Five Scenes From A Spring Sojourn In Kyoto

I’ve just returned to Japan to lead a tour of Kyoto and Shikoku for two and a half weeks. In my first 24 hours here, in Kyoto, I’ve tried to pay special attention to everything because I know that our first impressions in a place are always the freshest. After a day or two, the initially striking detail becomes commonplace. Three things have struck me tellingly in these first 24 hours. The first is the way every package in Japan – the toothbrush in my hotel room, the little cookie wrapped in plastic, the dried squid I bought in the convenience store – comes with a tiny triangular slit cut into one end, so that you never have to struggle to open it. The second thing is the ubiquity of vending machines. One of the first things I noticed after going through customs in Osaka airport was the bright blinking vending machines that offered both hot and cold drinks – actually, I’d forgotten about the hot drinks and only realized this with a start after I pushed what I imagined was a nice cool ice coffee and picked up a hand-burning hot coffee instead. Last night I passed literally a dozen vending machines in the two-block stroll I took from my hotel in Kyoto. And the third thing is this: this morning, my first morning in Kyoto, I took the elevator from the 14th floor to the second-floor dining room for the breakfast buffet. On my way back to my room, I shared the elevator with three neatly coiffed and coutured middle-aged women. They were going to the 10th floor, and when the elevator reached their floor and the door opened, the women all bowed to me and said, “O-saki-ni, shitsureishimasu.” Translated, this means: “Excuse me for leaving before you.” For me, these three things symbolize Japan’s pervading thoughtfulness, dedication to service and consideration of others. It’s wonderful to be back!


I learned a new word today: sakura-hubuki. Literally this means “a rainfall of cherry blossoms.” My tour group experienced this pink-petaled rainfall as we walked along the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto past a sparkling stream. Cherry trees line the path and at one point the breeze swelled and suddenly we were surrounded in swirling soft-scented petals, landing gently on our shoulders and gathering in our hair like snowflakes. Magic!


When it rains on a spring day in the back streets of Kyoto, a different world emerges: the grays and blacks and whites of the cobbled streets shine, the fallen cherry blossom petals glisten in pink relief against the wet stone, the branches of the trees seem drenched in bright spring green, umbrellas blossom and the tittering Japanese tourists in their brilliant rented kimonos seem to have sprung from a woodblock scene.


I have just spent an out-of-time hour at a traditional tea ceremony. The gracious and elegant hostess explained the intricate choreography of the ceremony, where each minute gesture – stepping into the tea room, wiping a bamboo spoon, whisking the tea, turning the bowl toward the guest – is carefully thought out and requires weeks or even months to master. She said that “wa-ke-se-jaku” is at the heart of the tea ceremony; “wa” is harmony; “ke” is respect; “se” is purity; and “jaku” is tranquility. After an hour I emerged feeling entirely refreshed but even more, transported – as if I’d been taken to a different plane entirely. And then I realized that I had – I’d been transported to the plane of wa-ke-se-jaku.


In the cobbled, winding-lane neighborhood of Kyoto I’ve adopted as my home, I’ve just discovered a tatami-matted teahouse with its own private garden, where koi lazily swim, water plonks from a bamboo spout, and moss patches the pocks in ancient-looking rocks. I am sitting on tatami sipping matcha, thick green tea, and nibbling on a rice paste and red bean sweet and scribbling in my journal. I love the neighborhood temples of Kyoto, the perfectly tended pocket parks, the museum-like shops that sell grainy bowls and shiny lacquerware – but I feel like I could stay in this tranquil tatami-matted space for a day and a night and never feel the need to leave. I need look no further; Kyoto is here.

