An Enchanted Expedition In Kyoto

I have just returned from two and a half wonderful weeks in Japan, leading an intrepid, engaged and enriching group of eight travelers through Kyoto and Shikoku. The trip turned out to be full of magic and delight, but as I began the journey, before I knew how it would turn out, I had turned for inspiration and encouragement to the memory of an earlier journey – my very first time as a tour leader, when I had led two American travelers on an autumn tour of Tokyo, Kyoto and rural Honshu. Here is a tale from that initial tour:

On our first full day in Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto, we began with visits to three back-alley shops where traditional tofu delicacies, delicate fans and tatami mats are made. Then, when the husband of the couple I was accompanying mentioned that his mother used to love lacquerware and had a considerable collection in California, our local guide perked up. ”Oh, then I know just where we must go,” she said, hailing a cab. ”Zohiko!”

From the moment we walked into its hushed confines, Zohiko seemed more a museum than a retail store. Three men and a woman in crisp dark suits greeted us with bows. The ground floor consisted of two spacious rooms elegantly arranged with wooden shelves and mounted display cases showcasing an extraordinary assemblage of lacquerware. There were exquisite soup bowls and small plates, flower containers, round boxes, square boxes, sake sets, green tea cup saucers, large serving trays and small personal trays, multi-layered boxes and decorative plates, all in sleek black, red and gold, adorned with intricate flowers, rolling waves, fluttering butterflies and bending grasses.

I lingered for a long time studying a set of five black soup bowls, each with a different gorgeous rendering of pine, bamboo, apricot, chrysanthemum and orchid. A strikingly simple pure red tray with two soaring gold cranes in one corner held my eye. And if I’d had enough money, I would have bought a spectacular rectangular black container with layer upon layer of gold depicting a glittering seascape with a single, pine-crowned island in the distance and thin-winged birds flocking on the horizon.

The manager noticed me admiring the last and as we were talking, I mentioned that my companion’s mother had been an ardent collector of lacquerware in America and that discovering Zohiko was a special treat for us. ”Well, then you must come upstairs!” he said, and called to two be-suited associates.

Suddenly, we were all being escorted up a discreet stairway in the back of the showroom to another room with further elegant displays and beyond that a small area where 13, 4-inch by 5-inch, wooden trays were laid out, lacquered and polished to different degrees, illustrating the stages in the creation of lacquerware. One of the assistants began to explain in English, but the manager, clearly so gratified and excited to have foreign guests with a real interest in his own passion, couldn’t stop himself and took over, speaking in a mixture of English and Japanese that our guide translated. First, he showed us the trunk of a lacquer tree from which the sap is extracted. Then, picking up each tray in turn, he described the lacquerware-making process: the selection and shaping of the piece of wood, the laying down of a linen cloth to prevent warping or cracking, the numerous applications of layers of lacquer, followed each time by polishing, first with a whetstone and in the penultimate stage, with soft magnolia charcoal. At this point the assistant reappeared with printed one-page explanations in English and pressed them into our hands with a bow. In the final stage, I read as the manager spoke, ”a coat of clear lacquer is rubbed over the surface with cotton and the piece is polished with deerhorn powder and vegetable oil until it takes on a brilliant luster.”

The manager finished with a smile that mixed relief and glee. As we applauded and bowed and began to head for the stairs, he bent to consult with our guide. ”Wait a moment!” she announced. ”We are having a very special opportunity!”

The manager then summoned another assistant, who led us down the stairs, out the shop’s front door, around the side of the building and through a parking lot into a long, low warehouse. As we entered I caught a whiff of wood and paint. He led us up some narrow stairs to the second floor and a cozy room, about 8 feet square, where a man of perhaps 50, clad in blue jeans and a red and white striped shirt, was sitting cross-legged on a cushion. In front of him was a low red-painted stand, as high as his knees and about 2 feet wide by 2 feet deep. Neatly arranged on this stand were a dozen brushes, a bamboo tube, an engraving tool, three blue-and-white sake cups with paints inside and a tiny plastic bag containing gold pellets.

>The artist was cupping a red lacquered bowl in his hand. Taking up one of the brushes, he dipped it in a rectangular silver palette that was looped on his left thumb and began making fine brushstrokes. After a few minutes, he put that bowl aside and picked up another red-lacquered bowl. Inside this bowl was the white design of a flower. He took up a different brush, and began to lightly trace this design with transparent lacquer. When he had finished, he very intently tapped finely pounded gold dust from the bamboo tube onto the lacquered area. He then gently brushed the gold dust off with a clean cotton cloth, studied the bowl and carefully set it aside, then took up the other bowl and red brush. ”Repeating this process over and over again,” the assistant said in an awed whisper, ”he will create the kind of bowls you see in our showroom. It takes many months – sometimes even a year – to make one bowl.”

