Thursday, December 8, 2016

Now that has got to be an Apple Record!

During our last days in Japan, we were in the countryside of Narita where we enjoyed the old wooden structures, eye catching shops, and the excitement of knowing we'd taste the most delicious eel and peanuts that the Chiba Prefecture are known for.

After finding a hidden gem of a man who takes people on tours of the local treasures, we hit pay dirt! This man was Katsumi, and he runs Narita Rainbow Tours. He came and picked us up first thing in the morning at our Airbnb and told us we'd be starting off by touring a local Sake Brewery. He played a movie for us which detailed the process of making sake while he drove us to the location. It was a quaint and award winning operation which has been passed down through the generations. And even though it was still morning, the sake rolled across the tastebuds as we tried different levels of strength and clarity. I also learned that all rice starts out brown, it only becomes white after scraping it. The absolute finest sake is made by scraping the rice down to a very fine piece, therefore wasting most of the rice and making it worth it's weight in gold.


Next, we headed to a Zen Buddhist temple in which the bell was forged in 1330. This was a wooden temple with a thatched roof and it showed more splendor than a golden palace. Katsumi told us the Japanese prefer twisted trees because they have more character, and I must say that gazing at a contorted plum tree hundreds of years old with all of its imperfections was a magnificent sight to behold. The simplistic beauty of this place down to the finest details such as the pots of fish that are self sustaining because the plants in the water give the fish all the oxygen they need to breathe and everything they need to live in their own microcosmic world, was a lesson within itself.

The next stop was to one of the only existing rice cracker stores which still make them the good old fashioned way. This shop was called Nishikura (stone warehouse) and the ladies were roasting them slowly and patiently. They gave us a hot sesame rice cracker with soy sauce to try, and it was so divine I could have cried!

A tour of the local market followed, and we beheld fruits and vegetables like we've never seen before. The apples were about half the size of a human head and the kiwi's, the daikon and the fungi...oh my! Katsumi bought a freshly baked sweet potato and shared his favorite treat with us. He told us that after he is done with work all day, he digs holes to search for roots near his home so that when he is done, he can enjoy the roots so much more because of how hard it was to get them. I feel it's the same way with our families and close friends, you must put energy into the roots that cultivated you.

Sawara was our next journey, and I was so excited to see the wondrous canal in what used to be the 'Venice of Japan.' This place was a teeming waterway before World War II. The locals lived off of the land and the children ran to school amongst wooden boards attached to separate structures. Unfortunately, after the war, the Americans encouraged them to build roads and their existing way of life slowly diminished. The elderly people regret this choice and the hotels in this town are only open for a little over a month a year when people flock there for the Iris fields. Katsumi said that here, they call beautiful women Iris and the most beautiful of all women, Peony. It was in this willowed town that thrived Inō Tadataka, the first cartographer to map Japan about two hundred years ago within one kilometer of accuracy by using the heavens and a sextant, he created his dream and changed history, and we got the pleasure of viewing his home along the canal. And in a brilliant twist of fate, Lynzie is a random is that?! After this tour, Katsumi then took us to a Japanese garden to feed the coy and enjoy the delicate balance of nature.

At the end of our sojourn, Katsumi took us to the Shinsho-ji temple where the fire of wisdom burns out the wood of illusion, where the temples are so stunning and ornate externally, shock you when you see they are even more visually pleasing on the interior. Every nook & cranny of that spacious temple is covered with hand paintings by artists from Kyoto who were so excited to come and create something new rather than their normal restorations. Shinsho-ji temple is dedicated to the God of Fire. Katsumi took us to witness the fire ceremony which is no longer allowed in most places like Tokyo for the general public to witness, for it would be too overrun with people. But here in the country we witnessed the monks walk in procession to the temple where we knelt and listened to the sounds of their bells, the lighting of a blazing fire, and even with the forewarning from Katsumi about when they were going to strike the enormous drum, it still struck you to your core. It was one of the most poignant and hypnotic moments of my life, and Lynzie and I had to agree it was one of the best moments of our trip. Afterward, we happened to be there for the one day a year that they hand out free rice porridge with beans for the patrons of the temple. It seemed like after that ceremony broke open our hearts and our minds, a simple bowl of porridge seemed like the most satisfying meal in the world.

The very last stop was on the Main Street of Narita where we shopped for the local delicacies like the peanuts from the Chiba prefecture, feasted on roasted chestnuts while shopping for Christmas presents for our loved ones at home, and checking out the master of the local delicacy of Unagi eel that are sliced live by a master of the art right in front of your very eyes. Katsumi told us that it takes ten years to perfect this intricate process. The owner of the shop takes his living so seriously that when a large earthquake hit the town, he grabbed his enormous clay pot of their special sauce and protected it from harm as he ran. And I must say, the Unagi eel with local sake from the Chiba prefecture was a delight as the eel melted in your mouth. We are very grateful to Katsumi for the meaningful experiences he so enlightened us with, but also for a friend we will always think fondly of.