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]

A Long Lesson From A Short Walk On The Karakoram Highway

I’ve just come home from a whirlwind week in D.C. and L.A. Both trips were wonderful. In D.C. I had energizing meetings at National Geographic Traveler and hosted an exhilarating onstage conversation with the amazing Alexandra Fuller, author of (among other books) Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, an extraordinarily evocative and moving memoir of growing up in Rhodesia. In L.A. I gave a talk about Gadling at the Los Angeles Times Travel Show and shared memorable moments with Arthur Frommer, Rick Steves, Andrew McCarthy, and the Times’ terrific travel editor, Catharine Hamm, among many other notables of the travel world. I got back to the Bay Area just in time to emcee the February event in the wonderful new Weekday Wanderlust travel reading series in San Francisco, and then to teach a wanderful travel writing workshop at Book Passage in Corte Madera.

I’m not complaining. I’m grateful beyond words for these opportunities — but now that they’re over, I realize that I’m also exhausted beyond words. (And yes, I know I probably shouldn’t have stayed up until closing time at the rooftop bar of the Standard Hotel in L.A. – but that was research!) And when I survey the Kilimanjaro of emails that need my slogging-up-the-scree responses and the queue of articles lined up like planes at O’Hare awaiting the fuel of my words for take-off – well, if the state of my metaphors is any metaphor for the state of my mind, I’m in big trouble.

At a moment like this, I know just what I need to do: take some deep breaths and transport myself back to an adventure I took three decades ago in northern Pakistan — specifically, to one afternoon on a stretch of the wild, gritty, avalanche-threatened, pothole-punctured Karakoram Highway between Hunza and Gulmit, not far from the Chinese border.

My tour group had been bumping by van along the Karakoram for a few hours when we came to a road-closing avalanche about 15 minutes from Gulmit. Our guide set out to walk to Gulmit to get another van to pick us up, and told us to wait in the van.

We waited, and waited.After a while, waiting for another avalanche or rock slide to sweep us into oblivion seemed pretty silly, so I decided to set out on foot for Gulmit, too. There wasn’t much chance of making a wrong turn — the next intersection was four hours away.

And so I walked, as alone as I have ever been, into an awesomely uncompromising landscape: a rocky, gray-brown world of sere, monumental mountains, boulders looming by the side of the road, and — whenever I stopped to listen — absolute, ear-ringing silence.

As I walked, my footsteps feebly scrunch-scrunch-scrunching into the implacable air, I imagined the traders, missionaries and adventurers who had wandered that same trail before me, and wondered what dreams and doubts had filled their heads.

I thought too about the companionable people back in the van and about the warm food that awaited at the Silk Route Lodge, but most of all I thought about nature and time, about how my life was like one grain of sand on the slopes of one of those mountains.

Scrunch. Scrunch. Scrunch. I imagined straying off the path and scrambling crazily up a scree-slippery peak; I tried to absorb the silence; I strained a handful of pebbles through my fingers.

Scrunch. Scrunch. Scrunch. I considered the clouds, a scraggly tree, a boulder twice as big as me.

Scrunch. Scrunch. Scrunch. I listened to my own breath coming in and going out; I listened to the pounding of my frail and all-too-human heart.

In one sense, nothing much happened: Eventually I reached the warm waiting room at the Silk Route Lodge, and the others arrived by van a half-hour later.

But in another sense, everything had changed: I had seen the strangeness of the world, the rawness and beauty and sheerness of it; the age of the Earth; and our essential solitude — how we are born and die alone. I had seen the smallness of man and the largeness of the human spirit that dares to create and to love.

I had realized just what a precious gift life is, as are the people with whom we share it; and I knew that one day in the future, when life seemed about to avalanche out of control, I would stop and say: “Savor the world one step at a time, just like you did on the Karakoram Highway.”

[Flickr image via Marc van der Chijs]

Book Review: Lonely Planet’s ‘Better Than Fiction’

What is travel writing? Is the genre defined by its commitment to true-to-life recounting of the people, places and cultures we have experienced and lessons to be drawn from them? Or is travel writing something more malleable, simply a style of writing, true or not, that utilizes places and people as vehicles for a good story? The tension between these two competing definitions is at the heart of the new travel-themed anthology, “Better Than Fiction” by Lonely Planet.

