Japan is the 14th and final country on our journey, and landing here felt like a pretty big deal. Having been in Asia for almost two months, summoning the energy for the final two weeks of sightseeing and cultural experiences also felt like it would be a pretty big deal. But the immaculate city of Kyoto, the warmth of the people here, and the charm of the Japanese culture have helped us rally for this final leg. We have truly enjoyed getting to know this country over the past two weeks.
We began our Japanese adventures in Kyoto, a city surrounded by mountains with over 1000 years of history under its belt. Considered the cultural and spiritual capital of Japan, Kyoto was largely undamaged in WWII and therefore boasts 2000 well-preserved temples, along with many palaces, gardens and examples of traditional Japanese architecture. We realized early on that Kyoto, like all of Japan, feels like a mini Switzerland in Asia. The city streets are immaculate. The taxi drivers wear suits, ties, and white gloves. The trains run on schedule to the minute, without fail. The city layout and public transportation systems are organized and pristine. This holds true not just for Kyoto, but for all of our destinations in Japan.
Our first activity in Kyoto was a lesson in Kimono-wearing, the traditional Japanese garment now mostly worn just for celebrations and important occasions. There are many places in and around Kyoto where you can rent a kimono and experience the high fashion (and mild suffocation) of wearing one.
We were not aware that being dressed in a Kimono would be a full body experience, from hair styling to donning layers of mysterious robes and ropes squeezing your guts in, to socks with a slit in between your big toe and the other four in order to wear the traditional wooden flip flop shoes. It took well over an hour to get all five of us appropriately decked out. The girls were in absolute heaven. So many materials to choose from! Which sash to pick? The hair options! People are literally dressing us by hand, like we are movie stars!
THAYER: When I got my hair done it was sooooo much fun and it was also sooooo pretty! I loved it! They put six curlers in my hair and then hairspray, and my hair felt like noodles. I also got to wear this purple/lavender color kimono with a pink band around my belly. When they dressed me it was very interesting to know how they wrapped it all around me. The ladies were so good at doing this! I’ve never seen anything like it – it was surprising.
Jeff was in shock. He had landed on another planet with no men in sight and could only sit back and experience Japanese sensory overload… while wrapped in some kind of samori-warrior looking getup which made him look strangely short and stumpy. No comments please. Also, he refuses to reveal whether he was wearing any under-layers.
BLAIR: For those of you who know me, you know that the pinnacle of hair fashion for me is a ponytail. Ok, for my wedding day it was a half ponytail, but forget about rollers and curls. Imagine how I felt when I saw this happening to my hair:
It would be one thing if trying on these clothes was the end of the story, but read on. Once wrestled and bundled into the layers of fabric, we went to visit the Golden Temple Pavilion where we were basically photo-subjects for every Japanese school group in Kyoto that day. While you do see locals wearing Kimonos around sometimes, you don’t often see blonde Westerners wearing Kimonos around and boy, did people loooveee capturing this moment on film. For the girls, this was all rather thrilling. Well accustomed to being the center of attention in China, the girls felt like the paparazzi at the Kyoto temple was just another day as a foreign child in Asia, except they were looking extra fabulous. For Blair, strolling around the temple felt like being in a Halloween parade where everyone else got a memo that it had been cancelled. Also, she was oxygen deprived. And as for Jeff, well, he experienced the whole affair with bemusement and good cheer. Of course.
ZOE: At first I was embarrassed to put on the Kimono and walk around in public, but I got used to it and then it was exciting. It was really fun to choose my fabrics and to learn how they put it on. There were about eight different layers and five different strings they tied around my waist really tightly, so I felt like I was suffocating the whole time (the hardest part!). They also did our hair all fancy which was really fun. When I took out my bun, it stayed in place because of all the hairspray they had used. Like a sticky bun! While we were walking through the Golden Pavilion, a lot of school children asked us questions about where we were from, and then asked to take photos with us. I think we definitely drew attention to ourselves – we have been doing that enough with just our blonde hair in Asia, so this really was over the top!
SCHUYLER: Wearing the kimonos was definitely my favorite activity in Kyoto. Even though breathing was a challenge, it was a great experience to see how it felt to be Japanese. I really liked the whole process of picking out the fabrics and being dressed by the women at the shop, and getting my hair done was completely unexpected and awesome! The hair part made it so much better overall – we all looked totally Japanese (or as Japanese as we’ll ever look). Seeing the Golden Temple that day was really nice, even though it took a long time to get through it because so many people wanted to take our picture. I loved being interviewed by the school groups for their English assignments. I totally felt like a celebrity being swooned over!
One of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, this Buddhist temple is one of the quintessential landmarks in the city. Although crowded when we wandered through the buildings and gardens, it was still very beautiful to explore.
ARASHIYAMA BAMBOO FOREST
A popular tourist destination in Kyoto for good reason, this gorgeous bamboo forest and Tenryu-ji Temple complex within were a sight to behold, even in the pouring rain. We strolled along the winding path through the forest and then spent time wandering through one of the oldest Zen Buddhist temples in Japan. The rain actually added to the ambiance of the morning – it’s been months since we’ve had to open an umbrella for rain instead of sun protection!
ZOE: At first, I wasn’t too excited to go to the Bamboo Forest because for one, it was pouring rain outside, and second, I didn’t think it would be that interesting. But when I got there, I realized that it was actually really beautiful and all the bamboo kind of blocked out the rain. Every once in a while I got a big drop on my face, but that was it! The rain made the bamboo look really pretty, and there were thousands of trees all around us. It looked amazing and tranquil. We also stopped at a temple and we walked through a beautiful Japanese garden. It was probably the most beautiful garden I’ve seen. It was spread out and not symmetrical, which they do on purpose. There were pretty trees and it looked natural instead of perfectly structured. In the U.S. the gardens are completely filled with flowers, but in Japan there are only a few scattered flower plants, which makes you really appreciate the flowers instead of being overwhelmed by them. There was also a stream that ran through the gardens and there were Koi swimming in it. Once we got to the bigger pond, it was soooo amazing and peaceful. We saw some HUGE Koi fish in the pond. It was a nice morning after all – the weather did not stop us one bit!
