A Trip to Japan Plants Seeds for Future Adventures

Pamela at School, 1963, Japan

In the manuscript for “Two in the Middle” I write about my childhood, 10 years of which I spent in Japan.  It wasn’t until I was writing “Two in the Middle” that I realized how my early experience as an older child, feeling like an outsider in my own American culture, played a key role in inspiring us to home school for two years.  But even before this realization, it was a family trip we took to Japan just before Natalie’s 7th birthday that showed us how much a child could learn seeing the world. It was on this trip that both William and I noticed Natalie’s openness (to try new things) and interest in the world.  We knew then we wanted to nurture her adventurous spirit.  Here is a story about how two trips to Japan planted seeds for future adventures, including the one to home school during middle school.

For close to four decades, I had put off any notion of traveling to Japan where I had spent the first ten years of my life.  I had always cited the high cost as the reason, but the truth was that I was tentative to journey back in time, to the place of childhood memory and emotion.  We (my three siblings and my mother) left Japan in April 1968.  Arriving in California, no one could figure out the strange accent I had, which was a combination of Japanese, British English, and American English.  A hint of the accent still lingers, sometimes provoking people to ask if I am from some place else.

Re-living childhood, through the eyes of a young daughter, began to reawaken memories and stories of my years in Japan.  My renewed interest became infectious.  Natalie’s favorite book to read (and re-read 20 times at least) in kindergarten was “A Day In Japan.”  William began reading James Clavell’s Shogun.  I enrolled in an evening Japanese language class.  Then, in summer 2003, I purchased three travel guides.  With a little research, my smaller concern — budget — was resolved.  By avoiding Tokyo and traveling before high season, I discovered we could afford a family trip to Japan.

The first trip in March 2004 was such a pleasure that we found ourselves returning to Japan one year later.  What had taken me 36 years to do, I did twice in one year.  We had discovered that Japan is a fascinating and enjoyable place to visit for all ages, easy to navigate, safe, and friendly to children. We repeated some of the same destinations on the second itinerary (Kobe, Kyoto and Kurashiki).  And we included three new destinations:  Himeji, Hiroshima and Miyajima.  We began each trip with a few days in my birthplace, Kobe, a pretty port city sandwiched between mountains and the sea.

Here are highlights from our second trip:

To allow for graceful jet lag recovery, we purposely began our stay at a hotel that offered room service and comfortable accommodations. Checking in after midnight, we ordered delicious bowls of udon noodles in flavorful hot broth, which room service delivered within 15 minutes.  It tasted divine to three weary travelers, and might have worked as an antidote for jet lag, as we slept through the night. Our roomy bathroom included a toilet with a heated seat, which, trust me, once experienced is missed forevermore.  Waiting in the dresser drawer were two cotton kimonos, yukata, for sleeping.  A nightshirt, exactly the right size for Natalie, was laid out on her rollaway bed, with matching slippers.

Kobe offers a variety of shopping choices, from small boutiques to department stores.  Elevator ladies dressed in matching suits, gloves and hats, charmed us as they welcomed shoppers and called out each floor at the Daimaru Department Store, where my mother used to take my sister and me shopping.  We had the most fun going to the basement “food” floor, where we snaked our way through aisles of beautiful culinary displays.  Don’t come when you’re too hungry, as you will want to buy everything in sight:  ranging from teas, coffees and sake (rice wine) to baked goods, sandwiches and Japanese “bento” boxes containing full meals.  I had been craving a red bean and rice mixture sprinkled with seasoned sesame seeds, which was finally satisfied.

Pamela, 1964
Pamela & Natalie, 2004

At the Kobe City Museum detailed scale models of the Old Kobe Foreign Settlement captivated all three of us, and we learned about the history of Kobe as an international port since 1868.  We wandered through the exhibits for an hour and stopped, on the way back to the hotel, at one of Japan’s ubiquitous drink vending machines.  A City Loop Line bus gives a good overview of Kobe’s layout, and drives past many attractions, including Kitano-cho, a hill-side neighborhood of Victorian and Gothic-style homes, many of which are open to the public, built by wealthy foreigners in the early 20th century. We took a taxi one night to Masaya-Honten, a 50-year-old noodle restaurant, with a pleasing rustic interior to match the large water wheel outside the restaurant.  William and I ordered hot bowls of udon with tempura shrimp, while Natalie ordered cold soba (buckwheat) noodles with dipping sauce, feeling proud about her expert ability with hashi (chopsticks).

On the fourth day, we were ready to cast our adventure net wider, but not before sending our largest suitcase on to Kyoto (our final destination) via takkyubin, Japan’s fantastic parcel delivery service.  We will use the service one more time, getting rid of yet another suitcase before we leave Hiroshima for Miyajima, Kurashiki and Kyoto.  The less one carries the better, as one encounters fewer escalators and elevators in Japan.

On our way to Hiroshima, we stopped in Himeji (a 45-minute train ride from Kobe) to see Himeji Castle, built in the middle of the 16th century and nicknamed “White Heron Castle” for the majestic expanse of its white walls. Walking along narrow winding paths through the grounds of the castle, we finally entered the cool, dark interior of the castle and ascended numerous steep stairs to the top floor.  We were rewarded with a breathtaking view. Natalie’s eyes grew larger as I read out-loud the engraved plaque next to a deep well we passed on our way back through the castle grounds.  It told the famous ghost story of Okiku, servant to the castle lord, who learned of a plot to kill the lord and revealed it.  Knowing that she had ruined his plan, the leader of the plot accused her of breaking a treasured dish, and killed her.  Her body was thrown into the well, where it is said that she can be heard each night counting dishes.