“Better Than Fiction” is a collection of short travel-themed works by some of the world’s top literary fiction writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, Isabel Allende and Alexander McCall Smith. Edited by Gadling’s own Features Editor, Don George, each of the 32 included short stories plays with this notion of “truth in travel writing,” bringing to bear the storytelling skills of veteran fiction writers to the world of non-fiction travel writing. Each of the varied works relates a true-to-life story from the author’s personal wanderings around the globe, all told with the writers’ rich storytelling skills intact.

For anyone who considers themselves a voracious consumer of travel writing, “Better Than Fiction” will make for a refreshing and illuminating read. In each of the short stories there’s a richness of character and crispness to the dialogue that makes them feel like excerpted chapters from a novel. Considering the growing glut of “Top 10” and “destination tip” travel journalism that exists online, it’s easy to forget the best travel writing works because it’s good storytelling, not merely a laundry list of destination facts and to-do’s. Great travel storytelling, like the work showcased in “Better Than Fiction,” reminds us that ultimately discovering the truth about the places we visit involves more than just restating the facts.

Unexpected Offerings On A Return To Bali

Last month, I spent a week on the Indonesian island of Bali as a guest of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. This was my first visit to that blessed place since I’d fallen in love with it 34 years ago.

Like me, the island had lost some of its innocence in the intervening years. Unlike my earlier trip, when the Balinese I met had simply welcomed me with wide eyes and hearts, this time most immediately asked me if I’d been there before. When I answered, “Yes, 34 years ago,” their eyes opened wide for a different reason and they smiled and shook their heads. “Oh, Bali has changed much since then!” they’d laugh, though many of them couldn’t say exactly how because they hadn’t even been born 34 years before.

Of course, to my eyes too, Bali had changed. The streets were much busier, clogged with trucks and motor scooters, than I remembered, and the towns were more built up; the road from Denpasar to Ubud was lined with many more buildings and fewer rice paddies than I recalled.

But in a deeper sense, the spirit of the place seemed hardly changed at all. During a few free days of wandering, I passed a number of festival processions flowing through the streets. Every day I was enchanted as I had been three decades before by the sweet, simple canangsari offerings – hand-sized compositions of colorful flowers on green coconut leaves, some graced with a cracker – that were meticulously placed outside my door and on bustling sidewalks, off-the-beaten-path foot trails, temple thresholds and business entrances alike. And while I realize I know nothing about the difficulties of being Balinese – the need to scrupulously follow rigorous traditions, for example, or the unpredictabilities of relying on a tourism economy – the people I met exuded a gentleness, tranquility, contentment and sense of sanctity in the everyday that was as exemplary, expanding and restorative for me as it was 34 years before.

But it wasn’t until my last day in Ubud that Bali’s soul-binding offerings really came to life for me.

%Gallery-171375%I began the day with a mini-pilgrimage to a paradisiacal place I had visited earlier in my stay. I had been introduced to it by a local expat named Liza who had taken my all-day writing workshop. During the workshop lunch break, she had described a beatific organic restaurant perched among the rice paddies, a short walk from central Ubud. She kindly offered to take me there, and the following day we met at Tjamphuhan bridge, walked a few minutes uphill along Jalan Raya Campuhan, then turned left up a wide paved driveway. At the top of this driveway was a sign neatly hand-lettered: TO RICE FIELDS SARI ORGANIK.

After a few minutes following this narrow path, and frequently having to step aside for a seemingly endless succession of motor scooters, we entered what seemed an enchanted land of rice paddies, palm trees and, here and there, one-story “villas” with red tile roofs. As we threaded through the paddies on this narrow path, we passed a spa, an art gallery, a couple of “house for rent” signs-of-the-times and a fledgling neighborhood of new homes called Dragonfly Villas. After about 20 minutes, we came to a sign and a stone pathway that led to Sari Organik.