We watched the artist tip, tip, tip with his brush, careful, unhurried, moving from bowl to palette and back, seemingly at one with the grain of the wood and the flow of the lacquer. I thought about how this artist came to this workshop every day, week after week, year after year, practicing his craft, focusing on a single bowl, a tip of the lacquered brush, a tap of the bamboo tube, an intricate whole of red and black and gold. I thought of the generations of artists who had practiced this same craft before him, an unending stream of tap and tip and gleam. We watched and watched, and journeyed to an ageless place, sharing an unexpected gift from an ancient sage: the concentrated grace of his hands and his eyes, the quick dip of the fine-tipped brush and the slow liquid strokes on the bowl, the sheen of the lacquer, the glitter of the gold, the pungent scent in the air – a precious piece of Kyoto to hold in our minds, then and now and everywhere.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Silgeo]

Photo Of The Day: The Iconic Torii Of Kyoto, Japan

Today’s Photo of the Day comes from our Gadling Flickr Pool, submitted by Luke Robinson. This image perfectly captures the endless, iconic aisles of torii gates in Kyoto, Japan. These vibrant, vermillion arches are located in Fushimi Inari Taisha, a shrine dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Tens of thousands of the gates form a path that winds through a forest and up Mount Inari.

The gates themselves are typically donated by businessmen – who pay upwards of thousands of dollars – with hopes that it will bring them good fortunes. The further you venture along the trail, not only do the torii become less dense, but so do the people, making the journey quite peaceful. Towards the end of the hike is a clearing with a fantastic view of Japan’s ancient capital.

As cliché as it may sound, I truly believe that no trip to Japan is complete without a visit to Fushimi-inari Taisha. It is impressive, beautiful and absolutely serene.

If you’d like to see your own travel photography featured here on Gadling, upload your shots to the Gadling Flickr Pool, or tag your Instagram photo with @GadlingTravel and your image could be selected as our Photo of the Day!

[Photo Credit: Flickr User Luke Robinson]

Events Worth Planning A Trip Around In 2013

Have you ever landed in a place to find out you arrived just after the town’s can’t-miss event of the year? Well, hopefully that won’t happen again this year. Gadling bloggers racked their brains to make sure our readers don’t overlook the best parties to be had throughout the world in 2013. Below are more than 60 music festivals, cultural events, pilgrimages and celebrations you should consider adding to your travel calendar this year – trust us, we’ve been there.

Above image: Throughout Asia, Lunar New Year is celebrated with lantern festivals, the most spectacular of which is possibly Pingxi. [Photo credit: Creative Commons]

Kumbh Mela, a 55-day festival in India, is expected to draw more than 100 million people in 2013. [Photo credit: Creative Commons]

January 7–27: Sundance Film Festival (Park City, Utah)
January 10–February 26: Kumbh Mela (Allahabad, India)
January 21: Presidential Inauguration (Washington, DC)
January 26–February 12: Carnival of Venice (Venice, Italy)
January 26–February 13: Battle of the Oranges (Ivrea, Italy)
During Busójárás in Hungary, visitors can expect folk music, masquerading, parades and dancing. [Photo credit: Creative Commons]
February 3: Super Bowl XLVII (New Orleans, Louisiana)
February 5–11: Sapporo Snow Festival (Sapporo, Japan)
February 7–12: Busójárás (Mohács, Hungary)
February 10: Chinese New Year/Tet (Worldwide)
February 9–12: Rio Carnival (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
February 12: Mardi Gras (Worldwide)
February 14: Pingxi Lantern Festival (Taipei, Taiwan)
February 24: Lunar New Year (Worldwide)

Several cities in India and Nepal increase tourist volume during Holi, when people enjoy spring’s vibrant colors. [Photo credit: Creative Commons]
March 1-14: Omizutori (Nara, Japan)
March 8–17: South by Southwest (Austin, Texas)
March 20–April 14: Cherry Blossom Festival (Washington, DC)
March 27: Holi (Worldwide, especially India & Nepal)

Many Dutch people wear orange – the national color – and sell their secondhand items in a “free market” during Koninginnendag, a national holiday in the Netherlands. [Photo credit: Creative Commons]
April 12–14 & April 19–21: Coachella (Indio, California)
April 11-14: Masters Golf Tournament (Augusta, Georgia)
April 13–15: Songkran Water Festival (Thailand)
April 17–28: TriBeCa Film Festival (New York, New York)
April 25–28: 5Point Film Festival (Carbondale, Colorado)
April 30: Koninginnendag or Queen’s Day (Netherlands)

Up to 50 men work together to carry their church’s patron saint around the main square in Cusco, Peru during Corpus Christi. [Photo credit: Blogger Libby Zay]
May 4: Kentucky Derby (Louisville, Kentucky)
May 15–16: Festival de Cannes (Cannes, France)
May 20: Corpus Christi (Worldwide)
May 23–26: Art Basel (Hong Kong)
May 24–27: Mountainfilm Film Festival (Telluride, Colorado)
May 25-28: Sasquatch Festival (Quincy, Washington)
May 26: Indianapolis 500 (Speedway, Indiana)

