Going Japanese: Kyoto

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For those of you that might not have heard, my oldest son Dunnington and I recently returned from a trip to Japan. I had considered myself reasonably well traveled, having lived in Europe and otherwise growing up all over the country--I’d even been to Canada. It struck me when we landed at Yokota Air Force Base outside of Tokyo that I had not set foot on foreign soil in fifteen years (well, not counting Canada). And this was very foreign soil.

I would love to show you a picture of our first view of Japan from the tarmac, and in fact I did take such a picture. It was however, deleted--on pain of having my camera forcibly confiscated by U.S. Air Force personnel. Apparently taking pictures of the airfield is a no go. Not to worry, we brought back over five hundred pictures! [Note to CIA: that's pictures of Japan, not the air base!]

We were met at the terminal by my dear friend Warren. Warren and I have been good friends since the second year of medical school when we were Pathology lab partners. He and his wife Jennifer have been living in Japan for almost two years. Warren is an Internist (that’s “Internal Medicine specialist,” not “intern”) and Jennifer is a brilliant attorney at one of those firms that a lot of attorneys work at and do those…complicated legal things they do (she explained to me exactly what this was but it was way over my head. This particular firm has a branch in Tokyo which is handy as many of the legal things they do have to do with Japanese companies.) But seriously, the singular most wonderful thing about our trip was that Warren and Jennifer were consummate hosts. They attended to our every need and made us feel absolutely welcome in their home without making us feel the least bit like the huge imposition we no doubt were. I hope someday to be able to return the favor.
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The flight from Seattle to Yokota is about 10 hours. That plus the 17 hour time-zone difference makes for a bit of jetlag. We went directly from the terminal to Warren’s house were we ditched his car and made our way by subway to the famous “bullet train” bound for our first stop, Kyoto. Above you see Dunnington falling asleep on the subway that morning. Keep in mind we had the whole day ahead of us—he was quite a trooper.

Kyoto is the old capital of Japan, and one of the few cities that wasn’t bombed to gravel during WWII. Our plan was to spend three days in Kyoto with a tour Warren had kindly booked for us and then return to Tokyo for the remainder of our stay. We had arrived too late to catch the tour bus, hence the need to catch the bullet train which would reach Kyoto in about two-and-a-half hours compared to the bus's seven. As we hadn’t had lunch yet (or was it breakfast, or maybe dinner), we picked up a couple of bento boxes before getting on the train. This was perfect as I’d seen them on television and had wanted to try one. Bento boxes come in all shapes and sizes and look beautiful on the outside, but they are required by Japanese law to have at least one or two things in them that are generally considered inedible by gaijin. Mine had a snail, still in the shell. I think it was dead. It wasn’t half bad really.
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The bullet train was as smooth and as speedy as advertised and we promptly made our way from the station in Kyoto to the Holiday Inn, where were dumped our bags and caught a bus to the Kiyomizu dera, a Buddhist temple famous for it’s high wooden veranda built over a cliff. Here Dunn is standing in front of one of the gates leading to the temple complex.
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Dunn showed an immediate interest in experiencing Japan hands on. He ritualistically washed his hands alongside the faithful and even had a go at lifting “Buddha’s walking stick,” below. We weren’t exactly sure, but something good was supposed to happen to you if you could lift it. Buddha was one buff fellow.
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We had the good fortune of having our trip coincide perfectly with the blooming of the cherry blossoms. One gets the impression that Japan is never more Japanese than when the cherry trees are in bloom.
Between Asian eateries and Hollywood films, Americans are familiar with the imagery and architecture of the orient. I commented to Warren that one of my first impressions of Kyoto was that it was “like Chinatown, only bigger.” This pavilion seemed to Warren and Dunn like it would do nicely as a backdrop for some martial artistry—like something right out of the video game "Mortal Combat."
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The next day we met up with the tour group and visited Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle), an entire complex of gardens and palaces built in a concentric double-moat fashion. Here I am standing in front of Ninomaru Palace, my favorite of the places we visited for reasons which I will not elaborate on fully here.
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Suffice it to say that the interior is very different than those of Western palaces, and I did not appreciate the splendor and power represented by the large empty spaces until we saw the Ohiroma Ichinoma (First Grand Chamber), set up with mannequins representing feudal Lords in the audience of the Shogun. Hai! Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the palace, but you can ask me to describe it to you some time.

On the grounds of the castle we stopped at a tea house where Warren was served very expensive traditional green tea by a very nice young lady in a kimono. The service was what you and I would have considered very formal, though I understand that compared with the ritual tea ceremony performed by the geisha, she may as well have yelled “tea’s up!” and slid it down the bar at us. Here Warren is holding a delicate bean paste confection he was served before the actual tea arrived.
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Our next stop was the Ryoanji temple, famous for a five-hundred-year-old rock garden. I actually wish that we had had more time to sit and contemplate the Zen-ness of the place, though I think the fact that people had been coming here for for five hundred years intrigued me as much as anything else about it.
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Dunn is standing here at the Tsukubai, a three-hundred-year-old wash basin on the grounds of the Ryoanji temple. The inscription translates something like "I learn only to be contented."
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From the understated elegance of the rock garden we travelled to the aptly named and more expensive appearing "Golden Pavilion," with it's beautiful surrounding gardens. This building is actually a replica as the original burned down some time during the twentieth century--a real shame as according to the handout it dated back to the 1220's.
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If you are ever in the market for a kimono I highly recommend a visit to the Nishijin Textile Center in Kyoto where you can catch the kimono fashion show and even rent a kimono for a night on the town. This pink one was my favorite. You can tell Dunn was enthralled.
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Eventually it got dark and it was time to party. Going out at night was always a blast for Dunn, as he so rarely gets to do it at home. I love this photo, he looks so out of place in the big city. There was a festival (mentioned in this earlier post) taking place down by the river that night. We helped ourselves to treats bought from street vendors and strolled down tiny brightly decorated alleyways lined with shops.
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The next day, our last in Kyoto, was the only day it rained during our entire trip. This picture is one of my favorites, taken on the grounds of the Ginkakuki (or Silver Pavilion) I believe. It's reminicenant of the famous Beatles Abby Road photograph. Except it's just one person, and he's walking the other way...across a pond. In Japan. And it's raining. Ok, it's nothing like that, but I still like it.
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After a few more sites on that third day in Kyoto it was back on the bus (i.e. NOT the bullet-train) for a seven hour bus ride back to Tokyo--the "Mr. Roboto" for Kyoto's "Domo Arigato," if you know what I mean.

To be continued.


Sounds so cool. I am so happy you guys got to go and have so many great stories to share. I am all for Japan except for the food. My freshman room-mate was from Japan and she tried all year to find something I would like. Even the candy was gross. Come to think of it, it would make for a great wieght loss plan.

John, will you be my daddy?

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This page contains a single entry by John published on April 18, 2004 9:11 PM.

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