We continued on to Hiroshima the same day, a train ride of just 1 1/4 hours. In Hiroshima, our hotel stood adjacent to Peace Park, a three-minute walk across a bridge over the Motoyasu River.  Upon entering Peace Memorial Hall, we began a gradual descent down a spiral walkway, as if traveling back in time, before arriving in a large circular room, the Hall of Remembrance.  At the center of the space, water gently flowed out and over a cylindrical sculpture.  Walking closer, I realized that the top of the sculpture represented the face of a clock, fixed at 8:15 when the bomb hit Hiroshima.  Turning slowly around, I viewed the 360-degree panorama of Hiroshima after the bomb, made of 140,000 tiles symbolizing the number of people estimated to have died by the end of 1945. Ironically, it is one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. Throughout Japan’s tourist sites, schoolchildren look for the “rubberstamp station,” to stamp their notebooks with the places they have been.  At the “Rest House” in Peace Park, Natalie pressed “The Children’s Peace Monument” stamp onto the cover of notebooks she purchased to give to teachers and friends.  In 2004, young and old from all parts of Japan sent folded paper cranes to symbolize peace to the Memorial.  The notebooks are recycled from these paper cranes.

A short ten-minute ferry boat ride from modern-day Hiroshima and we felt we had sailed 1,000 years into the past onto the tiny island of Miyajima, which lies in the Seto Inland Sea and is known as “one of Japan’s three most scenic places.”  Thanks to heavy rain, we disembarked with a small group (crowds can be overwhelming during high season) and immediately encountered the tame deer that roam the island. In a continuing downpour, we made our way to the tip of the island, passing the oft-photographed symbol of Miyajima, the vermilion colored Shinto Gate (Otorii), proudly standing in the sea, as well as the Five-Storied Pagoda and the rambling and beautiful Itsukushima Shrine, built on stilts at the edge of the sea. Miyajima offers a variety of lodging choices, but I chose Miyajima Morinoyado (a municipally-owned “People’s Lodge”).  Our room included a spacious tatami room, where we would be served a delicious Japanese dinner, and then later in the evening, for sleeping, we would spread out Japanese futons. Dressed in cotton yukata (child’s size provided) and slippers, we took the elevator down two floors to the large public bath on the main floor (separate baths for men and women).  Dimly lit, with a view of a tiny garden and the sound of constantly flowing water, we felt like we had come upon a hot pool in the mountains.  We followed the proper ritual:  first bathing outside the bath at individual spigots. One end of the large bath was cool enough to sink our bodies into, and after a 10-minute soak we were happy to trek back up to the room and our cozy quilt-covered futons.  The next morning, on our way back to the Ferry Terminal, we stopped at a small jewel of a museum, The Miyajima Municipal History and Folklore Museum.  A 170-year-old residence, it once belonged to the Egami family who were wealthy soy sauce merchants.

Our next stop was to Kurashiki, a repeat destination due to my affection for the Bikan Historical Area, centered on a canal lined with flowering willows and 300-year-old stone rice warehouses, Meiji-era factories, and homes of samurai and wealthy merchants.  Magosaburo Ohara, second son of a wealthy Kurashiki merchant, committed himself to being a successful businessman with a social conscience.  Besides establishing health clinics and fair labor practices, he founded Japan’s first museum of Western art in 1930, the Ohara Museum of Art.  Kurashiki is a treasure-hunter’s heaven, as one navigates tiny streets and alleys, making one discovery after another.  Natalie spent an hour in the Japanese Folk Toy Museum, enchanted by the displays of dolls, kites, origami, and a huge top that is in the Guinness Book of World Records for spinning 1 hour, 8 minutes, and 57 seconds.

We had reached the final two days of our time in Japan.  As before, we proceeded on to Kyoto, which served as Japan’s capital from 794 to 1868.  As it was the only major city spared from the bombs of World War II, it is filled with temples, villas, palaces, and old wooden houses.  It is also a bustling modern city, which one immediately sees upon exiting Kyoto Station.  On both visits, we have chosen to stay in Eastern Kyoto, where much of “old” Kyoto is concentrated. The highlight of this visit to Kyoto is the day we spend walking the “Philosopher’s Stroll,” from the Westin Miyako Hotel to Ginkakuji, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion. We took our time on the walk, ultimately reaching a long path of stepping-stones along a tree-lined canal.


Ginkakuji Temple, a Zen temple, was built in 1482 by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, whose plan was to coat the structure with silver, in imitation of the Golden Pavilion built by his grandfather.  He died before this could be accomplished, and the villa remains a two-story, wood structure, exquisite in its simplicity.  The gardens include a striking sand mound, symbolizing Mt. Fuji, surrounded by raked sand in the shape of rippling waves.  Stone steps carry one up through paths that wind through seas of green moss, creating a lovely contrast for the flowering camellias we saw.  Reaching the highest point on the path, one faces a dramatic hillside forest of bamboo, and then turning around one is struck by the contrasting distant  view of twenty-first century Kyoto.  Each of our trips to Kyoto included dinners in the intimate dining room of Koji Yoshida, who fuses Italian and Japanese flavors into tantalizing dishes that made us smile with pleasure.  Best of all, his dishes make me fully appreciate that I had long ago found ways to blend Japanese flavors into my American life.  After each trip, Natalie and I joined in the dancing at a local celebration of the Obon Festival.

Pamela & Natalie at Japanese Obon Festival, Los Angeles







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