JAPANESE YUZEN PAINTING
As we have tried to do in many of our destinations this year, we once again found a local art form to explore with the girls during our time in Kyoto. This time it was Japanese Yuzen painting, a traditional form of dyeing silks (or any fabric really) that is often used for Kimono prints and other textiles. The technique involves using multilayered stencils and a range of colors to create detailed patterns and images on the fabric. Thayer started with a handkerchief, and Schuyler and Zoe each decorated a bag. They enjoyed it so much, we stayed for an extra couple of hours so they could make additional items!
THAYER: When I painted my stencils I painted a handkerchief first and then I did a bag. It was hard work because for the bag I did a BIG cat that was waving and it took a long time. I also did two birds, a panda, and some flowers. It was fun to choose my colors because there were a lot of combinations you could make. There were so many steps and the paintbrushes were different than I’ve ever seen before. I loved it!
SCHUYLER: This was the highlight of my day, unlike anything I’ve ever seen or done before. I really love learning about the arts and crafts in each country, and this was probably my favorite art technique of the year. I think I’ve found a new hobby – I want to do more of this! I loved how everything looked SO perfect when you finished, whether you are a 5 year-old or an advanced artist, because the stencils keep the paint in line. There was a huge variety of stencils to pick from, hundreds of different images, and you could personalize your pieces so easily that way. I really enjoyed my time there (again, a lot more than the Chinese ink painting Xizhou!).
For some non-touristy fun, we spent a day at the Kyoto Aquarium and nearby playground. The aquarium was brand new and featured some interesting marine life native to Japanese waters – made for a great afternoon activity.
Nearby the aquarium was a lovely park and a playground…. happy surprise! The girls have been deprived of playgrounds in Asia, and they were literally sore after climbing around for an hour. We took them for a second visit the following day, and they decided to do some stretching to ease their aching muscles.
From Kyoto, it’s easy to travel to Hiroshima for a day trip using the famed Japanese “Bullet Train.” This was an awesome day for all of us! The train we rode traveled between 150 and 200mph, a dizzying experience if you spend too much time looking out the window. Blair’s ears popped for the entire hour and forty-five minute journey, but the rest of the group seemed unaffected.
Hiroshima is a lovely city, and our primary destination was the Peace Memorial Park and Museum. After visiting the Anne Frank Museum last fall in Amsterdam, it was quite an unusual experience to be able to link the dropping of the 1945 Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima with the WWII events in Europe. The memorials around the park were stunning, and it was a beautiful, sunny afternoon to wander around and explore. The museum itself combined poignant displays about the tragedy of the bombing with exhibits depicting the current status of the nuclear age. Ultimately, visitors come away with a deeper understanding of both the WWII event and Hiroshima’s genuine desire for the elimination of all nuclear weapons and the realization of a peaceful international community.
ZOE: When I visited the Peace Memorial Museum I was so sad to see and read about the bombing of Hiroshima. I learned that over 100,000 people died, and many others died years later from side effects. I never knew about the atomic bomb and so I think it was really important for me to experience the museum. There were some really gory parts of the museum that I think maybe weren’t necessary to show, but the message definitely got across to me about the tragedy. I also read a story about a girl who survived the bomb when she was 6 years old because she was quite far away from the drop zone. When she was 11 years old, a lump starting growing in her neck and she was diagnosed with Leukemia. She died when she was 12, but before she died she made 1000 origami cranes to symbolize peace. She has become the symbol for the lost children of Hiroshima, and the origami cranes are still used to honor their memories.
SCHUYLER: Going to visit Hiroshima was really amazing for me because I have a really big interest in WWII. We’ve visited other places in the world, like the Anne Frank Museum, and we are going to see Pearl Harbor next week in Hawaii as well – I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to see some of these important places in person already in my lifetime. Although I had learned a little bit about the atomic bomb in school, being in Hiroshima left me with a much bigger impression and understanding of it. It was really emotional, because it was so much worse than I had imagined it to be. I watched a documentary about Hiroshima while we were traveling on the bullet train, so I had a good introduction already before we arrived. Then we visited the museum which taught me so much about the event, and my family had to drag me away from it because I could have stayed all day. It was very graphic and had some difficult visuals, but the audio tour was really informative (and also graphic and hard to hear sometimes). Being there, and being an American at the museum, was hard for me. I have a dfficult time understanding how America and Japan could have hated each other so much back then, because it just seems so inhumane that the bombing of Hiroshima could have happened. I was worried that the Japanese must still hate us and that I shouldn’t be at the museum. But the most fascinating piece of the museum for me was that toward the end of the exhibits, it talked about peace and how after the bombing, Hiroshima chose to be a city that symbolized peace. They forgave the Americans and are leading the way toward a peaceful world. If only the world could be as forgiving and healing now as Hiroshima is. I had a really amazing day there.
THAYER: When I went to the museum in Hiroshima it was scary because it was all about the war and there were some sad stories about children who died. It is important to have peace in the world because you hurt so many people if you don’t have it. Even if no one’s on your side, you have to make peace, even by yourself, so bad things don’t happen to other people like they happened in Hiroshima.
From Kyoto and Hiroshima, we will travel to the rural region of Hakone and then finally to Tokyo. It’s hard to believe, but our final international blog post, documenting our remaining time in Japan, will be coming shortly…. See you soon!