk. I gently hold the side of my bowl as I begin to stir. I am anxious at first, but almost immediately the powder and water is transformed into the desired light green foam. We all pick up our cups together and carefully, intentionally, rotate them before taking a sip. The tea is hot, slightly bitter, and fresh-tasting to me—like the mountain air made liquid. A tiny, intricately designed cake waits next to everyone’s cup. A dessert is always served alongside matcha
as a reminder of life’s sweetness and bitterness. As I pop the cake in my mouth, I acknowledge the sweetness of this one, serene moment—a rare moment of quiet here, up in the treetops.My matcha tools The concrete labyrinth
Just one day later, we have descended from the mountain—back down to the busy streets of downtown Kyoto. After a day spent in tranquility, surrounded by nature, the familiar bustle of a city feels almost alien. But it is our last night in Japan, and my sister and I are eager for one more adventure.
Toshi has arranged for a few of the city’s ubiquitous black taxis to take us across town for our final dinner together. We have been very lucky with the weather for the entire trip, but tonight it is raining. I try to keep track of where our swiftly moving taxi is heading, but the rain washes the windows into watery streams of color and light. We arrive at the corner of Shijo Street, a wide, busy shopping area reminiscent of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan—all neon lights and high-end department stores. As soon as we are all accounted for, Toshi is off. I expect him to walk into one of the large, brightly-lit buildings but instead he swiftly turns down a tiny alley I didn’t even notice was there.
As soon as I head down the narrow street, the rush of traffic is instantly silenced and replaced with the clacking of footsteps on cobblestones and the excited lilt of conversation. The warren-like space—an area called Pontocho—is impossibly packed with people, multicolored umbrellas bobbing above the crowd as they hustle out of the rain and into one of the myriad restaurants that line each side of the street. There seems to be no delineation between the “fancy” area and more casual eateries—laid-back yakatori
(grilled chicken on skewers) joints sit beside haute cuisine restaurants. Toshi bustles us along, out of the rain, and I peek down each tiny side street, trying to take it all in. An austere fountain stands outside a black lacquered door. From an open window, I watch a chef briskly turning takoyaki
(balls of batter and octopus) on a hot plate.Pontocho at night
I turn to Kerry, who is just as eagerly taking in each twist and turn of this lively labyrinth, hidden behind the big city buildings. It occurs to me that if we lost sight of Toshi, we could quite possibly spend the entire night winding our way through this tantalizing maze and never see the same sight twice.
Suddenly the alleyway opens up, and we see the city lights glinting off the Kamogawa River. Our destination is a restaurant with wonderful views of the river. The sights and smells of Pontocho have definitely worked up my appetite, but I am almost sad to leave the twisty-turny world behind. That is, of course, until our first course, a gorgeous assortment of sashimi, is placed before me.Soaking in the city
Suddenly, it is 6:00a.m. the next morning. Soft gray light seeps around my hotel room’s curtains. Today, my sister and I begin our journey back to Boston. I quietly get out of bed and change into the yukata
, a simple cotton kimono, provided by the hotel. I know Kerry wants to sleep in a bit before our departure, but I have one more thing to check off my list.
On the top floor of the hotel, there is an onsen
, or public hot bath. I have already experienced a traditional onsen
during our stay at a ryokan
, a Japanese-style inn, in Hakone. Now that I’d gotten over my initial shyness of bathing publically, I wanted just one more chance to soak in the thermal waters. A few of my fellow travelers have highly recommended it to me saying only, “You can’t beat the view!”
The hour is early enough that I have the onsen
to myself. As I settle into the steaming water, I fully appreciate what my traveling companions meant. The bath is traced by panoramic windows. The vibrant city of Kyoto spreads out beneath me, stretching out to a shadowy line of mountains. In that moment, I am struck once again by Japan’s uncanny ability to encapsulate busy with calm, cityscape with nature, old with new.