Donald Trump, you may have read, recently visited Japan. I also just wrapped up a tour of the Land of the Rising Sun. At the risk of being the target of a derisive tweet or internet trolls, it is fair to say that I had the better trip.
The two-week National Trust Tours exploration of Japan, with a focus on its coastal cities and sites, certainly broadened my mind. Not only were the people and places welcoming, but the sharing of perspectives from our guides, study tour lecturers, and fellow travelers enriched an already heady experience.
The World Heritage sites, such as Todai-ji Temple in Nara, the capital of Japan from 710-784 CE, were powerful and moving, especially as one found places away from the crowds to privately indulge in the architecture, gardens, and spiritual meaning of the spaces. More modern sites, such as Hiroshima, the Adachi Museum of Art and Gardens, and I.M. Pei’s Miho Museum, were also important touchstones for understanding parts of life in today’s Japan.
It was at the more out-of-the-way places, however, where I found the time and space to connect more deeply with the culture of our host nation. On Shikoku Island we traveled to the small traditional village of Uchiko to visit an exquisite, full-scale kabuki theatre, one of my favorite buildings from the entire tour. Similarly, Toko-ji in Hagi, a medieval center of Japan, was a large site where you could lose yourself among the hundreds of moss-covered stone lanterns guarding the graves of five Mori lords. The effect was sublime.
Another day took us to remote Sado Island, where we visited a center for traditional Japanese drumming and the weathered yet resilient Shukunegi fishing village. More than 100 traditional Edo-period houses line narrow streets, where the villagers live, work, worship, and play. It felt very much like a different culture from the hustle and bustle of the cities, yet the building forms—set cheek-by-jowl and using every bit of available space between sea and mountains—showed how the Japanese have had to value their land for centuries.
The spiritual is never far away in Japan, be it Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine. We were fortunate to see traditional and current practices in a variety of settings throughout the tour.
One day we ventured to Gyeong Ju, South Korea, a World Heritage City. The royal tombs at Tumuli Park rivaled burial sites anywhere in the world. Dozens of mounds sit within beautiful gardens, and the few that have been excavated are wonderfully interpreted, both on site and at the Gyeong Ju National Museum.
We followed that morning visit with a tour of Bulguksa, one of the most beautiful Buddhist temples in Korea. We arrived during a festival season, so the lanterns and flowers added to the beauty of the landscape and buildings.
Japan is a photographer’s delight, and I found so many wonderful details that caught the eye of the camera lens.
Finally, one of the more delightful aspects of the trip was the myriad welcome and good-bye ceremonies from local residents at the smaller villages and cities. Each differed and was unique to the particular region. We were drummed away from Sado Island while we were enchanted with traditional dance in Korea. One of the most charming welcomes came when we drew alongside the dock in tiny Hagi and were met by a group of some 20 high school students who wanted to talk with us as a way to work on their English. Their curiosity—and their request to write our names in Japanese characters—made for a warm welcome. My “David” was relatively simple, but it became one of the most cherished take-aways from the entire trip.
Travel expands the mind for those who choose to be present for the teachings. Beautiful thoughts of this ancient yet modern nation will certainly be rolling around in my head long after the specific memories begin to fade.
More to come…
Image: Buddhist statues, decorated to protect children and travelers, at Daisho-in Temple, Miyajima, Japan; photo by DJB