2013 marks the 100th anniversary for the Tour de France. [Photo credit: Creative Commons]

June 13–16: Bonnaroo (Manchester, Tennessee)
June 13–16: Art Basel (Basel, Switzerland)
June 14–16: Food & Wine Classic (Aspen, Colorado)
June 21: St. John’s Night (Poznan, Poland)
June 24: Inti Raymi (Cusco, Peru)
June 28–30: Comfest (Columbus, Ohio)
June 29–July 21: Tour de France (France)

The annual observance of Ramadan is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Visit Istanbul, Turkey, at this time and see a festival-like atmosphere when pious Muslims break their fasts with lively iftar feasts at night. [Photo credit: Creative Commons]
July 6–14: San Fermin Festival (Pamplona, Spain)
July 9–August 2: Ramadan (Worldwide)
July 12–14: Pitchfork (Chicago, Illinois)
July 17: Gion Festival Parade (Kyoto, Japan)
July 18–21: International Comic Con (San Diego, California)
July 19–22: Artscape (Baltimore, Maryland)
July 24–28: Fete de Bayonne (Bayonne, France)

Festival-goers get their picture taken at a photo booth during Foo Fest, an arts and culture festival held annually in Providence, Rhode Island. [Photo credit: Flickr user AS220]
August 2–4: Lollapalooza (Chicago, Illinois)
August 10: Foo Fest (Providence, Rhode Island)
August 26–September 2: Burning Man (Black Rock Desert, Nevada)
August 31–September 2: Bumbershoot (Seattle, Washington)

More than six million people head to Munich, Germany, for beer-related festivities during the 16-day Oktoberfest. [Photo credit: Creative Commons]
September 5–15: Toronto International Film Festival (Toronto, Canada)
September 13–15: Telluride Blues & Brews Festival (Telluride, Colorado)
September 21–October 6: Oktoberfest (Munich, Germany)

Around 750 hot air balloons are launched during the nine-day Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. [Photo credit: Flickr user Randy Pertiet]

October 4–6 & 11–13: Austin City Limits (Austin, Texas)
October 5–13: Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (Albuquerque, New Mexico)
October 10–14: United States Sailboat Show (Annapolis, Maryland)

During Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), family and friends get together to remember loved ones they have lost. Although practiced throughout Mexico, many festivals take place in the United States, such as this festival at La Villita in San Antonio, Texas. [Photo credit: Blogger Libby Zay]
November 1–2: Dia de los Muertos (Worldwide, especially Mexico)
November 3: Diwali (Worldwide)
November 8–10: Fun Fun Fun Fest (Austin, Texas)
November 11: Cologne Carnival (Cologne, Germany)
November 28: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (New York, New York)
TBA: Punkin Chunkin (Long Neck, Delaware)

The colorful holiday of Junkanoo is the most elaborate festivals of the Bahamian islands. [Photo credit: Flickr user MissChatter]
December 2–3: Chichibu Yomatsuri (Chichibu City, Japan)
December 5–8: Art Basel (Miami, Florida)
December 26–January 1: Junkanoo (Bahamas)

So, what did we miss? Let us know what travel-worthy events you’re thinking about journeying to in the coming year in the comments below.

Video: Kyoto’s 9h, a capsule hotel

Kyoto’s nine-hour hotel isn’t a new concept, but rather, a new take on a popular Japanese business. The 9h hotel is, at its heart, exactly what its name sounds like. The planned stay includes one hour to shower, seven hours to sleep and one hour to rest. The minimum stay is four hours, and the maximum is 17 at a rate of 300 to 400 yen per hour. Check-in is available at any hour of the day, 365 days per year.

Designed in an an impeccably clean, minimalist layout (the entire hotel has only four colors) the 9h has separate floors for sleeping, showering and changing, each designated by gender. Men and women even ride separate elevators. All amenities are provided, right down to alarm clocks.

Sleeping takes place in a small pod, stacked two high, which includes a light-based alarm clock system engineered by Panasonic that wakes the traveler at their pre-set time by raising the level of light within the pod. From the outside, the most someone can see is a faint orange glow.

The hotel has not yet made inroads into other cities – the brand’s owner says he first wants to perfect the model in Japan. What do you think? Would you visit a capsule hotel?

Photo of the day – What’s for dinner?

Food photography (or less delicately, food porn) are always a popular travel subject. Travelers love to capture the unusual, the delicious, and the beautiful eats of the world. This shot by Flickr user Marisoleta of

a live lobster tied up in Kyoto, Japan manages to be all three. Marisoleta explains that it was part of an offering demonstrated by a priest in one of Kyoto’s largest festivals, and as usual, the Japanese show their flair for food presentation. The lobster seems to be at peace with his fate, whether it’s to be boiled and eaten with melted butter, or untied and set back into the water.

Add your favorite food shots to the Gadling Flickr pool and if they make us hungry, we might use one for a future Photo of the Day.