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Japan by sea

Buddhist statues at Daisho-in Temple

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.

Todai-ji Temple in Nara
Todai-ji Temple in Nara, Japan

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.

Uchiko-Za Kabuki Theatre
Uchiko-Za Kabuki Theatre
Kabuki Theatre detailing
Exterior detailing on the Uchiko-Za Kabuki Theatre

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.

Toko-ji temple interior
Interior of the Toko-ji Temple
Lanterns at Toko-ji
Lanterns at Toko-ji
Toko-ji Lantern details
One of the many small coves in Toko-ji, where one could pause and reflect without the crowds

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.

Typical lane through Shukunegi
Narrow lanes separate traditional houses in Shukunegi, a fishing village on Sado Island
Shukunegi house
A Shukunegi house, curved to fit the available land
Shukunegi street scene
Water, pathways, and homes all co-exist on a very small piece of Sado Island in Shukunegi

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.

Daisho-in Temple, Miyajima
A Buddhist monk prays amidst the beautiful Daisho-in Temple in Miyajima
Itsukushima shrine
The famous gateway to the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine in Miyajima
Prayers at the Itsukushima shrine
Offering prayers at the Itsukushima shrine
Itsukushima View
View from the edge of the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, with the vermillion torri that appears to float on the water at high tide, in the background
Buddhist statues at Toko-ji
Buddhist statues, decorated to offer prayers of protection for children and travelers, at Toko-ji in Hagi

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.

Royal burial mounds in South Korea
Royal burial mounds in Tumuli Park, Gyeong Ju, South Korea
Royal burial site
Interpretation of a burial site in the royal burial grounds in Tumuli Park
Royal funeral jewels
Display of royal funeral jewels 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.

Bulguksa temple
Bulguksa Temple in Gyeong Ju, South Korea
Lanterns at Bulguksa Temple
Lanterns holding prayers from the faithful, hanging from the ceiling of a walkway at the Buddhist Bulguksa Temple near Gyeong Ju, South Korea
Bulguksa temple entrance
Entrance to one of the main temples at Bulguksa

Japan is a photographer’s delight, and I found so many wonderful details that caught the eye of the camera lens.

Hiroshima children's art
Children’s art created from origami doves at Hiroshima
Bulguksa Temple detail
Detail from the Bulguksa Temple in South Korea
Golden Pavilion garden
A peaceful section of garden at the Golden Pavilion
Hakodate fish market
Hakodate fish market
View of the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine Gate
View of the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine Gate
Cover in fishing village
Cover for utility service in the historic Shukunegi Fishing Village on Sado Island
Tea ceremony sweet
Sweet for the tea ceremony in Kanazawa
Todai-ji detail
Detail from the Todai-ji Temple in Nara
Toko-ji lantern detail
Toko-ji lantern detail
Snow covered mountains near Otaru
Snow covered mountains in northern Japan, as we near the port of Otaru

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.

My name in Japanese characters
“David” in Japanese characters

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


  1. Nancy Resnick says

    Thanks for sharing your trip. I have always wanted to go to Japan. Also liked the photos from South Korea. I have a new granddaughter (married to my oldest grandson) from Seoul .
    I also continue to enjoy your other writings .

    • DJB says

      Many thanks for your nice note, Nancy. Japan was fantastic, and I’m sure you’d enjoy it. I still remember the great tour I took with you and Donald. These are such great ways to learn about other people and places. I loved it. Hope you are both well. All the best. DJB

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