An open-to-the-breezes restaurant of some two-dozen tables blossoming in the middle of verdant rice paddies, Sari Organik has one of the most exquisite settings of any restaurant I’ve ever visited. We sat in this tranquil place sipping juice from fresh-cut coconuts, and as sunset slowly gilded the paddies, the centuries seemed to slip away.

I went back on my last day to pay homage to Sari Organik and to see if it could possibly be as magical in the harsh light of midday. Happily, it was equally lush and glorious and vibrant at noon, pulsing with the peaceful energy of the land around it. I savored an omelet of organic mushrooms, tomatoes and onions, fresh-squeezed orange juice and delicious strong coffee, and struck up a conversation with a smiling, energetic woman who turned out to be the restaurant’s extraordinary founder and owner, Nila, who told me that her goal is to help the local farmers grow a diversity of crops organically, so that they can preserve the environment and become economically self-sustaining. (You can read more about her amazing story here.)

After that serendipitous encounter, I walked back through the rice fields, feeling singularly content. I had gotten to do just about everything I had been hoping to do on Bali, I was thinking. There was just one exception – I hadn’t heard a gamelan orchestra. I’d caught snatches of gamelan music at a couple of different performances during the festival, but I hadn’t had that soul-transporting immersion in the music that I remembered vividly from my first trip to Indonesia.

Just as I was having these thoughts, approaching the end/beginning of the path, the sounds of a gamelan orchestra drifted on the air! I could hardly believe it – it was as if my thoughts had conjured those notes.

I reached the sign for Sari Organik. To my right was the wide, paved driveway that led to the main street, but then I noticed to my left a narrow, hard-packed dirt path that paralleled a rock wall twice my height. The sounds of the gamelan were coming from somewhere beyond that wall. The wall disappeared into a densely vegetated interior, with a couple of red-tiled roofs visible in the distance. I figured that if I followed the path, eventually it would lead to a break in the wall where I could enter and discover the source of the gamelan music. I wanted to see the orchestra with my own eyes.

So I set off down this winding path, following the sinuous curve of the wall and the music’s tantalizing rise and fall.

I startled two workers who were on their way to restore a magnificent old house set among the paddies on the other side of a stream that paralleled the trail. They laughed and welcomed me to the forest. A few minutes later, a lone and lanky Western woman with a backpack passed me and pressed on into the green. After 15 minutes of ambling, I came to a lush setting where palm trees, twining vines, giant ferns and slick bushes with propeller-like leaves tangled the air. Still there was no break in the wall, and the gamelan music was sounding fainter and fainter.

I stood in the shade of that jungly patch, puzzling over what to do, wondering if I would ever find the break in the wall, when suddenly it hit me: I had already found the break in the wall; it was in my mind. Listen! I didn’t need to see the orchestra – my wish had been to hear the gamelan. And there it was, all around me. What more did I want?

I walked back down the path and the sounds of the music swelled in the shadowed air. When I reached a point where it seemed loudest of all, I stopped and closed my eyes. Gongs, flutes and drums gonged and trilled and boomed in layered patterns, lapidary high notes skipped like diamonds across a pond, bong-gong-gong-booming low notes reverberated in my ribs, rising and falling and rising, staccato and slow, each note like a drop of water from heaven, submerging me in a pool of otherworldly harmony. Time stopped.

After a while – ten minutes? twenty? – the music ceased, and the forest echoed with its silence.

Then the harmonies flowed anew, and suddenly I felt released. It was time to move on; I had a taxi to catch, a plane to board.

I realized that all day I had been regretting my imminent departure, despairing at having to lose this blessed place. Now Ubud had answered that need, bestowing one last canangsari-lesson that would allow me to leave: I didn’t need to see the gamelan to hear its music, and I didn’t need to be in Bali to have Bali in me. It was already there, gonging and trilling and booming, rice paddy blooming, and it always would be.

[Photo Credits: Don George]