And with that, we flapped our little wings and flew back home, grateful for our twisted roots.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Free as a Bird in the Arms of a Buddha

It was our last morning in Tokyo, so our Airbnb hostess, Sanae made us an extra special breakfast, had us each sit to be drawn by her talented and artistic daughter, Yuma, and dressed us in kimono for a traditional tea ceremony. After saying our goodbyes to our sweet friends, we were headed off to the beach!

On our way toward the beach we decided to stop at the Ōfuna Kannon, the goddess of mercy in a white robe. She is so majestic jutting out from amongst the pines, it's enough to leave you breathless, we had to haul our luggage up the side of a bamboo laden hill. The origination of her building began in 1929, but because of the tragedy of war, she was not completed until 1960. She houses stones from Nagasaki and Hiroshima, as well as an eternal flame lit from the fires of the atomic bomb. We happened to visit on the date of Pearl Harbor, and I couldn't help but tear up over the losses on both sides and the horrors of war. It reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Mark Twains Joan of Arc- '"Picture a pure and dainty white rose growing up out of the rude soils of war and looking abroad out of it's tender eyes upon the horrid machinery of death, and then- it blushes for the sinful nature of man and turns red in a single night." The one picture during my trip that encapsulated my hopes and dreams for a brighter future was of a little brother and sister who posed for a picture for me while smiling their broadest smiles and holding up the peace sign.

Once we got to Shichirigahama beach, we walked to our new Airbnb that was a bedroom above the Palms Cafe within walking distance to the beach with our new host Kazz. He immediately offered us a welcome treat of homemade ginger ale and fresh pear. We had told him that we were going to head to the Daibutsu Buddha and that we would meet him back at the beach at sunset so where we later sipped on champagne while trying to get another glimpse of Mt. Fuji-san.

The Amida Buddha of Kamakura was cast in bronze in 1252. This monumental statue was originally housed within a building structure but that structure was demolished and rebuilt four times because of  typhoons and tsunamis. So, now the Giant Buddha rests surrounded by nature. It was particularly spectacular during the warm and sunny autumn days surrounded by brilliant changing leaves. Buddhists tell a story of Siddhartha who went walking through the forest with his cousin Devadatta who was a hunter. His cousin shot a swan out of the sky, and Buddha cradled it in his arms and put some ointment on to heal it. When the boys argued over who the swan belonged to, the kingdom was divided until an elderly man spoke and said, “The prized possession of every creature is it’s life,” the elder stated. “As such, a creature belongs to whoever protects it, not the one who attempts to take its life away.”

The following day our goal was to hike to Jinmuji temple built in 724 CE! Lynzie highly doubted my shoe selection for the boulder strewn hike...flip flops! I can't handle it when my feet get hot, but when I pictured how I must look while hiking, I could only get a mental image of a duck-billed platypus trying to get to the top of a muddy riverbank. At one point Lynzie casually told me to watch out because there was something dead on the ground, I screamed and jumped and I realized that I still am the little girl who did not want to get off the picnic table while camping for fear I would get my fingernails dirty. I also saw a sign with a warning to watch out for wild boars which reminded me of how scared I was of chipmunks when I saw them as a girl in the woods. Once we made our way through moss, ferns and a place so clean, there was literally someone sweeping the forest, we made it to the ancient temple. The temple and the stone Buddhas were a worthwhile sight to behold, and it was even worth the fact that I got a bug in my eye and that people laughed and pointed at me for wearing my 'slippers' in the woods. As we gazed out at all the ships in the harbor from the viewing point, I was thankful to be anchored to such a dear and wonderful friend that I have in Lynzie.

We headed from the temple to a natural hot spring outdoor Onsen where we bathed as naked as Jaybirds in the soft sea air. The elements in the water made our skin so smoothe, the stars were glowing in the inky sky, and we let all of our worries slip away into the darkness. After that we went to a Yakiniku restaurant with our new pal Kazz and his adorable wife Sumi. We ate for hours and drank delicious plum sake and soda water and enjoyed the bonds of friendship that we so luckily cultivated while in this beautiful land.

On our last morning at the beach, I walked down to the ocean to watch the sun rise in the East. I felt such gratitude toward people who came before me and people that encourage me to fly freely during this mad and crazy flight we call life.